Traces of a disconcerting global reality
By Dr. Manuel Escudero, 1 SEP 2011
Filed in the Opinion section.
We are living in a new global reality that disrupts us from our usual "beaten path." It is worthwhile to describe the characteristics of this new global reality--noted here are 10--presented in the confidence that upon seeing them grouped together as a whole, it becomes clear that rather than merely living in an era of change, we are actually experiencing a change of era.
These are some of the new characteristics of reality:
1. The public authorities are "shrinking." A large part of the problems that we experience in our daily life cannot be addressed in isolation by each country (the problem of sovereign debt or the regulation of financial markets, global terrorism or climate change). This raises the problem of the limits of democracy: it results in difficulty for citizens to give their vote to any political option, knowing that anyone's capacity to resolve problems is more than restricted.
2. In addition, during the second half of the twentieth century we learned that the unbounded growth of the public sector does not resolve all the problems. This does not mean that public policies are unnecessary. The ultimate goal of policy (Philip Petit) is freedom, understood as the eradication of all types of domination exercised by a few individuals over others. The intervention of the State is necessary to help people to shake the dominations suffered, but it is also necessary to prevent public abuses by a democracy that is much more deliberative and argumentative.
3. While democratic governments show their limitations, the power of global enterprises has increased in the last decade as a result of globalization, deregulation, and privatization. If the Fortune 500 companies were a country (data as of 2010), it would be the second largest in the world, with the equivalent of two-thirds of GNP of the United States, and double that of Japan or China. And this raises the issue of to whom are these new global powers accountable.
4. Partly as a spontaneous response to the increasing power of global corporations, there has risen an international tendency for social regulation of the corporation on the part of a growing number of affected groups: sustainability, corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship. It appears that companies are beginning to adhere to certain standards of social conduct, environmental and governance, making intermingling and co-mixing the new role of business in the twenty-first century as an economic institution with positive impacts on society and in the global arena. However, this tendency is not yet consolidated and furthermore, financial investment institutions have not accepted this in their majority.
5. Also, an extremely important aspect of the social fabric has changed: the generation of legitimacy. Legitimacy--the moral license to operate--comes from public opinion (Habermas). But today, public opinion is not only generated through local and national media, but above all, public opinion is generated by social networks: an exponentially increasing amount of analysis, opinions, comments, and links generated by the users themselves. Through the Internet and its platforms (Twitter, Likedin, Facebook, Google, blogs, etc.), a growing number of ordinary citizens have become a powerful source of reflexivity (Giddens), for quickly creating states of conscience and legitimacy, both for public authorities and for private.
6. When this fact is added with other supplementary evidence: social networks are being revealed as a powerful multiplier and facilitator of the massive intervention of ordinary citizens in the public agenda. The last six months have shown us abundant examples: the Arab Spring, the 15-M in Spain, the mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv, or the riots in the UK and the response of the public to them.
7. These trends have been aggravated by the economic and financial crisis of 2008. First, investment of global financial institutions, hedge funds, investment funds, and pension funds, flanked by private rating agencies have created a truly unprecedented situation: the same institutions that gave rise to the crisis in the first place, which have emerged unscathed and economically strengthened from the same, hold the ropes to democratic bodies such as the United States or Europe.
8. Budgetary constraints and unemployment have been combined to produce the greatest income inequality ever recorded in our lives. In Spain, more than one million families have all their family members in unemployment. Income inequality in the United States is the largest since the Census Bureau began its statistics in 1967. In this same country, the income from work of those that made more than 50 million in a year, rose in 2008 to $ 91.2 million, but in 2010, it became the chilling figure of 518.8 million. These 74 Americans garnered from their income the equivalent to what 19 million low income Americans made. At the same time, the large global corporations remind us every day that they are making significant profits, despite the crisis. If we consider again the Fortune 500 companies as a single country, it would be one of the fastest growing countries in 2010, ahead of China or India.
9. The crisis has finally revealed a new and crucial feature: a multi-sided world in which new economic powers, such as Iran, will assert its voice. This will eventually lead to a new global, multilateral reality, both in economic and political terms. It is not unreasonable to think that we are on the threshold of a new international monetary agreement, which will anchor the system to a basket of currencies and not only the dollar, and that, ideally, will also ultimately agree to regulation of financial institutions in investment. But, when this happens, it is possible that not all of us will be comfortable: India, China, Brazil or Russia could bring ideas and suggestions that are unfamiliar to those who live far from the epicenter of globalization.
10. And the final inescapable characteristic, there are other crises, less mentioned, but also determinative. We live on a very populated planet (Jeffrey Sachs) in which the four pillars of world population growth: climate, population, water, and electricity, are subject to growing bottlenecks. Along with the threat of rapid climate change, there are 1 billion people at risk of malnutrition, 1.2 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, and 1.8 billion have no access to electricity ... And these figures are only the announcement of the crises in food security, water, and energy, that we will continue experiencing intermittently in the future.
Before this change of an era, what fit were two intellectual positions: the most natural is confusion, and the feeling of powerlessness. But what also fits now is the conviction that a primary task of great social significance today is that social scientists, and political and economic researchers set aside their prevailing beliefs, and make an effort in order to see reality as it is, with the hope of, at least, the ability to ask relevant questions.
In your opinion, which one of the above global trends is the most worrisome, and why?