The recent threats to a presumed international order posed by acts of heightened terrorism have overshadowed the promise of an emergent order evoked by such concepts as ‘the third way’ and ‘the knowledge society’. Part of the problem with these notions is that they have resonance for only a fairly selective group of intellectuals. Additionally, the terms are somewhat amorphous, so they have not achieved secure purchase in the popular media. But their meanings are not necessarily cancelled by the disordering events of political extremism, worrying as those events are. In the domestic policies of governments, and in workplaces, these other calls to (a beneficent) order continue to be heard and acted upon. The questions are those one must ask of any putative order: what kind of order is it, and is it really beneficial? It is perhaps all the more important to ask these questions when we might be otherwise distracted by the more dramatic events.
The End of History?
Both the knowledge society and the third way are variations on the ‘end of history’ thesis proposed by the US political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For Fukuyama, as is by now well known, this collapse (for him of Marxism or communism, not just of the Soviet Union) ushered in the triumph of liberalism and capitalism as practiced in the United States and other Western-style democracies. In the third way thesis, as propounded by Anthony Giddens and others, a similar conviction about the bankruptcy of Marxism is accompanied by a more tempered view of liberal capitalism. The third way is, in practice, a middle path between the two, one which recognizes the need for State intervention, not only to condition and discipline the market – which left to its own devices will inevitably have detrimental social effects – but also to facilitate optimum participation in society generally. Hence, the focus of governments on what they call ‘capacity building’, which strongly emphasizes education and training amongst their responsibilities. As a result, the antithesis between communism and capitalism can now appear to have been resolved in a higher synthesis, leaving no room for further dramatic shifts in social organization.
The knowledge society – formerly and still sometimes referred to as ‘the knowledge economy’ – has a similar ‘end of history’ flavor because it promises to resolve or at least ameliorate class conflict. It is based on the idea that, increasingly, machines can perform repetitive work, and that basic necessities can be easily met in modern economies. This creates ample scope for product differentiation (niche marketing) and for the provision of cultural goods – entertainment and so on. Everybody will have the opportunity to learn and apply knowledge, and therefore find fulfilling work. Everybody will have the capacity to innovate, and therefore improve the company’s performance, by which each person gains satisfaction and a stake in the future of the business. Technology is also frequently evoked: the interactive new media are said to be particularly amenable to knowledge sharing and innovation. At least in theory, the knowledge society can itself be seen as a third way, or meeting point, between economics and culture, science and arts; and therefore all disciplines, all areas of education and training, are equally important to future social and economic wellbeing.
Both these notions have their clear attractions, and can be logically argued to institute improvements on previous orders. But how fully can they achieve their promises, or more importantly, are their promised benefits not just logical entailments but reasonably certain consequences of their social realization? Or can this new order be exploited to the same ends as previous orders? In this short essay, I can do no more than signal a few warnings or reservations concerning the promises that have been made.
First of all, both concepts appeal to a putative unity of society, typically grounded in such notions as ‘social capital’ or ‘civil society’. This is problematic, if it is suspected that such unity is a chimera, impossible to achieve, and indeed a dangerous ambition in that it licenses the powerful to find a scapegoat for its elusiveness. Glyn Daly sums the situation up as follows:
In every attempt to command the social terrain – to create an antagonism-free new order – various culprits are identified and made responsible for the original loss, or theft, of the fantastical object: Society, Harmony, Salvation, etc. Indeed, the very construction(s) of the social might be understood as a never-ending attempt to solve the original ‘crime’: to identify who has possession of the lost/stolen objects that would enable the full realization/representation of ‘us’. (79)
So today, in my own country, New Zealand, we are given a false picture of a nation that lacks enterprise, drives away its best young intellects, can’t convert ideas into business reality, and so on. That paradise of the past when we ‘punched above our weight’, produced Nobel Prize winners and dominated the world in sports, has been stolen away from us. But all around is evidence that is at least partially to the contrary (it is also a fact that it is a big world, and the rest of it is catching up to our once privileged position). Any edition of the Dominion Post’s technology supplement, Info Tech Weekly, is bursting with technological and new media success stories: new start-ups, joint ventures, profitable sellouts, investment from overseas, revolutionary software, value-added agricultural products. Some of these crash and burn: contrary to the myth about the over-gentle, risk-averse New Zealanders, this is sometimes the result of brashness, rashness, and arrogance.
Secondly, similar promises about new and improved orders of capitalism have been made before, but the situation was turned to the advantage of capital. In his book on Walter Benjamin, Julian Roberts refers to the ‘cooperative patterns of control’ implied by technology in the new order emerging between the wars. The production management systems that came to be known as Taylorism and Fordism, for example, by instituting processes based on the division of labor, ensured – in theory – that all participants in production were mutually dependent and therefore in some sense equal. Roberts suggests that these new arrangements threatened the old dispensation centered on private ownership of the means of production, and corrective action was not long following. ‘In order to retain this ownership, capitalism . . . resorted to a number of stratagems of which the most important was the division of the world into thinkers and doers, directors and directed, controllers and controlled’ (170).
Does contemporary technology, particularly the advent of computers and the Internet as a significant means of production, imply a change in the pattern of control? Conceivably, computer technology and virtual knowledge products (software, etc.) could facilitate a return to a widespread artisan-like mode of production, and we see this to some extent in the new start-ups based on one or a few individuals, engaged in small-scale production. But we have also already seen that where these new enterprises are successful, they tend to expand and subsume, or are bought out by larger concerns. Significantly, we are in a business climate that remains strongly pro-growth, a feature of which is the repeated exhortation of self-employed or small firms to expand, to gear up to an export level of production. In the dissemination of this entrepreneurial message, the business media, which have themselves multiplied in recent years, have played a prominent role.
Diverse and Mutually Enriching Knowledges?
The concept of knowledge society has come to privilege science and technology. In the news media, as influenced by powerful interests, knowledge society and science and technology are more or less conflated. They are as well in the minds of important people, including those in the all-important research-funding bodies. A pertinent example in New Zealand is the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. While official foundation publicity is relatively embracing of different approaches to knowledge – ‘the concept of a knowledge society includes the creation, distribution and application of new knowledge to all aspects and across all parts of society’ (FRST, “Foundation’s Role” 4) – specific individual pronouncements betray the actual emphases. For example, in announcing the appointment of a new CEO, the foundation’s Chairman, Neil Richardson said: ‘We live in exciting times and one can sense that the country is finally embracing the value of science and innovation and with it, the concept of a knowledge economy’ (FRST, “Permanent CEO” 1).
By such means, ‘knowledge society’ is being used to maintain a division between science and arts, science and culture, when the term’s initial appearance promised a new or renewed awareness of the entanglement of these categories. (This is an outcome which has been only partly mitigated by the burgeoning of the creative industries, since there has been a trend to coining other terms such as ‘the creative economy’ to characterize this phenomenon.) In consequence, a fully nuanced evaluation of the role of scientific and technological development in contemporary society, as well as of its creeping commercialization, is further postponed.
Immanuel Wallerstein suggests that what he calls the Capitalist World-System has entered a period of transition towards a new system that may or may not be better than the present one. It is possible to imagine that the ‘third way’ and the ‘knowledge society’ – despite the reservations I have outlined – represent a moderating of the capitalist order that will usher in or help condition the arrival of the new. Or failing that, the privileging of knowledge will foster a reflectivity that will enable society to find a better way. Interestingly, however, Wallerstein suspects that such moderation will only prolong the current order, and that something more drastic (if not revolutionary) will be required in the long run if any significant improvement is to be achieved. And as far as reflectivity is concerned, the opposite is arguably true: that ‘knowledge’ merely serves rhetorically to conceal an intensification of the drive for profit and the general expansion of the business mentality.
I am grateful for the comments of the anonymous referees of this article, which have been helpful in bringing it to its final form.