Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Martha Gimenez (2000) '"Looking Backward" and Not Looking Forward'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

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Received: 23/2/2000      Accepted: 23/2/2000      Published: 29/2/2000

I cannot think of the future 100 years and what the world might be like in the year 2100 without recalling Bellamy's utopian vision of the year 2000. Writing at the turn of the 19th Century, Edward Bellamy described the world in the year 2000 as the antithesis of 19th century capitalism. In his memorable book, LOOKING BACKWARD, he tells the story of a wealthy young New Yorker who wakes up in the year 2000, having been conveniently dug up by an anthropologist who found him in the vault, buried by an earthquake, where he had fallen asleep under hypnosis a hundred years earlier. The year 2000 Bellamy envisioned was a world of justice, equity, and human fulfillment, free from class struggles and other conflicts, where alienated work did not consume the entirety of most people's adult years, and where reason, harmony and happiness prevailed. Despite the problems many found with Bellamy's utopia, his description of this ideal socialist world was so compelling that the book became enormously popular and influential; over one hundred and fifty Bellamy Clubs, dedicated to the discussion of the ideas presented in the book, were created between 1890 and 1891 in the U.S., attesting to the timeliness and political appeal of an egalitarian alternative to the status quo. Had Bellamy lived to experience the horrors and glories of the 20th century, he would have been deeply unhappy and disillusioned, particularly by the effects of the end of the Cold War and the rapidity with which the world capitalist market brought the world under its sway, thus becoming the world's seemingly unavoidable ruler, the master over humanity's fate.

Unlike Bellamy, who posited a golden age by the end of "his" next hundred years, in light of what I see by "looking backward" to the 20th century I cannot look forward to the next century without great misgivings. I am originally from Argentina and have lived little over half of my life in the United States. I have traveled back and forth these past 30 years and have seen, first hand, the devastating effects of neoliberalism, globalization and technological change in a country which was once the "bread basket" of the world and had a relatively large middle strata and a high standard of living.

The contradictions of capitalism might eventually lead to qualitative changes in the mode of production, as Marxist theory predicts and if the world does not self-destruct before that point because of nuclear and/or chemical warfare and/or environmental degradation. But qualitative change towards a different, more egalitarian and "nature friendly" mode of production is a long term possibility whereas, for this "think piece," we are asked to focus only on the next hundred years. This means that, while theory might suggest the possibility of a change for the better in the long distant future, in the short run I can only predict changes for the worst.

What will the next hundred years portend? We are all familiar with the many reports that document the increasing polarization in the distribution of wealth and income that characterizes all countries, particularly the so-called "developing" countries. In Argentina, I have seen in the last 10 years the disappearance, for all practical purposes, of the "middle classes," growth in the proportion of the self-employed (e.g., owners of kiosks, taxicabs, fruit stands, etc.), growth in the proportion of the population below the poverty level, high unemployment and, at the same time, the blossoming of an ostentatiously and outrageously wealthy small political, professional and business elite serving the interests of the five or so conglomerates which dominate Argentina's economic fate. While the rest of the country regresses to the 19th century and even further back because of the plummeting of the standard of living, and worsening of demographic indicators (e.g., infant mortality, maternal mortality, life expectancy, etc.), the capital, Buenos Aires, seems like a different country, where a tiny elite enjoys the standard of living of European and American elites. These drastic changes in social and economic inequality are, with minor variations, replicated in the rest of Latin America and the "developing" world. But 21st century inequality will be qualitatively different and far more resilient because, in addition to what I would call relatively "manageable" inequalities, such as inequality in economic, social, and demographic indicators, there are ever deepening new, "unmanageable" inequalities related to the ongoing revolutionary changes in information and communication technologies which fuel the development of new, non-industrial sources of economic growth, and the economic, cultural and political processes which, while unifying the world (i.e., the phenomena captured in the manifold dimensions of "globalization"), inexorably divide it between the haves and the have nots.

It is the thesis of this "think piece" that it is relatively easier to predict -- with some degree of confidence and within limits given by the dynamics inherent in capitalist relations of production -- some gradual improvements in the "traditional" kinds of inequality such as health, housing, education and income which affect a large proportion of the world's population. It is, however, infinitely more difficult, at least in the short run, to predict improvements in people's access to the new information and communications technologies (ICTs) and the new economic opportunities they entail. The current gap between the information rich and the information poor is exceedingly recalcitrant and difficult to bridge, especially in the less industrialized, debtor countries, because it presupposes the existence of a material and social infrastructure either absent or unevenly provided. This chasm between the small minority who is computer literate and uses the technology for education, business and personal enjoyment, and the rest of the population who has yet to understand what the word email means might be slowly reduced but it is unlikely that it might be substantially narrowed. Overlapping the division between rich and poor countries there is the division between those included in cyberspace and those for whom cyberspace is at best a science fiction concept.

The development of the ICTs presupposes drastic changes in economic organization, in the technical division of labor and the occupational structure, and require not only material conditions such as the availability of electricity, phone lines and a certain level of income to be able to afford computers for personal use but also, more fundamentally, social and subjective conditions such as education, training, and the acquisition of attitudes towards learning that entail a great deal of self-motivation, creativity, capacity for critical thinking, analytical skills and self-reliance.

It is possible to observe the gap between the information rich and poor in the wealthy countries. In the United States, for example, while workers within the emerging economic sector based on the production, circulation, exchange and consumption of information use the ICTs as tools for personal advancement and education, as sources of income and, potentially, economic self-sufficiency and, of course, for amusement and sociability, most people who can afford the ICTs use them for entertainment, sociability and commerce. For the poor and near poor, even though community networks are being created in many cities with the goal to lessen inequality, the ICTs do not make much sense, because they are not integrated into their working and everyday lives. The ICTs, in other words, must become an integral part of people's lives in order to make sense, so that even in a wealthy country like the U.S., their reception is uneven and will most likely remain relatively unchanged in so far as the changing organization of work excludes a substantial proportion of the present generations of workers from the possibility of using the ICTs as anything more than an expensive toy and a way to shop without leaving home.

But unequal access in the industrialized nations is not as fundamental for their economic well being nor as deep as it is in the rest of the world. For example, in Argentina, the nation's capital now boasts of numerous "cybercafes," and numerous listserves bring together the professional and business elites for both fun and work. But for most people the ICTs remain something mysterious, beyond the comprehension of the average person; something which only a tiny proportion of the population knows how to use. The ICTs are creating new social structures, social networks and changes in worldviews and identities from which the vast majority of the world's population is excluded, a division that in some respects mirrors the older divisions between imperialist and colonial states, or core, periphery and semiperiphery states but which is also qualitatively different. Cyberspace is inhabited primarily by business, professional and intellectual elites and by a larger mass of technical workers and ICT users engaged primarily in consumption and amusement. Cyberspace might be "virtual" but it is not less "real" or material in its effects than the social structures that concern social science. Cyberspace is, in this respect, the material base for the development of qualitatively different identities, the space where increasingly self-conscious elite workers and those who rule them and the rest of the world dwell. Those excluded dwell still in the space of nation states, where their need for state intervention to ameliorate the effects of "free trade" and the "free market" grow in inverse relation to the ability and willingness of states to intervene. Exclusion from cyberspace means also exclusion from the benefits of the new economies of information, from the new forms of a acquiring knowledge, from the better paid jobs and economic opportunities that only those with relatively high levels of education and training can avail themselves. It also means the preservation and recreation of national and ethnic identities which seem increasingly anachronistic as the ICTs reorganize the world along qualitatively different divisions and possibilities of being.

As all "developing" states have caved in, in varying degrees, to the pressures from the IMF and the World Bank, privatizing everything that can be privatized, destroying the power of labor unions, and adopting "austerity" policies that further the already existing unequal distributions of wealth an income in order to pay the interest of unpayable debts, it is to me inconceivable to believe that these states will be able, in the next hundred years, to gather sufficient economic resources to lift a substantial proportion of their populations from the dire poverty in which they are sunk today. Given the nature of the material and subjective conditions necessary for the incorporation of those countries in the new economy of information, so that the ICTs become common place among most people, it is unlikely that those conditions can be attained to the degree necessary to place those countries fully into the 21st century. Hence my prediction of deepening inequality for the next century.

But, as Gramsci recommended, "pessimism of the intelligence," a pessimism that leads me to predict one hundred years of deepening and almost intractable inequality, can be combined with "optimism of the will." It could be that these very same changes which lead me to predict a century of greater misery for most of the world's population will themselves create the material and subjective conditions for the emergence of new forms of political organization facilitated by the ICTs. The growth in the strata of highly educated intellectual, technical and professional workers knowledgeable about the social, political, environmental and human costs of globalization has the potential to be the source of the political leadership necessary to organize the workforce inside and outside of cyberspace. I am ending, after all, with an optimistic thought; that the deepening inequality and environmental degradation which are the other face of globalization and the growth of the ICTs have the potential to be also the basis for the emergence of an educated, knowledgeable work force which will eventually be forced, by the eloquent claims of human suffering and world threatening environmental disruptions, to place human survival and the survival of the world above the accumulation of wealth.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000