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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Strategic appropriateness: Accumulation of significance

Global Strategies Project

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1. Answer production

Society does not lack for answers to its current difficulties. The problem lies in the limited constituencies to which such answers appeal. It is useful to look at answers as products, or visible manifestations of an accumulation process. Answers tend to emerge from ordered accumulations of information. The amount of information effectively entering any such accumulation process is necessarily limited because of limitations on human processing capacity and constraints on social learning. This does not mean that the information arises from a limited geographical region. On the contrary it is a characteristic of present day answers that they result from interpretations of information selected from globally distributed information, possibly accumulated in major libraries.

It is the selection process which ensures the filtration. Each such answer is formulated in terms of a limited information base. For example, this is usually discipline-oriented in the case of academic answers, but ideological, action-preference, "priority" and other filters may also be used in various combinations.

Once an answer has been formulated it acquires symbolic significance over and above the rational arguments which support it. It provides a rallying point for those searching for coherence in terms of the information base from which it emerged. Particular jobs may be tied to its promulgation or implementation. It then reinforces the accumulation of further information in its support.

Competing answers, and contradictory information, are ignored, avoided or suppressed whenever possible. In the case of a well-developed answer, all "available" information of any "relevance" is perceived as supporting the position. The answer is then used as a vehicle for vigorous proselytizing activity amongst those who subscribe, out of "ignorance", to alternative answers. The aim is to ensure that such "infidels" are converted to "the answer", namely that consensus is achieved so that effective action can be undertaken. Everybody must be "accumulated" by the answer.

Over the past decade this approach has taken on a new aspect, due to some recognition of its obvious limitations. Instead of answers emphasizing particular conceptual perspectives or content, many now focus on a particular process (e.g. community dialogue) or mode of action which permits or engenders a variety of local answers in concrete situations. The process advocated thus becomes the answer for which universal support is sought.

There are many parallels in this to the emergence and historical development of religions, each of which makes universal claims for its unique grasp of the answer to the social condition. The current (lack of) relationship between organized religions provides an excellent model for understanding the relationship between groups subscribing to any given answer. The model is enriched by its representation of the formation of schisms and priesthoods, and by the process of religious disaffection, accompanied by the continual emergence of a plethora of sects, each with its own answer.

2. Development processes

In attempting to understand better how individuals and social groups accumulate the significance they associate with their particular answers, it is appropriate to look at critical analyses of the well-documented capital accumulation process. This should provide further insights and clues for the pursuit of the enquiry into the characteristics of a desirable meta-answer. Such analyses can be "decoded", using them as a model to understand accumulation processes in general rather than as limited to economic processes in the narrow material sense.

What is refreshing about the most powerful of such analyses, "the world-system perspective", is the manner in which it avoids taking present structures for granted. The conventional "developmentalist" framework within which current answers have been vainly sought for two decades has been widely criticized.

Equally crippling however, in attempting to understand the accumulation of significance, is the restriction of "world-system"type analyses to the limited range of material phenomena significant to a scholastic entity, namely "political economics". Other phenomena are then simply "not even discussable". The difficulty is understandable in that once the scope of the analysis is extended to non-material phenomena it is obliged to become self-reflexive and include the production and distribution of world-system perspectives. Since it is an explicit characteristic of any such perspective to use political action in the "marketplace of ideas" in order to ensure its own dominance, it is difficult to see how its strategy can be distinguished from that of any other aspirant hegemony. The same is naturally true for any answer entering that marketplace or with an established place in it.

It is not solely at the level of material phenomena that an appropriate meta-answer can be usefully sought. Somehow the relationship between answers at all levels must be examined more creatively. It is a "New International Conceptual Order" that is required as a basis for any effective New International Economic Order. All the unsatisfactory material processes for which an NIEO-type response is sought are a rather pale reflection of equivalent conceptual processes which continually reinforce them and undermine remedial action in any context. The limitations of NIEO could also be generalized to cover those of the "answer economy". What is to be the status of answers formulated or favoured by minority groups or weakly organized large groups? There is an exploited "Third World" to be recognized in non-material terms.

Adapting Johan Galtung's comment on "structural violence", it could be said that: Amateurs use the organization of material accumulation to dominate a situation, this can be done professionally by the organization of non-material forms of accumulation, especially the accumulation of significance. In fact the very vigour of the processes of radical analysis and conceptual innovation may well reinforce the material accumulation processes deplored in such analyses.

Each answer is effectively an attempt by a limited group (with limited sensibilities, and with a limited information base) to give better organized expression to "the good, the true, and the beautiful". But in all such cases the nature of an appropriate meta-answer remains unclear. The problem is in devising a suitable meta-form to interrelate answers which can only retain their essential quality within forms which are antagonistic to one another. Advocating tolerance in a pluralistic, laissez-faire context is a very superficial response to the current existential challenge.

The restrictive nature of a particular form of accumulation also affects the kinds of answers sought to the problems arising from that accumulation process. Answers tend to focus on changing the pattern of accumulation or eliminating it altogether, at least at the material level. The focus of attention is however limited to the level of accumulation at which the problems are currently most evident. Answers tend not to be sensitive to what is accumulated through promulgation and implementation of the favoured answer. It is also important to understand how a system can slip, or be displaced, into other modes of accumulation at an equivalent level.

3. Development of accumulation

It is assumed in the light of the variety of forms of accumulation and its ambiguous functions in the development process, that it is highly unlikely that this process can be eliminated. The question is then whether it can be transformed such that the focus of attention is not on a particular level. Whilst it may not be possible to eliminate accumulation, it may be possible to give progressively greater emphasis to subtler non-material forms of accumulation. This would involve creatively identifying new opportunities for accumulation. An interesting example of this is the Buddhist emphasis on the accumulation of merit, and the understanding that subsequent phases of development can only be achieved by recognizing that this emphasis on accumulation must itself be abandoned as an obstacle to further transformation.

The challenge is to find ways to "develop accumulation".


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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