LOOKING FOR EVIDENCE OF THE NEW POLITICS: GLOBALISATION, POWER & DEMOCRACY

After the break you’ll find the abstract and introduction to my PhD thesis published in 2005. Looking back, I think I was probably considerably more optimistic about the potential for resistance to the big challenges facing liberal democracies than I am today, though I remain convinced that the scope for local, collective resistance remains far greater than most commentators allow. If you really want to, you can read the whole thing by clicking here (right click to download the pdf file) – but you should note that it is over 400 pages long.

 

ABSTRACT

This thesis takes as it starting point the three crises said to be facing liberal democracy: the crises of globalisation, fundamentalist identities and the decline of democratic legitimacy. When combined with the transformative potential of new communication technologies, these crises form the foundation for the new politics and promise a moment of revolutionary change for Western liberal democracies. This thesis looks at three apparently diverse responses to the new politics from the techno-liberal, social entrepreneur and resister schools and contends that, despite their differences, these schools share a number of core assumptions that cause them to limit the range of valid strategies of responses to the new politics. Their vision of globalisation shares the assumption that it is a novel, irresistible and culturally and politically homogenizing phenomenon. Their conception of power as a one-dimensional resource leads them to cast individuals in relationships of dominance and subjugation. Their loss of faith in liberal democracy encourages them to propose deliberative democratic forms intended to produce rational decisions reached through reasonable debate and delivering greater equality.  This thesis seeks to test these assumptions, subjecting them first to critical scrutiny by contextualising them within the wider academic debates on globalisation, power and democratic theory and in each case finding that their claims to represent the only viable responses to the new politics falling short. The second test is built upon the central role these authors give to new communications technologies as tools of propaganda and as exemplars of a new form of social organisation. By comparing output from the traditional and new media this thesis will look for evidence of the three schools predictions of the overwhelming scale and penetration of the new politics in the conduct of a political debate in the context of the 2001 British General Election.

INTRODUCTION

This project was born of two concerns. The first was the identification of a number of common themes running through the writing of a wide variety of authors, from apparently diverse viewpoints, about the challenges facing social, economic and democratic institutions in the future particularly with regard to the impact of new communications technologies and global markets. Having identified these common themes shared by writers from traditions I name techno-liberal, social entrepreneur and resister, a second concern arose from the fact that the evidence used to support these claims often seemed partial at best – frequently featuring anecdotes or the stretching of short-term phenomena into long term trends. Often writers would rely on the use of data collected from small groups of people, distinct regions or nations and assume that the same principles of desire, fulfilment and transformation could (indeed must) apply universally.

The common concerns of these authors have been labelled here the new politics. This study identifies three schools of writers who represent apparently quite diverse social, economic and political positions but who, it is argued, can be best understood in the light of their responses to the new politics. Having set out the apparent diversity of these responses in Section One, Section Two will look more closely at their writings and highlight crucial common assumptions that underlie their work and argue that, despite their apparent differences, these groups proceed from the same basic vision of the threats facing society caused by globalisation, new technology and social change. In Section Three these assumptions will be tested in reference to the conduct of a political debate in the 2001 British General Election.

The study has had two goals. First, to explore whether the assumptions of the new politics, and in particular their tendency to present a very narrow range of policy options as viable, can be sustained in the face of a critical analysis of the arguments put forward by the writers from techno-liberal, social entrepreneur and resister schools. And, secondly, to determine whether evidence can be found to support these assumptions in the conduct of an actual political debate.

The crises of democracy and, in particular, the assumptions that are shared by the three schools under scrutiny here have become taken for granted “facts” about the future for a very wide range of writers. As such they have very often been presented as the basis for elaborate constructions about how the world must change in the future and how societies must react now to ensure they are not left behind. This makes the critique of the issues presented here important, because it attempts to open up assumptions that are often presented unquestioned truths, subject them to critical scrutiny, and design tests to seek evidence in their support.

Before proceeding further, it is necessary to spend some time setting out some definitions and clarifying some key points.

 

What is the new politics?

Broadly speaking, the new politics represents a set of concerns about the impact of global markets, the increasing fragmentation of society and the failure of democratic institutions. It claims that the current social, political and economic structures of Western, liberal democracies are facing imminent threats to which they are unable to respond effectively.

Although the issues raised by the new politics are widely shared, as we shall see in Sections One and Two, it is Castells’ (2000, 2000a, 2000b) who most concisely and usefully sets out the extent of the three crises of democracy: the crisis of globalisation; the crisis of fundamentalist identities; and the crisis of democratic institutions.

 

The Crisis of Globalisation

For Castells, the increasing interdependence of national economies and their integration into global networks of production, distribution and consumption is of central importance because of the impact it has on the relationship between citizen expectations and government’s ability to deliver. The welfare state was a central part of the contract between individuals and the state and: “was a crucial source of political legitimacy in the reconstruction of government institutions after the Great Depression of [the] 1930s, and World War II” (2000: 342).

There are benefits, Castells concedes, for the state in unburdening itself of the bureaucratic load that the welfare state imposes, but they will be short lived. By worsening the living conditions for the majority of citizens, governments break the social contract between capital, labour and the state, and so remove “the nuts and bolts of legitimate government for common people” (2000: 354). The decline of Keynesianism and the fading away of the labour movement – victims of internationalised finance and production and the individualisation of work – removes another source of social cohesion.

Since the state can no longer keep fundamental promises it made to provide basic levels of protections for its citizens, Castells argues that: “both its legitimacy and authority are called into question” (2000a: 346). This crisis of legitimacy has a number of effects in relation to the crises of individualization and democratic institutions. For the state: “Globalization of capital, multilateralization of power institutions, and decentralization of authority to regional and local governments induce a new geometry of power, perhaps inducing a new form of state, the network state” (2000a: 347). The responses to globalisation – the World Trade Organisation (WTO), World Bank and even the European Union – have seen governments shift power upwards to multilateral institutions that (though preserving elements of control over global economic forces) reduce national sovereignty.

Though Castells does not believe the state will disappear he does expect it to fragment and for traditional nation-states to find it increasingly difficult to compel the obedience of their citizens or even persuade them to comply with common goals based on shared senses of loyalty.

Aided by the power of new telecommunications technologies and the capabilities of information processing, the global economy will continue to expand in the twenty first century, claims Castells: “It will penetrate all countries, all territories, all cultures, all communication flows, and all financial networks, relentlessly scanning the planet for new opportunities of profit-making.” (2000a: 354). But globalisation will not treat every location or individual equally – the valuable will be linked into its ever expanding networks, but it will discard the rest.

This image of globalisation as an irresistible force, technologically empowered and beyond the control of states, people or institutions is one that is repeated in the work of the authors of the techno-liberal, social entrepreneur and resister schools.

 

The Crisis of Fundamentalist Identities

If, as Castells insists, the state can no longer claim to be protecting its citizens’ well-being from the threats of the free market, then it must find new sources of legitimacy. One route open to it is to assert a collective identity – the mythology of the Volk as a fundamental in defining the state (Christiansen 1997) – at the expense of other values and of minority identities.

This has two consequences. It is first the cause of a growth of “fundamentalist nationalist, ethnic, territorial, or religious states” (2000: 343) rising out of the current crisis of political legitimacy. Such states cannot, argues Castells, support a functioning liberal democracy because the principles of representation between the two systems are contradictory.

Even within those states that continue to function as liberal democracies, the shift of government from provider of social goods to protector of national identity has an immediate and damaging impact. This second consequence is the increasing mobilisation of issue-oriented groups pursuing singular goals. New communication technology can play an important role in allowing such groups to coordinate their actions outside the political and media mainstream

There is, for Castells, always the hope that political decision-making processes may find a way to create a link between these new sources of activity and incorporate them in a new “electronic grassroots democracy” (2000: 352). Then energies devoted by citizens in support of “political mobilization around non-political causes (such as those promoted by Amnesty International, Greenpeace or Oxfam) might provide the energy for the reconstruction of democracy in the network society. However, Castells acknowledges, that the resultant state is unlikely to look much like existing liberal democracies.

Nor are attempts to construct democratic institutions and states around fundamentalist identities likely to be without their dangers. The emergence of “resistance identities which retrench in communal havens, and refuse to be flushed away by global flows and radical individualism” (2000: 356) may not create groups of citizens willing to cooperate. One possible form of resistance identity may build their communes around “traditional values” (God, nation, race and family) and enclose their space with ethnic emblems and territorial claims. Such individualistic identities do not communicate with the state “except to struggle and negotiate on behalf of their specific interests/values” (2000: 356) and they certainly do not communicate with other such communities likely to be built upon sharply distinct and conflicting principles.

The result of the crises of individuality is a state unable to exercise control over its citizens, indeed perhaps not even recognised as sovereign by many of those within its borders.

 

The Crisis of Democratic Institutions

As well as the crises facing liberal democracy at the level of the legitimacy of the state, the institutions of democratic governance are themselves facing increasing threats to their relationship with the voters who have, until now, provided the legitimacy for government. The political system based on competition between competing parties is facing a crisis of credibility. Its levels of appeal and trustworthiness with the public have been undermined and, increasingly, it is reduced to a bureaucratic tool deprived of public confidence.

Once of the central causes of the collapse of trust in political institutions, and in particular the political party system, is  due to the fact that they have been captured by the global media conglomerates. Reliant on these global business interests, the ability of politicians to represent their constituents’ desires are necessarily limited. However, there are also other, more subtle, factors at work. The need to shape debate for media consumption reduces politics to personalized battles between leaders, it increases politicians reliance on sophisticated forms of news manipulation and drives the political agenda towards scandal-based politics. It should hardly be surprising, Castells observes, that the net result of such campaigns is that: “public opinion and citizens’ individual and collective expressions display a growing and fundamental disaffection vis à vis parties, politicians and professional politics” (2000: 343). The growing alienation of people from politics has powerful expressions worldwide points to the declining support for mainstream parties in established democracies, though Castells concedes that despite the decline they remain by some distance the most important political actors.

Nevertheless, Castells claims, the increasing unpredictability of the political system and the singularization of politics around the issues that create fundamentalist identities is results in the fragmentation of the state. Though people may continue to fight for political freedom, political democracy “has become an empty shell.” The “new institutional, cultural, and technological conditions of democratic exercise have made obsolete the existing party system, and the current regime of competitive politics, as adequate mechanisms of political representation in the network society” (2000: 349). People still have a sense of how important politics is, if only to prevent the taking up of political power by tyrants, but they are no longer clear of how to pursue their desires through the political process.

Caught up in “the logic of informational politics” political parties are no longer capable of acting as autonomous agents of social change. However, Castells still believes that political parties “of some kind” have a crucial role to play as instruments to process the demands of society. Their role, however, will be significantly different: “They are influential brokers rather than powerful innovators” (2000: 360).

 

The importance of new communication technologies

In all the responses to the new politics, new media technologies are given a position of importance as the mechanism by which new relationships of power are built and society transformed. Castells takes as his starting point the assumption that the end of the twentieth century was one of the rare intervals in history: “characterized by the transformation of material culture by the works of a new technological paradigm organized around information technologies” (2000:29). This new technological revolution is creating a new social order that will be “both capitalist and informational” in a break with the past that is, Castells argues, as significant as the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century: “inducing a pattern of discontinuity in the material basis of economy, society and culture” (2000: 30).

Information technology is central to this new revolution – as important as the steam engine, electricity, fossil fuels and nuclear power have been to previous moments of technological innovation. It is not the knowledge or information gathered that characterizes this revolution, Castells says, but the application of information processes and new communication devices to that knowledge in a “feedback loop between innovation and the uses of innovation” (2000: 32).

This, in turn, leads Castells to identify the key differences between the present era and past industrial revolutions: the speed at which technology is diffused around the globe. The material of the information technology revolution has spread across the planet in little more than twenty years. He concedes there are still areas of the world and segments of society who are not connected but: “the dominant functions, social groups and territories across the globe are connected by the mid-1990s in a new technological system that, as such, started to take shape only in the 1970s” (2000: 35).

The result of the spread of this technology has been the creation of a new economy with the distinctive features of being both informational and global. It is informational because “the productivity and competitiveness of units or agents in this economy (be it firms, regions or nations) fundamentally depend on their capacity to generate, process and apply efficiently knowledged-based information” (2000: 66). Castells is keen to avoid the accusation of technological determinism, arguing that he seeks to place “this process of revolutionary technological change in the social context in which it takes place and by which it is being shaped” (2000: 4). Comparing the different fates of Japan and the former Soviet Union, he seeks to demonstrate that technology and its application alone are not sufficient to explain the success or failure of a nation or region. He stresses the role of the state, which by stalling, unleashing, leading or shying away from technological innovation continues to play a decisive part in organizing the social and cultural forces at a particular place and time.

At the same time, however, Castells clearly places considerable importance on the role of technology, not least because of its influence in transforming the relationships in the workplace and, for Castells: “The process of work is at the core of social structure” (2000: 201). The technological transformation of work is a central part of the emergence of the networked business and, therefore, “the main lever by which the informational paradigm and the process of globalisation affect society at large” (2000: 201). It is through the central role of technology, therefore, that the changes occur that allow the emergence of the new networked society as it enables a structural transformation in the relationships of production, power and experience. In this information age, the fundamental social divisions will be between “information producers and replaceable generic labour” (2000a: 346), there will be no place for the discarded workers and consumers whose value has been used up or those whose needs do not match those of the global network of capital flows.

Ultimately, the revolution of technology plays a key role in the restructuring of the economy and the emergence of a new culture, which together converge “toward a historical redefinition of the relationships of production, power and experience on which societies are based” (2000a: 340).

 

Responses to the new politics

The new politics has provided common ground for three groups of writers: techno-liberals, social entrepreneurs and resisters, whose work builds upon the assumption that Castells’ crises are real and who, therefore, predict that we are witnessing the creation of a new era in social, economic and political organisation. Section One, below, explores the nature of these groups more fully, but for now it is worth pointing out that these three groups do not represent an exhaustive list of responses to the new politics but they do represent important threads in the current political landscape. The techno-liberals represent a neo-liberal, primarily American, form of conservatism that, for the most part, unequivocally welcome the consequences of the crises of democracy, regarding them more as opportunities, and worry only about governments getting in the way of rapid, through-going change. The social entrepreneurs are linked to “third way” social democrats. Like the techno-liberals they generally see globalisation as a good thing and believe the new politics as inevitable, but seek to make governments better able to cope so as to provide protection for those who do not prosper in the new era. Resisters are part of the anti-globalisation movement and see international capitalism and weak politicians as the cause of a number of immediate threats to personal liberty, communal institutions and environmental sustainability.

Although these groups possess apparently distinct and diverse attitudes towards the impact of the crises of democracy, it is the contention of this thesis that their visions of the future are built upon a number of shared assumptions.

 

A shared vision

As already noted, the techno-liberal, social entrepreneur and resister schools take as their starting point the assumptions of the new politics, a society in which the individual increasingly acts without restraints, where government is becoming irrelevant in the face of global business, and where traditional liberal democratic political institutions are incapable of decisive action. The shared agenda that unites the three schools is dealt with in much more detail in Section Two, but summarising briefly, it is built upon the following assumptions:

Globalisation: Global markets and multinational corporations have created an economic force that is novel, irresistible and homogenizing. Its novelty places it outside the realm of existing policy initiatives; its irresistible force means that traditional social, economic and political institutions are helpless and, as an homogenizing force, it imposes certain forms of government and behaviour on all societies;

Power: Power is shifting fundamentally away from government and collective social institutions and towards individuals and multinational businesses. However, the three schools share a somewhat simplistic, one-dimensional notion of power as a tool or weapon to be used against others, which leads them to limit scope for the expression of resistance.

Democracy: The decline of liberal democratic institutions lead the three schools to make proposals for new types of democracy built on more direct or deliberative forms of decision-making – although the form of such new democratic processes differs across the three groups according to their broader ideology. Nevertheless the shared assumptions behind such claims are that the new democracy will deliver policies that are more rational from debates that are more reasonable and create outcomes that are more equitable than those of the present democratic system.

The combined effect of these assumptions is to reduce the freedom of choice available to citizens and communities in the face of the crises of democracy. The techno-liberal, social entrepreneur and resister schools present their distinct visions as the only viable responses to the threats of the new politics. In each case we are presented with the argument that radical and immediate change is necessary and that existing social, economic and political institutions must be replaced or totally overhauled. The purpose of Section Two is to subject these assumptions to critical analysis, to explore whether they can be taken for granted as the basis of wider theories of society by placing these assumptions in the context of the wider political and, indeed, philosophical debates about globalisation, power and democratic theory, Section Two attempts to show that alternative responses to the crises of democracy may remain valid and that other policy choices may still be open.

 

Looking for evidence of the new politics

Section Three aims to explore whether evidence can be found to support the claims that the new politics is an identifiable, pervasive and immediate force in modern democracies. This study begins by noting the emphasis each of the three schools place on the central importance of new communication technologies. In particular the Internet is seen as a tool to spread the ideology of the new politics, as a model for new institutional structures based on the paradigm of the network and as vanguard of such changes throughout society. Assuming that such claims are right, then the evidence for the impact of the new politics should first be seen in the differences between the content of the new media and that of the traditional media (television and newspapers) as institutions of the existing liberal democratic order.

It is in the media, therefore, that we should see evidence of the effect of the new politics on political debate and I have chosen to search for that evidence in the debate conducted during the 2001 British General Election. Using techniques of content analysis to compare the debate on taxation during this campaign in the old media (television and newspapers) and the new media (websites), the goal is to determine whether or not there is evidence to support the thesis that a new politics is fundamentally changing the political landscape. If the assumptions about the crises of democracy and the central place of new communication technologies are correct, then in the era of the new politics we might expect:

1. That the new media will favour the interests of global markets and multinational corporations over and above the traditional media and therefore will favour policies that move national policy in the direction of neo-liberalism.

2. That the new media will contain a greater range of opinions, making room for those “fundamentalist identities” that the traditional institutions of liberal democracies cannot contain.

3. That the new media will pursue a significantly different agenda from the traditional media which remain tied to the failing institutions of liberal democracy.

Given the narrow scope of this research, this study cannot prove or disprove the claims about the crises of democracy in the techno-liberal, social entrepreneur or resister writings. However, the claims that the three schools make for the overwhelming scale and the deep penetration of the changes that the new politics heralds do suggest that these trends should be clearly visible in all parts of society.

 

Conclusion

Predictions of revolutionary change are common amongst those who write about the impact of new technology and the social, political and economic changes that will accompany the crises of democracy in the era of the new politics. The coming together of technological innovation and liberalised global markets have inspired many authors to claim that society is on the verge of an extraordinary shift in the way people live, work, and interact with their fellow citizens.

The position taken by this study is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This study cannot and does not seek to confirm or deny whether the crises of democracy identified by Castells are real. However, it does set out to explore whether evidence to support the extraordinary claims of imminent and overwhelming social revolution made by writers in the techno-liberal, social entrepreneur and resister schools can be found in a particular arena (the debate during a British General Election) and at a particular time (2001).

As has been stated, the presence, absence or nature of such evidence will not, in itself, be conclusive. However, in relation to the claims made by techno-liberal, social entrepreneur and resister writers for the scale and scope of the impact of the crises of democracy, the absence of evidence, even in the narrow scope of this study would raise significant questions about the predictions made about the future prospects for liberal democracy.

To continue reading, click here for a pdf version my whole thesis.

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