Informational Capitalism, Global Politics and Human Politics

Patrick Viveret

September 2001

I - Three Mutations, Three Major Issues

Humankind is facing three major issues emerging from three great challenges:

- the ecological challenge:  what are we going to do with our planet?
- the challenge of the revolution of the living: what are we going to do with our species?
- the challenge of the informational mutation: what are we going to do with our life?

What are we going to do with our planet? This is the great ecological challenge of our relationship with the biosphere. We are not only within nature; we belong to nature. As we tend to forget this, humankind jeopardizes its own home planet, by risking vital resources such as the quality of air and water, by its responsibility in the global warming, by a massive deforestation or by technological catastrophes (nuclear or chemical accidents, such as Chernobyl or Bhopal). The ecological issue will be one of the greatest challenges of the next century. It necessarily calls for a global vision of the problems and regulations for a civilized and ecological form of globalization, opposed to the savage form of globalization we experience today.

What are we going to do with our species? The possibility of a mutation of our own species, through what we often call inaccurately cloning, forces us to face, from the point of view of our own ethical, legal and political responsibility, the prophetic issues put forward by Aldous Huxley in 1932 in his famous fiction 'Brave New World.'
What are we going to do with our lives? The reduction of the time spent at work during our lifetime (due both to the longer life expectation and the progress of productivity) brings forward this issue in a world that is nevertheless obsessed by work in the economic sense of the term. This is a quite understandable paradox, considering that the other forms of social link (civic link, family and affective links, association links, etc.) are considered as secondary in comparison with an economic link that, as Karl Polanyi has clearly exposed, becomes the main landmark in every kind of activity (including cultural activities) and absorbs, within the 'market society,' all political, social and symbolic functions. In spite of this delay in the representations of reality due to the predominance of the industrial mode of production, an increasing number of entities are refusing, either individually or collectively, to 'waste their lives making a living' in an economic war that is both physically and psychically draining. The 'journey of life' is too exciting an adventure for one to accept to have it spoiled by the innumerable social, physical, moral and spiritual miseries of informational capitalism.

Within these three great challenges, the control of our own science, i.e. the relationship between our knowledge and our wisdom, is being questioned. 'Masters of the world, do you master your own mastery?' asked Pierre Bourdieu recently before a gathering of the main world press chief executives.  The question applies to businessmen but also to researchers who believe they can unload their own ethical responsibilities on other legal, economic or political entities. In fact, the permanent avoidance of what Hans Jonas called the 'responsibility principle' is visible in every domain. This is evident among the economic and financial circles, which do not want to shoulder the ecological costs, and even less the human costs derived from their decisions, shifting these responsibilities first to the State and the welfare systems, and then refusing to deliver the financial resources necessary to sustain these systems. Unfortunately, this position is also found among politicians, who have apparently forgotten the nobility and ambition inherent to their public position and have become subordinated to the economy; thus, after having themselves organized the markets’ deregulation, shifting the eminently political power of currency creation and control to bankers, they now complain about their own impotence.

This is the reason why, regarding these major issues for the future, the answer offered by the world of money is absolutely suicidal for humankind

The ecological challenge calls for a deep change in the mode of production and development: if we want our planet to survive, and if we want to bequeath it to our children, we have to take charge of the difficult path of sustainable development. This challenge would be impossible to meet if productivity-oriented capitalism continues to destroy the environment, depleting non-renewable resources, polluting the air, water and soil, and causing, even if only partially, a global warming of already very serious consequences.

The challenge of the 'revolution of the living' raises the question of the kind of humankind we wish to preserve. Since there is a scientific and technical possibility to intervene directly in the human genetic heritage, i.e. to 'manufacture' human beings (the much-discussed issue of cloning), there exists a major risk of a mutation of the human species (or the creation of other species) under unacceptable ethical conditions if the intention is to apply to humans a logic of industrial production. It is significant to find among the advocates of a “post-human” history the ideologist of the end of history, Francis Fukuyama.

The challenge of informational mutation and the mutation of work leads us to fully reconsider what is meant by production, wealth, active life, and to consider that probably the true question should no longer be the one linked to the identification of our social status at work, such as: “what do you do for a living?” but rather another that encompasses the whole of our lifetime, its sense and usefulness: “what do we do with our life?”

In order to address these three major issues it is necessary to abandon the war model, and adopt instead a cooperative model, rebuilding the links between political, economic and ethical issues.

None of these problems can be dealt with within a warring culture where everyone is against everyone else, and of global social apartheid; these problems demand strategies of cooperation and not of competition (in the military sense of the term).

They demand a Copernican change of the economy, to consider it again as a means and not as the end; to return to the issue of sense and ethics as per the works of the Economy Nobel prize Amartya Sen. The issue of the treatment of violence, which is the political issue par excellence, is being raised in an unprecedented way.
This is a new form of democracy, of civism, which can deal with these issues at all levels of the human community, including the issue of the emergence of a global democracy and a citizenship of Earth.

The only globalization with a human face is the one that attacks the global social apartheid and the despotism of a market society that considers any other form of social link, be it political, affective or symbolic, as secondary.

The struggle against this market-oriented world does not imply the rejection of money, which is an indispensable means of exchange, but rather the rejection of a “mineralization“ that considers money as an end, and not as a means. Against the logic of 'every dollar counts' we must put forward a different logic: every human being counts!

Here we must analyze more specifically the nature and logic of informational and financial capitalism, to be able to propose a different use of the informational mutation.

II - Understanding Informational Capitalism

In order to understand the nature of informational capitalism, we must first understand the specificity of the informational mutation that, although it is the third revolution, it is not a mere variant of the preceding agricultural and industrial revolutions.

Two major characteristics turn the beginning of the informational era into a full mutation. The first refers to the passage from an energy-centered era into a new historical period characterized by information. Jacques Robin and René Passet in particular, have often analyzed this in Transversales Science Culture.
The second characteristic refers to the fact that this “information,” which, in the informatics sense of the term, has no sense other than a flow of digital signals, will offer to human intelligence a privileged place within the process of production and reorganization of social relationships. At the same time it is all the significant information (writing, language, memory, etc.) that becomes determinant. The agricultural and industrial revolutions, since they were mainly organized around the matter/energy relationship, reduced human intelligence to a mere function of adaptation to the new technologies and new machines. This time it is the “software,” that is, the gray matter, which is far more decisive than the material component of the computer itself.

This first difference allows us to understand that, if on the one hand, informational capitalism makes full use of the technological potential of digital information, on the other hand and on the basis of its perpetual logic of domination and instrumentation of the human being, there is a deep under-utilization of the formidable fecundity of human intelligence. It is within this context that it can be said that, if the “informational revolution” is now in full swing, the “intelligence revolution” remains still to be developed. And it is only capitalism, be it informational, which will be able to do this. Unlike the inaccurately called “artificial intelligence,” human intelligence does not work without desire, starting with the desire of curiosity that sets in motion our will to understand and to know something that is, to begin with, unknown to us. Whether this desire is positively oriented towards creation or negatively towards inhibition (anguish), human intelligence, individual and collective, will use or sterilize the formidable potential offered by our hundred billion neurons. It is here that capitalism encounters the greatest difficulties, because it reserves the right to creativity to a minority of individuals reducing it to its simplest mercantile expression.

However, it is not enough to put forward an anti-capitalist proposal to ensure a better creativity. The failure of centralized socialism, above all of the communist system, has demonstrated this without a doubt. Capitalism has at least in its favor the ability to make the better use of two major resources: it reserves an important space to desire and imagination and to the process of self-regulation emerging from the market. Undoubtedly this desire, as seen before, is singularly limited because it belongs to a strongly un-egalitarian logic: the imagery is limited to the passion for riches, and the capacity for self-regulation, which is the main drive of the market, is strongly limited by the logic of power that leads to increasingly substantial concentrations of it. But if, as it is often done by the political currents that question it, capitalism is merely opposed to virtue and reason, to the relationship with a simple economy of needs and, first and foremost, to the bureaucratic organization of production, then capitalism emerges to a large extent as the winner, unfair as it is, because it has a better resistance against entropy, i.e., decay, than the bureaucratic or totalitarian systems opposed to it, as it relates better to the psychic human nature (a state of desire and anguish, and not merely of need and reason) than most utopias, which do not take into account this simultaneous sexual, moral and psychological mixture that constitutes human nature.

On the contrary, if alternative forces are able to combine the best part of rationality and the force of desire and imagination; if they use regulation as a rule of the game at the service of a strong process of self-management, subsidiarity and decentralization, rather than building bureaucracies that annihilate energies, then they are in an excellent position to move on from trench warfare to mobile warfare, to combine the best part of the logic of resistance with the best part of the logic of anticipation. It is within this dynamic and aggressive perspective that they may use to their best advantage four characteristics of informational capitalism that may become fragility areas instead of points of strength: dematerialization, consumerism, image, and globalization itself.

Forces and Fragilities of Dematerialization

Fluidity and speed are the key features of the informational mutation that capitalism is using to its full benefit, especially in the area of financial exchanges, in order to bypass states, central banks and controls of every kind. Moreover, dematerialization facilitates the emergence of a different quality, virtual reality, to the point that one is often mistaken for the other. Virtual reality is not immaterial reality; it is a potential state that may become real under certain conditions. An Internet site, for example, is not a virtual site: it is quite real, even if it is immaterial. However, a great part of financial transactions are virtual, that is, they express an anticipation of possible wealth that will only become material with the sale of securities held. Thus, virtual reality is a state different from both reality and unreality, drawing its main support from trust and desire. Trust is directly related to the very process of transformation of something potential into something real; it also represents confidence (in the etymological sense of the term: faith, a shared belief) in the other parties who share the same attitude. Desire is precisely the energy that turns this virtual information into reality. We understand that the advantages of fluidity and speed, together with dematerialization and the formidable dynamics offered by the systematic use of virtual reality, give to those who are able to make use of these elements, a considerable edge over their competitors and adversaries. However, they carry in themselves their own counterproductive effects, which can be considered very frightening indeed.

Thus, dematerialization is evidence that deserves to be meditated upon. It does not have the solidity, duration, and roots that characterize matter. From dematerialization to the disintegration of objects, beings and societies there is only one small step. Human beings in particular, considering their mixed psychic structure, have even more need of a soil, a territory, of landmarks, even within an immaterial universe. Virtual reality, driven by confidence and desire, is itself subject to all the illnesses of mistrust and anguish. At the blink of an eye, euphoria may give rise to panic, and the stock markets are privileged environments for this sudden change of mood, remarkably similar of the effect of drugs or that illness of the century called manic-depressive psychosis, characterized precisely by phases of excitement and depression, where a person is unable to find its balance. This is the reason why informational capitalism is increasingly incapable of meeting the demand for roots, either territorial or symbolic. It therefore generates all-the-more extremist movements for territory (local, regional or national) and for spiritual quest (religious sects, religious fundamentalism, etc.) Civic and social movements have a far higher response capacity than the schizophrenic couple capitalism/extremism, because they are capable of meeting society’s demands in an open way, unrelated to identity; for example, by articulating the demand for a national citizenship with the demand for a local, European and global citizenship, or by developing a laicism open to the demands for spiritual quest.

The Challenge of Consumerism

Informational capitalism can increasingly dispense with producers (hence the social problems of mass unemployment it generates). However, it cannot dispense with consumers. A classic ‘trade-union/national feeling’ front is badly positioned because this kind of capitalism can react at a different territorial scale, and it can easily tolerate any conflicts at the production level. On the other hand, it is far more vulnerable against consumer movements that go beyond the mere pressure on prices, questioning the more radical issue of quality, such as food quality, leading to a general demand for better quality of life. So, consumerism becomes civic and demands a better quality of democracy as well. This is quite what happened with the civic campaigns launched by farming organizations against the so-called “Frankenstein Food” that is, food obtained or processed through techniques that may seriously compromise its quality, or represent a public health risk, etc.

The backtracking of Monsanto, “the Microsoft of biotechnology,” which led to the withdrawal from the market of the seeds called “Terminator” (because they are not reusable, thus farmers are forced to buy the seeds again every year from the multinational corporation) is a significant evidence of the new strength of civic campaigns. Indeed, as a consequence of the opinion movement against “Frankenstein Food” and the risks associated with genetically modified organisms, the value of Monsanto stocks dropped, driving the company to this symbolic backtracking. And here we find again a third indication of fragility, if the interested parties put it to good use: image.

The Increasing Role of Image and Imagination

Since image is placed at the junction of “immaterial reality” and virtual reality, it plays an increasing role in the informational mutation, and its instrumentation by capitalism is clearer every day. Especially, it plays a key role in financial speculation, since this is a sphere essentially composed by virtual capital and anticipates the financial future of listed companies. In this way, we can see the permanent paradox of corporations that suffer losses but at the same time benefit from high stock values, many times higher than their business volume. But, if the image of these corporations is damaged, as was the case with Coca Cola or more recently with Monsanto after a series of civic campaigns concerned with genetically modified organisms or food quality, then immediately the market is suffused with fear and the stock value of these companies takes a plunge. Courage, as it is well known, is not the cardinal virtue of financial operators! This is also why the hacking attacks through saturation suffered by the most popular Internet sites, which are generally regarded as the most precious elements of the “new economy,” are less dangerous from the technical point of view (the use of these sites is only blocked during some hours) but rather for their impression of fragility and the deteriorated image they convey.

Capitalism Trapped by Globalization

The fourth fragility point of informational capitalism, although it may seem a paradox, is globalization itself. This happens because the nature of globalization brings about regulation problems that capitalism is unable or unwilling to solve. This can be clearly seen in the case of ecological challenges such as the problem of greenhouse gases, the risks of nuclear power, which are not circumscribed by frontiers (cf. Chernobyl); it can be seen in the attempt to organize an international criminal (and no longer merely commercial) legal system (such as international courts of law to try the cases of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia; the project for an international criminal Court of Law...); it is even experienced in the financial area, where the concept of regulation is increasingly popular because no one can seriously ignore the risks that the financial volcano we live on represents to the world economy.  The list of the regulations that will be necessary in the 21st century would be so long that the problem, rather than knowing whether global regulation will take place or not, would be to know whether it will be implemented in a democratic or undemocratic manner. In fact, the intellectual, political and economic forces that gave birth to the Anglo-Saxon conservative revolution have never played the global game. They have nevertheless used globalization as a weapon against the welfare state and the trade union movements whose actions were restricted within the frontiers of their nations. Since then, however, they have been trapped by their own game: for ecological reasons, it is said, but also for human and social reasons; there is no feasible globalization within a context of global social and economic apartheid, in which the fortune of the 358 wealthiest individuals is equal to the revenue of the 2.3 billion poorest people. If the trade union movement and the civic and political forces, following the example of what happened with non-governmental organisations, are capable of finding the means of thinking and acting on the global stage, aiming simultaneously at finding the means for a real European ambition, we will see, as it happened in Porto Alegre in January 2001, globalization becoming a progressive force, essentially linked to the historical values of Internationalism.

III- Globalization with a Human Face: The Anthropological Challenge

If we consider the hypotheses put forward at the Centre Mendes France seminar on the cultural and psychic aspects of the crisis and the mutations, it would be necessary to carry out a total reversal with regard to the economists’ explanations of the crisis, and consider that the alternative to the conservative “laissez-faire“ would be an anthropological vision that Edgar Morin defined more than twenty years ago under the denomination 'human politics.'

To do this, it would be necessary to re-concentrate on the different aspects of economic, social, international, etc. policies, to create an environment favorable to the development of the better qualities of the human condition: its capacity for creation and cooperation while the predominant environments are based upon fear and rivalry. It is in this same field, to my mind, where we can find the challenge of the relationship “to have / to be” and the alternative to the logic of urgency. Within the logic of rivalry, “to have” - whether it is wealth, power, knowledge or time (considered as capital) - turns the other into a source of danger. And abundance, far from attenuating rivalry, exacerbates it, since the emotional logic of “to have” is “to have always more.” This is the reason why the political left loses support when its project is based upon a better redistribution of property. The left needs a cultural vision (in the radical sense of the term, i.e., symbolic and imaginary) that proposes a social link built upon the quality of the relationships between beings and not merely upon the quantity of objects and merchandises they produce.

And once more, we come upon the core of the political issue stemming from the problem of violence. If the only existing problems were organizational, some form of administration would be enough. This is in fact the common weakness of economic liberalism and of the Saint-Simon Socialism and Marxism, which underestimated the importance of the problem of violence, leading them to consider a possible dissolution of politics (the market for the former, the passage from the government of men to the administration of things for the latter). However, the problem of violence has its origin in the problem of love...

Most problems faced by humankind stem from the fact that human beings do not love themselves: they do not love themselves as individuals, and they do not love each other as a species. The lack of self-love is the most determining element. As Gabriel Marcel said: 'the selfish man is the one who does not love himself well enough.' It is the ego in us that carries our suffering and misery. All the passions, regardless of their differences (senses, power, wealth) are in fact cries of love that often enough become, through misunderstanding, cries of hate. If we love ourselves more, we love others better; we become loveable and fear is considerably dispelled. Fears, like passions, are caused by the fear of not being loved (or not being loved anymore). The fear of loneliness and lack of love leads to thesaurization, to possession and property, generating an environment of fear of others and starting the vicious circle that leads to economic, social, national and religious wars.

Fear is contagious, and, whenever it becomes panic, it turns human beings into slaves and/or executioners, as it was demonstrated by the history of Nazism. But love is also contagious, and, associated to humor, is a force that can move mountains. The essential part of the political action is to create environments that cause fear to vanish and trust to flourish. Whenever such conditions are created, the self-regulation mechanisms that lead to panic and war lead conversely to trust and cooperation.

A political program centered upon human politics would have as its aim the achievement of the abovementioned conditions. It would grab the formidable opportunity represented by the possibility to create always more wealth with less work, so that, once freed from the problem of production and survival, it would be possible for men to devote themselves to the “human business,” which is to live consciously the adventure of the universe, and not merely to survive.

Since the struggle against inhumanity is also fought within ourselves, we should quit the logic of power considered as power over others, choosing instead the power of creation together with others. For the whole of humankind, the political arena is in fact facing an unprecedented problem related to violence. Whereas traditionally men have channeled violence towards the outside world (towards strangers, barbarians, infidels) and pacified or “civilized” inside the cities, states or empires, it is obvious that this cannot be applied at a global scale. In fact, if humankind is threatened with dislocation or destruction, this threat obviously does not come from outer space (extra-terrestrials) but from within, from humankind itself, from its own inhumanity. Thus, it is the inner barbarian that we must attack in order to ensure the creation of the conditions necessary for the emergence of a democracy and citizenship at the planetary scale. This struggle is obviously against the inhumanity of capitalism, but we must bear in mind that it must also be against the authoritarian and violent systems that are the main cause of the totalitarian failure of the communist model, which have fascinated the adversaries of capitalism for so long.

A different world is thus possible: it is necessary to assert it and to begin inventing it. It calls for considerable structural transformations. But it can be started from today in our own minds and in our behavior in order to change our own relationship with power.

Conclusion: Global Politics and the European Challenge

Twenty years ago Michel Rocard called for the 'battle for the organization of the planet.' His aim? Nothing less than the creation of a global citizenship and world democracy. His method privileged subsidiarity and self-organization, regulations and rules being at the service of initiative, instead of the building of bureaucracies.

Here is where we have arrived today. It is this perspective that attributes a great importance to the organization of large regional poles in the world, especially the European pole, which may propose a pluralist and cooperative social and cultural model, opposed to the domineering and one-dimensional model of the American pole. It is necessary in fact to build an alternative both for the social regressions of capitalisms and the identity regressions of extremisms.

The existence of a strong Europe, capable of proposing a model of development and culture as an alternative to the double risk of laissez-faire and identity regressions is essential within this context.

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