"Not at all,“ said Confucius. "I have simply grasped one thread which links up the rest. "
Sima Qian, "Confucius"1
Toward the end of the second millennium of the Christian era several events of historical significance transformed the social landscape of human life. A technological revolution, centered around information technologies, began to reshape, at accelerated pace, the material basis of society. Economies throughout the world have become globally interdependent, introducing a new form of relationship between economy, state, and society, in a system of variable geometry. The collapse of Soviet statism, and the subsequent demise of the international communist movement, has undermined for the time being the historical challenge to capitalism, rescued the political left (and Marxian theory) from the fatal attraction of Marxism-Leninism, brought the Cold War to an end, reduced the risk of nuclear holocaust, and fundamentally altered global geopolitics. Capitalism itself has undergone a process of profound restructuring, characterized by greater flexibility in management; decentralization and networking of firms both internally and in their relationships to other firms; considerable empowering of capital vis-à-vis labor, with the concomitant decline in influence of the labor movement; increasing individualization and diversification of
working relationships; massive incorporation of women into the paid labor force, usually under discriminatory conditions; intervention of the state to deregulate markets selectively, and to undo the welfare state, with different intensity and orientations depending upon the nature of political forces and institutions in each society; stepped-UP global economic competition in a context of increasing geographic and cultural differentiation of settings for capital accumulation and management. As a consequence of this general overhauling of the capitalist system, still under way, we have witnessed the global Integration of financial markets, the rise of the Asian Pacific as the new dominant, global manufacturing center, the arduous economic unification of Europe, the emergence of a North American regional economy, the diversification, then disintegration, of the former Third World, the gradual transformation of Russia and the ex-Soviet area of influence in market economies, the incorporation of valuable segments of economies throughout the world into an interdependent system working as a unit in real time. Because of these trends, there has also been an accentuation of uneven development, this time not only between North and South, but between the dynamic segments and territories of societies everywhere, and those others that risk becoming irrelevant from the perspective of the system's logic. Indeed, we observe the parallel unleashing of formidable productive forces of the informational revolution, and the consolidation of black holes of human misery in the global economy, be it in Burkina Faso, South Bronx, Kamagasaki, Chiapas, or La Courneuve.
Simultaneously, criminal activities and Mafia-like organizations around the world have also become global and informational, providing the means for stimulation of mental hyperactivity and forbidden desire, along with all forms of illicit trade demanded by our societies, from sophisticated weaponry to human flesh. In addition, a new communication system, increasingly speaking a universal, digital language, is both integrating globally the production and distribution of words, sounds and images of our culture, and customizing them to the tastes of the identities and moods of individuals. Interactive computer networks are growing exponentially, creating new forms and channels of communication, shaping life and being shaped by life at the same time.
Social changes are as dramatic as the technological and economic processes of transformation. For all the difficulty in the process of transformation of women's condition, patriarchalism has come under attack, and has been shaken in a number of societies. Thus, gender relationships have become, in much of the world, a contested domain, rather than a sphere of cultural reproduction. A fundamental redefinition of relationships between women, men and children has followed,
and thus, of family, sexuality, and personality. Environmental consciousness has permeated down to the institutions of society, and its values have won political appeal, at the price of being belied and manipulated in the daily practice of corporations and bureaucracies. Political systems are engulfed in a structural crisis of legitimacy, periodically wrecked by scandals, essentially dependent on media coverage and personalized leadership, and increasingly isolated from the citizenry. Social movements tend to be fragmented, localistic, single-issue oriented, and ephemeral, either retrenched in their inner worlds, or flaring up for just an instant around a media symbol. In such a world of uncontrolled, confusing change, people tend to regroup around primary identities: religious, ethnic, territorial, national. Religious fundamentalism - Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, and even Buddhist (in what seems to be a contradiction in terms) - is probably the most formidable force for personal security and collective mobilization in these troubled times. In a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning. This is not a new trend, since identity, and particularly religious and ethnic identity, has been at the roots of meaning since the dawn of human society. Yet identity is becoming the main, and sometimes the only, source of meaning in an historical period characterized by widespread destructuring of organizations, delegitimation of institutions, fading away of major social movements, and ephemeral cultural expressions. People increasingly organize their meaning not around what they do but on the basis of what they are, or believe they are. Meanwhile, on the other hand, global networks of instrumental exchanges selectively switch on and off individuals, groups, regions, and even countries, according to their relevance in fulfilling the goals processed in the network, in a relentless flow of strategic decisions. There follows a fundamental split between abstract, universal instrumentalism, and historically rooted, particularistic identities. Our societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the Net and the self.
In this condition of structural schizophrenia between function and meaning, patterns of social communication become increasingly under stress. And when communication breaks down, when it does not exist any longer, even in the form of conflictual communication (as would be the case in social struggles or political opposition), social groups and individuals become alienated from each other, and see the other as a stranger, eventually as a threat. In this process, social fragmentation spreads, as identities become more specific and increasingly difficult to share. The informational society, in its global manifestation, is also the world of Aum Shinrikyo, of the American militia, of
Islamic/Christian theocratic ambitions, and of Hutu/Tutsi reciprocal genocide.
Bewildered by the scale and scope of historical change, culture and thinking in our time often embrace a new millenarianism. Prophets of technology preach the new age, extrapolating to social trends and organization the barely understood logic of computers and DNA. Postmodern culture, and theory, indulge in celebrating the end of history, and, to some extent, the end of reason, giving up on our capacity to understand and make sense, even of nonsense. The implicit assumption is the acceptance of full individualization of behavior, and of society's powerlessness over its destiny.
The project informing this book swims against streams of destruction, and takes exception to various forms of intellectual nihilism, social skepticism, and political cynicism. I Believe in rationality, and in the possibility of calling upon reason, without worshipping its goddess. I Believe in the chances of meaningful social action, and transformative politics, without necessarily drifting toward the deadly rapids of absolute utopias. I Believe in the liberating power of identity, without accepting the necessity of either its individualization or its capture by fundamentalism. And I propose the hypothesis that all major trends of change constituting our new, confusing world are related, and that we can make sense of their interrelationship. And, yes, I Believe, in spite of a long Tradition of sometimes tragic intellectual errors, that observing, analyzing, and theorizing are a way of helping to build a different, better world. Not by providing the answers - that will be specific to each society and found by social actors themselves - but by raising some relevant questions. This book would like to be a modest contribution to a necessarily collective, analytical effort, already underway from many horizons, aimed at understanding our new world on the basis of available evidence and exploratory theory.
To take some first steps in this direction: we must treat technology seriously, using it as the point of departure of this inquiry; we need to locate the process of revolutionary technological change in the social context in which it takes place and by which it is being shaped; and we should keep in mind that the search for identity is as powerful as techno-economic change in charting the new history. So, having said this, we will depart on our intellectual journey, following an itinerary that will take us to numerous domains, and across several cultures and institutional contexts, since the understanding of a global transformation requires a perspective as global as possible, within the obvious limits of this author's experience and knowledge.