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close this book Human Security and Mutual Vulnerability
View the document INTRODUCTION
View the document Acknowledgements
View the document Chapter 1: A Framework for Analysis
View the document Chapter 2: Environmental Insecurity
View the document Chapter 3: Economic Insecurity
View the document Chapter 4: Social Insecurity
View the document Chapter 5: Political Insecurity
View the document Chapter 6: Cultural Insecurity
View the document Conclusion
View the document Bibliography

Chapter 6: Cultural Insecurity

Rather than assuming the existence of a global cultural regime, it is more appropriate to talk about a process of globalization of Western culture by means of a revolution in communications. According to some, and paraphrasing Toffler we live in a world of "future shock" - one so dependent on computers and telecommunications that should these gadgets cease to function, this would be tantamount to switching off global civilization (Pelton, 1981). The velocity of innovation in telecommunications technologies has risen at an exponential rate since their emergence in the last century and is still expanding at a much faster pace than actual demand. By way of illustration, international satellite communication, measured by traffic in half voice circuits (HVCs), has increased in less-developed countries from 13,174 units in 1979 to 86,885 in 1993; a growth of 559.5%, or 39.9% per year. In the developed countries, including the former Soviet Union, the expansion has been from 21,167 to 162,558; this is 668% growth in 14 years, or 47.7% per annum (Pelton 1981). These developments build upon - and further globalize - the already vast and expanding realm of radio, telephone, television and telecommunications in general.

But communications technology, irrespective of its wide spread is neither neutral, nor freely available. It is a highly concentrated business. In 1988, the top 10 information and communication enterprises which virtually controlled the technology and R& of global communications and informatics, included two American (IBM and ATÞfour Japanese (NTT, Matsushita, NEC and Toshiba), one German (the state-owned Deutsche Bundespost), one Dutch (Phillips), one British (British Telecom) and one French (France Telecom) company. Their volume of annual sales was over $266 billion. Likewise, of the top 10 media enterprises, which dominated the bulk of global newsprint and broadcasting, eight, including the top two were American owned, with annual sales amounting to $24 billion. The remaining three were a German, an Australian and a Japanese conglomerate (Frederick 1993).

In the last two decades, "a combination of forces, political, economic, cultural and technological have moved the international mass media industry towards more competition and less regulation on a global basis" (US Department of Commerce 1993). This has meant, especially in Western Europe, Latin America and Eastern Europe, a disappearance of state-owned public information systems and their replacement by private international consortia, which rely heavily on imported materials. A highly stratified global information order has emerged. In 1986, only four countries, the USA, Japan, China, India and the then USSR, imported less than 10% of their television programming. The lower layers were made of those countries whose cultural imports ranged from over 10% to those externally dependent for their programming (Mowlana 1986). In the years ever since, the system has become even more stratified, with only the USA and Japan remaining on top.

The development of the news and entertainment industry has meant an unprecedented explosion of cultural imports practically everywhere. The centre of the dissemination is clearly the USA, where the fastest growing industry is culture. In 1991 foreign sales accounted for 39% of US film and television revenue, a 30% increase over 1986. Between 1987 and 1991, net exports in this sector doubled: $7 billion, over the past record of $3.5 billion. In addition, the export of American records, tapes and other recordings rose from $286 million in 1989 to $419 million in 1991; an increase of 47%. To this, one must add the ever-expanding computer software market. A comparison between US cultural imports and exports gives a clear direction of the communication flows .

In addition to unidirectionality, media programming, especially in radio and television, shows marked uniformity. An average of 20% of broadcasting is dedicated to information, 4% goes to advertising and more than half is devoted to entertaimnent (Unesco 1987). If we keep in mind the lower tiers of the global information and communications order, where most countries are located, between 40 and 60% of all television broadcasting time is imported, then the phenomenal impact of "global" (that is, imported) entertainment can be appreciated. Its impact is particularly strong among the young, who are the main target audience of the entertainment industry.

As indicated above, both the broadcast and the production of the technology flows from North to South. Therefore, it is "quite possible that... the external impulse transmitted... is so powerful that all forms of national transformation converge towards a small number of common and hence universal types" (Unesco 1982). One emerging cultural pattern has been referred to as an elite managerial culture: "both a set of attitudes, values and behaviour models, and a set of forms and models of organization" (Unesco 1982)) centre on individual competitiveness. Its mass ideological correlates are the culture of consumerism in its mainstream and pop versions. Time, Newsweek, Reader's Digest, US News and World Report, The Economist, but more so CNN and Much Music, all espousing a similar worldview, are the conveyor belts in the transmission of a common neomaterialist world view. Its foundations are inserted in the same possessive individualism and competitiveness of the past, yet this time the message is geared to a global consumer audience conditioned by a mass marketed pop culture wrapping. The elite doctrine underpinning this deceivingly chaotic ideological coating is neoliberalism. In the new culture "cyberpunk" and market economics blend in a complex amalgam.

Not a Clash, but a Crisis of Civilization

The cultural thrust discussed above has been equated by elites at the core with the notion of modernity. As the Marxist-Leninist strain of the modern fell into disrepute with the disintegration of the "really existing" socialisms of Eastern Europe, its capitalist variety has become, by default, the dominant paradigm. T'here seems to be no alternative hegemonic discourse at the present time, other than the reassertion of religious fundamentalism - as with the Islamic revival throughout the Middle East - or the nostalgic critique of postmodernism by Western intellectuals. However, even this apparently radical postmodern critique starts from the premise of a dominant Western culture. Therefore, what appears on the surface as a critical analysis of modernity is, linguistic pyrotechnics notwithstanding, at closer scrutiny a manifestation of neo or hypermodernism, not a substantial departure from mainstream thought. Thus, despite the rhetoric surrounding the "crisis of modernity," modernization remains unchallenged as the prevailing teleology and deontology of development. Its alienating manifestations involve five major characteristics which are outlined below.

Mindless Incrementalism

The aforementioned "software loop" inserted in an increasingly globalized culture, far from offering a solution to existing dysfunctions, tends to deepen them. The standard prescription to deal with problems of poverty and/or equity is, from this prism, more of the same, "growth" with technological fixes which created precisely the previous predicament. The double fetish of growth with "technocratic" answers tends to have the long-term effect of multiplying dysfunctions, or postponing much needed wide-ranging and innovative solutions. As mentioned earlier, socialism, as well as liberal capitalism and their political and developmental corollaries were deeply encased in a "modern" world view. Scientific socialism was just another way to reach modernity. Liberal capitalism nowadays has mutated from its earlier Keynesian forms into a broader and encompassing synthesis of Trilateralist neoliberalism. Like its dialectical–materialist counterpart, this ideology is imbued with a scientific pretension. But its appeal transcends the discourse of current economic orthodoxy as spread by mainstream university curricula. It is also grounded in the trappings of traditional elitist beliefs on authority, in "common sense" and in induced opinion-forming campaigns through the business-controlled media.

The Constructed Hegemony of Neoclassical Economics

The central tenet of the abovementioned belief system is that only competitive and unregulated markets hold the key to progress. Conversely, those unable or incompetent to adapt, compete and abide by the objective laws of history - and the market - or acquire the attributes of outward success, deserve to descend to the "abyss" of abject squalor. "No pain, no gain" is the capsular ideological chain of signification of the new scolasticism.

Behind the Kuznetsian slogan there lies an operational doctrine characterized by an extreme skewness in the domestic and global distribution of "pain" for the many and "gain" for the few. Neoliberalism has evolved into a sort of holistic economic determinism of the right, draped in "folksy" clothes. It encompasses a theory of history, a political economy (public choice) and a theory of world politics (complex interdependence). It is also a vanguard political movement of the well-to-do which exhibits many of the epistemiologically fallacious assumptions of its now-defunct and discredited ideological opposite. "Really existing" capitalism, rather than "really existing" socialism is erected as the only possible teleology at the end of history, while market reductionism substitutes for class reductionism. The difficulty with this kind of monism, as with any form of exclusionary scholasticism, is that, having reached the end of contradictions, it soon runs out of ideas. Thought processes evolve into tautologies and slogans; education becomes simple training, while critical thinking becomes anathema. This dysfunctional cultural software is reproduced through the institutions of higher education and by the ever more acritical yet transnationally integrated systems of diffusion of ideas as a form of Musak or mesmerizing chant.

The Crisis of Learning and the Crisis of Ideas

At the heart of the multiple environmental, economic, social, but more importantly, political crises there is a crisis of ideas. More precisely, there is a crisis of learning: an inability to link theory and practice and to correct errors. The UNDP's 1992 Human Development Report pointed out that, while the North–South gap in human survival (the basic component in human development, including life expectancy, literacy, nutrition, infant/child mortality and access to safe water) had been relatively narrowed in the 30-year period between 1960 and 1990, disparities in the cultural gap had in fact increased (UNDP 1992). Unequivocally, the crisis of thinking is closely connected with a profound global crisis in education, both formal and informal, in all its levels. This crisis is not limited to the periphery. As Ivan Illich observed many years ago, "schooling" everywhere has become divorced from education, thus encouraging goal displacement in the learning process. Education through prevailing institutions has little to do with enlightenment and with what Freire (1989) calls "the practice of freedom." Far from offering people the tools to transform their world and unleash their creativity for problem solving, conventional schooling is a bureaucratic mechanism for human depowerment and for the entrenchment of conformity and quiescence.

At the elementary levels, there is a generalized lack of access to basic educational facilities, made even more dramatic due to global economic restructuring. After decades of international efforts to eradicate illiteracy, still over a billion adults cannot read or write and there are over 100 million children of primary school age who are not able to attend school every year (UNDP 1992). Enrolment rates have also levelled off over the past two decades. Secondary education everywhere is not only structured upon a vertical compartmentalized and decreative pattern, but it is a luxury which few can afford in the less affluent societies. Meanwhile, in developed societies, which suffer from the same structural and operational malaise described above with regards to "schooling," both the coverage of, and access to, quality education has become increasingly restricted.

North America is confronted with a rapid and profound deterioration of its educational system. For many years, mounting ineffectiveness was dealt with by simply "throwing money into problems. "Now, with a general fiscal crisis of the state, resources are dry. A comparison of the declining rates of growth in global enrolments in all three levels will illustrate this situation .

However, despite the recognized crisis in Western, and specifically North American, education, experts in those countries are exporting their already obsolescent and dysfunctional educational structures and practices to the periphery. The overall impact of such acritical exports of social technology upon their recipients is at best dubious and at worst destructive. It compounds the deleterious effects created by the other more commercial cultural imports referred to earlier in this section: media imports.

The systemic paralysis of both primary and secondary levels worldwide is recognized in all quarters as extremely acute. The crisis, however, is much deeper in institutions of tertiary education, charged, in theory at least, with the task of producing professionals and generating the cultural "software" of society, including that required for the traimng of the trainers. The crisis of tertiary education coincides not only with declining levels of financing (and quality) but also with an accelerated closure (and the corporate appropriation) of the "cultural commons." Tertiary education is being restructured under the spell of the same forces that are shaping the direction of other social institutions.

This is particularly noticeable in scientific research, affecting both the "hard" and social sciences. Learning and knowledge are thus commodified and alienated. When institutionalized education, as in the former Eastern bloc, loses autonomy and becomes subservient to the managerial and ideological apparatchik of power holders and institutional intellectuals, society's aptitude for problem solving declines. A totalizing ideology always ends up producing an official intelligentsia for whom orthodoxy and political correctness substitute for critical self-examination and learning. It becomes also unable to cope with the changes occurring in the real world around it. Cybernetic stupidity and conformity set in as the learning process becomes unable to correct errors and instead reproduces them.

Impractical Pragmatism

The prevailing mode of training emphasizes a largely "professional," incremental, narrowly focused and homogeneous mindset. Alternative thought is deemed either unscientific or heretical, or both. Vertical thinking and the short-run perspective prevail. Thus, piecemeal solutions to big problems are produced. The practical and the pragmatic end up not being the same. Pragmatism is elevated into an official dogma. There is a practical need to overcome the crisis to prevent catastrophe. However, the pragmatic approach, in the absence of critical thinking and transcendental ethical standards, leads to a highly fragmented problem solving pattern with an overriding focus on quantifiable economic gain. Neoliberal modernizing strategies and packages, like its now defunct socialist counterpart, favour the means of action (readymade solutions or "answers") over the understanding of the problems (or "questions"). Development and modernization become contradictory: modernization, far from bringing development, contributes to decay. At this stage, a self-sustained vicious cycle ensues: "solutions" create problems, which lead to new inappropriate solutions, and so on.

The Abandonment of Politics

The fundamental connection between politics, on the one hand, and environmental, economic, social and cultural security, is public policy. Politics involves policymaking, the outcome of which is the allocation of rewards and deprivations among various publics. In this sense, the issues of participation and regulation are as central to the question of "good governance" as are the issues of accumulation or enforcement. Western political theory, since the 1970s has consistently abandoned a normative ideal based on participation, democracy and the "input side" of politics favouring another teleology centred on order, stability and governability (O'Brien 1968, Leys 1982). In this, mainstream political thinking has reflected an equally significant shift in macroeconomic management from "input," demand-side economics, to "output," supply side. The new political economy, exemplified by public choice theory, unlike its authoritarian-capitalist predecessor, emphasises the role of the merchant over the prince, but like the early Huntingtonian (1967, 1968) formulation, it also ignores and deconstructs the citizen. Politics, as in vulgar Marxism, is subordinated to a technobureaucracy which manages "objective," natural-like economic laws, laws that cannot be legislated or debated but are dictated or interpreted by those who understand the arcane and reified realm of the behaviour of capital.

Deontology Without Ethics

One important characteristic of the dominant cultural mold is that functional rationality prevails over substantial rationality (Mannheim 1962). Thus, procedural and quantifiable correctness become the only valuable ethical standards against which to make decisions, judge behaviour or evaluate consequences. In the last analysis, only those with the appropriate technical competence can judge; but they do so within the narrow and specific confines of a never-questioned ideal model, teleology, discipline or profession. Both the utopia (and the dystopia) which justify social action, substitute a surrogate instrumental operational code - grounded on professional, efficiency related and quantifiable considerations - for a transcendental value system centred upon effects on people. The substitution is rationalized on the basis of one premise: "what works is good." In this context, categorical imperatives cast in deontological terms, such as maximization, profit or efficiency displace moral responsibility (Goulet 1973). What really happens to concrete and sentient people is replaced by systemic or functional abstractions encased in lofty terms such as "order," "efficiency" and "profit."

The Closure of the Cultural Commons

The de facto global cultural regime is the consequence of technological change combined with growing concentration of wealth and power. Yet, despite the overwhehning power of Western media and ideology, an enormous variety of cultural strains persist. The problem is that, lacking vehicles of dissemination of their own, these cultural expressions, as with biological diversity, are increasingly faced with extinction. Cultural variability is essential for innovation and for the revitalization of any culture.

The Context

While the image of the physical and social world is homogenized by global communications and technology in general, a tendency to monoculture develops. The content of information is shaped by its medium, therefore giving superior chances for dissemination to prepacked information. Under these circumstances, the discourse of modernity has demonstrated a remarkable ability to incorporate and/or trivialize intellectual challenges to its hegemony and generally render them ineffective or counterproductive. In the 1970s and 1980s, actual or potentially revolutionary notions such as "basic human needs," human resources development, appropriate technology, women in development, and others were smoothly incorporated into the rhetoric of bilateral and multilateral agencies (as well as neoconservative think tanks) without altering the fundamental nature of modernizing practices.

The Culture of the Culture

For the duration of the Cold War, national security and defence constituted a broad set of overriding commands to suspend judgment and justify folly and atrocity. They were categorical imperatives based on fear. The string of human security outrages perpetrated since the 1940s, of which the recent revelations about illegal experiments with radiation on unsuspecting individuals is just a small part, comes to mind. In the postnuclear era, economic rationality, the so-called logic of the market, is both the prime directive and its own overriding command. Competitiveness, credit worthiness or improved productivity have become catch words to justify practically any ethical violation, irrespective of its nefarious consequences. There is an urgent need to bring back ethics into the analysis of human behaviour and to link both with public accountability.


The attempts by the United Nations and that of specialized agencies such as Unesco to set the foundations of a new world information order - along the lines of the proposals for a new international economic order - failed to materialize in the 1980s, under relentless opposition by elites at the core. Instead, the dominant sectors within the GATT have expanded and redefined trade, thus commodifying cultural objects by means of proprietary rights. Agriculture, pharmaceuticals, publishing, research and every form of human activity falls within an expanded definition of services. This commodification of innovation and of ideas in general has constituted a virtual closure of humanity's cultural commons. Paradoxically, while globalization may point in the direction of universalism, limited access to ideas and to the institutions charged with their development and reproduction point in quite a different direction.


Learning, the building of consciousness, the creation of values and the development of operational rules for problem solving have been influenced by the concentration and commodification of culture mentioned above. Cultural production and dissemination is increasingly monopolized by the values, tastes and mechanisms present at the dominant core. Imitation rather than innovation prevails. In this sense, learning becomes quite discontinuous with experience.


The consequences of this discontinuity are twofold. One is the obvious inability of the existing paradigm to deal with its own concrete circumstances, which may lead to a breakdown in the chains of signification (meaning) in the cultural paradigm. Yet, there is also the possibility of a quite contradictory effect: the recycling of the same ideas into a new rhetoric, while retaining the fundamental tenets of the existing mold. So far, this latter entropic tendency has prevailed.

It may be too early to claim a significant paradigmatic crisis or discontinuity between modernization and ecologism. Attempts have been made by conservative modernization theorists, whose intellectual roots are neo-Malthusian, to incorporate the seemingly dissonant discourse of environmentalism into neoclassical formulations by embracing cliches or by simple trivialization of the ecological posture. Possibly the ideology of modernization has become so entrenched that its proponents, like the "nuclear theologians" of not so long ago, are ready to destroy the world to prove that their theory is correct. The world may be in crisis, yet the paradigm that created the crisis, its diagnoses and its prescriptions thrive and may survive us all.