Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The early 21st century: Taking stock

We live in a society in transition – a process rooted in a technological revolution that stretches back to the middle of the previous century, with the invention of television, followed by other innovations in the media, and culminating in the invention of the internet, initially conceived as a military tool of sorts. Although the internet and all the technologies dependent upon it have vast radical, transformative political potential (as Andrew Feenberg, among others, has observed), it has really been its economic potential that has transformed social reality at the most basic levels, those of space and time, nowhere more penetratingly examined than in the work of Manuel Castells, who has identified the newly dominant modes of space and time, namely the ‘space of flows’ and ‘timeless time’.

Nor are these spatiotemporal modalities cratologically (power-related) innocent. Their technology-based pervasiveness in the so-called ‘network society’ has given rise to a new social class structure (with vast political implications), captured in the familiar formula, ‘the 1% versus the 99%’, as well as to an exacerbation of an ecological situation that was already apparent to the Club of Rome in the 1970s, whose members urged countries worldwide to put the brakes on economic growth.

Moreover, through the work of Bernard Stiegler one is apprised of the fact that, new class structures aside, people generally have been subjected, wiilly-nilly, to a global process of what he calls ‘stupidification’, which comprises the loss of ‘savoir-faire’ (know-how) and ‘savoir-vivre’ (knowing how to live). Stiegler conceptualises this as the next step in the ‘proletarianisation’ of society, more particularly of consumers, who are in the process of relinquishing their own, ‘human’ skills and knowledge by transferring these to what Stiegler calls external mnemotechnical devices (such as smartphones).

Furthermore, in a reiteration of Marx’s critique of political economy, Stiegler shows how we are witnessing a thoroughgoing transfer of power from the political sphere to the economic – something that manifests itself in all kinds of incipient crises as symptoms of a popular reaction against such a transfer of power, from those in politics (Brexit, Trump) to education. Brexit can be read as such a reaction of British people against the further spread of the rule of neoliberal economics by ordinary people who have seen economic globalisation undermine their own economic (and political) viability, and Trump’s rise to power on the back of ordinary Americans’ support confirms this diagnosis. He may not be the best choice for president of the US, but the advent of his presidency is symptomatic of popular reaction against the threats to economic (and political) well-being of ordinary Americans, as opposed to the so-called ‘elites’.

It is also symptomatic of what Castells has identified as the increasing mistrust, on the part of people worldwide, of banks and politicians. What one often forgets, however, is how we got to this lamentable point in history – where both the economic and the political systems may be perceived as being ‘broken’ – from which there seems to be no escape at present, and which is obscured by media-focus on the dysfunctionality of the Trump presidency and the cynical promotion of new technologies as the panacea to humanity’s troubles.

In the Introduction to Aftermath – The Cultures of the Economic Crisis (edited by Manuel Castells, Joao Caraca and Gustavo Cardoso; Oxford U.P., 2012), the editors sketch in the needed historical background, on which I can merely touch here. First they remind readers that the crisis is not only economic, but “structural and multidimensional” (p. xiii), which explains the disconcerting signs one is witnessing all around one, that we are caught in a deeply dislocating transition to a world with very different economic, social, and unavoidably also institutional and political, realities. Just as previously such changes were ushered in by events like the New Deal in the US and the Bretton Woods construction of a new global financial structure, so the fundamental changes happening today had three distinct ‘causes’, according to these authors (p. xiii), namely, “a new technological paradigm, a new form of globalization, and the new cultures that emerged from the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s…”

What they are getting at may surprise readers, because it amounts to unpacking the links among developments that seem irreconcilable at first: the emergence of the technologies, exemplified by the internet, that have culminated in transforming the very spatiotemporal fabric of our lives globally (watch Jason Reitman’s paradigmatic 2009 film, “Up in the Air” in this regard), and made possible the hierarchical new economic structure marked by EXTREME, unsustainable inequality, is (paradoxically) rooted in the cultures of ‘freedom’ of the 1960s and 70s, such as the hippie movement, the civil rights (including the Black Panthers and anti-Vietnam War) and feminist movements. What is one of the best ‘films noir’ ever to emerge from Hollywood – Mike Nichols’s The Graduate of 1967 – where Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) represents a whole generation of college graduates who rejected the culture of corporate power their parents stood for – was symptomatic of the driving force behind these movements.

The transitional phase between these ‘cultures of freedom’ and the technological breakthrough that has led to the new form of economic domination of today (against which ordinary citizens have revolted in the UK and the US), involved visionary scientific research, unlikely as it may seem (pp. xiii-xiv): “The technological innovations that changed the world were nurtured in the campuses of research universities, bringing together the passion of discovery and the insubordination against the corporate establishment… Entrepreneurialism took root in the culture of individuation that bypassed organized social action and state bureaucracies. However, the culture of freedom and entrepreneurialism also paved the way for the wave of deregulation, privatization, and liberalization that shook the world economy, changing the foundations of economic institutions and unleashing free market globalisation…”

Perceptive readers would have noticed that the common factor in these apparently irreconcilable developments is ‘freedom’ – the hippies (among others) rebelled against the crass materialism of their corporate establishment parents; this was transferred to individualistic scientific research that gave us the internet; which made the financial revolution of 24-hour-interconnected global markets possible; which, in turn, together with deregulation of global economies, spawned the individualistic, ‘me-oriented’, recklessly speculative, financial traders and managers on Wall Street; which eventually led to the 2007 collapse of the housing market in the US, followed by the financial crisis; the effects of the latter are still reverberating throughout the world, but the financial elites, despite being bailed out by taxpayers money, have tightened their grip on economic power; the financial crisis of 2008 has resulted in austerity measures being implemented by governments like Greece’s; this economic hardship on the part of ordinary people explains the populist backlash in the UK and US (Brexit and Trump), which will evidently spread to other countries.

What one should also take note of is the ambiguity of the word ‘freedom’ – in one context it leads to the liberation of individuals, in another it leads to unrestrained financial-economic behaviour that, in its turn, gives rise to the economic un-freedom and suffering of others. Hegel with a vengeance: history displays a relentless dialectic, where new developments always preserve something (here, ‘freedom’) from earlier developments, but in a changed form. This is what ‘sublation’ (‘Aufhebung’) meant for Hegel – elements in earlier phases of history are ‘sublated’: preserved, cancelled out, and simultaneously also ‘elevated’ to a new significance. Except that one may doubt that the ‘freedom’ of financial managers, to engage in reckless behaviour that has indirectly caused the suffering of millions, can be called an ‘elevation’. But the populist movements emerging worldwide may change all that, despite some bad choices on their part.

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