The Age of Acceleration

We are slouching headlong through a wind tunnel toward some kind of new beginning. As we do so, many of our leaders and experts would have us focus on fantasy, or on nothing at all.Most of the established media spent much of 1995 touting a new "sensible center" in American politics, said to reside in the independent and inspirational yet comforting persona of Colin Powell. Trouble is, that center doesn't exist.The collapse of the "sensible center" is just the latest in a quarter-century succession of collapses and outright failures of various political tendencies: the New Deal, the Great Society, the New Left, Nixonian conservatism, the broker state bureaucratic politics of the late Demosclerotic Congress , Reaganism, the religious right, neoliberalism and the New Democrats, the Newt Right.Each has been a wrongheaded or inadequate response to what can be called the Age of Acceleration, which began around 1970. And none adequately addresses six critical challenges that the Age of Acceleration poses for the late '90s--of incomes (falling behind productivity growth, heading toward dangerous disparities), information (access for all, or only the few?), concentration (of private economic and media power, as well as governmental power), corruption (on the rise across the country and around the world), climate (flashing danger signs of significant change), and global chaos (so much for the New World Order).THE VANISHING CENTERAmerican politics is oscillating. In just the last three years, we've seen Bill Clinton's reformers and Newt Gingrich's revolutionaries march triumphantly into Washington, only to leave most Americans profoundly disappointed. The end of the Cold War produced a great historic missed opportunity. At a moment when creativity was needed, the dominant ideology was that of George Bush. The "End of History" was at hand, proclaimed State Department theorist Francis Fukuyama. Capitalist democracy was triumphant over socialism and communism. Bush proclaimed a "New World Order," and then went to war in the Persian Gulf to enforce it when his longtime ally, Saddam Hussein, embarrassed him by seizing the oil fields of Kuwait. At bottom, the New World Order and its undergirding End of History ideology were based on little more than crass materialism. Global economic integration, driven by the advance of technology and the decline of socialism and rise of pro-capitalist governments throughout the world, was not merely to be accepted and planned for, but accelerated. Hence NAFTA and GATT--transnational trade agreements designed to do just that, even in the face of Mexico's concealed narcopolitics and shaky economic fundamentals.Wars were to be fought to protect global economic interests, something of a new idea, and not an especially palatable one for public consumption. But history's first (selectively) televised war, the Gulf War, masked that by marking a return to American triumphalism. Though it did much to eliminate the rancid aftertaste of Vietnam, the effect did not last long enough to enable Bush to triumph over the damaged-goods candidacy of Bill Clinton.The precipitous fall of Bush and the rise of Clinton and independent Ross Perot marked the beginning of a period of serious political turbulence and significant disappointment. Since then, we've oscillated between Clinton in '92 and Gingrich in '94, with the massive media buildup and subsequent disappearance of Colin Powell pointing up the emptiness at the center of American political life. Powell may have suspected when he decided not to seek the presidency that any lasting new politics must be about distinctions between the new and the old. And such distinctions come from positions on the edge of change, a place sometimes confused with the fringe. Anything else is merely a gloss on the conventional wisdom of editorial boards across the country.The real problem with the center in the American political debate is that it does not exist. There are general notions subscribed to by many elites and regular citizens alike. But questions of emphasis, of action to achieve lofty-sounding goals like fiscal soundness, economic security, social inclusiveness, environmental protection and political reform produce no agreement.This absence of a genuine centrist ideology beyond the platitudes of the split-the-difference respectable middle is further illustrated by the absence of trusted leaders and institutions. In California, for example, the governor and legislature are held in especially low esteem. At the national level, after less than a year in power, the Newt Right Congress has no more credibility than the old Demosclerotic Congress had. Clinton's recovery is tenuous, dependent on Republican weakness and his good fortune on Bosnia, Mexico and Whitewater. The pattern of oscillation couldn't be more striking, and will certainly continue.Across the country, the media is distrusted, corporations are decoupled from their communities, and labor unions have been out of it for years. Populist figures rise and are consumed in firestorms of controversy. Colin Powell emerges, the object of massive media coverage and widespread projection of popular hopes, but hardly a man of ideas, then wisely returns to the life of gentleman lecturer.HEAVY WEATHERThe growing turbulence of our weather mirrors the growing turbulence of the times. We are living in a chaotic age that seems, in very large measure, to have been prefigured by that school of science fiction known as cyberpunk. Novelists like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson have limned a near-future world in which advanced technology is both accelerating and increasingly intertwined with everyday life, transnational corporations are dominant and public debate ever more shallow and fractured, and individuals increasingly seek to escape the frightening absence of a unifying center.There can't be much debate about the acceleration and diffusion of technology. 1995's level of corporate merger activity was greater than that of any time during the 1980s, setting both national and global records, and the trend is expected to continue in 1996. And there is no shortage of increasingly chaotic and disorienting events.The controversy over global climate change -- after unusual hurricane activity in the Caribbean, Japan's worst typhoon in 50 years, and 600 deaths caused by a Chicago heat wave, not to mention several "storms of the century" in California since 1986 -- is now less about the existence of global warming than its extent. Despite the defection of corrupt family members -- mistakenly ballyhooed in the Western press as proof of his impending political demise just months ago -- Saddam Hussein's grip on Iraq is stronger now than it was before the Gulf War. Italy's profound crisis of political corruption has not been stanched by a new politics, it has been accelerated. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul elected in an alliance with the renamed Italian fascists is himself on trial for political corruption.Despite comforting words from the White House and Wall Street, the crisis in Mexico, where the average worker must now work four times as long as he or she did eight years ago to earn life's essentials, continues to deepen.Tribalistic nationalism is rising, with the Balkans only the most visible manifestation. Quebec is very close to separating from the rest of Canada. And the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an elite Jewish fundamentalist opposed to the course of rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians shows how fragile the bonds of comity can be, even in a society dedicated to the principle of non-violence among its members.Here at home, the Simpson verdict and the Million Man March have brought America's racial divide into sharp relief, with the indisputable emergence of Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan marking the ascendance of Malcolm X's view over that of Martin Luther King. As it happens, Islam is the most dynamic spiritual and social movement in the world today.The growing financial interdependence of the advanced industrial world breeds weakness as well as a much-advertised strength. Japanese banks, the world's largest, are also among the most precarious -- so much so that U.S. officials have prepared an American bailout program in case of further Japanese bank failures. And U.S. politics are increasingly turbulent. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the dominant politician of a year ago, is the most unpopular political figure in the United States (not counting Louis Farrakhan). And Ross Perot's Reform Party confounded most experts by winning a place on the California ballot.In the face of all this, our politics are dominated by surreal debate over balanced budgets that will never be, lackadaisical debate over our growing and perhaps fateful military intervention in Bosnia, and by "perishables," issues that shoot to center stage and then fade to the margins. Issues, in short, that are essentially manufactured and brought to the forefront for strictly careerist political purposes, and receive large amounts of media coverage in the absence of enough real debate over more fundamental concerns. In part, they exist because of this absence. And in part, their existence creates the absence by taking up media space.For a classic example of the political perishable, consider the famous "missile gap" of the 1960 presidential election. Manufactured by John F. Kennedy's campaign, the supposed missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union -- which had to be closed by tough-minded Americans unafraid of bold new leadership -- helped propel Kennedy to victory over that quintessential cold warrior, Richard Nixon. Once ensconced in office, of course, the Kennedy team forgot about the Soviets' dangerous lead over the United States in nuclear missiles -- for the very good reason that it did not exist.THE AGE OF ACCELERATIONThe Age of Acceleration began around 1970, the time of the invention of the microprocessor, shrinking a computer onto a microchip; the rise of the transnational corporation; the reaching of critical mass for the environmental movement with the first Earth Day; the failure of American arms in Vietnam; the "raghead" oil states' humbling of American and European power; the shift of the dollar away from the gold standard, signifying America's increasing integration into a new global economy; the first serious attempt of a faltering Soviet empire to reach a new understanding with the United States; the rise of identity groups in America and of tribalism around the globe; the emergence of a multipolar world that would soon come to eclipse the outdated struggle between the communist and capitalist blocs.While it has many aspects, the central fact of the Age of Acceleration is the emergence of radical capitalism. An accelerated capitalism for an accelerated age, radical capitalism uses the ascendance of advanced computing and communications technologies and the decline of collective ideologies to transcend conventional boundaries of space and time. Radical capitalism accelerates a natural tendency toward global economic integration. For example, the "free trade" position in the 1984 presidential campaign was to oppose "domestic content" legislation requiring that cars sold in the United States should contain a sizable proportion of American-made parts. Now the free trade position is to expand NAFTA, the trade agreement with low-wage Mexico with other parts of Latin America. And one of the Republicans' best and brightest, Tom Campbell, told me in his near-miss 1992 U.S. Senate race that he wanted to expand NAFTA to include low-wage China!"Money never sleeps," as the fictional-but-realistic Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone's Wall Street put it, and neither does information. Indeed, in radical capitalism, money is nothing more than information -- the concept agreed upon -- as easy to transfer in any amount as it is to send my next e-mail message.With money flashing across borders in a nanosecond in search of its maximum return, with entertainment, news and more material product designs not far behind, and with corporations decoupling from the communities from which they emerged and organizing on a transnational basis, conventional governmental structures and collective ideologies from socialism to social democracy have simply been overwhelmed.Since 1980, computing power has been increasing by a factor of 4,000 per decade for a given rate of unit cost. We are increasingly enmeshed in a communications web in which the components -- cable, broadcast, telephone, satellite, the Internet -- are growing exponentially. As a result, individuals, societies and groups and organizations within societies are increasingly divided between what Alvin and Heidi Toffler call "the fast and the slow."The "fast" live in the Global City. The Age of Acceleration has led to the rise not of McLuhan's "global village," but of a dispersed transnational urban environment marked by gold cards, laptops, cell phones and Armanis, connected by jet and the Net. It's a rich information culture for City-dwellers, with the rest of the would-be global villagers stuck in a broadcast proletariat dominated by Rupert Murdoch's globe-spanning satellites.As the Age of Acceleration moves into the late '90s with no loss of momentum in sight, six critical challenges have emerged:INCOME DISPARITIES--American incomes are falling behind growth in productivity, and heading toward dangerous inequality. Liberals like to blame Ronald Reagan for that, but the trend was well under way years before he won the presidency. What Reagan and successor George Bush did, as good radical capitalists, was exacerbate the trend through their tax, regulatory and labor policies.In the post-World War II boom of 1947 to 1973, which ran from Harry Truman's presidency till the early '70s oil shocks, the median paycheck in the United States more than doubled, with the bottom fifth of the country garnering the largest gains. Since 1973, median earnings have fallen by about 15 percent, with the bottom fifth falling the most. More than 40 percent of income gains have gone to the wealthiest 1 percent of the country.Through much of the 1980s, a period that continues to color the established media's view of the political debate, stagnant living standards could be blamed on a crisis of productivity. The cry went forth from think tanks, editorial boards and politicians alike: America needed to become more competitive.Well, America has become more competitive. Products are better, and the economy is more "efficient." But in becoming more efficient through "corporate re-engineering" -- the management consultant buzz phrase for downsizing, which is itself the polite term for mass firings -- the economy's gains in productivity have not been matched by gains in income.Income (wages, salaries and benefits) climbed faster than productivity in the late '60s and early '70s. Productivity moved ahead after that, with the dramatic gap between the two opening in the late 1980s. Adjusting for inflation, the average income in the United States fell 2.3 percent between the spring of 1994 and the spring of 1995 -- while productivity rose by 2.1 percent.As incomes have stagnated for most during the Age of Acceleration, disparity of incomes and wealth has increased. America now has the most unequal distribution of wealth and incomes of any advanced industrial nation. Only the top fifth of the country has seen income growth like that experienced by most everyone during the post-World War II boom. This widening disparity is usually attributed to differences in education. But just as there is a growing cleavage between those with a college education and those without, there is a growing cleavage among the college educated. As Stanford economist Paul Krugman points out, income growth among high school teachers is much lower than income growth among corporate CEOs, even though both groups are about as well educated.Indeed, the top 1 percent of the country -- which owns 40 percent of the wealth -- is getting richer faster than the rest of the top 5 percent, just as the top 5 percent of the country is getting richer faster than the rest of the top 20 percent.And the economic insecurity caused by radical capitalism will only intensify. No less an authority than Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, writing in his just-published The Road Ahead, sees the emergence of cyberspace commerce destroying huge numbers of retail and service jobs.INFORMATION CONCENTRATION--With technology making information more accessible to large numbers of people than ever before in history, we need to determine how best to make important economic and political information widely available, and how best to make the technology needed to get that information accessible to all. There is no technical reason why the Global City cannot be expanded well beyond the ranks of gold card-holders and the designer-clad.Of course, that's not what the debate in Washington is about. The debate in Washington -- driven by massive contributions, both legal and illegal -- is about how best to help big companies get bigger so they can make even more money selling advertising.How will the Internet of the future, the information highway, if you will, or cyberspace, as novelist William Gibson termed it, be structured so that its users are not merely consumers, but citizens? How can its democratic potential be protected from the television mindset?A very smart corporate futurist named Peter Schwartz predicted in 1986 that the convergence of computing and communications -- what we today call the foundation of cyberspace -- would be driven by the businesses of transnational finance and electronic entertainment. That has turned out to be true. And while it is also true that the personal computer/cyberspace revolution can greatly empower techno-savvy individuals and organizations, it's hardly a coincidence that the financial and media industries are now in the midst of tremendous consolidation and concentration. The dangers of concentrated financial and media power are obvious, especially as the number of big players approaches the size of a potential cartel.As the military has long understood, the computer is a tremendous tool of command and control. (Why else would the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency have played rich uncle to so many hackers?) The PC Paradox -- that the computer can ruthlessly attack centralized power just as it can relentlessly further centralized power -- is an as yet largely unexploited irony of history.Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin wrote a very revealing memo more than eight years ago. In that memo, written before Time and Warner merged to create the world's largest media conglomerate, Levin laid out his desired scenario -- that Time's "primary long-term objective" should be to merge Time, Inc., Warner Communications and Turner Broadcasting. The new company that Levin envisioned would be "an entertainment-oriented communications company." That vision was a far cry from what was then the news-oriented culture of Time, Inc. And it is a vision not generally associated with Turner's flagship CNN. (Unless, of course, you consider wall-to-wall coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial to be entertainment rather than news.) The Levin memo crystallizes two fundamental trends of enormous significance to the politics of information: The transition in the established media from news-driven to entertainment-driven focus, from an emphasis on core competency to conglomeratized consolidation. This is the perspective that underlies all the major media mergers and drives for new markets around the world that have been so striking in the past year.MONEY & SCANDAL--The Watergate scandal of 1972-74, which brought Richard Nixon's presidency to its ignominious end, made most Americans aware of the potential for vast corruption in our politics. Despite the ballyhooed but superficial reforms of the last two decades, that potential has only grown since then. While the late Democratic Congress of 1954-94 was widely regarded as corrupt, the Republican "revolutionaries" of the Newt Right have already broken its special interest fund-raising records. Lobbyists openly draft legislation; Speaker Gingrich cashes in on his office through his infamous book deal with global media magnate Rupert Murdoch even as the new Republican Congress fights hammer-and-tong to further the cause of the Murdoch empire.As sociologist Daniel Bell noted in 1993, corruption is on the rise as an issue throughout the world. The scandals that brought down the Italian political system, the explosive narcopolitics, and the assassinations and peso devaluation scandal in Mexico are merely the best known examples.CLIMATE SHIFTS, GLOBAL CHAOS--There is a growing scientific consensus that the global climate is changing, and that we are the cause. Even prominent skeptics are joining the bandwagon. Sea life is dying, sea grass beds are declining, and frogs and toads are dying around the world. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 26 percent greater than in pre-industrial time. Six of the seven warmest years on record have occurred since 1980. The North Atlantic Ocean has become much rougher during the last 30 years. The hole in the ozone layer over the Southern Hemisphere is much larger than was thought, and skin cancer is showing a dramatic rise in Australia. Ninety-eight percent of the materials used in U.S. manufacturing don't go into the product itself. Eighty percent of all products are thrown away after only one use. Research of the polar ice caps has revealed that cataclysmic climate shifts have occurred in past times in just a year or two. Even if such a shift doesn't occur, we are looking at the disappearance of wetlands, disruption of coastal settlements and the creation of new deserts.Meanwhile, the tidy United States-led "New World Order" that George Bush burbled on about just a few years ago has devolved into chaos.Gangsterism caused the famine in Somalia that led to the humiliation of elite U.S. Army Rangers originally deployed in the African nation on a humanitarian mission. Ethnic and religious tribalism in the Balkans caused the genocidal civil war that now requires more than 20,000 Americans to keep the peace. In post-Soviet Russia -- home to the world's second-largest stores of nuclear and biochemical weapons, along with vast military and intelligence forces -- political violence and corruption are rampant. A Russian politico placed with me by the State Department to learn about American politics during the 1994 elections had two colleagues who were victims of assassination attempts on the streets of Moscow in one month. It is a new world, and not an especially pleasant one.Wait, there's more.Carrying capacity was always a given until after World War II. The global growth rate had always been less than 1 percent. But during the next 40 years, it tripled. With rapid population growth, widespread pollution and looming climate changes, drinking water is emerging as a resource to rival oil as a cause of future wars.In 1970, there were 2 million refugees around the world. At the end of 1994, there were 23 million, an increase of 1150 percent. In 1970, there were 17 wars taking place around the world, claiming more than 1,000 lives. By 1994, there were 34 such wars. Third World debt has grown ninefold since 1970.THE TECHNOPOPULIST FUTURE?My purpose in this article is not to offer solutions, even if I had them. As Jerry Brown used to say, you can't get to the answers until you get to the questions. My purpose is to offer a perspective, along with a political attitude that I think of as technopopulist.A technopopulist politics would be at once skeptical about what passes for the current scene and hopeful about future possibilities. It would focus on bringing the Promethean technology of the Global City to the broader village, making use of the vast potential of personal computers and cyberspace by turning it into a powerful tool for organization, inquiry and widespread communication.A technopopulist politics would acknowledge the dominant reality of radical technological change and seek to turn it to the common good, promoting technologies that can serve as cornerstones for new industries and expansion of existing ones, investing in lifelong learning, affirming the value of individual empowerment at a time when more and more people feel powerless, fostering a sense of stewardship of community and ecology, seeking a path of engagement but not entanglement with the rest of the world.We're not there yet.


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