A world transformed

By Ignacio Ramonet, Le Monde diplomatique, October 1997

We are in throes of a global transformation which could be called a second capitalist revolution. The new technology and world market have changed the pillars of modern democracy, with progress and social cohesion giving way to communication and the market. The key players are now associations of states, global companies and NGOs. Should we agree to be governed by the WTO rather than the UN?

In October 1917 it took the Bolshevik revolution just ten days to shake the world. For the first time the steamroller of capitalism had been stopped in its tracks.

The rise of capitalism was fuelled by the works of economic theorists (Adam Smith and David Ricardo), by major advances in technology (steam power and railways), and by upheavals at the geopolitical level (the growth of the British empire, the rebirth of Germany and the power of the United States). It was the coming together of all this that produced the first capitalist revolution and made sustained economic growth a possibility. But at the same time this was a system that exploited people and crushed them, as we see in the novels of Charles Dickens, Emile Zola and Jack London.

How to profit collectively from the tremendous energies released by industrialisation while at the same time avoiding a situation in which ordinary people are crushed by it? This was the question that was to be addressed and answered by Karl Marx in his main work, Das Kapital (1867). It then took another fifty years for a strategist of political genius, Lenin, to succeed in seizing power in Russia, in the messianic hope of liberating the workers of the world.

Eighty years on, the Soviet Union has sunk without trace and the world is again going through major transformations as a consequence of what we could call the second capitalist revolution. Like its predecessor, it is the fruit of the convergence of a whole series of changes occurring in three principal areas.

First, in the area of technology. The progressive computerisation of all sectors of the economy has combined with the shift to digitisation (sound, text and images transmitted at the speed of light in one common format) to revolutionise the worlds of work, education, leisure and so on.

Second, in the area of economics. The new technologies are creating an environment that is very favourable for the expansion of the finance sector. They are particularly suited to all activities which are global, non-stop, immediate and immaterial. The big bang of the world's stock exchanges, and the deregulation brought in during the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, created the conditions for the economic globalisation which has been the principal dynamic of the final years of the twentieth century, and which no country can any longer escape.

Third, at the sociological level. The twin upheavals cited above undermine the traditional prerogatives of the nation state and demolish certain conceptions of power and political representation. Where power had previously been hierarchical, vertical and authoritarian, it is now increasingly being structured in networks and is becoming horizontal and, thanks to the manipulation of public opinion made possible by the mass media, consensual.

The world's societies have lost their bearings and are desperately searching for meanings and models, because these three major areas of change are all occurring at the same time, with the result that the shock effect is intensified.

At the same time, two of the pillars on which modern democracies once rested—progress and social cohesion—are being replaced by two others—communication and the market—which are changing their nature.

Communication, the principal superstition of the present age, is offered as the ultimate panacea for resolving conflict—within the family, the school, the company or the state. It is seen as the great peace-bringer. But there is now a suspicion that its very abundance is likely to bring about new forms of alienation, and that instead of liberating the spirit its excesses are more likely to imprison it.

Nowadays, the market has a tendency to flood all human activities and to bring them under its control. Once upon a time certain areas—culture, sport and religion—were still beyond its reach, but now the market has absorbed them. Governments increasingly turn to the market (through privatisation and the abandonment of state sectors). However, the market is the main enemy of social cohesion, because its logic demands that a society be divided into two groups: the solvent and the non-solvent. The latter are of no interest to it and as such can be jettisoned. The market, by its very nature, produces inequalities.

Over the course of the past decade, all these structural and conceptual changes have, in a real sense, blown the world apart. Basic geopolitical concepts, such as state, power, democracy and frontier, no longer have the same meanings. In fact, if one watches the real functioning of international life, one comes to realise that its protagonists are no longer who they once were.

At the planetary level, the three principal protagonists—which under the ancien régime had been the nobility, the clergy and the third estate—are now associations of states such as the European Union, NAFTA, ASEAN; global companies and the major media and finance groupings; and non-governmental organisations operating at the global level, such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, World Wild Life. It is a sign of the times that these three groups of actors are active within a planetary framework that is now governed not so much by the United Nations as by the World Trade Organisation, the new global arbiter.

One's democratic vote has no influence on the internal workings of these three new actors. This transformation of the world has taken place without the ordinary man in the street realising it, and even without the politicians really understanding it. Can we afford just to sit and watch while all this contrives to strip democracy of its meaning?