May 6th 2000

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Articles from this issue:

RURAL: Wheat industry needs market support sche

EDITORIAL: Regulating the casino economy

CANBERRA OBSERVED: PM moves to "reinvent" the Coalition

LABOR RELATIONS: Privatised workers win in Federal Court

WELFARE REVIEW: Less welfare, fewer recipients?

TRANSPORT: How Government policy is sinking Australia's shipping industry

INDUSTRY POLICY: Ten point plan for industry recovery

Batlow: another country town faces extinction

LIFE ISSUES: Anzac, Easter, and Baby J



GLOBALISATION: How technology and deregulation put society at risk

HEALTH:What's happened to blood supply safety?

FAMILY: Are we producing a generation of hyperactive zombies?

CUBA: Should Elian Gonzalez be returned to Cuba?

AFRICA: Zimbabwe violence discredits Mugabe

VIDEO: Thriller romp through mythical age

BOOKS: Alistair Cooke: the biography, by Nick Clarke

Books: The re-education of old Donald: 'Into the Open: Memoirs 1958-1999', by Donald Horne

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How technology and deregulation put society at risk

by Bob Browning

News Weekly, May 6, 2000
Bob Browning explains how the deregulationist policies of economic rationalism lead to high risk societies that challenge the legitimacy of democratic governments. He predicts that the backlash will produce a second wave of international re-regulation. Bob Browning's previous writings are on

More people are worrying that governments are becoming less able to protect them, at times even unwilling to do so. The main preoccupation of post-Cold War governments seems to be with liberating corporations and capital from "rigidities" and regulatory "impediments" to wealth creation and economic growth. Governments are less intent on ensuring that the powerful forces unleashed by neo-liberal globalisation are held democratically accountable for risks they impose on others. Some of these risks are mega-risks.

There is increasing public awareness of the risks created by the new economy and the associated rapid commercial deployment of complex new technology in a time of deregulation, privatisation and transnational corporatisation.

Widespread insecurities range from fear of unemployment and financial difficulty, to unease over possible health hazards from today's technology-permeated environment. Rising concern over genetically modified food is just one example.

Public awareness is also increasing that governments are facilitating the transfer of more power over their lives to the chief executive officers (CEOs) of multinational corporations and the managers of global capital funds.

The essence of neo-liberal strategy is to put capital and big business outside the arena of politics - in other words, to put far-reaching big business decision-making beyond the reach of democratic intervention. Under neo-liberalism, democratisation of the economy allegedly occurs through the market. Consumer sovereignty is allegedly more effective than voter national sovereignty, when it comes to economic governance.

But not everybody is convinced by economic rationalist reassurances that enlightened self-interest and competition are all society needs to ensure that financial and corporate management act reliably in the public interest. The history of much recent corporate behaviour does little to inspire confidence. Enough disaster scenarios are planted in the public consciousness to make people wary.

Mad Cow Disease in farm stock, and associated BSE deaths among British beef consumers, stick to the public image of agribusiness and its factory farming. River system poisonings like those in Hungary and New Guinea recently, have damaged the reputation of the mining industry. Chernobyl and Bhopal do the same for the nuclear and chemical industries. Many such widespread disasters derive from unforeseen and unintended consequences of earlier decisions. Others involve negligence, or even the propensity to act against the public interest in pursuit of bottom lines. Most would consider the tobacco industry an example.

Such images undermine public confidence, but it is often left to narrowly focused green, environmental and consumerist groups to give active voice to the growing public concern.

Dr Gyorgy Scrinis, a technology sociologist from Melbourne University and Australian spokesman for Friends of the Earth, spoke for more than that organisation in The Age recently (April 14, 2000) when he called attention to the new "chemical-industrial agriculture" and its use of an "increasingly complex cocktail of herbicides". He charged agribusiness with being "all about finding ways to maintain and expand large-scale, chemical-intensive, monoculture, farming systems".

But the ultimately unavoidable political question is: who decides whether the risks associated with industrial-chemical and genetic engineering agriculture are real? In this time of radical deregulation, who decides whether people are to be submitted to mega-risks, perhaps without their knowledge, let alone their consent?

Who knows enough, for example, to guarantee that genetic alterations to crops and livestock will not spread to other crops, or weeds, or humans, with undesirable consequences, as with BSE? Or that crops "modified" to produce pesticides will not also harm beneficial organisms? Or that artificial changes to crops will not adversely affect the nutritional value, chemical content, or allergenic properties of the new food processed from them?

The bio-tech industry claims that genetically engineered and chemical-industrial crops are needed to feed a growing, hungry world. But producing more food does not in itself ensure that the poor will be well fed. Surpluses already exist. Some farmers in the West have to be paid not to produce. The push for genetically engineered mass food production, as Scrinis reminds us, is more about "the expansion of large-scale, chemical and capital-intensive, labor-replacing, corporate-controlled and export-orientated agriculture". Only the rhetoric is about helping the poor.

Ulrich Beck, Professor of Sociology at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, has made a particular study of the combined risk impact of the new economy and technology on society and governance. His latest work, World Risk Society (Polity Press, 1999) argues that coping with mega-risk will be a defining characteristic of 21st century society. He explores mega-risks from the nuclear, chemical, genetic engineering and other high-tech industries. But he also investigates who makes the decisions that open-ended risks be taken by other people, and who decides how the "bads" as well as the "goods" of the new economy and technology will be distributed.

Among the "bads" that Beck examines are "wealth-driven ecological destruction and technological-industrial dangers". There are also "poverty-driven bads". Perhaps the best known example is the felling of the tropical rainforests. Some 17 million hectares are currently being lost every year. Health effects of forest burning in Indonesia have directly affected Singapore and Malaysia.

Other "bads" flow directly from economic policy, as well as from technological applications.

Beck says: "All around the world, at the same time, fragile work increases rapidly, that is part-time, self-employed work, limited-term jobs and other forms for which we have barely found proper descriptions. If this dynamic continues, in ten to fifteen years, about half the employable population of the West will work under conditions of uncertainty."

Beck notes how "flexibility" is demanded everywhere. But what does that euphemistic concept, beloved of the neo-liberals, actually imply?

"Flexibility" also means a redistribution of risks from state and economy to individuals. The jobs available become more and more short-term and "renewable" - which is to say, "terminable". People are just asked to smile and accept it: "Your skills and abilities are obsolete, and no one can tell you what to learn so that you will be needed in the future". Consequently, the more work relations are "deregulated" and "flexibilised", the faster the work society turns into a risk society that is not open to calculation by individuals or by politics.

Public awareness of the risks that others are forcing them to take often comes after the event. People are presented with a corporate fait accompli, not a democratic choice.

Beck thinks the combination of laissez-faire deregulation and at-will commercial deployment of technology puts our conventional defensive strategies under pressure. At the threshold of the 21st century, he argues, we are trying to handle the challenges of genetic, chemical and atomic technology with concepts and recipes derived from the early industrial society of the 19th and 20th centuries. Legal liability, damages and insurance payouts are not up to protecting or compensating multitudes, including future generations, for the sort of devastation the new mega-risks can wreak.

Beck explores what needs to be done and what can and cannot be done to bring mega-risk decision-making back within the democratic system, and looks at updated risk management processes. "Risk always involves the question of responsibility", he says. "So the need for 'responsible globalisation' becomes a world-wide public and political issue."

The "social explosiveness" of global financial and technological risks is already setting off "a dynamic of cultural and political change that undermines bureaucracies, challenges the dominance of classical economics and neo-liberalism, and redraws the boundaries and battlefields of contemporary politics. New options are emerging: national and regional protectionism, transnational institutions and democratisation".

With the new political economy of uncertainty, much political debate over the past 20 years has centred on the decline in the power and legitimacy of government and the need to renew the culture of democracy. In Beck's view, the recent wave of neo-liberal national deregulation will eventually necessitate a second wave of transnational regulation. Rising consciousness of shared risk will provide a powerful base for new political communities that will cross national boundaries.

Global capitalism will breed global citizens. Transnational activist groupings, multinational parties and trade unions, and new political platforms will evolve for the negotiation and enforcement of transnational issues from below.

In Beck's world-risk society, industrial projects can help, but become political ventures. The emerging risk society will demand "an opening of the decision-making process, not only of the state but of private corporations and the sciences as well. It calls for institutional reform of those 'relations of definition', the hidden power structure of risk conflicts. This could ... help to construct a better developed public sphere in which the crucial questions of value that underpin risk conflicts can be debated and judged.“

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