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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 14. Introduction to this issue

Ruth Rikowski

The idea for the theme of this issue of Information for Social Change (ISC) emerged originally from attending an inspirational Globalise Resistance Conference in February 2001, at Hammersmith Town Hall and then reading The Battle in Seattle: Its significance for education, written by Glenn Rikowski and published in March 2001. Glenn's book focused on the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) education agenda and the privatisation of education in England. It also explored the significance of education for anti-capitalist struggles. ISC members thought that a similar analysis of information and libraries would be worthwhile.

Thus, I became the editor of this Globalisation and Information issue and began undertaking some research. I soon discovered that the facts supported many of the worst fears and concerns that we had. In particular, I found that the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) had a resolution on the WTO on its web site. Furthermore, various other library associations also had WTO resolutions and they were all very concerned about the likely effects of the WTO and the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) on libraries. The basic fear was that at some time, in the not-too-distant future, libraries and information will become commodified and will operate in the market place and that this will override concerns for the 'public good' (as described by IFLA).

Globalisation and Information is an expansive topic, so the issue has been divided up into different subject areas. These are 'Globalisation and the WTO', the 'GATS', 'Libraries' and 'Information and Knowledge'. The section on 'Globalisation and the WTO' considers the meaning of 'globalisation' and what the WTO is. This section begins with Bill Lehm's article ' One law for the rich... ' Lehm's article links up the privatisation of public services with the Blairite 'modernisation' programme. He is particularly concerned about how restrictive and unjust the law is today, and he says:

It seems that there are so many Acts restricting your ability to act that you have fewer ways to act without breaking the law than you ever had before.

He also refers to the Schengen Information System (SIS) which is a computerised information exchange system based in Strasbourg. SIS is a list of people who could be perceived as being 'potential troublemakers'. Later in the article he refers to Paul Robinson who worked in the University College London library and was arrested at the anti-capitalist protests in Gothenberg. Robinson was later given a one-year prison sentence. Lehm speaks about the unjust way in which Paul Robinson has been treated, and concludes with a critique of a legal system that favours business interests against those of ordinary people.

Glenn Rikowski's article provides an analysis of globalisation and an account of the history and development of the World Trade Organisation. He also demonstrates a general approach for relating the GATS to the mechanisms and enablers that ensure particular public services in particular countries fall in line with the GATS imperatives. Rikowski calls these mechanisms and enablers the 'national faces of the GATS', and argues that the GATS change the nature of (transfigure) particular public service developments so they support the realisation of GATS directives.

Victor Rikowski (who is 14 years old) explores globalisation from a child's perspective. He feels very concerned about the future of our planet. Victor is particularly concerned about the HSBC bank that goes into his school and the extent to which HSBC might make a base in other schools. Thus, he is focusing on the likely privatisation of our public services. He fears that the millionaires will rule the millions and that this will have a devastating effect on our planet (especially in regard to environmental issues). He concludes:

As Dave Nellist said..."Help the millions and not the millionaires"...However, global capitalism continually says, "Help the millionaires rule the millions", and this has to be stopped...

There are two articles in the section on the GATS. The first, by Clare Joy explains how the GATS effects many different areas of our life - indeed, it covers 160 different services. As Joy says, these services include libraries, medical and dental services, refuse collection, higher education, postal delivery, railways, department stores, radio stations, mobile phones and financial services. She then describes different aspects of the GATS, such as the 'bottom-up' and the 'top-down' approach. She also emphasises the point that once a government signs up a service, it could face a challenge from the WTO if it implements legislation that favours local suppliers over foreign suppliers. Joy highlights the threat to democracy posed by the GATS.

Anneliesse Dodds, referring to the GATS in relation to higher education and libraries, notes that: 'Once HE and library services are placed under WTO control they will in effect be so forever.' She adds:

The charges used by many libraries for particular services (book recall, hiring of music and videos, use of the Internet etc) may also open this sector to the GATS regulations.

...and refers to the possibility of 'impoverished and biased information provision.' Dodds provides many insights regarding the WTO and the GATS throughout her article, and concludes that:

Universities and libraries are simply too important to be handed over, through GATS regulation, to governance by a small number of often inept and ideologically-driven WTO bureaucrats.

Ruth Rikowski opens the section on 'Libraries' with ' The Corporate Take-over of Libraries'. She begins with a brief glimpse at the history of the public library service in the UK and then proceeds to illustrate how this is under threat with the GATS. Rikowski shows how the corporate takeover of libraries can be placed within three categories - commercialisation, privatisation and capitalisation. She provides some examples to illustrate how this is already happening. PFI has been introduced into various sectors, for example, and income generation has been taking place for a number of years. Within this framework, Rikowski then considers Best Value, library standards and the Peoples Network - which are all mechanisms that will enable the GATS to take effect in our public libraries. She then highlights the fears and concerns of various NGOs and library associations (such as IFLA and the Canadian Library Association) in relation to the GATS. Rikowski concludes with some thoughts for the future, emphasising the need to think as well as take action.

Fiona Hunt considers the WTO and how it could effect libraries. She presents a possible scenario whereby a public library is supported by local taxes. An information services company then enters the market and demands the same level of subsidies and tax support that the public library gets. She argues that the government would probably cut or eliminate public funding in order to avoid these types of claims, thus she holds the same opinion as Dodds in this respect. She also argues that the GATS could affect the professional qualification requirements. Hunt concludes her article by expressing the concern that perhaps, in the future, only the rich will be able to afford information and then makes various suggestions about what people could do to try to stop all this from happening.

The section on 'Information and Knowledge' begins with Shahrzad Mojab's article ' Information, censorship and gender relations in global capitalism'. Mojab begins her article by dispelling the myth that the Internet and the Information Superhighway will solve most, or at least many, of our problems, particularly in relation to censorship. She then notes the mechanisms that have been put in place to curtail our liberties since September 11th 2001, and says that:

This includes a well financed machinery of surveillance, which allows the government to wiretap telephone calls, read faxed and e-mailed messages, computer files, and every other communication of any and every citizen.

She speaks about women and censorship in particular, and says that not only does it deny "women access to information, but also limits their participation in the creation of knowledge, and denies them the power to utilize knowledge." Shahrzad speaks about the need to challenge patriarchy. Returning to globalisation, cyberspace and women she notes that:

The cyberspace is much like the realspace that creates it. The fact that many individual women or groups can set up their own websites does not change power relations in the realspace.

She concludes with some suggestions about what to do in the future. This includes creating theoretical and empirical knowledge about gender-based censorship and making this knowledge available to policy makers.

Alex Nunn invites us to examine the knowledge economy and, allied to this, the extension of 'commodification to ever more areas of life to the point where even our own bodies might be the vehicle for capital accumulation.' Nunn alerts us to the current pre-occupation with the 'knowledge economy' and notes that:

...the 'knowledge cacophony' is actually an attempt to mask the reality of a continuation of capitalist social relations and the extension of commodification to ever more areas of social life.

Later, Nunn refers specifically to higher education (HE), saying that it can be seen as the 'lynch pin' of the knowledge economy strategy. He refers to Public Private Partnerships and Private Finance Initiatives in higher education, the reduction of state funding and the encouragement that universities are given to look for private sector sources of funding. He cites the University of Phoenix as an example of the direction in which HE might be going. This is a private for-profit university that offers distance education through an online interface. Nunn then warns us about the dangers posed to the public library service through the implementation of the GATS. As he indicates:

Public libraries could find themselves in ever more competition with for profit knowledge institutions and if the GATS framework were extended to libraries then that competition would be intensified through the ending of public subsidies to public library provision.

Patrick Ainley invites us to consider the concept of the 'Learning Society'. He says that the government and the CBI define the 'learning society' as 'one that systematically increases the skills and knowledge of all its members to exploit technological innovation and so gain a competitive edge for the services in fast-changing global markets.' He then describes how we are witnessing 'rampant qualification inflation' as it seems that more and more people want and need to get qualifications, and that this is leading not to a 'learning society' but to a 'certified society'. In the 'Learning Society' today: 'knowledge and skills are individualised and limited to portfolios of information and competence, while learning is separated from leisure and popular culture. Education and training's main purpose becomes social control outside of work and managing organisational change within employment.' Ainley says that what is required is a re-establishment of the central role of education, science and the arts in society to 'stimulate thought and develop new knowledge and skills to deal with a rapidly changing reality.' He concludes by noting that 'only information combined with democracy can provide the knowledge and skills necessary for survival in a real 'Learning Society.''

Jonathan Rutherford begins his article by saying that we need to consider the alternative to the marketisation and privatisation of our public services and alerts us to the fact that we need to take seriously Blair and Brown's commitment to the marketisation of the welfare state. He then goes on to emphasise the importance of knowledge in today's globalised economy and notes, as people like Nunn have, that universities are now being funded more like commercial organisations. Rutherford argues that:

Neo-liberal capitalism geared to the pursuit of profit, is incapable of the kind of sustainable development necessary for effectively and equitably managing and distributing the intangibles of knowledge creation. Knowledge is a public good, but knowledge capitalism is avaricious in expropriating the cultural meanings, symbols and knowledge it requires to increase its productivity and create new markets.

Universities have all too easily become prey to 'knowledge capitalism' and yet, concludes Rutherford, in the future there is a need to 'nurture and sustain learning' within the public sector 'where ideas can circulate and develop free of exchange value'. Thus, both Rutherford and Ainley offer us some hopes and ideals for the future, although it is important to emphasise that it is the roots of the social universe of capital itself that need to be exposed and understood before it is even possible to really begin to see hopes for a world beyond. Without this, the ideas of radicals and critics will just be subsumed within capitalism itself (if they are thought to be useful).

The issue concludes with an ISC statement on State Terrorism, Censorship and Repression - drafted by Martyn Lowe, and information about Libraries under Fire, a session to be held at the forthcoming IFLA Conference, Glasgow, August 18-24, 2002.

This Special Issue has addressed many developments and trends regarding the business takeover of libraries and information. Any comments would be warmly welcomed.


I would like to thank Glenn Rikowski and Matthew Mezey, for the help, advice and contacts they have given me throughout the production of this Special Issue. Finally, I would like to thank the UK Library Association for the financial support that they have given for the production of this issue of Information for Social Change.


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