New Totalitarianism: Cyber-hegemony
and the Global System
William Dan Perdue, Ph.D
presented at the International Roundtable on the Challenges of Globalization
(Munich, 18-19 March 1999
Sociology as a
system of knowledge is context bound; historically embedded in a matrix of power
relations. Sociological truth, in its complexity, cannot be advanced if
the discourse of intellectuals conforms to a self-reproducing closed loop of
hidden assumptions. However, the
political problem of truth making extends beyond Karl Popper’s (1945, 1959)
devotion to free and open communication, and his skeptical view of social
change. To the contrary, the ultimate moral imperative for intellectuals remains
rooted in the question: “who or what benefits” from the rigorous pursuit of
It follows that
before fashioning an argument, we contemplate for a moment the insight
attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. To paraphrase:
“Before asking the questions of human existence, first bring to mind an
image of the most miserable person of your experience, and ask yourself whether
what you are proposing is of any value to him (Freely cited in Alan Durning,
1990). What is termed herein, “the cybernetic revolution” is inextricably
bound with questions of economic, political and social development; with peace
and war; with exploitation and sustainability; with repression and freedom; with
wealth and power. But its
consequential worth will be judged by the standard of Gandhi’s higher truth.
Old and New
In the now
dated lexicon of cold war ideology, the term totalitarianism symbolized the
maximal authoritarianism of a politically organized state, designed to control
both the outer and inner dimensions of human existence.
Embodied in post-war
Orwellian imagery, the Stalinist state (among other political archetypes) was
seen to exercise hegemony by means of the crude apparatus of regime terror and
relentless propaganda. Although the
imagery was transformed in the era of Khrushchev and his successors, at its core
a heavily Americanized vision of bipolarity prevailed.
artificially divided the world into falsely fixed and immutable dichotomies - of
command and market economies, of powerless masses and democracy, of state
domination and the countervailing forces of civil society (Perdue, 1995:
vii - xix). In the aftermath of Soviet world collapse, those who had
embraced the orthodoxy of bipolarity rushed to declare a new dogma:
that of unipolarity. Francis
Fukuyama trumpeted the end of history and the triumph of “liberal
democracy.” The arrogance had come full circle. Whether by transforming
the world into two competing great power factions, or by declaring the victory
of the West, the dominant paradigm of global relations had consigned the peoples
of the South (and many others) to non-being. Alternative conceptions of
authentic development and institution building, of values and ethics, were and
continue to be, dismissed by ideological fiat.
It is the
intention of this paper to advance the discourse of hegemony beyond the
epistemological limitations of (1) political
conceptions of totalitarian state coercion and (2) Gramscian views (1971)
of class based ideological domination realized through the well-known
institutions of civil society. In its essential form, the premise here is that
the structural and ideological forces of globalization have transformed and
weakened the institutions of both state and civil society. This is not to say
that such topics are unimportant for the political sociologist and philosopher.
It is simply that these constructs are fitted for an earlier era and are thus
the premises of yesterday’s debate.
applies also to the work of Jurgen Habermas (1973). The legitimation thesis,
with its inherently statist assumptions, deals more with the consequences
of global systemic crisis than with antecedent forces. Habermas, following the
critical underpinnings of the Frankfurt School, recasts the Weberian problem of
authority or legitimated power. He argues that state intervention in Western
societies is historically grounded in the consensual claims of representative
and parliamentary democracy.
In the most
elementary form of legitimation crisis, state policy and action are sanctioned
by voting rituals. Such political camouflage becomes transparent with declines
in voting participation by powerless citizens who otherwise act in a largely
private sphere. Further, in seeking to resolve the myriad of contradictions of
interest and expectations, the state faces a dual dilemma.
On the one hand, public resources are stretched to the breaking point. On
the other, public planning and intervention infringes upon the insularity of
respect to one of the most influential works of the twentieth century, I argue
that: above and beyond what
Habermas would explain as the legitimation crisis of Western states - is a
systemic crisis on a world scale (Perdue, 1993). It follows that the critique of
hegemony in the twenty-first century cannot be restricted by Western state
prototypical assumptions. These by necessity ascribe undue significance to
territoriality and frontiers; as well as to social and national movements of the
domestic sphere. In our era, the dictum of C.Wright Mills (1959) - that private
troubles should not be disconnected from public issues - must be rethought. A
new quality of mind, a new imagination, is necessary to grasp the essence of
hegemonic crisis at the global/systemic level.
Global System and Cyberhegemony
sociology, the conception of international relations and state-based
geopolitics, has been transcended by the concept of a global system.
The processes of globalization cannot be explained by recourse to
paradigms rooted in conceptions of nations, states and societies. The
fundamental process is economic/financial as exemplified in the world integrated
structure of transnational corporations, banks and stock markets. According to the World Bank, the total value of world exports
stood at 94 billion U.S.D. in 1965. By
1986, that figure had increased by some 1300% to l,365 billion U.S.D., and by
1996, an estimated 5,400 billion (Abercrombie,et.al.1994: 184; Time Almanac,
1999: 151.) The globalization of production, pioneered by transnational
corporations - separates research, development, design, manufacture and
marketing from national economies. More
than twenty years ago, social scientists began to notice that the revenues of
the largest TNC’s exceeded the total national income of smaller countries. Of
course, TNC’s are primarily located in the United States, Western Europe and
Japan; the three economic superpowers that account for virtually 50% of
gross world product (Time Almanac, 1999:
the global structural context, the megacorporations of hyperdeveloped economies
now rely on cyber power to manage the flow of instantaneous transnational
capital and currency; to effect the systemic integration of global markets; and
to disseminate world communication
and economic information (including proprietary data bases) which drive
decisions of investment and commerce. Modern
industry increasingly relies on computer assisted design and production.
And the projection of martial force on a world stage is facilitated by
the means to dominate the electronic battlefields of the modern era.
Under such conditions, the
human faces of those who are targeted by computer aided guidance systems are not
seen, and the suffering of civilians is mystified by such euphemisms as
is not restricted to the productive sphere.
Transnational media and telecommunications corporations, wire services
and the explosion of the world wide web, together signal the modernization of
ideological hegemony. The
interrelated doctrines of growth, free trade, an international division of labor
and markets, and hyperconsumption permeate national cultures and psychological
consciousness. Unless one happens
to live in technological isolation, the inner world of consciousness, beliefs
and values, is shaped by the global media of distraction and distortion. The
development and diffusion of technology with marketing, advertising and
consumption applications, is of particular concern.
Such forces strike at the core of traditional cultures and alternative
values, seeking in their place a new metaphorical paradise; one resembling a
homogeneous, global, electronic shopping mall.
Thus at the
cultural/ideological level, the coming integration of television programming,
on-line consumption and technical forms of education by means of the world wide
web compel social scientists and
philosophers to attempt the reconstruction of ideological hegemony. It is
essential to realize that those denied broad internet access will find that
judgments about technological backwardness are easily transformed into
stereotypes about cultural illiteracy. The
whole array of ideological messages may flow more or less “one way” from the
overdeveloped, hyperconsumptive nations to their developing counterparts in the
South; all of this occurring under the flag of “progress.”
Finally, technology implies power relations, in both its introduction and dissemination. In the information nexus of the post-modern world, the exemplar of technocivilization is the cybernetic crucible of computing power - of multimedia, virtual reality, and the world wide web; of computer assisted design and of multiple and independently targeted reentry missiles. At a more general level, the global system is producing and reproducing a transnational managerial elite, sometimes referred to as the compradors of societies in the South. Whatever the hemisphere or stage of development, and whatever the economic, financial or political sector, the social relations of the new global elite are founded in a shared commitment to growth based modernization. If we refocus on what I have termed cyberhegemony, a particularly striking example may be considered.
fully developed information highway will be affordable - almost by
definition...The net effect will be a wealthier world, which should be
stabilizing. Developed nations, and
workers in those nations, are likely to maintain a sizable economic lead.
However, the gap between the have and have-not nations will diminish. - William
Gates, CEO, Microsoft Corporation.
In the fourth
quarter of 1998, the total value of shares held in Microsoft Corporation came to
surpass that of General Electric. This
propelled the Seattle, Washington software giant into the top position among
publicly held U.S. corporations. In
its March 15, 1999 issue, Fortune Magazine estimated the value of stock held by
co-founder and CEO William Gates alone at 76 billion U.S.D, with
another 11.5 billion in his personal account and two large foundations (Serwer,
1999: 68, 70).
This sum is almost 30 billion in excess of the 1996 GDP (adjusted for
purchasing power parity) of the nation of Ireland.
In a similar vein, Gates’ personal fortune is equal to 50% of the 1996
Gross Domestic Product/PPP of Austria, over
twice that of Libya, and 80% that of Finland. More striking, Bill
Gate’s individual wealth approximates the combined
GDP/PPP of the sixteen nations of Angola, Chad, Burundi, Bhutan, Benin,
Botswana, Niger, Eritrea, the Central African Republic, Burkino Faso, Nicaragua,
Haiti, Laos, Mali, Rwanda and Somalia(Time Almanac, 1999:
164-332)). This exponential explosion of wealth and cyber power is
remarkable for the CEO of a corporation that went public only twelve years ago.
circumstances, it is easy to understand why William Gates sees the information
highway as the path to progress. However, from a critical perspective, the case
of Microsoft Corporation can be conceived as an exemplar of concentrated
ownership of the means of cyber-hegemony; yet another stage in technological
apartheid within the post-industrial global system. Microsoft is thus
simultaneously a microcosm for higher systemic forces, and a metaphor for new
forms of hegemony. It is difficult to overstate the significance of the
post-industrial revolution exemplified by Microsoft. Knowledge and information
processing at present amounts to sixty percent of the U.S. economy (Time
Almanac, 1999: 554),
argument can be concisely reexamined by means of a heuristic and sensitizing
critique; informed by a continuing self-conscious attempt to look at the
cyberworld from a South perspective.
The Error of Unintended Consequences:
The systemic nature of global relations, transformed by the
interdependence and speed of the cybernetic revolution, magnifies the error of
unintended consequences by many orders of magnitude.
Cyberdependency: As a
corollary of the first error, cybertechnology has propelled the integration of
world financial and currency markets to a disturbing stage. What we see today is
the globalization of the hair trigger, where absolutist and totalistic decisions
are made in a brief, if not instantaneous moment.
In the cyberworld, there is little time for discriminate, cautious and
qualified decision making - with due regard for consequences. When the new
technology is used by speculators
to effect a run on a nation’s currency, the same technology facilitates the
rapid disinvestment by external capital. As
recently demonstrated in the Asian nations of the Pacific Rim, the ripple of
crisis soon cascades throughout a region with local authorities impotent to act.
Currency devaluation and hyperinflation
are not abstract forces. The
decline in purchasing power translates into increasing levels of human misery.
The Higher Alienation. There is a social psychological dimension
to this brave new world wide web. It is a means for further transforming social
relations among human subjects into objective relations among strangers.
Following Jean Baudrillard (1981 passim), social relations are transformed into
simulations; society becomes surreal; and interpersonal interaction is
impoverished. Human existence is confined to the artificiality of the electronic
4. The Closed Loop. Scientific and intellectual development depend on the sharing of knowledge. The ideology of Northern democracy, often dismisses crucial problems associated with the proprietary nature of knowledge in hyperdeveloped societies. Expressed in the conflict over intellectual property rights, cybernetic advances are transformed into carefully guarded secrets. Truth is thus compromised by the constraining imperatives of growth and profit. Paranoid conceptions of national defense also sustain this closed loop of information technology - a thought world impervious to alternative input.
difference between critique and cynicism is found in the implications for hope
and action. Heraclitus noted that
we do not step in the same river twice. If
the only constant is change, this principle does not apply only to science,
technology, and wisdom. It applies also to power relations.
I am not
proposing a new Luddite rebellion, or any such attempt to somehow stop the
cybernetic revolution. Such fears would simply reproduce the errors of technological
determinism. However, if we can identify the darker side of the forces we
confront, perhaps we can more effectively speak for the unheard. To illustrate,
the alternative to the error of unintended consequences, is thoughtful and
careful consideration of decisions, and an end to hair trigger action by global
opportunists and short-term profiteers. This means that those who stand to be
directly impacted by external decisions must have a voice.
Those who drive investment and trade must share power with those who open
their economies and who provide the labor and resources.
As to the
question of cyberdependency, the cybernetic revolution cannot be divorced from
the wider context of world-systemic inequality.
William Gates’ call for cheaper hardware and software, as well as wider
access to the information superhighway, is more clearly beneficial to the
development of Microsoft than the development of the South.
The contradiction originates with the modernization model.
In keeping with that model, poorer nations have historically been
required to borrow money in order to purchase the ever expanding technologies
that promise to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Our experience thus far,
is that the resultant global debt burden has been a more certain consequence
than the narrowing of the North/South gap. The debt burden is deadly for the
weakest members of the world’s peoples. It
should be systematically forgiven, not reproduced in the name of a new
This does not
mean there are no potential benefits for the South. Cybertechnology will
continue to facilitate scientific growth and rapid communication through the
collapse of time and space. However, for these forces to benefit the many, it is
the technology that must ultimately be liberated - from
monopoly, from commodification, from hyperconsumption and from martial
force. Let the word go forth that
the ordinary peoples who share this planet, await a global revolution in
universal values. And that chief among these are peace, social justice, the
preservation of nature, cultural diversity and the respect for human dignity.
However, the quest for such values can only be tested in the crucible of
concrete action. Peace demands
systematic, global disarmament; social justice mandates an end to the debt
burden, trade embargoes and the bias of unequal exchange; the preservation of
nature requires sustaining the environment, not its simple reduction to
resources; cultural diversity means fair Southern access to global media
discourse and the right to preserve indigenous heritage; and the imperative of
humanism is that no one life, or people, or hemisphere - is born to domination
or submission. Perhaps a fitting
close to my argument is found in the paraphrasing of a question that unites the
world’s great religions and philosophies:
“What shall it profit, if a person
gains the whole world, but loses his own soul?
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