Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Erich Fromm on American Consumerism and Marketing Characters

Erich Fromm, a German intellect who moved to the USA in 1934, was a Marxist, psychoanalyst and Buddhist. He argued above all things for joy in life rather than the living death that he perceived around him in the affluent post-war USA.

Identity Crisis: To Have or To Be?

For him, the choice in Fifties America was 'To Have or To Be'. Citing Marx's notion that 'a man is the one who is much, not the one who has much', Fromm emphasised the extent to which material possessions end up controlling us. He claimed that we have become Marketing Characters, 'based on experiencing oneself as a commodity, and one's value not as ''use value'' but ''exchange value''...his value depends on his success, depends on his saleability, depends on approval by others'.

The identity crisis of modern society is actually the crisis produced by the fact that its members have become selfless instruments, whose identity rests upon their participation in the corporations. Studies show that just being bright does not predict success: it must be accompanied by characteristics such as Machiavellianism and chameleonism. This way of being is liable to corrupt personal relationships beyond the office.

"What matters to the marketing character...is perhaps the prestige or the comfort that things give, but things per se have no substance. They are utterly expendable, along with friends or lovers, who are expendable too, since no deeper tie exists to any of them.''

Necrophiliac Marketing Character

Many years before the birth of Bridget Jones or her male equivalent, he put his finger on the damage this did to intimate relationships: 'A great deal of what goes under the name of love is a seeking for success, for approval. One needs someone to tell one not only at four o'clock in the afternoon but also at eight and at ten and at twelve: ''You're fine, you're alright, you are doing well''...One also proves one's value by choosing the right person; one needs to be the latest model oneself, but one then has a right and duty to fall in love with the latest model...People do not see that the main question is not: ''Am I loved?'' Which is to a larger extent the question: ''Am I approved of? Am I protected? Am I admired?'' The main question is: ''Can I love?''

This character is a recipe for emotional distress. It creates someone who, unconsciously according to Fromm, is 'a passive, empty, anxious, isolated person for whom life has no meaning and who is profoundly alienated and bored. If one asks these people...whether they feel unhappy and bored they answer, ''Not at all, we're completely happy. We go on trips, we drink, we eat, we buy more and more for ourselves. You aren't bored doing that!''...in fact, the anxious, bored alienated person compensates for his anxiety [and depression] by a compulsive consumption.''

It is a dreadfully dull form of non-existence. 'Boredom comes from the fact that man has become purely an instrument, that he cultivates no initiative, that he feels not responsible, that he feels like a cog in a machine that someone could replace with another at any time...he tries to compensate for it - through consumption.'

Fromm maintained that the tedium is worsened by the mechanisation of domestic and manufacturing life. 'He does indeed save time with his machines, but after he has saved time, then he does not know what to do with it. Then he is embarrassed and tries to kill this saved time in a respectable way. To a large extent our entertainment industry, our parties and leisure activities are nothing but an attempt to do away with the boredom of waiting in a respectable manner...necrophilia...is the state of being attracted to that which is dead.' People who live to Have become emotionally necrophile.

The consumption and emotional pathology (anxiety and depression) feed off each other: 'The more anxious he becomes, the more he must consume, and the more he consumes, the more anxious he becomes.' Consumption causes the pathology partly because it holds up the false promise that fixing an internal lack can be done by external means, and partly because the process of working, by which we earn the money to pay for the goods, is itself alienating. 

We are liable to be rendered helpless and small by the larger processes in the organisation for which we work; participation in society is blocked by workaholia and by the carapaces beneath which the Marketing Character hides. We become addicted to status symbols, so that 'there is an enormous fear in many social circles of not moving up, of losing the position that one has attained. The fear that one's own wife and friends will judge one as a "failure" if one does not reach what the others reach.'

The Insanely Bottomless Pit

Although evolutionary psychology has sought to present addiction to this sliding scale of power, status and wealth as natural and inevitable, Fromm believes it is nothing of the kind. It just creates the bottomless pit of needs which keeps economic growth going: 'By their nature, [socially generated] greed and the desire to have are characterized by their limitlessness. Physiological needs are limited by nature. We might be a little hungry or tremendously hungry, but at some point we are full.'

"What the economy needs most of all for its own operation is that people buy, buy and buy again, since there is otherwise no constantly growing demand for goods that industry can produce and must produce to an ever growing degree if it wants to multiply its capital. For that reason, industry compels people by all means of temptation to consume more."      
Fromm follows this analysis through to its logical conclusion: that we live in a profoundly sick society. Whereas psychiatry measure emotional distress as deviation from the social norm, Fromm maintains that it should be analysed according to universal criteria. He proposes a definition of sanity which is applicable to individuals in all societies: relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, sense of identity, morality based on realistic rather than mythical ideas, and first-hand experiencing rather than the depersonalized, second-hand living that is so common in our society.

If someones is living in a society which derides these ways of Being in favour of Having, then deviation from that crazy norm is not mad - it's the society that needs fixing. Emotional well-being, writes Fromm, 'cannot be defined in terms of the adjustment of the individual to his society, but on the contrary...must be defined in terms of the adjustment of society to the needs of man'.

"Nothing is more common than the idea that we, the people living in the Western world of the twentieth century, are eminently sane. Even the fact that a great number of individuals in our midst suffer from more or less severe forms of emotional distress produces little doubt with respect to the general standard of our emotional well-being. We are sure that by introducing better methods of mental hygiene we shall improve still further the state of our emotional well-being, and as far as individual mental disturbances are concerned, we look at them as strictly individual incidents, perhaps with some amazement that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture which is supposedly so sane. Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself. Many a severe neurotic believes that his compulsive rituals or his hysterical outbursts are normal reactions to somewhat abnormal circumstances. What about ourselves?"   

Fromm goes on to adduce, as evidence of our collective insanity, the fact that we killed about one hundred million people in wars during the twentieth century. He points to the increases in suicide, alcoholism, and homicide that accompany urbanisation. He also casts doubt on the emotional well-being of our economics: 'We live in an economic system in which a particularly good crop is often an economic disaster, and we restrict some of our agricultural productivity in order to "stabilise the market", although there are millions of people who do not have the very things we restrict, and who need them badly. Right now our economic system is functioning very well, because, amongst other reasons, we spend billions of dollars per year to produce armaments. Economists look with some apprehension to the time when we stop producing armaments, and the idea that the state should produce houses and other useful and needed things instead of weapons, easily provokes accusations of endangering freedom and individual initiative.'

How true of today are Fromm's claims about the USA in 1955?

From The Selfish Capitalist, copyright 2008 by Oliver James.      

Sunday, September 30, 2012

“Judge, and be Prepared to be Judged”

I've been meaning to learn more about the philosophy of Objectivism - so, I finally got stuck in to Ayn Rand's 'The Virtue of Selfishness' (1964). Being in Egypt for the past two months, one can't help but notice the correlations between what she wrote about decades ago, with everyday life here in Egypt, today. 

In light of recent events (e.g.: the 'Arab Spring', the Muslim Brotherhood rule, etc) that greatly affected the politics and daily life of Arabs in the MidEast, and more especially, Egyptians in Egypt, I wanted to share an interesting principle that Rand discussed: Moral Judgement. 

An Irrational Society

An irrational society is a society of moral cowards – of people paralyzed by the loss of moral standards, principles and goals.

But since people have to act, as long as they live, such a society is ready to be taken over by anyone willing to set its direction. The initiative can come from only two types of people:

1) The one who is willing to assume the responsibility of asserting rational values,
2) The thug who is not troubled by questions of responsibility.

Moral Judgement

One of the principles lacking in today’s societies – and responsible for the spread of evil in the world – is the failure to ‘pronounce moral judgement’ [1].

The idea that one must never pass moral judgement on others, and that one must be morally tolerant of anything, can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or one’s character.

Let’s ponder this – when your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you, who are you truly betraying? And who are you encouraging?


To pronounce moral judgement is an enormous responsibility.

To pronounce moral judgment you are actually acting as judge. And to be a judge, you have to possess an unimpeachable character. An unimpeachable character is not an issue of errors in knowledge – but in integrity: ‘the absence of any indulgence in conscious, willful evil’.

So for example, a judge in court may err when the evidence is inconclusive, but to evade the available evidence, accept bribes or allow emotion, desire or fear to obstruct judgement based on the facts of reality – that is lack of integrity.  

So, every rational person must maintain an equally strong and solemn integrity in the courtroom of their own mind. Versus a public tribunal, the responsibility is much greater because he/she, the judge, is the only one to know when an impeachment has occurred.

Therefore, a person is judged by the judgement they pronounce.

The things which he/she condemns or extols exist in objective reality and are open to the independent appraisal of others. So when a person blames or praises, it is their own moral character and standards that they reveal. So, for example, if a person condemns American foreign policies and extols Israeli foreign policies, or if he attacks the less fortunate and defends the corporations - it is his/her nature that he/she is confessing.

Moral Neutrality

It is the fear of this responsibility that prompts most people to adopt an attitude of indiscriminate moral neutrality. And this fear is made quite evident in the precept: “Judge not, that ye be not judged”.  But that precept is in fact, an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.

But in reality, moral neutrality is not possible.

It’s like saying that unprovoked murder is acceptable. To abstain from condemning the murderer, you have, in effect, become an accessory to the murder of his victims.

“Judge, and be Prepared to be Judged”

What is the opposite of moral neutrality? Is it a blind, arbitrary, self-righteous condemnation of any idea, action or person that does not fit one’s mood, one’s memorised slogans, or snap judgement of the moment?

Let’s take a step back and look at what it means to judge: ‘to evaluate a given concrete by reference to an abstract principle or standard’.   

Judging is not an easy task; it is not a task that can be performed automatically by one’s feelings, instincts, or hunches. It is a task that requires the most precise, exacting, ruthlessly objective and rational process of thought. It is fairly easy to grasp abstract moral principles, but it can be very difficult to apply them to a given situation, particularly when it involves the moral character of another person. So when one pronounces moral judgement, whether in praise or in blame, one must be prepared to answer ‘Why?’, and to prove one’s case – to oneself and any rational enquirer.

Now, always pronouncing moral judgement does not mean one must regard themselves as a missionary charged with the responsibility of saving everyone – nor that one must give unsolicited moral appraisals to all one meets. But it does mean:

a) That one must know clearly, in full, identifiable form, one’s own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event which one deals, and act accordingly; and
b) That one must make one’s moral evaluation known to others, when it is rationally appropriate to do so.

Explicitly, the second point means that one doesn't need to launch into unprovoked moral denunciation or debates, but that one must speak up in situations where silence can objectively be taken to mean agreement with, or sanction of, evil.

Often times, one happens to be in the company of irrational people, where argument is futile, a mere ‘I don’t agree with you’ is sufficient to negate any implication of moral sanction. When one deals with rational people, a full statement of one’s views may be morally required.

But in no case, and in no situation, may one permit one’s own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent.

Moral Values

Moral values are the motive power of one’s actions. By pronouncing moral judgement, one protects the clarity of one’s own perception and the rationality of the course one chooses to pursue. It makes a difference whether one thinks that one is dealing with human errors of knowledge, or with human evil.

How many people evade, rationalise and drive their minds into a state of blind stupor, in dread of discovering that those they deal with – their ‘loved ones’ or friends or business colleagues or political rulers – are not merely mistaken, but evil? And when those people evade and rationalise, this leads them to sanction, and to help spread the very evil whose existence they fear to acknowledge.

Why do totalitarian dictatorships find it necessary to pour money and effort into propaganda for their own helpless, chained, gagged slaves, who have no means of protest or defense?  They do so because even the humblest peasant or the lowest savage would rise in blind rebellion, were he to realise that he is being immolated, not to some incomprehensible ‘noble purpose’, but to plain, naked human evil.

Who am I to Judge?

Thus moral neutrality necessitates a progressive sympathy for vice: a man who struggles not to acknowledge that evil is evil, finds it increasingly dangerous to acknowledge that good is good. To him, a person of virtue is a threat that can topple all his evasions – especially when an issue of justice is involved, which demands that he takes sides.

It is then that such a formula, ‘Nobody is ever fully right or fully wrong’ or ‘Who am I to judge?’ take their most lethal effect.


[1] Rand, A; How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?, p.82

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Egalitarian vs Communal Principles

I was reading an interesting book on my flight called 'Why Not Socialism?', by G. A. Cohen. It tied in nicely with the concepts that I discuss here on this blog so I thought I would share two principles that Cohen discusses: the egalitarian and the communal, or community, principles.

The title of the book is not meant as a rhetorical question - Cohen discusses the idea of a socialist society from a logical and realistic view point. He also touches upon the feasibility of implementing a socialist system, but in this blog post I will not delve into whether socialism is feasible or not - you can read the book if you would like to find that out.

The Camping Trip

Let's start off with an analogy that Cohen uses throughout the book: 'the camping trip'. 

Imagine that you and I and a whole bunch of other people go on a camping trip. There is no hierarchy among us; our common aim is that each of us should have a good time, doing, so far as possible, the things that she or he likes best (some things we do together, others we do separately). We have with us facilities which we can use: pots, pans, oil, coffee, fishing rods, canoes, deck of cards, etc. And as is usual on camping trips, we use those facilities collectively: even if they are privately owned things, they are under collective control for the duration of the trip, and we have shared understandings about who is going to use them when, and under what circumstances, and why. Somebody fishes, somebody else prepares the food, and another person cooks it. People who do not like to cook but enjoy washing up may do all the washing up, and so on. 

On this camping trip there are plenty of differences, but our mutual understandings, and the spirit of the enterprise, ensure that there are no inequalities to which anyone could mount a principled objection. There is a clear sense of 'fellowship'.

Now imagine a camping trip where everybody asserts their rights over the facilities, or pieces of equipment, and the talents that they bring, and where bargaining proceeds with respect to who is going to pay what to whom. For example, to use a knife to peel the potatoes, and how much they are going to charge others for those now peeled potatoes that were bought in an unpeeled condition from another camper, and so on. 

On this camping trip there are also plenty of differences but these differences are based on the principles of market exchange and strictly private ownership of the required facilities. On this camping trip there is a clear sense of 'inefficiency' in the sense that too much time would be spent bargaining, and looking over one's shoulders for more lucrative possibilities. 

Which camping trip would you be drawn to? 

Now imagine that 
Harry, Sylvia, Leslie and Morgan are your fellow campers. 

Harry is very good at fishing, and so consequently he catches more fish than others do. Harry would like better fish than the others when he dines because he feels that it is unfair that his good fortune is not rewarded. Sylvia upon returning from a personal exploration period returns to the campsite and announces that she found a huge apple tree full of perfect apples. But in order to allow the other campers to have the apples she would like a reduction in her labour burden, more room in the tent and more bacon for breakfast. Leslie, endowed from birth with many knacks and talents is the only camper on the trip who knows how to crack nuts, but she wants to charge for sharing that information with her fellow campers.  Morgan's father camped in the same spot thirty years ago. Thirty years ago Morgan's father dug a special little pond and stocked it with exceedingly good fish so that when Morgan went to camp he would be able to eat better. Morgan says, "Now I can have better food than you guys have".

How would you react to your fellow camper's expressions?

Two Principles

From the two trips above, two principles are highlighted: the principle of community, evident in the first trip; and the principle of egalitarianism, evident in the second trip and in Harry, Sylvia, Leslie and Morgan's expressions.

It is also evident that the community principle, by default, constrains the operation of the egalitarian principle by forbidding certain inequalities that the egalitarian principle permits. 

There is also a sense of communal caring that is instantiated in the community principle - a communal form of reciprocity which contrasts with the market form of reciprocity evident in the second camping trip. Where starting points are equal, communal reciprocity is not required for equality, but it is required for human relationships to take a desirable form. 

Thus, communal reciprocity is the antimarket principle according to which: I serve you not because of what I can get in return but because you need or want my service, and you, for the same reason, serve me.  On the other hand, since the market motivates productive contribution not on the basis of commitment to one's fellow human beings and a desire to serve them while being served by them, but on the basis of cash reward - market reciprocity is not the same as communal reciprocity.

This immediate motive to productive activity in a market society is typically a mixture of greed and fear.      

Greed and Fear

It is true that people can engage in market activity under other aspirations, but the motives of greed and fear are what the market brings to prominence: greed on behalf of, and fear for the safety of, one's family. Even when one's concerns are wider than those of one's self, the market posture is greedy and fearful in that one's opposite-number marketeers are predominantly seen as possible sources of enrichment, and as threats to one's success. 

Goes without saying that these are horrible ways of seeing other people, however much we have become habituated and inured to them, this is a result of centuries of capitalist civilization. Of course capitalism did not invent greed and fear, they are deep in human nature, but capitalism does celebrate them.

Within communal reciprocity, one produces in a spirit of commitment to their fellow human beings: a desire to serve them while being served by them.  

Within market reciprocation, one is willing to serve only in order to be served: one would not serve if doing so were not a means to get service. Accordingly, one would give as little service as they can in exchange for as much service as they can get: I want to buy cheap and sell dear. I serve others either in order to get something that I desire - that is the greed motivation; or in order to ensure that something I seek to avoid is avoided - that is the fear motivation.  

A marketeer, as such, does not value cooperation with others for its own sake: the conjunction, serve-and-be-served is not valued.

A non-market cooperator relishes cooperation: what I want, is that we serve each other; and when I serve, instead of trying to get whatever I can get, I do not regard my actions as a sacrifice. To be sure, I serve you in the expectation that (if you are able to) you will also serve me. My commitment does not require me to be a sucker who serves you regardless of whether (if you are able to do so) you are going to serve me, but I nevertheless find value in both parts of the conjunction: I serve you and you serve me. I do not regard the first part - I serve you - as a means to my real end, which is that you serve me. The relationship between us is not the market instrumental one in which I give because I get, but the non-instrumental one in which I give because you need, or want, and in which I expect a comparable generosity from you.

So, Can Communal Reciprocity Work?

Albert Einstein once said that socialism is humanity's attempt to "overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development". Every market, is a system of predation and so far, our attempts to get beyond predation on a national scale, have failed - but that doesn't mean we cannot apply the principles of community, or communal reciprocity, in our every day lives.   

Communal reciprocity can link chains of people together: I can serve you, and you her, and she him, and he me. In a sense, communal networks that are in some ways structurally like market networks, can form. The difference would be that reciprocity would operate under different motivations than market reciprocity but in essence, they would be like market networks in the way that no one does anything for anyone without getting something in return.

Because motivation in market exchange consists, to a large degree, of greed and fear, a person does not care, fundamentally, within a market interaction, about how well or badly anyone other than their self fares. You cooperate with other people not because you believe it's a good thing in itself, not because you want yourself and the other person to flourish, but because you seek to gain and you know that you can do so only if you cooperate with others. 

In every type of society people perforce provision one another: a society is a network of mutual provision. But, in a market society, that mutuality is only a by-product of an un-mutual and fundamentally nonreciprocating attitude.   

In our effort to advance beyond predation we must realize that we are up against entrenched capitalist power and individual human selfishness. But these are not reasons to disparage the ideal itself. If we focus on the aspiration to extend community and justice to our every day dealings, we can make a change. It is now, more than ever, imperative to defend community principles - especially that healthcare and education are currently under aggressive threat from the market principle.   

Is it just to live in a society where human life is valued by a monetary ROI?


Part II: Global Economy - 21st Century Style

International trade and investment is not actually a new phenomenon in itself. The growth of trade and investment across borders began over five hundred years ago as part of European imperialism. 

In this day and age though, it is becoming increasingly easier for corporations to move investment from one country to another, in many cases this also involves national governmental support. For example, in the Mexican financial crisis of late 1994-early 1995 where American interest rates rose seven times in 12 months, caused billions to flow out of Mexico in response to the good news of higher interest rates in America, causing Mexico to run out out of foreign exchange reserves (US$6bn by December 1994). This caused the Mexican government to devalue the peso, causing this time foreign capital to flow out of Mexico in fear of greater devaluation! Eventually a US$52bn rescue package accumulated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Mexico, meant that Mexico lost control over its own economy. The outside world, the IMF and the USA began to dictate how Mexico would run its monetary policies (Thurow, L., p.31).

This is just one example of how global economics affect nations worldwide. But increasingly so, in the last fifty years the size of overseas investment by European, North American and East Asian corporations has seen a dramatic surge. This dramatic surge has seen corporations grow more powerful and increasingly playing a commanding role in international economic policies. Their products are now able to dominate consumer markets across the world, helping to rename these establishments as 'transnational corporations' (TNCs).

In the mid-1970s, business corporations in industrialised countries faced an energy crisis which threatened their increasing profits, in order to overcome this they started to take advantage of nations with cheap labour where they in turn, increased their investment in. Exploitation of cheap labour overseas was key strategy to produce even cheaper products enabling them to dominate consumer markets worldwide. Also during this time, international trade barriers such as tariffs, subsidies, import controls and taxes on imports were successfully removed. Hence the creation of the 'free market'; free in the sense that corporations had more freedom to accumulate profits.

In countries where workers did not have social rights in the first place, their governments and the 'free market' refused to recognise these rights which lead to violent worker's repression, loss of social protection, cuts in government spending on welfare and education, privatisation of public services and utilities, and cheaper unprotected labour for exploitation.

With reference to the acclaimed documentary, 'The Corporation', TNCs have actually been classed as mentally insane if one was to take their status as a legal 'person'. This is why globalisation is sometimes also defined as 'capitalism is the age of electronics' (Greenfield, G. and Pringle, T.; 2001).

Change. Today. Fast.

'Half of humanity has never made a phone-call' (Thabo Mbeki, G7 summit [1])

Not all developing countries have been fortunate enough to experience the great advancements in information technology this global revolution has bestowed upon us. Despite the rapid expansion of the Internet, information technology inequalities do exist, and a great portion of the globe are still bereft of its benefits. One of the main obstacles is the lack of a modern and robust telecommunications infrastructure. Forty-nine countries (thirty-five of which are African) have less than one telephone per 100 people. India has eight million phone lines for over 900 million people (Al-Suwaidi, J., p.2).  This indicates that the information gap between developed and developing nations is in fact, increasing.

Another factor is that the network society is dominated by natives and ethnic majorities. For foreigners and ethnic minorities who lack the skills and do not speak or command the dominant English language, they are alienated even further from joining the global revolution (Van Dijk, J., 1999).

Information is not, in itself, power, but it aids those who possess power and the mass media plays a crucial role in the maintenance of information levels both for citizens and governments. During the 1950s, structural-functionalist thinking was dominant and sought to explain the developing world's need to move from a 'traditional' to a hegemonous 'modern' set of attitudes and behaviours. The basic psychology of the traditional individual was needed to be altered to one that veers away from religion to secularism with emphasis on acceptance of scepticism, risk-taking and personal efficacy, social trust and the environment. This shift rendered traditional values as deficient and hindering to the mobilization process. The consequences were mass media operated for the interests of the dominant elite, a rise in numbers of criminal/disturbed individuals suffering from psychological disorientation, increased drug use, crimes, and fraudulent spirituality (Morgan, D. p.93).  

This dominance of elite's version of modernity brought up in 1966 by Barrington Moore, was also echoed in 1971 by Antonio Gramsci who spoke of the concept of 'hegemony'. Gramsci conceptualized hegemony to be stemmed from the notion that the most dominant social group in society has the ability to influence direction, intellectually and morally, over a society not by mere military force but by creating consent through ideological control of 'cultural production and distribution'. And that such a system exists through the control of mass media, schools and religious bodies. Whereby authority is bestowed by the government, this consent is 'organised' and those that are consenting are 'educated to do so' (Thussu, D., 2006).   

Despite all this globalization hype, according to the Human Development Report (UNDP, 2003) per capita levels declined in 54 countries in the 1990s and 1.38 billion workers across the world lived on less than $2 a day (ILO, 2004); poverty elimination and inequalities between 'haves' and 'have nots' is clearly not a major issue on the 'elitist' agenda.


Although the age of globalisation has brought many changes in its tide, some positive and others negative, instability in this phase of transition to an increasingly global world, is imminent. But instabilities are not created by the technologies though, they are only exasperated by them. Unless all nations become full participatory actors in this global revolution, the gap between the rich and the poor will widen; increasing marginalisation in tow. And this gap will increase cultural, religious and ethnic conflicts inter-regionally and across borders.

Kofi Annan at the World Bank conference said that, '[w]hat is so thrilling about our time is that the privilege of information is now an instant and globally accessible privilege. It is our duty and responsibility to see that gift bestowed on all the world's people, so that all may live lives of knowledge and understanding [2]' (Global Knowledge Conference, June 1997).

The future is truly in our hands.   


Al-Suwaidi, J. The Information Revolution and the Arab World: It’s Impact on State and Society, The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, 1998, p.2, 3

Morgan, D. Mass Media and the Policy Process, 1996, p.93

Thurow, L. The Information-Communications Revolution and the Global Economy, (1997) p.11, 31

Thussu, D. International Communication: Continuity and Change, 2006, Hodder Education, p.53, 97

Dijk, J. The Network Society, 1999, Sage Publications, p. 148

UNDP, Human Development Report 2003: Millennium Development Goals: A Compact Among Nations to End Human Poverty, 2003, Oxford University Press

ILO, World of Work Magazine No. 50, March 2004: Toward a fair globalisation, Global Employment Trends, 2004

[1]    Quoted in Al-Suwaidi, J. The Information Revolution and The Arab World, p. 2
[2]    Quoted in Al-Suwaidi, J. The Information Revolution and The Arab World, p. 3

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Part I: Globalisation - A New Phenomenon?

Over twenty years ago, the most advanced and sophisticated instrument of telecommunication technology in any office was the telephone. Today, we have an abundance of choice when it comes to domestic or international communication, and each choice is catered for any of our specific needs. If we want to cyber-travel across the world to see, and speak, with the CEO in America from the comfort of our office in London, we simply click on the 'video-conferencing' option. If we want to send an important document to our local office in France, we can send a 'fax', or if no one is available to receive our important message we can leave a 'voice-mail' delivered from our 'mobile phone', which also allows us to relay that message simultaneously via 'email'. Or if all else fails, we can upload it onto the company 'intranet', or let the whole world have access to it by posting our message on the 'internet'.

This is just an example of growth and progress in technology over the past decade, which has been nothing but mind-blowingly phenomenal. Indeed, this speed and vast influx of technology as we know it, has radically changed how we go about our every day life.

What is Globalisation?

In 'Understanding Media' (1964) by Marshall McLuhan (who was the first person to coin the now popular term 'global village') Mcluhan defines his phrase 'global village' as an electronic nervous system 'in a global embrace abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned'. And what he meant by a 'central nervous system' was actually the media which was rapidly causing the planet to integrate, whereby events in one part of the world could be experienced from another part in real-time, as if it was happening within our vicinity even. And this was what human experience was like living in a small village.

Nowadays, this global village that Mcluhan so rightly predicted has been manifested into a word which has come into common use especially in the last twenty years: 'globalisation'.

Globalisation can be defined as a worldwide network of connections, whether it be between organisations or peoples, across national, geographic and cultural borders. Globalisation is also seen as a revolution in telecommunications, economy (capital or finance), and transport that has significantly influenced the nature and pace of growth in nations across the world. These 'global networks' have helped create a shrinking world where national boundaries and cultural/local differences are being promulgated into what is widely known as a 'global identity'.

Despite the recent use of the term globalisation in our everyday life, globalisation has only started to take its shape and form in the last twenty years because of advances in technology, especially computer technology which have meant that communication, information and transportation have become much faster and reaching more countries than ever. But the reason for the time lag is because it typically takes three or more decades before communication and information technologies take their penultimate shape and have their economic impacts acknowledged. This is attributable to economic and social reasons (Thurow, L., p.11).

Globalisation is seen as a process of change, many even see it as natural and inescapable. This is because globalisation involves two main factors: (1) Change involves international trade and investment, especially the role of business corporations, thereby creating an intertwining of national economies into a global economy, and (2) Changes around the world are happening much faster now....

Next Post: Part II: Global Economy - 21st Century Style

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Our Media or the Other's?

Effects of the Information Revolution on Egypt.

‘Each of us is the destiny of the other, and no doubt the secret destiny of each of us is to destroy (or seduce) the other- not by virtue of a curse or some kind of death drive, but by virtue of our own vital destination’ - 
J. Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil.

What is The Media? Who is 'the Other'? What is the Information Revolution? And, what are the effects? These will be some of the questions I will be raising in light to shed some explanation to the social changes imported from the Western World via the media, that are taking place in Egyptian social networks and that are intertwining to becoming a part of its everyday fabric.

Let's just start off with a quote from Morgan, 'Media may not tell us what to think, but they are strikingly successful at telling us what to think about'.

Also, a concept used by Hegel contends that 'human consciousness is incapable of perceiving itself without recognition by others'. With the Phenomenological and Existentialist view in cue, the Other is the factor that helps the individual to build up an image of oneself. In fact the Other 'is the person or group that confers meaning upon the subject by either helping it or forcing it to adopt a particular world view and to define its position therein'.

Now, looking back into history, we see that there's an unstoppable habit of a regular occurrence, usually known as a case of 'history repeating'; especially for a slowly developing country such as Egypt the repercussions can be disastrous.

Historically, cultures have slowly evolved as they were sent down from one generation to the next. We've come a long way since the caveman; I'd definitely vouch for that. This century marks this advent of an 'Information Revolution', which is simply an extension to the industrial revolution; but with an excess of Televisions, radios, computers, mobile phones, wireless interaction, etc. For the first time in history ever, the people's cultures that they used to adhere to are being challenged by what is not just a mainstream culture, but a 'global' culture. So in an attempt to maybe replicate Mcluhen's idea of a 'global village', they've actually also created an economic village in the process. Today '[a] modern culture is what sells and not what is transmitted from the past'.

Morgan also adds that '[i]nformation is not, in itself, power, but it aids those who possess power'. He then goes on to point out how governments do rely on a 'high degree of up-to-date information', but also that on the other hand information should be readily available for an informed public to be able to 'evaluate what governments say to their citizens'. This is indeed the main basic foundation of a successful democracy.

Pretty simple, but what is the role of media in all this? According to Morgan, in the 1950's a 'structural-functionalist’ thinking became dominant, and gave forth reasons and explanations as to why the developing world needs to move towards a more 'modern' set of attitudes, leaving behind their 'traditional' set of attitudes and behaviours. The traditional cultures, apparently, were 'deficient' and 'made mobilization difficult'. And just to put the cherry on the icing, Noam Chomsky adds '…as a society has become more free and democratic, you lose that capacity. Therefore you have to turn to the techniques of propaganda. The logic is clear. Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state'.

Keep these words in mind: The Other, Information Revolution, Media, Propaganda and Culture.

The Age of the Information-Technology Revolution

It takes more than thirty years before today's communications and information technologies take their shape and their economic impacts declared. In this time in history, the price of the electric light bulb was falling as comparative as how today's computing power is now falling. As bulbs prices fell, night became day, bulbs evolved into a primary advertising medium, and also used for the promotion of public safety.

But that wasn't enough. Then, evolved the age of the information-communications revolution which was fuelled by the consumer’s need of demanding more, it wanted to
'revolutionize the way man approaches, analyses, and interprets reality'.

Nowadays the younger generations can directly see alternative lifestyles; lifestyles that have never even been experienced by the elder generations of the past. And since governments have no technologically feasible way to deny their citizens access to this global culture, they ultimately 'lose their ability to protect their national cultures'. Paradoxically, traditionally the definition of national states ‘revolved around their different cultures'. And the more satellite links with this global culture, with less national controls; national cultures are now competing at a global level against this ever penetrating ‘global’ culture. Undoubtedly, some cultures will obviously survive this global match, but others inevitably will not.

A Case of History Repeating: Enter Modernism and the New Culture
'In a capitalist society, economic representations are the matrix around which all other are organised. In particular, the class of an individual- his or her effective possession of or separation from the means of production- is the determinant fact of social life' - Timothy J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life. 

We know that those who are illiterate think, they remember, they reason, and they argue, but in very different ways than those who are literate. If all truth be told, then the power of the 'image' is definitely more persuasive. According to Thurow these 'new telecommunication technologies are highly visual, and in this sense a return to the world of the illiterate'. 

According to Morgan, in 1966, Barrington Moore noted that, 'by extension, portrayed media as the witting, or unwitting, tools of elites who sought ''modernity'' only on their own terms'. Because privately-owned media, were dependent on advertising it 'made them vulnerable to pressure and intimidation'. In Egypt, this is true of local advertising, but even more so 'of the advertising of consumer products originating outside the state, the control of which lay in the developed world, usually in the United States'.

The Middle East region has an overwhelming set of examples of different regimes and media situations. In Egypt, 'there are varying degrees of tight party/military control of media'. Indeed, no 'Middle East state is free from official concerns over the management of information and opinion, and the general problem of cultural defence'.

Giddens adds that in 'high modernity', the influence of things happening in far away places 'on proximate events and on intimacies of the self' almost become the normal thing. And then he says, '[t]he media, printed and electronic, obviously play a central role in this respect'. Adding to that, advertising has revolutionized the word 'lifestyle'. Nowadays it has been taken up to promote commoditized consumption, where the poor are more or less 'completely excluded from the possibility of making lifestyle choices'.

According to the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) which measures social well-being by gathering data to provide a composite measure of three dimensions of human development: life expectancy; adult literacy and having a decent standard of living; Egypt was ranked at 111 out of 177. That's far less than the living standards of the Western nations, guaranteed! 

Culture and its Services 

Paying compliments to Berger's 'Ways of Seeing: The Language of Advertising' documentary which talks about the power of advertising in the Western world, let's just take a quick glance at the word ‘Glamour’.

According to the Online Encarta English Dictionary, glamour is defined as 'an irresistible alluring quality that somebody or something possesses by virtue of seeming much more exciting, romantic, or fashionable than ordinary people or things' and also 'striking physical good looks or sexual impact, especially when it is enhanced with highly fashionable clothes or make-up'. So we can conclude that the magic words here are that glamorous people or glamorous things are considered to be much more exciting than ordinary people or ordinary things, and the enhancement of seemingly ordinary things or ordinary people with fashionable clothes or make-up seem to do the trick in the transformation to becoming instantaneously glamorous. Also, adding excitement, romance and fashion to one’s lifestyle seemingly creates glamour, yet also dries the pocket: as they all entail the provision, and constant funding, of money.

(Source: Adbusters Magazine, Vol 12, No. 5, Mar/Apr 2006)

But it is only through the spending of money towards the purchase of the publicized image that we get to be part of a glamorous dream. This in turn, brings us to the all destructive force of the all mighty capitalism: the power to acquire through spending hard earned money. Capitalism pretty much, states that the sum of everything is money, and on that note Berger contends that, the anxiety on which publicity plays is the fear that having nothing you will be nothing. Money is life, in the sense that money is the token of, and the key to, every human capacity: The power to spend money is the power to live.

Cultural Imperialism and Orientalism

According to Cavallaro, imperialism 'is a state's forceful extension of its powers through the conquest and exploitation of other territories'. These extensions of power usually take on a guise of agents of civilisation gifted with racial and cultural superiority. Adding to that 'imperialism results from monopoly capitalist's determination to maximise their profits by exploiting foreign regions: using their raw materials, strengthening existing markets through the introduction of new goods made from such materials, and augmenting their investment opportunities'. Hence, economy plays a big role in imperialistic motives.

Edward Said contends that Orientalism is defined as the phenomenon where the East has been reconstructed by the West since the Renaissance (Great Britain actually colonised Egypt for just under a century). And that, Orientalism's objective is to 'validate Western values, political and economic systems and structures of domination, by posting as Other anyone or anything apparently at odds with Western institutions'.

Nationalism, which is the promotion of a nation’s territorial ideological supremacy, and Orientalism have both contributed significantly to the creation of national and territorial identities, and the advancement of ideologies through both imperial and colonial power. In order to establish one superior nation's ideology over another, there has to be an Other that is marginalised as inferior. This sense of contrast between inferiority and superiority cannot be established until the self and Other are too, established. Racial differences have been the greatest scapegoats in this ploy: the more remote and primitive a colonised population appears to be, the more justifiable the oppression and exploitation.

Although decolonisation (the process whereby a once dependent nation has achieved state sovereignty) has more or less been achieved in Egypt, newer modifications have become apparent through direct, or indirect, control via economies, and foreign trade agreements, for example. These new and improved recipes for colonisation have now evolved, some even changed their names and can be known as: neo-colonisation and neo-imperialisation.

Modern Times: The Spectacular Society

This now brings us to the concept of the 'spectacular' society, the effects and implications of capitalist societies. Clark firstly explains what the spectacular culture's symptoms are: consumerism or the society of leisure, the rise of mass media, the expansion of advertising and the hypertrophy of official diversions (e.g.: the Olympic Games). Indeed '[t]he spectacle is capital accumulated until it becomes an image'.

With the emergence of this spectacular society since the mid-1960's, Western influenced societies such as Egypt have slowly started to follow Western cues with their shifts from community, family and religious institutions to commercialised or privately improvised forms such as the streets, the cafés and resorts. Leading to an estrangement from older ties, Egyptians who lacked the economic means to accept and obtain these norms of freedom can be 'spiritually torn by a sense of helpless isolation in an anonymous indifferent mass'.

Egypt: An Example of Late Modernity

In an attempt to look at the psychological ramifications of late modernity in the West, Giddens quotes that '[p]ersonal meaningless- the feeling that life has nothing worthwhile to offer- becomes a fundamental psychic problem in circumstances of late modernity'. The more tradition loses its hold, and the more daily life is evolved to become the transmutation of the local and the global, the more individuals will be forced to negotiate lifestyle choices. But there are 'standardizing influences too- most notably, in the form of commoditization, since capitalist production and distribution form core components of modernity's institutions'.

Berger, on the other hand, in a literary criticism of Kant's 'Critique of Judgement, 1790', sums up that 'lower and more numerous classes' are slaves to the immediate satisfaction of their basic drives. Not only that, but that also the 'enlightenment of reason' hasn't really done much 'to teach the civilized classes' to behave morally. He argues that civilization's development has destroyed unity of the senses and of reason: 'we see not merely individual persons but whole classes of human beings developing only one part of their capacities, while the rest of them, like a stunted plant, show only a feeble vestige of their nature'. Bringing social science into the situation, we get the division of labor bringing with it class society as its 'unavoidable consequence'. We cannot forget that Giddens implored that modernity 'produces exclusion and marginalization'. A hope of emancipation is held out, but at the same time modern institutions are creating mechanisms of suppression: Lifestyle falls under 'severe material constraint, and the more or less deliberate rejection of more widely diffused forms of behavior and consumption'.

This is extremely significant because with the proliferation of Western ideologies transferred to Egypt via global communication, we can see that with faster and less controlled technologies, a history of the West is unraveling and slowly shaping the future of Egypt.

The Communications Revolution: Public Relations, Media and Propaganda

According to the Online Encarta English thesaurus Public Relations can be synonymous with 'image management', 'spin doctoring', 'media manipulation', 'public image' and 'impact'.

Now Chomsky tells us that, the people in the Public Relations industry aren't in it for the fun of it. No sir, they're trying to instil the 'right' values, apparently. They see a system where the 'specialized' class are trained to work for the service of the masters, the people who own the society. And the rest of the population should be 'sitting alone in front of the TV and having drilled into their heads the message, which says, the only value in life is to have more commodities, or live like that rich middle class family you're watching and to have nice values like harmony and Americanism'.

But instead of making it easier for social outsiders to participate in the governmental process, Thurow adds that 'as many have predicted, information technologies have made it much more expensive'.

Thurow also tells us that in an election cycle of 1996, American political spending was up with more than US$2bn spent on political advertisements or event appearances. Although candidates spending the most money didn't always win 'they won most of the time'. Anyone can make a soft drink, or cigarette, but fewer and fewer can sell them simply because advertising and promotion must have billions of pounds spent on them if they are to succeed.

So pretty simply, the more money there is to spend on advertising and promotion, the more chance the message will be received by a wider audience that is more than likely to act in lieu with it. In Egypt there is an approximate forty percent illiteracy rate, hence the main medium for this population of society would most conveniently be the TV or radio which is jam packed with Western product advertising. Also, with more and more governmental assistance to stimulate foreign investment in Egypt, it is no surprise that more and more people are being accommodated to McDonald’s or KFC and even wearing Levi’s and Nike. Something they knew nothing about merely half a century ago.

Modern 'Propagandist' Media

Chomsky tells us about Walter Lippmann’s theory: A Progressive Theory of Democratic Thought. Lippmann argues that in a properly functioning democracy there are classes of citizens. There's the class that has to take some active role in general affairs; the specialized class, they execute, analyse, take decisions, and run things in the ideological, political and economical field. This is the small group who always talk about the ‘others’. The ‘others’ are the majority of the population. They are also termed by Lippmann as the 'bewildered herd', and their function in a democracy is to simply spectate, while the specialised class protects itself from 'the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd'.

The Other: Fear What We Do Not Understand

It is advocated that when a culture, society or community marginalises certain individuals as Other, what is being done is actually an attempt to 'exclude or repress a part of itself which it finds difficult to understand, let alone accept'. No culture is ever unified, and hence an individual's identity consciously and unconsciously competing within its fabric, divulging, creates a sense of vulnerability. To combat this ensued insecurity, society henceforth reacts by creating divisions between the parts of themselves that it wishes to retain, and those which they abhor to as the Other. Thus, when one discriminates, or abuses another what is actually being rejected is a part of the individual's own self: 'a society's treatment of strangers mirrors the individual's attitude to his/her unconscious fears and desires'.

As they say we are usually afraid of that which we don't understand. Advocating this point, Levinas quotes that 'Western philosophy has insistently repressed the other by striving to give it a definite place'. Concurrently though because the Other rises above any structure, any attempt to domesticating or categorizing it, in effect actually ends up colonising it instead. Which gives us a great departing point to move on to ‘Other’ side of the world: the Middle East region.

The MENA Region

So we all know that democracies believe in the consumer culture because of the promotion of a privatised/capitalistic economy. So how is the MENA region affected?

Mustafa impedes that constraints by politics translate that 'private media ventures focus on business'. He also adds that the media business in the MENA region, especially in free media zones such as Egypt, pretty much thrives on entertainment.

There has always been this awesome thing about the internet since its introduction into the market: the ultimate global solution they said. But with the reality of the matter in hand, all Arab countries need assistance in building an Information-Communications Technology infrastructure. For some countries it would be unsustainable because it would be too expensive or difficult for local people to maintain. Another hindrance to usage of the internet is that 'most content is still in English'; the mother tongue of Arabs is Arabic.

Adding to the already increasing inequality gap between the West and East, Mustafa emphasises that this rapid pace of change in technology 'is expected to accelerate over the next fifteen years', re-iterating 'the digital divide between the world's richest countries, and those that even today cannot keep pace with change'.

According to Anton et al., the scope and pace in the adoption of technology will be affected by '[c]ultural adaptation, economic necessity, social demands, and resource availabilities'. And that will be the case in every industry and society over the next fifteen years, which adding to that with the pace and scope in mind, such change could have powerful effects on the economy, society and politics of a lot of countries from the MENA region, including Egypt.

Looking at a source (see Appendix 1) for Political Rights, Civil Liberties and overall Freedom Ratings in a representation of 'Freedom and the Information Revolution' in the MENA region. Egypt is 'Not free' when it comes to the Freedom Rating, and in terms of how info-revolutionary, it's 'Trying'.

Tibi though assures us that democracy and civil society are both related to cultural modernity, so maybe there could be a light at the end of the tunnel. But ever since the early nineteenth century, there have been continuing Arab efforts to introduce democracy into its nations. However, the outcome has been 'extremely poor'. Two centuries later, the United Nations Development Programme report on the Arab World in 2002 pinpointed that the main problems hindering modernity and underlying the state of backwardness in the MENA region, are part and parcel of the lack of democracy and human rights. And it can be said that '[d]emocracy is a political culture'.

Issawi's 1956 publication contends that '[w]hat is required is a great economic and social transformation which will strengthen society and make it capable of bearing the weight of the modern state. Such a development is [a] necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the establishment of genuine democracy in the region'. Arabs have bore witness to numerous governmental and political leader changes; nevertheless, the governing culture of political oppression and the lack of political freedom continue to exist until today. With Egypt, in particular, reserving the monopoly of all facilities, consequently, civil society not only means very little but is almost non-existent.

Conclusion: Social Control

In a Western attempt to rectify the problem of democracy in the Arab states, taking the concept of post-war Iraq into consideration; it is clear that the war waged against terrorism and anti-democratic values did not return with the desired results. On the contrary, Arab-Muslim-Western tensions have exacerbated, and the mere understanding of democracy has been tainted in the Arab world. Meanwhile, in America there are numerous and growing domestic, social and economic problems; but no body is doing anything about it. Accordingly Chomsky gives the media's solution to such circumstances by saying that 'you've got to divert the bewildered herd'. Apparently, '[y]ou have to whip them up in fear of enemies' too.

The moral principle or dilemma is that 'the mass of the public are just too stupid to be able to understand things'. They'd just cause trouble if they were to participate in managing their own affairs, and in turn, it would be improper and immoral to let them do this. Therefore, the bewildered herd must be tamed and not allow them 'to rage and trample and destroy things'.

With a pretty clearer vision of what’s really happening behind gatekeepers’ gates, a positive element of the global communications revolution (especially satellites) is that the monopoly of Western control over information has weakened to some extent. A speech given by Abd Al-Hafiz Al-Hargham, director general of the Union of Arab Broadcasters, acknowledged that foreign channels have begun to pervade the Arab market on a huge scale, but rightly said Arabs cannot simply retreat from globalization or allow others to dominate the process. The future, he states, lies in contributing to the process of globalization by Arabizing the sources of information and producing our own entertainment and public affairs programs, instead of simply importing them from the West.

This will as a result create a greater Arab cultural unity through cross-border discourse, and exposure to other Arab traditions, which will all combine to help create a common Arab agenda, and perhaps more importantly, hopefully plant the seeds for the growth of a more active and involved citizenry, which will be better informed and actively participative in the decision-making process.


Table 1: Freedom and the Information Revolution (Freedom House, 2000).

Source: www.freedomhouse.org/research/freeworld/2000/methodology5.htm.


Baudrillard, J. The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, New York, (1993)

Al-Suwaidi, Jamal, S. The Information Revolution and the Arab World: It’s Impact on State and Society, The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, (1998)

Morgan, David. Mass Media and the Policy Process, (1996), p.92, 93, 94, 96

Thurow, Lester. The Information-Communications Revolution and the Global Economy, (1997) p.10, 18, 19, 34

Cavallaro, Dani. Critical and Cultural Theory, The Athlone Press, London, (2006), p.120-121, 124, 125, 126, 129.

Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, Seven Stories Press, New York, (1997), p.16, 17, 20, 26

Frascina, Francis. Harris, Jonathan. (eds.), Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, (1992), p.18, 19, 22, 42

Clark, Timothy J. The Painting of Modern Life, Thames and Hudson, (1985), p.3-22, p.271-272

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge Press, (1991), p.1-9

Berger, Peter. On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society, University of Minnesota Press, (1984), p.35-54, p.112-114

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing: The Language of Advertising BBC TV Series, (1972)

Burkhart, Grey E., Older, Susan. The Information Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, Rand, (2003), p.28-29

Mustafa, Ahmed. Role of New Media in Economic Change in the Arab World, paper presented at the New Media and Change in the Arab World conference, Amman, Jordan, 1 March 2002a

Antón et al., 2000, Antón, Philip S., Richard Silberglitt, and James Schneider, The Global Technology Revolution: Bio/Nano/Materials Trends and Their Synergies with Information Technology by 2015, Santa Monica, (2000)http://www/.cia.gov/nic/graphics/rand.pdf

Emerson, Michael (ed.), Democratisation in the European Neighbourhood, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels, (2005), p.18-19

Tibi, Bassam. Islam, Freedom and Democracy in the Arab World, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels, (2005), p.96-99

Issawi, Charles. Economic and Social Foundations of Democracy in the Middle East, 1956, p.41

Speech given by Abd al-Hafiz al-Hargham, the director general of the Union of Arab Broadcasters, to the Emergency Session for Coordination Among Satellite Channels, Beirut 14-16 May (1999)