The transformations of recent years have taken different forms, but there seem to have been the following consistent trends that have shaped institutional change:
1. The spread of liberal democracy has given many more people the right to express their opinions openly and freely, and has opened up new possibilities for participation. But it has also made possible new social divisions in certain cases, contributing to ethnic or territorial conflicts. Furthermore, in some countries, it has loosened controls that impeded criminal activities.
2. Since the mid-1970s, economic liberalism has become the predominant ideology. This has produced gains in productive efficiency but has also greatly strengthened the hand of the already powerful, including certain national and international élites, as well as creditor countries and international financial institutions, at the expense of poorer groups and countries.
3. Capital, labour and goods are now moving much more rapidly across national borders, unleashing much fiercer international competition.
4. Industry is now based on smaller and more flexible production systems, and workers are more likely to be in the service sector, working part-time or engaged in informal sector activities greatly weakening the potential of organized labour and reducing the capacity of the State to enforce labour standards, collect taxes and fund welfare programmes.
5. The computerisation of production and communications' systems continue to reinvent working relations, destroying many jobs, creating others, and sustaining new power relations within and between countries.
6. The international media are now so persuasive and pervasive that they are eroding national cultures and traditional values; their news programmes are not merely reporting events but also helping determine their course.
These developments might seem inevitable: a predictable form of technical or cultural evolution. But in practice this evolution has been strongly influenced by the economic and political agenda of advanced industrial countries.
This agenda has been changing, however. In the middle decades of this century, most OECD countries essentially followed a "welfare nationalist" line aiming to promote full employment and provide social protection for all their citizens. But since the oil shocks of the 1970s, the recession of the 1980s and a series of fiscal crises, the industrialised nations have been reining in their welfare states and deregulating the economy. The richer countries have transmitted these policy changes to other countries through their dominance of international trade and finance, and through their control of the Bretton Woods institutions: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Thus, while the richer countries were themselves promoting welfare nationalist principles, developing countries followed much the same line; then when the industrial countries turned to neo-liberal policies, many less developed countries were encouraged to follow suit.
The turning point was the debt crisis of the 1980s. This made debtor countries subject to the "conditionalities" of the international financial institutions. The IMF and the World Bank insisted that these countries should "adjust" their economies. This meant not just generating an export surplus to pay their debts, but also fundamentally restructuring their economies along neo-liberal lines: deregulating economic activity, privatizing public enterprises and cutting back on state expenditure.
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3. Groupe de Lisbonne: Limites à la compétitivité, Paris, La Découverte, 1995.
4. Lévy, Bernard-Henri: La pureté dangereuse, Paris, Grasset, 1994.
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6. Wiener, Norbert: The human use of human beings, New York, Syros, 1950.