Research Material

World without direction

BY IGNACIO RAMONET

Planetary,
Permanent,
Immediate,
Immaterial

How the "new emperors"
determine the destiny of the World.

AS we near the end of the century and the end of a millennium western societies are in search of an identity. Not one of the principles on which States have been founded appear to have escaped the wave of self-doubt. On a planetary scale today's world leaders remain stunned by the sudden collapse of political structures erected after the Second World War. Intra-state civil wars have multiplied. In the West an entire value system, adopted during the period of Enlightenment, has itself been shattered by the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. We face a crisis of intelligibility : the gap between what we should understand and the conceptual tools needed for understanding is widening. With the disappearance of certainties and the absence of a collective purpose, must we now resign ourselves to living what Max Weber called "world disenchantment"?

A world heavily shaken by formidable technological transformations, by the persistence of economic disorder and by the increase in ecological dangers. These three problem areas reveal themselves in the form of social disarray, the explosion of inequality, the appearance of new forms of poverty and exclusion, the inability to see work as a value, the profound sickness of power, mass unemployment, the amplification of the irrational, the proliferation of nationalism, fundamentalism, xenophobia and, simultaneously, the rapid increase in ethical and moral concerns. In this context of disappointment and uncertainty, two new paradigms structure the trend in thinking. The first of these, communication, is slowly tending to take over the role formerly played by progress, one of the main paradigms of the last two centuries.

From education to business, from government to justice, in every sphere and in all walks of life, only one thing really matters: we must communicate. Replacing the ideology of progress with that of communication leads to all kinds of upheavals, blurring the mission of political power itself. And this is where the increasingly grating central rivalry between the powers and the mass media stems from. In particular it leads some leaders to openly reject social objectives of prime importance established by the republican watchwords of "equality" and "fraternity". Executive power sees this new paradigm better accomplished, better realised and better carried out by the media rather than by itself.

The other paradigm is the market. It replaces that of machine, a form of organisation whose mechanisms and operation previously assured the evolution of a system. The mechanical metaphor, inherited from the 18th century, is succeeded by the economic and financial metaphor. From now on everything must adapt to the criteria of the "market", the ultimate panacea. The highest ranking of these new values, profit - benefits, return, competition and competitiveness - have taken over from the laws of nature, or of history, as a general explanation of the evolution of societies. Here, too, only the fittest survive, and in all legitimacy. Economic Darwinism and social Darwinism (constant reminders of competition, selection and adaptation) naturally assert themselves. Financial markets in particular become the model - thanks notably to new communication technologies - towards which all sectors of activity tend to gravitate. Such a system - "the PPII system" - is the spearhead of globalisation, the main and determining phenomenon of our age. What is the PPII system ? That which is planetary, permanent, immediate and immaterial. Four characteristics that recall the four principal attributes of God himself. And in fact this system sets itself up as a modern divinity, demanding submission, faith, cult and new rituals. From now on everything tends to organise itself according to the criteria of PPII : Stock Exchange values, monetary values, information, television programmes, multimedia, cyberculture etc. That is why so much is being said about "globalisation". Models of financial markets no longer refer to the natural sciences - Newtonian mechanics or organic chemistry - as a point of reference but the calculation of probabilities, the theory of games, the chaos theory, fuzzy logic and the sciences of the living. At the heart of the system lies money. "Money dominates everything", notes the economist Michel Beaud, "more intelligence and resources are devoted to its care than to saving the lives of people in difficulty. More than ever before in your societies it has become the criterion, the guide, the supreme value; it fascinates and blinds".

In this way chance, uncertainty and disorder become the important parameters for measuring the new harmony of a world where poverty, illiteracy, violence and illness are always on the increase. A world in which the richest fifth of the population owns 80% of resources, whereas the poorest fifth scarcely owns 0.5%. A world where the value of transactions on money and financial markets represents about fifty times the value of international commercial trade. Fascinated by the short term and quick profits, markets are incapable of foreseeing the future, of anticipating the future of mankind and the environment, of planning the growth of cities, and ultimately of treating social disintegration. "Wealth cannot be reduced to GNP per capita", Ralph Dahrendorf today concedes after having long sung the praise of the market, "it must take into consideration the entirety of conditions which compete to constitute well-being. Exclusion is economically bad, but above all it is socially corrosive and ultimately politically explosive". Today, as we prepare to enter the 21st century, who are the true masters of the world? Who, beyond appearances, really holds the reins of power? To ask questions such as these is to confirm that more often than not governments, elected after titanic electoral battles, find themselves impotent in the face of formidable forces which operate on a planetary scale. These forces are not, as some futuristic writers imagine, a sort of secret military elite plotting to take political control of the world. It is more a case of forces acting unimpeded, strictly applying the neoliberal vulgate and obeying precise precepts such as free exchange, privatisation, monetarism, competitiveness, productivity, and whose slogan could be: "Power to the market!".

Finance, commerce and the media, as well as other domains, stimulated by the emergent technologies, have witnessed a veritable explosion. And they have spawned economic empires of a different kind, writing their own laws, relocating their production sites, moving their capital at the speed of light and investing from one end of the planet to the other. They know neither borders nor States nor cultures. They disregard national sovereignty. They speculate with currencies, unconcerned by social consequences, provoke recessions, and lecture governments. When governments are not accomplices to their activities, they seem to be lost. Incapable of resolving at their level a thousand serious problems - such as mass unemployment - caused by racketeering among the new conquerors. Faced with such a situation ordinary people become increasingly suspicious of the "elite". They are tempted by dissidence and wonder what political reform should be introduced, at the international level, to impose democratic control on these new masters of the earth. Those who, in France and elsewhere, become involved in interminable electoral duels to win power democratically, are they aware that, as this century draws to a close, power has shifted position? That it has abandoned those former arenas of political power? Are they not running the risk of revealing their impotence? Of being forced bend, to withdraw, to go back on what they have said? And to realise that true power lies elsewhere. Out of reach. One well-known French weekly recently published a report on "the 50 most influential men on the planet" and not a single state leader, head of government, minister or member of parliament from any country whatsoever figured among them. A few weeks ago, another weekly magazine devoted its front page to "the most influential man in the world". Who was it? William Clinton? Helmut Kohl? Boris Yeltsin? No. It was quite simply Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, who dominates strategic information markets and is preparing to take control of the information super-highways. The tremendous scientific and technological changes of the past two decades have to a large extent doped the ultraliberal theories of "laissez-faire, laissez-passer" policies. And what is more the fall of the Berlin wall, the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communist regimes have spurred them on. The globalisation of the exchange of signs in particular has been accelerated to a phenomenal extent thanks to the revolution in information science and communication. These have brought about a very real explosion - the famous "big bangs" - in two sectors, the veritable nerve centre of modern society : financial markets and information networks. The transmission of data at the speed of light (300,000 kilometres per second) ; the digitalisation of text, pictures and sound ; the now common place recourse to telecommunication satellites ; the radio-telephone revolution ; the general use of computers in most areas of production and services ; the miniaturisation of computers and their application to world-networking capabilities have slowly upset the order of the world.

Especially the world of finance, which has successfully reunited the four qualities that make up a model perfectly adapted to the new technological order: immaterial, immediate, permanent and planetary. Divine attributes, as it were, which logically give rise to a new cult, a new religion. That of the market. We exchange information instantaneously, 24 hours a day, from one end of the earth to the other. The main stock exchanges are linked together and operate in rotation. Non-stop. While throughout the world thousands of over-educated over-talented young people spend their days in front of electronic screens, phone in hand. These are the market clerks. They interpret the new economic rationale. The one that is always right and before which all other reasoning - especially if it is of a social or humanitarian order - must bow. More often than not, however, markets appear to operate blindly, applying rules which may just as well have been borrowed from a book of spells or at best from high-street psychology such as: "the hearsay-economy, the analysis of sheep-like behaviour, or even the study of contagious mimicry"... And as a result of these new features the financial market has perfected a range of new products - such as derivatives and futures - which are so extremely complex and volatile that few experts truly master them. And this gives them a considerable advantage in financial transactions - though not without risk, as the collapse of the British bank Barings has recently shown. There are barely a dozen in the world who know how to act usefully - that is, for their greater benefit - on the foreign exchange markets. They are considered to be the "market masters"; one word from one of them could set everything rocking, the dollar drops, the Tokyo stock market collapses.

Faced with the power of these giants of the financial world, States can do very little. The recent financial crisis in Mexico, which began in late December 1994, demonstrated this clearly. What weight do the cumulative currency reserves of the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Canada that is, the seven richest countries in the world - have when faced with the financial attacking force of private investment funds, for the most part British or Japanese? Not a lot. Just as an example, let us consider that in the greatest financial elilort made in modern economic history in favour of a country - in this case Mexico - the great States of the world (including the United States), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund managed, together, to raise about 50 billion dollars. A considerable sum of money. Well, the big three American pension fund managers, Fidelity Investments, Vanguard Group and Capital Research and Management control 500 billion dollars. The managers of these funds hold in their hands a financial power of indescribable proportions - one that no government minister or central bank governor in the world possesses. In a market that has become instantaneous and planetary, any sudden movement from one of these veritable financial giants can cause the economic destabilisation of any country. Political leaders of the major world powers meeting with the 850 most important economic decision-makers in the world at the Davos International Forum in Switzerland last January, clearly stated the degree to which they feared the superhuman power of these fund managers whose fabulous wealth has freed itself from government control and who act as they wish on the cyberspace of world finance. The latter represents a kind of New Frontier, a New Territory on which the fate of a large proportion of the world depends. With no social contract. No sanction. No rules. Except for those arbitrarily drawn up by the main protagonists. For their greater profit.

"Markets vote daily", according to M. George Soros, the billionaire financier. "They force governments to adopt unpopular but indispensable measures. It is markets that have a sense for Statehood". To which the former French prime minister M. Raymond Barre, great defender of economic liberalism, replies : "It is certainly no longer possible to leave the world in the hands of a group of irresponsible 30-year-olds who think of nothing but making money !". He feels that the international finance system does not possess the institutional means needed to withstand the challenges of globalisation and the general opening of markets. The same conclusion is reached by M. Boutros-Ghali, general secretary of the United Nations: "The reality of world power largely eludes States. It is particularly true that globalisation implies the emergence of new powers which transcend state structures". Among these new powers that of the mass media appears to be one of the most powerful and most formidable. The conquest of massive audiences on a planetary scale triggers off titanic battles. Industrial groups are engaged in a fight to the death for the control of multimedia resources and information superhighways which, according to the American vice-president, Albert Gore, "represent for the United States today what road transport infrastructure meant for the middle of the 20th century". For the first time in the history of the world, messages (news, songs etc.) are permanently addressed, by means of television channels transmitted by satellite, to the whole planet. There are, at present, two world-wide channels - Cable News Network (CNN) and Music Television (MTV) - but in the near future there will be dozens of them, transforming habits and cultures, ideas mid opinions. And they will have an effect on, or even short-circuit, the voice as well as the behaviour of governments. "Groups more powerful than states", confirm two French writers, "are laying siege to democracy's most precious possession: information. Will they impose their law on the whole world or, alternatively, open a new era of individual freedom ?" In such circumstances, should we be surprised that inequalities of wealth, particularly in the United States, continue to get worse ? And that, as the Herald Tribune noted on April 19 1995: "The richest 1% of people control about 40% of national wealth, that is, twice as much as in the United Kingdom which is the most inequitable country in western Europe" ? Neither Ted Turner of the CNN nor Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation Limited, nor Bill Gates of Microsoft, nor Jeffrey Vinik of Fidelity Investment, nor Robert Allen of ATT, not even George Soros or the dozens of other new masters of the world have ever put their activities to the test of universal suffrage. Democracy is not for them. They are above these interminable discussions where concepts such as the public good, social contentedness, freedom and equality still have a sense. They have no time to waste. Their money, their products and their ideas cross the frontiers ofworld markets without hindrance. In their view, political power is only the third power. First of all there is economic power, then comes media power. And when one possesses these two - as Berlusconi has shown in Italy - seizing political power is a mere formality. That is why many citizens continue to seek meaning and values. Again, each of us feels the need to be part of a collective project, an objective, the great scheme of things. For, as the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy observes : "Beyond the fever of great technical, social and geopolitical change we find ourselves without a sense of history to counterpoise the course of events. How can order be reinstated in a world that is erupting everywhere? Where civil, ethnic and religious wars are multiplying ? With what intellectual tools can it be understood ? What is the rationale or the logic that can explain current conflicts ? There is no lack of information since it increases ten-fold every year. Formerly rare and expensive, information now tends towards becoming over-abundant and almost free. Radio, TV channels and cyber-networks like Intemet offer it for next to nothing. Offers flood the market. It is no longer information that citizens need but sorting, selection, a choice which corresponds precisely to what one is looking for, depending on his activities, his convictions or his identity. The media explosion, the multiplication of new television channels and the rise in computer technologies open the way to new practices linked to knowledge, understanding, creation and leisure. Once again, a new world is approaching ; yet at the same time market capitalism is snatching it away with its mammoth means - think of the present megaconcentrations Time Warner-Turner Broadcasting System or Walt Disney-ABC - and steals for its own profit all the potential that the new technologies could offer for the cultural fulfilment of citizens.

Slowly, in France (where there are three million unemployed, a million on unemployment benefit and five million social outcasts) people are beginning to admit that we are entering a new era where decline, chaos and tragedy are all possibilities. Where political leaders have no control over our problems, and the tremendous potential of rebellion, as we saw in December 1995, is beginning to awaken. Bogged down. In today's democracies more and more citizens are starting to feel bogged down, restrained by a viscous sort of doctrine that is imperceptibly enveloping all rebel thought, inhibiting it, worrying it, paralysing it and finally suffocating it. This is the doctrine of "single thought", the only one authorised by an invisible and omnipresent opinion police. The arrogance, pride and insolence of this doctrine have reached such a level since the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of communism and the demoralisation of socialism that one may, without exaggerating, define this new ideological craze as modern dogmatism. What is single thought it is the translation into supposedly universal, ideological terms of the interests of a group of economic forces, in particular those of international capital. In a sense it has been formulated and defined since 1944, on the occasion of the Bretton-Woods agreement. Its main sources are the large economic and monetary institutions - the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the General Agreement on Trade and Tarilils, the European Commission, the Bundesbank, the Banque de France etc. which, through their financing enroll others to their way of thinking, right across the planet, in many research institutions, universities and foundations which then, in their turn, refine and spread the good word.

This is taken up and reproduced by the main organs of economic information, notably by the "bibles" for investors and stock market players - The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Economist, Far Eastern Economic Review, Reuters etc. - often property of large industrial and financial groups. More or less everywhere, faculties of economics, journalists, writers and politicians adopt these main commandments of the tables of the law and repeat them ad nauseam knowing full well that in our media-run societies repetition is the same as proof. The first principle of single thought is so strong that an absent-minded Marxist would not deny it: economics prevails over politics.

It is by adopting such principles that, for example, an instrument of such importance in the hands of the executive as is the Banque de France was made independent in 1994, with hardly a murmur of opposition, and in sense "sheltered from political hazards". "The Banque de France is independent, apolitical and transpartisan", affirms its chairman, Jean-Claude Trichet adding however : "We are asking for the public debt to be reduced", and "we follow a strategy of stable currency". As if these two objectives were not political! In the name of "realism" and "pragmatism" - expressed by Alain Minc in the following manner : "Capitalism cannot collapse, it is the natural condition of society. Democracy is not the natural condition of society. But the market is." - the economy has been put in the driving seat. An economy which is of course devoid of social conscience - as if this were a sort of pathetic strait jacket whose weight might lead to decline and crisis. The other key concepts of single thought are well known: the market, whose "invisible hand smoothes out the bumps and dysfunctions of capitalism", and especially the financial markets whose "signals direct and determine the general movement of the economy" ; competition and competitiveness which "stimulate and motivate businesses leading them to permanent and beneficial modernisation" ; free exchange without borders, "the common denominator in the development of commerce and therefore also societies" ; globalisation of both manufacturing output as well as the flow of money ; the international division of work which "moderates union claims and lowers the cost of salaries" ; strong currencies, "a stabilising factor" ; deregulation ; privatisation ; liberalisation, etc. Always "less of the State", constant arbitration in favour of capital revenue and against income from work. And indifference with regard to the ecological cost. The constant repetition in the media of this catechism by practically all politicians, whether left or right, endows it with such an intimidating power that it smothers any efsort of free thought, and makes resistance against this new obscurantism extremely difficult.

One might even begin to wonder whether the 22 million unemployed Europeans, the urban decay, the general precariousness, inner-city rioting, the ecological devastation, the return of racism and the masses of social outcasts are simply mirages, guilty hallucinations, deeply discordant in this best of worlds that single thought constructs for our anaesthetised consciences. And this is because, imperceptibly, as we edge towards the end of the century, new concepts mould our way of looking at reality. After the fashion of a dominant ideology, they infiltrate everywhere, establish themselves as natural, and are adapted by the mass media (television, radio, press), by a large number of the "elite", opinion-makers and partisans of this "single thought".

It is also shocking to note how, paradoxically, the degree of ferment, crisis and peril of the present day coincides with an overwhelming ideological consensus, imposed by the media, by surveys and by advertising thanks to the manipulation of signs and symbols and thanks also to the new mind-control. Happily, here and there, both in the North and in the South, intellectuals, scientists and creative thinkers do not hesitate to denounce this asphyxiating consensus and to join intellectual battle. They resist, question, rebel. They offer other arguments, other theses in order to escape from mind control and to help transform the world. In so doing they help us to better understand the meaning of our times.

Translated by Humphrey Liddiard Ignacio Ramonet is the Director of the French monthly Le Monde diplomatique.





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