Communication Technology and the Retreat of the State

Ching-ning Wang


With the revolution of technology, a series of novel social phenomena have come into being. One of which is the abrogation of space and time. The common concept of "global village " denotes the phenomenon of boundlessness appropriately. A variety of social research deal with the situation of boundlessness. The subjects include globalization/ interdependence, the free flow of information, free market, virtual community, distance learning and so on. This paper is meant to explore the dysfunction of the territorial borders of states and the obsolete concept of territorial states.

Conventionally, the border of a state marked the control of national authority. However, the holy nature of territorial borders has been swept away by a pace of change expedited by the improvement in communication technology. This inevitably resulted in the crisis of national sovereignty. In the following sections, I would like to investigate the traditional concept of state sovereignty and two of the challenging powers to it: Transnational organization and the principle of international information order-free flow. And the analysis of the fallibility of "failed state" served as the conclusion.


The Notion of State Sovereignty-Territorial State

Traditionally, the concept of state sovereignty is evolved on the basis of boundary. Since the end of World War , the notion of state sovereignty has been interpreted on two levels: internal and external. Internal sovereignty means that a state has supreme jurisdiction over the people, resources, and all other authorities within the territory its control. On the other hand, external sovereignty means that the territorial integrity of a state is inviolate. Both levels of state sovereignty are centered the idea of frontiers.

Actually, since 1648 Peace of Westphalia , which emphasized states' legitimacy over territory, the territorial state has marked the cornerstone of the modern international system. In the past few years, evidence of the erosion of state sovereignty has increased. These challenge to the state's control powers to a great extent associated with the rapid development of communication technology. Two of these challenging forces to be investigated at the sections below are the free market and private corporation as well as the free flow of information and the media industry.




The Power of Transnational Corporations-Regimes within Regimes

With the pervasion of capitalism and the expansion of world market, the transnational corporations have mushroomed, which is one of the challenges to the national sovereignty. Once upon a time, states were the master of market. They determined the economic structure within the boundary of their control. But now, by many measures, corporations are more influential than nations in both domestic and global market. This source of menace to the national authority is illustrated by Susan Strange in the "Retreat of the State" :

The impersonal forces of world markets, integrated over the postwar period more by private enterprise in finance, industry and trade than by the cooperative decisions of governments are now more powerful than the states to whom ultimate political authority over society and economy is supposed to belong.

The increasing power of the TNC is closely related to the development of communication technology. With improvements in communication systems, a reliable liaison between the headquarters and offshore affiliates, distributor and suppliers was made possible. Therefore the branches of a company may located at any states different from which their headquarter is in. Benjamin Barber used the term of "virtual corporation" to describe the transnational corporations which, connected by computer network, phone and fax, is no longer a physical entity with a stable mission or locations within a state. Thus transnational corporations penetrate the concept of frontiers of any nation and acts as a regime within a regime. This transnational characteristic complicated the problems the policy makers of any state faced.

For example, the Chevy built in Mexico and then reimported into the United States; Toyota Camry designed at Newport Beach California Calty Design Research Center, assembled at the Georgetown, Kentucky by American workers. The distinction between domestic products and foreign product is blurred. Therefore it is never easy for the policy makers within a state to decide which products could qualify for tariff-free since it is cumbersome to decide the criteria for domestic manufacturer.

Another notion of the relinquishment of the national sovereignty toward the corporations is the privatization of the state-owned monopolies. A classic example of the deregulation is to be found in telecommunications.


The Deregulation of National Control over Communication

Several decades ago, states, at the peak of their power, exercised their right to control the substance of information and channels of communication such as post, telegraph and telephone over their territory. However, with the rapid internationalisation of production, there was great demand from the corporations for rapid and reliable communication in order to coordinate the operations between their headquarters and sub-units at different locations. Therefore there was the deregulation of telecommunications by the US government in 1984. The deregulation and privatization of state monopolies in Telecom driven by market forces followed soon. The cause of this trend was well summerized by Dyson and Humphries in The Political Economy of Communications-International :

By dint of its economic power and technological leadership, the United States has managed to transform the agenda of international political economy of communication toward deregulation to match the domestic characteristics of its own economy…Asymmetrical dependence has revealed itself most profoundly in the role of the United States as initiator of agenda change to which the European Community and its members must respond.

As the technological change has been rapid and expensive, the increasing cost of investment in the development sharpens the competition between enterprises in the market. Susan Strange contended that it is the cost of technological development forced the old national telecoms to forge strategic alliances with enterprises of different nationalities, which enhanced the influences of transnational corporations one step further. Examples she gave are the joint venture between Britain's privatised BT and the American MCI; the Unisource, cooperative arrangement between the Dutch, Italian, Swedish and Swiss telecom operators.

The previous experiences of the telecom can be found in today's development of information superhighway.

While vice president Al Gore addressed his vision of information highway on his travel to Buenos Air, he said that " we propose that private investment and competition be the foundations for development of the GII ( Global Information Infrastructure)". He disclosed his insistence that the private industry be in charge of the development of information highway. Herber I. Schiller criticized that the attachment of the private creation and ownership would make it inevitable that the network will be of greatest value to those who have the financial ability to satisfy their need for global message flows. These "information users" are none other than transnational corporations.


Princilples of International Order

Beside the challenges from the private corporations, a series of standards embedded in the international order have great influences on national sovereignty. These values, termed normative constraints in the International Relations, includes free flow of information, liberal democracy, individual liberties, protection of intellectual property and so on. These norms together with the principle of free market shackle the national sovereignty in many ways. Because these norms generally have come from the process of globalization, which is synonym of westernization, they affect non-Western countries more than Western ones. Non-western countries upholding different countries or fail to comply with these norms are likely to be punished under the name of sanction by the powerful nations. Samuel Makinda thus criticized that these so-called global values are rules that have not been arrived at through reflection and consensus in the world community but have been promoted by the powerful Western counties.

In the following section, The impact of one of these international principles, Free Flow of Information", on national sovereignty is explored.


The Impacts of Free Flow of Information

The debate over the Free Information Flow could be traced back to the debate over the New International Economic Order in the UNESCO. The Free Flow doctrine has its roots in the Free Market principle in the world system. Both of them are strongly uphold by the United States and the industrial countries in the international arena.

The main reason for the United States to promote the Free Flow doctrine is economic consideration. As Mark. D. Alleyne described in "International Power and International Communication":

The Americans were well aware of the economic gains they would make if such principle was made inviolable. The United States enjoyed comparative and competitive advantages in the international media industries and the markets of American companies in these fields would be protected and allowed to expand under the umbrella of the FREE FLOW.

Free Flow of Information, serving as a fair objection to the protectionism in other countries, provides the American cultural industries with great edge in expanding the global market and increasing their profits. As James Brook and Lain A Boal described, " no foreign film industry, TV production center, publishing enterprise, or news establishment could possibly have compete on equal terms with the powerful U.S media-entertainment companies at that time. And this is why the audiovisual industry in the US is the second largest export sector after aerospace. The ascendance of U.S. cultural product globally further underpinned its cultural domination over the rest of the world. This cultural dominance is viewed as hegemony or cultural imperialism by the developing countries. Scholars in Cultural Studies have identified the structure of communication as the mechanism through which hegemony is imposed. Singham and Hune refereed it to an " intellectual and moral leadership that dictates the world-view and actions of subordinate states in the Western alliance system."


Cultural Products and Cultural Impacts

The cultural products, such as TV programs, movie, and MTV, produced in the Hollywood in the U.S. embody ideologies and values prevailing in the western societies which may contrary to those predominant in the non-western societies. Take the East Asian societies as example. Not only the sexual and violent themes in the American films contradict with the conservative Confucianism but individualism is incompatible with nationalism, the supreme ideology in the Asian societies.

Individualism, a respectable value in the western societies, stressed the individual rights coming into being with birth. Nationalism, in the other hand, is the supreme norm in the East Asian Societies. The hierarchical structure in East Asian is with nation at the top, then society and family follow it, while individual is at the bottom of the structure. It is the individual's obligations toward the macro-system rather than individual's rights that have been highly praised. Democracy, the extension of individualism in a higher level system, is a norm being aggressively promoted by the U.S. government in the international arena.

Individualism and democracy have evolved in the western societies in a long history. However, these norms are totally different from the historical experience and social background of those non-western countries. The implantation of American values has caused cultural confrontation in eastern societies and has changed eastern culture imperceptibly. People in eastern societies no longer believe in their traditional norms. Therefore obedience to the authority is not taken for granted as it used to be. And this could result in the crisis of social cohesion that has long related to and has been underpinned by social norms.

What worse is that democracy became powerful excuses for U.S. government to interfere with the domestic affairs of the so-call "defeated countries". The U.S. government, with its control over the information channels in the world, grasps the power to frame the different ideologies in western perspective. Nationalism, for example, through the dissemination of news products by CNN and BCC, is packaged in the form of militarism which is viewed as a menace to the stability of the international peace. That's how the American intelligence agencies justify their interfering with, or even overthrowing, foreign governments such as Mossudeq in Iran and Allende in Chile.

The inroads of the Hollywood industry and the American power can be found all over the world. Many countries adopted protectionist policies or censorship to confront this visible as well as intangible invasion. In French, Jack Lang, the former Culture minister, proclaimed all-out "war" against the American media industry in the early nineties. He established the rule requiring that 60 percent of all video programming of French television be European and 40 percent of music played on French radio and television be of French origin. Similarly, in the Uruguay round of GATT talks and the Common Market, the French film industry strove for campaign to have films place in the same category as fruit and vegetables as a vital national industry so that it could be exempted from the free flow provisions.


Failed States?


In political science, the concept of " failed states" means that countries whose institutions have failed to fulfill the people's basic needs or have been paralyzed by severe civil wars or a breakdown in law and order. With the revolution of technology, the capability of national control has been compromised in many ways. The conventional notion of "territorial state" therefore displayed a series of loopholes.

The relinquishment of national sovereignty toward the free market and the pouring of national subsidies to the development of information superhighway was meant to increase the choices for the individual consumers and even out the disparity and inequality of resources distributions among different sectors of the society. This purpose was disclosed in Al Gore' address in March 1994:

We now have at hand the technological breakthroughs and economic means to bring all the communities in the world together. We now can at last create a planetary information network that transmits messages and images with the speed of light from the largest city to the smallest village on every continent.

However, with the trend of merger, the information distribution channels have been concentrated in a handful of conglomerates. Since seeking profit, instead of public goods, is their ultimate goal, their operation is not on behalf of public welfare. Therefore the low-income sectors and rural areas are not their target. Thus these disadvantaged sectors and areas tend to be ignored , even isolated. Although the official goal stressed the social benefits, the outcome turned out to exacerbate social divisions.

In spite of these setbacks above, it is too hasty to say that state is no longer a capable entity to act for the public goods and is doomed to demise. James N. Rosenau argued that we can not deny that governments still have the capacity to maintain order with coercive methods, although this maintenance of order by the exercise of force is not a measure of whether government is performing its expected tasks and getting its jobs done. It is expected that, with the legislative and punishment power at hand, state is still to be relied upon as an actor to undertake public policies and resolve social disorder coming with the new technology. However, the conventional notion of territorial state need to be updated since the national policies and regulations have been made on the basis of the premise of effective control within national boundaries. The territorial boundaries of states don't coincide with the extent of national authority any more.