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Lebret's thought and the U.S. presence in the Third World

By Denis Goulet

L.J. Lebret’s thought on the role of the United States in development is immersed in permanent ambivalence. On the one hand he never ceased criticizing the United States for spreading throughout the world, in the name of development, a basically materialistic anti-development. Nor did he hesitate to condemn in vigorous terms the economic imperialism practiced by Americans. Furthermore, he suffered greatly to see America without a wisdom to match its science and so obsessed with Communism that it could not understand the aspiration of underdeveloped countries towards dignity. Lebret’s direct knowledge of the U.S., it is true, was very limited; only twice had he traveled in the country, on both occasions briefly. He never developed here what he enjoyed in Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East a wide and varied network of personal friendships. Because he had so few American “contacts” and spoke no English, he never really “caught on” in the United States. A twofold ignorance was the result: among Americans considerable ignorance of the methods and accomplishments of Lebret’s “Economy and Humanism” teams; and on Lebret’s part a rather fragmentary view of the United States. This mutual ignorance remains an obstacle to the acceptance, in American circles, of the technical assistance patterns advocated by the French pioneer of development. Even the welcome accorded to Lebret elsewhere – especially in Latin America – is generally attributed by American development experts to his personal charisma and to spiritual allegiance among his followers rather than to any intrinsic rigor or scientific worth in this doctrine and planning methods. Consequently, a sharp conceptual abyss over the nature of scientific knowledge divides “Economy and Humanism” and American development thinkers.

In spite of this divergence, Lebret always acknowledged in the United States a latent capacity to bring enormous benefits to the world thanks to its great wealth, technical excellence, and refined methods of empirical research and data processing. He did not despair of Americans; he simply judged them prisoners of their own myths. According to him: “The tragedy and the source of our worry is that they act without being fully conscious of their selfish disdain for humanity, nor of the urgent need to revise their basic economic and political concepts.”
“Suicide ou Survie de l”Occident” Les Éditions Ouvrières, 1958, p. 183.
And again, “Americans sense full well that they must alter their behavior since their aid provokes hatred.”
Éditorial, “Développement et Civilisations,” No. 3, September, 1960, p. 3.

A year later he ardently wished that President Kennedy, in the wake of the catastrophic invasion of Cuba, might be able to “rise to an understanding of the total world situation, after so many years of incomprehension and errors on the part of the United States.”
“Incidences de Cuba sur les Amériques,” Développement et Civilisations, No 6, April-June 1961, p. 21.

For a rebirth of political friendship towards a new civilisation at the international level

Beyond his pessimism, which he nonetheless regarded as justified, Lebret repeatedly summoned the West, and the United States in particular, to renewed awareness of its Christian and secular heritage, so often betrayed – a heritage of persona dignity, primacy of being over having, voluntary austerity in the use of goods, broad sympathy for the requirements of world justice. Moreover, he pleaded for a rebirth of that supreme value in political life – political friendship – based on intelligent love and on respect of one’s partners in dignity liberty and equality. Lebret allowed himself to dream that America might perhaps some day cast off ethnocentrism and become a leader worth to be followed. After Kennedy’s presidential triumph he nourished the hope of seeing a new America generation “begin to understand.”

During the 1960 campaign he repeatedly questioned me as to the respective positions of Kennedy and Nixon. We were together in Lebanon at the time, engage in preliminary development studies for the government of that country. Immediately following the election, Lebret requested that I prepare a file of American articles and commentaries on the new president probable foreign policy. From this dossier he drew the elements for the essay, “What does Kennedy’s victory mean?”
Développement et Civilisations, No 4, December 1960, pp. 1-4.

He could not hide his optimism when writing : “Kennedy’s vigor, his determination to look the world straight in the face in order to truly understand it, his affirmation that he wishes to move forward, all this will assure him of the support of that growing segment of his fellow citizens which is eager to reveal to the rest of the world a United States freed of simplisme…. Aid must not have as its purpose to win friendship and gratitude for the United States; there must be sufficient magnanimity to minimize the role of donor and grant a maximum of confidence to the one aided… The problem confronting Kennedy is not only that of a ‘supreme national effort,’ but also of a new civilization at the universal level. May the great American people understand this along with him.” The key word in this text is “magnanimity” that old Aristotelian virtue, “greatness of soul,” which dilates the intelligence so as to be comprehended widely and the heart so as to choose generously. It is magnanimity which Lebret always wished to elicit from the United States : a breadth of vision and of policy which would render dignity and integral development possible, not only to the Third World, but also to the West itself.

Unfortunately, the euphoria of 1960 was short-lived. The Cold War, Kennedy’s own mistakes and the hardening of powerful sectors of American public opinion all poisoned relations between the United States and the Third World. The chief victim of the American debacle in Cuba was Latin America – a continent which Lebret loved passionately (shortly before his death, in pain and fatigue he crossed the Atlantic a final time, as he put it, “to say goodbye to his Latin-American friends.”) Very quickly, the Alliance for Progress became simply “one more lifeless bilateral program.” It is especially after the assassination of the President however, that discouragement began weighing heavily on North and South Americans regarding the chances of a new start and a decisive breakthrough towards genuine partnership. The present moment is even darker. This is why I now propose to suggest some comments which Lebret would have made to those Americans and they are numerous – who remain eager to see integral harmonious development occur in the world. I also submit these reflections to Lebret’s Latin American friends for, in my view, they must not minimize either:
a) the scope of changes now taking place in the United States, or b) the crucial importance of the solutions North America gives to its problems for the future of their own countries.

Reversal of values

Certain problems are so vast that their complete solution would generate overall abatement of all world crises. There does, in truth, exist a “platform of convergence” where such major questions meet. War and peace, disarmament, new relations among peoples, technology, liberty, ideological conflicts, and development are issues of this kind. Development is not merely an economic, social or political problem; it affects the total values of those who seek it or propose it to others. At present, the United States is engaged in a full-scale value crisis. Notwithstanding their material wealth and military power Americans are confused, perplexed, in quest of identity, of a meaning to life, of norms. This phenomenon is quite diffused and takes several forms some men question the future of our economy once cybernetic technology triumphs fully thereby rendering manpower superfluous; others wonder where joie de vivre has disappeared in our frenzy race toward the possession of more goods and more pleasures; _ Cf. such works as August Hecksher, “The Public Happiness,” Walter Kerr, “The Decline of Pleasure,” Hendrik M. Ruitenbeck, “The Individual and the Crowd.”
others still develop angst over what they fear is an ineluctable drift towards nuclear holocaust; still others frantically seek solace from the aridity of science and conformity in the use of drugs or LSD.

Americans realize that their value system is being doubted, attacked, criticized. What they do not always grasp, however, is that the very being man is alienated in his having. Throughout history alienation has always seemed to be the sad fruit of misery or of an injustice of which we were the victims. In the contemporary United States, for the first time, we are discovering that alienation can also result from abundance (when men know not how to distinguish among necessary goods, useful ones, luxury items and spiritually enriching goods) as well as from the injustice which we inflict on others, be they Negroes, Puerto Ricans or Third World peoples. Due to this value crisis, the United States finds itself in urgent need of profoundly reversing its scale of values. To such a revolution in values American intellectual, political, moral and civic leaders must summon their compatriots. Lebret had understood this long ago and he incessantly declared, in the waning years of his life, that what underdeveloped countries greatly needed was to have American friends fighting the value war inside the United States.

What is to be the new Foreign Policy?

The American foreign policy of the future will depend largely on the responses given to domestic value crises. Should certain positions gain the ascendancy within the country, the United States’ stance abroad will undergo profound alteration and development in the Third World will be greatly facilitated. What are these positions?
Planning according to priority needs (Gaibraith);
the guaranteed wage for all citizens irrespective of productive labor (Theobald); _ the acceptance of economic measure opposed to American business interests oversea (Heilbroner).
To take still another example: let us accept for the sake of illustration the thesis according to which the Alliance for Progress harbors contradictory objectives.
Cf. D. Goulet, “A missing Revolution,” America, April 2, 1966, 348-440.

On the one hand reform of privilege structures in Latin America is sought agrarian, fiscal, administrative reform. Simultaneously, however, the United States strives to maintain a safe climate for its capital investment ant its politic military security.

Any Latin American who espouses the reform goal of the Alliance is, within the political and ideological spectrum of his country, a leftist. Yet, the United States is notoriously distrustful of leftists and its foreign policy is plagued by inconsistencies toward reform governments. Many Latin American spokesmen believe that reformist forces within their own nations can only obtain leverage to fight their baffles successfully if the United States adheres to a new ethics in its international relations. Indeed the bastions of privilege in Latin America often recruit their allies among defenders of the status quo in American foreign policy within the U.S. Events in recent years south of the Rio Grande have shown that the correlation here involved is not purely fictitious.

Having said this, one readily concludes that development in the Third World would be greatly aided by the happy solution to America’s internal crises. The values at stake – primacy of good over goods, of austerity over compulsive consumption, of structural justice in relations between strong and weak groups – are all universally applicable. Their adoption in the United States would generate moral energies capable of renovating policies both in developed and underprivileged nations. Similarly, were abundance successfully “humanized” in the United States, the nation’s solidarity with the unendowed portion of mankind would be strengthened. The universal scope of development was always one of Lebret’s major preoccupations. According to him: “Authentic development is necessarily integral, harmonious development, concerned above all with improving men to the utmost, every man and all men within the confines of all global societies and, by a spread effect, of all global societies which are in any way interdependent.
“Développement et Civilisations,” No. 1, March 1960, p.3.

Three crucibles : Vietnam, Racism, Poverty

America is a civilization now on trial. The voices of reason see the war in Vietnam mainly as a chapter in the drama of the Third World’s emancipation and not as some simple diabolical plot in a Manichaean play. If they gain the ascendancy, America will have taken a giant step towards wisdom. Present circumstances do not, it is true, warrant much optimism. Nevertheless, the war against war continues simultaneously, on many fronts, led by Senator Futhright, university rebels, dissident magazines, conscientious objectors, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and others. Nonetheless, if the United States stops the war in Vietnam some day, it is most probably not internal dissent which will have proven decisive but rather the hard realities of international politics.

As for the Negro’s battle on behalf of dignity and power, the stakes are high : America’s option for mediocrity or greatness. The Negro fight now echoes throughout Africa and in other underdeveloped countries; there is a new awareness everywhere of universal solidarity among the underprivileged. Malcolm X, founder of the Organization for Afro-American Unity, strongly underscored, before being assassinated in New York on February 21, 1965, and during his African travels, the interdependence of the U.S. Negro cause with that of underdeveloped peoples. He had gone so far as to urge several African heads of state to intervene at the United States Nations, in the name of their countries, on behalf of the American Negro. As he put it, the problem was not one of “civil rights” but of “human rights”. It is striking to discover new horizons each favoring a better understanding of the world problem of underdevelopment, emerging from Negro struggles in the U.S. Among more militant leaders. Frantz Fanon, ideologist of the Algeria revolution and author of The Wretched of the Earth, has become a major font of inspiration regarding their positions on violence and Negro cultural identity. For a number of white men all eager to purge American Life of the cancer of secular injustice of which they have become collectively guilty, the black-white dialogue assumes ne proportions. In the view of theses whites, America will never be cured of its internal ills unless helped by Africans, who have known better that their Afro- American brothers how to preserve certain crud values like serenity in death, joy in dance and music, true community of life, identity with cosmic force and the maintenance of cultural diversity even quite uniform ecological environments.
Cf. unpublished texts prepared by the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution, University of Michigan, entitled, “An African-American Dialogue”, and “Church and University Society : a Proposed Program”, 1966.

Their hope is to create intercultural teams of African and American social scientists fully plunged in their respective cultures and situated at the heart of the collective anguishes which torment their societies in such strikingly parallel fashion. Who can doubt, therefore, that the racial issue is a painful crucible in which America is wrestling with the demons of value options?

The same is true of the war against poverty. Public admissions that poverty and inhuman misery exist inside the U.S.A. belies the myth of universal abundance in the country and should predispose American citizens to identify themselves more closely than before with underdeveloped peoples. One advantage of the war against poverty is that it helps Americans discover how difficult it is to spread development – or as François Perroux would say, to “propagate” it – from rich areas to poor zones and depressed sectors of the economy. If this lesson is learned successfully, it will bring immeasurable benefits to planners everywhere in underdeveloped countries.

A new type of research approaches leading to new modes of intercultural cooperation is the solution for America

America badly needs the kind of humanism to which L.J. Lebret dedicated his energies and his life it is humanism based on intelligent love, since love without intelligence (i.e., without technique, analysis, statistics) wastes scarce resources and remain ineffectual. On the other hand, intelligence (thus technique and “scientific” rigor) without love crushes men. No longer does a humanism of “having enough at the service of being more” seem Utopian now that Americans have experienced the non being that can result from having too much. Consequently, Galbraith and others urge us to work out a hierarchy of consumer goods.
John Kenneth Galbraith, “Economic Development in Perspective,” Harvard University Press, 1962, p. 42.

Universal solidarity, a condition essential to development according to Lebret, now begins to appear in some sectors of American thought as the only valid response to the Cold War and conflicts of national interest.

If it is to play its rightful role, the United States must be converted to new values, forge a new foreign policy and undergo a painful cleansing in its triple crucible. America’s chances for success would be greatly enhanced if the interdisciplinary studies undertaken in France since 1941 by Lebret’s research group “Economy and Humanism” served as precursors of new types of development research within the United States. Such research approaches would contribute powerfully to the solution of America’s domestic crises and pave the way for its conversion to universal values. What is best in the “Lebret Method” – thoroughgoing humanism and a powerful synthetic sense – needs to be wedded to the empirical rigor and doggedly persistent quality which characterize America’s finest research efforts. Such a marriage could lead to new modes of intercultural cooperation, freed of ethnocentrism and of intellectual tyranny: as well as to an ecumenism of thought and action still unattained. It would open new roads leading to development and to universal justice.

Solidarity and universality, these are what he lived

“Today’s world,” wrote Lebret, “stands more in need of wise men than of planners and technicians. The search for a new wisdom should impose itself on men completely informed in science and technology, but concerned among men, among groups, among peoples, with forms of civilization wherein solidarity is primordial. Such a civilization can only be a universal one.”
Unpublished text drafted on March 25, 1963, by L.J. Lebret and communicated to the author.

One of Louis-Joseph Lebret’s supreme glories is to have been simultaneously a wise man, a planner and a technician. His greatest glory, however, is to have been a man – fully a man – and a friend to all “groups, all peoples, all civilizations.” Solidarity and universality – these are what he lived.


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