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Chapter: Futurists' Forum
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Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl & Michael Stack 1 Excerpts from "Introduction: Integrated Circuits, circuits of Capital, and Revolutionary Change"; in "Cutting Edge"; published by Verso, 1997.
Ravindra Kumar 2 'Lee's Story'; published in 'Review' of The Statesman, Calcutta, dated Monday, October 12, 1998.
Yash Tandon 3 'Poverty, Processes of Impoverishment and Empowerment'; in Chapter Two; 'Empowerment: Towards Sustainable Development', edited by Naresh Singh and Vangile Titi; Fernwood Publishing Ltd, 1995; page 29.
Abdus Salam 4 'Closing the Great Divide' ; in 'An Agenda for the 21st Century' by Rushworth M Kidder; The MIT Press, 1987; page 107.
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Que sera sera ... we can only dream of a world free of want: where the promise of science is fulfilled; where knowledge is unleashed as a social force. We would like to believe that such a future is on the horizon of Bengal. However, to seize this vision, it must be taken up, struggled over, articulated, popularized and made into a material force.

But what can 'Future Vision' do? For too long, the debate about social change has been focussed around old world concepts of a world fast disappearing. We must pose the proper questions, not just towards understanding the world we live in, but towards changing it. New ideas are needed to annihilate the accumulation of exhausted ideas.

Hopefully, 'Future Vision' will contribute to that effort. Join us ... send us your contributions and thoughts: mailto: sankalpatrust@hotmail.com.
Bon voyage!

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1. "Introduction: Integrated Circuits, circuits of Capital, and Revolutionary Change", by Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl & Michael Stack ; in "Cutting Edge"; published by Verso, 1997.
Part 1: Explorations into the terrain shaped by the new technologies:

How is one to make sense of the world today? Contemporary political and economic events as well as recent technological developments defy conventional analysis. The general breakdown of the post-World War II social order is well under way, visibly evident in the dramatic dissolution of the Eastern European and Soviet socialist economies. The dramatic polarization of wealth and poverty - not just between the technologized and under-technologized nations, or north and south, but also within the technologized center - exposes 'capitalism has won' and 'history is over' pronouncements as premature. This socioeconomic polarization becomes only more intense as the powers of science and technology leap ahead at breakneck speed.

While the traditional Left has lost much of it's a appeal and the world's labour unions are on the defensive, new forces have stepped onto the world stage ... The world has entered a period of upheaval ...

... We are in the midst of a profound revolution in technology. For lack of a better phrase, we call this the 'electronics revolution' Although that phrase would seem to exclude important new developments in bio-engineering and materials science, those new developments themselves would not have been possible without breakthroughs in electronics, especially in the field of microelectronics. Even though we are about fifty years into the technology revolution (the term 'cybernetics' first appeared in 1947, shortly after the first computers), it is becoming clear that we are still only at the beginning of the process ...

Although the electronic revolution is still in its infancy, there are definite indications that it follows the model of historical materialism. Marx and Engels asserted that technological developments (for example the steam engine) allowed new boundaries and new parameters for society. Unforeseen technological innovations would establish the conditions for the final destruction of capitalism. In general terms, '... at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production ...' Each [contribution] assesses, in some way, this dialectic between technological development and capitalist relations of production.

... Our concerns with respect to technology are different. We enthusiastically welcome the promise of technology for ending material scarcity and for creating a foundations for higher forms of human fulfillment. yet we suspect that the application of electronic technology within the framework of capitalism will not only fail to accomplish these ends, but exacerbate the misery and poverty in which most of the world already lives ... Because several [contributions] draw extensively on concepts from Marxist political economy, a brief review of some of the major concepts may be in order.

Recognizing the central role of commodities in capitalism, Marx began his masterwork Capital with an examination of the commodity. A commodity is something produced by humans for exchange. It has two aspects:

  1. a use value: that is the quality of the thing that satisfies a need or want; and
  2. an exchange value: that is a quantity of human effort, or labor which is the basis for exchanging commodities of different use values.
Marx qualified exchange value as the socially necessary labour to make commodities, that is, taking into account the average skills, technology and intensity of work. For Marx, exchange value, or more generally value, roughly is human labour - the activity of transforming the world from 'things' into useful things, that is things that satisfy someone's wants. It is on the basis of this common denominator - as expressions of human effort irrespective of the specific work being done - that products, or commodities, of different uses can be exchanged.

In the process of making things that satisfy wants (production), portions of technology, raw materials, buildings and so forth are used up. The value that this used-up portion represents temporarily disappears, to reappear in the finished product. This process of destruction and creation is at the heart of production. Since the value of the consumed portions is in a sense just transferred to the finished product, it is described as constant capital - its magnitude has not changed during the process. Human labour, though, has the peculiar ability to create more value than is used up during production. Because human labor creates value during production, Marx described the capital advanced to purchase a worker's ability to work (that is, wages) as variable capital. Marx argued that human labour is the sole source of value. And value - human effort - is the underpinning of the entire economy. Capitalists accumulate wealth by expropriating surplus value (the difference between the value of the workers' labor power, paid out as wages, and the value created by the worker in the course of production). Profit is one form of surplus value, and the drive for maximum profits is the overriding goal of the capitalist. Capitalism puts a premium on technological innovation as a competitive strategy for survival in the marketplace.

Capitalists compete with each other to maximize profits, and one of the main ways of doing so is by getting workers to produce more in the same amount of time by introducing more powerful and productive technology. At any given moment some capitalists are using the newest technology, and some are using old technology. When a commodity goes onto the market, it exchanges not at its individual value, that is, based on the labour used to produce it, but on the modal value of all of the same type of commodities from various producers, its social value. Capitalists who made commodities with the most advanced technology and the least labour in general will sell their commodities at the same price (or perhaps slightly less) than the commodities made by backward producers. Because their costs are lower, the advanced producers will realize extra surplus value, while those using older technology and more labour will realize less surplus value.

The ratio of constant capital to variable capital is called the organic composition of capital. As more constant capital is employed in production, or less labour employed, the organic composition of capital rises. Marx argued that the rising organic composition of capital will cause the rate of profit to fall over time. As more technology is thrown at production, a crisis in profitability emerges, manifesting itself as overproduction and the lack of purchasing power. A product unsold is value unrealized. This lays the basis for the periodic crises in capitalism, punctuated by unemployment, bankruptcies and the destruction of capital. Once capital is destroyed, the system begins to expand again, and the cycle begins anew. The capitalist use of new technologies, while raising productivity ... 'necessarily implies crises, exploitation, poverty, unemployment, the destruction of the natural environment and more generally all those evils which high tech is supposed to eradicate.'

... Digitization - the conversion of information and 'knowledge' into the 1s and 0s that can be manipulated by digital machines - is an important means by which knowledge and information is cheaply replicated and quickly socialized. The enormous economic advantages of digitally rendering products means that more and more commodities appear in an 'information form', and the economy is undergoing a broad restructuring to take advantage of the digital rendition. The Internet represents the re-creation of the transport and communications system to handle the digital traffic. Various industries, once separated by incompatible media, find themselves digitally converged into the same competitive area. And not least, the digital transformation is having a profound effect on the role of human beings in production.

It is important to remember that these technologies spring from somewhere. When scientists, engineers and other mental workers are set to solving problems posed by their employers, the results are stamped with the demands and needs of the ruling class. At the same time, though, technology is produced amidst conflicting social relations, and thus holds the possibility of being a tool for liberation as well as for social control.

... The new technologies are possible because of the accumulation of what is known about nature. The continuing development of technologies requires substantial training, research, etc. In this sense they can be described as 'knowledge intensive'. The function of 'knowledge' in the economy, though, is a problematic one. Once produced, knowledge is cheap to replicate; it is not 'consumed' or exhausted after use ... and it can only acquire a price when it is protected by a monopoly. Capitalism thrives in this new climate only by bending and subsuming knowledge formation to its needs through aggressive privatization, 'harnessing freely available "social knowledge" to the profit-making activities of the large corporation.

The consequences of the critical act of replacing human beings with machines under capitalism can only be understood by grasping the idea of the central role of the human being - as the sole source of value - in production ... The brilliant English mathematician Alan Turing in the 1930s showed the possibility of constructing a machine capable of carrying out any computational task that a human being could do ... 'computing, like tailoring and weaving, is just another aspect of human labor-power that can be exploited to create surplus value and, if is value is higher than a rival machine, it can be replaced.' The reason that human beings are the sole source of value is therefore not to found in any unique talents of the worker, as any machine can theoretically provide those ...

... The capture of human skills in 'software', capable of being repeatedly activated by microprocessors, 'is a technology which brings to life the machinery of production; it is thus in itself a radically new form of objectification of labor.' ... When robots replace living labor in production, surplus value - and hence profits - cannot be created in the old ways, but only 'in the design of new productive information and the initial bringing together of information and machinery'. So, companies are forced into creating the 'perpetual innovation economy'. Such an economy accelerates the commodification of particular kinds of information or knowledge useful to production.

... Knowledge becomes 'the critical production factor' in the 'innovation economy' where workers are reconceived as sources of 'knowledge', and must work within a tighter discipline to ensure uninterrupted production. However, protecting copyrights and patents - essential to maintaining the commodity status of knowledge - is problematic in the digital age, if not ultimately impossible ... The 'knowledge society' is not the end of history, but rather, capitalism, adjusted (and adjusting) to a new technological climate ... The idea of the 'end of work' has been raised in several recent books, including Jeremy Rifkin's 'The End of Work' , and Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio's 'The Jobless Future'. If human beings are redundant in production by automation, then surplus value disappears and capitalism becomes unsustainable ... New technologies mean the end of work; the end of work means the inability to make profits, the inability to realize value, and the end of value creation. These describe the conditions for the end of capitalism.

This, of course, raises a few problems. First, is 'work', or value creation disappearing? We should look beyond the often-cited employment statistics to other indicators of the trend towards 'the end of value'. Capital - as a social relation - starts to break down as the cash nexus of the wage relationship is eroded, and this process is most vividly revealed in the social destruction going on throughout the world.

A second question is deeper: Is change possible? Can we envision a society beyond capitalism, in which value - 'work' in the traditional sense, exploitation, etc. no longer exist? Is revolution possible?

A third question is very practical: How will capitalism end? What strategies might be employed to forestall it? No one is suggesting that it will collapse on its own from its internal contradictions. The question of agency - who will do the deed? - must be raised.

Part 2: Social Implications and Responses

Beyond the consequences for labor, capitalist deployment of new technologies has deindustrialized metropolitan urban centers, created a bioengineered, industrialized world agriculture system, and restructured the world economy around high-speed transport and telecommunications. In addition, manufacturing is moving into the periphery, and the international currency market dominates national monetary policies. These economic transformations have forced a fundamental struggle for survival upon large sections of the population, and especially those workers cast into the ranks of the marginally employed and permanently unemployed.

In this climate, 'jobs' are a major political issue for governments, and various options for expanding employment have been advanced, from more education to government-financed jobs programs to job-sharing. The intensity of the contradiction between technological development and property relations can be gauged by the unemployment crisis. The upward trend in unemployment since 1973 in both industrialized and less industrialized nations calls into question the capacity of capitalism to provide adequate employment over the long term. This policy crisis is openly acknowledged by organization such as the G-7 group of industrial nations and the International Labor Organization.

The policy debates around unemployment are often framed in terms of globalized production and globalized labor markets. Some argue that further globalization is a solution for unemployment, while others assert that globalization is a primary cause for unemployment. Our reading of the evidence suggests that this debate is miscast. The higher levels of global interaction of the economy are not independent of the new technologies  - rather, the pace and quality of globalization today are only possible because new transportation and communications technologies. Global market dynamics (for example, trade, investment, and labor migration) are able to allocate unemployment across a much wider geography

The struggle for jobs is just one dimension of the social response. As capital maneuvers to contain the working class, workers repeatedly recreate the class struggle in new ways. In 'high technology capitalism', these struggles are being recreated in ways that exploit what new technologies make possible. The struggle takes new forms as labor is pushed out of factories and offices and into the streets. Our understanding of 'alienation' must correspondingly change. Confrontation will occur less on factory floors populated by robots, and increasingly within the political domain, in direct confrontation with the State.

Since the technology revolution, and the restructuring around it, is a global phenomenon, the collection would not be complete without a discussion of the less industrialized areas of the globe, who are 'caught in the trough between two civilizations: the industrial and post-industrial.' Through 'communities of resistance', a new kind of class struggle is emerging in the new technological climate. Within Africa, the deepest contradictions of technology and social destruction can be observed. As people are driven out of a meager existence in small agricultural production, they completely leapfrog the 'working class' (for essentially there is none) and land in a 'new class being formed in the forbidden zones, areas within cities, rural provinces, refugee settlement camps, and even entire countries that have become economically unstable, consumed with violence and crime ...'

So another possible avenue of exploration is in the relationship between broad technical stages of history and class formation. The formation of a capitalist class and a working class was inextricably linked to the development of key technologies in manufacturing, transport and communication over a period of a few hundred years. With today's qualitatively new technological environment, can we make projections about the development or formation of new classes in some kind of relationship to the new technologies? For example, could the the broad margins of the working class, dismissed as an 'underclass' or maligned anachronistically as a 'lumpenproletariat', be in fact a new class-in-formation? Could this new class be, not a working class per se, but a new proletariat , in the Roman sense of the term, being forged in relationship to technologies that destroy the use-value of their labour power? Historically, new classes have had to struggle to recreate production relations that would accommodate them. How does this shape our umderstanding of 'class struggle' today. The 'end of work' may suggest the 'end of the working class' as we have known it, but not the end of class struggle' ...

[Reminder from Essem: This presentation is only an extract. Please read the full article for a more comprehensive understanding of the subject.]

Comment # 1: Received from:

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2. 'Lee's Story' by Ravindra Kumar; published in 'Review' of The Statesman, Calcutta, dated Monday, October 12, 1998.
[Prefatory note from Essem: In the context of future vision, Mr Lee Kuan Yew is the perfect example of a living visionary. Remarkably down-to-earth, and yet ... a man with telescopic vision. Just after Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, he came on the air and delivered an emotional speech which - though stirring - was not really an exceptional performance. But what was remarkable was his choice of the word 'robust' to describe the kind of society that he wanted to build. The man says what he means ... and means what he says ... which is a rare quality in a politician. When was the last time we heard an Indian politician speak, and we believed what he or she said?
One suspects that the second part of Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs will be more relevant to the future than the first. But 'The Singapore Story', just out, which covers Mr Lee's formative years in national politics, his first steps on the international stage and the birth of Singapore, will nonetheless engross students and practitioners of Asian politics.

Mr. Lee is one of the towering personalities of the 20th century. The transformation of Singapore from an Asian have-not to a developed nation within 50 years is his greatest achievement. But before his tiny island nation could grow, it had to be born and Mr Lee's narrative focuses mainly on the pangs associated with this happening.

Many people living in Southeast Asia believe that the breaking away of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965 made both poorer. A fusion of Malaysia's natural resources with Singapore entrepreneurial skills and its port facilities would have been synergistic.

Certainly this was Mr Lee's belief when he lobbied for the merger of Malaya and Singapore into Malaysia in 1963. Many Southeast Asian observers agree Mr Lee, a Hake Chinese, was the only person with the intellectual strength and the vision to lead that country.

There were many Malays who did not, and do not agree. In the 1950s and 1960s, followers of Tunku Abdul Rahman viewed Mr Lee as a Chinese expansionist committed to the subjugation of their race. But as Mr Lee explains, he was also thwarted by the position (read short-sightedness) of the predominant Malaysian Chinese grouping which felt threatened by his growing influence over a constituency they viewed as their preserve. Even today, the strong feelings aroused in Malaysia by the release of Mr Lee's memoirs, and overshadowed only by the Anwar Ibrahim affair, suggest the past has not been forgotten by the ethnic Malays.

Singapore and Malaysia continue to have a far from ideal relationship. While both nations are members of Asean and have cooperated economically, there have also been many disagreements over the years. Earlier this year, tensions simmered over the shifting of immigration points on the rail route between the two countries. Mr Lee's book provides a historical backdrop that places such discord in perspective.

But in the main, Mr Lee's is an interesting narrative because it reveals the clarity that has always been part of his thought process. He tells his story simply, and therefore well. Politicians planning to write their memoirs would do well to emulate him. There are three themes to Mr Lee's book. First, the manner in which his early life - as the scion of a privileged family, as a black marketeer during the Japanese occupation and as a student in England - influenced his thinking as a nation's leader. Second, his struggle for power in a largely Chinese society that viewed him as an outsider and seemed taken up with Communism. And third, his efforts towards a united Malaysia that included Singapore and the pragmatism that forced Singapore out. 

There are lessons here for third-world politicians who believe their ideological place is somewhere between Fabian socialism and radical communism. Mr Lee returns to the root common to many such politicians to explain why he chose the path that Singapore finally took.

Mr Lee writes: "One person who made an impact on me in my first term at the LSE was Harold Laski, a professor of Political Science. Like many other students who were not doing political science, I attended some of his lectures ... His Marxist socialist theories had a profound influence on many colonial students, quite a few of whom were to achieve power and run their underdeveloped economies aground by ineptly implementing policies based on what they thought Laski taught. It was my good fortune that I had several of these failed economies to warn me of this danger before I was in a position to do any harm in government ...

"We were part of the British Empire, and I believed the British lived well at the expense of their subjects. The ideas that Laski represented at the time were attractive to students from the colonies ... I thought then that wealth depended mainly on the possession of territory and natural resources, whether fertile land with abundant rainfall for agriculture or forestry, or valuable minerals, or oil and gas.

"It was only after I had been office for some years that I recognized that performance varied substantially between the different races in Singapore and among different categories within the same race. After trying out a number of ways to reduce inequalities and failing, I was gradually forced to conclude that the decisive factors were the people, their natural abilities, education and training. Knowledge and the possession of technology were vital for the creation of wealth."

Mr Lee explains, without ever suggesting it is an explanation he offers, while he first sought the support ot Communists and then spurned them so violently. The book doubtless answer many old-time Singaporeans who saw in Mr Lee's treatment of the Communists shades of ruthlessness and opportunism, and made these traits the benchmark against which they viewed many of his subsequent actions.

Mr Lee suggests his flirtations with the Communists were more necessary than opportunistic, and never welcome. In a single telling paragraph he explains : "I agreed with the Marxists that man did exploit his fellow men through his possession of greater capital or power, and that because a man's output was more than he needed to consume to stay alive, there was a surplus for the employer or landlord to cream off. My aversion to the Communists sprang from their Leninist methods, not their Marxist ideals."

If the roots of this aversion were laid as far back as his early political days, Mr Lee is clearly a man with a very long memory. He suggests that one person who embodied the distaste he felt for Communists was C V Devan Nair, who he recalls was an "unlikable person" at first sight ... "short, squat, pugnacious and obviously angry with the world". Many years later, Mr Lee as Prime Minister and his Peoples Action Party, elevated Mr Devan Nair to the Presidentship of Singapore. But in the autumn of his political life, Mr Nair was brought crashing down from the perch of elder statesman in about as inglorious a manner as possible.

Mr Lee's description of the growth of communism will seem familiar to people in West Bengal, revealing as it does the common prescription used by communists in the pursuit of power. The penetration of the non English-educated class (in Singapore's case, the Chinese educated), the subversion of the education system, the creation of a "united front of workers", students and peasants to foment unrest and convert labour disputes into political issues" are tactics familiar to Indians and Bengalis.

The seminal part of Mr Lee's narrative revolves around his efforts to unite Singapore with Malaya, and his decision to pull Singapore out in 1965.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, Prime Minister of the Malayan Federation, was comfortable in a system of Malay majority and dominance and feared that the entry of Singapore, predominantly Chinese, would disturb the ethnic balance. As the Malay leadership believed, their race was born to rule the Chinese, to run businesses.

Mr Lee explains the tortuous processes that helped change the Tunku's thinking. The chapter "getting to know the Tunku" is among the more delightful ones in the book, for Mr Lee describes his adversary in terms that are clearly affectionate, but hint at an amused contempt. (This, among other things, has enraged todays Malaysians)

That the merger did finally come about in 1963 was testimony to Mr lee's persuasive skills as he had to contend with a reluctant Tunku, a leftist opposition in Singapore that feared a crackdown under Kuala Lumpur's rule, and an unhappy Indonesia that announced confrontation as soon as the merger became public.

Having accomplished merger, though, Mr Lee clearly did not see himself restricted to leadership of one of Malaysia's provinces. He was off soon on tour of 17 or 18 countries to explain Malaysia to the world. The tour came about with the Tunku's blessings, but in the face of opponents who felt "instead of making Malaysia known to the Africans, he (Mr Lee) would make himself known to the African countries".

Mr Lee suggests that his party's entry into the Malay heartland was forced on his associates and him, but it was  perhaps inevitable that the PAP would seek a larger stage. While the Tunku was a towering personality, his deputies were less accomplished. The Malaysian Chinese leadership lacked Mr Lee's stature and acumen. Had ability been the criterion for succession, Mr Lee would have been the inevitable choice. Mr Lee leaves a critical question unanswered - how far did his ambition extend?

But the politics of Malaysia hinged, as they do now, on the ethnic question, and the Malay leadership made it increasingly clear to Mr Lee that he was not wanted except in the limited role assigned to him. He and Singapore cut their losses and broke away within two years.

The narrative ends with the birth of Singapore. But Mr Lee promises in the preface that his "next book will describe the long, hard climb over the next 25 years from poverty to prosperity."

So far Mr Lee has described how he survived, and triumphed, within the framework of a Western-styled democracy. It was later that Singapore became a society less tolerant of dissent, when it's democracy followed rules that brought about frequent skirmishes with liberal thinkers.

Mr Lee has always maintained that the Asian Context calls for drastic changes to the Western model. Doubtless, he will explain why these changes were necessary for Singapore's growth. It is then that a fuller analysis of Mr Lee's life and methods will become possible.

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3. 'Poverty, Processes of Impoverishment and Empowerment: by Yash Tandon; in Chapter Two; 'Empowerment: Towards Sustainable Development', edited by Naresh Singh and Vangile Titi; Fernwood Publishing Ltd, 1995; page 29.
"Poverty has been with us since the Pharaohs ruled Egypt ... It is as old as the hills ...".
Poverty has even been described as a "curse" of mankind, or alternatively, as a "disease". In the past, it has often been attributed to supernatural forces, or God's creation. All one could do with poverty was to give alms or charity to the poor. Most ancient religions provided for this.

The view that poverty has always been with us is not true. When compared with the material wealth of our present times, ancient societies were "poor", but by their own self-perception, those societies may have regarded themselves as "rich". Within those communities, the disparities of wealth either did not exist (as in communal societies), or where it existed, the material gap between the "wealthy" and the "poor" was relatively small compared to our own times. What is new about poverty in our times is the stark contrat between the rich and the poor, and the sheer numbers involved. According to the Report on the State of World Rural Poverty (Jaziary et al. 1992), the poor have increased in number and now constitute about 1.1 billion or one-fifth of the world population. Indeed the gap between the poor and the rich is ever widening, between nations at the global level and within nations between citizenry. The second new aspect about poverty in outr times is the conceptualization about its cause. Poverty is not seen as God's creation, although a minority still hold this view, but as man-made. (Here I have to be gender specific; most women would probably say, qite rightly, that they have no part in the creation of poverty).

Views on the causes of poverty can be divided broadly into two categories. The first is the structuralist view which says that poverty is a product of the very structure of the society's mode of existence - from production to distribution and consumption. Marx was the greatest exponent of this view in our times, although he was by no means the only one. The others - non-structuralists - are a mixed bag of theorists comprising those who say , for example, that poverty is a result of the lack of application of technology to production, and those who say that it is an "accidental" or contingent phenomenon (linked for example with drought or poor natural endowment). In this group there are also those who argue that the poor are their own creators; they are lazy (or not industrious enough), passive, or "fatalist". At the global level, this last view often expresses itself in racist terms when entire nations or races are described as "lazy" and blamed as authors of their own poverty.

The structural view of the causes of poverty has become somewhat out of fashion, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the global "socialist" movement.Theorists are moving away from grandiose explanations for the phenomenon of poverty ... and the reigning orthodoxy (capitalism) deliberately sets out to discourage a "systemic" analysis of the problems of poverty. Why? Because too close an identification with the capitalist system as the root problem of poverty would point fingers at those who hold power within the system. The power-holders are also dispensers of charity, so they concentrate on the "practical" issues of alleviating poverty, rather than examining the (systemic) causes that create poverty. This activist passion for "doing something about poverty" has itself become an ideology. Oftentimes, at intellectual or "policy"-driven conferences, when the system itself is projected as the cause of all poverty, the immediate reaction to this is: "And what can you do about it?" - implying that the solution to poverty has to be found within the system itself. The rapid explosion of NGOs on the world scene (especially in the third world countires) has added to this activists' obsession with "doing" something rather than "merely" talking about it. The dominant paradigm on poverty today is non-structuralist.

Corresponding to the structuralist and the non-structuralist viewpoints are theories about "solutions" to the problem of poverty. In Marx, this takes the form of class struggles. Capitalism, to simplify Marxist theory, breeds its own opposite - namely, the working class - who in alliance with all other oppressed classes and exploited people, wage a struggle against the capitalists until the system collapses and gives birth to a new system of organizing production, disribution and consumption. The other solution is the "developmentalist" view, which says that the poor countries are poor because of lack of capital and that poverty can be eliminated through the application of further capital to production.

A third view emerging in recent years says that poverty will be removed neither by capitalism (i.e. by the application of capital) nor by socialism, (i.e. by collective ownership of the means of production) but by the action of the poor themselves.
In other words, the poor are their own redeemers ...

Empowerment is a very misunderstood concept. It has acquired a considerable aura of "respectability", even "social status" within the vocabulary development, but it has not yet acquired a socially agreed content. It is also one of those concepts whose full implications people do not realize when they use it. Lurking under its naivety lies a dangerous "monster", the monster of revolution, for if the logic of the concept is taken to its full limit, then it can only mean equalizing or near-equalizing power, empowering those who do not have the power in the system. Empowerment is a systemic concept the way participation is not.

The concept of "participation", to diverge a little, was a concept which, although born in earlier decades, gained major currency during the 1980s, culminating in the case of Africa, with the Conference of Participatory Development in Arusha, Tanzania, in 1990. Sometimes, when a concept acquires international recognition, it is also on its way out. This is what happened to "participation". The Arusha conference was both a recognition of its importance as well as a signpost of its demise. This is not to say that "participatory development" has lost its relevance or its devotees. As long as there are "institutions" (NGOs, research bodies, etc.) that get their donor funding by brandishing the word "participation", the word will continue to draw its band of supporters. But participation, since the 1980s, has lost some of its currency. When combined with the word democracy ("participatory democracy") the concept still retains some value, but when combined with development ("participatory development") it has been the victim of gross abuse. In the name of "participation", the people are made creators of their poverty (called "development") much like the way the colonials used to get people to "participate" in the building of roads, and the way people in post-colonial Kenya engaged themselves in "Harambee" projects, thus relieving the government from carrying out its responsibilities to the people.

The concept of empowerment has somewhat dethroned participation. It came into vogue in response to the situation where people could "participate" in a project without having the power to decide on critical issues related to the project. Like every concept born of the people's struggles (participation among others), the concept of "empowerment" too has been co-opted by those in power. But empowerment is a hardy term. As noted earlier, its logic should drive the disempowered into positions of power and, equally, bring down those riding high on power. Since the concept is located within the very centre of "power relations" and therefore challenging to powerholders, they have no choice but to incorporate it within the language and rob it of its threatening implications. Empowerment in the hands of those who hold power has come to mean "management of power".

There are two kinds of powerholders in our system - those who hold the power of prosperity, or wealth, and those who hold the power of knowledge. This gives rise to different views of empowerment. First, the argument of institutionalized powerholders [such as thew World Bank (WB) or International Monetary Fund (IMF), Western governments or the donor community including the large Northern non-governmental organizations (NGOs)] is that poverty is essentially a phenomenon of and in the third world. The problem with countries in the third world is that the elite appropriate wealth for themselves by monopolizing power at the political level (one-party rule, out and out dictatorships, etc.) and through corruption at the administrative level. Therefore, empower people at the grassroots (for example, by breaking the monopoly of state economic power through encouraging small business enterprises and by making governments more accountable to the people), and you will have created "enabling conditions" for a more equitable distribution of wealth and progressive assets.

Among the second group of powerholders belong the progressive or "liberal" intellectuals (we leave alone intellectuals who are directly in the pay of, for example, World Bank). They argue as follows: both capitalism and socialism have failed to provide for the poor; the existing leadership in the various institutions of state and international organizations do not have the answers to the problem of poverty; we need therefore to look for new leadership and new paradigms from within "civil society"; and NGOs working in the area of "development" can provide both leadership and ideas for a third alternative to socialism and capitalism.

Both the above versions of empowerment are "top-down". In the first case, the IMF, WB, etc. seek to contain the concept within the bounds of the existing order, and in the second, liberal intellectuals seek to maintain their hegemony of knowledge. Both groups talk about "empowering the people" as if power was for them to give and not for the powerless to take. Both talk about creating "access" to resources or "rights" (eg: the right to food), as if these resources and rights are for them to give. Of course, there are fundamental differences between them, both in the content of their message and the possibility in what they want to achieve at the end of the day. But both groups have a similar approach, that is, based on an assumption that they possess the resources (wealth, knowledge) which they can make available to the powerless. Indeed, look around and you will see that sometimes the representatives of the two "clubs" even dine together. On the part of the "liberal intellectuals" it often takes the illusion of "reforming the World Bank from within", or statements  such as, "They are not all bad guys in the World Bank; so and so is a good person, we can work with him/her."

Against these essentially patronizing and fundamentally reformist perspectives is a third view which says that power is not there for the giving but for the taking. Those who "give" power condition it; power has to be taken. It is through active struggle for rights that you secure those rights. It is through active struggle for resources that you get those resources. That is the lesson of history. The powerful never concede voluntarily; they have to be forced to concede power - through moral force, as Gandhi did; or through withdrawal of labour, as the working classes the world over have been doing for over a century; or through armed action as the liberation movements in South Africa were compelled to do. In the meantime, the powerful may appear to be conceding power, but they do so in order to manage the powerless. "Empowerment", therefore is a contradiction in terms; there can only be "self-empowerment".

This latter view does raise the question of where those who describe themselves as "animators" or "facilitators" (as I do) fit into the above, admittedly simplified but essentially valid, characterization of the three positions of empowerment?  A simple answer would be that this very much depends:

  1. on the position they occupy within the power structuire; and
  2. on the methods they use to work with the powerless.
The question of animators raises the whole question of the "interface" between the impoverished and powerless people and political power. The Marxist theory, as it was organizationally developed and put into operation by Lenin, posited the "vanguard" party as the "necessary" interface between the exploited people and political power. That notion, in the light of pratical experience with the "Communist" countries has been discredited. The question is: what is there to take place of the "vanguard"? Indeed, are there any institutional arrangements at all which, in trying to "facilitate" the people's assumption of power, would not hijack people's efforts and end up being self serving?

Theory and Therapeutics:
This leads to the question of strategy and tactics. Talk about "empowerment" must recognize that there are more candidates for empowerment than one. The women, the children, the disabled, the ethnic or racial minorities are among those with legitimate claims to empowerment. Indeed, nature too is a candidate for empowerment - nature has been disempowered, robbed of its internal dynamism and its regenerative capacity.

Consider just three of the major movements of our time - namely the anti-poverty movement, the feminist movement and the ecological movement - and examine, broadly, their strategy and tactics. In one sense, the three movements are complementary and in strategic alliance when they confront the whole "system" for the damage it has caused to the poor, the women and the environment. But, like everything else in the world today, there is competition for the "market". Among other markets, there is a market for ideas, a market for information, a market for engaging the interests of the people who may not be directly involved in the struggle, and so on. When the three movements compete with one another for these markets and for the resources with which to access them, then surely they obstruct each other.

In some ways, the feminist movement has worked in the opposite direction to the anti-poverty movement. The global feminist movement is very strong in terms of its contribution to the theory of power, but in my view, extremely poor in terms of its strategy and tactics of struggle. By making the "woman question" central to their concerns, they have marginalized the poverty question, especially during the decade of the 1970s. In the case of the third world, most self-conscious women are confused over the question of whether they should be with their sisters in the first world or with their brothers in the third world. There are competing demands on their time and allegiance. As we approach the mid-1990s, however, we observe a greater clarity in their strategic and tactical thinking. Many of them are now critical of the "feminist movement" as it was conceived in the North and openly dissociate themselves from it. They are beginning to link the issue of women's marginalization with issues of international trade, environmental degradation, and so on. Also, there is now a gradual shift to talking about "gender relations" rather than about "women" qua women.

The ecological movement, on the other hand, is poor on theory and strong on strategy and tactics. At the level of theory, the movement has made little headway beyond the Brundtland Report, which (as is the providence of all commissioned reports) is a good empirical description of the environmental situation but one totally devoid of theoretical or philosophical depth. On the other hand, the ecological movement has done better at the strategic level. It has challenged the very notion of "development" and put to question the very basis of the modern system's craving for exploitation and greed. The feminist movement (especially as conceived in the North) does not provide a systemic challenge; as far as the poor are concerned, power can shift from men to women without denting the system's ability to continue to impoverish two-thirds of humanity. The environmental movement, on the other hand, has raised a systemic challenge and therefore it has become a critical arena of contest between the powerholders and the powerless.

Our present world is in deep crisis. It is above all in a crisis of knowledge itself. The Baconian certainty about science has given way to uncertainty and self-doubt. This is not necessarily a bad development. It has woken up those in the South who had given up, surrendered too much of their own science and culture in the belief that what the West was offering was superior and infallible. In the South, people are beginning to re-examine and re-valdate their own knowledge and approaches to knowledge. They are re-legitimizing the content and methodologies of their knowledge formation. Unfortunately, in some cases, this has given rise to manifestations of cultural relativism, but this, we must understand, is a defensive action against the aggression (cultural, political, epistemological) from the West. We in the South must realize that the advances of sciences are not a product purely of the West, even if the West now takes credit for all. Science has an ancestry of thousands of years, and much for which the West tries to claim credit is in fact universal knowledge of mankind.

Above all, I hope the uncertainty about science and knowledge will generate a certain amount of humility in the way we relate to one another as human beings and the way we relate to nature. If this is a possibility, the signs as yet are not too encouraging (judging by what is happening in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia and the efforts at the UNCED conference). Let us, however, take comfort in the view that large shifts in thoughts and attitudes take generations, and we are only on the first uncertain steps.

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4. 'Closing the Great Divide' by Abdus Salam; in 'An Agenda for the 21st Century' by Rushworth M Kidder; The MIT Press,1987; page 107.
[Prefatory note: ... After attending Panjab University, Salam took his BA at St John's College, Cambridge University. He received his Ph D in theoretical Physics from Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory and took an appointment, which he still holds, at Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. For his work in the physics of elementary particles - on which he has published some two hundred and fifty papers - he shared a Nobel Prize in 1979.
He now spends most of his time at the International Center for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy, which he founded in 1964 and has directed ever since. In that capacity, and as head of the Third World Academy of Sciences, he has helped bring together physicists and mathematicians from industrial nations and the developing world.]
Trieste, Italy

The International Center for Theoretical Physics perches on a pine-covered slope overlooking the sapphire-blue Adriatic. But the Director's Office looks out the back into the side of a hill. The location seems somehow in character for Abdus Salam, whose purpose lies less with elegant vistas than with little-known corners of the world - and who despite his Nobel Prize for physics, typically describes himself as "a humble research physicist from a developing country."

Asked about his agenda for the next century, he responds without hesitation. "The real issue, to my mind," he says, "is the great divide between the South and the North," referring to those regions of the globe roughly representing the developing and the developed nations.

Although he speaks softly - from a desk chair facing a framed photograph of Albert Einstein, and a blackboard chalked with mathematical formulae, his words carry fervor.

This "great divide" between the developing world and the industrialized nations, he explians, arises from the fact that each side has a completely different set of problems. The major 21st century issue facing the North, he says, is the 'Arms Race' and the threat of nuclear warfare. The problem facing the South is the threat of starvation and utter poverty.

Picking up a copy of Ideals and Realities, a collection of his essays, he turns to a piece he wrote about Al Asuli, an 11th Century Islamic physician. Al Asuli, he says, divided the problems of humanity into diseases of the rich and the diseases of the poor.

If Al Asuli was alive today, says Salam, he would make the same distinction. "Half his treatise would speak of the one affliction of rich humanity - the psychosis of nuclear annihilation. The other half would be concerned with the one affliction of the poor - their hunger and near-starvation. He might perhaps add that the two afflictions spring from a common cause - the excess of science in one case and the lack of science in the other."

For Salam, the operative word here is science - which he is careful to distinguish from technology, or the application of scientific knowledge to human problems.One great difficulty for the developing world, he explains, is the misplaced assumption that sharing the Western machinery, communications and transportation - technology transfer - will be a panacea for the South.

"Technology transfer is something the South has asked for and the North is resisting. Quite rightly. I don't blame the North for one second for not giving technology as such. Why should you? Why should anybody part with things that nobody else has helped to create?"

"That's where the bread and butter is concerned," he adds, referring to the central role that the sale of technology plays in the economies of the industrial nations.

Instead of technology transfer, Salam says, the South in the coming century should be asking for a transfer of the basic science out of which technologies can spring. "I wish that the North could decide to give the South as much science as possible." Why this insistence on science? Because "science is the basis of technology in the present day." He cites the case of Japan. Over the years, the Japanese invested heavily in learning "all of science at a very high level. And then they were really successful in their technology."

Similar things are beginning to happen, he says, in five of the developing nations: Argentina, Brazil, China, India and South Korea. He is especially impressed by South Korea, which he recently visited.

"They took me straightaway to the television studios for a two-hour long interview," he recalls, "in which they said, 'we have made it a national objective to win Nobel Prizes. Can you give us advice?'

"I told them they were being silly," he says with a chuckle, "adding that they may or may not get Nobel Prizes." But he notes with approval that "the very fact that they made it a national objective is a very important thing. That means that they will stock up their libraries, they will get scientific literature, they'll fund a lot of fellowships, they'll do everything possible to make themselves into a scientifically advanced country."

And that, he suggests, will do more for South Korea than any amount of reliance on Western technology.

As he looks froward into the 21st centurry, Salam distinguishes several kinds of science that will be practiced. The first he calls "science for science's sake" - the most basic and theoretical research, producing discoveries that sometimes go unappreciated for decades. In general, such research is "probably in a healthy state", despite the never-ending battle to pay for it.

"Then there is science for man's sake," he syas, a category he breaks down into three parts: "global science, science for the rich countries, and science for the poor countries".

"Science for the poor doesn't exist, simply doesn't exist," he laments - although he notes the poor countries have plenty of problems that science could help resolve. He cites the current medical concern over AIDS; "As long as it remains in Haiti, nobody even bothered about it." Now that it has come to Europe and America, "it will get the attention it deserves".

"It always deserved that attention," he adds wryly.

And what about science for the rich countries? That gets entangled in defence spending - which he says acounts for half of all research spending in the developed world.

For Salam, in fact, the real threat of the nuclear arms race is not that it might end in holocaust. It is that swelling defense costs will sap resources needed to combat the rest of humanity's problems. Its a line of argument, he says, elaborated by President Dwight Eisenhour. "Eisenhour made it very clear that every single B-52 bomber that is made in America is depriving not only the poor in the third world, but also Americans of sustenance, of shelter, of aid."

"If Eisenhour were alive, he would be just aghast" at current levels of defense spending and the lack of attention to the developing world. Referring to massive defense spending in the North on the one hand, and to developing world poverty on the other, Salam drives home the connection. "Unless you are conscious that the two problems are connected, and that the developed nations are squandering the wealth of this world - not only the wealth of this world - but also the time and the energies of its scientists and its technologists, which could be used toward bettering humanity - you will never get to grips with "the basic challenge facing the twenty-first century.

But what about the peacetime spin-offs that arise from defense-based research? "The statement that defense expenditures have 'fallout' is rubbish, total rubbish," says Salam flatly. "And the statement that since you invest in 'star wars' you will do your toothpast better is total rubbish."

What's really needed, he says, is not the "fallout" from defense projects but a concentraed effort to study some of the developing world's most pressing problems - starvation, for example. Although he supports the idea of food aid for developing nations, he sees it as only a "shot-term business." The root of the problem is "food deficiency, drought and desertification."

"This is the basic problem to be solved scientifically." But across much of the developing world, he points out, "there are no scientific studies at all of climate and of the underground water situation in the deserts - whether there are undergornd lakes, and so on." The lack of such studies, which are common enough in developed nations, supports his contention that "science for the rich" is something quite different from "science for the poor."

One problem in conducting such studies, however, is that they frequently transcend national boundaries.

For that reason, they fall under Salam's third heading of "global science" - the study of the largest interdisciplinary and international issues concerning the global environment.

On this point he expresses profound pessimism. "There's no such thing as global science as a subject," he complains. Even the disappearence of rain forests, which is commanding increased public attention, is not being considered in global terms. "People do not take rain forest as a global asset," he laments. "People take it as a problem of Brazil, a problem of Malaysia. How many governments are willing to spend money on that sort of thing? None. Zero." The problem is the lack of "the scientific infrastructure to look at global problems."

"Everybody seems to be for himself," he says sadly. "There is no global vision at all. It's the lack of global vision that worries me. really. It's the lack of global vision that is missing in science, that is missing in the food problem, that is missing in the health problem." What is needed is "a vision of a sort that I don't see any statesman having."

From his point as an administrator, Salam says he clearly sees the need for sources of funding that would encourage such globalism. He adds that such funds, if they are to come, will have to come from the developed world. 

But he again rejects as "rubbish" - one of his favourite words - the idea that "if you save funds from nuclear arms limitation, you will put them into welfare of mankind." The temptation will be for the rich countries to simply funnel the savings back into tax relief - "making the rich richer and the poor hungry man's soul sink lower." 

"The whole attitude has to become very different."

And if the "great divide" between the rich and the poor nations is not closed, Salam says that it will be increasingly "hard to ignore the developing countries' problems in the 21st century" for two reasons. First, the North will no longer be able to "insulate itself" politically from the South. If the gap is not narrowed, "what will happen is already happening already in the third world" - turmoil, military governments, unrest and "people on top of each other."

Second, he notes that the worldwide environment "may be affected by lack of attention to the global problems and to scientific globalism."

"In that sense, no parts of the world are going to be safe from the feeling of turmoil. At the moment, it doesn't seem to affect American to have starving Africans at their hands. They may very well say, 'Well, if they want to starve, let them starve.'"

"But I don't think man lives like this," he says. Speaking of rock star Bob Geldof's efforts to raise money for African famine relief, he says, "I think the Geldofs of this world make their point when they show what can be done in a small way."

What, then, does he hope will close the gap? He would like to see industrial nations specialize in providing the scientific training to elevate the developing nations. "For example, higher education may be taken up by Britain and the United States. The Russians may take up lower education. The Japanese and Germans will be asked to do technology."

"That," he concludes, "will be my vision of the future."

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