Securing the future.
Of course, the world today is far from secure. Security is the catch-cry of government, and governments everywhere seek it while watching it dissolve in reality. The Middle East provides graphic examples. In Iraq the shameful onslaught of the West upon the Islamic world has metamorphosed into a hell on earth. No one is safe, and the prospect of security has never been more distant. And this localized hell now shows signs of generalizing itself through terror in the western heartlands, as recent events in Europe indicate. At the same time, in the West preoccupations with security have allowed the narrowest of minds and the glib specialists of media spin to gravitate towards and occupy the political stage.
Closely associated with this failure of policy is another that brings growing insecurity, also largely centred on the Middle East: the growing threat of the failure of oil supplies. We are becoming aware of just how profoundly dependent the last seventy years of western development have been on the availability of cheap oil and, for that matter, the availability of oil per se. The formerly marginalized theory of peak oil is now gaining credibility: oil companies have failed to locate significant new fields for some thirty years. The bonanza of the large fields of the past is fading into a nostalgic memory of 'the good old days'.
But to point to the demise of the era of oil as a policy failure allows a crucial matter to slip from view. Clearly, the West's oil fetish is no mere policy issue. It goes far deeper, into those background cultural assumptions that shape how most people think it is desirable to live today, as citizens of the new global reality, engaged in fleeting movement from place to place, identity to identity. In respect of everyday transportation, but also the many commodities we now regard as essential, including the provision of basic agricultural necessities, we have gone out on an evolutionary limb, dependent upon the availability of oil and the global movement of goods. Oil has supported the fantasy of a world of economic growth without limits and, indirectly, benign attitudes towards population growth and immigration. But there is no security to be found in these assumptions, and there is no insecurity like that which unsettles our basic assumptions.
Climate change is yet another example of insecurity. The disturbance of settled assumptions about the natural world--our air, our water, our sense of a patterned and predictable climate, our assumptions about sea levels, which all fall within the ambit of climate change--contributes to the rise of risk, the fragility of financial systems, and the deterioration of security across the board. The question is how to make sense of this momentous shift, which might be described as a growing perception that the life-world is no longer viable.
The general response of authorities has been to ignore such questions and, broadly, to provide security by force. Police, intelligence and military forces are growing in number and strength across the world, a trend that suggests a shift in the relation of government to everyday life. This worldwide resort to militaristic forms of security has brought about a mangling of the legal protections that have typified western nations for centuries. In Australia, this tendency has taken shape through terror legislation and refugee policy, and is now emerging in policy towards Indigenous peoples. Reconciliation--which implies respect and support for distinctive community structures and cultures consistent with reciprocal principles--has shamelessly mutated in the hands of the present government into military occupation and assimilationist strategies, all in the name of the security of children. But such attempts to enforce security are failing universally. In Iraq, the pursuit of security has created unprecedented insecurity. The unfolding struggle over oil shows little prospect of being any different. And on the horizon there is climate change, with government and civil society seemingly frozen in fear or ignorance of what the future holds.
There is no shortage of commentary about these issues in today's news. But what is to be made of this general surge towards insecurity? It is less than twenty years since the collapse of the socialist states led to the declaration of the victory of civil society over 'big' government. Yet in just a few years civil society has been engulfed by insecurity, bolstering governments' security strategies, which in turn threaten the concept of civil society altogether. Militarized surveillance is the only winner in the order that is taking shape, and that can never produce the kind of security we have taken, and wish to take, for granted.
Reference to the collapse of the command structures that composed 'actually existing socialism' should not be taken as a form of Left nostalgia. Rather, it points to the nature of the globalized social order that finally led to the demise of the socialist states. How could it be that this new globalized 'order' brought about such disorder and insecurity, and on such a large scale?
Answers to this question won't be found if they are seen as merely a matter of empiricist explanation, context by context, example by example. Rather, the question demands an understanding of the social whole--but part of the problem is that social interpretation has largely rejected any such idea. Regarded as complicit with the old socialist command structures, the notion of the social whole today has little purchase. Indeed, it is seen by many to have implicitly totalitarian tendencies. But considering that the forms of militarized security now taking shape in the context of postmodern individualism have many of those same tendencies, there is a serious hiatus in this simple formula. Rejection of the notion of the social whole makes it difficult to pose questions about the current source of disorder. Just as insight into the social sources of climate change cannot be gained by simply studying the reality and likelihood of climate change as such, insight into the social sources and implications of the demise of security cannot be gained by focusing upon security alone.
Climate change is a useful point of departure in this discussion because it brings to light the role that scientists are playing in our growing awareness of the human contribution to climate change. That this growing awareness is the product of ferment among scientists, and that this ferment is a contradiction of broader processes in which the sciences have played a central role, is highly significant. That is, the renovation of the social whole that culminated in the 1980s in the phenomenon of globalization could not have been possible without the (techno-)sciences, and yet today it is scientists who are laying a basis for a critique of both global society and high-tech science.
Implicitly, they are pointing to the limits of global society. It is necessarily a rudimentary critique because they have little insight into how they, as a special social grouping, are implicated in the processes that produce climate change. Indeed, how scientific intellectuality is socially constituted through abstract relations--relations that are not experienced as such, but nevertheless play a special role in delving into and rearticulating 'nature', the hallmark of techno-science--hasn't even minimal acceptance in their circles. Nevertheless, this ferment is a crucial ethical development, demonstrating that there are limits to the degree to which intellectual groupings will remain silent.
There are many ways in which the connection between climate change and global society can be illustrated. The transportation of food under conditions of globalization is one. Clearly, without transport there is no food for the urban populations. But distribution is dependent upon oil, and on high-technology connections of all kinds. In fact global communications and oil are interwoven and mutually supportive. One of the major sources of C[O.sub.2] in the life-world is food, and this is in large part because of its transportation component. As such, transportation points to a structural problem that must undermine global society sooner or later. Rising C[O.sub.2] levels as they relate to food are a direct consequence of our culture's rejection of regional economies and seasonal food production. The means of food production and distribution that support the global city are implicated in the wild weather and rising sea levels against which such cities will almost certainly be forced to organize.
Associating high-tech with the reconstitution of society is to make what seems to be a simple point, but it is one that opens onto many questions far beyond climate change. It requires recognition of the significance of more abstract social relations in the social composition of global society, social relations made abstract by their mediation via high-technologies. It is in this context that a society of a new type has emerged in the last half century, one that is far from being adequately recognized by the term 'capitalism'. Characterized by highly abstract associations, which no longer require the physical presence of others or particular locales, this kind of society sees such 'flesh and blood' associations progressively displaced or overlayed by more abstracted relations. It is in this context that we can make sense of the demise of regional associations. The crucial contribution of high-tech can be seen in the media or the Internet and in the transformation of the productive economy by high-tech production. Less clearly, perhaps, it can also be seen in the heightened role of the market in social life over the last twenty-five years.
The received approach to the question of the market is to assume that a market is simply a market: markets may be more or less in the foreground of social affairs, displacing or being displaced by the state, but the market itself is unchanged. As analysed by Marx, the market was an abstract social relation, and for many that seemed to be the last word on the subject. But the market as an institutional complex was structurally reconstructed in the last quarter of the 20th century by high-tech and the new media. The market's abstract powers were elaborated and extended to reach into the everyday, the life-world itself taking on many of the qualities of market relations. It can be said that the market that is facilitated by high-tech plays a significantly different role in social life compared to the market as described by Adam Smith or Karl Marx, or even F. A. Hayek. It is this reconstructed market that underpins the aspirations of the neo-liberals.
These emergent social complexes are crucial to an understanding of the new insecurity. The demise of security wherever one looks is one consequence of the displacement of an older, more regionalized social order by a global order composed of more abstract associations. For some, the resort to militarized surveillance to achieve security in these circumstances will be seen as a temporary function of a major transition in society. But we are witnessing a more general insecurity than that, one tied to the social form itself--the dark underside of neo-liberalism and the postmodern market. This formation is hostile towards forms of social order that are historically prior to the global order. Indeed, by virtue of the powers of high tech, it pushes towards a new order that rejects all previous forms of finite existence. From a high-tech global standpoint, neither the body nor mortality is a constraint upon the future. Neither is the accumulation of debt or Earth itself. But surely this society is unsustainable, as any society that celebrates technological infinitude must be.
There are two possible responses to the insecurity that now typifies everyday life in many parts of the world. One is the commonsense but false solution of militarized surveillance. The other entails a much harder task, and that is to seek security by way of rebuilding the culture and economy of the life-world. After neoliberal globalization, we must learn that global economies offer short-term wealth for some and social disarray for most. The task is to regenerate movements for social change by placing regionalism and the value of embodied others at the centre of principles for the reconstruction of social institutions. And this will not be possible without the regeneration of regional markets, as well as a crucial sphere of non-commodified, reciprocal relations in everyday life.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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