The second of a two part examination of the relationship between economic globalisation and democracy, with a particular focus on whether the two can co-exist. The first part was published on Saturday the 15th and can be found here.
Technology: a force for democracy?
One way in which economic globalisation has aided national democracy is by facilitating access to technology and in particular forms of mass communication. The greater availability of technology in the developing world has fostered protests and pro-democracy groups, and with it increased popular pressure for democratic reform. In the past political dissent was reliant on easily suppressed methods such as public speaking and producing political literature (the latter of which was not only expensive but also relied on mass literacy, rare in developing nations). It is easy to monopolize traditional forms of media, shut down opposition news outlets and pack what is left with your political allies, in Venezuela 6 of the 7 major media channels are controlled by the government, running only state-run (Chavista’s) accounts of events and political debates. (Schmidt, 2013) Globalisation has transformed mass communication: the internet has democratised communication, it is much easier to set up an internet site than say a newspaper or television station, and by comparison far harder to shut it down. Internet access is now available to even the poorest in LEDC countries, which has been used in previously unprecedented ways to spread information from one corner of a country to another and to coordinate dissent. Tunisia’s revolution in 2011 provided an excellent example of this; 85% of the population has cell phones, one third are on the Internet, and roughly two million are on Facebook. (Ryan 2011) These figures are not evidence of the numerical size of pro-democracy activists, but rather how many people had access to an alternative media that was not vulnerable to overt control by the country’s authoritarian regime. The brutal police crackdown of protests relating to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, supplied online activists with content that bred unrest elsewhere in the country. Social media and mobile phones then allowed much larger protests in the country’s major cities, which ultimately forced the collapse of the previous regime and allowed Tunisia’s transition into democracy. In developing nations therefore, the spread of technology and the mass communication this facilitates through cell phones and the internet has allowed for the protest against and pressure on repressive regimes that is crucial for a country to move to a democracy. Whilst Tunisia’s example of technology allowing for a relatively peaceful transition from totalitarianism to democracy is a rare one (Syria, Libya and Yemen have all collapsed into bloody civil wars) it is unreasonable to see this as a failure of economic globalisation. Rather, the turmoil of these countries is due to a host of socio-economic factors and represents a failure of the international community. In fact, whilst the outlook for these countries is undeniably bleak in the short term, at the end of the civil wars there is at least hope that the negotiated peace will involve at a minimum a move towards democracy.
Technology: a threat to democracy?
However there are some ways in which the mass availability of technology made available by economic globalisation has been used to hinder and delay democracy in the developing world. Though undemocratic regimes have in the past tried to deal with the threats to their authority posed by dissenting media by suppression, with the Internet they have attempted a more cunning and potentially more potent approach. Rather than simply shutting down the Internet to prevent opposition sentiment from gaining a foothold, regimes have now attempted to dominate this new media, using their vast resources to flood sites with their own propaganda. China has taken the idea of a digital Big Brother to a new level, with their planned system of Social credit. (FlorCruz, 2015) The scheme would use peoples’ financial decisions and moral actions to determine their ‘score’, which according to policy documents could lead low scorers to be sanctioned, losing access to social security, and certain high-end jobs, hotels and restaurants. Under a preliminary scheme run by a subsidiary of the Chinese tech giant Alibaba, not only do people who pay taxes late or get traffic tickets have a lower score, but certain online shopping habits can cost you as well. Excessive video game playing will label you as idle and lower your score, whilst buying diapers will label you a responsible parent and raise it. What is particularly worrying about the scheme is that it is believed it will soon be used to breed political, as well as social, obedience. In the future scoring would be linked to online political actions: social media posts of articles from dissenting sites or posts about Tiananmen Square will lower scores, whilst sharing articles from government outlets will raise it. What is even more frightening are potential plans to have lower scoring friends bring a person’s score down, inevitably leading to dissenters becoming marginalized within society. Without the ability to peacefully spread media at odds with authoritarian regimes it seems highly unlikely that a gradual move towards democracy, let alone a revolution to force it, could occur.
Economic globalisation has not just brought electronic mass communication to the developing world; it has also transformed Western countries and made the everyday lives of their citizens increasingly centred on technology. A crucial aspect of economic globalisation has been that products are designed in and marketed to the rich West, but built at a far lower cost in the developing world, particularly East Asia. This has allowed vast leaps forward in the development of electronic products, and for these products to be offered cheap enough that they have become ubiquitous in the rich world, and as such have become a crucial way to receive news. In America, 72% and 75% of adults use their mobile phones and computers, respectively, to get their news. (Mitchell,2016) As such, the potential for foreign agents to manipulate, via technology, our intake of news represents a grave threat to democracy. Whilst it is highly unlikely that this alone will cause deep-rooted democratic institutions to disappear, without access to an accurate understanding of events in our country and in the wider world, it is impossible to make legitimate democratic decisions. Russia has been at the forefront of such efforts and has focused vast resources on attempting to influence the spread of information, and thus the results of elections across the West in its favour. Though its attempts to swing the election in favour of Marine Le Pen in France where unsuccessful, in the United States it was a very different story. In the 2016 Presidential election, the Russian government decided that it favoured Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton, and thus focused its power on ensuring his victory. Anti-Clinton fake news articles, the use of the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet Russia Today (RT), and the hacking and later dissemination via WikiLeaks of Democratic National Committee and Clinton camp emails were all used to ensure Donald Trump’s victory. It also now appears that then FBI director James Comey’s decision to make the public announcement regarding the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s use of a private email sever whilst Secretary of State, which then triggered a chain of other FBI actions that many now see as having helped Trump win the presidential election, was based on a fake Russian document. It is impossible to know just how important Russia’s involvement was in deciding the result, but given that just 114,000 votes in the right states could have handed Clinton a victory, it is safe to say that it could have been a deciding factor. (Scott 2016) Economic globalisation’s part in vastly expanding the usage and significance of electronic devices in the West thus presents a genuine threat to, if not the survival of established national democracies, then certainly their legitimacy in the face of foreign meddling. The real threat is to younger democracies, where there is more chance of a foreign intervention altering the result in favour of parties sympathetic to the foreign power, parties that also tend to be less enthusiastic about democracy.
It is clear that to some extent economic globalisation and democracy will always be at odds with one and other. In the pursuit of maximum profits, the immensely powerful multi-national corporations that economic globalisation spawns will inevitably try to influence politics and thereby undermine democracy. The impact this has when enormous private companies carry out the core functions of government not only grants them too much power; it critically undermines the accountability of a government to its citizens. Technology too, having been put at the reach of so many across the globe by economic globalisation, threatens democracy. In authoritarian regimes it can be used to crush advocates of elected government, whilst in established democracies it can be used by foreign powers to manipulate voters. However, it would be wrong to conclude that economic globalisation and democracy are incompatible; as this essay has sought to explain, globalisation has aided the spread of democracy and the two can and should exist alongside each other. Whether this can happen depends on the willingness of governments and their citizens to introduce safeguards and reforms.
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