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No End in Sight: state, class and the international system in the Information Age
The often abstract sounding term called ‘the international’ could be made better sense of if it is to be conceived of as a system. As such, it functions because socially organized entities (currently nation-states) are affected by mutual social interaction on political, socio-cultural, economic and technological levels. This kind of interaction among those entities, or more precisely, the seeds of current social order, can be traced back to pre-modern times, when agriculture facilitated settlement and communities formed as a consequence (Bromley and Brown, 2004, p. 3).
A key event in specific communal organisation is the rise of the sovereign nation-state, an outcome – most are convinced – of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This development was so successful that the sovereign social organisation of communities is still the most common form, and up to this day determines relations at all levels within the international system (Bromley and Brown, 2004, p. 3).
While the nation-state can claim authority to regulate domestic political life and social interaction, it lacks a comparable authority in the international realm. Any interactions – be they social, political or economic - among nation-states are therefore taking place in an anarchic, as opposed to a hierarchic, environment. In order to be able to analyse interaction among states, or simply put, international politics, a framework can be modeled that is informed by observations and abstractions, which are derived from actual and perished societies, represented as the “problematic of the international” (Bromley and Brown, 2004, p. 3). The problematic of the international also includes the studying of interaction of various socially organized entities (not merely nation-states) – so-called geopolitics - and so reveals agents, transforming characters and processes that are entangled with them within specific social orders (Bromley and Brown,2004, p. 12).
Various academic traditions approach the problematic of the international from different starting points, by assigning more or less importance to certain levels of interaction among socially organized communities.
Realism, for example, focuses on political, Marxism on the economical and Liberalism on socio-cultural relations, whereas Constructivism emphasizes the power of ideas in shaping identities. None of them puts interaction capacity, as sharply into focus as Globalization Theory. Key to this approach is technology, specifically new communication methods, such as instant communication and data transfer, enabled by modern International Communication Technologies (ICT’s) . In this respect, Globalization Theory enhances analysis of the international system because it perceives ICT’s as agents of system transformation via feeding in hitherto impossible processes of identity formation, giving rise to the network as alternative form of social organization, and challenges to existing power relations and the nation-state itself.
This essay puts forward a critical view on the extent of such claims. In so doing, it pitches neo-Realism and Marxism, both more concerned with the material structure of the system, against Globalization Theory after providing a detailed elaboration thereof. Liberalism and Constructivism are omitted, in order to carve out a sharper distinction between the structure-based (neo-Realism, Marxism) and the more ideational approaches.
Neo-Realism emphasizes political relations and aims to reach powerful conclusions from few rather simple assumptions. It draws its assumptions are from a historical survey of international order and neo-Realism therefore contends to have constructed a trans-historical theory of international order, valid across space, time and dominating actors, in which transformation is virtually impossible. Marxism, on the other hand, instead of constructing sound models, focuses on the processes agency kicks off, when humans’ urge to survive provides input for the manipulation of the material environment. From this point of view, transformation is not unlikely, but it would look very different to what Globalization theorists associate it with (Brown, 2004, p. 520).
Globalization Theory, as opposed to other theories of international order, puts the sector of technological advancement and interaction capacity among organized and individual units at the center of its analysis. As such, it is preoccupied with increasing sophistication of ICT’s, and the effects they have on human agency and established social orders. When invoked to explain change, Globalization must be understood as the expansion of increasingly intensified social relations across time and space (Brown et al., 2004, p. 334) . The instant communication modern ICT’s enable allows creating a notion of immediacy when users transmit and receive ideas, views, or capital. It is by such impact that ‘Globalization’ is used as an explanans, rather than explanandum. Given that ideas, views and capital are linked to the plain material or intellectual power that mechanization helped to consolidate in the nation-state and the electrical grid dispersed, ICT’s now enable individual and international actors (legal, private etc.) to soak that power up and use it to reconfigure social organization in the form of networks, that is ICT’s help to facilitate a global network society, the argument goes. Contrary to nation-states, networks - and consequently a network society - are bound by trust and shared values, i.e. ethnic, racial or economic origin does not influence the kind of agency their members are able to exercise. Agreements, in the form of laws or contracts etc. are not backed up by force, as is the case in the orthodox statist form of organisation, but are structured around the special interest a network pursues. ICT’s enable real time co-ordination of events and the common purpose, e.g. debt cancellation, an Islamic caliphate or the re-structuring of society’s economic foundation, becomes the guiding principle. ‘Nodes’ within the network regulate actors’ behavior then. Increasing autonomy towards the bottom of the network and tight leadership at the top ensures actors’ freedom and autonomy, while at the same time presenting an alternative to the stiff and seemingly impenetrable top-down structure of the nation-state.
This form to organize, however, is not as innovative as Globalization theorists would like to believe, because the organizational structure of networks resembles that of corporations, venture capitalist or trademark brands that compete in a market economy. Globalization theorists fail to see precisely such resemblances and therefore do not grasp the impact capitalism has on shaping and facilitating the technology and organizational forms that ultimately determine the networks’ structure. Therefore, the Globalization theorists argument about the rise of processes of system transformation set off by increasing interaction capacity due to modern ICT’s is weakened. They adequately argue nevertheless, that processes of identity formation are today less connected with ethnic or territorial belonging, and more with the issue the network is built upon (Bullion, 2009, p. 97/98).
Global resistance to capitalism, channeled into the ‘Occupy’ movement, represents a case in point. This movement mobilizes crowds in many cities situated in liberal capitalist countries, where they symbolically occupy financial nodes. With the help of social media and mobile broadband internet, this network gave rise to a new kind of culture: a “cultural logic of networking”. The quick easy-to-grasp messages that can be dispersed via Facebook or Twitter not only create a sense of immediacy to the cause but generate also the sensation of individuals being multiply present, because it is possible to stay informed, and react to events happening at other ‘Occupy’ protests in real time. It is thus argued that “crowds of individuals” now replace a ‘network of networks’ structure (Juris, 2012, p. 266). By giving rise to this new kind of culture and refining the networks’ structure, ICT’s transform the way humans interact and organize. However, in order to reproduce and avoid weariness the network must re-invent itself periodically. This re-invention happens as a response to state action and is thus inextractibly linked to this very form of social organisation. The nation-state and the network therefore must be seen as two parts of one social structure, even though they may be antagonists (Juris, 2012, p. 271). This line of argument then allows to explain why on the other hand state leaders undoubtedly seemed to get out of their way and act on the demands put up by such networks, as the cancellation of developing countries’ debt or the military invasions of in the Middle East prove. When political leaders justified their actions and framed their talk around social justice and world peace for example, they even went as far as taking up the language networks created, albeit most often putting it to use with different connotations (Bullion, 2009, p. 115). Yet, such development could be seen as a strong sign of the transformation process’ actuality. Globalization theorists argue that a state can only use power and impose its will on social actors as far as society permits. In order to acquire that permission, communication and information are imperative, because they are weapons in “the fundamental battle….over the minds of the people”. This battle is a vital part of democratic and authoritarian politics alike, and state leaders or aspirants are keen to control, manipulate and influence the means of communication, e.g. print media or ICT’s, in order to present themselves in positive images to society (Castells, 2007, p. 238/239/241) . This means that since it is imperative for power acquisition and maintenance that (aspiring) state leaders are able to communicate via ICT’s, using popular services like Facebook or Twitter to a widely dispersed audience, the top-down structure of a nation-state dissolves into one of bottom-up character and power must be negotiated. Globalization theorists further argue that the dissolution of the nation-state is accelerated by easy-to-access information that impedes on its ability on decision-making, increasing demands for deregulation that undermine state capacity to intervene, and general loss of citizens’ respect for politics as usual (Castells, 2007, p. 246). Being politically engaged, nevertheless, remains important for many people, as the Occupy movement clearly shows on a global level. Such developments contribute to the increasing scale of global political activism.
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