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What is peace?

My summary of 35 years of thinking and practising


Jan Oberg


February 14, 2007

Peace = Securing Development and Developing Security

With Nonviolence and Through Diversity

Individuals as well as societies need many things but two are basic and universal. Development means ongoing maturation, higher levels of living and being, satisfaction of micro/basic needs (e.g. food and water), meso/higher needs (e.g. community, dignity, psycho-social health) and macro/supreme needs (e.g. spirituality, love, self-and other-realization, universal community).

Some, like Abraham Maslow, argue that human and social needs are organized hierarchically; while water and food may well be considered basic, human beings in severe crisis have delivered evidence throughout history that higher non-material needs and levels of being helped them survive, such as faith in God, in fellow human beings. Art history is filled with personalities whose “lower” needs were not met while they gifted the world with their own sublime expressions.

Security or safety is the other basic element. Existentially it means confidence that there is something – I as well as the world as such – tomorrow rather than nothing. We invest in our development, educate ourselves, buy a house, create a family only on the basis of a more or less conscious perception that there will be a future, a future in which we will reap some benefits from devoting ourselves to working for certain expected outcomes. To provide security, some resources are necessary; security can not be build from nothing, there has to be some development, e.g. food production, to create the feeling of security about one’s existence tomorrow.

Peace belongs to philosophy’s ‘essentially contested concepts,’ to use W. B. Gallie’s term from 1956. Gallie argued that it is impossible to conclusively define key concepts such as 'social justice,' 'democracy, 'art', 'moral goodness' and 'duty', although it is possible and rational to discuss one's justifications for holding one interpretation over competing ones. So this short exposé does not convey the idea that peace can be defined once and for all.

It is an ever-unfolding category which can only be approached and will have different connotations and ‘Schwerpunkten’ depending on culture, historical stage, circumstances and social cosmology – be it the Christian Agape, Dar al-Islam (House of Peace), Jewish Shalom, the Confusian ho p’ing-p’ing ho, the Japanese heiwa-wahei, Gandhian ahimsa/satyagraha – or the modern (misconstrued) Western strategic idea that peace means balance of (political) power sometimes combined with balance of terror (nuclear weapons balance for deterrence = mutually assured destruction, MAD, if tried).

Be this as it may, let’s weave the two into each other as a first approximation and we get an approach to peace saying that peace is to develop security and secure development.

Like development is not only external and economic-material growth, security is not only physical-technical with means such as injections, pills and tanks and missiles. No matter the empirical-reductionist traditions of modern science, development and security has an inner dimension too, an auto-generative dimension. No security or development can be created by relying exclusively on inputs from outside the human or collective, societal body.

To put it crudely, while most of us are other-reliant in a variety of spheres – the alternative is total autarchy or self-isolationism and psycho-social self-sufficiency – we also have to stand on our own feet, mobilize inner energies and realize our potentials to achieve security and development for ourselves and others. A human being who is completely dependent on others for food, social well-being, pills, or entertainment tends to be a mal-developed, constrained and insecure individual, deeply unhappy too. The same applies to the society that needs everything from outside, imports everything, is totally other-dependent. It cannot be free, it cannot be sovereign and certainly not independent in a real sense.

Thus, peace has an inner self-generative element that must interact with outer elements. This corresponds well with an idea of the outer and the inner human being, with self- and other-reliance and with yet another dichotomy, namely that between the material and the non-material being and development (and security). When we talk about inner human being it means, of course, the realization of the potentials with which each of us are born and given by our upbringing and milieu in a wider sense.

Let’s look a bit more into this relational characteristics of peace. The moment individuals and aggregates, say a country, seek to realize they potentials, they are bound to clash with others. In the process it will seek access to resources, seek its development and security in time and space that is bound to be craved also by others. Remember, security is about a perception of there being something rather than nothing. In a world with scarce resources (in the sense that everyone can not get anything he or she may like or fancy) there is likely to be conflict.

Gandhi’s formulation that the world is rich enough for everybody’s needs but not for everybody’s greed holds increasing relevance for a global society dominated by actors whose basic material needs were met long ago (while millions are starving elsewhere) but whose ‘cosmology’ makes it natural that unmet non-material needs keep on being ‘satisfied’ by ever more material consumption.

In short, conflict happens. Development creates it, security seeks to handle it. No human person can mature and develop as human being without experiencing conflict, for instance inner moral dilemmas and quarrels with parents, siblings and friends. A society without conflict cannot but be authoritarian, Orwellian or a dictatorship. There are those who say that - in theory at least - democracy is, so far, the best way to handle conflict.

In parenthesis, the modern talk of ‘conflict prevention’ is philosophical nonsense and, subconsciously probably just another way to avoid the unpleasant fact that conflict is an essential and unavoidable aspect of our lives. How much easier it would be if conflict would just go away! But, alas, the conflict-free world is a utopia, a place that can never be. Should we ever develop it, it would be dystopia.

The only realistic way to handle conflict is to accept and embrace them, become clever at handling them – in short, stop conflict avoidance and reduce conflict illiteracy, i.e. intensify across the board education and professionalization when it comes to learning how to “quarrel well.” This means that, grosso modo, peace can be learnt and has extremely little to do with good versus evil human beings as some will have us believe.

So, the dynamics or peace is perfectly compatible with conflict, indeed it can’t be separated from it. What it is incompatible with and must be separated from is violence. Thus, for true peace we need violence prevention or, to quote the UN Charter most significant and globally recognized (but violated) norm: peace by peaceful means (Article 1.1) and the abolition of war as an accepted social institution (the Preamble’s first sentence).

To live globally with conflict we also need consensus – for our development and security, that is, for peace. Ideally and as part of an ongoing civilizational process that consensus must be about reducing violence. Continuing to create violent tools to provide security and order in a mal-developed global society is a recipe for disaster. It is utterly unsustainable too from a pure opportunity cost point of view in two ways:

- ever more investments in systems of violence and the war on terror will take away resources from the development sectors where no one denies that they are much needed. In addition, high-tech investments in weapons and sophisticated surveillance is capital intensive and labour as well as need extensive, and thus there are few, if any, spill-over or civilian benefits to society from them compared with direct allocation for human need satisfaction and socially appropriate or adapted technology;

- the repair society is under way: first the global leaders do the development- and security-counterproductive things – violate human rights, start wars, make decision that over-consume, pollute, uphold the global unjust world order with force – and then we need environmental policies, peacekeeping troops, negotiations, human healing, physical re-building, reconciliation, etc to repair the damage and destruction in the first place.

Violence is an added difficulty. To help solve the conflict between, say, Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo is one thing. To do so after war, bombing, ethnic cleansing, rapes etc. is quite another; it has “doubled” the original problem.

It’s been argued for decades, if not centuries, by leading philosophers and social scientists that repair costs to society are rising exponentially and that, therefore, violence prevention, early warning and other measures would be much more efficient as management and humane as policy.

Be this as it may, peace is possible only in diversity. Diversity because humanity is diverse; that corresponds to the conflict element. Peace also requires unity and that corresponds to the consensus element. Thus, we arrive at the age-old concept of unity in diversity to summarize what peace is about.

Globalization, unfortunately, is about unity in uniformity, a vain attempt at universalizing one culture’s norms and a politico-economic standardization – vain exactly because it imposes, irrespective of the good values Westernization also brings, unity in disrespect for diversity. And disrespect is just another word for violence.

To put it crudely, violence implies the willed under-realization of potentials or, as stated by Eric Fromm, the life not lived.

It is not violence to limit one’s own self-realization in order to provide others with a chance to realize theirs. But it is violence when one actor realizes his or her potential in ways that knowingly prevents others from realizing theirs, so their “lives cannot be lived.”

This happens through physical and psychological violence, including gender violence and violence against children and the yet unborn – the latter through destruction of Nature’s potential so it can’t be used to satisfy coming generations’ needs. Violence also happens structurally or organizationally; that means that there is not a single actor who harms others but that the net outcome of the system’s daily operation leads to the systematic under-realization of potentials and sub-optimal needs satisfaction for a majority.

Under every instance of violence lies a conflict: inside an actor, between two or among many or, third, built into the economic, cultural etc system. Thus, learning how to handle conflict with ever less violence, from the individual to the world order, is another way of approaching the idea of peace. Handling conflicts through education and professionalization ideally provides for the propensity to use violence. Violence is taken to in conflict situations by the conflict illiterate – not necessarily the evil one – who does not know that other tools exist.

If we become conflict literate, we can decrease violence of many types and at many levels; that will increase development – the realization of human and social potentials as well as preserve more of Nature. That in its turn would increase the feeling of security and reduce the perceived needs for military and other violent (self)defence, simply because the world would appear more benign and hopeful.

To summarize it all: Peace can only be approached and dialogued about. It cannot and should not be defined once and for all. One such approach that the present author has developed over the last 35 years – inspired by countless more wise thinkers and practitioners - is outlined below in a telegram-short style and offered here for the reader to criticize and improve on, in short dialogue further about:


Peace is to develop security and secure development of the whole human being and all human beings. It weaves together a series of ‘balances’ – inner and outer, self- and other-reliance, material and spiritual – as well as conflict and consensus.
It is a permanent process that takes its point of departure in some model of human and social needs within cultural specificities and ‘cosmology’.
Peace is compatible with conflict but not with violence. Thus we need a global, multicultural and multi-dimensional approach to violence prevention, not conflict prevention.
This is best achieved by education and dialogue and deep respect for the idea of unity in diversity – many peaces weaved together like a patchwork - in contrast to the violence-prone idea of one peace imposed in uniformity.



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