Cultural Critique 61 (2005) 148-185
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Speculations on a New Economy
La Femme Nikita, the Series
Globalization describes capitalism in the age of electronics.
Capitalism in the age of electronics—what I will call, following Benedict Anderson, "electronic-capitalism"1 —entails not only the global extension of the market economy but a fundamental reorientation of social relations characterized by the depoliticization of capitalism and the capitalization of politics. In the United States in particular, the new technologies of communication and information processing have been celebrated as harbingers of a "New Economy" believed to be immune to the laws of capitalism because it more flexibly responds to fluctuations in consumer demand. Technology, enthusiasts contend, has enabled corporations to decentralize their networks of production and distribution, institute "flexible" labor relations, and specialize production and delivery, thereby distributing goods and services to consumers more efficiently. Unlike the older, more sluggish, mass-production economy, this New Economy would evade the crises of overproduction that stall economic growth and achieve virtually unlimited expansion. The benefits would not be restricted to the economy, either. Supporters claimed the new information technologies would also rejuvenate and extend democracy by redistributing "power to the people" (Browning, 1). George Gilder, the "pied piper" of this New Economy, claimed, for example, that new technologies were "hostile to hierarchies, monopolies, industrial bureaucracies, and other top-down systems of all kinds" and would automatically shift power "from mass institutions to individuals," thereby "enlarg[ing] freedom" and democracy (Gilder, 126). Time magazine concurred, declaring the microchip to be the "Dynamo of [the] New Economy" [End Page 148] under whose aegis "technology [would become] a force for democracy and individual empowerment" (Isaacson, 47).
The profound technological determinism that grounded the rhetoric of the New Economy was accompanied by an even more profound "market fundamentalism," which held that "unfettered markets could fairly and efficiently distribute almost all goods and services" (Madrick, 16). Not only were free markets hailed as the only viable mechanism for securing economic growth, especially for developing nations (Friedman, 104–5), they were established as Godlike entities whose machinations were irresistible. Tom Peters, for example, entreated his managerial followers to let "the market's will be done" while former radical Kevin Kelly developed the "Nine Laws of God" to explain the operations of the market in the New Economy (quoted in Frank, 3). Even Newsweek proclaimed that we were "blessed by the Bull [Market]" (Leland, 50). In that this new God was also "voted in" by the people through their consumer choices (Ohmae, xv), government intervention in the market was perceived as both a "sin" and an expression of tyranny (Luttwack, 184). "National government," Wired's John Browning proclaimed, "is no longer the best—or even a very good—instrument for delivering fairness," so "why should the middle classes be forced to give government increasing shares of their income to do inefficiently what they can better do for themselves?" (3, 2). Perhaps the best example of the libratory promise of the free market was Datek's 1999 commercial featuring the storming of the New York Stock Exchange by "radical" private investors—ordinary Janes and Joes, just like us—seeking their piece of the economic pie, not by demanding fair wages or secure employment but by demanding the "right" to invest. The result of the "information revolution," the commercial implied, would be the more equitable distribution of wealth, which would in turn alleviate social inequality and its attendant problems, making government virtually obsolete.
In accordance with the revolutionary spirit of the New Economy, politicians, from Bill Clinton's New Democrats to Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolutionaries, set about redefining the role of government in society. They saw the job of "encouraging market competition" as their primary task (Hundt, 8) and began by eliminating "anticorporate" regulations, taxes, litigation laws, and any social services that undermined the "American values" of "individual responsibility" [End Page 149] and "entrepreneurial free enterprise" (Gingrich, 33). Both parties, fascinated with the decentralized structure of the new technologies of mediation, called for a leaner, meaner...