The power of the few

Andres Ortega
4 October 2007

If globalisation has made the world flatter, it has also fragmented it into crevices, mountains and a myriad of islets. The new media and the standardising technology favor the multiplication and radicalisation of identities. Today, minorities and fringe groups have a global reach. Against the power of the big ones, there is now the power of the few.

Andrés Ortega is an editorial writer and columnist at El País and editor of the spanish-language edition of Foreign Policy.

He is the author of Las fuerza de los pocos (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2007)Man no longer defines himself just by what he produces or how he produces it, nor - apart from some exceptions of a religious nature - by what he consumes. For that reason, and because the human being needs to be different in order to have an identity, other cultural, deeper differences are now much more significant. New media, together with migrations and an ever-increasing urbanisation (in 1800, just 3% of the world's population lived in cities; in 2007, for the first time in history, there are more people in urban centres than in the country), make it possible for such differences - including minorities and radical or fringe groups - to have a global reach. Indian social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls it the eruption of "small numbers". It is the power of the few, that, despite being scattered, often manage to be many, or much.

An end to singularity

This process can also be called the globalisation of differences. Contrary to what some people think, the world has become rougher rather than flatter. At the same time that physical borders are being suppressed, mind-barriers emerge stronger than ever. Along with the world being standardised, it is also being fragmented. In addition, the power of the few benefits from the fact that there is no boss in the world right now. Globalisation runs ungoverned. It is being filled by the few, in a world in which "diversity is not just in faraway lands but right here", in the words of Argentinian anthropologist Néstor García Canclini. That is why we must not speak, as Samuel Huntington does, of a "clash of civilisations", nor indeed of an "alliance of civilisations", because globalisation has stopped being an external affair to become an internal concern of our societies.

In this world without direction, people more than ever need a sense of community, of belonging, of identity. Nationalisms, ethnicisms and religionisms are part of this phenomenon. Some (least frequently) may cling to cosmopolitanism; others, to a rootless identity which they achieve either through the Internet or on satellite, cable and other TV channels. Therein lies the danger for this age and these media: in the construction of rootless identities. While French philosopher Régis Debray argues that one "becomes delocated as fast as he becomes de-historised", German philosopher Jürgen Habermas maintains that there is nothing more dangerous than "building the future as a response to an almost messianic appeal from the past", especially when the latter has been invented.

New media make it easier for immigrants to keep in touch with their societies of origin, which gives them multiple identities, both as a group and as individuals. Against what Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen calls the "illusion of a singular identity", denouncing the "miniaturisation of people" through -isms, it is increasingly common (as the International Organisation for Migration confirms) for people to belong to more than one society throughout their lives and to acquire multiple identities in the process.

A planetary technology

In the global south, approximately 2.5 billion people have more or less regular access to television. While in 1991 there was just one channel in India, nowadays there are hundreds. From the 1960s to the 1990s, globalisation meant largely Americanisation. Over recent years, as many media have become global, westernisation has decreased. See for instance channels like al-Jazeera (now also in English), al-Arabiya or India's Star TV. Thus we find what Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb calls the "Egyptian paradox": as society becomes increasingly Americanised (through the incitement to consumerism and media consumption), the search for specificity becomes more intense and is promoted by those same media, that articulate and convey the difference.

Technology produces the illusion of cultural standardisation even though, in fact, it also favours differences. New media allow for bigger, global distinctions, as well as the creation of new ones. The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca has its own website, available even in Spanish. The Lebanese Shi'a guerrilla group Hizbollah has its own site too, partly in English as well as in Arab. Moroccan television is seen all over Europe, a continent that also has dozens of Kurdish television channels. In Morocco itself, al-Jazeera is the most influential TV station.

openDemocracy writers explore a world transformed by globalisation

David Held, "What are the dangers and the answers? Clashes over globalisation" (11 October 2004) - the concluding essay in a debate involving Anne-Marie Slaughter, Meghnad Desai, Maria Livanos Cattaui, John Elkington, and others

Grahame Thompson, "What is fundamentalism?" (9 March 2006)

Alex MacGillivray, "Wonderful shrinking world" (19 April 2006)

Doreen Massey, "Is the world getting larger or smaller?" (15 February 2007)

Saskia Sassen, " Globalisation, the state and the democratic deficit"(17 July 2007)

Nayan Chanda, " Globalisation: the ties that bind" (7 August 2007)

The very concept of mass-communication media is changing. Besides the traditional ones there is of course the proliferating internet, but we must also take into account phenomena such as Google or Yahoo, YouTube, or even SMS and cell-phone messaging, which are becoming media in their own right. And, while television is mainly an iconic medium, this revolution cannot be understood without another, parallel one: the spreading of literacy at a global level. Today, 82% of the world's adults are literate, compared to 52% in 1950. In fact, we are seeing what the sociologist Howard Rheingold calls a new means of social organisation, with new communication channels and new codes. It is a relational planet, one that now has fewer or almost no intermediaries at every level.

New media facilitate contacts between individuals who have common interests but are far away from each other. And minorities, when added up, do not become majorities, but masses. All this benefits diversity, both at a global and at local scale. Minorities, often pushed aside or excluded from society, have inside them their own communication channels, certainly through radio, sometimes through television, and even on paper and on the internet. There are a lot of local newspapers aimed at immigrants, written in their own languages, from Arabic to Chinese. The latest technologies also strengthen transnational networks, both among traditional diaspora groups such as the Chinese and Lebanese and among new ones coming with the most recent migrations.

At the same time, these groups reinforce the products of civil society and even of some businesses. There is a growing capacity to interact and coordinate, both through organisations (O2O) and person-to-person (P2P) exchanges. It is the napsterisation of politics (to use the name of one of the first companies that created such a system for music exchange among users). Virtual communities and tribes emerge.

An exploding connectivity

What happened in Spain from 11-14 March 2004 - the extraordinary, concentrated period between the Atocha bombings in Madrid, demonstrations by 12 million Spaniards on the street in their aftermath, and the election of a new, centre-left government - is perhaps one of the best examples of this change. New media burst into politics, not to replace the older ones, but to supplement them. The internet with its chatrooms, for one; and at the same time, an explosion of phone messaging that mobilised many people in what someone has named a "day of connection" rather than a "day of reflection". It was not just some urban teenager tribe's resource.

These new communication and organisation tools - plus the multiplying effect of the short appeal, "pass it on" - had already appeared before, in previous mobilisations by phone messaging. For instance, the movement that overthrew the president of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada in January 2001 and made him say that he considered himself defeated by a coup de texte; several cases, from Georgia (2003) to Ukraine (2004) and Lebanon (2005), seem to echo this. The power of the few is also "the power of the ‘we'" as described by Business Week's reporter Rob Hof; it is a change in the power structure that has a bearing on the moment in which the intellectual in the traditional sense goes into crisis and the digital intellectual takes shape.

In our times, "to be is to be connected". We lose some social capital of a certain kind (direct physical contact) and we earn another, different one (virtual, often much more far-reaching contact, mainly in aspects that have to do with leisure, as is to be expected). The new connectivity's big novelty is a double one: how strangers connect massively and how just a few can do the same, so that they become many.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library, an analysis of the implications of P2P electronic networks, indicates that we are living a significant change: from information "oligarchy" to "anarchy" (even though it is not really a new thing, since there is a precedent in the gossip about the royal family during the French revolution). The distribution of Ayatollah Khomeini's tape-recorded messages also helped him in the preparation of Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.

Years ago, Nicholas Negroponte coined the notion of the Daily Me (that could also be TV Me or simply Medium Me), which is the individual's ability to choose the news or the type of news he or she wants to receive, according to his or her tastes or preferences. This can lead people to withdraw themselves into their own beliefs and to avoid the surprises usually delivered by establishment media, which in turn makes it easier to differentiate and more difficult to share experiences. In his book Republic.com, Cass R Sunstein warned about the risk of being exposed only to the news one wants, a trend reinforced by what psychologists call the "unconscious propensity to seek confirmation" of our political or otherwise preferences.

A reviving religiosity

Among such tendencies, religion re-emerges predominantly, once again at the centre of many national and international concerns, in a way that contrasts with the 1970s or 1980s. The tug-of-war between secularising and counter-secularising forces is one of the main subjects in the contemporary sociology of religion. The theory of the inevitability of secularisation is declining, at least for now, in view of the de-secularisation taking place in the world, as sociologist of religion Peter Berger underlines. It is a response to the loss of horizons and sense, to what VS Naipaul desribed as "the void of secular rituals".

The problems are caused by religionisms and fundamentalisms that have achieved or want to achieve a global scope, rather than by religions themselves. Religionism is the attempt to impose or shape public life and politics according to a certain faith or its interpretation: Islamism is a religionism. In fact, the tension between radical and conventional religion has been a feature of nearly every religion. It is born, says Naipaul, from the illusion of religious purity, in a world in which "the rest of us are culturally mixed". Nationalisms, too, can become fundamentalist and usually do. In any case, among fundamentalisms there are a lot of religionisms.

Among young fundamentalists there is an increasing number of converts, both of Islamic and Christian culture. Born-again Christians have a Muslim counterpart (Naipaul was one of the first to talk about born-again Muslims, in 1981) and vice versa, and these converts are radical and fundamentalist when embracing their new beliefs, whether in London, Hamburg or Brussels. Nonetheless, we must not forget that it is only a small portion of those converts that falls into terrorism.

On the whole, these emerging churches or movements are extremely conservative as to sexual morals. This is true both of Muslims and of Christians. In America, participation in established religious groups and rituals has declined in favour of non-traditional ones. In Europe, at least in the Europe that has religious beliefs, there is a similar trend. It is important to note that, in the Christian world, the denominations that have least decreased or most increased in number of followers over the 20th century are the strictest in terms of morality and doctrine.

On the other hand, those who gave some leeway, such as Anglicans and Lutherans in Europe, have a higher rate of defections than Roman Catholics, or Protestant fundamentalists and Evangelicals in America. In Spain, moreover, those movements have been more active in welcoming immigrants than the Catholic church, although this one did make amends after the fact.

A fragmenting diversity

These fundamentalisms and radicalisms take on new strength and scope thanks to the present crisis of values - which, on the other hand, produces an increasing anomie - but also thanks to the possibilities offered them by the new media. Today's world, for all the stated reasons, gives immense opportunities to spread beliefs of this type. These religious interpretations have been able to use globalisation in a time of "diversification of religious production" in the whole world and within many societies. The Fundamentalism Project, a University of Chicago series of works that studies empirical cases, observes how electronic technologies, such as satellite, cable, terrestrial and local television, together with the internet, offer new possibilities for proselytism. These groups use market techniques in order to attract followers to the "market-driven evangelical mega-churches of modern America", in the words of American philosopher Daniel Dennett.

When it comes to the survival of religions or denominations, there is also a certain social Darwinism: the ones that survive and multiply are those that know how to adapt (that is, those most capable of gaining converts and keeping them loyal). Their marketing techniques, their music, their sense of community and the use of television by televangelists are more suited to the new demands. Islam also has well-known TV preachers, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, from Qatar. There are fewer intermediaries now. As Time magazine wrote in June 2003: "God has gone user-friendly". In Spain, televangelists began to show on some local channels several years ago, at first as a directly translated version of the American model and later on in Spanish.

It is not nor it will be easy managing this fragmented diversity. Civilisation, Goethe wrote, is "a permanent exercise in respect. Respect for the divine, for the Earth, for fellow men and therefore for our own dignity". The idea of respect is more promising than that of tolerance. It requires acknowledging the other, the others, and talking with everyone, even with those who seem to be just a few. Talking for talk's sake, some will say. But that is not a small thing. To talk about the differences, from the differences and despite the differences is not easy. However, it must be tried. The point is to live together, rather than to convince or, even less, to convert one another. We are doomed to mix with one another, but not to understand one another.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData