Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 204 | Julio 1998



Tools for Understanding "One-Line Thinking"

By Ignacio Ramonet, director of Le Monde Diplomatique. A summary of the major ideas from his work, Un mundo sin rumbo, characterizing the worldwide ideological and cultural contradictions on the eve of the 21st century. Presented at the International Radio Conference, Santiago, Chile, October 1997.

Ignacio Ramonet - Thomas Friedman

How can one describe from the ideological perspective the historical moment in which we find ourselves? What are the planet's characteristics today from the geo-strategic, geo-political and even geo-cultural points of view?
Since the end of the 1980s, after the fall of the Berlin wall, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War, we have clearly entered a new period, though no one knows exactly how to define its characteristics. Many people agree in calling it a transition period between two eras.

History has offered many transition periods, but the one we are living through is probably particularly exceptional. My impression is that it can be compared to other historical transition stages of great transcendence, ones that were paradigmatic and constituted milestones of civilization. Such was the period at the end of the 18th century, when the American and French Revolutions took place. Such also was the end of the Middle Ages and beginning of the modern era, the Renaissance. We are in a similarly important stage today.

The characteristic of such moments is that it is extremely difficult to understand what one is going through. The instruments of thought that we have commonly used are no longer useful to explain it. Today's problems cannot be described or named or analyzed with the intellectual baggage or conceptual tools available to us, those that functioned particularly well for the last fifty years—during that long period known as the Cold War which began with World War II and ended with the Gulf War. We understood that historical stage very well, thanks to a series of concepts, ideas and paradigms. But those instruments do not help us unravel the problems we are encountering now.

I would like to propose a series of ideas that allow us to identify this period better and to begin to understand what is happening, what we find ourselves defining.

I think the current period is one of mutation because when this moment ends we will probably find ourselves once more in a long era of stability. First we have to go through a chaotic, disorderly, uncertain period between two phases of stability.

Three Revolutions

One characteristic of the current moment is that we are simultaneously living the effects of three revolutions, which are intertwined yet touch on three different aspects of our reality and our situation.

1. The Technological Revolution. The most important revolution—which in large measure leads to the other two—is the technological revolution. It, in turn, has two aspects. The first we could define with a comparative metaphor: just as the industrial revolution meant transferring human physical strength to machines, today's technological revolution is transferring the human brain's major functions to machines. This generalized cerebralization of machines has multiple effects and important consequences for industrial production, intellectual production and the production of services.

The second aspect of the technological revolution is the numerical or digital revolution. Let's use another comparison. Throughout human history, until now, human beings have communicated through three sign systems: sounds (the spoken word), drawings (images) and texts (writing or any ideogram). These three systems were developing three productive activities areas, independent of each other or with the first two, but not the third, in association.

Today's digital revolution allows an image, a sound or a text to be expressed with total exactness and in the same presentation. Generalized digitization means that any text, image or sound can be distributed by transforming it into electronic impulses that move at the speed of light. And the speed of light, as we all know, is an absolute. We cannot conceive of any speed greater than the speed of light, which is called "real time."
These two aspects characterizing the current technological revolution—generalized cerebralization and generalized digitization—imply the possibility of interconnecting all the brains of all machines on a planetary scale through a system that would—theoretically, virtually—allow all of us who are participating in the information and communication revolution to communicate simultaneously with each other through the three sign systems.

2. The Economic Revolution. This great revolution of communication and information technologies has precipitated the second revolution we are living through: the economic revolution. Or more specifically, the revolution experienced in the economic activities that stimulate the technological revolution, which are fundamentally financial. This revolution is producing what we could call the economy of the immaterial: exchange, sale and commerce of values and currencies. This has been revolutionizing everything having to do with the financial economy. On a planetary scale, the volume of exchanges within the financial economy is fifty times greater than the volume of exchanges of concrete products in the real economy. The entire economy is dominated and conditioned by the financial one, the economy of the immaterial.

The communication, information and culture economies must be included in the economy of the immaterial. Their contents can be digitized and can therefore be transmitted through the new and revolutionary technological channels that circulate around the planet.

This second revolution, with its financial and immaterial characteristics, has produced the dominant phenomenon of this moment: economic globalization. Economic globalization is not only transforming all aspects of production in diverse sectors. It is also transforming political and social concepts.

3. The Sociological Revolution. Simultaneously with the above two revolutions, we are also living a third one: a sociological revolution. The concept of power on which society's structures rest is currently in crisis. What is power today? Who has it in the family, the school, the business, the factory, the country, the state? Where is power today and what forms is it adopting?
Power has traditionally been hierarchical, transmitted down from one person to another through rules of authority. It has also been authoritarian, a power that is not challenged. Today, power functions horizontally rather than vertically, as a network, like a spider web. Authoritarian power no longer works. Power requires consensus. Today, all power that is imposed, accepted and succeeds in getting its messages across does so by reaching consensus, with the help of all the communication mechanisms that are experiencing such extraordinary expansion.

These three revolutions are underway as we speak. We are living them, they are crisscrossing our mental cartography and disturbing the reference system each of us has for understanding what is going on in our world.

Changing Paradigms

The paradigms have also changed. A paradigm is a general model of thinking that allows us to structure the different aspects of reality. Two fundamental paradigms on which our modern societies rest are currently being replaced by others.

The societies that emerged from the intellectual revolutions of the end of the 18th century rested on two pillars. One was the idea of progress, the other the idea of social cohesion. Suddenly, with no prior hint of change, both paradigms are being substituted and the new society now rests on two different pillars.

1. Progress. Progress was an idea launched by the theories of Age of Enlightenment thinkers, an idea aimed at civilizing societies. Today, anywhere in the world, it is understood that a civilized society is one that has excluded violence from its core, that has found forms of organization that allow people to live without endemic violence. At the end of the 18th century it began to be thought that the way to exclude violence from modern societies—those that emerged out of the initiation of the industrialization process—was to introduce the concept of progress.

The concept of progress is summarized in one objective: the distance between rich and poor should not be too great or else the conflict between poor and rich will also be great, possibly leading to brutal and violent extremes. With this concept, this paradigm, it began to be thought that the project of any society should be to find forms of progress that cut the distances between those below and those on top in all areas: economic, social, cultural and educational. With this paradigm, societies have, through participation, the making of demands and many other struggles, insisted on progress to guarantee their political peace.

Today the concept of progress is in crisis. Or, at least, the new model of society we find ourselves in does not give progress the importance that it has enjoyed up to now in the political and social spheres. Progress is also not given importance in other aspects, for example in its application to science. Although we know that there is a progression in the evolution of science and of the techniques and knowledge we have around us, we hear and experience ever more frequently that scientific progress can end up going backward. Today we ask ourselves about the meaning of scientific progress, given the Chernobyl tragedy, nuclear dangers or the origins of new epidemics. We now know that progress means danger.

There is also a crisis in the concept of progress as it is applied to politics. Someone could say that Albania or North Korea were or are progressive political regimes because they have sought progress in their societies, they have wanted to close the gap. However, who wants to be like that kind of progressive regime, who wants to progress in politics along Stalinist lines?
The social terrain has also been affected by the crisis of the paradigm of progress. Today we see that the welfare state—which signifies social progress—leads to a certain paralysis of societies. Trying to inject progress into society leads, paradoxically, to social regression. That was the thesis of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who ended up being so influential.

The paradigm of progress, which is applied to so many aspects of society, has entered into crisis and is being replaced by the paradigm of communication. Just as in the 19th century there was an attempt to have all societies advance in order to pacify them, today it is communication's turn to take on the role that we previously gave to progress. When in any aspect of our daily life—family, school, factory, business, country—things aren't working and there are risks of confrontation, what do we think is better to do, what is heard to be the solution, the alternative to crisis and violence? That there must be dialogue, that we have to communicate with each other and understand each other. If parents and children don't understand each other it's because they don't communicate; if workers and bosses don't understand each other it's because they don't communicate.

In any field of life today we have only one obligation, one imperative: to communicate with each other. There must be dialogue. It's no surprise that communication has developed so rapidly around us and that communications machinery and apparatuses have expanded unendingly. Communication has become a central paradigm of the new society. And the mission, the function of this paradigm is that which belonged to progress until a short time ago: pacify societies, exclude violence from within them.

2. Social Cohesion. The second paradigm on which modern societies rested was social cohesion. At the end of the 18th century, the Old Regime was substituted with new democratic political regimes—democracy was reinvented. The new society was not to be like the Old Regime, which was a society divided into groups so totally separated it was almost as if they were biologically different: nobility on the one hand and the third estate—the people—on the other, with an ideological link between the two: the clergy.

The inventors of modern democracy did not conceive of a society constructed on these bases. They proposed another based on the scientific and technical model that existed at the end of the 18th century; which itself was based on the mechanics of Newton, the theorist of universal mechanics. The theoreticians of modern democracy conceived of society as a perfect mechanical machine--a machine in the exact sense of the word, not like a future robotization of society.

To these theoreticians there was no machine more perfect than the watch. Because a watch articulates space and time: unlimited space and absolute time. Society should function like a watch, a machine with two characteristics. First, no piece of a watch is more important than any other. The watch has exactly the right number of pieces, and if any one of them is not well-adjusted, it blocks the workings of all. Second, all the pieces are connected to each other. It could be said that they are all in solidarity and, although some pieces are more important than others, they all end up equally important because the machine stops working without any one of them.

From that point society began to be conceived of like the gears of a watch. No professions or functions could be disrespected or scorned. Every individual who belonged to the collectivity was viewed as indispensable to it and the collectivity was in solidarity with each of its members. The idea that a national community should have social cohesion above all is one of the great constituent paradigms of modern societies.

This paradigm no longer works. No one demands national cohesion. The paradigm that is replacing social cohesion is that of the market. The market is not only a technique for trade. It is an idea, a paradigm that organizes all aspects of society today, including the ideological and philosophical.

The market is not a recent invention, but until recently it was a concept that only covered commercial activities. Today, the tendency is for the market to encompass all of society's activities. It is considered to be a sort of atmosphere that penetrates all interstices of society, leaving out no human activities.

The market is legitimized in this sense by its interest in all of society's activities. Not long ago various activities were outside of the market. For example, sports were outside of the market because they had non-commercial objectives. The Olympic Games were prohibited to professional athletes and those athletes who linked their strength and skill to money were sanctioned. Today, sports is totally immersed in the market. The same thing has happened with culture. For a long time, culture was considered an activity to edify the spirit and the mind, to produce emotions, build sensibilities, without having direct or close links to the market. Today, culture is almost totally immersed in the market, and the market regulates culture and cultural production. We could say something similar about love, death or religion. Ever more, these human realities are being governed, organized and structured by the market. The market's vocation is to convert itself into the law that organizes all human activities.

The Budding of a New System

The three revolutions and the change of the two paradigms are favoring the budding of a new system, or sphere, which I call the PPII system for the initials of the four fundamental characteristics of the activities that occur within it: permanent, planetary, immediate and immaterial. All of the activities that possess these four characteristics are currently undergoing extraordinary development.

Planetary means that the activities extend throughout the planet. Permanent, that they take place 24 hours a day. Immediate, because at any moment you want, you can intervene in them. And immaterial, that everything that happens in this system is truly immaterial; it is all a series of electromagnetic impulses. The new PPII system literally functions like a new divinity, because its four characteristics are those attributed to God. God is permanent, planetary, immediate and immaterial.

The PPII sphere includes the entire financial economy, the stock market, the monetary markets. Information and communication are also in this sphere as is a large part of mass culture. All sectors linked to these activities—the information technology industry, ranging from the hard sector that makes or launches rockets or satellites to the businesses having anything to do with software—are within the PPII sphere.

Political Power Is Out of Sync with Reality

The three revolutions we are experiencing—the technological, economic and sociological—and the change of the two paradigms we have known—from progress and social cohesion to communication and the market—have had an obvious consequence: political power has gotten totally out of sync.

All political power has the capacity to intervene in the areas of social progress and social cohesion, and societies have been organized politically in a way that allows political leaders to intervene in these two fundamental areas. But in the two new areas—communication and the market—political leaders have no power. They have nothing to say about communication and can't dominate the market.

Politicians can be communicators like anyone else, but they cannot dominate communication. To dominate it would be to exercise censorship, to practice dictatorship, which would exclude them from the democratic norm. Nor can politicians control or dominate the market. That is why political leaders are increasingly removed from the market, insofar as the economic activities once controlled by government, by the state, are being privatized and left to market forces.

Political leaders are more and more distanced from the new society's two fundamental spheres—communication and the market. This means they have fewer and fewer concrete possibilities of intervening in and influencing reality as it is.

I would categorize this moment of human history as the second capitalist revolution. The first capitalist revolution, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, essentially produced industrialization with all its economic, political and social consequences. This second one is essentially undermining the importance of political power.

Some people might even claim that the revolution we are living through is threatening political power with disappearance. Through their own free will, political leaders have frequently abandoned sectors that would have allowed them to be protagonists of these historic changes. On the other hand, the movement of the change has such energy that no politician is capable of stopping it.

Where Does This Leave Democracy?

These dynamics have brought the world's new masters into the limelight. Who are they? In some serious communications media, information, reports and surveys have appeared about the ten most influential people or the thirty or forty most powerful people in the world today. And not one of them is a politician; none was elected by the people. They are almost exclusively business leaders or owners of immense media conglomerates or, in the best of cases, media or media-cultural personalities. It is a sign that the hierarchy of power has changed. At the top now is economic power, followed by the media, with political power coming in third. This clearly puts the value of democracy today into question.

What does this new world configuration mean for the citizenry's democratic participation? Citizens have two democratic ways to intervene in the social debate: through their vote and through the ways the Constitution grants to express ideas and to protest. But today, even when citizens use these two legitimate ways to express themselves, the only thing they can modify is the political configuration. But if politicians can no longer really intervene in either of the two areas that are most influential in the concrete life of citizens—communication and the market—it means that the current democracies are powerless, that their effectiveness has been amputated. This obvious conclusion is extremely dangerous for the very functioning of democracy. It moves us toward what we will be able to see re-emerging in the societies that deny democracy its legitimacy as a system capable of self-regulation and self-transformation and of continually improving society.

The major international policy players today are the financial markets. And the reality is that no political authority exercises direct influence over those markets. With the citizens of those states unable to intervene in them, those markets weigh very heavily on the reality and destiny of both peoples and states. This produces an imbalance between the way the world functions in reality and the way democracy functions in reality.

One-Line Thinking and The New Circle of Reason

What I have described could be called "one-line thinking," the thinking that is repeated constantly by those who control communication and the market. It is the thinking that publications—generally economic ones—like The Wall Street Journal or the large television chains that transmit worldwide continually repeat to us: this is modernity, this is the new phase of the world to which we must adapt. The ideological relentlessness of this way of thinking, presented as the only reasonable choice, is to construct what theoreticians call "the circle of reason," leading one to conclude that this is the only thing that can be thought.

To think "differently" from this scheme that I just outlined—a different way that no one has yet identified, I might add—is to lay oneself open to moving out of the circle of reason. Thus, from an ideological point of view, we are living a totalitarian stage. It is curious that those who today defend the ideas of this closed, totalitarian scheme are the same ones who yesterday accused those who defended the Soviet model of totalitarianism. With the same anti-Soviet fanaticism they defend one-line thinking as the only reasonable way to think. In the USSR, those who didn't accept the Soviet circle of reason were shut away in psychiatric hospitals. Today, in the new world we are living in, there is also a threat of psychiatric hospitals for those who don't accept the project defined by the one-line circle of reason.

In the current international scene, a single state, the United States, fundamentally dominates the planet in a way that no power in human history has ever done before. The United States is exercising its new hegemony in five camps: the political, the economic (as the strongest world economic power), the military (as the single greatest military presence in the world, with an enormous advantage over all other countries), the cultural (American culture is the "world culture"), and the technological (the United States is again first in technology). Even though only five or six years ago Japan was considered to be the technological leader, it has now been swept totally out of the competition in information and communication technology, and is out of the Internet.

Nation-States Have Lost Control Of Their Sovereignty

Paradoxically, even though the United States dominates the world this way, the series of transformations it has produced in all systems means that, in reality, it has very little effective power. President Clinton is not the most influential man in the world, and in the current lists of ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty world personalities, the US President no longer has as much power as in the previous system. This is because the players in international life are no longer states. States are in the midst of an identity crisis. Today, no state can define the meaning of its national sovereignty, a concept that was basic for the development of states. No state on the planet can define for itself the limits of its borders, because borders are no longer only land or water limits. Current borders are spatial, climatic. What state can control El Niño?
The concept of frontier, of sovereignty, of democracy, of political parties, of unions, are all in crisis in a world with new players. A nation-state today doesn't know exactly who its adversaries are. The United States doesn't know who its greatest enemy is because that enemy is no longer defined in geopolitical terms. The AIDS epidemic is a great enemy of the United States, but AIDS has no nationality and is outside of any consideration of a national character. Another enemy of the United States is drugs, which also have no national identity. Others are corruption or huge migrations. The current threats go beyond national borders. Pollution is everyone's enemy, but it has no nationality. Chernobyl's toxic cloud, which floated over Europe, had no nationality and could not be stopped at any border.

The New Power Players In the Globalized World

The Old Regime had three main players: Nobility, Clergy and the Third Estate. The current international regime also has three important players that condition life in the now globalized world. The first is the state groupings: economically integrated zones such as the European Union, the Free Trade Agreement, Mercosur, the Association of Pacific Asian Countries. Throughout the world, all states are dealing with the problem of choosing who to associate with to constitute an integrated zone. The contrast to what happened in the 18th century, in which states defined themselves by their borders and separations, is extraordinary.

The second important player in international life is the large industrial, business, financial and media groups. All of these groups are global and within the PPII sphere. They are the ones that direct and impose globalization on an international scale. At this moment they are the central players from the economic and ideological points of view. Citizens, as citizens, are out of the game as far as they are concerned.

A third player which in good measure can represent the feelings of the citizens is the global nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with influence in some states, like Greenpeace or Amnesty International. These players face, as we all do, a new world with new challenges on the horizon.

In summary, the moment we are living is very, very complicated. Three revolutions are going on; we are witnessing the change of two paradigms; we are immersed in a system with four fundamental parameters that are being modified rapidly; and we see on the scene the power of three new actors, different from those of just a few years ago. We also have to learn to be actors on this new stage.

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