Facets of the contemporary condition
The so-called Postmodernity is essentially the era of economic liberalism, first introduced in Western Europe in the 19th century, disrupted in the mid-20th century, re-generated in the 1970s, and globalised since the 1990s as neo-liberalism. Its purpose was and is the expansion of capitalist territory around the world, and the penetration of market logic in almost every social institution and activity.
Globalisation in this form has been promoted by transnational corporations, international organisations and entities, and nation-states, which together constitute a novel supra-territorial power structure. Transnational corporations, mainly financial, pharmaceutical, and digital technology companies, control the global economy in an overwhelming extent, and many of them now hold more wealth than the GDP of many countries. Between transnational capital and the nation-states, major organisations and bureaucracies operate, through asymmetric power relations between their member states, and, with the loans or the ‘assessment criteria’ they impose, render the nation-states instruments of wealth generation and capital flows. Compliant states legitimise these organisations as ‘neutral’ technocratic advice-givers, and therefore as ‘rational’ and ‘impartial’ agencies, thus legitimising ideologically their policies to national constituencies as necessary to restore or sustain ‘development’.
On a more fundamental level, it is precisely the, even today, little questioned ideologies of ‘development’, ‘growth’, or ‘modernisation’, and their ‘matrix’ idea of ‘progress’, that legitimise capitalist domination within and amongst societies. The notion of ‘progress’ that first prevailed in Western societies and then around the world consists in the perpetual increase of productive forces, techno-scientific achievements, and consumption, and totally devalues the creations of the past and any other political project for the future. Today, ‘progress’ consists mainly in the proliferation of rationalistic and biopolitical controls, the production and consumption of new gadgets, the algorithmisation of human judgment and behaviour, and the conversion of human life into digital data.
Globalisation has led to the emergence of a transnational capitalist class, accumulating unprecedented wealth, competitive and power-obsessed middle classes, and increasingly insecure and fragmented working classes. At the same time, the so-called ‘free market’ creates nomadic existences, in the physical and digital space, and pliable personalities, constantly oriented towards the consumption of new commodities, mainly through debt, which is now the basis of financial capitalism. The social landscape that has been formed is characterised by the unleashing of consumer desires, instincts, and egoisms, the collapse of social bonds and the notion of the citizen as a thinking and acting subject.
Indeed, citizenship is dilapidated by consumer culture, the breakdown of the institutions of ‘representative democracy’, the bureaucratisation of politics, and the marginalisation of truth and critique. The almost complete control of the big media by state and business interests, and the uninterrupted flows of audiovisual spectacle and virtual reality, render the ascertainment of the truth as well as sense making extremely difficult.
No doubt, the advent of the Internet has broken the monopoly of the mono-directional media, given voice to activists and independent journalists, allowed horizontal communication and direct transactions between citizens, and bypassed institutions that traditionally controlled knowledge (e.g. the education and health systems). However, the Internet has been eventually formed largely in accordance to the priorities of globalised capitalism, as a massive de-territorialised market and a gigantic ‘empire of surveillance’, where transnational corporations gather, exploit, and exchange personal data with state agencies, and manipulate users’ choices. 9/11 and now the pandemic are the two decisive events – opportunities for the dramatic expansion of surveillance technologies by transnational companies and bureaucratic mechanisms.
In the last decades, the same mechanisms have been formulating education policy too, the main purpose of which is the subordination of educational systems to the economy, through privatisations or the adoption of business-like criteria, and mainly through the treatment of students as ‘human capital’. Current transnational education policy destroys any tradition of paideia or Bildung created in Europe, in the sense of general culture and the formation of independently thinking and active citizens. It also destroys the tradition of academic autonomy in universities, subjecting knowledge to business interests, and turning universities themselves into businesses. At a time when educational institutions should be, more than ever before, spaces of free research and teaching so that the young study the civilizational condition that threatens their very future on the planet, transnational education policy is reducing them to ‘human resources’, subject to mainly training in professional skills and to conscription in the precariat.
Based on the above remarks, any effort to overcome the current condition should include, in my view, the analysis and understanding:
- of the functioning of the supra-territorial power structure generated by capitalist globalisation, without regarding it as consolidated and unchanged (e.g. juxtapose Iceland’s response to the 2009 economic crisis with that of Greece);
- of transnational capitalism not only as an economic system, but precisely as a civilizational condition, with broader and deeper socialising functions;
- of the central ideas that permeate and legitimise globalised capitalism, and orientate societies towards the maintenance or increase of productivity and consumption, the over-concentration of wealth, and the self-destructive domination over nature, and paralyse any other socio-political project;
- of education and its socialising role, its degradation today, and the importance of a true paideia for all, and of academic autonomy as a prerequisite for free research and teaching;
- of genuine politics, as a field of open dialogue based on truth, collective action, and full democratisation, and its importance for the re-constitution of societies, against capitalist and any other form of barbarism.