In his latest book, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in The Internet Age, Manuel Castells tries his hand at public sociology. Those of us who are regular readers of Castells’s work know him for a very dense writer of massive opus. In this particular – and shorter – book, Castells links his conceptual apparatus and interest in current protest movements in a way that is more concise and readable for a general audience.
I have already dedicated a post on Castells’s concept of power. But Castells’s conceptual toolbox is more complex than this, developed at length in Communication Power. In Networks of Outrage and Hope, Castells provides a simplified and more concise version of the arguments made in Communication Power and then applies them to the various social movements that have grabbed public attention and shaken democratic governments and dictatorships alike around the world. For Castells, these movements represent a new form of social movements in the context of the network society.
Power is the first concept of Castells’s grounded theory of communication power. A second major concept is that mass self-communication, using the Internet and wireless networks as platforms. The mass communication part of this is obvious. The self-communication part might be less so:
“It is self-communication because the production of the message is autonomously decided by the sender, the designation of the receiver is self-directed and the retrieval of messages from the networks of communication is self-selected. Mass self-communication is based on horizontal networks of interactive communication that, by and large, are difficult to control by governments and corporations. (…) Mass self-communication provides the technological platform for the construction of the autonomy of the social actor, be it individual or collective, vis-à-vis the institutions of society. This is why governments are afraid of the Internet, and this is why corporations have a love-hate relationship with it and are trying to extract profits while limiting its potential for freedom (for instance, by controlling file sharing or open source networks).” (7)
In addition, the concept of networks in a global context is relevant as well. Rather than go through the details of Castells’s nuanced description of the various networks involved, I summarized the idea in the image below:
There should be more arrows, obviously, but it might get crowded. You get the idea. In these flexible and changing network configurations, the state and political systems still have a preeminent place. Indeed, states still provide for the stability of the overall system through institutions and regulations. After all, it is states that came to the rescue when the financial global system collapsed in 2008. And, in a Weberian fashion, Castells reminds us that, ultimately, the state has the monopoly on the use of force. The state is the default network for the proper functioning of all the other networks.
How do networks connect with each other? Through a mechanisms Castells calls switching power: the power that programmers have to connect or disconnect networks, and the power that switchers have to operate the connections between networks (politicians, lobbyists, financial elites, media corporations, etc.). But, in a very Foucauldian way, Castells notes that power always produces resistance in the form of reprogramming networks and disrupting dominant switches.
And when it comes to resistance to power, social movements are the main actors. The success social movements is highly dependent on autonomous communication, that is, communication that is autonomous from state or corporate control. Traditionally, modes of mass communication were entirely under state control. Castells argues that is no longer the case with the Internet and wireless networks. What makes current social movements different is their hybrid nature: extensive use of online tools and physical occupation of urban space. For all the “cool” factor of the virtual aspect of social movements, Castells argues that physical occupation of urban space is crucial for three reasons:
- It creates community and allows participants to overcome fear, a fundamental threshold to solidify social movements;
- It emphasizes the symbolic nature of the specific space that is being occupied;
- It creates a Habermasian public space for deliberation and sovereign assemblies.
Armed with this conceptual apparatus, Castells sets out to analyze the major social movements of the past few years, starting the precursors (Tunisia and Iceland), then turning to the Egyptian revolution, the Arab Spring, the Indignadas in Spain, and Occupy Wall Street. Out of all these separate cases, Castells creates an ideal-type of the social movement in the network society.
“Throughout history, social movements have been, and continue to be, the levers of social change. They usually stem from a crisis of living conditions that makes everyday life unbearable for most people. They are prompted by a deep distrust of political institutions managing society. The combination of a degradation of the material conditions of life and of a crisis of legitimacy of the rulers in charge with the conduct of public affairs induces people to take matters into their own hands, engaging in collective action outside the prescribed institutional channels, to defend their demands and, eventually, to change the rulers, and even the rules shaping their lives. Yet, this is risky behavior, because the maintenance of the social order and the stability of political institutions express power relationships that enforced, if necessary, by intimidation and, in the last resort, by the use of force.” (219)
And while I don’t agree with Castells that all human behavior is based on six fundamental emotions (fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, happiness, anger), because that is too sweeping a statement, it is not hard to see how anger is the trigger and fear is the repressor that needs to be overcome through the process of communicative action that gives rise to collective actors.
But, the specific structural factors of increased inequalities and crisis of legitimacy combine with an emotional trigger (a specific event such as the public immolation in Tunisia) based on outrage against injustice, but also hope for possible change. Beyond that, here are the features of the ideal-type of a social movement in the network society:
- These social movements are networked in multiple forms (multimodal, on/offline, using various platforms, existing and new… strength of weak ties, anyone?), without a central node, and with a decentered structure.
- The social movements involve occupation of urban space.
- This creates a hybrid space of autonomy that is the new spatial form of networked social movements.
- This also creates its own form of time: timeless time based on the timeless nature of virtual space and the day-to-day structuring of physical occupations.
- These movements start spontaneously, following an emotional trigger.
- These movements are viral.
- These movements transition from outrage to hope after they create a space of autonomy based on deliberation, and leaderless structure.
Here is a graphic summary of the consensus flow in Occupy movements:
- These movements are based on horizontal networks that facilitate cooperation, togetherness and solidarity that undermines the need for formally identified leadership.
- These movements are highly self-reflective.
- These movements are confrontational but non-violent. They did engage in civil disobedience.
- Unless the goal of the movements is to take down a dictatorship, these movements are rarely programmatic. They are more aimed at changing the values of society. This particular aspect of OWS used to drive the media nuts as they wanted to know what the occupiers wanted, specific demands and political platforms. But these movements are political through and through as they practice direct, deliberative democracy.
So, for Castells, the Internet is both a tool but it is also an essential condition to create and maintain leaderless, deliberative and participatory movements, and to foster a culture of autonomy. Autonomy is central to Castells. Whereas Bauman and Beck argue that a major trait of contemporary society is individualization, Castells argues that it is through individuation that autonomy becomes possible:
“Individuation is the cultural trend that emphasizes the projects of the individual as the paramount principle orientating her/his behavior (Giddens 1991; Beck 1992). Individuation is not individualism, because the project of the individual may be geared towards collective action and shared ideals, such as preserving the environment or creating community, while individualism makes the well-being of the individual the ultimate goal of his/her individuated project. The concept of autonomy is broader, as it can refer both to individual and collective actors. Autonomy refers to the capacity of a social actor to become a subject by defining its action around projects constructed independently of the institutions of society, according to the values and interests of the social actor. The transition from individuation to autonomy is operated through networking. which allows individual actors to build their autonomy with likeminded people in the networks of their choice. I contend that the Internet provides the organizational communication framework to translate the culture of freedom into the practice of autonomy.” (231)
There is a lot more detail in the book about each specific social movements but Castells only presents part of the picture. First, I think he is a bit too optimistic about the liberation potential of the Internet and wireless networks. We have seen that governments and corporations are quite adept at using these technologies for their own purposes, in terms of surveillance and data mining. That aspect is completely absent from the book.
Also, the book is focused on specific, and largely progressive, social movements. It ignores the rise of reactionary social movements, whether it is the reaction against the legalization on gay marriage in France (probably, that happened after the book got published), or the rise of fascist movements in countries that got hit the hardest by the recession, whether it is the Tea Party movement in the US, Golden Dawn in Greece, and other resistance movements from the far right. These movements address the legitimacy crisis from a completely different angle. But they would require different conceptual tools.
But beyond that, this book feels like “Castells for Beginners”, written for the general public, and not the usual academic audience. The analysis of actual movements is a bit rosy-eyed and I think there should be some debate regarding Castells’s overall analysis of these social movements, regarding their effectiveness and persistence (or lack thereof, on both counts) but I do agree with Castells’s contention that the Occupy movements were more about consciousness-raising than programmatic politics. However, the jury is still out on the success of movements in the Arab world despite the success in overthrowing dictatorships in a few countries.
But one cannot fault Castells for engaging with the current issues, using his sociological toolbox, and for doing so in an accessible way.