Prologue: the Net and the Self

lnformationalism and capitalist perestroika

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lnformationalism and capitalist perestroika

Shifting from theoretical categories to historical change, what truly matters for social processes and forms making the living flesh of societies is the actual interaction between modes of production and modes of development, enacted and fought for by social actors, in unpredictable ways, within the constraining framework of past history and current conditions of technological and economic development. Thus, the world, and societies, would have been very different if Gorbachev had succeeded in his own perestroika, a target that was politically difficult, but not out of reach. Or if the Asian Pacific had not been able to blend its traditional business networking form of economic organization with the tools provided by Information technology. Yet the most decisive historical factor accelerating, channeling and shaping the information technology paradigm, and inducing its associated social forms, was/is the process of capitalist restructuring undertaken since the 1980s, so that the new techno-economic system can be adequately characterized as informational capitalism.

The Keynesian model of capitalist growth, which brought unprecedented economic prosperity and social stability to most market economies for almost three decades after the Second World War, hit the wall of its built-in limitations in the early 1970s, and its crisis was manifested in the form of rampant inflation.27 When the oil price in-


creases of 1974 and 1979 threatened to spiral inflation out of control, governments and firms engaged in a process of restructuring in a pragmatic process of trial and error that continued into the 1990s with a more decisive effort at deregulation, privatization, and the dismantling of the social contract between capital and labor that underlay the stability of the previous growth model. In a nutshell, a series of reforms, both at the level of institutions and in the management of firms, aimed at four main goals: deepening the capitalist logic of profit-seeking in capital-labor relationships; enhancing the productivity of Labor and capital; globalizing production, circulation, and markets, seizing the opportunity of the most advantageous conditions for profit-making everywhere; and marshaling the state's support for productivity gains and competitiveness of national economies, often to the detriment of social protection and public interest regulations. Technological innovation and organizational change, focusing on flexibility and adaptability, were absolutely critical in ensuring the speed and efficiency of restructuring. It can be argued that without new information technology global capitalism would have been a much-limited reality, flexible management would have been reduced to labor trimming, and the new round of spending in both capital goods and new consumer products would not have been sufficient to compensate for the reduction in public spending. Thus, informationalism is linked to the expansion and rejuvenation of capitalism, as industrialism was linked to its constitution as a mode of production. To be sure, the process of restructuring had very different manifestations in areas and societies around the world, as I shall briefly survey in chapter 2: it was diverted from its fundamental logic by the military Keynesianism of the Reagan administration, actually creating even greater difficulties for the American economy at the end of the euphoria of artificial stimulation; it was somewhat limited in Western Europe because of society's resistance to the dismantling of the welfare state and to one-sided labor market flexibility, with the result of rising unemployment in the European Union; it was absorbed in Japan without dramatic changes by emphasizing productivity and competitiveness on the basis of technology and cooperation rather than by increasing exploitation, until international pressures forced Japan to offshore production and to broadening the role of an unprotected, secondary labor market; and it plunged into a major recession, in the 1980s, the economies of Africa (except South Africa and Botswana) and Latin America (with the exception of Chile and Colombia), when International Monetary Fund policies cut the money supply and reduced wages and imports in order to homogenize conditions of global capital accumulation around the world. Restructuring proceeded


on the basis of the political defeat of organized labor in major capitalist countries, and the acceptance of a common economic discipline by countries of the OECD area. Such discipline, although enforced when necessary by the Bundesbank, the Federal Reserve Board, and the International Monetary Fund, was in fact inscribed in the integration of global financial markets that took place in the early 1980s using new information technologies. Under conditions of global financial integration, autonomous, national monetary policies became literally unfeasible, thus equalizing basic economic parameters of restructuring processes throughout the planet.

While capitalism's restructuring and the diffusion of informationalism were inseparable processes on a global scale, societies did act/ react differently to such processes, according to the specificity of their history, culture, and institutions. Thus, to some extent it would be improper to refer to an "informational society," which would imply the homogeneity of social forms everywhere under the new System. This is obviously an untenable proposition, empirically and theoretically. Yet we could speak of an informational society in the same way that sociologists have been referring to the existence of an "industrial society," characterized by common fundamental features in their socio-technical systems, for instance in Raymond Aron's formulation .28 But with two important qualifications: on the one hand, informational societies, as they exist currently, are capitalist (unlike industrial societies, some of which were statist); on the other hand, we must stress the cultural and institutional diversity of informational societies. Thus, Japanese uniqueness29 or Spain's difference30 is not going to fade away in a process of cultural indifferentiation, marching anew toward universal modernization, this time measured by rates of computer diffusion. Nor is China or Brazil going to be melted in the global pot of informational capitalism by continuing their current high-speed developmental path. But Japan, Spain, China, Brazil, as well as the United States, are and will be more so in the future, informational societies, in the sense that the core processes of knowledge Generation, economic productivity, political/military power, and media communication are already deeply transformed by the informational paradigm, and are connected to global networks of wealth, power, and symbols working under such a logic. Thus, all societies are affected by capitalism and informationalism, and many societies (certainly all major societies)


are already informational,31 although of different kinds, in different settings, and with specific cultural/institutional expressions. A theory of the informational society, as distinct from a global/informational economy, will always have to be attentive to historical/cultural specificity as much as to structural similarities related to a largely shared techno-economic paradigm. As for the actual content of this common social structure that could be considered to be the essence of the new informational society, I'm afraid I am unable to summarize it in one paragraph: indeed, the structure and processes that characterize informational societies are the subject matter covered in this book.

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