History and Biography in a Global Age: The Legacy of C. Wright Mills...cont.

by Lauren Langman

We must not lose track of the fact that the underlying dynamics of globalization rest on technologically advanced capitalism, "techno-capital (Kellner) and its valorization of instrumental reason, e.g. "techno-culture" (Aronowitz).The various strands of contemporary social life can be understood by noting a major restructuring of political economies in which commerce, governance and culture moved from an international system of Nation-States engaged in trade, and often war, to a "network society" (Castells, 1996) in which a variety of economic organizations concerned with finance and production might be spatially located in a large number of countries yet remain connected through a number of electronic information flows. Ownership is widely dispersed beyond the country of origin and may be found in a number of particular locales. At the same time, a number of regulatory agencies have eroded certain State functions, eg. there is an alphabet soup of regional and global regulatory agencies and agreements from the WTO to the IMF as well as the EU, NAFTA and MERCOSUL. Finally, the nature of communication and transportation has enabled the rapid diffusion of culture, entertainment and entertainers giving rise to a global culture, moments of which are closely tied to globalized culture industries and branded products. We must note that he major actors of this new system are Trans national corporations and with the ascendance of these organizations, we have also seen the emergence of a new power elite, a transnational capitalist class (Sklair, l998, 2000). While this trans national capitalist class is a new phenomenon, it must be seen as a metamorphosis of national power elites whose capitalist forms and/or organizations have been transformed. Thus while Mills noted the dominance of the corporations in his day, today, most of those corporations, following buyouts, mergers, consolidations across nation boundaries etc, are now players in the global economy and the powers behind most of the diplomatic and political decisions of our day.

Industrialization in its classical form depended on the extraction of raw materials from "peripheral" countries to the "core" economies. The earliest signs of globalization might could seen in the 60's when a number of manufacturing companies first began to either shift operations to countries with lower labor costs or began to purchase finished/semi-finished goods from abroad. This initiated the de-industrialization that was previously noted, but the critical moment of globalization came with the computerization of production and communication-soon followed by the globalization of finance and investment. Perhaps the most corrosive moment of globalization is speculative capital that creates wealth for the few, but unlike manufacturing, productive capital, does not produce jobs or any use value. Finally, and critical for the present argument, most globalized commerce is devoted to consumerism in general, and in particular, cultural consumption(print, recordings, television, films, the internet etc), leisure time activities and tourism which is now the fastest growing industry in the world.

The Coming of Cyberfeudal Society

Influenced by Weberís notions of "ideal types" and Frommís ideas of social character, a central concern for Mills was human variety, who were the typical types of people in strategic locations in each historical epoch, how did classes and status groups foster certain types of character. If we now rethink Mills* understandings of the sociological imagination I would like to suggest that we now face three major trends reflecting historically recent human "varieties". Each type is likely to face radically life chances, biographies and trajectories in the new global age. These types constitute in microcosm the outlines of what I call "cyberfeudalism", the new hegemony on the now globalized world stage in which a very small class of elites has or controls most of the wealth while a large class of "cyberserfs" do most of the grunt work that makes the system work. But further, despite growing inequalities, a new form of carnival culture valorizing the vulgar, the obscene and repulsive, as a liminal culture in the interstices of the contemporary world, much like the carnival of the middle ages, has become a form of cultural resistance in which hedonistic gratifications for the many serve to stabilize the system that benefits the few (Cf. Langman, 1998, Twitchell ; 1992 Bakhtin, 1968).

A new kind of capitalist elite is emerging whose wealth and power are not based on either land or machines, but instead based on the possession and control of symbolic knowledge e.g. advanced technologies such as bio-tech or computer technologies, finance and administration or professional services, especially accountancy and law. These new elites are the core of the trans national capitalist classes who own and manage the new economic realities. They are the ones who most profited from the radical changes of the last few decades. With the new social and historical reality of cyberfeudalism, these "cyber lords", claim more and more of the wealth. Some 400 billionaires have as much wealth and the bottom 40% of the world. Many of the CEOís and top capitalists make hundred of million dollar/year and while their incomes skyrocket, much of it is at the cost of the workers who have seen their wages and standards of living remain stagnant at best or recede at worst.

While the markets for "upscale" luxury goods and services grow, close to half the world cannot afford a Coca Cola. Some of this class spend small fortunes in cosmetic surgery, almost the world is without adequate health care. This new transnational class of cyberlords more and more resemble the dynastic aristocracies of the middle ages-sans codes of honor and loyalty. Much like aristocratic classes of the past, these elites support small armies devoted to providing them with certain specialized services and artifacts.

At the same time, given the trends noted, the majority of workers today, many who might have found jobs in management now face declining standards of living. we can now see that the vast numbers of workers in the world have seen their standards of living slowly recede, otherwise said a growing army of "cyber-serfs"does much of the McJob services required in the globalized economy ranging from overseas sweatshops producing garments, toys, and electronic gadgets...to sales, fast food chains, janitorial, security, etc. Consider for example as noted the rapid growth of tourism/entertainment. Most of the wealth goes to aircraft makers, airlines and hotel/ restaurant owners. While a number of upper echelon executives, pilots and professionals do very well, most of the workers, lower echelon technicians, clerks, cashiers, servers, maids, janitorial workers, etc, have seen their wages stagnate or decline. While in previous times economic retractions have been associated with political mobilizations, the culture industries foster escapist consumerism and fantasies that placate the masses. Finally, in face of the growing domination of the transnational capitalist class, increased inequality and despoliation of the environment (not much of a concern for Mills), there has emerged new forms of activism and mobilization (Castells, 1998;Dyer-Witheford, 1999).

One of the major consequences of the Enlightenment as the clarion call to modernity was the understanding that social arrangements and hierarchies, inequalities and privilege were not ordained by God(s), but were fashioned by men, or at least mostly by men. Poverty was no longer seen as inevitable and while Smith and Ricardo on the one hand, and Marx on the other offered very different reasons for wealth and poverty, they all envisioned its overcoming. Indeed much of the history of 19th and 20th Cs. can be seen as attempts to overcome domination, hardship and poverty. But now I would ask why do not the conditions of today, great concentration of wealth and growing hardship foster political mobilization left or right. I would answer that much like the "carnival culture" of the middle ages, the popular culture of the present age serves to stabilize class relations by fostering a migration of subjectivity from the social to the personal and a general disinterest in politics-save when political personae become characters in entertaining films, television or books of sexual expose ala the Clintons or Reagans. This carnival culture on the one hand creates a variety of sites for artistic creativity, personal freedom and more gratifying identities than does the dominant culture. But at the same time, like the circuses of Rome, they serve to stabilize class relations and preserve inequality. It should also be noted that the carnival culture of today is not a folk celebration owned by the "people", but rather, the many forms of this carnival culture from tabloid journalism to internet pornography, including television tell alls and WWF smashathons, are produced by global corporations-to both advertise the products of other global corporations and distribute a hegemonic ideology with identities of pseudo resistance that mask and sustain growing inequality.

Cyber-activists to the rescue

Mills, as both a progressive scholar and public intellectual decried the political apathy of his time. Yet his legacy would impact and inspire a generation of activists engaged in the many struggles of the 60's and 70's. Globalization has not only sustained the old inequalities of capital and even generated the new inequalities of cyberfeudalism, but its valorization of Instrumental Reason maintains the domination of humanity and usurpation of Nature. Globalization has accelerated despoliation of the environment, destruction of the ozone layer, the shrinking of rain forests and the mass production of waste products, some of which are not only toxic, but will remain dangerous for 20,000 more years. Adorno, Horkhiemer and Marcuse etc., noted how the technological logic of capital reduced the person into a dehumanized object whose objectification was mystified by mass culture and consumerism and whose capacities for resistance were eroded. In the years since these critiques were penned, we have seen how new technologies of surveillance discipline, dehumanize and depoliticize.

Despite the power of TNCs, the numbing allure of its mass mediated carnival culture, an electoral politics dominated by telegenic neoliberal clones, crises and dysfunctions of globalized capital generate resistance and in turn oppositional groups and coalitions with visions of genuine democracy, empowerment and self realization. The same communication systems that enable capital and information flows across the globe can link people together and distribute information. It is now more difficult for governments or corporations to conceal information whether on environmental conditions, human rights or product safety when electronic access to information cannot be controlled short of making phones illegal. Cyberspace has now created new interstices for progressive cyber-activists to create networks of opposition, new constellations of power and mobilizations. Well organized progressive NGOís and emerging coalitions can effectively publicize information, impact publics, and mobilize and in turn social policies for targeted progressive change (Castells, 1997).

But if we are to be dialectical and true to the memory of Mills, we would also note that the growing inequalities of wealth and income, the objectification of humanity , increasing pollution and environmental destruction generate and require resistance. But programs contesting dysfunctions of globalization are clearly opposed to its neoliberal policies and require organized opposition. Insofar as globalization transcends national territories, so too must resistance movements extend beyond the nation state and employ new strategies of activism. Yet there are now new means for organization, mobilization and resistance. The proliferation of the internet creates the possibilities for creation of universal communication network and the use of these networks in decentralized, counterplanning" (Dyer-Witheford, 1999). Not only have costs of computers plummeted, but there is a growing surplus of "obsolete" computers, read over a year old, that while not the leading edge of technologies, are perfectly suitable for email and internet use by the less privileged. The potential growth of networks of resistance by oppositional groups with democratic/humanist agendas can empower publics to gain democratic input and control over the technologies and investment decisions that impact peoples lives. But such groups need to develop specific plans and programs rather that slogans and shibboleths.

With the decoupling of the global economy from national polities, and decentralization and dispersion of power and decision making, it is difficult to target opposition. As Castells put it, there is no winter palace to storm. Nor are alternatives to globalization feasible, though post capitalist forms might be possible. Indeed the he production of global abundance can erode national privilege and attenuate the role of markets in the allocation of benefits. Turning back the clock to a "Golden age" and/or smashing the machines (computers and networks), themes that draw together reactionaries, anarchists and neo-Luddites are neither feasible nor desirable, life would be short, nasty and brutish. Proletarian revolution is unlikely after the legacy of totalitarian state socialism. (3) Yet there is an alternative, or set of alternatives; globalization also creates spaces for progressive, movements that seek specific goals rather than "overthrowing the system". Castells (1997) cited the Zapatistas, feminism and environmentalism. I would further note the mobilizations against FGM (female genital mutilation), the Land mine treaty, the growth of anti-sweatshop movements on American campuses and the massive rally against the WTO meetings in Seattle as harbingers of new forms of cyber-activism that portends the contestations of the 21st C.

Back to the sociological imagination

In the heyday of corporate ascendancy and political apathy sustained by relative affluence and in turn consumerism, there was something awry. People were unhappy and insecure. Yet sociology, between the Charybdis of "Grand theory" and the Scylla of "abstracted empiricism" was part of the problem-its quietude in the face of racial oppression was deafening, its indifference to gender unconscionable and its political indifference appalling. These were the conditions in which Mills chastised sociology for its indifference to the sociological imagination and the plight of real people whose lives were subjected to the forces they least understood. And yet its implicit pessimism notwithstanding, within a few years of its publication, and its sub rosa circulations among the more progressive graduate students and young sociologists, a wave of progressive activism spread across the nation-much of it led by these same students and activists.

We are now again at a crucial time in our history. The forces of global capital that grow more powerful each day colonize ever greater spaces in our pluralized lifeworlds and ever more dominate our routines. Our discipline, sad to say, rewards indifference to the sociological imagination and the questions it raises about power, wealth inequality and alienation. But power is not eternal. Lest we forget, but from the time Charlemagne was installed in 800 AD and the final demise of feudalism after WWI, there was more or less stable, if perhaps violent, social order for about 1,000 years. So too today do we face unprecedented social changes do to the rapid developments of technology. How can and will societies change as the technologies of our age reduce the amount of work necessary to produce and transport goods. On the one hand this promises to alleviate of much of the alienating toil of work that prompted Marx to write the 1844 Manuscripts. But at the same time growing inequality that further separates rich and poor. Does this portend new opportunities for human fulfillment and from each according to his/her ability, or does this"jobless future" promise a new serfdom in which a mass mediated carnival culture serve as a compensatory palliative.

But let us not despair-the same technology that enables globalization now also creates the possibilities for new forms of activism that portend the possibilities of turning private troubles into the personal joys of a rational society. One of the main tasks for the sociological imagination of the next century will be to foster the new types of social activism and actions suitable for a globalized network society. Cyberspace offers new forms of commmodification as well as new possibilities of resistance and transformation. If sociology persists in ignoring its own foundations, it remains blind to the sociological imagination, then it promises growing irrelevance and demise.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Joe Feagin from the bottom of my heart for calling for this session, to thank my friends, Stanley, David and both Bills for joining me in this call to rekindle the sociological imagination. But most of all, thank you Charles Wright Mills for inspiring so many of us that we hope to pass this legacy to our successors.

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3 Various technophilic theorists of globalization, qua post industrial, third wave, information revolution or end of history positions that dismiss Marxism may be a bit premature (see Dyer-Witheford, 1999).