Human Security and Mutual

The Global Political Economy of Development and Underdevelopment
Second Edition

Jorge Nef


Published by the International Development Research Centre
PO Box 8500, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1G 3H9

© International Development Research Centre 1999

Legal deposit: 3rd quarter 1999
National Library of Canada
ISBN 0-88936-879-1

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the International Development Research Centre. Mention of a proprietary name does not constitute endorsement of the product and is given only for information. A microfiche edition is available.

The catalogue of IDRC Books may be consulted online at

This book may be consulted online at






Introduction: Paradigms of Crisis and the Crisis of Paradigms


The changing foundations of the world system


Security in a new era


Chapter 1: A Framework for Analysis


The concept of world system


The elements of the system


The present world system as a complex conglomerate


The concept of human security


Chapter 2: Environmental Insecurity


Reciprocating dysfunctions


The global environmental regime


Chapter 3: Economic Insecurity


The symptoms of the economic crisis


The global economic regime


Chapter 4: Social Insecurity


The sources of social insecurity


The global society.


Chapter 5: Political Insecurity


The global political crisis and its manifestations


The global regime


Chapter 6: Cultural Insecurity


Not a clash, but a crisis of civilization


The closure of the cultural commons


Conclusion: The Global Predicament


Appendix 1: Acronyms and Abbreviations




The Author



“Mutual vulnerability” is a concept that is vital to an understanding of the world in which we now live. The phrase was articulated by Jorge Nef a decade ago during the course of a series of meetings organized by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) under its then President Ivan Head. These meetings contributed to Head’s 1991 book On a Hinge of History as much as they did to Nef's book Human Security and Mutual Vulnerability, first published by IDRC in 1995.

It is an honour as well as a pleasure to have been asked to write the foreword to the second edition of this book. Since it was first published, I have become Chairman of IDRC's Board of Governors, and the Centre is, of course, pleased at the positive reception that the book has received. The underlying premise that we must better understand the implications of global interdependence lies at the root of much of its work.

Several developments of the last decade are striking. First, the concept of security has been redefined in significantly broader terms. Nef discusses this and there is an expanding literature on the subject. He understands the breadth of the threat that now exists to human security.

Second, it is increasingly clear that security and development are closely related. This is now reflected in IDRC programing and is increasingly apparent in the program structure of the major US foundations that have reorganized their initiatives in significant ways to reflect this intricate relationship.

Third, although inadequately recognized, it is striking that the G-8 Summit, originally known as “the Economic Summit,” now in fact spends considerable time addressing issues of global governance, issues that are neither economic nor political in the traditional sense. Who would have thought the leaders of the eight most highly developed countries would personally choose to focus discussion on infectious diseases (1997) and organized crime (1998)? These leaders have recognized the realities of interdependence and, consequently, mutual vulnerability.

Fourth, one of the conclusions that one must draw from Nef's book is that a great deal of work must be done on governance. Global interdependence requires us to consider, and perhaps to embrace, alternative approaches to the management of the challenges that result from our “mutual vulnerability.”

It is appropriate that Canada be a leader in the search for better governance. Canada has for a long time advocated the strengthening of multilateralism. Indeed, this approach is nowhere better personified than in one of my predecessors as Chairman of IDRC, the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson. I do not think I would be wrong in saying that Mr Pearson would have been proud that IDRC had sponsored Jorge Nef's book.

Finally, governments are responding to these new challenges. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, of which I was Deputy Minister until 1997, now has a strong Global Issues Bureau. I was recently told that it is thought to be one of the most interesting places to work. This is an encouraging sign.

Gordon Smith
Chairman, Board of Governors
International Development Research Centre


I would like to express my most sincere thanks to all those who contributed to the present volume: Dr Paz Buttedahl, without whose encouragement and constant support this book would have never come to fruition; the International Development Research Centre, and especially its former President Ivan Head, who conceived the South-North Project that gave the initial impetus to this idea; my research and teaching associate, Mr Wilder Robles Calderón, for his enormous assistance in preparing the tables, pruning through the text, and searching for sources above and beyond the call of duty; Ms Megan Mills, for reading the manuscript and making corrections and suggestions; Jennifer Skelton, who assisted me in preparing this second edition; my students, from whom I have learned so much; and finally, my family for their patience and understanding through this undertaking.

In memoriam:
Angélica (1943-1995)

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To a casual observer of international events, sitting in the comfort of a corporate office, the post-1989 world order may seem like a string of good news. From a conventional point of view, the present appears to contain few security threats. After all, the end of the East-West conflict means that the possibilities of a nuclear holocaust have all but disappeared. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism could be seen as the global victory of political and economic liberalism.1 Some, in the vein of a modern Doctor Panglos, have optimistically asserted that “life for the majority of the world’s citizens is getting steadily better in almost every category” (Gee 1994):

The past few decades have seen an improvement in human health, education, nutrition and longevity. The rapid expansion of the world economy, which has grown nearly fivefold since 1950, has raised living standards in all but the poorest countries. Food production has easily outstripped population growth. Democracy has advanced in almost every corner of the globe. International security has improved.

With the end of the East European bloc, the plight of the underdeveloped nations — articulated in the Non-Aligned Movement, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the South Commission — has also vanished as a source of nuisance for the West (Lane 1992). Furthermore, the crippling debt burden finally brought most of these countries to accept the conditionalities imposed by the international financial community. And without international socialism to assist local revolutionary movements, 1970s-style insurgency looks rather unlikely.

1 A most explicit articulation of this business position was written by Marcus Gee (1994), a member of the Globe and Mail Editorial Board, in response to an article by Kaplan (1994) in the Atlantic Monthly.

Moreover, a number of major “hot spots” have cooled off: there is qualified peace in Central America; the Iran-Iraq war has ended; Afghanistan and Cambodia are out of the news; the civil strife in the Horn of Africa (especially in Ethiopia, with the independence of Eritrea and Tigray) has come to an apparent end; and Germany has been reunified. The two most enduring problems with potentially destabilizing effects, South Africa’s apartheid regime and Palestinian self-rule, have moved decisively toward settlement. In 1993, the African National Congress won the general election and formed a government led by the country’s once most notorious political prisoner, Nelson Mandela. The following year, an agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government was the first step on the tortuous road to an emerging form of Palestinian home rule, a process still marred by delays and difficulties. The rebellion in Northern Ireland moved toward settlement in 1994, putting a qualified end to decades of sectarian violence. These developments can result in a reduction of military expenditures (Sivard 1989), a slowdown of refugee flows, and a downturn in transnational terrorism. For the superpowers and their more developed allies, demobilization means, in theory at least, the possibility of cashing in a “peace dividend.” In addition, Western cooperation under US hegemony has brought decisive, yet generally unfocused, intervention to enforce international law and norms of civilized behaviour, as seen in the United Nation’s actions against Iraq since 1991 and in the peacemaking operation in Somalia in 1992.

However, the picture has another, more sombre side. As Pierre Sané, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, stated in his 1993 address on Human Rights Day,

Four years ago, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, we were promised a bright new future. New accountable democratic governments. New prosperity. New cooperation between the governments of the world … . But what do we see? Far from accountable democracies, we see the horror of civil war and governments resorting to the old methods of repression … . Far from prosperity, we see even more people plunged into poverty, sickness and despair … . Far from international cooperation, we see the world community floundering in the face of human-rights disasters.

— Sané (1993)

The disintegration of Eastern Europe unleashed deep and vicious social, political, and ethnic tensions, the symptoms of which have been persistent civil strife, military intervention, and border disputes in Chechnya, Georgia, the Central Asian republics, and the Armenian-Azari region and the multisided conflagration in the former Yugoslavia. The Bosnian war and, more recently, the clashes in Kosovo between Bosnians and Albanians have meant not only vicious and cruel ethnic bloodshed but also the widening entanglement of would-be peacekeepers: Canada, various East European states (including Russian Federation and Ukraine), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United States. Conflict has also spread throughout Africa, as in the Rwanda and Burundi massacres, and deeply seated genocidal confrontations have been flaring up in Angola, Liberia, Mozambique, Sudan, and Zaire. Likewise, the aforementioned negotiated dismantling of South Africa’s apartheid system has been accomplished in the midst of persistent violence. The same is true of the more recent implementation of the Palestinian-Israeli accord. Violent ethnic conflicts go on unabated in India and Sri Lanka, with prospects of national disintegration. With constant turmoil, old refugee-producing zones have just been replaced by new and more active ones. Robert Kaplan’s apocalyptic article in the Atlantic Monthly summarizes Western paranoia about the “revenge of the poor.” In his “premonition of the future,” he envisions a

worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real “strategic” danger. Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increased erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms and international drug cartels… [provide] an appropriate introduction to the issues … that will soon confront our civilization.

— Kaplan (1994)

Instability and centrifugalism in the former Soviet Union and the fragmentation and deregulation of its nuclear arsenals raise the spectre of nuclear proliferation, smuggling of atomic weapons, blackmail, and (in the mildest scenario) severe environmental hazards. This situation is compounded by internal problems. In Russian Federation, direct confrontation among power contenders, in the absence of clear and legitimate rules of the game, has moved beyond a manageable threshold. The attempted coup against then President Mikhail Gorbachev and, more ominously, the bloody confrontation between President Boris Yeltsin and a rebellious Parliament, not to mention the war in Chechnya, have shown a distressing pattern of instability. Moreover, the December 1993 election, which gave extremists a controlling minority in the internal correlation of forces in the Duma, dramatically increased the possibilities of an ultranationalist reaction. Old resentments, racism, and power deflation, complicated by catastrophic economic and political conditions, may precipitate desperate imperialistic ventures, with serious consequences for regional and world peace. The war in Chechnya represents the crystallization of all these contradictions, moving the weak Russian government into ever more entangling and dangerous positions. A resurgence of Russian nationalism is especially destabilizing, as Russian Federation and some of the former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, still possess a significant nuclear and conventional capability:

At this point in the world system of governance, there is no codified approach to this evident need to clarify and tack down regional and universal responsibilities when governments go awry or disintegrate. Response mechanisms have not been developed to mobilize early and equitable external responses before events spin out of control … . But looking at the range of unstable states from Eastern Europe to Central Asia, from the Caucasus to the Cape of Good Hope, the potential for multitudes of such disasters in the next decade seems clear, and we are inadequately equipped as a world community to confront them.

— USCR (1993)

We urgently need to develop analytical frameworks to understand this seemingly random, turbulent, and chaotic period and the emerging global configurations. We also need to develop operational criteria and mechanisms for conflict management based on this understanding. As we enter the third millennium, the many conceptual and ideological structures that we took for granted and gave us a grasp of “reality” — the Cold War, “really existing socialism,” the nation-state, the three worlds of development, and the myth of progress — have crumbled. Some observers have gone so far as to make this turbulence synonymous with the “end of history” (Fukuyama 1989). I contend that despite the appeals of this neoHegelian metaphor, history has not ended. All that has collapsed is our faith in old dogmas and the particular visions associated with them (Nef and Wiseman 1990). The way we saw the world is no longer the way it is.

With the disarticulation of the terms of reference of international politics, the conceptual foundations that gave meaning to what was referred to as “the world order” have become dated. Much of the assumptive scaffolding underpinning development studies and international relations and security studies — all fields of research that emerged in the context of the Cold War — has lost consistency. At the level of hegemonic ideas and discourse, the crisis is one of imagination: it’s as though our capacity to make sense has vanished. Perhaps reality changes so rapidly that only ex post facto rationalizations are possible, thus signalling the end of utopias and ideologies. Or perhaps the opposite is the case, and we are moving into a new and postmodern age of ideology. Although this crisis of paradigms has had a fundamental impact on academia, it appears that scholars have been slow to react to global transformations and to fill the intellectual void. Samuel Huntington’s article in Foreign Affairs attempted to resurrect a new imperial Cold War, now between “the West and the rest,” under the mantle of a construed “clash of civilizations.” His main thesis stated that

the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominant source of conflict will be cultural. Nations will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battlelines of the future.

— Huntington (1993)

Yet, this highly metaphysical, ethnocentric, and deterministic effort to resurrect the ghost of Cold Wars past is simply old vinegar in old bottles with new labels. This nostalgic “neorealism” shows a remarkable misunderstanding of both history and culture and cannot reflect the complex, nuanced, and dynamic nature of our age of extremes while perpetuating the cult of war and Western superiority. Our inability to structure paradigms to explain the present crisis as part of a global system and process, and not as mere “freaks” or abnormalities, is precisely at the core of the crisis of paradigms. The paradox is that irrespective of the present confusion in the conceptual compasses and the absence of analytical and predictive instruments, decision-makers still have to respond to events, make day-to-day choices, and formulate policies in an increasingly chaotic environment. So do the ordinary citizens who have to cope with the effects of these policies.

The changing foundations of the world system

The momentous transformations of the world system, affecting both its overall structure (polarity) and the structure of its constituting regimes, are rooted in changing circumstances. These changes can be grouped into three main categories. The first set comprises the broader and long-ranging changes in this age of pervasive technology (Nef et al. 1988). In this case, I am referring to the multiple and profound innovations in know-how that have occurred since World War II. The second set comprises the alterations in the ideological-political matrix that define the cultural polarities in the system. Specifically, I am referring here to the sharp divide between Marxist-Leninism and liberal capitalism that characterized the Cold War, followed by the sudden disappearance of one of these ideologies in the late 1980s and the hegemonic role currently played by neoliberalism. The third and perhaps most important set comprises the alterations in the economic fabric of the world order. Here again, the transformation from international trade and finance among nations to global and transnational economics comes to mind. These three sets of changes are discussed in greater detail below.

Long-range technological changes

In the last 50 years, technology has developed exponentially. This has had two major effects on the world system. First, technological innovation has changed the instruments of war, both hard and soft. The most striking transformations in military technology include the massification of air power, informal penetration (subversion), psychological warfare, entangled collective defence, nuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles, the use of outer space, and the computerization of conflict. The nature and pace of technological innovation since Hiroshima have set the parameters of an escalating arms race between nations capable of harnessing the nuclear “genie.” The former Soviet Union and the United States competed in an astronomically expensive search for military superiority: nuclear weapons, delivery and early-warning systems, conventional (land, sea, and air) forces, and the space race. Stretching natural, economic, social, fiscal, and technological resources to their limits in the pursuit of security by supremacy (a first- and second-strike capability) had long- and broad-ranging implications. The former Soviet Union was the most catastrophically affected; but the United States, too, experienced the ill effects of overreadiness. From a broader perspective, the entire planet suffered the profoundly destructive consequences of the Cold War.

Second, the speed and reach of communications and transportation have improved dramatically. Information, finance, goods, and people are more mobile now than at any time in human history. The development of military and industrial technology since World War II has reduced the time and space limits of world politics. What was once international relations, or politics among nations, has progressively and unavoidably became global politics (Blake and Walters 1976). In this context, domestic concerns have become so intertwined with external factors as to make the distinction between national and global merely semantic.

Decades ago, John Herz suggested that technology had undermined the territorial function of the nation-state (Herz 1962). Nuclear stalemate among the superpowers and the subsequent possibility of a ladder of escalation — even under assumptions of “flexible response” — made conventional military instruments less effective for conflict management. Stanley Hoffman put it succinctly: power had never before been so great, but also never so useless (Hoffman 1973). Instead, unconventional, yet nonnuclear, types of warfare (terrorism; clandestine and lowintensity operations), as well as economic instruments (embargoes, concessions, conditionalities), became more central. The strategic importance of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear warheads and long-range delivery systems, has diminished radically since 1989. Nuclear-deterrence theory, strategic thinking à la Herman Kahn, and what John Kenneth Galbraith called the influence of “nuclear theologians” have become irrelevant. Likewise, the kind of Cold War “realism” that permeated much of the literature on international relations and security for four decades has been rendered meaningless.

Nowadays, conventional wars do not seem to pose the same risk of escalating into a nuclear confrontation between the superpowers, or rather between the one superpower and the scattered remains of the other. However, as I will discuss later, this may be deceiving. The emergence of Third World nuclear superpowers, as exemplified by the Indian and Pakistani nuclear muscle-flexing in 1998, is a reality. In addition, the development of a new generation of high-tech tactical weapons, including nonlethal devices, has made small-scale wars once again thinkable options. The prenuclear solution of quantitative continuity between tactical and strategic instruments — as well as between instruments of deterrence, defence, “compellance,” and offence — has been reestablished, albeit in a less predictable context. This delinking in the ladder of escalation, combined with the end of rigid bipolarism, has effectively reduced the patron-client superpower control over theatre conflicts. Under these circumstances, a resurgence of small and mediumsized conflagrations and a tendency to regional polycentrism can be expected. Yet, the long-range effects of technological permeability on the territoriality of nationstates, as well as on the very idea of sovereignty, are bound to persist. A return to an overall pre-World War II type of multipolarity is unlikely.

Changes in the ideological matrix

Perhaps more important than the technological changes mentioned above have been transformations in ideological parameters since World War II. The period between 1945 and 1989 was defined by a clash of two cultures: liberal capitalism and state socialism. The rhetoric of Winston Churchill and Harry Truman, not to mention Stalin’s own rhetoric, constructed the semantic foundations of this binary worldview. Terms such as Cold War, iron curtain, and free world conveyed an inescapable inference — alignment as either friend or foe. Its corollary was a rigid ideological bipolarism between two incompatible camps, referred to by their respective propagandists as the free world and popular democracies. One part of humanity, under the Western alliance superintended by the United States, was construed as the embodiment of the ideals of freedom and democracy. The other half followed the Soviet Union, whose leaders had proclaimed themselves the defenders of self-determination, justice, socialist solidarity, and world peace. A great deal of self-serving hypocrisy was contained in these labels, as not much democracy or popular consent could be found in Eastern Europe, and the free world included in its ranks notoriously repressive regimes, such as those of the Latin American dictators, Third World oligarchies, and thinly veiled fascist regimes like those of generalissimos Franco and Chiang Kaishek.

Culturally, the East-West conflict permeated national boundaries. The emergence of Third World nationalism, expressed in Bandung in 1955, was a reaction to this sharp ideological schism. Leaders of new and emerging nations — such as U-Nu of Burma, Nasser of Egypt, Nkrumah of Ghana, Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, and others — with the support of Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia sought to define a third position. Yet, nonalignment and the attempts to separate North-South issues from East-West confrontations paradoxically increased a proclivity for clientelism, entangled alliances, and ultimately facilitated the transnationalization of peripheral states (Nef 1986). Foreign aid, the international transfer of technology, human-resource training, and the all-pervasive presence of military assistance during the Cold War increased reliance on external constituencies. Peripheral elites were integrated into a global structure by means of manifold linkages of complex dependency (Nef 1983). This patron–client structure was developed by both power blocs, creating structural conditions that have remained even after the demise of the Soviet Union. Irrespective of who has occupied the centre, dependency relations have had a tendency to persist. External constituencies have become and remain an intrinsic part of the political alliances that take part in the internal public-policy process.

Besides the transnationalization of states based on essentially bilateral arrangements, transnationalization has had multilateral forms. These result from the development and expansion of international law and international organizations. Furthermore, the legacy of collective defence and collective security, not to mention a complex body of international contract-law based on trade, has further limited territorial sovereignty. The Wesphalian principle, rex est imperator in regno suo, is no longer a valid descriptor of the world order. The elite nationalism of the past has been displaced by an elite internationalism.

Correspondingly, in an increasingly unipolar world a global ideology with hegemonic pretensions has gained predominance among the core sectors of the Group of Seven (now, with the inclusion of Russian Federation, the Group of Eight). This is the ideology of trilateralism (Sklar 1980). Substantively, the cultural software of this new internationale is distinctively neoliberal, elitist, and monistic. Despite the seemingly progressive rhetoric of democratization, the support for individual freedom, the open society, and the rule of law, this new world-view is every bit as Manichean and dogmatic as that of the old Cold War national-security discourse it replaced (Drury 1993). Most important, though, is the fact that the trilateral view has a wide appeal to the affluent, globally integrated modern elite sectors in what used to be called the Third and Second worlds. Its intellectual antecedents are partly rooted in 19th-century social Darwinism and partly in the messianic universalism of neoclassical economics. From this perspective, the “triumph of the West,” the end of history, the clash of civilizations (Huntington 1993), and “manifest destiny” blend into a neofunctionalist synthesis.

A great deal of optimistic triumphalism appears among those who espouse this doctrine. From the perspective of its supporters, the ideological superiority of this global project is demonstrated by the collapse of Eastern Europe, the disintegration of African societies, and Latin America’s “lost decade.” Yet, the sharp schism of the planet into two worlds (“this” and “the other”) and the conflict between an expanding Western civilization and an increasingly fragile, unstable, and besieged global and domestic periphery offer a scenario of violent confrontation — a new phase of World War III. The growing squalor of the many, which makes the prosperity of the few possible, has intrinsically destabilizing effects. It is a direct threat to everybody’s security. The extreme vulnerability of the South and the East, far from enhancing the North and West, is a symptom of the profound malaise of the entire global system. This dysfunctional trend is already eroding postindustrial civilization’s own vitality, not only in what is contemptuously referred to as “down there,” but essentially “up here,” too.

Changes in the economic fabric

If we compare today’s world economy with the system that emerged in 1944 at Breton Woods, what is most striking is the profound restructuring that it has undergone since then. Globalization, interdependence, skewness, dynamism, and fragility are appropriate words to characterize this restructuring. A key vehicle for the transnationalization of production, along with the whole gamut of social transactions accompanying it, is the cosmocorporation, or transnational corporation (TNC) (Muller 1973). The emergence and consolidation of this relatively new modality for the organization of production over the past three or four decades have created a global neofunctional network of transactions and business alliances that enhance the supremacy of economics over military considerations. TNCs constitute not only a mechanism for transferring capital and technology across jurisdictional boundaries but also a most effective vehicle for extracting surpluses from peripheral sectors — via credit-indebtedness devices, wage differentials, tax advantages, franchises, transfer pricing, and the like (Collingworth et al. 1993) — and moving them to semiperipheral ones and from these to the various groups at the core of corporate power. In addition, TNCs play a fundamental role in the integration of elites and their ideologies at the transnational level.

But transnationalization has affected more than production. One of the most important developments in recent decades has been a rapid and profound globalization of trade and finance. New trade regimes, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the proposals for a Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), and the emergence of dominant trading blocs — the European Community, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the North American Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA), and eventually the Free Trade Agreement — have facilitated a transnational integration of business elites into extended circuits of trade, capital, information, and power, often bypassing national interests and regulatory structures. Today, it is possible to transfer financial resources from one country to another with the flick of key and thereby affect the national balance of payments without ever crossing corporate boundaries. In this process, transnationalization, combined with the shift in economic policy from demand-side Keynesianism to supply-side neoliberalism and monetarism, has had clear winners and losers. Finance capital, telecommunications, and in general proprietary high-tech cosmocorporations have come up on top. Meanwhile, this process has severely hurt important sectors in the old post-1930 Keynesian social contract, such as labour, consumers, farmers, the bulk of white-collar employees, the middle class, and nationally based medium-sized manufacturers. The ensuing social and political restructuring (Bienen and Waterbury 1992) has affected the nature of work, contemporary politics, the state, the definition of citizenship, and the very essence of governance, both globally and within countries. Macroeconomic decision-making, as in the case of central banks, has tended to escape national and democratic control. This has brought about a persistent tendency of external-constituency involvement (for example, the International Monetary Fund [IMF], foreign creditors, TNCs) in seemingly internal matters of credit and fiscal and monetary policy. Domestic concerns have become peripheral and subordinate to the interests of transnational capital. The ideology of consumerism and prosperity, peddled by the business elite, conceals the objective reality of massive unemployment and the creation of a low-wage economy (Standing 1989).

Trading regimes other than those controlled by the major trading blocs within the Group of Seven have disintegrated. Perhaps the only exception is the Mercado Comn del Cono Sur (MERCOSUR, Southern Cone Common Market) between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The dismantling of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) has eliminated a trade arrangement that encompassed all of the former Eastern European bloc and a number of centrally planned economies in the Third World. Before the demise of COMECON, initiatives for a new international economic order or a trade union of the Third World, proposed by Julius Nyerere and endorsed by UNCTAD, failed to materialize. UNCTAD itself and the nonaligned movement, the latter an offshoot of the Bandung Conference of 1955, lay in shambles, crushed between the death of the World War II and the debt crisis. Thus, the possibilities of South-South cooperation were dealt a mortal blow. Likewise, an improvement in the value of exports for basic-commodity producers vis-à-vis imported manufacture is hard to visualize. For the foreseeable future, terms of trade may continue to deteriorate for most of the South. Western elites and their external clients are now in a position to dictate the terms of global surrender, not only to the populations of the former Third and Second worlds, but to their own populations as well. As externally imposed structural-adjustment policies severely affect economic sovereignty, a deepening of underdevelopment and poverty is more than likely.

Security in the new era

During the long period of nuclear stalemate, survival meant the prevention of World War III and the avoidance of military confrontation among the two superpowers. Paradoxically, the transformation of a balance-of-power system into a balance-of-terror one acted as a deterrent to war itself. Thus, superpower confrontation and deadlock manifested themselves through political and economic conflict in the periphery of both superpowers in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Often, this “cold” confrontation led to surrogate wars, in which issues of equity, development, and self-determination were distorted in terms of indirect superpower confrontation. After World War II, a de facto and undeclared World War III has been ongoing, fought in instalments in Southern fields. The heavier human and material tolls have been borne by the world’s poor. Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, the Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Palestine, and Viet Nam became the battlegrounds of a North-South conflict cast on an East-West matrix. These conflicts were also profoundly dysfunctional for the Western centre. The Algerian and Indochinese involvements almost destroyed France, and the Afghan and Vietnamese wars had deleterious impacts on the economy, the society, the social fabric, and the cultural pathos of both the Soviet Union and the United States.

With the ideological schism between communism and the free world gone, an opportunity was missed to create a new and refreshing view of world politics without the ideological blinders of the past. Instead, in President Bush’s new world order, a persistent, albeit convoluted, North-South pattern of confrontation reemerged. Iraq, Panama, and Somalia are examples of a new kind of interventionism and confrontation. The collapse of communism was almost automatically translated by Western elites into the logic of a zero-sum, winner-take-all game: a victory for liberal capitalism and Western civilization over the rest of the world. Arthur Schlessinger, on the eve of the coming down of the Berlin Wall, cautioned about such misguided optimism. He argued that the disintegration of the East had more to do with a crisis in both the socioeconomic and political systems and the world order than with an all-out American victory.

A redefinition of what constitutes a threat to security is in order. Most important, though, is the question of whose security and whose interests are at stake, or, more specifically, of what the connection is between the abstract public, or “national,” interest and the specific and concrete interests of diverse national and international constituencies. Also needed is an understanding of the linkages between domestic and global concerns, above and beyond facile, dangerous, ethnocentric, and now outmoded ideological cliches.


The central thesis of this book is that the seemingly secure societies of the North are increasingly vulnerable to events in the less secure and hence underdeveloped regions of the globe in a manner that conventional international relations and development theory have failed to take account of.2 More than ever before in human history we live in a world of mutual vulnerability (Head 1991) — a multifaceted systemic echo of the premise of mutually assured destruction in the era of nuclear stalemate. Mainstream development theory, as well as dependency theory (though apparently at opposite ends of the ideological debate), postulated that backwardness was either the legacy of a traditional society to be overcome by modernization or the negative consequence of Western domination over the Southern periphery. In other words, irrespective of whether the West was construed as the “problem” or the “solution” to the Third World predicament, development and underdevelopment were perceived as being at opposite ends of a unidirectional and irreversible historical continuum: developed regions were “secure,” and insecurity was considered the trademark of the “other world.”

I suggest, quite to the contrary, that in an increasingly interconnected system, there is neither invulnerability nor developmental irreversibility; rather, the weakness of the periphery increases the exposure of the centre, making the entire configuration, including the centre, more unstable. Interconnectedness means that dysfunctions in the weaker components of the global fabric result in reciprocating, self-reenforcing, and vicious cycles of planetary magnitude. Given the retrofeeding nature of these trends, no region of the world can be immune to impending crises of potentially catastrophic proportions (Head 1991).

2 The main ideas contained in this chapter resulted from a series of meetings of a special presidential committee on South-North relations at the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa between the fall of 1988 and the winter of 1989. In October 1988, I prepared a background document (Nef 1988) synthesizing — and elaborating on — a number of propositions contained in five of Ivan Head’s speeches and presidential statements. Subsequently, Ivan Head’s ideas were developed in his book On a Hinge of History: The Mutual Vulnerability of South and North (Head 1991). I first coined the term mutual vulnerability during the above-mentioned meetings. It was the central proposition of my above-mentioned paper, constituting the main thesis of the seminar and of Ivan Head’s book.

This chapter outlines a theoretical framework for studying global transformations. The epistemological premise of this framework is that the complex changes currently going on can only be adequately comprehended from the vantage point of an equally complex yet intelligible, comprehensive, and dynamic conceptualization. The approach followed is both historical and systemic. It provides a long-range (Braudel 1980) and holistic point of view rooted in both “historical sociology” (Stern 1959) and international political economy (Staniland 1985). In this approach, the specific and the general, the micro and the macro, the short and the long run, and the parts and the whole are analytically interrelated, but emphasis is placed on the changes and continuities of structures over time.

Although this framework focuses on the intersection between international relations and development studies (Helleiner 1992), the perspective is essentially inter- and transdisciplinary, straddling the rigid and often artificial boundaries of existing vertically compartmentalized disciplines such as economics, political science, history, and sociology. The construct used in this type of analysis encompasses a much wider range of interactions and issues than do the theories that question realism and dependency (Keohane and Nye 1975), namely, “complex interdependence” and “dependency reversal” (Modelski 1983).

The concept of a world system

A useful heuristic device to help one understand the present crises in their context is the notion of a world system (Cox 1978; Galtung 1980; Wallerstein 1980). This construct encompasses historical, structural, and functional features that make it possible to analyze and reassess changing global conjunctures, irrespective of the type of polarity found in the system. A world system is the type of dominant and integrated pattern of global production, distribution, and power that had its foundations in the 17th century and has expanded and consolidated in the last two centuries (Wallerstein 1980; Bergesen 1983). It involves an unequal and asymmetrical exchange between a developed core and underdeveloped semiperipheries and peripheries, in which systemic and subsystemic development and underdevelopment are functionally and historically, but not deterministically, interrelated.

Core, centres, and peripheries

Despite the use of geographical and spatial concepts, relations in the present system are not so much those between territorially defined centres and peripheries (nations, regions, or settlements) as among concrete social actors: groups, classes, and individuals living in the North or the South. Core and centre are distinct concepts. The core comprises elite socioeconomic groups already transnationally integrated. The centre comprises the developed geographical regions, which contain, as do peripheral regions, their own elite core and a nonelite social periphery. Development and underdevelopment are conditions experienced by people, not abstract aggregations that define the totality of a territory. The idea of developed and underdeveloped nations, First and Third worlds, North and South, obscures the fact that in any society a significant degree of transnational integration occurs among its dominant groups, as well as the effective marginalization of the bulk of its people. As an historical model, the notion of a world system avoids the more simplistic and often mechanistic applications of international-stratification and dependency theories and for that matter the neofunctional fallacy of global and complex interdependency. It also looks at the underlying logic that links cores, semiperipheries, and peripheries as parts of a single structure and process, both at present and in the wider historical perspective.


A world system presupposes the existence of regimes, or mechanisms of governance with structures of decision-making, rules, and influence (Keohane and Nye 1975; Hopkins and Puchala 1978). Unlike institutions or “international organizations,” which presuppose the existence of differentiated, formally sanctioned norms and mechanisms of governance, regimes constitute the actually existing arrangements for handling a particular cluster of issues. Regimes are subsystems of the larger global system. Some are highly institutionalized, have clear boundaries, and enjoy a notable degree of concentricity. Others are loose and without a recognizable authority structure. Regimes also vary considerably in terms of how effectively they manage the issues in their areas of concern. I examine regimes in more detail in subsequent chapters.

Power and governance

One important empirical aspect of the analysis of regimes is ascertaining who governs, as real power structures are often neither formalized nor transparent. Power, understood as the ability of one actor or cluster of actors to induce compliant behaviour in others (Dahl 1970), is therefore the very essence of the global system and its constituent regimes. So is powerlessness. But such ability and inability are essentially dynamic and multidimensional. For one thing, power entails a fluid and changing relationship between ends (what for) and means (with what) and is much more than the sum of the resource capabilities, or even possible resource commitments, of an actor or an alliance. In the last analysis, effective power can only be assessed in terms of outcomes vis-à-vis objectives pursued and resources used. In this sense, authority in the Weberian sense of legitimated power (Weber 1947) requiring minimal amounts of coercion (or conversely, rewards) is an efficient and effective element in regime governance. Governance essentially involves both the government’s and the governed’s having the ability to manage conflict with limited use of violence or coercion.

Power and metapower

A second important aspect in the analysis of regimes is drawing the distinction between power and relational control, or metapower (Baumgartner el al. 1977). The latter is the ability to affect the outcome of decisions, nondecisions, actions, and inactions in a given regime by altering the rules of the game. Metapower can be associated with three fundamental concepts representing diverse intellectual traditions in political analysis. One is the above-mentioned idea of legitimation on grounds of tradition, charisma, or legal-rational calculation, as developed by Weber; the second is Gramsci’s notion of hegemony (Cox 1978); and the third is Crozier’s (1964) observation regarding the relationship between power and uncertainty. Very few actors at any given time possess legitimacy, can articulate hegemonic discourses, or have established control over the sources of uncertainty. More often than not, those who can affect the outcome of an interaction, both within specific functional or regional regimes and in the global system, are elite sectors within the core.

The elements of the system

Conceptually, a system can be seen as comprising five major elements (Nef 1985):

Image A context, both structural and historical, that defines its basic parameters, or circumstances;

Image A culture, or various ideological perspectives, cognitions, feelings, and judgments that give the system value, meaning, and orientation;

Image A structure of actors, with resources, who compete and coalesce in the pursuit of valued outcomes;

Image The processes or the dynamic cooperative and antagonistic relationships through which actors attempt to pursue their short- and long-term goals; and

Image The effects, or the intended and unintended consequences, of actions, inactions, and processes.

For the sake of simplicity, the global system can be seen as a juxtaposition of five major subsystems:

Image The ecology, or environment;

Image The economy;

Image The society, or sociodemographic system;

Image The polity; and

Image The culture.

Each subsystem is structured around a cluster of relatively homogeneous and recognizable issues; it reflects the specific nature of its constituent elements (context, culture, structure, processes, and effects) and is governed by a particular regime. Subsystems are also interlinked.

Regimes, as stated earlier, can be highly institutionalized, with formal rules and a recognizable authority structure; they can be loosely integrated into intermittent networks; or they can even be marred by internal conflict so as to render them ineffectual. In the classical balance-of-power system, shifting alliances among ruling elites theoretically produce overall stability by preventing one national actor from becoming hegemonic. Conversely, in the multilayered, bipolar order of the Cold War, with entangling collective-defence alliances and weak universal organizations for collective security, nuclear stalemate created conditions of strategic stability by default. In the former, the multipolar interplay among sovereign nation-states created equilibrium, whereas in the latter muted bipolarism defined “world peace.” In the postnational and postterritorial context, a different kind of world order has emerged, one that is based on simultaneous interaction among various functional regimes. The interplay of transnational, national, and subnational linkage groups gives specific direction and content to each regime, as well as to the broader regional and global orders. A set of hypothetical relationships among the subsystem variables is represented in Table 1.

Table 1. The global system.

(support of well-being,
affection, respect, rectitude)
Polity (power)Culture (knowledge, skill)
ContextNatural setting (biophysical surroundings of social action)Styles of development (economic models)Social expectations and traditionsInternal and external conflicts (capabilities and expectations of the elite and the masses; sovereignty and dependence)Images of the physical and social world and collective experiences
CultureEcoculture (place of environment in cosmovision)Economic doctrines (ways of understanding the economy)Social doctrines (values, norms, attitudes; identity and modal personality)Ideologies (function of the state and its relation to the citizen)Philosophy (axiologies, teleologies, deontologies); moral and ethical codes
StructuresResource endowment and spatial distribution (relation between environment and resources)Economic units (consumers and producers; labour and capital)Status and roles (social structures, groups, classes, fractions)Brokers and institutions (interest groups, parties, cliques, governments, bureaucracies)Formal and informal educational structures (schools, universities, learning institutions)
ProcessesDepletion or regeneration of air, water, land, flora, and faunaProduction and distribution of goods and servicesInteractions (cooperation, conflict, mobilization, demobilization)Conflict resolution (consensus, repression, rebellion, stalemate)Learning (building of consciousness, cognitions, basic values, procedures, teleologies)
EffectsSustainability or entropyProsperity or povertyEquity or inequityGovernance or violenceEnlightenment or ignorance

The dynamics of the system involves the actions and interactions (Holsti 1972) of actors pursuing goals and using resources in — as well as having effects on — a given context and the system’s internal configuration. Changing circumstances, in turn, generate feedback. Dysfunctions produced at the dominant core end up not only having negative impacts on subordinate actors but also generating a delayed and secondary reaction from the centre itself. Conversely, cumulative dysfunctions in the periphery are bound to flow upstream, increasing the uncertainty and instability of the centre and the entire system of global relations. In this sense, contrary to commonly held belief, an increasingly integrated world is also one of mutually assured vulnerability. More than a “zero-sum” game (Deutsch 1968), the possibility of the opposite of the prisoner’s dilemma confronts us — a negative-score game in which all the players stand to lose.

The present world system as a complex conglomerate

International relations have changed dramatically since World War II. It is impossible to see the global scene any longer as just the meeting place for the foreign policies of individual nation-states, representing monolithic national interests (Mansbach et al. 1976). Although the issue of survival remains the base value of global politics (indeed, of all human agency), its manifestations have varied. More traditional questions of peace and security as systemic purposes (teleologies) of war prevention and containment of “aggressive states” have been increasingly replaced by issues of development, human rights, the environment, peacekeeping, trade, and equity. We can see this in the changing and still uncertain roles of alliances, such as NATO, and regional organizations such as the Organization of American States.

As teleologies change, so do the instruments for crisis management. The limited success of reactive instruments of contention has highlighted the need for proactive ones that emphasize prevention. Two dramatic examples are epidemics and famines, but other issues — such as environmental degradation, limited international conflict, refugees, and domestic strife — can be seen in a similar light. However, old ideas and cliches die hard. Many seemingly new concepts are simple translations or relabelings of the old Manichean categories of North versus South, “civilized” versus “uncivilized,” “us” versus “them.” Changing the attitudes and perceptions of analysts and decision-makers has been a slow and inconsistent process, still unfolding and surrounded by uncertainty.

The end of an era

Events in 1989 marked the end of the world order that began 45 years earlier at Yalta, Breton Woods, and San Francisco. The menus and priorities of world politics were thrown into disarray. Systemic boundaries are nowadays much less territorial or ideological and more functional than at any time since the emergence of the modern nation-state. They are also much more permeable and imprecise (Kaplan 1994). The notion of collective defence, as a system of alliances against a would-be external aggressor, was predicated on the solution of continuity between “passive” (deterrence and defence) and “aggressive” strategies (compellance and offence). This way of looking at the instrumentalities of global politics was challenged by the end of the Cold War. Increasingly, new issues such as those related to human rights, the environment, trade, and equity jumped to the forefront of agendas, making strategic studies less relevant to an understanding of the world. The pursuit of national security under the umbrella of collective defence, centred on a single actor, the nation-state, in a bipolar world, has been replaced by the need for a very different kind of collective and cooperative security. It is impossible to hope for a resurgence of pre-World War II multipolarity. The new type of security is much more complex, varied, and nuanced. Ethnic conflict, cultural diversity, national disintegration, civil war, and systemic and subsystemic restructuring have become paramount. Issues of poverty, trade, finance, health, environment, gender, communications, resource depletion, population, migration, technology, drugs, human rights, and refugees have also become part of the equation, and the list goes on.

A significant rearrangement in the structure and functioning of the world order has taken place. The global power structure has changed from muted, yet fundamentally rigid, bipolarism to diffuse monocentrism. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact are no more. The end of the Cold War has also meant a loosening of collective-defence ties in the Western alliance. Substantively, the fulcrum of systemic relations has shifted from geopolitics to geoeconomics. Table 2 compares defence spending and military forces between 1985 and 1996 among the major contenders in the East-West conflict and is quite illustrative of the end of this era in human history.

New players, such as TNCs and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), have gained a relevant foothold. They coexist with functional and regional international governmental organizations, such as the United Nations, regional systems, a few powerful national actors, like France, Germany, Japan, the United States, and various semiperipheries, including the four “little dragons” and China,

Table 2. Defence expenditure and military personnel, 1985 and 1996.

 Defence expenditure (million USDa) Military personnel (thousands)
 19851996Change      19851996Change
NATO Europe197 539183 219  −7.23 143.42 435.9−22.5
Canada  10 688    8 387−21.5     83.0     70.5−15.1
United States352 551265 823−24.62 151.61 483.8−31.1
All of NATO560 777457 430−18.45 378.03 990.2−25.8
Former Soviet Unionb329 44969 537−79.85 300.01 270.0−76.0
     Source: IISS (1997).
     Note: NATO, North Atlantic Treaty Organization; USD, United States dollars.

a In 1985 dollars.

b 1985 data are for all the Soviet republics; 1996 data are for Russian Federation only.

with its overwhelming presence. With the shift to geoeconomics, the geographical axis of world politics has been noticeably displaced from the North Atlantic to the Pacific Rim.

The two central polarities — between North and South and between East and West — that emerged after World War II were replaced after 1989 by a single core-periphery axis. The Western core, the First World, remained as it was: an interdependent and stratified bloc of dominant trading partners. The other two worlds collapsed into one heterogeneous conglomerate, including “newly industrializing,” “developing,” and “poor” societies, along with the “transitional societies” of the former socialist camp. As earlier indicated, the core-periphery divide mainly stands between social sectors in both developed and lesser developed societies. It stands between transnationally integrated, affluent elites, along with their respective clienteles, and a large fragmented mass of subordinate sectors at the margins of the modern integrated global society (Sunkel 1973). Core-periphery conflicts can remain latent, become open and manifest, or evolve into institutionalized asymmetrical regimes.

The end of military, economic, and ideological bipolarism did not produce either multipolarity or polycentrism. The present complex conglomerate involves a multiplicity of issues, arenas, and actors. The latter include subnational, national, international, and transnational groups: ethnic and linguistic minorities, insurgents, NGOs, heads of state, diplomats and functionaries, the United Nations, regional organizations, and TNCs. This heterogeneous and uneven set of participants operates in an unpredictable and fragile milieu. An identifiable and dominant core is centred in the ruling elites, which enjoy a significant degree of relational control within the Group of Seven. Despite its hegemonic pretensions, this global alliance lacks institutional legitimacy and concentricity, other than in articulating the common interests of the dominant fractions of international capital. Nor is it always effective. The players’ transactions, whether cooperative or conflictual, end up being closely interrelated in an increasingly unipolar web of interactions, with US paramountcy. This loosely unipolar system is both interconnected and turbulent and intrinsically unstable. It is highly stratified and differentiated, with hegemonic actors, “power blocs,” and subordinate levels interacting in an assortment of overlapping jurisdictions and regimes. The dominant leitmotif, as well as the dominant discourse, presented as a categorical imperative in the contemporary world order is no longer military but investment security. With the disappearance of the Soviet “menace,” the security of capital, especially finance capital — and that of the social sectors associated with its ownership and management — has openly become the world system’s prime directive.

The concept of human security

Since the end of World War II, peace and development have been the teleological axis in the world-system crucible. Needless to say, these two factors are also inextricably interrelated, with multidirectional flows and feedbacks. It should be borne in mind that the presence of feedback loops is of itself not necessarily conducive to smooth compensatory changes (homeostasis). Social systems, unlike their natural and mechanical analogs, are not inherently self-correcting. In fact, as the historical record of defunct civilizations indicates, entropy and self-destructive behaviour are always a real and distinct possibility. That is to say, not all feedback is “functional,” in the sense of providing for instantaneous adjustments and “systems maintenance”; rather, self-correction in social systems is a function of awareness, learning, perception, and will, not of built-in automaticity. Put simply, the cultural software of any form of association, from a single household to an extended empire, contains the seeds of greater instability, but it also offers greater opportunities for innovative problem-solving.

East-West interactions between 1945 and 1989 were dominated by “national” (a euphemism for bipolar) security concerns. The quest for peace entailed a defensive-offensive posture, in which deterrence and compellance defined the bottom line of coexistence between two power blocs. Fear of the “other side” provided the context for the emergence of doctrines of military security, with their corollaries of the external and internal “enemies.” On the other hand, Western scholars predominantly characterized North-South interactions in “development” terms, although the latter frequently masked the softer side of civic action and counterinsurgency (Nef and Dwivedi 1982).

In the post-1989 milieu, security and development issues cannot be viewed from this zero-sum perspective. Instead, peace and development must be perceived as encompassing much more than military concerns and economic growth with “trickle-down” effects to prevent Third World revolutions. A negative-score-game perspective, recognizing possibilities for winning together and losing together, has to be incorporated into the new security calculation. The issues at stake relate much more to the overarching issues of sustainability, survival, well-being, quality of life, and human development, in which peace transcends realpolitik.

The prime normative consideration, the quest for sustainable development and security, has indeed operational and empirical references, such as the United Nations indices of Quality of Life and Human Development (UNDP 1995). Such concepts are much more holistic and integrative of the multiple factors affecting the existence of concrete people than a simple measure of the gross national product (GNP) or conventional security defined in terms of national defence and the balance of military capabilities. In 1994, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) explicitly linked the analysis of human development to the notion of human security (UNDP 1994).

Our definition of security is based on the probability of “risk reduction”: the abatement of insecurity (Nef and Varnderkop 1988). It emphasizes the prevention of the causes of insecurity, rather than the means to contain its symptoms. Of primary concern here is the kind of insecurity experienced by the bulk of the population, especially in those sectors quantitatively and qualitatively more vulnerable and exposed. It is reasonable to assume that security (risk reduction) at the higher levels of a global system depends, other things being constant, on achieving security at the lower levels (Nef and Varnderkop 1988). Likewise, subsystemic security is reciprocally affected by systemic security, as any system is only as strong as its weakest link. Thus, attaining sustained — and sustainable — homeostasis in any society will depend on a significant and continuous reduction of risk and insecurity in all levels.

This construct stands in direct opposition to dystopic notions of security advanced by authoritarian theorists and practitioners in the 1970s.3 In fact, the net effect of applying “national-security principles” (a euphemism for state security) was to increase the overall levels of conflict and insecurity, both systemically and internally.4 Security is not the maintenance at any cost of a given status quo (or structure of privileges and inequalities).

Paraphrasing Dom Hélder Cámara, order cannot be conceived to mean “stratified disorder.” Nor is it synonymous with repression or protracted stalemate. On the contrary, a security community means the existence of a political system capable of managing and solving socioeconomic conflicts through relatively consensual adjustments. The consensual option offers, in absolute terms, an opportunity to reduce the overall level of coercion, violence, and harm to human life in

3 For a comprehensive review of the fundamental shift in the US development paradigm from a teleology of democracy and development to one of order, see O’Brien (1972). Weil et al. (1979) characterized the national-security doctrine as a containment model in Latin America. An overview of the counterinsurgent roots of national security in the context of a US containment policy is found in Barber and Ronning (1966). For a broader conceptualization and a critique of such containment, see Lovell (1971). The US Army Special Warfare School (USASWS 1964) provides a direct view of the development deontology of counterinsurgency. An analysis of the roots of the transition from authoritarianism to restricted democracy in Latin America is found in Siat and Iriarte (1978).

4 This critique of national-security doctrine in the Latin American and US context was explicitly articulated in the Linowitz Report (Linowitz 1973). The same concern was voiced later by Judge Tom Farer, appointed as the US representative to the Interamerican Court of Justice (Farer 1978).

repressive and insurrectional modes of conflict management. Its central ethical principles are respect for life and the recognition of human dignity (Lasswell 1950) as organizing principles for social action. Put simply, without an ethical base and code, no security is possible.

Dimensions of human security

Substantively, the idea of human security implies at least a number of interwoven dimensions, centred on human dignity as, broadly speaking, synonymous with human rights. For the sake of systematization, I have used the same fivefold classification of subsystems and regimes for these dimensions as for those of the world system in the earlier discussion: ecosystem, economy, society, polity, and culture (UNDP 1994).5 These subsystems are linked by specific “bridges”: environment and economy are linked by resources; economy and society, by social forces; society and polity, by brokers and alliances; and politics and culture, by ideology. The concrete interplay among and between regimes and their linkages defines the nature of systemic entropy — or homeostasis — at any given point in time and at any level, whether global, regional, national, or local.

The first dimension is environmental, personal, and physical security: the right of individuals and communities to preservation of their life and health and to dwell in a safe and sustainable environment. The second is economic security: access to the employment and resources needed to maintain one’s existence, reduce scarcity, and improve the material quality of life in the community. The third is social security: freedom from discrimination based on age, gender, ethnicity, or social status. This implies access to “safety nets,” knowledge, and information, as well as an ability to associate. The fourth is political security: the right to representation, autonomy (freedom), participation, and dissent, combined with empowerment to make choices with a reasonable probability of effecting change. This includes legal-juridical security: individual and collective access to justice and protection from abuse. The fifth is cultural security: the set of psychological orientations of society geared to preserving and enhancing the ability to control uncertainty and fear (Nef et al. 1989).

Democracy and security

Although all the individual and collective dimensions of security are equally central to the realization of human dignity, the political dimension holds the key to

5 The Human Development Report 1994 (UNDP 1994) uses seven dimensions of human security: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, and political.

the safeguarding of physicoenvironmental, economic, social, and cultural “rights.” Politics, understood here in its most conventional sense — the “allocation of valuables” through “authoritative choices” (Easton 1957) — constitutes the organizing principle of a community’s life. Without it, the realization of other forms of security could be impossible.

Substantive, even procedural, democracy lies at the core of political security, and this involves the ongoing conflict management (and resolution) of three fundamental and interrelated contradictions: those between economic capabilities and social expectations, those between elites and masses, and those between sovereignty (autonomy) and subordination (Nef 1983). The ability of a polity to overcome crises and provide security for its members depends less on its resource base and autonomy than on its learned capacity for conflict management — in a word, governance (Nef 1992).6 Conversely, increased levels of insecurity will be related to greater scarcity, to severe reductions in autonomy, and especially to ineffectual and authoritarian conflict management.

Threats to human security

Security threats emerge as a direct consequence of dysfunctional regimes in their multiple, though overlapping, subsystemic dimensions. The reproduction and expansion of mutual vulnerabilities (and insecurity), at both the micro and macro levels, expresses itself through closely related and interconnected thrusts. The same is the case with its opposite — security. The list of concrete and symptomatic dysfunctions (threats) is so extensive that I will only outline a few categories and examples, clustered along the five general dimensions of human security.

I will attempt to highlight the interconnectedness and transnationality of the issues discussed. Suffice it to say that security threats are systemically related and that dysfunctions in one sphere tend to express themselves in other subsystems; that is, mutual vulnerability is constituted by multiple dysfunctions sequentially and structurally linked in vicious circuits of multiple causality.

6 Not to be confused with the trilateralist notion of “governability” associated with elite control in a limited democracy.


That the world is experiencing an environmental crisis has become commonplace. The Stockholm Conference of 1972, the Brundtland Report (1986), and the Rio Summit of 1992 clearly testify to a growing environmental awareness, as well as to an emerging environmental point of view. Yet, this is not to say that an environmental agenda has become part of concrete policies and actions, beyond the level of, often sophisticated, rhetoric. The fundamental fact of the current environmental crisis is that it is overwhelmingly and unequivocally artificial. Two aspects of environmental insecurity will be examined in this chapter: the systemic character of the problems and the nature of the global environmental regime through which these problems are managed.

Reciprocating dysfunctions

Environmental deterioration includes a long and expanding list of major and multiple dysfunctions that feed on each other (White 1993), increasing the chain of vulnerabilities. For instance, deforestation leads to land degradation, which makes agricultural production unsustainable. This affects both staple exports (together with balance of payments) and food security. Food insecurity brings about a deterioration in health and social cohesion, often resulting in political turmoil. This enhances authoritarianism, violence, political disintegration and creates forced displacements of population. I will examine some of the environmental dysfunctions below.

The death of forests

Deforestation is “one of the most widespread and visibly shocking forms of environmental degradation” (Ryan 1991). The loss of rain forest, especially in tropical regions of the Third World, such as in Brazil, Central America, Malaysia, and the Philippines, is one of its most publicized manifestations. Extensive subtropical deforestation has also affected parts of Africa, with devastating human costs. To a lesser extent, the natural forests of North America and the Pacific coast of South

Table 3. Annual rate of deforestation.

 Rate of deforestation
 1 000 ha per year% per year
Africa4 0400.6
Asia4 4600.9
Latin America58180.7
North America1 1820.1
World15 5000.4
     Source: UNEP (1991).

America (Nef 1995) have been ravaged through overexploitation. Every year, the imbalance between natural growth and deforestation costs the planet about 17 million hectares of tropical forest alone. Canada is “losing 200,000 hectares a year, as cutting exceeds regeneration by a wide margin” (Brown 1993). The worldwide comparative data for the 1980s are shown in Table 3.

The impact of deforestation on the climate appears to be significant (White 1993). Massive defoliation and forest devastation have wide implications for ecosystems and for life On the planet. Part of this deforestation results from overexploitation, but a smaller, yet not insignificant, part is a consequence of purposeful destruction. For instance, in Brazil, deforestation has resulted from policies of unrestricted growth. Ecocide has also become part of military strategy, as in the Viet Nam war, when US forces resorted to extensive and intensive spraying of highly toxic chemical agents, referred to as “orange,” “white,” and “blue,” to clear the jungle. The full impact of deforestation on a planetary scale has yet to be fully assessed. It is well known to affect oxygen regeneration, rain and river systems, and topsoil retention and to cause drought and desertification, all with profound consequences for the quality of life of populations.

The thinning of the ozone layer

An environmental dysfunction, the awareness of which is quite recent, is the damage to the protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. This has been the outcome of the uncontrolled use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other industrial and household substances. Since the 1950s the ozone shield in the upper atmosphere has been depleted by 2% worldwide. This has led to increased surface exposure to solar and cosmic radiation, interference with natural photosynthesis

Table 4. Global CO2 emissions, 1965 and 1989.

 Total CO2 emissions (t)% annual
Carbon, 1989 (t)
 196519891980-89Per capitaPer million USD GDP
Low- and middle-income countries57621323.80.50614
High-income countries19012 7020.53.26186
World30125 8221.81.12327
     Source: World Bank (1992).
     Note: GDP, gross domestic product; USD, United States dollars.

in crops, damage to fauna, depletion of ocean plankton — the primary source of food in the marine food chain — health risks, and climatic alterations (Head 1991). The most affected areas have been those around Antarctica and the Arctic, although the full long-range impact is still being researched.

Air pollution and acid rain

Carbon monoxide and sulphuric acid emissions are another major technologically induced problem, affecting air quality, especially in major cities. These emissions result from a combination of combustion-engine technology and the extensive use of carbon-based energy sources and the smokestacks characteristic of industrial civilization. The examples of Bangkok, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Santiago, and Tokyo are well known, although practically all major cities are affected by it. Since the 1970s worldwide atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas, has gone up by 9%.

The developed economies, with slightly more than 15% of the global population, have been the major contributors to carbon emissions, with more than 46% of total output (Table 4). The major sources are fossil-fuel burning and cement manufacturing, both strongly correlated with urbanization and industrialization. It was estimated that in 1989 that for every million dollars of gross domestic product (GDP), an additional 327 tonnes of carbon was released into the atmosphere. On a per capita basis, this meant an average of 0.5 tonnes for the low- and middle-income regions of the planet and 3.36 for the advanced economies. The world average is 1.12 tonnes per capita. When population is factored in, industrial economies produce more than six times as much CO2 pollution per capita as the rest of the world.

However, as industrialization and urbanization expand in poorer regions, the pollution there tends to increase at a faster rate than in more developed areas. Whereas Europe, Japan, North America, and other industrialized economies, which generate a much larger amount of CO2, are increasing air contamination by roughly 0.5% per year, the lesser developed economies are doing so at 3.8% per year, or 7.6 times faster. The combined world-average increase of these atmospheric pollutants is 1.8% per year (World Bank 1992). The immediate results are greater health risks, such as respiratory diseases, and damage to flora and fauna, not to mention the long-range catastrophic implications of global warming.

In 1997, carbon emissions causing climate change were estimated to have reached a staggering 6.3 billion tonnes, up 1.5% from the 6.2 billion tonnes produced in 1996. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 climbed to 364 parts per million, the highest concentration ever. Increased carbon emissions seem to correlate with a general trend of global warming: the 14 hottest years since record keeping began in 1866 have all occurred since 1979. This is evident in melting ice caps, shrinking glaciers in the Alps, and the breakup of the sea ice around Antarctica (World watch 1998).

Air pollution forms the basis of another environmental hazard, acid rain. Sulphur emissions, the main contributor to acid rain, have grown steadily throughout the world and are strongly associated with the above-mentioned CO2. It has been estimated that nearly 75% of Europe’s forests are experiencing damaging levels of sulphur deposition. The effects of water hyperacidity on flora and on freshwater lakes have been devastating. In Canada alone, 14000 lakes are reportedly unable to sustain aquatic life as a result of high acidity. Northern Europe and newly industrializing countries have also experienced the destructive effects of acid rain, not only on the natural habitat but also on buildings, transportation systems, and metallic structures.

Freshwater contamination and depletion

A related area in which inappropriate technologies and natural fragility converge is water quality, including pollution and depletion. Industrial and sewage discharges into streams extend damage far beyond the original sources of contamination, threatening health and altering delicate environmental balances in river beds and coastlines. Water-related problems vary considerably from areas where water is scarce (or becoming scarce) to those where extensive contamination makes it dangerous to use water for consumption or irrigation and to those where a high water table makes flooding and refuse discharges a constant danger. Annual water consumption per capita for 1990 was about 676 m3, with low-income countries consuming about 498 m3; middle-income countries, 532 m3; and high-income countries, 1 217 m3. Low- and middle-income regions used nearly 85% of their water for agriculture, 8% for industry, and 7% for domestic consumption. Countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) used 39% of the water consumed for the irrigation of crops, 47% for industry, and 14% for domestic consumption.

Out of the proven 40 856 km3 of fresh water worldwide, sub-Saharan Africa possesses about 9%; East Asia and the Pacific, 19%; South Asia, 12%; the Middle East and North Africa, 0.67%; and Latin America and the Caribbean, about 26%. The OECD countries, in turn, contain within their territories more than 20% of the global fresh water (World Bank 1992), and the remaining 13% is in the Eastern European region, including the former Soviet Union. Control over water resources is a vital and strategic human-security issue. It relates directly to health, energy, and food security. Water is an unevenly distributed resource, but distribution alone is not the main question. The central problem for most of the world population is access to clean water. This is where the quandary lies. Consumption increases with urbanization and industrialization, yet, on the whole, irrespective of its availability, water quality has declined with increased use. Who controls the resource and for what use are therefore extremely important questions.

In the future, transnational water disputes may provide the basis for confrontation. Issues of siltation, flooding, and diversion of the Nile River have engaged Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Reduced water flow and salinization of the Tigris and the Euphrates have increased tensions between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon confront questions of water flow and diversion of the Jordan and Yamuk Litani. These are just a few of more than a dozen disputes affecting major river systems (Renner 1989). What is important here is that such disputes occur not only among nation-states but also in areas of ethnic, regional, and subnational tensions, where competing loyalties and sovereignties make politics extremely volatile.

Land degradation

Soil erosion, desertification, and salinization7 are three main problems in a long chain of environmental dysfunctions. Their impact on human security entails the loss of arable land, which is directly connected with crop failure, famine, and forced migration. Countries in East Africa and the Sahel have been among the most severely affected. There, the combined impacts of desertification, drought,

7 The worst cases of salinization in 1987, measured in terms of percentage of irrigated land affected, were Egypt, 30-40%; Syria, 3-35%; Australia, 15-20%; and the United States, 20-25%.

poverty, population pressures, internal strife, fuel scarcity, and political inefficiency have strained already fragile ecosystems, bringing about millions of casualties and massive displacements of people. Yet deserts and soil erosion are also expanding all over the globe in regions exhibiting fewer multiple dysfunctions than mentioned above.

The causes of desertification are complex, often involving a synergistic and destructive mixture of nature’s own cycles and human intervention. The most direct of these causes are overcultivation, the above-mentioned deforestation, overgrazing, and careless irrigation. These causes are, in turn, conditioned by alterations in the three interlocking factors of population, climate, and socioeconomic conditions (Grainger 1982). Although drought can trigger a chain of events leading to desertification, drought is a consequence of climatic change, and desertification is the consequence of social behaviour. Desertification in the mid-1970s affected directly one-sixth of the world population, 70% of all the drylands, and 25% of the land mass of the world (Spooner 1982). Every year potentially productive territories the size of a small country are lost to erosion. Because land reclamation is slow and costly, population is increasing, and water resources are shrinking, the amount of land available for cultivation on a per capita basis diminishes steadily. Desertification, combined with the exponential growth of cities that encroach on prime agricultural soil and natural reserves, is reducing the availability of a vital resource for food production. Land degradation results in decreased productivity and eventually the creation of wastelands. In the last 20 years, during which the population has increased by 1.6 billion, close to 500 billion tonnes of topsoil has been lost through soil erosion (Brown 1993).

Food insecurity

Environmental deterioration is connected with food insecurity, the principal manifestations of which are malnutrition, privation, and hunger.8 As reported in the State of the World 1993 (Brown 1993),

Amidst uncertainty, food scarcity in developing countries is emerging as the most profound and immediate consequence of global environmental degradation, one already affecting the welfare of millions. All the principal changes in the earth’s physical conditions — eroding soils, shrinking forests, deteriorating rangelands, expanding deserts, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, the buildup of greenhouse gases, air pollution

8 A comprehensive treatment of food security and insecurity can be found in Lappe et al. (1979), Murdoch (1980), Hopkins et al. (1982), and Kent (1984). On the strategic use of US “food-power” to countervail “oil-power” and commodity cartels, see Brown (1974).

and the loss of biological diversity — are affecting food production negatively. Deteriorating diets in both Africa and Latin America during the eighties, a worldwide fall in per capita grain production since 1984 and the rise in world wheat and rice prices over the last two years may be early signs of the trouble that lies ahead.

However, the root causes of food insecurity are more social and political (that is, associated with poverty, inaccessibility, turmoil, government policies, or indifference, etc.) than purely “technical” or physical (such as inappropriate farming, drought, or overpopulation). Food insecurity results from a combination of many social and environmental factors, rather than being simply the direct result of factors in food production. Famine is the most striking expression of food and human insecurity. As Jean (1983) remarked,

The great famines in the 20th century have been caused by deliberate strategies (the Ukraine in 1921 and 1928, China from 1958 to 1961), serious drought and inadequate aid (Bengal in 1943, the Sahel in 1973), conflicts (Biafra in 1968) and often a combination of these factors (Sudan in 1988 and Ethiopia in 1985).

At present, depending on the source or the method of calculation, it is estimated that anywhere between 40 million and 115 million people are directly affected. Undernourishment, however, is a much wider problem. Although the proportion of the world population affected has steadily declined, the total number of people going hungry has actually increased and is currently above the 500-million mark. The estimated figures for 1969-90 are shown in Table 5.

Table 5. Estimated number of undernourished people, 1969-90.

 n (millions)% n (millions)% n (millions)%
Africa10135 12833 16833
Asia75140 64528 52819
Latin America  5419   4713   5913
Middle East  3522   2412   3112
All LDCs94136 84426 78620
     Source: WRI (1994).
     Note: LDC, lesser developed country.

Damage to the oceans

The abuse of oceans and seabeds presents a very serious and likely irreversible environmental problem. Oceans are the receivers of uncontrolled dumping of human and industrial waste and, in general, the discharge of contaminants that threaten marine life, health, and food supplies. Maritime spills from oil tankers or cargo ships, such as the much-publicized Exxon-Valdez accident off the coast of Alaska, and defence-related catastrophes, such as nuclear submarines sinking in the Baltic, have become frequent occurrences. Until the signing of nuclear test-ban treaties, extensive nuclear testing was carried out over the oceans, and nuclear waste found its way into seabeds. Practically no place in the world is safe from these major threats.

Added to this is the problem of overfishing and uncontrolled commercial exploitation of natural stocks. The “Blue Revolution,” which scarcely 40 years ago allegedly held the key to feeding the world, has become a principal cause of ocean depletion, owing to gross mismanagement of the sea commons. After expanding at nearly 4% annually from mid-century to the late 1980s, the catch actually declined, in both relative and absolute numbers. In 1993, it was predicted that fish availability worldwide would decline by 7% per capita for the next 4 years (Brown 1993). As indicated by the disappearance of cod and salmon stocks off Canada’s east and west coasts, respectively, and of various fish varieties, crustaceans, and molluscs off the coast of southern South America, ecological problems have evolved into major dysfunctions in the food chain and entire regional ecosystems. The effects have been the loss of traditional livelihoods, severe unemployment, large involuntary migrations, and the demise of communities.


The spread of disease constitutes another real and present danger. Epidemics involve a complex pattern of interactions rooted in pathogenic conditions, demographic dynamics, cultural practices, and public policies. The current global predicament is the dysfunctional juxtaposition of “traditional” epidemics’ coming back with a vengeance and relatively “new” strains of morbidity, in particular those presenting a threat to natural immunities.

Diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, and typhoid, although considered in frank decline a few decades ago, are making a comeback as public-health expenditures everywhere fall to the axe of structural adjustment. More serious, though, is the fact that strains of many diseases that had been successfully combatted with antibiotics over the last 50 years are beginning to show signs of resistance to medication.

Table 6. Tropical diseases: global population at risk, 1992 and 1995.

 Countries affected (n) Population at risk (million)
Disease19921995 19921995
African trypanosomiasis   36   36    50   55
Chagas disease   21   21    90   100
Dengue100100 2 0002 500
Dracunculiasis   18   18    140   100
Leishmaniasis   88   88    350   350
Leprosy   87   87 2 400  N/A
Lymphatic filariasis   76   73    7501 100
Malaria100   90 2 5002 020
Onchocerciasis   34   34     90   120
Schistosomiasis   74   74    500   600
     Source: WHO (1996); figures for 1992 and data on leprosy are from WHO (1994b).
     Note: N/A, not available.

It is worthwhile to note that although the number of countries at risk has apparently declined, the absolute number of people at risk has increased. Even taking into consideration both the tentative nature of the statistics and the absence of current data regarding the risk posed by sicknesses such as leprosy, the probability of morbidity has expanded at a rate just slightly slower than that of global population growth: 1.4% versus 1.7%. If we look at the threat posed by specific strains, we find that decreases of 20-24% in some categories have been offset by significant increases of 10-40% in others in the years observed (1993-95). Tables 6-8 show the estimated incidence, or propensity of risk, of diseases whose spread is closely correlated with poverty and inappropriate social policies.

Although the virtual eradication of smallpox over a decade ago could be regarded as the triumph of technology (combined with international cooperation and modern medical practices), the resurgence of other forms of pestilence points in quite the opposite direction. In 1991, cholera cases were reported in 68 countries. Diarrhoeal diseases are still the major cause of mortality and morbidity in children and infants in the less affluent parts of the planet. This translates into 1.5 billion episodes of illness and 3 million deaths of children under 5 years of age per year. As well, malaria had spread and its incidence had increased in comparison with the previous decade. About 2 billion people, nearly half of the world’s population, are exposed to the disease annually in nearly 100 countries.

Table 7. Tuberculosis: incidence and mortality, 1990.

 Incidence (thousands) Mortality (thousands)
TB cases
TB cases
attributed to HIV
 Total TB deathsTB deaths
attributed to HIV
Southeast Asia3 106661 08723
Western Pacific a1 83919  644  7
Africa   99294  393  7
Eastern Mediterranean   641  9  249  4
Americasb   56920   114  4
Eastern Europe   194  1    20<0.2
Industrialized countriesc   196  6   14<0.5
     Source: Adapted from Dolin et al. (1994).
     Note: TB, tuberculosis.

a Excludes Australia, Japan, and New Zealand.

b Excludes Canada and United States.

c Includes Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, United States, and Western Europe.

In 1991, 1.5 billion people, one-quarter of the world’s population, had no access to primary health care. About 0.5 million women and 3 million children and die each year from preventable causes related to lack of clean water, information, immunization, and proper health care during pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy (UNDP 1991). Declining living and sanitary conditions, as well as the above-mentioned drastic reduction in health expenditures, are closely linked to soaring levels of pestilence. So are water, atmospheric, and soil contamination. Relatively new strains, such as the HIV virus, have wreaked havoc in parts of Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and North America.

Perhaps more than other manifestations of human insecurity, the AIDS epidemic illustrates the nature of today’s mutual vulnerability. Although the mid-1980s horror scenarios for the spread of the disease have failed to materialize, the fact remains that the number of reported AIDS cases has multiplied at an alarming rate. According to the World Health Organization, an official cumulative total of 182463 persons, spread over 152 countries, had AIDS in late 1989. Yet the epidemic was estimated to have affected more than 260000 persons worldwide (Head 1991), and the HIV virus was estimated to be present in 5-10 million more. In 1997, the figures were 30.6 million living with HIV or AIDS, 5.8 million newly infected people, and 2.3 million annual deaths. About 2.8 million of these cases were in Africa, 2.1 million in the Americas, 500000 in Europe, and 6.4 million in Asia and the Pacific (WHO 1988, 1990; UNAIDS and WHO 1998). Currently,

Table 8. Cholera in the Americas, 1991-97.

  Cases (n)  Cumulative
 199119921997 deaths, 1997 (n)
Argentina0553636 12
Bolivia20622 2601 601 16
Brazil210130 0542167 27
Chile41734 0
Colombia11 979151291 082 25
Costa Rica012N/A N/A
Ecuador46 32031870N/A N/A
El Salvador94781060 0
French Guiana116N/A N/A
Guatemala367415 395551 0
Guyana05560 0
Honduras1138451 2
Mexico2 690816277 1
Nicaragua13 067447 7
Panama1 17824160 0
Peru322 562212 6423483 29
Surinam0120 0
United States261024 0
Venezuela132 8422 259 50
     Source: PAHO (1993, 1998); WHO (1998).
     Note: N/A, not available.

the epidemic is showing declining rates in the developed world, but its incidence has increased dramatically in the poorer countries, which have more than a 90% share of all new infections (UNAIDS and WHO 1998) (Tables 9 and 10).

Given the social stigma and prejudice attached to the pathology, it is highly probable that most cases go unreported. Being mainly a disease transmitted through body fluids, with no known cure, ever larger segments of the world’s population than those officially reported are in serious risk. Today, these include growing numbers of women and young people, with 40 and 50%, respectively, of incidence in all new infections.

Table 9. The AIDS epidemic, 1991-93.

 Official cases reported (n) Cumulative cases
 19911992 reported by July
1993 (n)
Africa50 94447 712241 931
Americas59 11561 893352 291
Eastern Mediterranean    447    468    1 720
Europe16 74916 106  89 831
Southeast Asia    466    882    2 002
Western Pacific    921    665    4 744
     Source: WHO (1994a).

Table 10. Estimated global distribution of adults living with HIV or AIDS at the end of 1997.

East Asia and the Pacific420
Eastern Europe and Central Asia190
Latin America and the Caribbean1 600
North Africa and the Middle East200
North America850
South and Southeast Asia5 700
Sub-Saharan Africa20 000
Western Europe480
     Sources: WHO (1994b); UNAIDS and WHO (1998).

Threats to the genetic pool

The loss of genetic variability, biodiversity, and resistance in plant and animal species is a point of biospheric concern. Growing genetic homogeneity, a consequence of technological advances and hybridization, tends to reduce the genetic pool to fewer and fewer species. Instead, nonreproductive and at times unexpectedly vulnerable strains replace traditional ones. Production and reproduction have become two different processes determined by the necessities of the marketplace, rather than by natural genetic codes (which can also be subject to alteration). Biodiversity is, nowadays, both a genetic condition and a legal and economic issue related to patenting and the proprietary rights of TNCs in the biochemical business. This is particularly the case with the high-yield varieties of the Green Revolution period and the present biotechnological revolution.

The dangers of the Green Revolution

Although the phenomenal increase in yields in worldwide agricultural production can be traced back to a “modern” technological package, numerous problems are associated with it. Green Revolution technology includes heavy use of pesticides, fertilizers, hybrid seeds, high-energy inputs, machinery, and costly irrigation projects to increase yields and profit. The logic of agricultural production changes from that of growing food crops that produce a profit to that of growing profit directly. Capital-intensive agriculture prevails over labour-intensive peasant production and the family farm. In fact, the latter, a crucial factor in food security, tends to be displaced by large-scale agribusiness. Heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilizers increases the dangers of persistent contamination of food and water supplies, putting populations of producers and consumers at risk. The most publicized case of massive death by toxicity resulting from agricultural chemicals was the “environmental massacre” following the explosion and release into the atmosphere of lethal substances at a Union Carbide agrochemical plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984. More than 3 500 people died, and 50 0000 suffered serious health effects. However, innumerable less dramatic, but equally serious, instances of persistent poisoning of land, water, air, and the food chain affect millions of people.

Industry is generally acknowledged to be the major contributor to the present environmental crisis. Undoubtedly, industrial practices do play a central role in environmental degradation. Yet, despite widely held myths to the contrary, agricultural practices are, by and large, no more environmentally friendly than industrial ones. In this, the Brazilian small-scale farmer in Amazonia and the large agribusiness conglomerate share a common unecological posture, with the greater risks posed by the more advanced and larger scale forms of production.

Hazardous waste

Last but not least in this list of environmental threats to human security is the problem of waste. Waste refers to those “materials that have no further value for human society” (White 1993). Such materials include industrial refuse (such as heavy metals, chemical abrasives, PCBs, and radioactive by-products) and household garbage. Whereas industrial refuse is generally governed by national legislation, household garbage has been mostly a responsibility of local governments worldwide. Owing to hyperconsumerism, the amount of household disposables has skyrocketed, reaching unmanageable proportions. In many poor regions of the world, precisely on account of extreme scarcity, a great deal of household waste, especially containers, glass, metal, plastic, and packaging, is recycled. But that is not nearly enough, and garbage is being stockpiled at nearly exponential rates.

The more serious threat is posed by biological refuse and, of course, industrial and radioactive toxic waste. Nonnuclear industrial refuse, including many noxious and dangerous substances that are difficult to dispose of, constitutes a growing, often unwieldy, problem throughout the globe. One of the most paradigmatic cases was that of the Love Canal dump site in upstate New York in the 1970s; but hundreds of such sites in Mexico City alone and thousands upon thousands on a worldwide scale go unnoticed.

Nuclear contaminants remain the technically most difficult and costly waste to handle. The disposal of radioactive materials is essentially a Northern-generated problem with global effects. However, today’s poorer countries — with the help of nuclear technologies from the North — have also become radioactive-waste producers. Global nuclear waste has proliferated rapidly, fueled by reactors and the arms race, and illustrates the dangerous discontinuity between the use of a technology with wide energy, military, industrial, and medical applications and its impact. Accidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are grim reminders of the dangers of mishandling the technology.

The nuclear-pollution problem, as mentioned above, has to be seen as part of the larger issue of disposal of the massive amounts of garbage, sewage, and industrial refuse. To further complicate matters, the end of the Cold War has added the question of safe disposal of thousands of warheads. A good number of nominally defused payloads still remain scattered in the territories of the former Soviet Union. Moreover, extremely toxic weapons-grade radioactive materials are finding their way out of the Eastern European region because of an expanding nuclear black market. Seen in perspective, the Russian Federation and most of Eastern Europe appear as case studies in environmental mismanagement, with nuclear waste and lack of safety being major concerns.

Still, the problem of waste is seen by many of those in positions of power at the core as a question of transferring dangerous substances among countries or regions, rather than as a global affair. Apparently, within the World Bank bureaucracy, people suggest using Third World countries as dumping grounds for industrial refuse, including radioactive waste — a sort of “debt-for-waste swap.” This poses insidious and grave environmental hazards. Many countries strapped for cash or burdened with corrupt governments, or both, have seriously considered this option. Others have quietly already gone this way. As these operations are generally conducted in secrecy and without regard to proper safeguards, the global consequences could be truly calamitous.

The global environmental regime

From the preceding analysis, four major characteristics of the environmental crisis can be highlighted. The first is that the crisis is global and widespread. The second is that, given the nature of technology and population pressures, the present rate of exploitation of resources threatens the sustainability of development itself. The third is that there is a significant increase of the danger of toxicity throughout the planet, resulting from the current style of development. The fourth is a persistent and even expanding trend in morbidity. The common denominator of all these traits is entropy. Although environmental problems affected the more industrialized societies of the West and the former Second World first, they appear more dramatic in the midst of poverty. In the less developed regions of the globe, environmental deterioration is more rapid and difficult to control than in the West. The root causes of that deterioration lie primarily in “modern” practices generated in, and driven by, the ruling elites in the developed centres. One can argue that all things considered, the greatest threat to environmental security comes not from poverty, but from wealth.


As mentioned earlier, the worldwide environmental debate has expanded dramatically since the Stockholm meeting of 1972. Likewise, awareness is growing of environmental issues and perspectives for understanding development, to the point that the current discourse links development with sustainability. The paradox is that increased environmental sensitivity goes hand in hand with destructive policies and practices. As much as the notion of sustainability is part of the current vocabulary of development, “pragmatic” considerations tend to override it. This contradiction is entrenched in our technological age: successive tinkerings to control the unintended and undesirable consequences of the application of previous know-how has become synonymous with progress. Today’s environmental crisis is linked to abuse of the natural setting resulting primarily from the application of intensive technology and its implicit cultural codes. Technology’s impact is multiplied by population, with the highest probability of damage related to level of affluence.


Until now and with few exceptions, “economic trends have shaped environmental trends” (Brown 1990). Most important, though, is the fact that the modern economic ethos is imbued with a predatory, engineering-like stance from which nature is unquestionably seen as a resource to be exploited (Shiva 1987). Nature is understood as valuable only if it can be used to yield measurable benefits for its collective or individual owners. In this, classical liberals, Marxists, Keynesians, and neoliberals, despite their apparent fundamental differences, share a common credo regarding agency, history, and the use of nature, one rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of dominion. True, an environmentalist culture is emerging, but this is at best an alternative culture, confined to international organizations, the sphere of intellectuals, and the NGO community. The potential of environmentalism to provide a counter-hegemonic discourse to the business-as-usual stand has withered away in recent years as the conventional neoclassical posture became cloaked in “green.” This is not to say that premodern attitudes toward nature are necessarily environmentally friendly. The record of ecocatastrophes in human history is quite telling. What is new today is the scale of destruction. Traditional values — when combined with highly effective extractive technologies, economic imperatives, or heavy population pressures — may prove to be far more destructive than productive rationality.


The material structure of the global environmental regime is the Earth itself: a unified, complex, and interacting whole of air, water, land, and living organisms. Nature is systemic in terms of both functions and dysfunctions. The global environmental regime, however, is highly eccentric and fragmented. It lacks a recognizable, let alone effective, structure of governance. Although it has identifiable levels of operation — international, regional, national, and local — its constituent parts are not configured as one system to deal with environmental insecurity. At the international level, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has been in existence for some time, but despite the wide recognition that the problem and its solutions require concerted transnational management, UNEP is mainly geared to providing a forum for the analysis of environmental issues.

The most recent opportunity to create a global environmental regime was missed at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992. This was the largest gathering of political leaders in history, with more than 35 000 participants, including 106 heads of state; however, the meeting fell disappointingly short of expectations. A tiny but powerful minority of leaders representing corporate interests in the core, led by then President Bush, insisted that a global environmental regime be stripped of any real teeth. Important protocols were sidestepped or shelved. Regional efforts, with the exception of those of the European Community, have been weak and unfocused, not to mention understaffed and poorly financed. In recent years, most countries have established national ministries of the environment, as well as environmental commissions and agencies. Environmental state and provincial institutions have also been created. Yet, the authority and resources at the disposal of these first- and second-tier departments are exceedingly limited. Therefore, by default, the management of the global commons — air, oceans, water, soil, and biosphere — is generally left to scattered and weak local decision-making structures with extremely narrow jurisdictions and the inability to enforce existing regulations.


Environmental processes such as depletion and regeneration are eminently physical processes conditioned by a complex social, cultural, and political matrix. They are affected not only by economic and political decision-making but by the processes of technology generation and use. Because all the social components of the process, especially the instances of public representation, are fragmented, problem-solving tends to be incremental, conservative, and minimalist. Under these conditions, the correlation of forces between “developers” and “environmentalists,” irrespective of the quantum of support or popularity of the environmentalists’ cause, has a built-in bias favouring those espousing deregulation and market mechanisms — in other words, the status quo.


The unsustainable exploitation of the environment at the national and international levels, resulting mostly from nondecisions, has catastrophic effects on a scale hard to envision. Environmental destruction is nurtured by inappropriate technologies, the velocity of modern transportation and communications, the declining value of exports of primary commodities, and the debt crisis. At one side of the equation of environmental insecurity, the poverty trap creates an entropic environmental trap. At the other side, the logic of wealth creation and accumulation generates its own self-reinforcing system of environmental degradation while simultaneously fueling the contradiction between poverty and the environment.

However, the environmental regime is also about learning — anything from popular experiences to scientific research. The exposure of ever wider sectors of the population to knowledge about the direct connection between themselves and their environment can create the conditions for altering the present destructive course. Environmental homeostasis, like entropy, is not automatic but is mediated by human intervention.


One of the most enduring and culturally ubiquitous themes since the 1930s has been the pursuit of economic security through growth. In fact, development theory and specifically modernization theory have been predicated on the inextricable relationship between the improvement of sociopolitical conditions and the expansion of per capita income. Conventional wisdom postulates that once the society’s overall level of goods and services increases in relation to population, a form of automatic “trickle down” of benefits is bound to occur. Likewise, it is assumed that wealth and poverty are at opposite ends of the economic continuum, each being the reciprocal value of the other. Between World War II and the 1970s, most Western economies experienced a prolonged period of prosperity, and global demand for raw materials triggered a unique pattern of commodity-based expansion in peripheral regions.

Since 1961 the non-Western countries of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Middle East have gone through at least three United Nations-sponsored “development decades.” However, little development, let alone catching up, has taken place. From a long-run historical perspective, it appears that periods of generalized prosperity are indeed abnormal and that economic crises, volatility, and uncertainty are more the rule than the exception. We have moved once again from economic soaring to a state of free fall in which insecurity prevails.

In this previous chapter, I will examine both the conditions of economic insecurity and the nature of the global economic regime that manages and nurtures such conditions.

The symptoms of the economic crisis

Since the economic recession of the early 1980s the world economic system has been seemingly in disarray. Stagflation, unemployment, indebtedness, and declining opportunities are terms commonly associated with the crisis. Yet, in the same period, the accumulation of wealth has proceeded at an unprecedented rate; the global GNP has increased, and a world system of economic management has been set in place. True, many of the features of crisis persist, but the economic order,

Table 11. Global income distribution, 1960-91.

 Share of global income (%) 
 Richest 20%Poorest 20%Ratio of the richest to the poorest
196070.22.330 : 1
197073.92.332 : 1
198076.31.745 : 1
198982.71.459 : 1
199185.01.461 : 1
     Source: UNDP (1992); figures for 1991 are from UNDP (1994).

globally and domestically, seems to have worked to the advantage of those who control capital and production. To ascertain the nature of the crisis and its victims and beneficiaries, I will examine a number of its symptomatic manifestations. These traits are multiple and are often systemically interconnected. At any rate, one should bear in mind that the impact of the crisis tends to be class, gender, age, and regionally sensitive and that the crisis does not affect an entire population in the same way. The opposite is the case.

Persistent and expanding poverty

Poverty is the common denominator of economic insecurity. It is seen by many as the outstanding economic and social problem in the world. The key issue of real economic development, more than the size of GNP, GDP per capita, or the rate of growth, is Seers’ (1977) question: “What’s happening to poverty?” The paradox is that poverty is spreading in the most prosperous age in human history. The problem is squarely one of distribution. The world had 157 billionaires and about 2 million millionaires in 1989, but 1.2 billion of its inhabitants were living in absolute poverty, including 100 million living without shelter (Brown 1993). A 1993 UNDP report noted that the wealthiest 20% of humanity received 82.7% of the world’s income. The historical trend is even more revealing, as shown in Table 11.

The same global elite also controls 80% of world trade, 95% of all loans, 80% of all domestic savings, and 80.5% of world investments. It consumes 70% of the world’s energy, 75% of its metals, 85% of its timber, and 60% of its food supplies. In this context, the global middle sectors are shrinking considerably: the 20% that could be called the world’s middle class receives only 11.7% of the world’s wealth (Robinson 1994).

Table 12. Estimated world population living below the poverty line, 1993.

  Population living below the poverty line
Arab States   241   11   5
East and Southeast Asia and the174444626
Latin America and the Caribbean   46011024
South Asia127251540
Sub-Saharan Africa52221942
     Source: UNDP (1996, 1997).

One-half to two-thirds of the African population live in a state of permanent destitution. It has been estimated that “in this decade average per capita incomes fell by about 3% per year in Sub-Saharan Africa and by about 1.3% in the highly indebted countries” (IDRC 1992). The cumulative figures of economic decline for the decade are 25% for Africans and 10% for Latin Americans.9 In addition, there is the drastic restructuring of the transitional Eastern European economies. The movement to capitalism in the formerly centrally planned economies has resulted in declining productivity, dropping living standards, and an extremely unequal distribution of income (UNDESD 1993). About one-half of the poor in the North today live in Eastern Europe and in the territories of the former Soviet Union. The poor include social categories virtually nonexistent scarcely a decade ago: homeless people and beggars. In the United States, where a radically regressive distribution of income has been under way, the proportion of the population living below the poverty line was 13.5% in 1990 and rose to 14.2% in 1991, a 5.2% increase in 1 year (USBC 1992).10 The numbers of people living below the poverty line in 1993 in the lesser developed countries (LDCs), calculated by the UNDP, are shown in Table 12.

9 World economic growth per capita for 1990-92 declined on average 1.1% per year. This hides extreme differences in performance in various regions. For instance, whereas the aggregate world GDP declined 0.5%, the developed market economies grew 0.8% and the developing economies (including here Asia) grew 3.4%. However, the economies in transition in Eastern Europe declined by 16% (UNDESD 1993).

10 Although the definition of poverty line is arbitrary and responds to overall economic profiles (for example, 6 393 United States dollars [USD] per person in 1991 in the United States versus 370 USD/person in the lesser developed regions in 1985), it is a useful device to appreciate a phenomenon that is relative and contextually structured.

Table 13. Global economic growth, 1950-92.

  Annual growth (%)
PeriodWorld economyPer capita
     Source: Brown (1993).

The crisis of growth

An examination of the historical patterns of world economic growth for the last 40 years shows two main features. One is the slowing down of economic expansion. The other is an entrenched structural crisis. Since 1974 there have been three recessions. The first two, in 1974-76 and 1980-81, were a direct result of oil-price increases. During these years, rates of growth in personal income dropped sharply worldwide but remained on the positive side. The 1990s recession, resulting from broader structural transformations in the developed economies, was deeper, longer, and much more devastating than its predecessors. Between 1990 and 1992, the average global growth rate in per capita income in fact not only declined but even became negative. The comparative figures are shown in Table 13.

The declines in per capita rates of income in Africa and Latin America between 1991 and 1992 were, respectively, 0.9 and 0.8%. In Africa, per capita incomes were lower in 1992 than in 1971, and in Latin America they were worse than a decade earlier. In terms of the pace of deterioration, however, the once relatively affluent centrally planned economies of Eastern Europe were the most severely affected by the downward spiral. A comparison of the changes in the aggregate rates of GDP would illustrate the growing peripheralization of the former Second World (Table 14).

Unfortunately, aggregate figures fail to convey the disparate regional and intrasocietal impacts of reduced incomes. For instance, the Gini coefficient, used to measure income disparities in a range between 0 and 1, rose from 0.69 to 0.87 between 1960 and 1989, “an intolerable level that far exceeds anything seen in individual countries” (UNDP 1992). Dramatic as they are, these numbers do not show the preexisting and expanding enormous inequalities; nor do they show the

Table 14. Growth of output, 1981-92.

 Annual % of GDP
Developing countries3.
Former socialist countries2.22.3-5.0-16.0-14.7
Latin America1.
South and East Asia a5.
West Asia-
Western countries2.

     Source: UNDESD (1993). Note: GDP, gross domestic product.

a Excluding China.

actual growth of poverty, because poverty, contrary to widespread developmental mythology, is not just the reciprocal value of wealth.

Although under conditions of economic deterioration the absolute and relative numbers of those unable to afford a basic “basket” of goods and services can, predictively, increase, absolute poverty also expands under conditions of economic growth. For instance, during the recoveries of the mid- and late 1980s and mid-1990s in North America, employment creation failed to keep pace with economic reactivation. This type of no-employment recovery is also noticeable in Latin America, after the so-called lost decade. The deleterious impact of pauperization is felt harder by sectors already vulnerable (like women, the young, the elderly, minorities, the unemployed), as it is more strongly associated with existing income disparities and powerlessness than with composite levels of prosperity.

The debt crisis

A principal contributing factor to macroeconomic insecurity is the expanding and unsurmountable indebtedness. The debt burden creates an entangled weak link not only for the bulk of the population in the debtor nations but also for most of the people in the creditor countries. In 1970, according to World Bank figures, the total external debt of all debtor nations was equivalent to 14% of their GNP and

Table 15. Seventeen highly indebted countries, 1987.

 Debt outstanding      Debt services      Debt ratios (%)
Argentina59.679.4 17.711.4 73.941.5
Bolivia5.727.3 1.80.8 133.744.4
Brazil120.176.8 63.421.8 39.428.3
Chile20.874.3 7.05.2 124.127.0
Colombia17.248.0 10.33.6 50.217.0
Costa Rica4.853.2 2.20.7 115.717.5
Côte d’Ivoire14.260.2 5.02.2 143.619.7
Ecuador11.063.6 5.52.1 107.432.7
Jamaica4.517.6 1.60.7 175.914.2
Mexico107.478.1 43.524.0 77.528.1
Morocco22.029.0 9.7?2.9 132.417.3
Nigeria30.561.1 16.44.6 122.623.3
Peru19.061.5 7.42.4 40.527.2
Philippines30.260.0 11.95.0 86.518.7
Uruguay4.577.1 1.80.8 58.617.7
Venezuela35.099.3 15.67.8 94.521.9
Yugoslavia22.161.9 13.84.4 38.910.8
     Source: Adapted from World Bank (1989, 1997).

142% of their export earnings. In 1987, these figures had climbed to 51.7% and 227.9%, respectively (IDRC 1992). The figures are insufficient to portray the tragedy of the situation, as they include all kinds of debtor countries. They also fail to indicate the differential impact on the poor, who are the most grievously hurt. The debt crisis affects employment, consumption, and credit in the less affluent countries. In industrialized states, the exposure of lending institutions has led to uncertainty and severe internal dislocations. Financial institutions, attempting to reduce exposure, normally transfer the debt burden to the public sector through government-sponsored insurance schemes or simply pass on losses to their customers at home. Ultimately, the burden falls on the shoulders of salaried taxpayers, those who cannot take advantage of the shelters created to protect the business elites. The 1988-89 World Bank tables for 17 and 16 “highly indebted” countries are shown in Tables 15 and 16. For most countries, debt ratios of nearly 50% of

Table 16. Sixteen highly indebted countries, 1987-95.

  Debt-GNP (%)
 Debt outstanding
(% change, 1988-95)
Costa Rica-20.8115.742.5-63.3
Côte d’Ivoire33.8143.6251.775.3
     Source: Adapted from World Bank (1989, 1997).

GNP or service rates of more than 20% of export earnings are downright unmanageable.

As a liquidity problem, the foreign-debt crisis in the periphery translates into equally burdensome indebtedness in the centre. As credit tightens or as economic recession sets in, material production tends to decline. Bankruptcies of the most heavily indebted firms ensue, bringing about a chain reaction: more defaults, unemployment, and shrinking consumer demand. This, in turn, feeds the spiralling productive downturn. The consequences are both extreme concentration and economic decay. An overextended public sector is frequently singled out as the major cause of public indebtedness. Whereas irresponsible public spending is probably the direct and manifest cause in most countries, the root causes of indebtedness vary considerably. For instance, in the United States, the huge government deficits can be traced back to the extensive overspending resulting from the Viet Nam war and the arms race — which, incidentally, bankrupted the former Soviet Union. In other countries, increases in the cost of basic imports (such as oil), growing interest rates on borrowing, declines in the value of exports, government inefficiency, corruption, and sunk costs in existing projects played a major part. Likely the debt problem is a combination of all these. Yet the debt crisis is specifically the consequence of national revenues’, especially exports’, being unable to keep pace with increasing interest rates (IDRC 1992). In a way, the debt crisis was created by high-interest-rate monetary policies in the developed countries — policies that were designed to fight the stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s (Sheppard 1994).

Another side of the debt crisis is the use of credit policies by Western elites and their governments to turn the tables against the newly found “oil power” of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the commodity cartels it inspired throughout the Third World. The West “won” the “credit wars” of the 1980s — credit resulting from recycled petrodollars generated by the 1970s “oil crisis.” The enormous profits created by soaring prices between 1973 and 1980 had accumulated in the hands of TNCs, such as Exxon, Texaco, Shell, BP, and Standard Oil, and the ruling sectors in the oil-producing countries: Brunei, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Mexico, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Petrodollars were transformed into long-term deposits in major Western banks, which in turn peddled them at low, yet floating, interest rates. Third World political and economic elites in both the oil- and the non-oil-producing nations were particularly enticed by the availability of easy international credit. High indebtedness was the consequence of expanded financial availability. When oil prices sharply fell in 1981–82, on the eve of the Iran-Iraq war, borrowers were saddled with unmanageable debt burdens.

The inability to meet debt payments resulted from the double impact of declining export values for primary commodities, including oil, and higher interest rates. Credit restriction by means of high interest rates, geared to fight inflation, was the trademark of a new monetarist policy relentlessly pursued by the central banks in the major industrial nations. This manoeuvre had tangible short-term financial and political benefits for the ruling sectors in the West. It had, however, disastrous systemic effects. It further destabilized an already vulnerable periphery, bringing about severe balance-of-payment deficits. The tight money policies also wreaked havoc among middle- and lower-income earners in the centre. The credit squeeze sent a second shock wave against salaried sectors barely recovering from the earlier impact of high energy prices and stagflation.

The debt crisis was construed by Western elites and their associates very much as the “oil crisis” of the 1970s was: as a pretext to increase accumulation at an unprecedented scale. The crisis justified belt-tightening and antilabour and probusiness policies. Today’s financial crisis has been used to rationalize the imposition of massive structural-adjustment packages in both the North and the South, not to mention the former East. What all this adds up to is the breaking down of labour’s share of the economic “pie,” generalized unemployment, and a concomitant process of transnational accumulation of capital. It has also facilitated a major revamping and concentration of the global power structure.

Deteriorating terms of trade

The dismantling of the foundations of a yet unborn “new international economic order,” a more equitable trade regime based on price stabilization for basic commodities for producing countries enhanced the historical trend of deteriorating terms of trade extant in traditional export economies (Todaro 1989). The relationship between deteriorating terms of trade, debt, and underdevelopment has been noted by analysts:

The long term deterioration in terms of trade is deeply entangled in the debt situation in a process of mutual causation. A fall in the terms of trade dampens the growth of purchasing power of exports and increases the need to borrow for necessary imports, and a rise of debt puts downward pressures on export price and the terms of trade through devaluation and other measures of forced exports.

— Singer and Sakar (1992)

It has been estimated that the effects of deteriorating terms of trade accounted for about 357 billion USD of the debt in less developed countries in the mid-1980s. By the end of the decade, it had risen to about 500 billion USD. “More than 70% of this increase can be explained by a deterioration of the terms of trade of LDCs” (Singer and Sakar 1992). But this secular and structurally conditioned tendency has in the long run also negatively affected ever increasing numbers of people elsewhere. Unstable commodity prices and unfavourable terms of trade in the LDCs not only have created depressed living standards for the majorities there but, most importantly, have also reduced the capacity to import. This has had a negative effect for manufactured exports in developed countries, resulting in loss of jobs and marginalization at both ends.

For instance, it has been estimated that during 1980 and 1986 the United States alone lost 15 billion USD worth of exports to Latin America. This meant 860 000 fewer, mostly blue-collar, jobs in 1987. In total, the United States lost some 1.8 million jobs as a consequence of insufficient exports to the Third World, with at least half of these job losses directly attributable to the debt crisis. Estimates for Europe put the job losses for similar reasons at between 2 million and 3 million. In turn, Canada lost about 1.6 billion USD worth of exports to Latin America and the Caribbean during the same period (IDRC 1992). The entry into the broader NAFTA arrangement and an economic recovery in America have failed to arrest this trend.

The down side of global competitiveness

The transnationalization of production and the displacement of manufacturing to the semiperiphery, on account of the comparative advantages brought about by depressed economic circumstances and the low-wage economy, results in import dependency in the North. This deserves further explanation. This import dependency does not imply that developed countries become dependent on LDCs for the satisfaction of their consumption needs. Because most international trade takes place among TNCs, all that import dependency means is that First World conglomerates buy from their affiliates or from other TNCs relocated in peripheral territories. The bulk of the population at the centre, therefore, becomes dependent on imports coming from core firms domiciled in investor-friendly host countries. Via plant closures and job losses, such globalism replicates depressed conditions in the centre similar to those in the periphery.

Manufacture evolves into a global maquiladora, 11 operating in economies of scale and integrating its finances and distribution through major TNCs and franchises. Abundant and, above all, cheap labour and probusiness biases of host governments are fundamental conditions for the new type of productive system. Because many peripheral areas have easy access to inexpensive raw materials and have unrepresentative governments willing to go out of their way to please foreign investors, a decline of employment and wages at the centre will not necessarily create incentives to invest or increase productivity. Nor would it increase “competitiveness.” Because production, distribution, and accumulation are now global, it would rather evolve into a situation of permanent unemployment, transforming the bulk of the blue-collar workers — the working class — into a nonworking underclass. In the current global environment, production, distribution, consumption, and accumulation are not constrained by the tight compartments of the nation-state, national legislation, or responsible governments. On the contrary, regulation has become anathema. The implicit social contract articulated in the system of labour

11 For an analysis of maquiladoras, see Kopinak (1993).

Table 17. Long-term unemployment as a proportion of total unemployment in developed countries, 1975-90.

 Proportion (%)
New Zealand18.7
United Kingdom29.544.436.0
United States5.94.39.I5.6
     Source: OECD (1991, 1992).

relations and collective bargaining in the industrialized countries has become invalidated by transnational business. The new correlation of forces is one in which blue-collar workers have lost, and lost big. Figures for long-term unemployment as a proportion of total unemployment for the developed countries are revealing, as shown in Table 17.

The global economic regime

In contrast to the global environmental regime, the present world economic order is, by far, more centralized, concentric, and institutionalized at the top. Its fundamental components are trade, finance, and the protection of the proprietary rights of international business. Rules, actors, and mechanisms constitute a de facto functional system of global governance, with core elite interests in the centre and the periphery increasingly intertwined. As the Bush administration was ostensibly vetoing a global environmental regime at the Rio Summit of 1992 its representatives, in conjunction with their counterparts in the Group of Seven, were giving the final touches to a international trade and financial regime — the WTO, to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) — that would come into being scarcely a year later.


The historical and structural circumstances of this new economic order are defined by three fundamental contextual parameters, the common denominator of which is global macroeconomic restructuring. The first is the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the socialist Second World, construed as a victory for capitalism. The second is the disintegration and further marginalization of the Third World. The third is economic globalization, at a scale and depth unprecedented in human history.


A crucial ideological trait also underpins the present regime. This is the pervasiveness of neoliberalism as a hegemonic and homogenizing discourse. Whether under the spell of monetarism or the so-called trilateral doctrine (Sklar 1980), conventional economic thinking has displaced not only socialism but practically all manifestations of structuralism. Most important, however, are the entrenchment of inequality and the devaluation of labour as guiding principles of economic life.


The formal decision-making structures of the global economic regime are clearly recognizable: GATT and its successor, WTO; the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the regional banks; OECD; the Group of Seven (now the Group of Eight); and the established major trading blocs, the European Union, ASEAN, NAFTA, and MERCOSUR. A new crucial development in this regard was the emergence of WTO at the 1993 GATT talks in Geneva. It was designed as a substitute monitoring and enforcement agency for the GATT conference itself. This was tantamount to establishing a formal mechanism for the regulation of world trade, thus formalizing the leading role of trade — especially that of “invisibles” — in both the global economic regime and the overall global order. MAI is a complementary set of rules: a charter of rights for finance capital. This global structure finds its correlate inside the internal mechanisms of macroeconomic management within nation-states: finance ministries, treasury boards, and central banks. The formal linkage between global and domestic management is provided by international agreements and external conditionalities attached to fiscal, monetary, and credit policies, especially those for debt management. This linkage is, in turn, reinforced by common ideology and professional socialization of national and international experts.


Through these devices, world economic elites manage their discrepancies and negotiate regulatory structures to serve their common interests and maximize profits. As Huntington (1993) rather cynically put it,

Decisions … that reflect the interest of the West are presented to the world as … the desire of the world community. The very phrase “the world community” has become the euphemistic collective noun (replacing “the Free World”) to give global legitimacy to actions reflecting the interest of the United States and other Western powers .... Through the IMF and other international economic institutions, the West promotes its economic interests and imposes on other nations the economic policies it thinks appropriate.


But harmony and predictability at the level of the transnational core do not necessarily translate into security at the base. As production, finance, and distribution in a rapidly globalizing economy become transnationalized, so does mass economic vulnerability. After the worldwide prosperity of the 1960s and the 1970s, instability and exposure have become endemic. The effects of economic insecurity, manifested in poverty, unemployment, and sheer uncertainty, are felt by the bulk of the population in both the centre and the periphery. I will outline some of the linkages of these effects with social, political, and cultural insecurity in subsequent chapters.

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There has never been a real global society or a defined global social regime. What does exist is a social construction, an image of social interactions encapsulated in terms such as the global village and similar allegories. There is, however, a process of globalization, expressed in an increased velocity of elite circulation and communication across national boundaries, conveying and strengthening that image. Regionally, the emergence of the European Community has meant the expansion of concrete possibilities of horizontal displacements and exchange among once tighter national compartments. This has also been the case historically between Canada and the United States.

Perceptions of the global village are grossly distorted by these unique experiences. True, with the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, the theoretical possibilities of travel between Eastern and Western Europe have increased. Yet, for most of the world population, despite claims of an emerging cosmopolitanism, the globalization of social life means hardly more than the virtual reality of canned media and the advertising of products. This is especially the case among the poor, for whom the globalization of the market does not effectively translate into expanded choices or enhanced opportunities. Thus, when we talk about the global village, we are referring to a relatively small portion of humanity — the affluent, the powerful, and the informed — that really possesses a transnational character. Although the bulk of the world population is affected by the planetary character of communications, production, distribution, and accumulation, most people do not partake in the new social regime; rather, the negative consequences of internationalization have a greater impact on the lives of most people than the promises of a unified and nurturing global social order.

The sources of social insecurity

Although internationalization has increased the freedom of movement for capital and for people who possess it, labour mobility is not an intrinsic characteristic of the present system. For most workers and for the unemployed, globalization means hardly more than the old notion of international division of labour: capital “shopping” for cheaper wages in various national markets and relocating there as a function of lower costs. It is much more likely that the affluent will go South than those in the periphery will visit the centre or even be allowed in, other than through the fortuitous routes of illegal immigration and exile. A myriad of economic, political, legal, regulatory, and security factors militates against their doing so. Thus, to talk about a global social order is, at best an illusion, limited by accessibility to resources and the means to acquire mobility. However, a number of interconnected factors constitute global trends affecting the quality of social life in otherwise eminently national and subnational societies. This globalization manifests itself in a number of specific trends.

Population growth

True, increased density makes us close, but population increase is one of the most misunderstood issues of mutual vulnerability. Western media are replete with explicit portrayals of the connection between birth rates and human misery. From this perspective the populace is presented as either a passive subject or, worse than that, an objective threat to human survival. Whereas social and physical scientists within the neo-Malthusian camp reduce population growth (and fertility rates, especially among the poor) to the monocausal explanation of poverty and degradation, a considered analysis would give us a more complex picture. It is necessary (as in the case of foreign debt) to distinguish population growth, a population problem, and a crisis of overpopulation. Although population pressures are clearly dysfunctional in already heavily inhabited zones, the world as a whole is far from exhibiting the cataclysmic scenarios of having reached its global carrying capacity, nor, as Malthusians argue, is the central explanation of poverty to be found in disease, malnutrition, conflict, or injustice.

This is not to ignore the fact that “rapid population growth in developing countries has been a cause for alarm for many decades” (UNDP 1992). The 1992 Rio Summit “brought into sharp focus the ecological limits to growth and the dangers posed by large and growing populations driven by poverty to despoil the environment irrevocably” (UNDP 1992). However, the World Population Council’s “population-bomb” metaphor is increasingly giving way to a nuanced perception in which the liabilities resulting from population pressures on limited resources have to be balanced with the issues of human-resource development, equity, and sustainability. Indeed, rapid and uncontrolled population increase in the absence of economic development and, most importantly, in conjunction with a skewed distribution of resources is a recipe for catastrophe. The numbers suggest an expanding global population, although it is expanding with decreasing speed (1.7% in 1990 versus 2.5% in 1965-73). Yet these trends are not uniform. In Africa, where the quality-of-life indicators are the lowest, the population growth rate accelerated from 2.8% in 1973-80 to 3.1% in 1980-90. A similar tendency was observable in the Middle East and North Africa (from 3.0% to 3.1%). In other lesser developed areas (East Asia, South Asia, Latin America), a significant deceleration has taken place, although these areas still exhibit growth rates greater than the world average (Table 18).

Projecting current levels and growth trends, a 1993 United Nations report gave an estimate of the future scenario. Population could double in 35-40 years:

Its annual rate of growth is expected to drop from 1.7 per cent per year at present to 1.6 per cent in 1995-2000, 1.5 per cent in 2000-2005, 1.2 per cent in 2010-2015 and 1.0 percent in 2020-2025 …. The world population is projected to reach 6.3 billion in the year 2000 and 8.5 billion in 2025.

These figures compound an already bleak scenario: as indicated, the increases would take place in the poorer regions of the globe. Should these pressures continue to mount in an uncontrolled fashion, population expansion would become a major multiplier of long-term global insecurity. The fundamental variables in the demographic-threat equation — more than fertility rates — are overconsumption and the balance between population and resources (especially land). It is not just a problem of more or fewer mouths to feed, to be solved simply by birth-control technologies. In fact, as Commoner (1975) suggested, poverty breeds overpopulation and not the other way around. The circumstances that reproduce poverty will also tend to produce overpopulation. Equitable economic development tends to generate a demographic transition toward older and stable demographic profiles. This of itself may generate other problems, such as declining productivity, aging work force, increased passivity-activity ratios, and escalating costs of social services. Yet this “demographic implosion” is more manageable than its counterpart.


A related issue is that of migration (Dirks 1993). Massive movements of people have been a constant throughout human history. What makes today’s migration unique is the speed of the process, combined with the density of existing settlements. The aforementioned 1993 United Nations report stated the following:

Table 18. World population, 1965-90.

 Population (millions) Average annual growth (%)
 19651973198019901994 1965-731973-801980-90
East Asia and the Pacific9721 1951 3471 5771 706
Eastern Europe406442476516521
Latin America a243299352433464
Middle East b125154189256272
OECD countries649698733777782
Other developed countries2228333939
South Asia6457819191 1481270
Sub-Saharan Africa245302366495535
World (including other territories)3 3263 9244 4435 2845 589

     Source: Calculation based on World Bank (1992, 1997) and UNDP (1997).
     Note: OECD, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

a Includes the Caribbean.

b Includes North Africa.

Migration, both from within countries and across borders, is mounting. Political and economic disruption are important immediate causes of specific flows of migration, but demographic pressures and growing economic disparities create strong underlying forces for population movements which threaten to become a serious source of international conflict.

Population displacement to large cities and developed centres is both an effect and a cause of systemic dysfunction. Potentially, it constitutes a serious problem for both the migrant-generating areas and the migrant-receiving areas. Consider the younger and better educated migrants first. With the rural-to-urban and small-to-large migration, a net loss of human capital and an inexorable decay of communities occur. Regular, steady, and “absorbable” migrations present no major problem to the centre. These need to be differentiated from massive, uncontrollable, and sudden displacements of lesser skilled people, resulting from calamities. In the latter case, the sustainability of migrant-receiving zones can be put in jeopardy. Already strained services, facilities, and opportunities may lead to irreversible decline and eventually to the socioeconomic breakdown of cities.

Other than from a purely ethnocentric perspective, international migration is not a difficulty for the receiving area. Normally, the opposite is the case because, as said above, by and large those who leave tend to be among the most skilful and socially mobile members of “exporting societies.” However, as primary groups disintegrate, with a subsequent increase in uncertainty and fear (made more acute by deteriorating economic conditions), xenophobia emerges. Migrants, especially those from a perceived “lower” social standing and visible minorities, are turned into the scapegoats for social discontent. In some cases, elites foment these phobic feelings as a surrogate, or “lightning-rod,” for internal resentments emerging from exploitation, unemployment, and reduced opportunities for mobility. When this happens, forceful discrimination, persecution, “ethnic cleansing,” and genocide become likely. Out-migration and refugee flows ensue.

Refugee flows

In addition to the dislocations brought about by the present economic restructuring and social-demographic and steady migratory trends are sudden population displacements caused by violent upheavals. The issue of refugee flows is one of the most poorly understood but most often discussed themes. These involuntary and traumatic displacements are spearheaded less by natural catastrophes and economic

Table 19. Refugees by place of asylum, 1993.

Africa5 698 450
East Asia and the Pacific398 600
Europe and North America3 423 600
Latin America and the Caribbean107 700
Middle East5 586850
South and Central Asia2 341 700
     Source: Calculation based on USCR (1993).

collapse than by bloody political conflicts, although a combination of factors is not unusual. The sources of refugee generation have changed since World War II. Until then, there was a net transfer from the centre to the periphery, but since the 1950s the flow has reversed. For instance, Latin America, once a receiving region for European refugees, became a refugee-producing area in the 1970s. Australia, Europe, and North America have remained as likely points of destination. Because the more developed countries are also the most common destinations of regular migrants, the image of a “refugee crisis” has been constructed.

Undoubtedly, massive refugee displacements are bound to have destabilizing consequences for global security, affecting, in particular, regions near the zones of conflict and only indirectly the core areas. The number of refugees living outside their national borders in 1989 was about 15 million (Heffernan 1990). A 1991 report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR 1991) placed the total number of world refugees at 17 million. In addition to the above-mentioned “external” refugees, nearly 4 million individuals in 1993 were living in refugee-like situations, and another 27 million were displaced within their own borders. The figures for 1993 are shown in Table 19.

These are “official” figures. Actual (that is, unofficial) numbers are probably twice or even three times as large. The numbers go up constantly, with annual increases in the recent past of about 3-6%, which is by any account much higher than the rate of global population growth. As internal conflicts have multiplied since the end of the Cold War — in the Balkans, Central Africa, and the former Soviet Union — so has the number of displaced populations. Despite the formal settling of old disputes, as in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Palestine, refugee areas are far from shrinking.

Table 20. Ratio of refugees to total population in selected countries, 1993.

CountryRefugees -total population CountryRefugees -total population
Gaza Strip1 : 1 Belize1 : 23
West Bank1 : 3 Liberia1 : 28
Djibouti1 : 4 Slovenia1 : 28
Jordan1 : 4 Azerbaijan1 : 29
Malawi1 : 8 Sudan1 : 35
Croatia1 : 11 Zimbabwe1 : 39
Lebanon1 : 11 Syria1 : 45
Armenia1 : 12 Mauritania1 : 53
Swaziland1 : 15 Burundi1 : 54
Guinea1 : 16 Zambia1 : 54
Yugoslavia1 : 16 Macedonia1 : 58
Iran1 : 21 Kenya1 : 62
     Source: USCR (1993).

In addition to the displacements caused by war, refugee flows in many instances are compounded by rural poverty, natural catastrophes, socioeconomic dislocation, and deprivation. Refugee crises in already depressed areas have potentially destructive effects for both the generating and the receiving societies. Contrary to widely held belief, the greatest influx of refugees goes to neighbouring territories, usually already troubled regions in poor countries, not to the developed nations of the West. This generates potentially expanding zones of social vulnerability: the direct security threat posed by refugees is that of the further destabilization of the periphery. In other words, refugee issues cannot be seen as purely local, affecting specific countries. They can potentially trigger a dysfunctional chain of “ripples” into entire regions. The ratios of refugees to total population in selected countries in 1993 are shown in Table 20 and may help us further understand the nature of the problem.

Despite the abatement of the bitter conflicts in some of the long-standing areas of refugee generation — such as Afghanistan, Central America, Ethiopia, Indochina, and Palestine — new trouble spots have emerged. For instance, according to Van Hear (1993), the

number of people uprooted in the Middle East since the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq … may total between four and five million, one of the largest mass displacements in recent times, and possibly the most far-reaching in terms of the number of countries affected since the Second World War.

Other trouble areas include Haiti, Somalia, several of the former Soviet Republics (Zayonchkosvkaya et al. 1993), Sri Lanka, Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia, not to mention the ever-increasing flow of “environmental” 12 and “economic” refugees escaping dramatically deteriorating living conditions (Martin 1993). Major cities elsewhere, even in North America, are already experiencing the influx of “urban refugees” resulting from internal displacements and deteriorating economic conditions in depressed regions.


The benefits of internal migration, however, are less clear in the many overcrowded cities of the Third World, such as Bangkok, Bombay, Cairo, Djakarta, Lagos, Manila, Mexico City, Nairobi, and Saõ Paulo. The creation of the megalopolis (primacy cities) is the immediate result of such population movements, a pattern of life and social decay that started in the 1970s and has accelerated at a very sharp rate ever since. By 1991, more than 61% of the world’s urban population lived in less developed regions (UNDIESA 1993), having surpassed both the absolute numbers and rate of urbanization of the OECD countries. Urbanization nowadays appears to be less the result of affluence, as in 19th- and early 20th-century Europe or North America, than of poverty, as Table 21 suggests (Gilbert 1992).

Studies done a decade ago indicated that the largest cities in the Third World often held between 10 and 25% of the total population, more than half of the urban-dwelling population, and more than four times the number of inhabitants of the next largest city (Dickerson et al. 1983). This trend has become even more pronounced, especially in the poorer countries. In the megalopolis of the future, physical expansion may be strongly and positively associated with poverty.

If we are to understand hyperurbanization in its full extent, it is necessary to clarify three interrelated tendencies. The first is the tendency toward urban primacy — the domination of the most populous city — which is operationally

12 The term environmental refugee, although commonly used, confuses the situation of many forced migrants. It involves a complex relationship among environment, economic conditions, policies, human intervention, and the creation of population flows. See McGregor (1993).

Table 21. Urban growth by income level and region, 1965-90.

 Annual urban growth rate (%)
 1965-801980-90Per capita income, 1990 (USD)
Income group   
       Low a4.75.0   320
       Lower middle3.73.61530
       China2.213.5   370
       East Asia b4.33.31 188
       Latin America3.93.02180
       Middle East and North Africa4.64.41790
       South Asia3.93.9   330

     Source: Gilbert (1992).
     Note: USD, United States dollars.

a Excluding China and India.

b Excluding China.

measured by dividing the population of such a city by that of the second most populous centre. Calculations made by Smith and London (1990) for the 1960-70 period indicated that primacy had already been reached in 74 cities in 1960, with the more extreme cases in Africa (8 cities with 1 :  5.45 ratio) and Latin America (13 cities with 1 :  6.48). Although ratios declined over the next decade, the number of primacy cities worldwide increased to 89, with Latin America exhibiting the largest and most rapidly expanding skewness: 15 cities with a ratio of 1 :  7.32.

The second tendency is overurbanization: population increases in urban areas beyond the capacities of the existing structure to cope with them. In 1960, there were 120 overurbanized centres, with the largest number of cities being in Africa, Europe, and Latin America. By 1970, the number of overurbanized cities had climbed to 161 worldwide.

The third tendency, urban biases, is both a cause and an effect of hyperurbanization. It is the proclivity of political elites to channel resources toward cities at the expense of rural areas. Smith and London (1990) indicated that although, on the whole, urban biases remained high throughout the 1960-70 period, there was an accentuation in peripheral countries (chiefly in Africa), contrasting with a significant decline in both core and semiperipheral areas. Rapid migration brings about substandard housing, uncontrollable health hazards, and increased pollution, alienation, addiction, and crime. Meanwhile, the unfulfilled expectations of new dwellers become a potential cause of social unrest. Cities evolve into large, ungovernable, and unmanageable nightmares in which urban decay feeds on rural decay and vice versa.

But the latter is not always the case. The development of an underclass of the poor and the permanently unemployed may provide a pool of cheap labour to countervail both lower class militancy and social mobilization against the existing order. Whether we talk about “slums of hope” or “slums of despair,” overcrowding and widespread urban poverty do not by themselves directly contribute to social revolution. Crime, squalor, and alienation actually act as preemptors of social change and political radicalism. Likely, the most persistent problem associated with massive migratory trends and physical mobility everywhere is not the disruption of the structure of privileges and inequalities but rather, as discussed earlier, the development of conditions for increased global epidemiological vulnerability. This vulnerability has been enhanced by the speed and permeability of transportation, which has facilitated displacements of populations across continents. Overcrowding and promiscuity, combined with deteriorating sanitary conditions, create the objective circumstances for epidemics.

The decline of communities

A less visible but equally important process connected to the globalization of society is the concomitant decline of communities: villages, neighbourhoods, and families. Far from creating the freedom and self-realization that result from solidarity based on achievement, social policy, market forces, urbanization, rapid communication, rural-to-urban migration, boom-and-bust cycles, the universalization of norms and standards, and the withering away of traditional forms of authority have negatively affected the life of primary organizations. Yet, no alternative space of support has been created in the process. Larger forms of association, as noted already by 19th-century social analysts, bring with them a greater propensity for impersonalization and anomie, which affect the very root of human identity. Institutional support and services, which, as in the advanced welfare states, were supposed to provide better, more accessible, and equitable care than traditional forms, have increasingly broken down, leaving instead an expanding vacuum. In the present situation of extreme uncertainty regarding the predictability of any future social order, the loss of community compounds social insecurity and anguish. In this context, the search for primary-group identity moves to the surrogate communal life provided by fringe organizations: gangs, cults, sects, criminal societies, and other forms of modern, alienated tribalism.

The global society: transnational integration and national disintegration

What seems to be taking place the world over is a process of transnationalization of elites, going on side by side with a process of growing disintegration of national societies and local communities. The internationalization of the low-wage economy has increased the social marginalization, polarization, and social disintegration of the wage and salaried sectors while conversely facilitating the formation of a new global elite. Besides the manifold linkages provided by international networks, international integration is facilitated by communications technology, global finance, trade, and transportation.

At the other side of the equation is the decimation of organized blue-collar labour. This tendency follows a generalized pattern of the deindustrialization of the centre and internationalization of a new form of transnationally integrated manufacture. Meanwhile, as the pressures to restructure the administrative state, the educational establishments, and the workplace multiply, white-collar sectors also fall down. To a large extent, the processes of globalization and structural adjustment have brought about the demise of the middle class and the mesocratic values associated with it: familism, nationalism, and civic duty. Paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci, one could say that the crisis consists in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. The implications and causes of social breakdown are global, although their manifestations are quite specific to each concrete society. The acute disintegration of existing structures and the weakening of solidarity make smooth social adaptation to externally induced changes extremely difficult. The legacy of economic restructuring is acute social decomposition, with a myriad of morbid symptoms — addiction, alienation, and crime — in the centre and the periphery. For those unable to acquire extraterritoriality, quality of life tends to decline considerably: poverty and personal insecurity become endemic.


The systems of care and support, in which, to use Lasswell’s categorization, well-being, affection, respect, and rectitude are shaped and shared, are in turn conditioned by traditions and expectations. It is these traditions and expectations that have been drastically disarticulated in the present. The displacement of communitarian mores over the postwar decades by the practices of bureaucratization, the welfare state, and mass society has left a vacuum in which neither “traditional” nor “modern” behaviours and expectations exist. Chaos and turbulence have become the operational context of contemporary society.


The basic values on which solidarity and organization are constructed and the norms that define conduct and identity (the “software”) are increasingly replaced by instrumentalities. As in the environmental regime, economic trends determine social trends, whether by quiescence or by rejection. Equality as a social goal has been displaced by acquisition. Means become ends as process substitutes for substance. The new global culture is largely defined by commercialism, consumerism, and mass communication. Social belonging is defined in possessive terms: being is a function of having. Homogenization by means of instrumental values tends to disarticulate the chains of signification of existing cultural expressions, leading to anguish and uncertainty. However, there is a noticeable flow in reverse: the reemergence of fundamentalism, both religious and secular, as a counter discourse to instrumentalism and pragmatism. Whether Christian, Islamic, New Age, punk, skinhead, or mystical, the search for an all-encompassing belief system on the surface seems to run against hedonism, the search for social engineering, or neoliberalism. But a closer analysis suggests that the new fundamentalism has a strong instrumental side: the pursuit of a rigid way, or code of conduct, to be adhered to. This attitude can and does coexist with the essentially alienating nature of modern and postmodern society.


Increasingly, a bipolar configuration between “integrated” and “nonintegrated” sectors begins to take shape. The former constitute the new establishment. This emerging stratification cuts through both domestic and global groupings. In fact, transnational networks are mechanisms for elite integration and reenforcement, facilitated by cosmocorporations, international organizations, professional associations, and NGOs. Primary groups like the family, the neighbourhood, the village, and friends lose their function as reference groups and as vehicles for social support. Yet, in this postmodern environment, so do inclusive “modern” forms of association — such as nations, social classes, or state mechanisms — which were once thought of as substitutes for communitarian forms of association. The middle-class myth, so central to theories of social development, has been rendered irrelevant as social divisions become more rigid and as separateness evolves into a prevalent form of social life. Stratification tends to follow ethnic, linguistic, functional, or religious lines, whereas gender, age, sexual orientation, and socially constructed categorizations (even tastes) reinforce, or at least fail to challenge, the existing bipolar configuration of global elites and national nonelites.


Contemporary social processes are essentially the fruit of conventions, rules, and norms, affected by technological and economic trends. Unlike environmental processes, they are not unchangeable physical and fatal occurrences. In the globalized social order, migration, urbanization, social demobilization, and the like are interconnected and continuous processes. As income concentrates, social mobility becomes impaired. Education as a vehicle for overcoming social barriers appears increasingly less relevant. Once again, it is important to stress that social processes operate differently between the incorporated and the nonelite sectors. Whereas among the elite core, merit, productivity, or education still serve as criteria for mobility (in fact, one can talk about “international standards”), the gulf between those inside and outside the system is expanding. Access to global networks becomes a modern manifestation of ascription, segregating those who partake in the process of shaping and sharing resources and decision-making processes from the rest of society.


Inequity and fragmentation ensue and become entrenched in postmodern society. Because social processes are culture, region, class, or gender specific, the impacts of exclusionary interactions vary depending on the strata of society or specific role-set affected. A significant consequence across the board is a continuous redefinition of the spheres of the personal, the private, and the public. The current globalized social order reproduces on a planetary scale some of the most profound contradictions present in both developed and underdeveloped societies. The emerging social order, far from Rousseau’s fantasy, is closer to Hobbes’ state of nature, in which neither primary groups nor the Leviathan can generate either common or individual security.

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Until 1989, the functioning of the international conflict-management regime was based on the intersection of two patterns of confrontation. The primary contradiction was a bipolar and seemingly symmetrical stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union and their First and Second World allies. The principal source of global insecurity in the East-West confrontation was the nuclear arms race, underpinned by contending ideologies, economies, and political systems. The bipolar global order had defined spheres of interests and influence. Collective defence agreements, such as NATO or the Warsaw Pact, gave an institutional basis, as well as military muscle, to the global divide.

The secondary worldwide contradiction was that between a developed North and an underdeveloped South. The latter constituted the Third World of “developing,” “new,” and “nonaligned” nations or, more specifically, their ruling elites attempting to maintain an uneasy balance between the two blocs. More often than not this allegedly independent stand was an illusion. Despite the rhetoric, nonalignment for Africa, most of Latin America, the Middle East, and the bulk of South and East Asia was conditioned by neocolonial patterns of trade and military ties with the West. Some of the new radical regimes, such as Angola, Cuba, Mozambique, and Viet Nam, experienced a client relation with the Soviet Union. In fact, only a few large states (including China, India, postrevolutionary Iran, and Iraq) played an intermittent nonaligned role, but with no common bonds among themselves. In other words, the Third World was more a systemic feedback of the confrontation between the First and Second Worlds than a consequence of their leaders’ attempts to ascertain the sovereignty of their respective nations.

The international system involved a wide array of linkage groups connecting both centres and their respective cores with their peripheries and semiperipheries. This constellation of clienteles found expression in the functioning of formal international institutions. The latter comprised a gamut of organizations from the General Assembly of the United Nations, to the Security Council, to the main functional agencies and regional bodies (for example, the Organization of American States, the Organization of African Unity, ASEAN, the Arab League). Although penetrated by the entangling alliances of the Cold War and by the hegemonic vocations of both superpowers, nation-states remained the dominant actors in political interaction, on both the global and the domestic scene, as before World War II.

Without bipolarism, the above-described interstate mode of conflict management came to a sudden end. Despite the practical elimination of the possibilities of all-out systemic confrontation between nuclear superpowers, the emerging structure has been inherently unstable. Major security threats, although basically subsystemic, are today much broader, more unpredictable, and more fractal. The global political configuration in the 1990s is essentially asymmetrical. In conventional security terms, it is one of loose unipolarism (with OECD and US dominance). The rapid disintegration of other forms of systemic association, such as the East European bloc, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the very idea of the Third World, left a global vacuum. On the surface, there is a formal multilateralization of US hegemony in the Western-controlled United Nations system, combined with growing economic polycentrism within the developed world. The latter manifests itself in two directions. One is the emergence of strong economic blocs, namely in Europe (the European Community), in Asia-Pacific (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), and now in North America (NAFTA). The other is the apparent decline of the United States as an industrial power vis-à-vis Europe and Japan. However, with Japan’s dramatic recession of 1998, following the Southeast Asian tsunami, this assertion needs to be revised.

But this polycentrism is deceiving, as US military and economic might, both within the centre and globally, is still quite formidable. Strange (1988) uses the term structural power to refer to this American paramountcy under a new constellation of global interests, which now includes European and Japanese elites. Power in this new world order is functional, rather than territorial. Underpinning the geographical poles of growth in Europe, in Asia-Pacific until recently, and even in the semiperipheries is an increasing concentration of force and wealth in the hands of a global ruling class in which economic and organizational commonalities are stronger than any traditional definition of national interest. In fact, transnational integration and territorial decentralization have gone hand in hand, as in the case of the globalization of production, trade, and accumulation. The main consequence of this globalization has been a profound weakening of the sovereignty of the nation-state.

The global political crisis and its manifestations

The contemporary political crisis entails the juxtaposition of two macroprocesses. One is the transformation of the global political order at the end of the Cold War, leading to the emergence of a new correlation of forces. The other is a profound alteration of the state itself as a mechanism for conflict management and authoritative allocation of resources. Five major dysfunctional manifestations emerge from the above-mentioned juxtaposition. The first is the spread of subnational “low-intensity” conflict and civil turmoil. The second is the pervasiveness of extreme forms of violence, such as terrorism. The third is the increasingly endemic decline of the rule of law, expressed in soaring rates of crime. The fourth is the breakdown of the nexus between state and civil society, brought about by neoliberalism and the receiver states (Nef and Bensabat 1992). Last but not least is the rise of neofascism. I will briefly discuss each of these manifestations and their impacts on human security.

The spread of conflict

In an interconnected world, conflicts cannot be easily contained within national boundaries; rather, they have a proclivity to become globalized, almost inevitably drawing in external actors. Involvement and intervention, especially by paramount participants like the United States or Europe, often mean entangling and costly operations, such as in Kuwait and Somalia. Peacekeeping, developed to prevent the escalation of local conflicts as contemplated in the specific mandate of the United Nations Security Council in the bipolar era, has given way to a less focused and less transparent, broader, and more unilateral notion: the idea of “peacemaking.” The latter is a particularly American approach for multilateralizing unilateral actions by means of the legitimation provided by the United Nations Security Council, in which the veto of the former Soviet Union has disappeared.

Not only are interventions brought to the living rooms of the virtual global village through the First World media, but their repercussions in terms of internal security threats and possible retaliations affect the everyday life of ordinary citizens in a very concrete way. As the aforementioned conflicts expand in scope and intensity, they may involve theatres other than the primary arenas of confrontation. Even under the restraint of bipolarism, primarily local engagements, such as the Korean and Vietnamese civil wars, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, civil strife in Central America, and power struggles in Afghanistan, showed a tendency to become regionalized and internationalized. Today, without the dangers of unintended superpower head-on collisions, the possibilities of widening local wars have increased. A recent United Nations report (UNDESD 1993) gave a sombre assessment of a world at peace but not in peace:

Civil wars and internal conflicts have become the principal causes of violence, destruction and the displacement of peoples as conflicts between nation States and rivalries among major military powers subside …. During the period 1989-1990, there were 33 armed conflicts in the world, only one of which was between nation States. Some 2 million people have fled former Yugoslavia as refugees or displaced persons.

To put these figures in perspective, in the years since World War II, there have been some 150 regional wars, with about 20 million deaths, mostly among civilians (Roche 1993). This suggests that although bipolarism prevented an all-out nuclear confrontation between the Western alliance and the Warsaw Pact countries, it was not as effective in controlling brushfire wars, especially in impoverished regions in the periphery. It also suggests that the incidence of armed conflict has multiplied fivefold in the years following the end of the Cold War. Given the fact that lethality expands with technology, we may expect the number of casualties to grow accordingly.

These conflicts are intensified by external economic and political interests, permeable boundaries, and the pervasive and massive accessibility of arms supplies. The latter “in and of itself increases the instability of unstable situations around the world” (USCR 1993). The “arms trade constitutes a considerable burden on the already weak economies of developing countries” (Kiana 1991). Arms imports in developing countries accounted for 80-90% of the value of global arms imports between 1977 and 1987 (SIPRI 1988). For comparative purposes, although the total volume of arms transfers to developing countries between 1961 and 1980, expressed in constant dollars, was more than 143 billion USD, the total volume of economic aid was less than 48 billion USD (Maniruzzaman 1992). This transfer has contributed in no small manner to the emergence and perpetuation of repressive regimes and to the tragic and all-too-familiar cycle of dictatorship, rebellion, and superpower entanglement in the South (Table 22).

There are also latent threats to political security. Perhaps one of the most destabilizing but largely unmentioned and underrated developments in the current international scene is the breakdown of the East European, particularly the Soviet and Yugoslavian, military establishments. Before 1989, upward of 16% of the GDP (or rather gross material product) of the Soviet Union was destined to feed its military machinery (by comparison, the US proportion was about 7%; Germany’s, 3.2%; and Canada’s, slightly more than 2%). By 1991, it had dropped to 11% — annual rates of decline of more than 20 and 31% overall. In terms of personnel, the rate of demobilization for the same period was nearly 25%: from more than 5 million to less than 4 million (IISS 1992). With this demobilization, an enormous reservoir of hardware and know-how, including highly sophisticated weapons and trained human resources, became available for world demand.

Table 22. Share of global arms exports, 1989-93.

 Value (million USD)a Share of global exports (%)
 198919911993 198919911993
To the developed world      
        United States  7 817  7 554  5 727
        Soviet Union, Russia  4 033    461  1 201
        Total of above11 850  8 015  6 928 73.171.372.5
        Global exports16 21811 242  9 550    
To the developing world       
        United States  3 549  4 568  4 799 16.636.138.6
        Soviet Union, Russia10 496  2 728  3 331 49.121.626.8
        Total of above14 045  7 296  8 130 65.657.765.4
        Global exports21 39712 65012 425    
To all countries       
        United States11 36612 12210 526 30.250.747.9
        Soviet Union, Russia14 529  3 189  4 532 38.613.320.6
        Total of above25 89515 31115 058 68.864.168.5
        Total global exports37 61523 89221 975    

     Source: Constructed with data from SIPRI (1994).

     Note: USD, United States dollars.

a In 1990 dollars.

The wholesale availability of sophisticated arms at discount prices and of equally cheap, accessible human resources heightens the prospects of bloody civil and international conflict. The disintegration of the Eastern European armies — especially in the former Soviet Union — in the midst of a collapse of authority can have deleterious effects on global security. It has been estimated that the former Soviet republics possess more than 13 000 tanks, an equal number of artillery pieces, more than 20 000 armoured vehicles, and likely hundreds of thousands of assorted smaller weapons (Borewiec 1993). A good deal of this hardware is finding its way into Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan (Nelson 1993), where civil wars have produced thousands of casualties and created a flow of refugees and displaced persons numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Yet conflict regions of Africa and elsewhere are also receiving this influx of military hardware. Whether this threat becomes a wider and more painful reality will depend to a large extent on the weak and problematic prospects for peace, development, and legitimate government in the Russian Federation and in the former Soviet republics. As long as the economic and political situation in Russia and the now independent members of the former Soviet Union continues to deteriorate, global security will remain in serious peril.

But the possibilities of expanding conflict are not confined to the disintegrating East European region. In Western Europe, a rather conventional and reciprocating security threat is reemerging from the collapse of the “old order.” This is the scenario posed by German rearmament and a French nationalist drive to preempt German paramountcy, especially under the present conditions of reunification. The latent pressures can manifest themselves on many sides. They can come as a result of a reorganization of NATO or as unilateral action if a crisis in NATO occurs. Rearmament might be a consequence of instability in the Balkans or the Caucasus, or it might be a reaction against an unstable, neoisolationist, and ultra-nationalist Russia. It may also come as a populist gamble to unify an increasingly polarized society. In any case, a German superpower and a French drive to keep its ascent in check could have highly destabilizing regional and global effects. It should be remembered that in 1993 France had the largest military establishment in NATO Europe, with 506 000 regulars. It also possesses a significant independent nuclear force. Germany, although nonnuclear, has the second largest military contingent, with more than 398000 troops in 1994 (Sivard 1993; SIPRI1994) and nearly an equal number of reservists. In the period 1988-92, France was the third largest exporter of major conventional weapons, behind the Soviet Union and the United States, and Germany was fourth (SIPRI 1993). Germany’s export of weapons to the developed nations — a good indicator of military production — increased by 70% between 1988 and 1992; its overall weapons sales, by 46% (this represents an average growth of 11-17% per year), surpassing France’s lead in 1991 and 1992 (SIPRI 1993).

Under these conditions, a military buildup would not require a momentous effort. Furthermore, German nationalism, despite its suppression by past occupation and imposed partition, is not dead, particularly in the former German Democratic Republic. French nationalism, in turn, has always been a significant factor in French politics, even under the former Socialist government of President Mitterrand. The 1995 election brought Gaullist candidate Jacques Chirac to the helm of power with a highly nationalist rhetoric and agenda, one that bowed to the pressures of the political right. In sum, chauvinism in both countries retains a strong political appeal. It is an option available to countervail external threats and internal conflicts and has been used in the past as a way of spearheading economic recovery. Without the external checks and balances of the American NATO ally and with a declining British presence and the vacuum left by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, militaristic revivalism (and rivalry) in France and Germany is by no means a dismissable proposition.

Finally, potentially dangerous scenarios are also evolving from nuclear proliferation among LDCs. Western and former Second World technologies have contributed to these trends, as in the cases of India and Pakistan, which are now firmly in the nuclear club and possess a significant stockpile of weapons. But more than the spread of technology, this nuclear drive is the consequence of the breakdown of the checks and balances provided by bipolarism. It is just a matter of time until other governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East follow suit.

Terrorism and counterterrorism

With the spectre of nuclear holocaust resulting from superpower confrontation gone, new security threats have to be reassessed. Nonconventional forms of violent struggle, such as low-intensity conflicts, drug wars, and terrorism (Wardlaw 1989), are increasingly fought on the global stage. Data on terrorist attacks are vague and purposely manipulated. What is clear is that the semantics of terrorism are much more important than the acts themselves. Differences between some of the major producers of data on the subject — the US State Department (USSD), the Central Intelligence Agency, the Rand Corporation, and other organizations with various types of affiliations and clienteles — show discrepancies of 300-400% (Jongman 1993). For instance, Risks International, a private think tank, recorded a total of 35 150 incidents between 1970 and 1988, whereas USSD’s figure is 13 572 for the period between 1968 and 1991. Such fundamental differences are related to the type of incident recorded, the nature of the group involved, and the political intent of the producer of the data. The US government and its agencies have consistently attempted to minimize the impact of “wholesale,” state-sponsored terrorism (unless perpetrated by communist and those defined as “crazy” states: Cuba, Libya, North Korea) while overemphasizing both international and left-wing terrorism. There is also a proclivity to inflate the incidence of such terrorism in the West by presenting very selective frequencies without reference to population. A USSD (1992) study indicated that between 1983 and 1992, more than 50% of the registered incidents occurred in Latin America; 31.5%, in the Middle East; and 7.8%, in Europe. The remaining 10.7% took place in Africa, Asia, and North America.

Although most terrorist activity takes place in the periphery and involves generally unreported acts of state terrorism, core regions are not off-limits to such activities. The perceived security once offered by Western societies has been rendered porous by dramatic events such as the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the bombing of the New York Trade Center. Terrorism is a tactical expression of many ideological strains, but ethnic, religious, linguistic, and other forms of irredentism are the most frequent sources of terrorist activity. The solution of some of the enduring national and territorial questions (as in Northern Ireland and Palestine) will likely bring to an end the violent spate begun in the 1970s. However, in a world of disintegrating nation-states, the spectre of nationalist, criminal, radical, vigilante, or government-sponsored terrorism remains an ever-present security threat.

The menace to democracy posed by the “war of the flea” lies not only with the “disease,” as an obscene symptomatic expression of violence. Objectively, the numbers of direct casualties resulting from terrorist acts are disproportionately small in relation to the psychological and indirect impact derived from their brutality. The USSD (1992) study indicated that in a 9-year period (1983-92), fatal attacks involved slightly more than 12% of all registered cases; more than half of those were in Latin America. Only a handful of these reported cases occurred in Europe and North America: 8.1 and 1.1%, respectively. If population is factored in, despite the image of a “world at bay,” the relative incidence of terrorism in Western societies is quite negligible. This is not to say that the systemic impact of terrorism in everyday life is insignificant; quite the contrary — the very logic of terror creates a radically altered social and political environment.

In this systemic sense, a real threat posed by terrorism to political security lies in its “cure.” In many instances, counterterrorism means hardly more than terrorism with a minus sign in front. It nurtures secrecy and a proclivity to circumvent civil liberties, due process, and all those institutions that counterterrorist measures are supposed to protect (Schmid and Crelinsten 1993). In the recent past, many policies designed to fight “subversion” had the unintended effect of multiplying insecurity in both the periphery and the centre. In the lesser developed societies, antiterrorism, often in the form of death squads and vigilantism, means the exacerbation of violence and the development of unabashed state terrorism (Chomsky and Herman 1979). In the West, policies proclaimed in the name of antiterrorism have enhanced both antidemocratic predispositions and government by deceit. A similar danger can be found in the “moral entrepreneurship” of the war on drugs and other public-safety campaigns that today replace the counterinsurgency and counterterrorist discourse of the past. The globalization of enforcement, combined with the transnationalization of the state, reduces the state’s power and legitimacy. These tendencies increase North-South entanglements and in the long run weaken global and domestic security.

Crime and countercrime

The growing incidence of criminality, violent or otherwise, in the midst of a deepening economic crisis constitutes a related security threat. The latter manifests itself in two ways.

The first is the ostensible erosion of the ethical bonds, trust, and consensus that link political systems together. Without these, neither governance nor security is possible. A true “crime epidemic” appears to have swept many regions of the world, from the poverty-ravaged cities of Africa, to the drug-exporting regions of Latin America, to the disintegrating societies of Eastern Europe, to North American inner cities. It affects the poorest slums as well as the highest offices. Some of its milder expressions involve increased corruption, venality, abuse, theft, and vandalism. Its nastier manifestations include alarming increases in violent crimes in the streets, schools, workplaces, and homes. Violence, especially that affecting the relationship between human insecurity and mutual vulnerability, is on the rise. This violence is desensitized, glorified, and even legitimized by mass culture and its media. Depressed economic conditions make crime a lucrative opportunity for some and the only opportunity for many. Once internalized as a social practice, crime becomes part of the culture and a persistent systemic condition. The drug problem is a case in point. The links that tie the drug trade together begin with peasant producers in remote Third World regions and continue with corrupt officials in the periphery, crime syndicates in both the exporting and the importing areas, functionaries who are “on the take” (as well as rabid “patriots”) at the centre, retailers, and First World users, ranging from the destitute to those of higher social standing. Being essentially a consumer-driven market and operating on the purest market logic, its containment requires addressing its social and economic causes — including the roots of addiction — rather than exclusively treating its symptoms.

The second security threat is the way in which criminality is being handled, chiefly through the dramatic expansion in enforcement and containment measures, including authoritarian controls to protect property and maintain law and order. As with terrorism, there is a dysfunctional dialectical relationship between the problem of crime and the “technical” solutions to deal with it. Almost as fast as military demobilization is taking place and public expenditures in social services are shrinking everywhere, internal-security allotments have soared. So has the institutional empowerment of enforcement agencies, both public and private, and vigilantism. In increasingly polarized and fragmented societies, enforcement agencies end up taking sides and becoming politicized. The nature of intervention becomes more and more focused on specific classes or groups of individuals who are labelled as potential lawbreakers (the poor, minorities, the young, people with unconventional lifestyles). The expansion of internal-security establishments worldwide has more to do with the bureaucratization of social dysfunctions than with their effective solutions. Nor does such growth correlate with a reduction of crime. Without denying the seriousness of the problem and the need for crime prevention in all societies, it is possible to remark that this trend is a wide-ranging threat to democracies. It raises questions of public scrutiny, accountability, uncontrolled red tape, goal displacement, moral entrepreneurship, the emergence of a professionalized siege mentality, corruption, and control by antidemocratic forces.

The above is particularly disturbing, given the worldwide resurgence of racist, ethnic irredentist, and neofascist movements, rising precisely from the present crisis and finding themselves in a position to influence enforcement functions (Golov 1993). Moreover, “law-and-order” issues have become synonymous with an extremist political stand. This raises the possibility of police states. Important as they are, policing issues are hardly debated at any level of government. Enforcement agencies are sacred cows in contemporary society, with their roles and modus operandi often obscured by secrecy and media manipulation. The case of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under J. Edgar Hoover is a telling example of this breach of public trust, one from which Western democracies are not inherently protected. The action of special agents and paramilitary forces within the FBI and other bureaus in the bloody Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents raise significant questions about procedure, cover-ups, accountability, and public safety. The dialectic of crime and countercrime creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: most social or political activity becomes in one way or another “criminal.” When this begins to happen, the very legitimacy of the enforcement agencies and of the law they attempt to enforce is brought into question. The consequences are increased personal insecurity, the devaluation of authority, and the perpetuation of corruption, addiction, alienation, and all the other social scourges that crime prevention is purported to address.


A related and potentially antidemocratic trend throughout the globe is the effort by socioeconomic elites and their institutional intellectuals to circumvent established democratic traditions and make politics “governable.” The trend of creating “limited” democracies to respond to “market” (that is elite) forces constitutes an attempt to reduce participation and depoliticize politics. The challenge presented by the 1975 report, The Crisis of Democracy (Huntington et al. 1975), was how to reconcile market politics, built on the premise of equality, with market economics, centred precisely on the opposite: the idea of unrestricted private accumulation, leading to monopoly. The neoliberal solution has been to limit the role of the state to stronger enforcement and to facilitate private accumulation while reducing the scope and salience of popular participation — all in the name of freedom. Elite politics offers very few real options and transforms the state’s populist and welfare functions into mere symbolism. Without the legitimizing trappings of welfarism, a strong connection develops among neoliberal policies, the above-discussed deepening of law-and-order concerns, and the possible emergence of police states.

The implementation of this project essentially involves the redrafting of the implicit social contract among the various actors that regulates the pattern of labour relations (and income distribution) in society. It also relates to the definition of which social actors, especially nonelite actors, are considered legitimate. The neoliberal project is distinctively exclusionary and heavily biased in favour of business elites. The so-called leaner but meaner state resulting from structural-adjustment and debt-reduction policies has built-in limitations to prevent possible redistributive policies resulting from “irresponsible” majority demands and “over-participation.” The choices of citizenship are stripped of substance. Monetarist economic policies and those referred to as macroeconomic equilibrium are effectively taken away from public debate. They remain confined within “acceptable” limits by means of transnationalized regional trading agreements, central banking mechanisms, and bureaucratic expertise. This elitist tendency to facilitate the “governability” of democracies reduces the governments’ capacities for governance as an expression of sovereign national constituencies. It also produces an effective loss of citizenship.

In the last analysis, from such a restrictive perspective, the only possible outcome is the creation or maintenance of an inequitable socioeconomic status quo. Attempts to resist the “inevitability” of this regressive order bring in the “seamy side of democracy”: the application of “authorized” force and intimidation as an insurance policy against dissent. Critics and dissidents end up being labelled “subversives” and are subjected to numerous security regulations. As John Sheahan (1987) commented, the neoliberal policy package is

inconsistent with democracy because an informed majority would reject it. The main reason it cannot win popular support is that it neither assures employment opportunities nor provides any other way to ensure that lower income groups can participate in economic growth.

In fact, the economic policies charted under this economic doctrine have been best suited for authoritarian political regimes — such as Brazil under the generals, Pinochet’s Chile, or some of the Asian “miracles” in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan — than for Western-style democracy.

The juxtaposition of economic “freedom” with political repression is the essence of the formula known as “authoritarian capitalism,” which preceded the current “democratic opening” in Latin America. That is, there is a definite solution of continuity between the authoritarian and the electoral phase of neoliberalism. As the national-security regimes made an orderly retreat into their barracks, restricted democracies with neoliberal economic agendas emerged. A similar trend toward liberalization is observable in many of the former socialist republics of Eastern Europe. These new democracies are receiver states, based on restricted participation and a peculiar consociational arrangement: a pact of elites. The key role of this state is to secure macroeconomic equilibrium, private accumulation, privatization, and deregulation. These goals are accomplished via debt service and the execution of the conditionalities attached to the negotiation of such service.

However, receiver states are not circumscribed by the periphery of the Third and former Second Worlds. Nor is a large foreign debt one of their intrinsic characteristics. Western elites have been applying a similar political agenda in their own societies. Its manifestations have been Thatcherism, Reaganomics, and the supply-side policies applied in Canada for more than a decade and repudiated by the electorate in 1993. These socioeconomic policies have been rationalized on grounds of keeping inflation down, reducing the tax burden, or, more recently, the internal debt crisis. Economic “restructuring” and the new social contracts are their programmatic expressions.


Last but not least in the list of emerging threats to political security is the upsurge of neofascism (Fakete 1993). With pronounced declines in living standards affecting the once secure bastions of the middle-class and blue-collar sectors in the First World and former Second World, sociopolitical conditions similar to those of post-World War I Europe have been created. The unemployed, alienated youth, and an economically threatened middle class constitute a propitious culture for “extremism from the centre.” These symptomatic trends have become more pronounced in recent years. Full-fledged Nazi organizations have sprung up in areas of continental Europe that have experienced a large influx of immigrants and refugees, chiefly in Germany and Austria (Roberts 1992).13 Neofascism is also rampant in the former Eastern Bloc, in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and the remnants of the former Yugoslavia (Fakete 1993). Established democracies, such as France and Italy, have seen a recurrence of xenophobic movements, as with the National Front and the older Italian Social Party, an heir of Mussolini’s fascists. The National Front has fared relatively well at the polls (having increased to nearly 13% of the vote), whereas the Italian Social Party had a poor showing in the 1993 Italian parliamentary elections, after having held 34 seats since 1992. Nonetheless, the fact remains that neofascists have come out into the open as recognizable contenders in the official arena (Husbands 1992).14 It should be borne in mind that electoral politics has always been but a minor component in previous fascist movements, and therefore a careful analysis of their alternative, extraparliamentary strategies is essential if one is to ascertain their full potential.

Marked racist and protofascist tendencies are also increasingly evident in the Americas, having found a home in a number of fringe organizations with a high capacity to penetrate mainstream movements and public institutions, such as political parties, the bureaucracy, the police, and the military. Contemporary fascism is perhaps less nationalistic and more antileft than its historical counterparts. Nor does it question, as classical fascism did, the tenets of economic liberalism. In this, it largely reflects contemporary globalization and the collapse of communism. Today’s fascism is primarily defined by xenophobia and racism, rather than by a coherent sociopolitical doctrine (for example, corporatism) or a national project. It constitutes an appeal to action, especially to the young and to those displaced by economic dislocation, uncertainty, and the trauma resulting from the loss of community and identity (Bunyan 1993). In this sense, the skinhead phenomenon in Germany, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere (BBADL 1990)15 deserves particular attention. Most important, though, is the fact, rooted in the historical evidence of pre-World War II Europe, that in periods of crisis, the fascist syndrome is more pronounced among the “respectable” white-collar middle classes than in other sectors of society.

13 It was estimated that in 1993 there were some 40 000 right-wing extremists in some 77 various political organizations.

14 In Germany, the neofascist Republican Party won 15 seats in state parliaments in 1992, 1 seat in federal parliament, and 10 seats in the Frankfurt city council (9.3% of vote in local elections). The ultranationalist Austrian Freedom Party is the third largest, with 28 seats in parliament and 20% in Graz’s municipal election of 1993. In Italy, the neofascist Italian Social Party has held 34 seats in parliament since 1992. The xenophobic Northern League won 55 seats in the same general election (17.5% of the vote in the north) and, except for Turin, controls all northern city councils. In France, the ultranationalist and xenophobic National Front received 12.5% of the vote in the 1993 election and has held 10 seats in the European Parliament. In the 1992 local elections, the National Front elected 239 councillors across France. In Belgium, the ultranationalist Flemish Bloc won 12 seats in the lower chamber and 5 seats in the Senate in the 1991 election, receiving 10.4% of the vote in Dutch-speaking areas. In the Czech Republic, the Republican Party (modeled after the German Republican Party) won 6% of the vote in the 1992 general election.

These extremist movements are on the rise. Potentially, they have the capacity to affect policy in not only an indirect but also a more direct and forceful way. Key areas are language, education, welfare, and especially immigration. In a poisoned political atmosphere, governments such as those of Austria, France, and Germany have already been hard pressed, yielding to fringe demands to restrict policies regarding asylum and immigration (Nagorski and Waldrop 1993). Neofascist movements may also come to power in the not so distant future in a number of countries, either by themselves or in coalitions. This latter scenario is a foreboding threat not only to the safety of democracy but also to peace, to larger society, and to global order.

The global political regime

The world system is undergoing a rapid transition from bipolarism to a form of highly stratified globalism. In it, micropolitics coexists with conventional interstate relations, as well as with collective defence and security arrangements. Therefore, greater eccentricity and volatility prevail. Local power conflicts, economic instability, and social turmoil are still cast, as before, upon a broader regional and transnational context. But without the containment effects of past military, economic, and ideological bipolarism, the effectiveness of existing mechanisms to control ethnic irredentism and national breakdown is minimal.


With the fading away of Cold War bipolarism, national elites at the core have been enjoying greater room to manoeuvre, but they are also faced with greater uncertainty. The global context has become radically altered. In the case of the underdeveloped societies (and the underdeveloping nations of Eastern Europe), the impact has been dramatic. For the Group of 77, the disappearance of the Second World as an alternative source of support, the debt crisis, and a new international

15 Numbers included some 8 000-10 000 in the United Kingdom, 5 000-6 000 in Germany, and several thousand in Australia, Canada, Latin America, New Zealand, the Scandinavian countries, South Africa, the United States, and Western Europe.

trade regime have set the parameters of a more entangling dependency and peripheralization. Although there are fewer constraints on unilateral action than under bipolarism, this untangling is more prevalent in places where the former Soviet Union had a significant presence. Without the restraining influence of Saddam Hussein’s former Soviet ally, it may have appeared as an attractive choice for him to attempt to annex Kuwait. There are also fewer constraints on the United States. It was relatively uncomplicated as well for US President Bush, largely on account of internal electoral considerations, to assume the role of global United Nations enforcer and only then to seek international consensus. Operation Desert Storm did not face the dangers of escalation resulting from a client relation between Iraq and the other superpower. Peacemaking has substituted for the peacekeeping functions of the past. This approach to collective security entails a globalization and multi-lateralization of Washington’s self-proclaimed role as protector of the Western hemisphere, a policy known as the Monroe Doctrine (Nef and Núñez 1994). The global policing sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council in the Kuwaiti and the Somali episodes is at odds with the established practices of peacekeeping and conflict management of the United Nations system. Nevertheless, it has become a feature of the present order, the broader implications of which are yet to be seen.

But the context of contemporary politics goes deeper than a rearrangement of the global configuration. It also manifests itself in the manner in which contradictions between capabilities and expectations and between elites and masses within nation-states are shaped. With the expanding and deepening economic crisis, as outlined earlier, the possibilities for consensual mechanisms of conflict management have manifestly declined. The same is true with the resurgence of acute conflict between diverse social strata. The nature of the state, both at the centre and at the periphery, has changed. It has a greater proclivity for institutionalized repression or for protracted stalemate cloaked in the garments of liberal democracy, elections, and the like. Politics has become ever more crudely an act of elite domination, disguised in the language of legitimacy.


With the end of socialism and the nonaligned hybrids that vainly attempted to straddle ideological bipolarity, one dominant Western worldview, with seemingly universal claims, has emerged triumphant. This is the neoliberal discourse, with its emphasis on procedural democracy and market forces. Whether its roots are strong or it takes the form of window dressing wrapped in debt management and trade conditionalities, neoliberal discourse so far exhibits hegemonic characteristics among the elites in the centre and the periphery. Alternative political cultures are to be found not in the utopias of noncapitalist social orders but in more traditional strains. Ethnicity, culture, and religion have substituted for the secular ideological conflict of the Cold War. Despite the disintegration of numerous nation-states and partly as a result of it, nationalism is still a significant force in global affairs. One of its current manifestations is the micronationalism of once submerged and suppressed nationalities seeking to break free from central rule: the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, the Sikhs in India, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and those involved in irreconcilable ethnic strife in Burundi, Rwanda, and Sudan, among the many instances of violent ethnic insurrections not yet crystallized in formal partitions. Canada and Spain are equally faced with linguistic and ethnic separatism, the long-term outcome of which is still uncertain.

Nationalism is often connected with tribal, ethnic, or religious irredentism. In many instances, it can be a reaction to Westernization. An example of this was the Ayatollahs’ Islamic Revolution in post-1979 Iran, with its current projection into Algeria, the Arabian Peninsula, and Egypt. Ultranationalism and virulent strains of nationalism based on myths of the past or future grandeur of the dominant ethnic group are also likely to surge at the centre of disintegrating multiethnic states. A probable future pole for strong recentralizing tendencies is Russia, where the Zhirinovsky syndrome has been the consequence of acute centrifugal-ism. Vicious yet more conventional nationalism may reemerge in the uneasily unified German Republic; in France, as mentioned above; or in an economically threatened Japan. The United States itself has never been above flag waving and aggressive jingoism, especially in the present conjuncture of perceived power deflation. Although it appears ostensibly as the victor of the Cold War, it is experiencing a deep internal and external crisis. Should the present economic decline and “retreat from empire” become pronounced and manifest, translating itself into serious unemployment and turmoil, US political elites may see fit to resort to extreme chauvinism to avert a crisis of hegemony, as elites have done elsewhere. In this context, the possible breakdown of Canada, following an eventual separation of Quebec, may provide an enticing invitation for territorial expansion. So might the expansion of a free-trade area in the Americas. Paradoxically, in a free-trading world where economic blocs such as Europe, North America, and Pacific Asia are becoming the very negation of such free trade, imperial proclivities are bound to emerge.


The global political regime is, at best, a loose conglomerate of interactions dealing with local, regional, and international conflict management, bound together by limited rules, practices, correlations of forces, and institutions. Correlations of forces and institutions make up what can be called the global political regime. International law and organizations, such as the United Nations, the numerous regional arrangements, and the now swelling body of international conventions, bilateral agreements, jurisprudence, and regulations give the system a superficial semblance of order and authority. But this image is deceiving, as the real power rests with a small number of national and transnational actors, primarily those among the elite core in the OECD countries. The existing mechanisms for global conflict management, such as the United Nations Security Council, have become tools of the foreign offices of a small number of countries, especially the United States.

These institutions of the global regime project the interests of a bunch of paramount economic elites within the West; in other words, the global political order is increasingly subservient to the transnational economic regime. The IMF, World Bank, and WTO (which emerged from the GATT negotiations) are at the centre of the global political regime and configure a de facto mechanism for global governance. It is in the latter where effective policies and regulations governing the world order are to be found. All other manners of policy-making formally rest within the confines of the more than 170 heterogeneous states that comprise the official roster of the United Nations General Assembly. The implementation and enforcement of these regulations occur more readily in the economic realm than in the formal structures of government and international organizations.

The internal structure and operations of states have also been significantly transformed in recent years. With the advent of receiver states, financial decision-making has displaced other forms of “high politics.” The world over, finance ministries, treasury boards, central banks, and the like have become the heart of governance, subordinating other functions, ministries, and agencies to the role of implementing structural-adjustment agendas for fiscal management. These globalized agendas, rather than national priorities or popular demands, determine government policies.


With the fading away of territorial sovereignty, persistent centrifugal tendencies (ethnic, linguistic, or subregional) are more pronounced, and the political process has become increasingly fragmented. Subnational conflict is at the same time endemic but also highly transnationalized. This generates overall systemic instability. Many nation-states have shown unequivocal signs of disintegration and territorial secession. The most dramatic and multisided examples are those of the former Soviet Union — with the subsequent fracturing of many of its former republics — and Yugoslavia. To these one should add the peaceful, but definite, division of Czechoslovakia, along with Canada and India, which are exhibiting strong centrifugal tendencies.

As conflict becomes more acute, the prospects for consensual solutions to long-drawn confrontation have diminished. The policy process has become fragmented and progressively devoid of effective checks and balances and meaning. This translates into deadlock, mixed with superficial consensus and an entrenchment of the status quo above and beyond the short-term equilibrium of shifting correlations of forces. In the new configuration, indecision and paralysis prevail. Disillusionment and alienation with politics on the part of the public is a common feature in the developed and underdeveloped worlds, in the Western democracies, and in the post-communist societies of Eastern Europe, in the postauthoritarian regimes of Latin America, and in the chaotic complexity of Africa, parts of Asia, and the Middle East. Rates of electoral abstention are about 70% in the United States, as in Colombia, and the trend of deteriorating civil confidence and alienation increases practically everywhere.


These developments are likely to have a long-term impact on human security, well beyond the sphere of the political. Environmental security, economic security, social security, and cultural security are equally at stake. One way of looking at these consequences is to concentrate on human rights. Even though their specific content is changing and evolving, the political trends discussed so far point to a deterioration of human dignity on a planetary scale, irrespective of the standards of measurement. Whether it’s ethnic “cleansing” or killing fields, torture chambers, discrimination, or oppressive conditions that deny people their humanity, the picture is far from optimistic:

In every region of the world, it seems that human rights are being rolled back. Frustration and bitterness are fuelled by economic policies which make the rich richer and the poor poorer. And governments seem unwilling or unable to do anything about it …. But they are prepared to go to great lengths to cover up their crimes. They know that a blood-stained human rights record will damage their international relations …. Some turn to “arm’s length” ways to achieving their aims. They set up or back death squads and civilian defence forces to do their dirty work. Long standing democracies such as India, and newer ones such as the Philippines, proclaim the sanctity of human rights while in the streets people are being extrajudicially executed by government, or government-backed forces. Every year thousands of people are assassinated in Brazil and Colombia — even children whose only crime is their homelessness.

— Sané (1993)

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Rather than assuming the existence of a global cultural regime, with relatively defined structures and boundaries, it is more appropriate to talk about the process of globalizing Western culture by means of a revolution in communications. According to some, paraphrasing Toffler, we live in a world of “future shock,” one so dependent on computers and telecommunications that should these gadgets cease to function, it would be tantamount to switching off global civilization (Pelton 1981). The velocity of innovation in telecommunications technologies has risen at an exponential rate since their emergence in the last century, and it is still expanding at a much faster pace than actual demand. By way of illustration, international satellite communication, measured by traffic in half-voice circuits, has increased in less developed countries from 13 174 units in 1979 to 86 885 in 1993, a growth of 559.5%, or 39.9% per year. In the developed countries, including the former Soviet Union, the expansion has been from 21 167 to 162 558; this is 668% growth in 14 years, or 47.7% per year (Pelton 1981). These developments build on — and further globalize — the already vast and expanding realm of radio, telephone, television, and telecommunications in general.

But communications technology, irrespective of its wide spread, is neither neutral nor freely available. It is a highly concentrated business. In 1988, the top 10 information and communication enterprises, which virtually controlled the technology and research and development (R&D) of global communications and informatics, were two American ones (IBM and AT&T), four Japanese ones (NTT, Matsushita, NEC, and Toshiba), one German one (the state-owned Deutsche Bundespost), one Dutch one (Phillips), one British one (British Telecom), and one French one (France Telecom). Their volume of annual sales was more than 266 billion USD. Likewise, of the top 10 media enterprises that dominated the bulk of global newsprint and broadcasting, 8, including the top 2, were American-owned, with annual sales of 24 billion USD. The remaining three were an Australian, German, and Japanese conglomerate (Frederick 1993).

In the last two decades, “a combination of forces, political, economic, cultural and technological have moved the international mass media industry towards

Table 23. Motion picture and television: US global sales, exports, and imports, 1987-91.

 Sales (million USD)
Worldwide sales3 5124 6565 2737 5147 016
Exports1 7521 4441 7402 2192 303
Imports      62    505    111    112      81
Net1 690    9391 6292 1072 222
     Source: MPAA (1992), cited in USDC (1993).
     Note: USD, United States dollars.

more competition and less regulation on a global basis” (USDC 1993). This has meant, especially in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Western Europe, a disappearance of state-owned public information systems and their replacement with private international consortia that rely heavily on imported materials. A highly stratified global information order has emerged. In 1986, only five countries — China, India, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States — imported less than 10% of their television programing. The lower layers comprised those countries whose cultural imports ranged from more than 10% to those externally dependent for their programing (Mowlana 1986). In the years since, the system has become even more stratified, with only Japan and the United States remaining on top.

The development of the news and entertainment industry has meant an unprecedented explosion of cultural imports practically everywhere. This expansion is mainly unidirectional. The centre of the dissemination is clearly the United States, where the fastest growing industry is culture. In 1991, foreign sales accounted for 39% of US film and television revenue, a 30% increase over 1986. Between 1987 and 1991, net exports in this sector doubled: 7 billion USD, surpassing the past record of 3.5 billion USD. In addition, the export of American records, tapes, and other recordings rose from 286 million USD in 1989 to 419 million USD in 1991; an increase of 47%. In 1998, it was estimated that the musical industry alone had grown to about 20 billion USD in annual sales, 70% of it coming from abroad (Hamelik 1998). To this, one must add the ever-expanding computer-software market. A comparison of US cultural imports and exports gives a clear direction of the communication flows (Table 23).

Media programing, especially in radio and television, shows marked uniformity, in addition to unidirectionality. An average of 20% of broadcasting time and space is dedicated to information; 4% goes to advertising; and more than 50% is devoted to entertainment (UNESCO 1987). If we keep in mind that in the lower tiers of the global information and communications order, where most countries are located, 40-60% of all television broadcasting time is imported, then the phenomenal impact of externally produced entertainment can be appreciated. Its effects are particularly strong among the young, who are the main target audience of the entertainment industry.

Because the production and dissemination of information technology flow from North to South, it is “quite possible that … the external impulse transmitted … is so powerful that all forms of national transformation converge towards a small number of common and hence universal types” (UNESCO 1982). One emerging cultural pattern has been referred to as an elite managerial culture: “both a set of attitudes, values and behaviour models, and a set of forms and models of organization” (UNESCO 1982) centred on the market and the myth of achievement. Its mass ideological correlates are the culture of consumerism in its mainstream and pop versions. Time Magazine, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, U.S. News and World Report, and The Economist, but more so CNN and Much Music, are the conveyor belts in the transmission of a common neomaterialist and hedonistic worldview. Its foundations are inserted in the same possessive individualism and competitiveness of classical liberalism; yet, this time the message is geared to a global consumer audience conditioned by a massively marketed coating of pop culture. The elite doctrine underpinning this deceivingly chaotic ideological veneer is neoliberalism. In the new culture, “cyberpunk” and market economics blend in a complex amalgam.

However, as in the case of the globalization of society, the communications revolution is equally a hyperbole: there is a phenomenal gap between a minority accessing the technology and a majority experiencing “digital inequity.” A few figures are illustrative. According to a 1992 report by the International Telecommunication Union and BTD, there were about 1 billion telephones in the world, and the world population was about 5.7 billion. Only 15% of the inhabitants of the planet had access to 71% of the main global lines. At the same time, 50% of the people of the world reportedly had never used a telephone:

Lower income countries (where 55 percent of the population lives) have access to less than 5 percent of the telephone lines. While the high-income countries possess 50 telephone lines for every 100 inhabitants, many low income countries have less than one telephone line for 100 inhabitants.

Hamelik (1998)

Not a clash, but a crisis of civilization

The cultural thrust discussed above has been equated by elites at the core with the idea of modernity. As the Marxist-Leninist strain of modernization fell into disrepute with the disintegration of the “really existing” socialisms of Eastern Europe, its capitalist variety has become, by default, the dominant paradigm. There seems to be no alternative hegemonic discourse at the present time, other than the reassertion of religious fundamentalism — as with the Islamic revival throughout the Middle East — or the nostalgic critique offered by the postmodernism of Western intellectuals. However, even this apparently radical postmodern critique starts from the premise of a hegemonic Western culture. Therefore, what appears on the surface as a critical analysis of modernity is (linguistic pyrotechnics notwithstanding) on closer scrutiny a manifestation of neo- or hypermodernism, not a substantial departure from mainstream thought. Thus, despite the rhetoric surrounding the “crisis of modernity,” modernization remains unchallenged as the prevailing teleology and deontology of development. Its alienating manifestations involve several major characteristics, outlined below.

Mindless incrementalism

Far from offering a solution to existing dysfunctions, the “software loop,” inserted into an increasingly globalized culture, tends to deepen these dysfunctions. The standard prescription for dealing with problems of poverty or equity is, from this prism, more of the same: growth with technological fixes, which recreate precisely the previous predicament. The double fetish of growth with technocratic answers tends to have the long-term effect of multiplying dysfunctions or postponing much-needed wide-ranging and innovative solutions. As mentioned earlier, socialism, liberal capitalism, and their political and developmental corollaries were deeply encased in a modernist belief system. Scientific socialism was just another way to reach modernity. Liberal capitalism nowadays has mutated from its earlier Keynesian forms into a broader and more encompassing synthesis: trilateralist neoliberalism. Like its dialectical materialist counterpart, this ideology is imbued with a scientific pretension. But its appeal transcends the discourse of current economic orthodoxy as spread by mainstream university curricula. It is also grounded in the trappings of traditional elitist beliefs about authority, in “common sense,” and in the opinion-inducing campaigns of the business-controlled media.

The constructed hegemony of neoclassical economics

The central tenet of the aforementioned belief system is that only competitive and unregulated markets hold the key to progress. Conversely, those who are unable or incompetent to adapt, compete, and abide by the objective laws of history and the market or fail to acquire the attributes of outward success deserve to descend to the abyss of abject squalor. “No pain, no gain” is the capsular ideological chain of signification of the new scholasticism. Behind the Kuznetsian slogan lies an operational doctrine characterized by an extreme inequity in the domestic and global distribution of pain for the many and gain for the few. Neoliberalism has evolved into a sort of holistic economic determinism of the right, draped in folksy clothes. It encompasses a theory of history, a political economy (public choice), and a theory of world politics (complex interdependence). It is also a vanguard political movement of the well-to-do that exhibits many of the epistemologically fallacious assumptions of its now-defunct and discredited ideological opposite. Really existing capitalism, rather than really existing socialism, is erected as the only possible teleology at the end of history, and market reductionism substitutes for class reductionism. As billionaire financier and former Cold Warrior George Soros pointed out in his article in the Atlantic Monthly, the “arch enemy of an open society is no longer the Communist threat but the capitalist one” (Soros 1997). The difficulty with present-day monism, as with any form of exclusionary scholasticism, is that, having reached the end of contradictions, it soon runs out of ideas. Thought processes evolve into tautologies and slogans; education becomes simple training; and critical thinking becomes anathema. This dysfunctional cultural software is reproduced through increasingly acritical institutions of higher education and ever more complacent and transnationally integrated systems of diffusion of ideas as a form of Muzak™ or mesmerizing chant.

The crisis of learning and the crisis of ideas

At the heart of the multiple environmental, economic, social, and, more importantly, political crises, there is a crisis of ideas, an intellectual cul-de-sac. More precisely, there is a crisis of learning: an inability to link theory and practice and to correct errors. The UNDP’s Human Development Report 1992 pointed out that although the North-South gap in human survival (the basic component in human development, including life expectancy, literacy, nutrition, infant-child mortality, and access to safe water) had been somewhat narrowed in the 30-year period between 1960 and 1990, disparities in the cultural gap had in fact increased (UNDP 1992).16 Unequivocally, the crisis of thinking is closely connected with a profound global crisis in education, both formal and informal, at all its levels. This crisis is not limited to the periphery. As Ivan Illich observed many years ago, “schooling” has everywhere become divorced from education, thus encouraging goal displacement in the learning process. Education through prevailing institutions has little to do with enlightenment and with what Freire (1992) calls “the practice of freedom.” Far from offering people the tools to transform their world and unleash their creativity for problem-solving, conventional schooling is a bureaucratic mechanism for human disempowerment and for the entrenchment of conformity and quiescence.

At the elementary levels, a generalized lack of accessibility to basic educational facilities is made even more dramatic by global economic restructuring. After decades of international efforts to eradicate illiteracy, still more than 1 billion adults cannot read or write, and more than every year 100 million children of primary-school age are unable to attend school (UNDP 1992). Enrolment rates have also leveled off over the past two decades. Secondary education everywhere not only is structured on a verticalist, compartmentalized, and “decreative” pattern but also is a luxury that few can afford in the less affluent societies. Meanwhile, in developed societies, which suffer from the same structural and operational malaise with regard to “schooling,” both the coverage of and the accessibility to good-quality education have become increasingly restricted. North America is confronted with a rapid and profound deterioration of its educational system. For many years, mounting ineffectiveness was dealt with by simply throwing money at problems. Now, with a generalized fiscal crisis of the state, resources are dry. A comparison of the declining rates of growth in global enrolments at all three levels illustrates this situation (Table 24).

However, despite the recognized crisis in Western, specifically North American, education, experts in Western countries are exporting their already obsolescent and dysfunctional educational structures and practices to the periphery. The overall impact of such acritical exports of social technology on their recipients is at best dubious and at worst destructive. It compounds the deleterious effects of the more commercial cultural imports referred to earlier in this section as media imports.

16 Between 1980 and 1990, the North-South gap in average schooling increased from 5.6 to 6.3 years. Between 1965 and 1990, the enrolment-ratio differential in tertiary education jumped from 15 to 29, and the gap in radio receivers per 1 000 people soared from 414 to 645. The gap in expenditures in R&D rose from 183 million USD in 1980 to 416 million USD in 1990. The gap in telephones per 1 000 people rose from 121 in 1960 to 440 in 1990.

Table 24. Average annual increase in school enrolment, 1970-88.

 Primary (%)Secondary (%)Tertiary (%)All levels (%)
 1970-801980-88 1970-801980-88 1970-801980-88 1970-801980-88
Developing countries8.11.1 10.33.1 9.44.4 8.61.7
        Africaa6.11.6 11.54.1 6.97.1 6.72.0
        Arab States5.04.0 9.16.0 13.25.4 6.24.6
        Asia8.80.6 9.92.7 6.93.7 9.11.3
        Latin Americab4.71.5 5.03.6 11.24.6 5.02.1
Developed countries-2.80.0 2.70.1 3.31.3 -0.30.2
World4.80.9 6.92.1 5.22.6 5.41.3

     Source: UNDESD (1993).

a Sub-Saharan Africa.

b Including the Caribbean.

That systemic paralysis of both primary and secondary education worldwide is extremely acute is recognized in all quarters. The crisis, however is much deeper in institutions of tertiary education, which are charged, in theory at least, with the task of producing professionals and generating the cultural “software” of society, including that required for training the trainers. The crisis of tertiary education coincides not only with declining levels of financing (and quality) but also with an accelerated closure (and the privatization) of the “cultural commons.” Tertiary education is being restructured under the spell of the same forces as are shaping the direction of other social institutions.

This is particularly noticeable in scientific research, affecting both the “hard” sciences and the social sciences. Learning and knowledge are thus commodified and alienated. When institutionalized education loses autonomy and becomes subservient to the managerial and ideological apparatchik of power holders and institutional intellectuals, as was the case in the former Eastern Bloc, society’s problem-solving ability declines. A totalizing ideology always ends up producing an official intelligentsia, for whom orthodoxy, political correctness, and upper management substitute for critical self-examination and learning. It also becomes unable to cope with the changes occurring in the real world around it. Cybernetic stupidity and conformity set in as the learning process becomes unable to correct errors and instead reproduces them.

Impractical pragmatism

Through training, the prevailing mode of education emphasizes a largely professional, incremental, narrowly focused, and homogeneous mind-set. Alternative thought is deemed unscientific, impractical, or heretical. Vertical thinking and the short-run perspective prevail. Thus, piecemeal solutions to big problems are produced. The practical and the pragmatic end up not being the same. Pragmatism is elevated into an official dogma. Whereas there is a practical need to overcome recurrent crises to prevent systemic catastrophe, without critical thinking and transcendental ethical standards the pragmatic approach leads to a highly fragmented problem-solving pattern, with the overriding focus on quantifiable economic gain. Like its now defunct socialist counterpart, neoliberalism, with its modernizing strategies and packages, favours the means of action (ready-made solutions or “answers”) over the understanding of the problems (or “questions”). Development and modernization become contradictory: modernization, far from bringing development, contributes to decay. At this stage, a self-sustained vicious cycle ensues: “solutions” create problems, which lead to new inappropriate solutions, and so on.

The abandonment of politics

The fundamental connection between politics and environmental, economic, social, and cultural security is public policy. Politics involves policy-making, the outcome of which is the allocation of rewards and deprivations among various publics. In this sense, the issues of participation and regulation are as central to the question of good governance as the issues of accumulation or enforcement are. Western political theory since the 1970s has consistently abandoned a normative ideal based on participation, democracy, and the “input side” of politics, instead favouring another teleology, centred on order, stability, and governability (O’Brien 1972; Leys 1982). In this, mainstream political thinking has reflected an equally significant shift in macroeconomic management from “input,” demand-side economics, to “output,” supply-side economics. The new political economy, exemplified by public choice theory, unlike its authoritarian-capitalist predecessor, emphasizes the role of the merchant over the prince, but like the early Huntingtonian formulation (Huntington 1967, 1968), it ignores and deconstructs the citizen. Politics, as in vulgar Marxism, is subordinated to a technobureaucracy that manages “objective,” natural-like economic laws, laws that cannot be legislated or debated but only dictated or interpreted by those who understand the arcane and reified realm of the behaviour of capital.

Deontology without ethics

One important characteristic of the dominant cultural regime is that functional rationality prevails over substantial rationality (Mannheim 1962). Procedural correctness and quantifiable correctness become the only valuable standards against which to make decisions or to evaluate behaviour and effects. In this context, only those with the appropriate technical competence can judge, but they do so within the narrow and specific confines of a never-questioned model, teleology, discipline, or profession. Both the utopia and the dystopia that justify social action substitute a surrogate instrumental operational code, grounded on efficiency-related and quantifiable considerations, for a transcendental value system centred on consequences. The substitution is rationalized on the basis of one premise: “what works is good.” Categorical imperatives cast in deontological terms, such as maximization, profit, or efficiency, displace moral responsibility (Goulet 1973). What really happens to concrete and sentient people is replaced by systemic or functional abstractions encased in lofty terms such as order, rationality, comparative advantages, or competitiveness.

The closure of the cultural commons

The shape, content, and direction of the de facto global cultural regime discussed above are conditioned by technological changes, combined with growing concentration of wealth and power. The latter part of the 20th century has brought about a conscious attempt by the corporate sector to establish global rules for the closure of the cultural commons: the proprietorship of knowledge, the sketches of which were laid down in GATT’s Uruguay Round. What emerged under GATT and subsequently under WTO “is the wholesale transplantation of a system of legal protection to be used under very different social and economic conditions from those for which the system was designed” (Belcher and Hawtin 1991). An example of this development is found in the expanding corporate ownership of plant, pharmaceutical, and animal research, but its implications reach all areas of culture. Yet, despite the overwhelming power of Western media and ideology, with their saturation effect, a large variety of alternative cultural strains persist. The problem is that, lacking vehicles of dissemination of their own, these cultural expressions, as with biological diversity, are increasingly faced with extinction. Worse, they are being appropriated as commodities. Variability, essential for the revitalization and innovation of any culture, may be replaced by the monotony of prefabricated and sterile intellectual software.


Although the image of the physical and social world is homogenized by global communications and technology in general, a tendency to monoculture develops. The content of information is shaped by its medium, therefore giving superior chances for dissemination to prepacked information. Under these circumstances, the discourse of modernity has demonstrated a remarkable ability to incorporate or trivialize the intellectual challenges to its hegemony and to generally render them ineffective or counterproductive. In the 1970s and 1980s, actually or potentially revolutionary notions such as basic human needs, human-resource development, appropriate technology, women in development, and others were smoothly incorporated into the rhetoric of bilateral and multilateral agencies (as well as neo-conservative think tanks), without their altering the fundamental nature of modernizing practices.

Culture of the culture

For the duration of the Cold War, national security and defence constituted a broad set of overriding commands to suspend judgment and justify folly and atroc­ity. They were categorical imperatives rationalized by fear. The string of human-security outrages perpetrated since the 1940s, of which the recent revelations about illegal experiments with radiation on unsuspecting individuals is just a small part, comes to mind. In the postnuclear era, economic rationality, the so-called logic of the market, is both the prime directive and its own overriding command. Competitiveness, creditworthiness, and improved productivity have become catch words to justify practically any ethical violation, irrespective of its nefarious consequences. The connections between morality, human behaviour, and public accountability are purposely blurred today by the logic of economic thinking, in much the same way as they were blurred by strategic thinking in the past. In either case, unquestioned operational considerations end up defining the very essence of rationality.


The attempts of the United Nations and specialized agencies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to set the foundations of a new world information order, along the lines of the proposals for a new international economic order, failed to materialize in the 1980s because of relentless opposition from elites at the core. Instead, the dominant sectors within GATT expanded and redefined trade, commodifying cultural objects by means of proprietary rights. Agriculture, pharmaceuticals, publishing, research, and every form of human activity fall within an expanded definition of services. This com-modification of innovation and of ideas in general has constituted a virtual closure of humanity’s cultural commons. Paradoxically, globalization may point in the direction of universalism, but saturation and limited accessibility to ideas and to the institutions charged with their development and reproduction point in quite a different direction.


Learning, the building of consciousness, the creation of values, and the development of operational rules for problem-solving have been influenced by the concentration and commodification of culture, mentioned above. Cultural production and dissemination are increasingly monopolized by the values, tastes, and mechanisms present at the dominant core. Imitation, rather than innovation, prevails. In this sense, learning becomes quite discontinuous with experience.


The consequences of this discontinuity are twofold. One is the obvious inability of the existing paradigm to deal with its own concrete circumstances, which may lead to a breakdown in the chains of signification (meaning) in the predominant discourse. Yet, there is also the possibility of a quite contradictory effect: the recycling of the same ideas into a seemingly new rhetoric while retaining the fundamental tenets of the existing mould. So far, this latter entropic tendency has prevailed.

It may be too early to claim a significant paradigmatic crisis or discontinuity between modernization and ecologism. Conservative modernization theorists, whose intellectual roots are neo-Malthusian, have attempted to incorporate the apparently dissonant tenets of environmentalism into neoclassical formulations by embracing cliches or by simply trivializing the ecological posture. Perhaps the ideology of modernization has become so entrenched that its proponents, like the “nuclear theologians” of not so long ago, are ready to destroy the world to prove their theory is correct. The world may be in crisis, yet the paradigm that created the crisis, its diagnoses, and its prescriptions thrives and may survive us all.


From the analysis in the preceding chapters, it is possible to state that the manifestations of the global crisis are visible everywhere: poverty, violence, famine, the spread of life-threatening diseases, severe environmental deterioration, more personal insecurity, and a decaying quality of life (Kaplan 1994). As indicated throughout this essay, these dysfunctional manifestations are interconnected. For those involved in development studies, the symptoms are well known: they are all associated with underdevelopment. In other words, a pronounced trend toward de-development is manifesting itself on a global scale: once-advanced societies are decaying rapidly, while communities elsewhere are dying of modernization. Four basic observations relating to the crisis can be formulated:

Image The present global crisis is an accumulation of multiple and self-reinforcing dysfunctions. All these have configured a crisis of security with implications beyond conventional issues of maintenance of “order” and “stability,” as well as peacekeeping. It is impossible to talk about national security separately from global and common security. The analysis undertaken in the previous chapters clearly indicates that despite the end of the Cold War, human security has diminished throughout the globe. This crisis is, in essence, a symptom of the decline of modern civilization.

Image Central to the global security crisis is a crisis of the conventional and common-sense solution for crisis management: growth.17 Current rates of economic expansion are either stagnant, negative, or at best, much lower than they have been in recent decades. Incremental accommodations, based on increases of wealth and income, are less likely. Moreover, as discussed earlier, it is now painfully clear that the growth of wealth does not necessarily mean an automatic decline in poverty. In

17 An antithetic view to that of the Club of Rome, arguing instead for socioeconomic and political limits, is contained in Herrera et al. (1973).

fact, with extremely skewed patterns of accumulation, poverty — even in the midst of the “prosperity” of the 1980s — has been expanding much faster than wealth has. More fundamentally, not only have growth strategies failed to eradicate staggering problems, but the logic of growth itself becomes the common root of the problems it was supposed to solve (Meadows et al. 1974).

Image Until not long ago, developmental dysfunctions related to inadequacies of growth or equity, or both, were solved by the rich and more powerful countries of the centre by exporting — or “dumping” — their contradictions into their peripheries, whether colonies, neocolonies, or internal colonies. With growing interdependence, this strategy for crisis management is no longer rational, although it is still done. It is increasingly clear that the mounting problems of the periphery have also transformed themselves into problems for the centre and are beginning to flow upstream. Malfunctions cannot be contained within the protective shell of territorial sovereignty, and their transfer abroad cannot be justified by the usual “better them than us.” What we have, instead, is the demise of sovereignty and the emergence of mutually assured vulnerability, with the insecurity of the whole contingent on any malfunction of its weakest link.

Image The sources of the crisis, as well as the possibilities for arresting its causes and symptoms, are to be found in the cultural software that created and reproduced the present impasse. However, functional practices can and must be generated starting from the current dysfunctional conditions. Policy alternatives are both necessary and possible. In this sense, changing cultural practices through learning,18 invention, and innovative thinking may hold the key to altering an otherwise destructive course. As sectors within industrial societies are also falling victim to underdevelopment, the periphery can no longer be ignored by way of deconstructive metaphors of inherent fatalism or ethnocentric recourse to the notion of “inferiority.” Contrary to commonly held stereotypes, it has been the North rather than the South that for most of its history has remained parochial. This mental isolationism — an inability to “see” — is an expression of what US Senator J.W. Fulbright used to

18 The relationship between learning, survival, and civilization, established by means of cultural adaptation, has been brilliantly presented by Childe (1958).

call the “arrogance of power” (Fulbright 1966). But it has also been an arrogance of technology, wealth, and culture, based on plain ignorance. Exogenous new ideas and cultural strains have the potential to increase the global capacity for analysis and problem-solving. Global learning is, in this context, a necessity for human security and survival.

There is no sound theoretical framework yet for structuring a body of knowledge that, using the enormous amount of existing experience, can create the appropriate kind of policies to overcome the crisis. Conventional development the ories and practices are still concentrating in old ideas of “national development” or “national security.” A new paradigm is needed to take into consideration the mutually dysfunctional traits of the present world system and to look at the inextricable and contradictory relationship between development and underdevelopment as global phenomena, more connected to concrete social relations than to abstract territorial categories.

Development theory as a whole, whether radical dependency or conventional modernization, for all their differences, has shared one common premise: that development (or underdevelopment) flows from the North to the South. Even the attempts to talk about “dependency reversal,” à la Modelski (1983), concentrate mostly on “functional” trends with emerging symmetries and, in fact, correlate strongly with Euro-American-centred views, not with critical and less ethnocentric perspectives. Interdependency is a reinvention of modernization and structural functionalism at its best. For this posture (one also shared by the former socialist world), the centre had and was the solution; the periphery had and was the problem. The greatest failure of modern social sciences has been their inability to examine Western societies with a critical light (Pye 1975). Mainstream development studies and area studies, with their counterinsurgent roots, were meant to study “them,” “down there” in the South, not to address the mounting dysfunctions of a world system controlled by developed societies. The many problems that plague industrial and postindustrial nations have been defined out of existence by the logic of theoretical reductionism and misconstrued comparisons.

The predominant theories of international relations — whether conservative “realism” (power politics) or the notion of “complex interdependency” (Keohane and Nye 1975) of the neoliberals and the trilateralists — have not been able to extricate themselves from acritical ethnocentrism. Realism was caught on an entangling East-West myopia, in which the South was just an arena for confrontation, prone to be “subverted” by the other side. Complex interdependency (Spero 1977), although it recognizes a North-South dimension in international relations, puts too large an emphasis on lofty terms, such as mutuality, cooperation, global integration, and market forces, trivializing the more dysfunctional, asymmetrical, and exploitative interactions among and within centres and peripheries. Despite its deemphasizing of the instruments of war, complex interdependence is extremely culture bound and unidirectional. In this sense, the approach is based on the same diffusionist premises of modernization theory (Stavenhagen 1968). It is an ideology that serves the economic and political interests of the globally integrated elites and justifies the status quo: the existing international division of labour; the role of GATT-WTO, IMF, and the World Bank; and the centrality of transnational corporations and the Group of Seven (now enhanced by the presence of the postcommunist Russian Federation).

So far, global problems have been analyzed from an exclusively American or Eurocentric, not geocentric, prism. Cultural messianism has contributed in no small manner to maintaining a condition of global underdevelopment and insecurity. However, in the midst of the current crisis, the established flow of information, ideas, science, and worldviews is being shattered. There is a window of opportunity to bring new voices and perspectives into the debate. This is not, as some cultural supremacists suggest, “contamination” or “the end of civilization as we know it” but perhaps a chance for a cultural synthesis to examine the crisis in a concerted and truly global way. It should be remembered, as is becoming increasingly clear to our unemployed graduates, that living in a situation of underdevelopment is not synonymous with being underintelligent (Dwivedi et al. 1990). If there is a point to break the present cycle of self-reinforcing dysfunctions, this is in the area of cultural autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela 1980). This modification in the chains of signification in the development discourse (Escobar 1984-85) has the potential to set the stage for a new vision of a truly global, though heterogeneous, civilization: a new universalism. The trademark of this emerging renaissance, if it is to take place, will have to be a pluricultural global consciousness, rich in texture and diversity. In the shorter run, a fresh way of looking at the world could offer the kind of analysis and policy prescriptions capable of breaking the present cycle of self-reinforcing dysfunctions.


ASEANAssociation of Southeast Asian Nations
COMECONCouncil for Mutual Economic Assistance
FBIFederal Bureau of Investigation
GATTGeneral Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
GDPgross domestic product
GNPgross national product
IDRCInternational Development Research Centre
IMFInternational Monetary Fund
LDClesser developed country
MAIMultilateral Agreement on Investment
MERCOSURMercado Comun del Cono Sur (Southern Cone Common Market)
NAFTANorth American Free Trade Agreement
NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization
NGOnongovernmental organization
OECDOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
PCBspolychlorinated biphenyls
R&Dresearch and development
TNCtransnational corporation
UNCTADUnited Nations Conference on Trade and Development
UNDPUnited Nations Development Programme
UNEPUnited Nations Environment Programme
USDUnited States dollar(s)
USSDUS State Department
WTOWorld Trade Organization


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About the Institution

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is committed to building a sustainable and equitable world. IDRC funds developing-world researchers, thus enabling the people of the South to find their own solutions to their own problems. IDRC also maintains information networks and forges linkages that allow Canadians and their developing-world partners to benefit equally from a global sharing of knowledge. Through its actions, IDRC is helping others to help themselves.

About the Publisher

IDRC Books publishes research results and scholarly studies on global and regional issues related to sustainable and equitable development. As a specialist in development literature, IDRC Books contributes to the body of knowledge on these issues to further the cause of global understanding and equity. IDRC publications are sold through its head office in Ottawa, Canada, as well as by IDRC's agents and distributors around the world. The full catalogue is available at

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The Institution

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is committed to building a sustainable and equitable world. IDRC funds developing-world researchers, thus enabling the people of the South to find their own solutions to their own problems. IDRC also maintains information networks and forges linkages that allow Canadians and their developing-world partners to benefit equally from a global sharing of knowledge. Through its actions, IDRC is helping others to help themselves.

The Publisher

IDRC Books publishes research results and scholarly studies on global and regional issues related to sustainable and equitable development. As a specialist in development literature, IDRC Books contributes to the body of knowledge on these issues to further the cause of global understanding and equity. IDRC publications are sold through its head office in Ottawa, Canada, as well as by IDRC's agents and distributors around the world.