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Castells on networks (review)

 

End of Millennium. By Manuel Castells, traduit de l'anglais par Jean-Pierre Bardos as Fin de millénaire (Paris: Fayard, 1999) 490 pp. 30.25 euros, paper.

This is the French translation of the third volume of Manuel Castells' trilogy The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (1996-98). It fell by chance from the heaven of reviewable books. In the meantime the man himself has come to earth close to where I write from (he has taken a chair in the Universitat Oberta de Catalonia). These are two good reasons for noting the existence of Castells.

The volume in question deals with the way information technology may be related to several global aspects of the closing twentieth century. The collapse of the Soviet Union is analyzed in terms of a bureaucratic system that was unable to make the transition to an age of information networks, consequently burying itself under its own authoritarian centralism and top-down rigidity. Similarly, the boom-then-crisis of the Asian economies is explained in terms of information, as the requirements of flexible networks could not be met by authoritarian modes of top-down organization. At the same time, says Castells, capitalism entered its global phase precisely because it was able to develop decentralized flexible networks and incorporate innovation into its very modes of production. This, however, was no heroic triumph of the technological. Informational capitalism values only that which can produce flexibility and innovation: it excludes vast sections of humanity (Africa, urban poverty, child labour), which simply find no place in its networks. Further, within the globalization process, the underside of information is skilfully exploited by mafias, who manipulate open borders, raise the social value of security industries, and thereby have profound effects on relations of class and power. Informational capitalism ushers in an era of the individual who is afraid.

As if that were not bleak enough, the volume includes an epilogue that seeks to make sense of this world, bringing together conclusions from all volumes in the trilogy. Here we learn that the global capitalism of flexibility and innovation leads to a divide between "generic workers" (who can be replaced by machines) and "self-programming" workers (who can adapt to new technologies and operate independently of company structures). This is turn leads to new requirements not only in education (we must learn to learn, which has long been clear enough) but also in the individualization of work, which in turn produces the weakening of organized labour, the deterioration of the welfare state, and consequently a crisis in the nation-states now unable to guarantee the welfare at the basis of the democratic social contract. As all that crumbles, so does the patriarchal family: the new role of women calls for the reinvention of the most basic social institutions, and everything else as well.

A tremendous pessimism reigns over Castells' closing millennium. Despite the occasional calls for "reinvention", he seems to locate no particular principle of hope. Even the spirit of May 1968, which Castells experienced as a student at Nanterre, is analyzed as having contributed to the innovation and individualism required by networking capitalism. That dream is still there, as are the Marxist tools of analysis, but neither the dream nor the ideologies are showing a way forward. True, a few positive adjectives are spared for European unification, which is seen as being broadly in tune with flexibility, decentralized networking, and the variable geometries of information society. Yet the future of Europe's identity lies, for Castells, in the defence of the welfare state and of territorial cultures, at a time when the forces of technology would be moving the other way. This, in sum, might be the place where a certain leftism can regroup and resist the way of the world. But the sociologist has not sufficiently forged the arms that might make resistance possible, unless it is simply por cojones.

Castells' is a wide-ranging narrative in which "networks" and "information" are characters. The characters, however, are no more than that. They can move in many ways, they have their good and bad sides, and only in extreme hindsight could they be construed as explanations in themselves. How is it possible to resist global capitalism? Castells intimates the only answer possible: by using the liberating forces of information technology to achieve, at last, the aims of the Enlightenment. But aren't those same forces the ones shaping the tendencies to be resisted? And if so, what kinds of causation are linking this story together anyway?

Such questions quietly undo a few seams. Consider, for example, the counter-argument that the European system has survived a millennium because it has long had a weak centre and has always incorporated flexibility and innovation. The novelty of our age may thus lie not in the technology of information, but in the way that technology has marginally favoured the export of Western modes of social organization. Such a scenario would leave Castells at once lamenting the West and seeking some kind of future in European resistance. One senses a need for alternative spaces, for better modes of sociological proof, and perhaps for a few more active characters.

 

 

 

© Anthony Pym 2002
 

© Anthony Pym 2014
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