McKenzie Wark on Thu, 12 Jun 1997 18:16:43 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> worlds without number

Worlds without number

I was intrigued by the post Marina sent about the
two species of monsters at the nettime conference.
I don't really understand it, frankly, perhaps 
because i wasn't there. So i'll just nibble away at
the edges of some things i think i can work out.
She refered to the disappearance of the second world,
and the threat to eastern europe of falling into the
third world, not to mention the recognition in the
east that there are other things to aspire to than
joining the first world. My immediate reaction was
to wonder whether the first and third worlds might
have disappeared too. 

Which is not the same thing as saying that underdevelopment
has disappeared. Rather, that these things don't distribute
themselves into geographically identifiable worlds any more.
Or perhaps, there are now worlds without number, little
abstract spheres of investment, dependency and (under)
development. All sitting side by side in physical space, but
threated together by the vectors of communication, trade
and migration.

I was living in Brooklyn for a while this year. I noticed
that all the buildings around me were the type once called
'light industrial'. Only the industry was of course all gone.
A couple of these buildings had smash repair shops for cars
going on, but all of the tool and die, all the furnishing
and woodwork and metalwork shops -- all gone. The rag trade
was recolonising a lot of the space. Asian guys would pull
up in beat up old Ford transits, and Asian women would appear
at the loading dock with racks of cheap and nasty looking
denim dresses and other basic apparel. Judging by what was
on the racks, this is basic, low skill stuff, right here in
one of the five boroughs of New York city. 

I saw clothes like these in the stores in Brooklyn. It looked
like a general spiral of decline was going on -- incomes
declining from lack of jobs, lack of jobs due to low income
and hence demand. A third world in the making. But not the
kind of third world where poverty results from an incomplete
or failed transition from an agricultural to an industrial
economy. Quite the reverse -- a failed transition from an
industrial economy to -- what? Just as developmentalists
used to talk about 'takeoff', as if there was a natural
economic progression from agricultural to industrial economy
(except of course when politics fucks it up), so too the
rosy scenarios today all assume the postindustrial transition
is just a given. But clearly it isn't. The political unconscious
of the cyber revolution in America is that most of industrial
America is not going to make it. 

So the first world isn't what it used to be. I find it curious
that anyone would disparage government schemes to create jobs
in the UK or anywhere else in Europe. Let's face it, if the
governments don't make jobs there, nobody else will. Why employ
those stroppy Europeans when there are better educated workforces
elsewhere with fewer ancillary demands on their agenda? The
threat to European jobs isn't so much 'cheap labour' elsewhere
as smart labour. There just isn't any monopoly on skill there
any more. Nor on infrastructure. If you need roads and power
plants and ports -- that kind of intrastructure is developing
all over the place, but particularly in Asia. 

Even more to the point -- capital formation is no longer restricted
to the old 'first world'. Its not a question of western capital
migrating to Asia. Its a question of Asian capital investing closer
to home. There are lots of new jobs being created all the time --
in Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, China... 

The growth rates in some of these countries is sometimes in double
digits. So you have the opposite kind of spiral in Bangkok to what
you have in Brooklyn. Thailand has its problems at the moment, but
a lot of them are from growing too fast. There's so much investment
concentrated in one place that its choking the infrastructure. Its
putting so much wealth into the hands of a rising middle class that
there's an orgy of spending, which in turn spurs investment, and
so on. 

The communication networks that make all this ASian growth possible
are nothing like either the first world or the second. These
countries are "guided democracies" at best and dictatorships at
worst. Even in fairly liberal countries like Thailand, there is
a great deal of monitoring and steering of media agendas. What has
grown in a really amazing way are business networks. I don't know
what the volume of communication traffic is like, but judging
from the growth of a whole layer of communication professionals
across the region, it must be substantial. These people are no
longer the go-betweens for first world capital investing in the
developing world. They are intermediaries between capital rich
Japan (and increasingly Korea and Taiwan too) and resource rich
countries such as China and Indonesia. 

What's interesting is the way leaving the third world has changed
these societies. A self conscious middle class with a stake in
some media autonomy, rule of law, due process, etc has arisen in
Taiwan and Korea, and i think now Thailand and the Philipines too.
The first rumblings of it are happening in Indonesia, i think. 
That's a vast and complex country, and i just read the tea leaves
from afar, but i think its fair to say that in this, the fourth
most populous countryin the world, the old autocracy is strugging
to channel a rising educated class into its networks of power
and patronage. 

A lot of independent media networks work through the NGOs in the
region, and have done so for a very, very long time, as opposed
to the Eastern European experience with this, which looks much
more recent. I think if there's a connection that would be worth
making, its between that older NGO experience and the newer one. 
There's a difference in that in, say Thailand, NGO work is more
about coping with what (and who) gets trampled on in the rush to
development, for example, what's left of the peasant economy, and
the damage done by the sex industry since HIV. But there is
definitely a para-public sphere of NGO activity. I must say, i
always took a more benign view of this than some of our friends
do of NGO activity in former second world.

Comparing, say, Malaysia to Thailand, there's two paths there that
i can see for the second world. In Thailand, development is 
centred on Bangkok. There's very little 'trickle down' to the regions.
There's a very wide income gap. There's what's left of a peasant
economy just left to struggle along. Part of Thailand is now locked
into a trade and investment regime in the region -- Japanese firms
using the skill/price point Thai workers are at -- which is 'mid
range' -- and threading that into a 'greater east asian co-prosperity
sphere'. The high skill, high wage stuff is in Japan, but moving
out to Korea and Taiwan. The mid level work is in Thailand, Malaysia,
etc. The low wage, low skill parts of the production process are in
Indonesia, and moving to Vietnam. As skill and wage rates rise, 
the parts of the production process move 'down' a rung. Its been going
on like that for 20 years. 

Big corporations in Korea and to a lesser extent elsewhere are catching
on to this development plan. Malaysia is trying to establish itself
as a 'centre' rather than a periphery in these kinds of circuits, at least
in some industries. The Malaysian car company Proton bought the English
firm of Lotus in an effort to get the high skill, design and technology
stuff happening in Malaysia, at least in this one industry -- and sneak
up on the Koreans, who are rapidly pulling along side the Japanese as
carmakers to the world. (Europeans are still driving Renaults and VWs, but
the rest of the world seems to be driving Toyotas and Nissans, and 
trading them in for Hyundais and Daiwoos...). 

Now, in Thailand, you see bits of the place detaching themselves (so to
speak) from the Thai territory and economy and drifting into the orbit
of the co-prosperity sphere. In Malaysia you see a national development
policy that tries to keep all of the regions and classes more or less
in the development process. This policy doesn't result so much from
enlightened liberalism as expediency. Malaysia is multiracial, Thailand
isn't. A similar accident of history led to a similar bifurcation of
policies in Korea as compared to Taiwan. Korean development was very
harsh, and led to intense political struggles -- the Korean student
radicals are the best organised i have seen anywhere in the world. 
The KMT government in Taiwan kept para-social democratic welfare
policies in place since 1947 -- a legacy of its peculiar political

All of which leads to incredible debates. I can't really follow this,
but i get some insight into it through teaching communications at
a graduate level to mostly Asian students. Interestingly, whereas Asian
students i get in Australia tend to be less affluent than the ones
i meet in America. They are an upwardly mobile strata from the lower
middle class, doing a cheaper and more 'practical' course. There's
a stong sense of anti-western, anti-european feeling. A sense of
coming to power. This is of course quite justified -- in relative
terms the economic power of the 'first world' is declining rapidly.
But i sense also a great deal of confusion about issues of culture
and polity. As beneficiaries of more or less authoritarian state
development policies, democracy is seen, not as a necessary ingredient
for development, but a luxury, or just a weird western thing. 

This is changing in those countries where that policy has ground to
a halt. Its obvious in Korea particularly that the authoritarian
state might have marched development up to a certain point, but then
the corruption endemic to such a system catches up to it. But its
less obvious in, say China or Indonesia, where state-backed development
really did deliver what it promised to a lot of people.

The really scary thing about Singapore, i find whenever i go there, is
that it is STALINISM THAT WORKS. The ruling party there has socialist
roots, but it went for a mixed economy development strategy very early,
and it worked. Incomes grew, and the party kept its grip, relaxing it
just enough to stop dissent from becoming focussed. Harry Lee succeeded
where the eastern bloc failed. 

So, in short, the third world isn't where it used to be. Its mutated into
worlds-within-worlds of development and underdevelopment. The first
world isn't there any more either, in the sense that it just doesn't set
the agenda. (It will be interesting to see who sucks up to China when
HK gets handed back next month. Clinton is making a stand for the place, but
i bet nobody else will. Australia will send a high ranging member of
cabinet to the ceremony -- this is our second biggest trading partner
after all...). Europe is clearly in a reactive phase. Its exports are
less and less competitive on world markets. Workers are well enough
organised that they can defend their incomes and their share of the state
booty. The only market up for grabs is the domestic one, still pretty
well protected from real competition. But the only choices are between
more or less unfair ways of managing decline. The blue sky for European
capital is its own co-prosperity sphere -- taking in bits of the former
East, and trying to integrate them into a virtous circle of investment,
production, income growth and market growth, but the pockets where this
is possible are pretty small, and there may be no reason why European
capital has any great advantage over its international rivals, even this
close to home.

I suspect the pain of keeping the 'overdeveloped' partrs of europe 
together politically is going to be pretty intense. My feeling about this
is coloured by Australian experience. This is a much more vulnerable
bit of the first world, one not protected by the security blanket of the
EU, and much closer to where the economic action has been for the last
20 years. Employment held up pretty well over the last 10 years -- better
than the OECD average, but inflated by a huge growth in the tourism
industry. For the last couple of years its looked pretty bleak, and we've
had the two predictable political movements -- the free marketeers, 
and their quest to make the world safe for capital flight; and the rise
of populist statism, seeking a return to an aborted authoritarian
developmental state -- a policy abandoned after the war. The latter is
of marginal significance yet, and mostly its the racist side of this
movement that's attracting attention. But the combination of hostility
to migrating bodies and migrating capital is a very potent and dangerous

I think i started this long netletter to clarify for myself why i keep
reading the east/west dialogue on nettime awry. It seems to me that
there's an east/west europe dialogue, with many variants and flavours. 
This is a good thing. Then there's a third leg to the discussion, which
is contact with the Americans. That's a whole other matrix, of which
cyberlibertarianism is just a part. That the dialogue extend to this is
also good. But there's still lots of worlds that are not factored into
this matrix. That's nobody's fault. This is not a whinge about 'exclusion'.
I just want to expand the picture a little. 

Its all very well to talk about 'capital' in the abstract, as capital
*is* abstract. But one needs to know something about which way that
abstract flow is heading, so one can anticipate which particulars it will
organise around itself. Nettime is unique in lots of ways, but one of
them is that it is a pan European movement (if i may be so bold as to
call something this turbulent a 'movement', nonetheless) that is happening
at a time of European decline. None of the historic avant gardes had that
distinction. The desires of the old avant gardes, no matter how much i
always admired them, seemed to me mired in empire, in ways that were 
never really clearly articulated. Even the situs. Products of an empire
in bloom. 

How times change.

McKenzie Wark
The Netletter
2AM Eastern Standard Time

"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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