Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Rising Influence of Non-State Agents

This blog entry is a direct continuation from yesterday's post.

(2) Rising Influence of Non-state agents

Personal Power

In a number of ways, modern communication and transportation technologies have dispersed power throughout the population. This all builds on ongoing developments of the last few centuries. Even before “modernization” and industrialization, the beginnings of the wholesale transition to capitalism led to an economic restructuring of European and North American society, with the “Bourgeois Revolutions” in North America and France both reflecting this and reaffirming this. Early mass media, in the form of broadsheets and other newsprint, played a role also as early as the 18th century in shaping how people within national contexts related to one another, as Benedict Anderson and others have written about (see especially Anderson's Imagined Communities).

More recent modern communication and transportation technologies have been important in placing their technological abilities more and more into the hands of individuals. As Annablle Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ali Mohammadi have written in their important book Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution, as early as the late 1970s, personal communication technologies, such as cassette tapes and photocopiers, played a crucial role in individuals’ ability to disseminate information outside of state control, and larger outside of state surveillance, during the course of the Iranian Revolution. More recent innovations, such as the wide spread availability of personal computers, the internet, cell phones, the ongoing development of low cost automobiles for the Chinese and Indian markets, etc., don’t so much introduce something radically new to the world as much as they greatly accelerate already ongoing processes whereby technological influence becomes personal technology placed in the hands of more and more individuals.

It would be a mistake to think that the spectacular growth of personal communication and transportation technology will lead automatically to greater democratization or will have only democratizing influences. Technologies in and of themselves are neutral – their effects depend on who uses them for what purposes. The same new technologies can be and are used for the control and surveillance of populations. And even the example of the Iranian Revolution mentioned above is an important reminder that “people power” need not necessarily lead to greater democratization. But it would also be a mistake to not recognize that such personal technologies do contribute to a greater dispersal of power on a global level within each and every national context. Westerners are often focused on the effects of things like the internet and “Internet 2.0,” but things like the astonishing growth of the cell phone market in Africa, Asia, and Latin America look to have at least as dramatic an effect in terms of transforming individuals’ influence over their personal development and destinies.

Corporate Power

The other sort of non-state agent that has gained increasing power is of course the corporation. As above, this is not a brand new development, but a continuation of an older trend. A handful of corporations have been influential on the global stage for centuries now, e.g. the Hudson Bay company or the Dutch East India Company. The Industrial Revolution and the invention of the limited liability stock corporation greatly increased the number, average size, and prominence of corporations. More recently still, as any number of writers have pointed out, developments such as the mass shipping container, personal computers for business use, just in time manufacturing processes, and free trade agreements, have all vastly increased the influence of large multinational corporations. The nation-state shows no real sign of withering away as many have predicted, but via lobbying of politicians or outsourcing or offshoring production, corporations can increasingly influence states’ actions and evade the control of those states.

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