Global Transformations (1995)

Sohail Inayatullah

Abstract Sohail Inayathullah examines the changing concepts of nature and technology in an essay on global structural transformations. He argues that the nation, the local, and the global capitalist system are in the midst of a dramatic structural transformation pointing to massive shifts in identity, economy and governance. He suggests ways for these changes resulting from current imbalances to lead to away from global depression  to global transformation.

Something I learned many years ago from cultural historian William Irwin Thompson is that all scholarship is autobiographical, so let me begin with my biases. Born in Pakistan and raised in Europe and Asia, with the last two decades in Hawaii, my approach to issues is often global.  Having never lived in one place for long, and having seen human suffering in all places, I focus more on transformation than stability.

I see us going through three layers of transformation: (1) epistemic transformation in how we know the world, nature and ourselves, (2) structural transformation of the world political and economic system, and (3) short-term crisis. Let us first examine the current,  short-term crises.

Current Crises

The short-term crises include dramatic shortages of drinking water for the majority of the world. Of course, for those who live in that part of the world,  who cares? The crisis will become one–as with all crisis–once the western middle-class cannot find clear water to drink. We can anticipate water wars. The reasons for this crisis is our industrial lifestyle as well as the view that big is better.

The second crisis is intergenerational.  While caucasians at the end of the 19th century represented 50 percent of the world’s population, by the middle of the 21st century,  they will represent less than 10 percent. Quite a turn around. For example, in California, it will soon be 50/50 caucasian/hispanic-asian. However, the caucasian population will be mostly older and employed while the hispanic will be younger and unemployed. California’s scenario will be globally played out, with the Third World being young and the First World being old. Age wars (conflated with race, wealth and geography) is the forecast if presents trends continue. To survive we will need cultural and economic systems that see people as resources, who can physically, mentally and spiritually contribute to society, and not as unemployed dregs that only consume valuable non-renewable resources.

The third crisis is transformations in China, possibly through its breakup, the Balkanization of the Great Wall, if you will. This could lead to a south-west Muslim China, a Northern communist China and a south-east capitalist China. Alternatively,  China could continue to internally consolidate its power, and have occasional forays outward–Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even India could be under threat.

Structural Transformations


At a deeper level are structural transformations to the interstate system, in predatory capitalism, and global governance.  While the nation state has not withered away, certainly it cannot claim the allegiance it once had.  Neither pollution nor capital respect state boundaries. International organisations, regional associations, and world treaties and unions become daily more important. It appears it is only the passport office that can manage to protect local conditions from globalism.  For even as capital is free to travel worldwide, labour must still pay for airline tickets and visa fees. And if one is from impoverished areas, then travelling upwards to OECD nations is all but impossible save for a select few with skills needed in the First World.

The nation-state, while once an elegant solution to tribalism, to difference, has only managed to delay the issue of larger governance system.  Unities exist in the context of an unequal global interstate system.  Democracy, liberalism, and individuality might be fine nationally but certainly are too radical globally.  Nations might have order within but anarchy is still prevalent outside of them.

The challenge then is to move to a new systemic level, a bifurcation to global  governance.  Unfortunately, in this post-communist period, instead of becoming increasingly open and transforming to a new level of unity, we have regressed, slinked back to tribalism. Local leaders have used past wrongs, the fear of the Other, as a ruse to consolidate power.  Barbarism has come back with a vengeance, making many wish for the stability of nation-states, however inequitable they can be to local communities, to minorities. A police-state after all is stable.

The paradox is that the economy is now global but politics remains national.  Activism at the level of the nation-state in changing human conditions is difficult since labour and ideas are bounded. Leftist, green, and other transformative strategies do not succeed at the national level since nations merely export their problems.  Reducing deforestation in one nations merely means that corporations move to another country. As Hazel Henderson writes: ‘Countries with well-regulated, human labour markets and social safety are uncompetitive as corporate employers move out.’  To tame capital, labour must become global, or localism must become strengthened. However, localism, while somewhat able to deal with issues of community, identity, can also be contaminated by racism. Difference is not tolerated since community is culturally or racially defined.

Globalism, on the other hand, commodifies difference using it to continue the march of capital.  Ideas appear to be free, as information gurus want us to believe, however, ideas often flow directly from the West to the South, it is rare that flows of news, entertainment, and significance both ways.  We do not have dialogical relations. This does not mean that their cosmologies exist in isolation to each other; rather, travel, international conferencing, ‘development’ the lure of western education and the flux of yogis, sufis, and zen roshis westward, all have began to create cultural fusion at many levels, beginning the irreversible (let us hope) process of creating a global civil/spiritual society.  However, while not successful at a grand system level, the counter-culture movements–the anti-capitalist movements, the non-governmental organisations—have began to threaten the citadel of continued economic growth, have began to call into question the universality of the West and of the tyranny in the Third World, that is too easily passed off as post-colonial socialist critique.

Emerging crisis in predatory capitalism

Capitalism, historically successful, because of its ability to adapt, to create destruction, is in the midst of moral crisis.  Capitalism is based on the belief that hard work leads to rewards. That if there is inequality it can be explained by effort. Those who are poor are lazy. This link between work and success is being undone at many levels.  At the level of the stock markets, the question remains, why work when riches can be earned on the speculative markets, through gambling?  Global casino capitalism has begun to undo the moral basis of capitalism. Social movements concerned with justice have undone the positive contributions of greed and have undone the importance of wealth accumulation. Without the moral justification for capitalism, it will collapse as an organising system.

Economist Ravi Batra also argues that the system will collapse but for different reasons. He believes that as more and more money goes into speculative markets, it is only a matter of time before the system collapses. The ratio of the financial economy to the real economy begins to widen– indeed, currently 90 percent of the trillion dollar daily markets are speculative not trade or investment-based–leading to unsustainable (and false) growth. The communist solution, of course, was not much better. Then, the State pretended to pay and labour pretended to work.  In comparison, Third World bureaucracies suffer from a deficit of moral capital.  Why work hard and save when jobs are given to those with the correct genetic connections or those close to the ruling junta. Corruption, while easily rationalised, as a filing fee, devalues a culture’s self-worth, leading to deficit of the soul (and to the rise of the religious right).

The global financial system merely fuels greed and inequity, not development, and not challenge. The result is a global economic and cultural imbalance.  What is needed is not a recovery of the relationship between greed and growth but the creation of a world cooperative economy, where agricultural, industry and services are balanced, where wealth between regions is better balanced, where moral stories of cooperative behaviour have as much currency as stories of instant ‘scratch and win’ millionaires. The nation, the local, and the global capitalist system, while apparently eternal are in the midst of a dramatic structural transformation.  These changes on the daily level often go unnoticed but taken together they point to massive shifts in identity, economy and governance.  Let us hope that changes that result from grand imbalances do not lead to a global depression but a global transformation.

Global Governance

The final level of structural transformation are changes in global governance. With the bi-polar world less possible now–unless China remerges and claims superpower status in opposition to Europe and the US, the possibilities are either for a world with many hegemons or a system of global governance. The many hegemon system will see the US as a major player continuing to spread its influence over the rest of the Americas (and the world); in addition, we will see Europe over Africa; India over South-Asia, Japan over South-East Asia; and China over itself (however defined).  Alternatively, the crisis of the nation-state and capitalism could see the development of a world government in the form of a new United Nations.  Johan Galtung argues for a four house system: a house of nations, a house of corporations, a house of social movements and a house of individuals, direct democracy. Houses would be interlocked with the house of nations gradually weakening as zones of identity move from nation to globe.  Central to this model is the realisation of a new type of leadership, of a spiritual/servant leadership and of legal accountability of current State leaders.  Transparency International and other movements are partly about this, the spread of a worldwide accountability movement.  We certainly cannot be sure which direction the world capitalist system will head in, however, along with the nation-state, it appears in terminal crisis.

Epistemic Transformations

What is occurring is a fundamental change in how we know ourselves.  To begin with, technology is redesigning human evolution itself.  Susantha Goonatilake’s metaphor of technology bypassing culture to recreate the lineage of evolution is fitting.  Imagine a hand, he asserts, wearing a glove, writing with a pen. The hand represents the stability of evolution, our body constant over time; the glove represents culture, our meaning systems, our protection, our method of creating shared spaces and creating a difference between us and nature; and the pen, technology, representing our effort to create, to improve, to change culture and nature. While the traditional tension was between technology and culture with evolution ‘stable’, now the pen (technology) has the potential to turn back on the hand and redesign it, making culture but technique, a product of technology. Thus the traditional feedback loop of culture and technology with biology the stable given is about to be transformed. Equally stunning are the potential impacts of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and robotics.

There are four levels to this epistemic transformation. The first is: transformations in what we think is the natural or Nature.  This is occurring from the confluence of numerous trends, forces, and theories.  Genetics contests the biological order. Soon it may be possible to produce children in factories. With the advent of the artificial womb, women and men as biological beings will be secondary to the process of creation. The link between sexual behaviour and reproduction will be torn asunder.

But it is not just genetics which changes how we see the natural, theoretical positions arguing for the social construction of nature also undo the primacy of the natural world.  Nature is not seen as the uncontested category, rather humans create natures based on their own scientific, political and cultural dispositions. We “nature” the world. Nature is what you make it. There is no longer any state of nature. Eco Feminists point out that they have been constructed by men as natural with men artefactual. By being conflated with nature, as innocent, they have had their humanity denied to them and tamed, exploited, and tortured just as nature has.

It is not just nature that is now problematic but natural rights as well. Arguments that rights are political not universal or natural, that is, that rights must be fought for also undo the idea of a basic nature. The view that nature should have rights, as an argument against exploitation, also assumes that rights are fought after. The view that the non-living should also have rights, as with robots, and the humanly created, as well contests the idea of natural rights.  Finally, nature is seen as romanticised. For example, Hawaii’s forests are seen as natural, as stable, as always. But almost all of Hawaii’s trees are recently planted, after the sandalwood trade led to massive deforestation. Hawaii’s natural environment is very much a human-created environment. Thus, nature as eternal, as outside of human construct, has thus come under threat from a variety of places: genetics, the social construction argument, and the rights discourse.

Related to the end of nature are transformations in what we think is the Truth. Religious truth has focused on the one Truth. All other nominations of the real pale in front of the eternal. Modernity has transformed religious truth to allegiance to the nation-state.  However, thinkers from Marx, Nietzsche, to Foucault from the West, as well as feminists and Third World scholars such as Edward Said have contested the unproblematic nature of truth. Truth is considered class-based, gender-based, culture-based, personality-based. Knowledge is now considered particular, its arrangement based on the guiding episteme.  We often do not communicate well since our worlds are so different, indeed, it is amazing we manage to understand each other at all.

Multiculturalism has argued that our images of time, space, and history, of text are based on our linguistic dispositions. Even the library once considered a neutral institution is now seen as political. Certainly Muslims, Hawaiians, Aborigines, Tantrics, and many others would not construct knowledge along the lines of science, socialscience, arts and humanities.  Aborigines might divide a library–if they were to accede to that built metaphor–as divided by sacred spaces, genealogy and dreamtime. Hawaiians prefer the model of aina (land), the Gods, and genealogy (links with the ever present ancestors).  Not just is objectivity under threat, but we are increasingly living in a world where our subjectivity has been historicized and culturized. The search is for models that can include the multiciplicities that we are–layers of reality, spheres with cores and peripheries.

The end of modernity

The final level of transformation is in what we think is humanity.  Whether we are reminded of Foucault arguing that humanity is a recent, a modern category, and that our image will disappear like an etching on sand, about to be wiped away by the tide, or if we focus on the emergence of the women’s movement as a nudge to humanity as centre, humanity as the centre of the world is universally contested.  While the enlightenment removed the male God, it kept the male man. The emerging worldview of robots—what Marvin Minsky of MIT calls ‘mind-children’–cyborgs, virtual realities, cellular automata, the worldwideweb, microvita as well as the dramatic number of individuals who believe in angels, all point to the end of humanity as the central defining category.

We are thus witnessing transformations coming through the new technologies, through the world view of non-western civilizations, through the women’s movement, and through spiritual and Gaian perspectives.  All these taken together point to the possibility but not certainty of a new world shaping.

Let us say this in different words. We are witnessing the end of modernity. What this means is that we are in the process of changes in Patriarchy (I am male); Individualism (I win therefore I am); Materialism (I shop therefore I am);  Dualism (I think therefore I am); scientific dogmatism (I experiment therefore I know better or I have no values thus I am right) and Nationalism (I hate the other therefore I am). This is however a long term process and part of the undoing of capitalism.  All these connect to create a new world, which is potentially the grandest shift in human history.  We are in the midst of galloping time, plastic time, in which the system is unstable and thus can dramatically transform.

The good news is that transformation is quite possible. The bad news is that previous efforts to transform inequitable, unjust, unbalanced systems have often failed since change-oriented movements can be easily accommodated, or in the process of revolutionary change, agents tire, or the system provides incremental change by exporting structural problems to others. We can no longer export problems to the ‘Other’, victims are becoming scarce. Our problems have become global, knowledge of them is shared and the interactions between events known–the famous butterfly affect. While traditional systems were stable since heredity and status kept the system afloat, modern systems are growth oriented and thus to survive export problems: to nature, to the periphery, to rural, to women, to children.

The most vulnerable bear the burden.  However, globalism as defined as the awakening of the spiritual, of the multi-culturalism, of a planetary civil society contests this export.  New technologies, even as they play out the dark side of postmodernity, also allow social movements to better make their case, to inform others of immediate injustice, to organise against the brutality of national governments.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that postmodernity is the end of history. Postmodernity has a cost of entry. It is primarily for the rich. It is individualistic and unbounded from history. And even while it gives voices to other cultures by undoing the hegemony of western modernity, it does so not in the terms of others–nature, culture, community, all become discards.  Cyberspace, for example, gives the appearance of community, yet without responsibility–there is no face to face interaction.

What then should we do? What are the range of possible responses?


(1) One response is Enantiodromia; that all efforts to transform are doomed since we become what we struggle against, what we hate. Our shadow side comes out more as we try and distance our selves from it.  History but is reversal. To rationally plan the future is a mistake, chaos and disorder are the natural states. There really is not much we can do but attempt to get a glimpse of the cosmic forces we are engaged in. This is the time of myths–of progress versus nature, of self versus the other, of the tribe versus the planet. As the drama unfolds, we should sit back and watch, as if we were at a Greek drama. Let us hope that this time the Gods do not have a tragedy in store for us.

(2) Another response is Inner transformation. The main thing to do is meditate, to take care of one’s own family, to shop less. To live simply. Life is cyclical anyway–and controlled by the Cosmos–things will take care of themselves. At the same time, the good actions of many, of numerous individuals engaged in meditation–synchronously and asynchronously–can lead to a critical mass of consciousness. There can be abrupt spiritual transformation. While not all will become spiritual, we can hope society will be more open towards the more subtle dimensions of existence.

(3) The third response often emerges from inner transformation. Here we join others in social movements. While humans cannot do everything, there are specific areas in which differences can be successful.  By finding one’s passion, we focus on a particular dimension of the critique of modernity. We can join the environmental, the feminist, the consumer, the anti-nuke, the meditation, and the cooperative movement. The task is not to conquer the state but to rethink power and politics, to move hearts and work on local detail levels to empower each of us. Neither prince nor merchant nor warrior but the interconnected humanity and planet is the operating myth. The potential success of these movements lies in their globality–linking rich and poor, West and South.  When social movements are only local, then they only export problems from one region to another. Nuclear testing will go on elsewhere or tree killing will happen in the next nation. Ultimately, a think globally and act locally strategy improves one’s own condition but not that of the other.

The larger response is the creation of global civil society. For the consumer movement this means putting information on all products in terms of how it impacts animals, women, the Third World, as well as the aggregate distribution of wages. The challenge is to link these movements and create an alternative to predatory capitalism or authoritarian Statism.  Clearly this has been what the alternative UN global forums have been about.

(4) A deeper response then is Local Globalisms and Global Localisms. What is required are social movements that are both universal and local at the same time. To survive in cross-cultural environments, efficiency cannot be the goal. They must be based on chaotic flexibility not on bureaucratic hierarchy. What is needed are myths and stories of illumination linked by unity of purpose not by institutional infrastructure. We must remember that it is between order and disorder that new ideas, forms of consciousness emerge, new forms of organisation prosper. If we overly focus on order we end up with the iron cage of modernity; if we overly focus on disorder we have lack of coherence, wasted effort, and movement burn-out. Finally, movements should be outside of the imperium, reflecting the view of other cultures and worldviews. Indeed,  most important are non-western movements that are global in scope.

(5) Useful in creating new movements and as a worthy goal in itself is the Search for new metaphors. What is needed are new stories of where we came from and where we are going. Cellular cooperation, Shiva Dancing, Gaia are all excellent beginnings. Metaphors are important in that they deal with the ecology of our mind, with our unconscious frames. Metaphors inspire and create alternative futures. However, we must remember that all stories come from grand crises, from temporal ruptures, from human suffering and transcendence. Merely hoping for a story that unites all stories eschews culture and history. Stories must dialogue but not find their own bases eliminated. The metaphor is that of a global garden where each civilisation, finds its flowers flourishing–each exhalts the other.

(6)  We must deconstruct the present as well as our own alternative politics. We must be sensitive to the politics of language, of power. We need to see all truth claims are power moves, seeing language as discursive is the strategy. We need to see the present as a victory of a particular paradigm or discourse and not as an essentialist or Platonic sense of immovable eternity. This perspective makes the present less rigid, more malleable. The environment too must thus be destabilised and recovered from instrumental renderings. Seeing language as political allows us to see why it is that national policies toward better environment, multiculturalism, and more cooperatives fail, and symbolic words announcing change succeeds. By deconstructing how power uses history and idealism for its own expansion, we will be less impressed with quixotic words, with the rhetoric of ego-politics.

Levels of Transformation

There are thus many levels of transformation. At one level is the epistemic level. This is changing the way we know, attempting to transform civilisation, changing the categories from which we know.  Part of this is the creating of new myths, new stories of meaning, that inclusively and rationally speak to the many selves we are becoming, to our emerging planetary civilisation.

At another level, this is about cultures recovering themselves, the categories they lost from modernisation. Central to this project is the role of the First Earth people, the indigenous groups, who represent a modern history.  That is, we must inquire into transformation from Islamic, Buddhist, Tantric, Confucian and others’ perspectives, asking what can the defeated offer to the future.

At yet another level crucial are gender relations, particularly in fairer treatment to women. This of course as western feminists now concede must include issues of class and culture, there is no final western feminist solution. We must ensure that new technologies include women’s concerns, especially the new genetic technologies.

Creating a new global civil, a global communicative, society to counter tyrannical and secretive power, whether at the feudal level, the corporate level or the State level is a critical dimension of creating a new world system. Without which, social movements will remain only locally effective and ultimately harmful in global social transformation.

The challenge is to create a global community that is multicivilisational and grows through a value-oriented ethical science.


This article draws on material presented at the 1995 Richard Jones Memorial Lecture

November 24, Hobart, Tasmania