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Political Economy Of Global Communication: An Introduction

Political Economy Of Global Communication: An Introduction

by Peter Wilkin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745314068
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 09/20/2001
Series: Human Security in the Global Economy Series
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x (d)

About the Author

Peter Wilkin is a reader in Communication and Media at Brunel University and has written a number of books on international relations.

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Understanding Human Security

Human Security and International Relations

The idea of human security is both a continuation of established themes as well as being a new development in global politics (Heinbecker, 1999: 1). Its concern with human needs means that it is part of a well-recognised debate in the history of political thought and practice that has centred upon the issue of need satisfaction as being in some way intrinsic to the 'good society'. This idea of the 'good society' is a theme that connects all strands of political economy, whether liberal, socialist or mercantilist (Mosco, 1996; Gilpin, 1987: Chapter 9). The meaning of human security is a strand of contemporary debate about issues of global social justice and is in part connected to the work of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which examines a range of indicators on an annual basis as a means to evaluate the state of global human development, published as the Human Development Report. In particular, it lists seven main categories for human security: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political (O'Neill, 1995: 9). The 1994 Human Development Report stated that 'human security is a universal concern. There are many threats that are common to all people, rich and poor alike, but their interacting may differ from one part of the world to another' (UNDP, 1994: 22). Beyond that the idea connects with recent debates in international relations that have sought to challenge orthodox accounts of security which have tended to prioritise the centrality and primacy of the nation-state as the necessary foundation for political organisation (Heinbecker, 1999; Bain, 1999; Burchill, 1996: Chapter 1; Baylis and Smith, 1997: Chapter 9; Smith, 1995; Halliday, 1994: Introduction and Chapter 1). What I intend to do in this book is to examine one particular strand of thought with regard to human security: its relationship to ongoing developments in global communication. The issue of global communication raises many important questions for human security and the satisfaction of needs that connect different areas of human existence: the political, the economic and the cultural.

In the remainder of this chapter I want to turn my attention to a number of preliminary matters that will help to frame the ensuing analysis. A brief introduction to the concept of human security is followed by an initial examination of the way in which it is tied to issues of communication and in particular ongoing developments in global communication. These issues raise important methodological points for an understanding of global politics. Although this book is not a theoretical study per se, it is worth elaborating on a few of these points if only to clarify for the reader the assumptions that underpin the work. Finally, in this introductory section I tie the question of human security to the wider questions of politics, communication and ideas of progress that lie at the heart of much recent discussion of these issues, that is, to what extent are we moving towards a more cosmopolitan global order, structured in significant part by the means of communication (Moisy, 1997: 78; Habermas, 1999: 1-2)? However, I want to begin by giving a concise overview of the idea of human security and its relationship to concerns with global communication.

Defining Human Security

The idea of human security reflects in part the work and ideas articulated by the UNDP which, through a series of annual reports, has sought to outline a comprehensive overview of key indicators of human development on a global scale. Utilising the skills of a range of economists, social scientists and other figures, it has sought to outline a vision for the future of humanity which tries to adopt

... a broad approach to improving human well-being that would cover all aspects of human life, for all people, in both high-income and developing countries, both now and in the future. It went far beyond narrowly defined economic development to cover the full flourishing of all human choices. It emphasised the need to put people – their needs, their aspirations and their capabilities – at the centre of the development effort. And the need to assert the unacceptability of any biases or discrimination, whether by class, gender, race, nationality, religion, community or generation. [Streeton, 1999: 16-17]

In so doing the UNDP has brought into the public arena the issues that underpin the project of human security. In some respects this repeats themes that have been laid down in the postwar period by such international institutions as UNCTAD and UNESCO. It should be stressed that the meaning of human security does not entail the removal of all threats or risks to human life and activity. Such a goal would require institutions of such sweeping power and reach that the infringement to human liberty would be self-evident (Hayek, 1944: Chapter 9). However, human security does emphasise two particular themes that are central to the idea of a world order based upon some consensus as to the meaning of social justice. First, the satisfaction of human needs should be central to the way in which we seek to organise our political, economic and cultural institutions and practices. Second, an integral aspect of human security is the attainment of human autonomy and the possibility of meaningful participation in the institutions and procedures that shape political, economic and cultural life. The second point is important, as it is quite conceivable that more secure social orders could be established in which material needs are provided for by a political system that is dictatorial, whether benevolent or otherwise. To some extent, the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe were representative of such a political system. If social justice is to be a viable goal and feature of international political institutions, then freedom must be a factor that is central to such debates. For legitimate political, economic and cultural practices to be established that link local, national, regional and global relations, it is crucial that the uncoerced participation of autonomous individuals and groups is a foundation for such a system. Such a process is, of course, both ambitious and complex but the need for the democratisation of the institutions that shape our current world order is already a part of the rhetoric of political life (Held, 1995; Potter, 1997; Habermas, 1999). For autonomy to be attained it is crucial that people have the resources needed in order to make rational choices about their lives that they are subsequently able to act upon. Thus autonomy is about both agency and the participation and control that people can exercise over the institutions, resources and practices that shape their lives. I will consider these questions in more detail in Chapter 2.

Human security, then, is a concern with 'the good society', a familiar theme from political economy and one which recognises that it is not enough for the array of local, national, regional and global institutions (the four levels of world order) that shape our lives to satisfy human needs alone. It is also necessary that we have the capacity to influence these structures, procedures and institutions in a meaningful way. Thus human security concerns itself with the maximisation of human needs satisfaction and the type of institutions and procedures that would be appropriate for this. This point is at the heart of a great deal of contemporary political controversy as a range of regional and global institutions in recent decades have expanded their power and reach in ways that would seem to render them increasingly unaccountable to ordinary citizens (Held, 1995). This point is illustrated by ongoing global political concern over such developments as the completion of the last GATT Round, the role of the new World Trade Organization in international political economy, the currently stalled Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), the role of the G7 and NATO in world order (Kobrin, 1998). Equally, the movement towards regional institutional structures has created a number of problems for democracy as accountability and the trust of electorates appears to have been stretched too far; this is evidenced by a number of developments in both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the European Union (Elliot and Atkinson, 1998: Chapter 5). In the European Union, for example, the Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene secured executive powers to raise taxes, cut social security budgets and set wage levels without prior consultation in order to meet the criteria laid down by the Maastricht Treaty for joining the single currency (Bates, 1998). Such a trend is far from unique as was evidenced by the manoeuvres undertaken by the Clinton administration in order to minimise opposition from trade unions and their representatives over the congressional vote on the ratification of the NAFTA treaty (Chomsky, 1994).

Security and the Study of International Relations

It is apparent that in the past 15 years international relations as an academic discipline has undergone a significant shift in terms of the range of theories and ideas given expression. As Michael Mann has commented in a polemical vein, this proliferation of theorising often takes place at the expense of detailed empirical research and in a more worrying way can act only to distance academic study from any potentially wider or more popular audience (Mann, 1996). That said, there is merit in clarifying one's key theoretical premises, if only to give the reader a clearer understanding of the grounds from which the writer is working. Thus, it is not my intention to fall into Mann's trap but merely to highlight a few of the more important debates and issues here before turning to the empirical questions raised by my overriding concern with human security and global communication.

Conventionally, security as a concept in international relations has been concerned with the nation-state and inter-state relations. In a critical commentary, Booth defines the orthodox conception of security in theory and practice as:

... traditional security thinking, which has dominated the subject for half a century, has been associated with the intellectual hegemony of realism. This traditional approach has been characterised by three elements: it has emphasised military threats and the need for strong counters; it has been status quo oriented; and it has centred on states. [Booth, 1991: 318]

Working from such a premise, the interpretation of international relations is from its inception circumscribed and directed toward a narrow range of actors and their predetermined interests. In this sense it is the 'national interest' that is primary and the concern with 'national security' that is said to shape the behaviour of all statespeople in the international system, regardless of their particular ideologies or beliefs (Waltz, 1979; Kennan, 1966; Talbott, 1996). The demands of an anarchic international system compel socialists, communists and capitalists alike to follow preordained patterns of behaviour that led one noted scholar in the field to ask the understandable question, 'Are wars beyond our control – akin to earthquakes in the natural environment?' (Waltz, 1959: 1).

Given that this is not a text concerned with extended debates on theories of international relations I do not want to dwell too long on this particular issue, but it is in order to mention a few salient points here that help to clarify why human security is pitched against orthodox conceptions of security on many levels.

Simplicity and Complexity

Orthodox accounts of security have had scientific aspirations and present a simplified picture of global politics for precisely that reason. As Waltz defines it, being scientific means constructing theories that have four qualities: isolation (of variables); abstraction (international politics from all other factors); aggregation, and idealisation (of models of the international system) (Waltz, 1979: 10). As Waltz says, such an understanding of theory in the social sciences leads to the following assumptions: 'A theory cannot fit the facts or correspond with the events it seeks to explain. The ultimate closeness of fit would be achieved by writing a finely determined description of the world that interests us ... A theory can be written only by leaving out most matters that are of practical interest' (Waltz, 1995: 75). For Waltz and others there are only a discrete range of actors and variables that count in any theory of international politics if it is to be productively powerful in its theoretical aims. For the orthodox view of security and the primacy of the nation-state, issues of domestic politics are separated from an explanation of the behaviour of states in international relations. The pressures of the anarchic system itself shape the behaviour of states in the most significant way. A neat, simple, scientific theory will aim to give a thorough and quantifiable explanation of what drives the behaviour of states in an anarchic international system, structured by a balance-of-power mechanism.

However, the aspirations of this particular model of scientific explanation of international relations are fundamentally flawed for a variety of reasons that I set out briefly here.


Such allegedly scientific models of international relations are curiously ahistoric, seeming to pay no significant heed to developments in human history that fall outside the very narrow range of variables deemed significant by orthodox international relations theory. As Waltz has commented, 'the texture of international politics remains highly constant, patterns recur, and events repeat themselves endlessly. The relations that prevail internationally seldom shift rapidly in type or in quality' (1979: 66). The idea that an explanation of international relations can exclude matters such as the rise and spread of classes, religion, culture, political ideology, industrialisation and capitalism is a consequence of a method which claims to have located the timeless variables of international politics. The limitations of such behavioural analyses are well recognised in social theory, failing, as they do, to draw out the fact that human practices are meaningful actions, not simply meaningless behaviour. When agents act, they are not solely compelled by external forces to a predetermined end but are acting to a greater or lesser degree in response to their reasons, goals, ideologies, ambitions and all of those intentional characteristics that serve to distinguish human beings from other species. A behavioural analysis that aims for such scientific simplicity can attain this only by leaving out of its explanations all of the very things that should be of interest to us if we are trying to understand particular events and general tendencies in human affairs.


These scientific models of international relations are reductive in their account of political life. By this I mean that they claim to have located the apparently unchanging essential properties of politics that enable us to focus our analysis of international relations upon these few discrete variables alone. By focusing upon issues of state power (largely military), anarchy (the absence of any world government to impose international law and order), the balance of power (alliance blocs between states) and the separation of international from domestic politics when explaining the behaviour of states in international relations, such accounts present us with a thin view of human history that is limited in its explanatory power for reasons that I will turn to shortly. The state is seen as the largely unchanging and central actor in international relations. As a consequence, the meaning of the state and its historical development and variety is largely (notoriously) under-examined. In addition, our analysis of political life is reduced to a focus upon a few abstract properties that leave out the true complexity of human affairs (Griffiths, 1992). The implications of what an anarchic system will lead to are presented in a priori fashion by most realists and liberals alike. Because they ground their analysis in a view of human nature seen as being driven by rational, self-interested individuals pursuing power to make themselves secure, it is hardly surprising that they deduce that international relations will, out of necessity, be a violent and dangerous realm. There is, of course, no a priori reason as to why the absence of a world government should force us into conflict with each other, but that is not the point. The point is to offer an explanation that justifies the behaviour of states, not one that explains it. The latter would focus upon the social relations that underpin political and economic institutions, procedures and structures at the four levels of world order. These raise questions of social power and conflict between classes as well as other social groups, and interestingly are rarely discussed in mainstream international relations.


Excerpted from "The Political Economy of Global Communication"
by .
Copyright © 2001 Peter Wilkin.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables, vii,
Acknowledgements, ix,
Introduction, 1,
1. Understanding Human Security, 4,
2. Towards a Global Communications Industry, 24,
3. Human Security and Global Communication – Into the Twenty-First Century, 53,
4. Public Sphere, Private Power – The Limits to Autonomy and Human Security, 83,
5. Building the Perfect Beast: The Information Society Revealed, 96,
6. Global Communication, Human Security and the Challenge to the Public Sphere, 125,
Notes, 136,
Bibliography, 145,
Index, 160,

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