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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

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ISC 9. Returning a Stare: People's Struggles for Political and Social Inclusion

By Shiraz Durrani

"The native, the exotic, the victim, the noble savage, is looking back, returning a stare" Derek Walcott (1999) What the Twilight Says

NOTE: This is a short version of the original Working Paper No. 6. The full version includes the resistance of various groups mentioned: Chile, the protest movement, Adivasis, Kenya and Kurdistan. The full paper is available from Rebecca Linley.

PART 1 - INTRODUCTION

Scope

This paper examines the way people in different societies struggle against poverty and exclusion and the means they use. Wherever possible, the central role of information in these struggles is highlighted. It is hoped that this will help in understanding the central role that public libraries should play if they are going to be relevant to the needs of the people.

While information about the reality of struggles of people around the world is readily available, it in no way forms the understanding of the "general public" in Britain. The screaming headlines of Western superiority and "Third world" backwardness carried in the tabloids and the cursory reporting in radio and TV news are all that influence public opinion. The rich experiences of those in the majority world who take control of their destinies are either distorted or mostly ignored. Nor is there evidence of an intelligent understanding, let alone questioning, of world and British events in the "mainstream" media.

It is in this context that one starts understanding how limited and reactive a role public libraries and the library and information profession have chosen for themselves. Any serious study of the role of public libraries needs to question the "neutral" role that public libraries have adopted. In reality this is no neutrality - it is a limited, narrow role of disseminating information and entertainment that serves the needs of a very small section of the people. Any challenge to this role is immediately attacked by "professionals" as "political correctness" which is interpreted as something undesirable and so rejected.

It is interesting to note that while British public libraries (many initially established with Carnegie Corporation's support) are busy judging their success in terms of number of loans of "popular fiction", and the number of people entering libraries, the Carnegie Corporation is taking a fresh look at public libraries in Africa with a view to finding a new model of Public and Community libraries which provide access to information that is relevant to the needs of the majority of people. (INASP, 1999).

This paper brings together the struggles of several "excluded" peoples and looks at the methods they use to end their exclusion. The central role that education, information, and information technologies play in these struggles gives a clue to the potential role of public libraries everywhere.

Capitalism and Social Exclusion

People's struggle is primarily waged around satisfying basic material needs for survival: food, clothing, and shelter. The seriousness of exclusion facing a large part of the world's population is shown in the fact that "half the world's people lack basic sanitation services, while more than a billion lack drinking water - and in much of the developing world these numbers are rising. " (Ghazi, 1999).

Two broad characteristics in every capitalist country are a sharp social division along class lines and a class struggle with varying degrees of intensity. At the economic level, these struggles can be seen as struggles for inclusion in the share of national wealth, to own land and resources, to have a decent job with a living wage. At the political level, the struggle is for inclusion in the decision-making process. At the social and cultural level, the struggle is to have the right to belong to a particular nationality, to use people's own language, and to practice one's own culture. The rights to organise, to get relevant education and information and to benefit from technological achievements are rights for which many excluded people have often given their lives.

Public libraries have an important role to play in these worldwide struggles of the people of all nationalities and all countries. Yet as international finance consolidates its stranglehold over the lives of people and countries following the end of the so-called cold war, national governments and local authorities are being forced to follow the social and economic policies laid down by international finance and its agencies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The resources available to governments to support education, information and knowledge through public libraries are consistently shrinking. The relentless drive towards "privatisation" results in an ever-reducing role of local authorities by decreasing the funds available to them to run social and educational services such as public libraries.

This does not imply that people have given up their struggle for a relevant information system. While their main struggle is at the economic level, the provision of relevant information and education is considered essential for success in people's struggles everywhere. There is a general recognition that no liberation can be won without getting control of the means of mass communications.

A note of warning needs to be made here: when looking for relevant information systems among those struggling for liberation, we should not expect to find magnificent buildings with huge bound volumes, nor clean lines of the latest computers and networks. The resources for these have long gone to sustain fabulous lifestyles elsewhere. What we will find instead is a highly sophisticated network of information flows using whatever technologies are readily, cheaply and locally available. The lesson to be learnt is that it is not the high gloss ICT products that are needed for people to be included in the social, political and economic lives of their countries. After all, with all the wealth that USA and Britain have, they have not even begun to address the problem of social exclusion. Struggling people everywhere are taking steps to end their exclusion in a long struggle.

PART 2 - EXCLUSION AND GLOBALISATION

The process of exclusion is evident in all capitalist countries. This is not accidental, as the division of society into classes implies that some people are "over-included" while others are excluded from social, political and economic life. The process of exclusion has been accelerated in the last part of this century with the collapse of the USSR. Capitalism is now free to extend and intensify its ideology of "profits before all else." The process of globalisation of this period has created its own record of social exclusion.

Globalisation and exclusion have had a profound impact on the information field. We need to see what these terms mean and exactly what effects they have had on the information field.

Social exclusion

Social exclusion is a concept proposed by the social policy think-tanks of the European Union's Commission, and adopted by the United Nation's International Labour Office. Castells (1998, p.73) describes social exclusion as "the process by which certain individuals and groups are systematically barred from access to positions that would enable them to an autonomous livelihood within the social standards framed by institutions and values in a given context. Social exclusion is, in fact, the process that disenfranchises a person as labour in the context of capitalism."

The British Government's Social Exclusion Unit uses Duffy's definition of Social Exclusion: "an inability of individuals to participate effectively in economic, social, political and cultural life, alienation and distance from the mainstream society" (King, 1999). King discusses the differences between the terms "poverty" and "social exclusion". He defines poverty as a "lack of material resources" and social exclusion as a "highly dynamic and complex notion which explains not just how many poor people there are, but what poverty actually is , and how it fits into the larger social, economic and political makeup of a given locality." [His emphasis].

For the purpose of this paper, the terms "poverty" and "social exclusion" will be used to indicate both aspects mentioned by King. The term "social exclusion" may be comparatively new, but the phenomenon it describes has been with us for a long time. Poverty in the South as well as in the North has existed for hundreds of years. Whatever name it has been given, the majority of population of the world has always lived an excluded life.

It is thus important to understand the conditions that give rise to a person or a group being "socially excluded". As used in literature currently, the term needs to be understood as a particular manifestation at a particular historical stage in the development of capitalism. The globalisation context of capitalism at the end of this millennium will be examined in the next section. The process of exclusion is a dynamic one, changing over time and space affecting different groups of people in different ways. Castells (1998, p.73) explains this aspect thus: "social exclusion is a process, not a condition. Thus its boundaries shift, and who is excluded and included may vary over time, depending on education, demographic characteristics, social prejudices, business practices, and public policies."

It is worth remembering that it is not only individuals and individual communities that are excluded from enjoying economic benefits that a society is capable of generating. Entire countries and regions are often excluded, for example Sub-Saharan Africa with its 500 million people. The reason for this exclusion can be explained in the context of the development and expansion of capitalism worldwide. Castells (1998, p.74) says that these regions are excluded because they are "non-valuable from the perspective of informational capitalism and they do not have significant political interest for the powers that be and so are bypassed by flows of wealth and information, deprived of the basic flows of wealth and information, and ultimately deprived of the basic technological infrastructure that allows us to communicate, innovate, produce, consume, and even live, in today's world. This process induces an extremely uneven geography of social/territorial exclusion and inclusion, which disables large segments of pople while linking up trans-territorially, through information technology, whatever and whoever may offer value in the global networks accumulating wealth, information, and power."

It is thus clear that exclusion is not an isolated phenomenon, an unexplainable side effect of global development. It is in fact an essential outcome of capitalist development and is allowed to continue as a basis for the development of capitalism. A sobering fact that forms the background to our discussion is worth mentioning here: the world population is 5.9 billion. Out of this, 800 million people are hungry today - excluded from the very basic means of staying alive (Pretty, 1999). The world already produces enough food to provide everyone with a nutritious and adequate diet - on average, about 350kg of cereal per person. A clue to understanding causes of world hunger is in these facts: The poorest 60 per cent of the world's population share just 4.5 per cent of the world's income, and 20 per cent of the richest share 83 per cent (Brittain, 1999).

Capitalism does not distinguish between the North and South in inflicting exclusion on people. It is not only in the poorer, industrially undeveloped world that exclusion exists. In the USA, for instance, " the human rights situation is such that that the social vice whereby the rich get ever richer and the poor get ever poorer has reached its extreme; tens of millions of vagabonds, beggars, destitute, and unemployed wander on the edge of their basic right to live." (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, 1999). Yet the USA boasts the most advanced industrial and electronic base in the world, creating unbelievable wealth for a small proportion of its population. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to eliminate exclusion if economic and political will existed. It is the financial/industrial capital which, in the USA as well as internationally, opposes such elimination.

Globalisation

By its very definition, capitalism divides people along class lines. Working class people as a whole are historically excluded from enjoying the social wealth created by their labour. Hence the system creates a class that is automatically excluded from wealth, power, education and information. But this process of exclusion has been intensified in recent years. There has been a qualitative change in the process of social exclusion in the last quarter of this century on a global level. Castells (1998, p. 1) explains these changes as a "technological revolution, centred around information (which) has transformed the way we think, we produce, we consume, we trade, we manage, we communicate, we live, we die, we make war, and we make love: a dynamic global economy has been constituted around the planet, linking up valuable people and activities from all over the world, while switching off from the networks of the power and wealth, people and territories dubbed as irrelevant from the perspectives of dominant inerests."

Capitalism began a new phase with the end of the international communist movement in the 1970s and 1980s and used the networking logic of the Information Age. Capital, no longer having to contend with opposition from socialism was now free to roam the world wherever excessive profits were to be made. While this aggressive phase of capitalism resulted in increasing economic growth in some countries and regions, its own logic ensures that millions of people and large parts of the world remain excluded from growth. Many areas have thus experienced a decline in national product as capital moves out of less profitable countries and regions. The social and economic consequences of this global search for profit inevitably leads to marginalising and excluding millions of people around the world.

An important qualitative change brought about by globalisation is the change in the balance of power between labour and capital. Sivanandan (1999) explores the causes for the change and the shift in balance of power:

The technological revolution of the past three decades has resulted in a qualitative leap in the productive forces to the point where capital is no longer dependent on labour in the same way as before, to the same extent as before, in the same quantities as before and in the same place as before. Its assembly lines are global, its plant is movable, its workforce is flexible. It can produce ad hoc, just-in-time, and custom-build mass production, without stockpiling or wastage, laying off labour as and when it pleases. And, instead of importing cheap labour, it can move to the labour pools of the Third World, where labour is captive and plentiful and move from one labour pool to another, extracting maximum surplus value from each, abandoning each when done.

All of which means that the relations of production between capital and labour have changed so fundamentally that labour (in the developed capitalist world) has lost a great deal of its economic clout, and, with it, its political clout. And that in turn gives a further fillip to technological innovation, and imbibes capital with an arrogance of power that it has seldom enjoyed since the era of primitive accumulation.

Thus globalisation serves the interests of a minority rich elite which controls the wealth and resources of the "global world". As Lazarus (1999, p.97) says "globalisation directly serves the interests of some people and that there is an intricate structural connection between the obscenely burgeoning prosperity of this minority and the steady immiseration of the vast majority of the world's population."

The social, political and economic control over the majority world by forces of global capital has resulted in massive poverty - total "social exclusion" - for a majority of people. Sivanandan (1998, p.14) describes the reality of the new globalised world:

‘Today, there is not even the seedling vestige of an independent economic life. Agriculture has ceded to agribusiness, food production to the production of cash crops, staple foods like rice to cheap foreign imports like wheat. Education, the staple diet of Third World countries' economic and social mobility, has been priced out of the reach of the poor to produce an elite which owes allegiance not to its own people but to 'opportunities in the West'. The farmers have no land, the workers have no work, the young have no future, the people have no food. The state belongs to the rich, the rich belong to international capital, the intelligentsia aspires to both. Only rebellion offers release. Hence the insurrection when it comes is not class but mass, sometimes religious, sometimes secular, often both, but always against the state and its imperial masters.

In the meantime, Globalisation destroys workers' rights, suppresses civil liberties and negates democracy. It dismantles the public sector; privatises the infrastructure and determines social need. It free-floats the currency and turns money itself into a commodity subject to speculation, so influencing fiscal policy. It controls inflation at the cost of employment. It creates immense prosperity at the cost of untold poverty. It violates the earth, contaminates the air and turns even water to profit’ (Sivanandan, p.14).

In effect globalisation has created deeply divided societies (both in the Capitalist developed countries as well as in the majority world) - what Sivanandan (1998,p.15) calls "that third of society that Information Capitalism and the market have consigned to the underclass as surplus to need" and which Hutton (1995) calls "the absolutely disadvantaged" 30 % of the "thirty, thirty, forty society".

These developments have resulted in an increased social exclusion for an increasing number of people. Kundnani (1999) explores the dynamics of social exclusion:

‘The relationship between the wealthy and the poor is changing from one of exploitation to indifference. The role of the nation is changing from that of mediator between the nation's labour and capital to establishing the right infrastructure for foreign investment. The axis of power is shifting from exploitation of poor nations by rich to the indifference of a global elite in every nation towards the increasing poverty of their own people’.

Gray (1998) records the social effects of globalisation - ‘…over a hundred million peasants becoming migrant labourers in China; the exclusion from work and participation in society of tens of millions in the advanced societies; a condition of near near-anarchy and rule by organised crime in parts of the post-communist world; further devastation of the environment.’

Castells dates the forces of globalisation and informationalisation from the end of Soviet communism and the "hurried adaptation" of Chinese communism to global capitalism. Previously, the 1917 Russian Revolution and the international communist movement had been the dominant political and ideological phenomena of the twentieth century. Castells sees the end of the Soviet Union as resulting from its inability to ‘…manage the transition to the Information Age’.

Kundnani (1999, pp. 49-50) sees ‘…the economic paradigms of the industrial age in the process of being replaced by new paradigms of the globalised, information age.’ He says:

‘Developments in information technology since 1970s have made possible new forms of economic organisation in both manufacturing and also in media industries, which have undergone substantial changes in the last twenty years. The huge growth in the spread of digital telecommunications over the last ten years has accelerated this process, leading us to the brink of a new era of capitalist development. One aspect of these new forms of economic organisation is the process of globalisation’.

Elliott (1999) looks at the contradictions created by globalisation and technological developments at the end of the second millennium:

This is the age of the Internet, yet 80 per cent of the world's population have never made a phone call. This is the age of democracy, yet the world's richest three men have assets that exceed the combined GDP of the 48 poorest nations.

Muddiman (1999) sums up the relation between capitalism and social exclusion:

‘The key thing is that the "Information Revolution" has actually made things worse. The "Information Society" is not just neutral or "up for grabs", but actually bound up with the forces that perpetuate exclusion and intensify it’.

This intensification of exploitation of the majority world has created a corresponding intensification of contradiction within countries and globally. People throughout the world are struggling against increasing exploitation and against capitalism as a whole. Thus as globalisation creates the global capitalist, so it also creates conditions on a global scale for resistance to it. It is this resistance to capitalist super-exploitation, to the total social exclusion, that we now turn to.

 

 

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