Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 262 | Mayo 2003



The Information Age: Understanding our World

The US war against Iraq was not only ethically unjustifiable, but was also an expression of the arrogant use of old methods by a society that is now obsolete, an expression of the total absence of imagination to make creative and constructive use of the new methods of the Information Age.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Manual Castells, a Catalan sociologist and Professor of Sociology and City and Regional Planning at both the University of California, Berkeley, and the Universitat Oberta, Catalonia, spent 12 years researching and writing his three-volume work The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, first published in English between 1996 and 1998. As of September 2001, the English edition had already been reprinted 12 times, and has been translated into 19 languages, including Spanish, Chinese, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean and Russian. Castells dedicated the work to his wife Emma Kiselyova, his companion in research as well as life, who opened the doors to several worlds through languages unknown to him. He also dedicated it to Irene Castells Oliván, an “historian of utopias,” and his daughter Nuria, “joy of my life.” This is clearly the work of a man whose life is illuminated by the light of three stars. I spent two years reading it and will attempt to sum it up here, with some brief comments and an invitation to read it yourself; it is an arduous but productive adventure.

A new classic in sociology

In his 11th thesis on Feuerbach, Marx wrote, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Durkheim held the same view, albeit from a conservative position. Weber, on the other hand, not only situated himself among those whose aim is to scientifically interpret the world while leaving it to others to politically conserve or transform it, but also insisted that sociological analysis should be independent of the analyst’s ethical and political values.

Castells mentions that he comes from “a time and a tradition” that emphasized the intellectual’s moral and political commitment, but unlike Marx and Durkheim he believes that intellectuals should not to try to answer the question of what to do. Instead, they should work to interpret the world critically, observing events freely without being bound to particular theories or ideologies. They thus can provide useful material with which others—including intellectuals, but in their roles as citizens—can “construct their practice on the basis of their experience, while using whatever information or analysis is available to them, from a variety of sources.” He considers “social action and political projects to be essential in the betterment of a society that clearly needs change and hope” but recalls that “each time that an intellectual has tried to answer” the question of what must be done, “and seriously implement the answer, catastrophe has ensued,” whether it was Lenin, Von Hayek or Milton Friedman and his Chicago Boys.

I compare Castells’ work to the classics of sociology, as several other current writers have done. Alain Touraine described it as a “21st century classic.” Anthony Giddens wrote that “it would not be fanciful to compare the work to Max Weber’s Economy and Society,” while Janet Abu-Lughod notes that by placing “culture” in his subtitle, Castells goes “one topic beyond Max Weber.” The Finnish writer Markku Wilenius feels that Castells’ research on informational capitalism will become a classic reference work in the same way that Marx’s work became the classic on industrial capitalism. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the sociologist and former President of Brazil, believes that the study will have an enormous impact on the social sciences. Even the Wall Street Journal recognized its importance: “Adam Smith explained how capitalism worked and Karl Marx explained why it didn’t. Now the social and economic relations of the Information Age have been captured by Manuel Castells.” It is clearly impossible to do justice to the over 1,400 pages in these three volumes, but it is possible to summarize the areas he deals with, and following that to touch on his approach to at least some of them.

A fascination with social change:
The informational paradigm

What does Castells’ work actually deal with? Its origin most likely lies in its author’s fascination with social change, which has never been as fast, as surprising, as complex, as passionate and as global as in the last third of the 20th century.

Take for example the change that gives the study its title and its main thread: information. The important role it plays in society is nothing new, since information, “as communication of knowledge, has been critical in all societies.” What Castells has observed since 1968, however, is “a specific form of social organization in which information generation, processing and transmission become the fundamental sources of productivity and power because of new technological conditions emerging in this historical period.” For this reason he calls contemporary society an “informational society” and sees it as the successor to the industrial society.

In the industrial technological paradigm, society “is oriented toward economic growth, that is toward maximizing output.” In the informational technological model, however, society “is oriented towards technological development, that is toward the accumulation of knowledge and towards higher levels of complexity in information processing.” The purpose of Castells’ study as he explains it is to consider the consequences of this shift on our lives, to sketch out “the actual content of ‘informational society’” that must be “determined by observation and analysis.”

What transformations
are taking place in the world?

What other social transformations, in addition to the emergence of the new informational technological paradigm, fascinate Castells? He discusses several of them at length. One is the global-scale interconnection and interdependence of the entire planet’s economies. Another is the collapse of Soviet statism and the whole world ideologically linked to it because of the failure of perestroika and the gradual incorporation of Russia and the former Soviet world into the global market.

Castells analyzes the profound restructuring of capitalism with its increasing flexible management and the decentralizing and networking of companies, as well as the “considerable empowering of capital vis-à-vis labor, with the concomitant decline in influence of the labor movement” and the “division of labor based on the attributes/capacities of each worker rather than on the organization of tasks.” He considers “the massive incorporation of women into the paid labor force, usually under discriminatory conditions.” And he looks at the efforts to dismantle or stifle the welfare state, the intensification of global economic competition, the diversification of the venues for accumulating and managing capital and the global integration of financial markets.

He also looks at the consequences of all these transformations: “the rise of the Asian Pacific as the new dominant global manufacturing center; the arduous economic unification of Europe; the emergence of a North American regional economy,” which is what Plan Puebla Panama, NAFTA and the FTAA are all about; “the diversification, then disintegration, of the former Third World and emergence of the Fourth World; the emergence and consolidation of capital and global criminal activities; and the growth of “a new communication system, increasingly speaking a universal, digital language,” both homogenizing and individualizing culture and creating more opportunities for interactive communication.

At the same time, Castells discusses other, equally “dramatic” social changes. He describes the trends undermining the patriarchy, the transformation of gender relations into “a contested domain, rather than a sphere of cultural reproduction” and the consequent redefinition of relationships within the family and between generations, related to both sexuality and personality. And he looks at “the greening of the self” as Petra Kelly put it, the development of environmental awareness in society. Alongside these two major changes, he analyzes the “structural crisis of legitimacy” of political and party systems and the development of religious fundamentalism and communal, ethnic and nationalistic movements—some xenophobic, some not—as sources of identity.

The opposition between network and self,
between globalization and identities

There is a bipolar opposition between the network, or the structure of informational globalization, and the self, made up of the relations of experience and culture that shape our identities. Touraine argued that defense of the subject, with its own personality and culture, against the logic of machines and markets has replaced the idea of class struggle. We can find important examples of this opposition in the dismantling of the former Soviet Union, the construction of European unity, the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the process of building and developing the Social Forum in Porto Alegre.

Castells believes that all of these socially transforming events, which are creating “a new world,” can be summed up in “three independent processes: the information technology revolution; the economic crisis of both capitalism and statism, and their subsequent restructuring.” He sees them producing very different historical results, at least for the moment, in the globalization of capitalism and the collapse of statism, “and the blooming of social and cultural movements such as libertarianism, human rights, feminism and environmentalism.”
Although Castells recognizes these as independent trends, he proposes “the hypothesis that all major trends of change constituting our new confusing world are related, and that we can make sense of their interrelationship.” He argues that “the interaction between these processes and the reactions they triggered brought into being a new dominant social structure, the network society; a new economy, the informational/global economy; and a new culture, the culture of real virtuality.” And he sums up our age by proposing that our societies are increasingly structured around this bipolar opposition between the network and the self.

A network, Castells explains, is “a set of interconnected nodes. A node is the point at which a curve intersects itself. What a node is, concretely speaking, depends on the kind of concrete networks of which we speak.” For example, in the network of drug trafficking, the network and its nodes include everything from the coca and poppy fields to the money laundering institutions. The self in Castells is practically interchangeable with identity, understood as “the process by which a social actor recognizes itself and constructs meaning primarily on the basis of a given cultural attribute or set of attributes, to the exclusion of a broader reference to other social structures.” We may build our sense of self on the basis, for example, of being a woman, or a Quechua or Maya, or a pacifist or environmentalist, or a young person or adult or elderly person, or a Catholic or Protestant or Islamic or practitioner of voodoo.

The theoretical tool:
Production, power and experience

What theoretical framework does Castells use to carry out his investigation? We must keep in mind that for Castells, “social theory is a tool to understand the world, not an end for intellectual self-enjoyment.” It is hard to sum up his work for precisely this reason, because its richness lies in the immense quantity and quality of information he gathers, the results of his multicultural observation of the world. “The method I have followed aims at communicating theory by analyzing practice,” he explains.
Castells notes that he doesn’t share the traditional Marxist view of society as built in layers, with the economy and technology as the foundation, power on the first floor and culture in the attic. In contrast, he proposes a theoretical perspective that postulates that “societies are organized around human processes structured by historically determined relationships of production, experience and power.” There is nothing new in his definition of production, but his other two definitions are innovative. “Experience is the action of human subjects on themselves, determined by the interaction between their biological and cultural identities, and in relationship to their social and natural environment. It is constructed around the endless search for fulfillment of human needs and desires. Power is that relationship between human subjects which, on the basis of production and experience, imposes the will of some subjects upon others by the potential or actual use of violence, physical or symbolic.”
The theoretical importance of this framework lies in its incorporation of gender, sexual and family relations as well as other kinds of cultural relations not only into the economy and culture, as the Marxists did, but also into the arena of power. Castells describes power as an organizational response not only to class relations and their translation into either wealth or poverty, but also to gender and generational relationships and other cultural and ethnic relationships and their translation into roles within the patriarchal institution of the family and other hierarchical institutions such as churches, schools, hospitals, jails, the university, segregated neighborhoods and regions, etc.

Castells writes that “production is organized in class relationships,” while “experience is structured around gender/sexual relationships, historically organized around the family.” He notes that “power is founded upon the state and its institutionalized monopoly of violence” and on “what Foucault labels the microphysics of power, embodied in institutions and organizations.” In this theoretical framework, culture is not a segregated compartment but rather is integrated into identities. It also appears less specialized since it emerges, with its communicative, symbolic and territorial or geographic content, from the interactions between nature, production, experience and power. As Castells explains, “symbolic communication between humans and the relationship between humans and nature, on the basis of production (with its complement, consumption), experience and power crystallize over history in specific territories, thus generating cultures and collective identities.”

Information surpasses industrialization

Castells introduces the distinction between modes of production and modes of development at this point. The “information technology revolution,” he writes, is “at least as major an historical event as was the 18th-century industrial revolution, inducing a pattern of discontinuity in the material basis of economy, society and culture.” He refers to capitalism and statism as the “two predominant modes of production” in the 20th century and distinguishes between them as follows: “capitalism is oriented toward profit-maximizing, that is toward increasing the amount of surplus appropriated by capital,” while “statism was oriented toward power-maximizing, that is toward increasing the military and ideological capacity of the political apparatus for imposing its goals on a greater number of subjects and at deeper levels of their consciousness.”
In addition to these two modes of production, Castells argues that we have to consider modes of development. Within the capitalist production mode, Castells distinguishes two modes of development according to their degree of productivity: industrial and informational. “In the industrial mode of development, the main source of productivity lies in the introduction of new energy sources and in the ability to decentralize the use of energy throughout the production and circulation processes. In the new informational mode of development the source of productivity lies in the technology of knowledge generation, information processing and symbol communication.”
The new information technology makes up a “new technological paradigm” that allows the emergence of globalization. This paradigm, organized around “new, more powerful and more flexible information technologies, makes it possible for information itself to become the product of the production process.” Thus, in the current capitalist production process, “the products of new information technology industries are information-processing devices or information processing itself,” which “act upon all domains of human activity.” Within the production process, “a networked, deeply interdependent economy emerges that becomes increasingly able to apply its progress in technology, knowledge and management to technology, knowledge and management themselves. Such a virtuous circle should lead to greater productivity and efficiency, given the right conditions of equally dramatic organizational and institutional changes.”
Castells expands on the distinction between the two technological paradigms, the industrial and the informational. “Industrialism is oriented towards economic growth, that is towards maximizing production; informationalism is oriented towards technological development, that is towards higher levels of complexity in information processing.” “What has changed,” he writes, “is not the kind of activities humankind is engaged in, but its technological ability to use as a direct productive force what distinguishes our species as a biological oddity: its superior capacity to process symbols.”

The global informational economy
displaces the old world economy

The global economy made possible by the new informational technological paradigm is not merely the old “world economy,” that is, one “in which capital accumulation proceeds throughout the world” which “has existed in the West at least since the 16th century,” as demonstrated by Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein and Eric Wolf. In contrast, the current economy is one “with the capacity to work as a unit in real time, or chosen time, on a planetary scale.”
The economy is “informational because the productivity and competitiveness” of firms, networks of firms, regions or networks of nations “fundamentally depend upon their capacity to generate, process and apply efficiently knowledge-based information. It is global because the core activities of production, consumption and circulation, as well as their components (capital, labor, raw materials, management, information, technology, markets) are organized on a global scale.... This new economy emerged in the last quarter of the 20th century because the information technology revolution provided the indispensable material basis for its creation.”
Castells studies the diverse processes and elements of the new global economy. Capital is globalized, “managed around the clock in globally integrated financial markets.” Labor, for the most part, is not, however. While a small but growing group of “the highest-skilled professionals in innovative R&D, cutting-edge engineering, financial management, advanced business services and entertainment...shift and commute between nodes of the global networks that control the planet,” most labor “remains largely nation-bound. Indeed, for two-thirds of workers in the world, employment still means agricultural employment, rooted in the fields, usually in their region.” Still, work is a global resource in at least three ways. Companies can select locations anywhere in the world to find the labor they want with respect to its qualifications, cost or control; they can look for highly skilled labor from any part of the world as long as they offer competitive pay and working conditions; and slowly but inevitably, the world’s labor force is migrating to wherever it can find work
Science, technology and information are also organized in global flows: of capital, information, images, sounds and symbols. The markets of goods and services are increasingly globalized, although the domestic markets in developed countries still make up the largest part of the GDP, the informal markets in developing countries provide the bulk of urban employment, and public services and government institutions are located outside globalization. The greatest change, Castells argues, has to do with the management of production and distribution and the very process of production itself, which occurs through transnational networks that have extremely variable locations and flexible forms of management.

Space of flows and timeless time

Castells observes and analyzes the evolution of companies toward “the network enterprise,” the “transformation of work” and “the culture of real virtuality.” But perhaps the most provocative part of his study is the impact he attributes to the new information technology on the “social meaning of space and time,” which are the “fundamental, material dimensions of human life.” In Castells’ study, space is no longer the “space of places” that our empirical experience would seem to reveal, but rather the “space of flows.” This means that we no longer live socially in the places we inhabit or work but rather in all those spaces to which we connect ourselves through information and communication technology.

Time is observed and explained not as “linear, irreversible, measurable, predictable time,” but rather as “timeless time,” which is both “eternal and ephemeral,” disrupting the sequential order of events to produce instantaneity and random discontinuity. Although this new “timeless” time is not our most frequent social experience—most people’s lives are still ruled by the clock—it is socially dominant. In the same way, all the economic and social processes that affect us all are now related to the economy’s dominant structural logic even though most people don’t work for the informational/global economy or buy from it.

Castells proposes the hypothesis that the new “space of flows” organizes time in the network society. The experience of life and death, of the human life cycle that built pagodas and cathedrals—a cycle so full of children and the elderly, of births and deaths—no longer dominates. What dominates instead is the experience of “the space of flows,” which defeats distance and breaks the yoke of clock time. It also, or so it seems to me, builds interminable marble walls with depersonalized names as monuments to the “anonymous” dead, like the one in Washington for the 50,000 US soldiers killed throughout the Vietnam war.

Identity-based social movements
challenge globalization

Toward the end of the second millennium, society began to undergo a transformation on a global scale that was far more rapid and surprising than any previous change in history. This is why we call it “globalization.” Castells describes how these changes have affected us and how we have responded to them, and highlights the resulting contradictions and conflicts. “In such a world of uncontrolled, confusing change, people tend to regroup around primary identities: religious, ethnic, territorial, national.... In a world of global flows of wealth, power and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning.... Meanwhile, on the other hand, global networks of instrumental exchanges selectively switch on and off individuals, groups, regions, and even countries, according to their relevance in fulfilling the goals processed in the network, in a relentless flow of strategic decisions. There follows a fundamental split between abstract, universal instrumentalism, and historically rooted, particular identities”—that is, between the logic of instrumentalism, which has been one of the modern era’s most commonly traveled routes, and the identities that give meaning to our lives, both premodern and postmodern. Castells describes the risks inherent in this split: “In this condition of structural schizophrenia between function and meaning...communication breaks down...and social groups and individuals become alienated from each other, and see the other as a stranger, eventually as a threat.”
Identities lie on the opposite pole to globalization and play a vital role in the social changes currently underway. Thus, after analyzing the development of global informational capitalism, Castells goes on to analyze the other pole in the globalization-identity opposition, which he describes as “the widespread surge of powerful expressions of collective identity.” He does this from a multicultural point of view because he is convinced that “the process of techno-economic globalization shaping our world is being challenged, and will eventually be transformed, from a multiplicity of sources, according to different cultures, histories and geographies.” These identities can be found at the heart of the largest social movements of our time, which Castells defines as “purposive collective actions whose outcome, in victory as in defeat, transforms the values and institutions of society.”
Castells discusses examples from across the whole broad spectrum of these social movements and withholds judgment as he does so, explaining that “since there is no sense of history other than the history we sense, from an analytical perspective, there are no ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ progressive and regressive social movements. They are all symptoms of who we are, and avenues of our transformation, since transformation may equally lead to a whole range of heavens, hells or heavenly hells.”
The identities channeled through social movements take different forms. They may be “legitimizing identities,” such as those established around unions or political parties, which rose out of civil society and “were constructed around the democratic state and around the social contract between capital and labor.” They may be “resistance identities” shaped by people in a devalued or marginalized position, which can be channeled through reactive social movements, like the fundamentalists or Zapatistas, or through proactive movements like feminism or environmentalism. All of these identities can evolve towards “project identities,” whose movements propose new social projects to change the structure of society, challenging the individualistic, narcissistic projects that have emerged from the informational society.

Castells sees the new social movements as “the potential subjects of the Information Age.” They may act through “prophets,” that is through the “symbolic personalities” who “give a face (or a mask) to a symbolic insurgency” and speak in its name. Or they may act through interconnected, decentralized “networks” that are the “actual producers and distributors of cultural codes.” They wage campaigns that are often quite successful, such as the campaigns we have seen on indigenous rights, or in defense of the Amazon, or on AIDS, or against war, torture or sexual abuse, to give but a few examples.

Fundamentalisms, nationalisms,
regionalisms and rejection of the global order

Castells studies a number of the “communal heavens” that have been sketched out around some of these identity-based movements. He includes Christian and Islamic religious fundamentalism, nationalistic movements making demands of the state or against it, and regional or local groups organized around a desire to control their space in a reaction against cosmopolitanism: municipal power movements, gated upper-class suburban communities, working class neighborhoods, the youth gangs fighting over turf and religious sanctuaries of many faiths. He also studies examples of “social movements against the new global order,” including the Zapatistas, the extreme right militia and patriot movements in the United States and Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, which make extensive use of the new information and communication technology and have acquired a great deal of their importance by staying on the front pages of the newspapers.

Castells brings them all together in a “grand refus” or “great rejection,” to use Touraine’s term, of “the neoliberal fantasy of creating a new global economy independent of society by using computer architecture.” Although Castells finished his work before Seattle, Washington, Genoa and Porto Alegre, the movements he studied appear as precursors to a huge wave of reactions against “the grand exclusionary scheme” of informational capitalism, the excluded against the excluders.

Castells looks at the multiple faces of the environmental movements, from conservationists to the “not in my back yard” battles, eco-feminism and deep ecology, Greenpeace and green politics. He discusses the powerful impact these various strands have had on cultural values and social institutions in the past 25 years, and proposes that the thread running through them all is the understanding that “the more we know, the more we sense the possibilities of our technology, and the more we realize the gigantic, dangerous gap between our enhanced productive capacities and our primitive, unconscious, and ultimately destructive social organization.”

Against the patriarchy and
for the construction of egalitarian families

Perhaps the most brilliant and important part of Castells’ study on identities is his analysis of the end of the patriarchy, the “founding structure of all contemporary societies,” which “is characterized by the institutionally enforced authority of males over females and their children in the family unit. For this authority to be exercised, patriarchalism must permeate the entire organization of society, from production and consumption to politics, law and culture. Interpersonal relationships, and thus personality, are marked as well by domination and violence originating from the culture and institutions of patriarchalism.”
In his study of women’s identities and their conflict with patriarchal society, Castells makes a crucial analysis of women’s incorporation into work outside the home. He points to three important reasons for the enormous scale of this phenomenon: “the possibility of paying less for similar work”; women’s “relational skills, increasingly necessary in an informational economy where the administration of things takes second place to the management of people”; and “their flexibility as workers,” in that “women account for the bulk of part-time and temporary employment.” An important result of this trend is the fact that “a woman’s financial contribution becomes decisive for the household budget. Thus, female bargaining power within the household increases significantly.”
Castells tries to do justice to the multifaceted wealth of the feminist movement, providing a broad and varied typology: movements in defense of women’s rights against the patriarchal state or patriarchal capitalism; cultural feminism, which aims to build alternative institutions; essentialist feminism striving for liberation against the male way of being or suppression of the man-woman dichotomy that some consider to be created by patriarchal society; lesbian feminism, not so much as a sexual orientation but rather as a revolution against heterosexual patriarchy and for the “destruction of the class of women within which men appropriate women,” as Monique Wittig wrote; the specific and multiple identities women create to use the power of identity in opposing the standardization of feminism; and practical feminists, who fight for their survival, dignity and rights but may not have a clear or conscious opposition to the patriarchy.

Gay and lesbian identities

Equally important is Castells’ analysis of gay and lesbian identities. One of the most illuminating points in this section is his discussion of how the gay community came to understand the causes of AIDS and then waged a cultural battle “to convince the world that it was not produced by homosexuality or, for that matter, by sexuality. Contact networks, including sexual contact, but comprising many other forms, were the lethal messengers.” Disconnecting these networks, through “education, organization and responsibility, supported both by public health institutions and civic consciousness,” was the way to halt the spread of the disease, rather than mythifying the virus as some kind of scourge against homosexuality. Castells also discusses how sexual identity movements “bring into motion a corrosive critique of sexual normalization and the patriarchal family.”
In summing up his observations on the challenges to the patriarchy, Castells describes the numerous and increasingly separate roles family members play in the contemporary families shaped by all of these phenomena. He concludes that “the difficulty of coping with all these roles at the same time, once they are not fixed any longer in a formal, institutionalized structure, such as the patriarchal family, explains the difficulty of maintaining stable social relationships within the family-based household.” He ends on a mixed note of caution and hope, positing that “the escape to freedom in the open, networked society will lead to individual anxiety and social violence, until new forms of coexistence and shared responsibility are found that bring together women, men and children in a reconstructed, egalitarian family better suited to free women, informed children and uncertain men.”

The decline of the state
and the crisis of democracy

In concluding his discussion of the new social movements, Castells writes that “the ability or inability of the feminist and sexual identity social movements to institutionalize their values will essentially depend on their relationship to the state, the last resort apparatus of patriarchalism throughout history.” He also points out, however, that these demands are being made of a state diminished in its power by multinational and supranational networks, the agents of globalization.

Castells highlights the difficulties posed by this contradiction by relating the arrival of the Information Age to the decline of democracy. Electronic media “have become the privileged space of politics.” It is not that they determine public opinion, but rather that politics cannot take place outside them: “Media politics is not all politics, but all politics must go through the media to affect decision-making.” Politics is now framed by the logic of the media, especially the electronic media (including the press, now as electronic a media form as any other because of its presence on the Internet), and threatened even more than it was in the age of yellow journalism by the politics of scandal.

The nation-state is in crisis, due above all to the erosion of its legitimacy brought on by the undermining of the welfare state and the rupture of the social pact between the state, capital and labor. The political system and the very idea of representative democracy are also in crisis. On the other hand, we have seen the beginnings of “informational democracy” movements, such as those to increase citizen participation in local management, often through the use of local radio and television stations; movements that use the Internet for communication and organization among citizens; and mobilizations around humanitarian causes by organizations such as Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, Greenpeace, Oxfam, Food First and other local and global groups that Castells describes as “the most powerful proactive, mobilizing factor in informational politics.” These trends may provide some hope for a revival of democracy through informational politics.

A new historical landscape:
The collapse of Soviet communism

The processes of social change that Castells analyzes in the first two volumes of his study have led to a “fundamental transformation of the macropolitical and macrosocial contexts that shape and condition social action and human experience around the world.” His third volume explores some of these transformations, while “attempting to explain them as a result of the interaction between processes characterizing the Information Age: informationalization, globalization, networking, identity-building, the crisis of patriarchal-ism, and of the nation-state.” In the “new historical landscape” that surrounds us, the first major change he discusses is the collapse of Soviet communism, “one of the most extraordinary instances of unexpected historical change.” Castells believes that the roots of this collapse lie in “the inability of statism to manage the transition to the Information Age.” The basic problem was that “paradoxically, a system built under the banner of the development of productive forces could not master the most important technological revolution in human history. This is because the characteristics of informationalism, the symbiotic interaction between socially determined processing of information and material production, became incompatible with the monopoly of information by the state and with the closing of technology within the boundaries of warfare.” Progress in the military realm and in space did not carry over into other sectors of the economy, partly because of paranoia over security and partly because the state’s sights were narrowly focused on competition with the United States. This explanation is coherent with the fundamental characteristic of statism, which Castells identifies as the maximization of power.

The rigidly hierarchical business organization structures used in planning a bureaucratically centralized economy made the transition to flexible management structures and interconnection through networks much more difficult in the USSR than in the West. This was aggravated by the fact that “Soviet bureaucrats and managers did discover flexibility and networking as an organizational form, but they applied it to the development of the shadow economy, thus undermining the control capacity of the command economy from the inside.” A further problem for statism lay in its handling of identity. The information society “is based on the historical tension between the material power of abstract information processing and society’s search for meaningful cultural identity.” But statism fails on both counts, as it not only “suffocates the capacity for technological innovation” but also “appropriates and redefines historically rooted identities, in order to dissolve them into the all-important process of power-making.”

Indispensable and expendable workers

“The end of Soviet communism,” Castells writes, “and the hurried adaptation of Chinese communism to global capitalism, has left a new brand of leaner, meaner capitalism alone at last in its planetary reach. The restructuring of capitalism in the period from the 1970s to the 1990s showed the versatility of its operating rules, and its capacity to use efficiently the networking logic of the Information Age to induce a dramatic leap forward in productive forces and economic growth. Yet, it also displayed its exclusionary logic, as millions of people and large areas of the planet are being excluded from the benefits of informationalism, both in the developed and developing worlds.”
This is part of the elitism inherent to capitalism, which Castells observes in studying the growing differentiation between “generic labor,” which includes not only unskilled workers but also skilled workers whose skills quickly become obsolete given the dizzying rate of current knowledge accumulation, and the “self programmable” producers of information who, thanks to their education, are able to “reprogram” themselves for the changing demands of their work or for other jobs. While those who perform generic labor may be collectively indispensable, they are easily replaced as individuals and thus expendable. Access to education is a key factor in this differentiation, as education is “the process by which people, that is labor, acquire the capability constantly to redefine the necessary skills for a given task, and to access the sources for learning these skills.”

The First World and the Fourth World

For many years we have been accustomed to analyzing the world that emerged after World War II in terms of a First World, the industrialized capitalist one led by the United States; a Second World of existing socialism, on the road to rapid industrialization and at least as advanced as the First in some economic sectors, such as the military and space, and led by the Soviet Union, though divided in the early 1960s by the Sino-Soviet split; and a Third World made up of developing countries with slow and varied degrees of industrialization, which tried to come together through the Non-Aligned Movement led by India, Egypt and Indonesia but in reality always oscillated politically between the First and Second World and economically depended on one or the other. More recently we began also to speak of a Fourth World, a concept that covered countries irremediably mired in poverty like most of those in Sub-Saharan Africa, and pockets of extreme poverty in the First World’s big cities.

We obviously can no longer analyze the world this way. The new map of the planet no longer contains a Second World, which vanished with the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, according to Castells, “the differential ability of countries and economic agents to link up with informational processes and to compete in the global economy” led to “increasingly divergent development paths in the Third World, in fact ending the very notion of ‘a Third World’.” As a result, the world today is essentially made up of the First World and the Fourth World, which includes “much of Sub-Saharan Africa, and impoverished rural areas of Latin America and Asia. But it is also present in literally every country, and every city, in this new geography of social exclusion.” Thus, we have witnessed the full emergence of the Fourth World of exclusion and the excluded.

Socially excluded individuals
and regions of the world

Castells discusses several trends characteristic of capitalism. Some, like inequality, polarization, poverty and misery, have to do with “relationships of distribution/consumption or differential appropriation of the wealth generated by collective effort.” Others, like super-exploitation, social exclusion, the individualization of work—with no collective bargaining agreements—and “perverse integration” are “relations of production” that have “fundamental consequences for inequality, polarization, poverty, and misery.”
Castells argues that “the process of social exclusion in the network society concerns both people and territories.” For people, exclusion fundamentally means the lack of “access to relatively regular, paid labor, for at least one member of a stable household.” In territories, it means that “under the new, dominant logic of the space of flows, areas that are non-valuable from the perspective of informational capitalism,” either economically or politically, “are bypassed by flows of wealth and information, and ultimately deprived of the basic technological infrastructure that allows us to communicate, innovate, produce, consume, and even live, in today’s world.”
Basing his arguments on well-known studies by the United Nations Development Program and the International Labor Organization, Castells writes that “the ascent of informational, global capitalism is indeed characterized by simultaneous economic development and underdevelopment, social inclusion and social exclusion.... There is polarization in the distribution of wealth at the global level... and substantial growth of poverty and misery in the world at large and in most—but not all—countries, both developed and developing. However, the patterns of social exclusion, and the factors accounting for them, require a qualitative analysis of the processes by which they are induced.” Castells studies these processes in Sub-Saharan Africa, the cities of the United States, and the situation of children.

He explains that the ways into the “black holes” of social exclusion “are dependent on specific events that ‘lock in’ trajectories of marginality. It may be a rapacious dictator, as in Zaire; or a police decision to abandon certain neighborhoods to drug traffickers; or ‘red-lining’ from housing lenders; or the exhaustion of mines or the devaluation of agricultural products on which a region was making a living. Whatever the reason, for these territories, and for the people trapped in them, a downward spiral of poverty, then dereliction, finally irrelevance, operates until or unless a countervailing force, including people’s revolt against their condition, reverses the trend.” He argues that a “new geography of social exclusion” has taken shape as the “selective triage of informational capitalism, and the political breakdown of the welfare state, intensify social exclusion. In the current historical context, the rise of the Fourth World is inseparable from the rise of informational global capitalism.”

The “perverse connection”:
The global criminal economy

Castells is among the first to address the phenomenon of the “perverse connection” of the “global criminal economy” in a sociological study with a multicultural focus and a global reach, a phenomenon I analyzed some years ago as “criminal capital” in the context of El Salvador and Guatemala. This is “global crime, the networking of powerful criminal organizations, and their associates, in shared activities throughout the planet... a new phenomenon that profoundly affects international and national economies, politics, security, and, ultimately, societies at large.”
Castells sketches out a who’s who of global crime: “The Sicilian Cosa Nostra..., the American Mafia, the Colombian cartels, the Mexican cartels, the Nigerian criminal networks, the Japanese Yakuza, the Chinese Triads, the constellation of Russian Mafiyas, the Turkish heroin traffickers, the Jamaican Posses and a myriad of regional and local criminal groupings in all countries” that have come together “in a global, diversified network.” He also traces the who’s who of their businesses, including drugs, arms and “everything that receives added value precisely from its prohibition in a given institutional environment: radioactive material, human organs and illegal immigrants; prostitution; gambling; loan-sharking; kidnapping; racketeering and extortion; counterfeiting of goods, bank notes, financial documents, credit cards and identity cards; killers for hire; traffic of sensitive information, technology or art objects; international sales of stolen goods; or even dumping garbage illegally from one country into another.” And of course, “at the heart of the system, there is money laundering by the hundreds of billions (maybe trillions) of dollars,” linked to the legal formal economy through “complex financial schemes and international trade networks.” Castells observes the operations of these networks in Russia and Latin America, especially Colombia.

He outlines their strategy, which is “to base their management and production functions in low-risk areas, where they have relative control of the institutional environment, while targeting as preferential markets those areas with the most affluent demand, so that higher prices can be charged.” The various groups make strategic alliances that “closely follow the organizational logic of... ‘the network enterprise,’ characteristic of the Information Age.” On the issue of drug trafficking, Castells asks, “Why Colombia?” then explains: “Because of the original combination of dormant networks of drug traffic linking up to the United States, an existing entrepreneurial class marginalized by the failed industrialization of Latin America, and the strong rooting of the relatively educated, upwardly mobile smugglers into their cultures and local societies.” In addition, “this serendipitous formula” was built on the tradition of La Violencia of the 1950s, as well as “the perennial crisis of legitimacy and control of the Colombian state” and its corruption. Information technology makes it possible in this connection, however perverse it may be, as in the others, for “the real thing, that is the money, to circulate safely in the flows of computerized financial transactions, managed from offshore banking bases.” He concludes by pointing out that “criminal networks are probably in advance of multinational corporations in the decisive ability to combine cultural identity and global business.”

Rapid growth capitalism in the Asian Pacific
The second most important transformation studied by Castells on the threshold of the new millennium is that of the Asian Pacific. His main analytic thesis is that no region of the Pacific exists as a distinct or integrated entity and there will therefore be no Pacific Era, above all because the development process has been and continues to be fostered by parallel nationalisms unwilling to minimize their identity. The main factor in Japan, the four Asian Tigers (Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong) and China is the presence of the developmental state, whose legitimacy is based on a social project rather than representation of civil society, in the same way that no revolutionary state is based on civil society.

Castells hypothesizes that we are in the presence of such a developmental state when the social project respects the broadest parameters of social order, such as global capitalism, but aspires to fundamental transformations of the economic order, dispensing with the interests or desires of civil society. All of these Asian states practiced repression, which in other countries of the old Third World has done little to help mobilize their societies along the path to development. But in addition, the traditional dominant classes were destroyed, disorganized or left subordinated to the state, following the agrarian reforms in those countries, particularly Taiwan and South Korea.

Castells recognizes the paradox that the success of the developmental states in East Asia ended up leading to the disappearance of their apparatus and at the end of the millennium it is their citizens who are determining their real historical projects. What they all have in common, in his view, is that their economies have been profoundly penetrated by global financial flows and, like the rest of the world, they have therefore become dependent on capital movement rather than the exportation of merchandise. Furthermore, he sees the main reason for the Asian crisis of 1997-98 as the success of their economic growth process and their full integration into the global economy, which is backed up by the fact that the country least affected by the crisis, China, is the least integrated into the world financial circuits.

The People’s Republic of China has the highest economic growth rate and perhaps the most sustained level of human development, yet these cultures maintain their historical specificity, which means that we have truly entered into a multicultural world. Castells argues that the concept of “West” is vanishing, given that it includes Japan, the four Asian Tigers and China; the meaning of “North” in the global economy is definitively fading away” as it includes the rich East; and the South is also disintegrating and diversifying to the point that it is possible to talk of the end of the Third World, as mentioned above. For Castells, the emergence of the rapid-growth Asian Pacific capitalism is, together with the end of the Soviet Empire and the European unification process, one of the most important structural changes to take place in the world at the end of the last century.

European unification:
Globalization, identity and the network state

Castells dedicates the last of his sections on social transformations in today’s world to the European unification process, which he explains as both “a reaction against the process of globalization and its most advanced expression.” He argues that the European unit is not built on the blurring of nationalities and construction of federalism, but rather on the consolidation of nationalities and the construction of a confederation, although one or the other may predominate in different fields.

Informational globalization particularly endangers the welfare state, as demonstrated by the political direction pioneered in Europe by Thatcherism. Castells feels that this is not a determinist tendency and that faced with what Touraine terms the “ideology of globalization,” which he considers a natural force reducing societies to economies, economies to markets and markets to financial flows, Castells sees “a widespread popular reaction...against the shrinkage and potential dismantling of the welfare state, and against flexibility in the labor market at the expense of workers’ stable lives, an opposition often expressed in terms of the people against the politicians, the nation against the European state.”
The European Union is shaping a response to the crisis of the nation-state and the challenges of globalization by building what Castells terms a “network state”; a state “characterized by the sharing of authority...along a network,” in which “no node, even the most powerful, can ignore the others, even the smallest, in the decision-making process.” He concludes that in this dialectic between globalization and identities, “by and large, there is no European identity. But it could be built, not in contradiction but complementary to national, regional and local identities. It would take a process of social construction that I have identified...as project identity; that is, a blueprint of social values and institutional goals that appeal to a majority of citizens without excluding anybody.” These would include “Liberty, equality, fraternity; the defense of the welfare state, of social solidarity, of stable employment and of workers’ rights; concern for universal human rights and the plight of the Fourth World; the reaffirmation of democracy and its extension to citizen participation at the local and regional level; the vitality of historically/territorially rooted cultures, often expressed in language, not surrendering to the culture of real virtuality.” Castells believes that “most European citizens would probably support these values. Their affirmation...would take extraordinary changes in the economy and in institutions. But this is precisely what an identity project is: not a utopian proclamation of dreams, but a struggle to impose alternative ways of economic development, sociability and governance.”

Hardened but flexible capitalism
versus social movements

In his conclusion, Castells states that we are now living globally in “a different kind of capitalism from the one formed during the Industrial Revolution, or the one that emerged from the 1930s Depression and World War II, under the form of economic Keynesianism and social welfarism. It is a hardened form of capitalism in its goals, but is incomparably more flexible than any of its predecessors in its means. It is informational capitalism, relying on innovation-induced productivity and globalization-oriented competitiveness to generate wealth, and to appropriate it selectively. It is, more than ever, embedded in culture and tooled by technology. But, this time, both culture and technology depend on the ability of knowledge and information to act upon knowledge and information, in a recurrent network of globally connected exchanges.”

The fertile seeds of 1968

With his investigation concluded, Castells anticipates the possible objection to his work from the viewpoint of technological determinism by adding that societies “are not just the result of technological and economic transformation, nor can social change be limited to institutional crises and adaptations. At the same time that these developments started to take place in the late 1960s, powerful social movements exploded almost simultaneously all over the industrialized world, first in the United States and France, then in Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, with echoes and reactions in numerous other countries.... They were essentially cultural movements, wanting to change life rather than seizing power. They intuitively knew that access to the institutions of state co-opts the movement, while the construction of a new, revolutionary state perverts the movement. Their ambitions encompassed a multidimensional reaction to arbitrary authority, a revolt against injustice and a search for personal experimentation.”
He notes that these movements were “politically defeated because, as most utopian movements in history, they never pretended to political victory. But they faded away with high historical productivity” because “from these movements sprang the ideas that would be the source of environmentalism, of feminism, of the endless defense of human rights, of sexual liberation, of ethnic equality and of grassroots democracy.” He concludes that these social movements “were not reactions to the economic crisis [but rather] a critique of the ‘consumer society.’” A particularly important observation is that “technology was largely absent from either the values or critiques of most movements [that emerged around 1968], if we except some calls against de-humanizing machinism and their opposition to nuclear power.” Yet despite being mainly cultural, “their libertarian spirit considerably influenced the movement toward individualized, decentralized uses of technology. Their sharp separation from traditional labor politics contributed to the weakening of organized labor, thus facilitating capitalist restructuring. Their cultural openness stimulated technological experimentation with symbol manipulation, constituting a new world of imaginary representations that would evolve toward the culture of real virtuality. Their cosmopolitanism and internationalism set up the intellectual bases for an interdependent world. And their abhorrence of the state undermined the legitimacy of democratic rituals, in spite of the fact that some leaders of the movement went on to renew political institutions.”

A new society?
New production relations

In his theoretical framework, Castells asserts that “a new society emerges when and if a structural transformation can be observed in the relationships of production, in the relationships of power, and in the relationships of experience. These transformations lead to an equally substantial modification of social forms of space and time, and to the emergence of new culture.”
How is this reflected in production relationships? In informational capitalism, productivity and competitiveness depend on innovation and flexibility. Information technology and the cultural capacity to use it become essential, along with the new form of organization and management in the network enterprise. The role of work is redefined, distinguishing between “generic labor,” which is expendable, and “self-programmable labor,” which is indispensable, with education—the capacity to incorporate knowledge and information—being the key difference. The flexibility of “networkers and flextimers” leads to “the coordinated decentralization of work and to the individualization of labor.”
Castells proposes that “the informational/global economy is capitalist; in fact, more so than any other economy in history. But capital is as transformed as labor is in this new economy.” Of course, “the rule is still production for the sake of profit, and for the private appropriation of profit, on the basis of property rights—which is the essence of capitalism,” while stockholders, owner families, individual businesspeople and big executives appropriate the profits. But the novel transformation is in the field of financial capitalism, where thanks to the new technology, informational-ism annihilates “space and time by electronic means” so that “global financial markets, and their networks of management, are the actual collective capitalist, the mother of all accumulations.” This, however, does not mean that “financial capital dominates industrial capital, an old dichotomy that simply does not fit the new economic reality.”

More a global casino than a global market

In industrial capitalism, companies, banks and commerce represented dispersed sources of accumulation that competed for the predominance of their different fragments of capital in diverse processes that were sometimes unlinked to accumulation. Nowadays, “firms of all kinds, financial producers, manufacturing producers, agricultural producers, service producers, as well as governments and public institutions,” along with individual investors, savers and retired people, etc., “use global financial networks as the depositories of their earnings and as their potential sources of higher profits. It is in this specific form that global financial networks are the nerve center of informational capitalism,” which seems more like a “global casino” than a “global market.” But because these movements do not follow a market logic, “the market is twisted, manipulated and transformed by a combination of computer-enacted strategic maneuvers, crowd psychology from multi-cultural sources, and unexpected turbulences caused by greater and greater degrees of complexity in the interaction between capital flows on a global scale.” Economists create models to control this casino, but they fail because the “financial wizards” put these models back through their computers “to obtain new competitive advantage from this knowledge by innovating on already known patterns of investment.”

Business networks and
the spirit of informationalism

The fundamental shift in organization “can be characterized as the shift from vertical bureaucracies to the horizontal corporation.” Information technology has contributed to this change, but hasn’t been the only factor. The other equally important one has been the invention of a new organizational logic. Castells defines bureaucracies as those organizations “for which the reproduction of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal,” while corporations are those organizations “in which goals, and the change of goals, shape and endlessly reshape the structure of means.”
The innovation arises from “a fundamental process: the process of disintegration of the organizational model of vertical, rational bureaucracies, characteristic of the large corporation under the conditions of standardized mass production and oligopolistic markets.” As Castells sees it, “the vertical integration of departments within the same business structure is replaced by the vertical disintegration of production in a network of firms. This produces a new organizational paradigm, whose elements include: “business networks/technological tools/global competition/the state [which can be] developmental/ an agent of incorporation/coordinating/mission-oriented messenger.”
The network enterprise is the result of the cooperation between these different elements. “The components of the network are both autonomous and dependent vis-à-vis the network, and may be a part of other networks. ...The performance of a given network will then depend on two fundamental attributes of the network: its connectedness, that is, its structural ability to facilitate noise-free communication between its components; and its consistency, that is, the extent to which there is a sharing of interests between the network’s goals and the goals of its components.” To be successful, such organizations have “to generate knowledge and process information efficiently; to adapt to the variable geometry of the global economy; to be flexible enough to change their means as rapidly as goals change; and to innovate.” All of this creates a culture, a “spirit” of informational capitalism centered on “a culture of the ephemeral, a culture of each strategic decision, a patchwork of experiences and interests, rather than a charter of rights and obligations. It is a multi-faceted, virtual culture.... The ‘spirit of informationalism’ is the culture of ‘creative destruction’.”

What remains of social classes?

Castells also studies the consequences of this new and more hardened capitalism for social class relationships. Based on the theory of social stratification, he proposes that “the new system is characterized by a tendency to increased social inequality and polarization [due to the] differentiation between self-programmable, highly productive labor, and generic, expendable labor; the individualization of labor...and the gradual demise of the welfare state.” But this tendency can be countered and prevented by deliberate public policies and social movements.

He argues that as a result of the social exclusion, “the loss of a stable relationship to employment and the weak bargaining power of many workers lead to a higher level of incidence of major crises in the life of their families,” while the lack of education means that “people who cannot follow the constant updating of skills...position themselves for the next round of ‘downsizing’ of that shrinking middle class.” This is, incidentally, one of the most important sources of the current levels of citizen insecurity in Central America.

Finally, from the Marxist perspective of who the producers are and who appropriates the product of their work, Castells states that “the new producers of informational capitalism are those knowledge generators and information processors...who form a ‘collective worker’…and feel little solidarity with generic labor.” He adds that “we can hardly consider that there is a class contradiction between these networks of highly individualized producers and the collective capitalist of global financial networks.” Castells concludes that “the truly fundamental social cleavages of the Information Age are...the internal fragmentation of labor between informational producers and replaceable generic labor..., the social exclusion of a significant segment of society made up of discarded individuals whose value as workers/consumers is used up, and whose relevance as people is ignored..., the separation between the market logic of global networks of capital flows and the human experience of workers’ lives.”

The new social hierarchy:
Culture is power, power is capital

Castells also points out the results of the new power relations, believing that “the main transformation concerns the crisis of the nation-state as a sovereign entity, and the related crisis of political democracy.” The difficulty of honoring the welfare state’s promises or even starting to develop it implies compromising the legitimacy of the state itself, while “the blurring of boundaries of sovereignty leads to uncertainty in the process of delegation of people’s will.” This can arise from the “globalization of capital, multilateralization of power institutions and decentralization of authority,” as well as the multilateralization of institutions of justice, such as in the international tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Pinochet case and the US refusal to accept the authority of the International Criminal Court. It can also lead towards a network state, as demonstrated by the European Union.
He proposes that, through informational politics, “strategic games, customized representation and personalized leadership substitute for class constituencies, ideological mobilization and party control, which were characteristics of politics in the industrial era.” And he asserts that “as politics becomes a theater and political institutions are bargaining agencies rather than sites of power, citizens around the world act defensively, voting to prevent harm from the state in place of entrusting it with their will.”
Power starts to shift to “cultural codes,” assuming the features of a reaction against the threat of the oppressed race, as in the referendum on the constitutional reforms in Guatemala in 1998, or against immigrants, as in France in 2002. Castells states that “cultural battles are the power battles of the Information Age” and are played out in the communication media, although the media does not hold power. Rather, “power, as the capacity to impose behavior, lies in the networks of information exchange and symbol manipulation, which relate social actors, institutions and cultural movements through icons, spokespersons and intellectual amplifiers.”
Faced with the rapid rotation of power agents in the governments, “there are no more stable power elites,” but rather “elites from power; that is, elites formed during their usually brief power tenure, in which they take advantage of their privileged political position to gain a more permanent access to material resources and social connections.” This immediately evokes comparison with the political parties and Presidents in Central America. Castells concludes that “culture as the source of power, and power as the source of capital, underlie the social hierarchy of the Information Age.”

The end of the patriarchy:
New relationships of experience

Also important are the results Castells reveals regarding the transformation of relationships of experience, which revolve around the crisis of the patriarchy. Castells proposes that “the future of the family is uncertain, but the future of patriarchalism is not: it can only survive under the protection of authoritarian states and religious fundamentalism.” He observes that “networks of people (particularly for women) increasingly substitute for nuclear families as primary forms of emotional and material support.” Although he recognizes that his point of reference for his research lies more in the United States and Western Europe, he believes “it can be shown that women’s struggles, whether or not avowedly feminist, are spreading throughout the world, thus undermining patriarchalism in the family, in the economy, and in the institutions of society.”
According to Castells, “Rebuilding families under egalitarian forms is the necessary foundation for rebuilding society from the bottom up,” and he detects signs of a “recomposition of the family, as millions of men appear to be ready to give up their privileges and work together with women to find new forms of loving, sharing and having children.” He adds that “because personality systems are shaped by family and sexuality, they are also in a state of flux,” which he characterizes as “flexible personalities, able to engage endlessly in the reconstruction of the self, rather than to define the self through adaptation to what were once conventional social roles.”
Castells observes “a stormy horizon ahead for the gay and lesbian movements, and AIDS will not be the only hideous face of anti-sexual backlash. Yet, if the experience of the last quarter of the century has any indicative value, the power of identity seems to become magic when touched by the power of love.” At the end of his research, he proposes that “the most fundamental transformation of relationships of experience in the Information Age is their transition to a pattern of social interaction constructed, primarily, by the actual experience of the relationship. Nowadays, people produce forms of sociability, rather than follow models of behavior.”

New spatial, temporal and cultural relationships

All of these changes tend towards the transformation of space and time as social constructs. Thus, “the space of flows of the Information Age dominates the space of places of people’s cultures...while fragmented experience remains confined to places.” Meanwhile, “technology compresses time to a few, random instants, thus de-sequencing society and de-historizing history.” All of this leads us into a new culture. As Castells puts it: “Throughout history, cultures have been generated by people sharing space and time, under conditions determined by relationships of production, power and experience, and modified by their projects, fighting each other to impose over society their values and goals.... Under the informational paradigm, a new culture has emerged from the superseding of places and the annihilation of time by the space of flows and by timeless time: the culture of real virtuality.”

New social challenges to domination

Castells proposes that, due to their own contradictions and conflicts, “social challenges against patterns of domination in the network society generally take the form of constructing autonomous identities.” He goes on to say that “in the Information Age, the prevailing logic of dominant, global networks is so pervasive and so penetrating that the only way out of their domination appears to be out of these networks, and to reconstruct meaning on the basis of an entirely distinct system of values and beliefs. This is the case for the “communes of resistance identity”: the religious fundamentalists, nationalists, localists, ethnic separatists and cultural communes that “break up with society at large, and rebuild [their] institutions not from the bottom up, but from the inside out.” They thus insist on what they are in the face of “the others,” on what they are rather than what they do, on their sense of identity rather than the function of the role they perform. The interesting thing is that even proactive movements such as feminism or environmentalism “start from the rejection of basic principles on which our societies are constructed: patriarchalism, productivism,” in such a way that “it would be a revolution” if society were to accept them.

Castells considers that “the strength of identity-based social movements is their autonomy vis-à-vis the institutions of the state, the logic of capital and the seduction of technology,” which, of course, they use as a tool. But it is also true that “the fundamental problem raised by processes of social change that are primarily external to the institutions and values of society as it is, is that they may fragment rather than reconstitute society.” This is because while the “dominant global elites” are retrenched “in immaterial palaces made out of communication networks and information flows,” “people’s experience would remain confined to multiple, segregated locales, subdued in their existence and fragmented in their consciousness. With no Winter Palace to be seized, outbursts of revolt may implode, transformed into everyday senseless violence.”

“There is no sense of history
beyond the history we sense”

Castells has more to say on the collapse of the Soviet Union when he proclaims that “there is no sense of history beyond the history we sense.” I would like to take a brief look at this because of its controversial or scandalous content for so-called leftists of whatever persuasion, myself included. The erosion of solidarity, of values and of the sense of life among the Soviet public came, in Castells’ view, from the corruption of those who proclaimed these elements as an ideology and were believed by the people for a very long time. This resembles the harshest criticism of Central American revolutionaries: that their own corruption killed off people’s hope.

But for Castells, “the most important political lesson to be learned from the communist experiment is the fundamental distance that should be kept between theoretical blueprints and the historical development of political projects. To put it bluntly, all Utopias lead to Terror if there is a serious attempt at implementing them. Theories, and their inseparable ideological narratives, can be (and have been) useful tools for understanding, and thus for guiding collective action. But only as tools, always to be rectified and adjusted according to experience. Never as schemata to be reproduced, in their elegant coherence, in the imperfect yet wonderful world of human flesh. Because such attempts are at best cynical rationalizations of personal or group interests. At worst, when they are truly believed and enacted by their believers, such theoretical constructions become the source of political fundamentalism, always an undercurrent of dictatorship and terror. I am not arguing for a bland political landscape free of values and passions. Dreams and projects are the stuff of which social change is made...[but] the artificial paradise of theoretically inspired politics should be buried forever with the Soviet state. Because the most important lesson from the collapse of communism is the realization that there is no sense of history beyond the history we sense.” In other words, a new society and a new humanity cannot be built by mortgaging the present, degrading human values, which are at the base of everyday efforts, and sacrificing victims on the altar of the future, whether to suppress them or to exalt their memory.

The long march towards making sense of history

Castells concludes that “the reconstruction of society’s institutions by cultural social movements, bringing technology under the control of people’s needs and desires, seems to require a long march from the communes built around resistance identity to the heights of new project identities, sprouting from the values nurtured in these communes.” He then gives examples of milestones on this march, such as “the construction of new, egalitarian families; the widespread acceptance of the concept of sustainable development, building intergenerational solidarity into the new model of economic growth; and the universal mobilization in defense of human rights.” All of this requires gradual and firm building processes.

In this respect, it has been suggested from within the Catholic Church that such a march could also be carried out through communities that radically follow Jesus of Nazareth. This could involve people who are simply Christian, not necessarily consecrated. I think Castells would be interested in observing and analyzing these kinds of new communities.

Castells rounds off his work with a very brief look into the 21st century, from which I select this example: “Fundamentalisms of different kinds and from different sources will represent the most daring, uncompromising challenge to one-sided domination of informational, global capitalism. Their potential access to weapons of mass extermination casts a giant shadow on the optimistic prospects of the Information Age.” In this respect, he surmises, “A small determined group, well financed and well informed, can devastate entire cities, or strike at nerve centers of our livelihood.... The infrastructure of our everyday life, from energy to transportation to water supply, has become so complex, and so intertwined, that its vulnerability has increased exponentially.” These prophetic words were published three years before the events of September 11.

Reaction to Castells’ work

It is important to recognize that Castells’ work has been the object of strong, if not numerous, criticisms. The basic question for us is whether it helps or hinders us in analyzing and understanding what is happening in Central America at the beginning of this millennium. It is also important to ask ourselves whether the main thread of this work (information technology)—which is omnipresent as a fundamental factor in explaining the novelty of both the informational development of capitalism and the social movements challenging it from the point of view of identities—provides a satisfactory explanation. Can the enormous amount of phenomena and occurrences in our world be inserted into a “great theory” of social change? Castells himself would answer that he is only interested in theory as a tool for observing and investigating society and that it is more important for his work to approximate the immense variety and multiculturality of the real world than to succeed in a global interpretation.

Some who have reviewed Castells’ work do not think it contains a finished theory of today’s society. For Paul Knox, “it is clear from his introductory chapters that Castells does have pretensions toward a cohesive theoretical framework, but each volume unfolds with interesting views and interpretations of interconnections and correspondences, rather than with clear and compelling theoretical conclusions. Castells does provide a broad interpretive framework...but his overall approach amounts to an extended state-of-the-world-on-the-cusp-of-change review essay rather than a theoretical exegesis. Nevertheless, the trilogy is an impressive achievement and should be required reading for advanced students and professional scholars in the social sciences.” Similarly, Ann Forsyth feels that “Castells has managed to do an enormous job of weaving together a vast story, even if it is only loosely woven rather than tightly argued, taking Castells nearer to Giddens than to Marx.”
For Peter Abell and Diane Reyniers, Castells comes up short with respect to making social theory. They feel his language is not very clear, his research not very rigorous and that, for example, his assumption that where there is interconnection there is already interdependence is wrong. They feel the work is full of metaphors that border on the poetic and lack scientific value (“the space of flows,” “timeless time,” “the annihilation of time,” “the culture of real virtuality,” “the mother of all accumulations,” “the global casino,” etc.). They also think he selectively uses the cited bibliography to buttress his own arguments and actually does not know network theory.

Another important question is just how new are the new economy and new society to which Castells is introducing us. Are we really witnessing a new form of capitalism or the continuity of capitalism, a new mode of capitalist development or a second offshoot from the same mode of industrial development? Has information technology brought a real change in the technological paradigm? In this regard it is worth recalling Marx’s characterization of capitalist transformation so long ago in the Communist Manifesto: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned….” Castells would reply that regardless of whether the world he has analyzed is a new one, the important thing is whether his analysis demonstrates the “capacity, or incapacity, to identify and explain the phenomena that we observe and experience.”
Yet another question asked by critics is whether ecology is something more than just a social movement. Is it enough to treat everything related to ecology as a social movement born out of a proactive identity? Or is there a need for a more in-depth analysis of the economic and political manifestations of wasteful and resource-intensive economies, which according to Finnish critic Willenius is the greatest shortcoming in Castells’ work?
And finally, is ethnicity a source of identity or does it support other identities? Castells sustains that although race is probably more important now than ever as a source of oppression and discrimination, ethnicity is fragmenting as a source of sense and identity, not to merge with other identities but rather under broader principles of cultural self-definition, such as religion, the nation or gender. He also explains that while ethnicity is an essential ingredient in both oppression and liberation, it appears that it tends to formulate itself in support of other communal identities—religious, national, territorial—rather than induce resistance or new projects by itself.

Castells and the current crisis:
The geopolitics of identity

After finishing The Information Age, Manuel Castells sought to explain the meaning for the world of September 11, analyzing it within the parameters of his research. His thoughts on the subject were published in seven articles in the Catalan daily newspaper La Vanguardia (January 26 to February 1, 2003) under the title, “The Geopolitics of Identity.”
Castells studied Al Qaeda and the systems organized in its constellation as a social movement; a collective and intentional action whose objective is to change society’s dominant values and institutions in the name of the values and interests that the actors in the movement believe make sense of their lives. He asserts that the impact of such actions transform society’s values and institutions, whether in defeat or in victory. In other words, the world will no longer be the same following Al Qaeda and September 11.

Castells feels that while Al Qaeda is a social movement based on Islamic fundamentalism, it is explicitly global in terms of organization, support base, strategy and tactics. It is global above all in the definition of its adversaries—the United States and its allies—as the center of Western power and of world capitalist order and occupiers of the sacred places of Islam—Jerusalem, the Saudi Arabian peninsula containing Mecca and Medina and any other oppressed Islamic land. It is also a “very special” social movement because it functions with no significant support from any state and dares to attack the United States anywhere on the planet, including its own territory.

We already know that Castells sees social movements as the carriers and channels of identities, of the sources of meaning and experience for people. As a social movement, Al Qaeda channels an identity of resistance, or more concretely a religious, territorialized identity. What provides meaning for Al Qaeda’s members and leads them to a burning desire to die as martyrs for their cause is the creation of the “umma,” or world community of believers, governed by the “shariah,” or Muslim code. In this sense, it is no different from other forms of Islamic fundamentalism.

Defense of God’s domain

Osama Bin Laden considered the Taliban regime to be the closest to Islamic ideals. Bin Laden, born in Saudi Arabia of a Yemeni family, and his fellow founder, the Egyptian Al-Zawahiri, belong to a version of Islam called “salafism” that according to Castells stresses the multiethnic and multinational nature of Islam. But the most important element of this identity is the defense of the holy places—Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem—occupied by Christians and Jews. The Saudi monarchy has allowed the United States to establish military bases in Saudi Arabia ever since the Gulf War, and the profanation of the holy places is what Castells believes justifies the “jihad,” or holy war, as with the mobilization of the Muslims against the crusades.
This particularity provides a territorial nature to the religious identity of resistance. It is not defense of a national territory, but of the inviolable nature of the holy places and of Muslim land, meaning any land in which Muslims live. This is a view of territory as an expression of “umma.” It is God’s domain, rather than the space in which a state operates. In a theology materially linked so closely to the venerated places, the prayers of Muslims across the world cannot reach God if the holy places—the places of God—are being profaned, which is where the determination to liberate them comes from.

It is the experience of fighting against and defeating a great world power like the Soviet Union in Afghanistan that convinced Al Qaeda that it can also defeat the Zionist crusade power represented by the United States and its subrogate state, Israel. The other regimes that oppress Muslims—the Philippines, Russia, Indonesia, India, Bosnia, China, etc.—will also be attacked, but they are not the dominant axis of the adversary. Castells feels that the fight against these powers has become the movement’s strategic objective in itself, displacing the very values on which it was built: fighting in the name of Islam (the literal meaning of the word “jihad”) became transformed into using Islam in the name of the fight.

Bin Laden’s genius: Creating a global network

The genius of Bin Laden and his fellow Al Qaeda leaders has been to build his movement in the form of a global network. Castells reminds us that new social movements are potential subjects of the information era and act through symbolic personalities that provide a face (or mask) for a symbolic revolt, speaking in its name or through interconnected and decentralized “networks” that are the real producers and distributors of cultural codes. Bin Laden is one such “symbolic personality,” this time with a face, unlike the Zapatista Front’s Subcomandante Marcos, who uses a mask. Al Qaeda has an inspiring leadership that also provides training and indoctrination, but has no control or command structure.

Castells considers the essence of Al Qaeda’s strategy following the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan to be a combination of local struggles and global networks. National states, including the United States, the most powerful of all, have a very difficult task in their fight against this global network. They can hit certain of the network’s nodes by bombing operations bases and quarters, as they did in Afghanistan, and they can even suppress them as they did with the Taliban regime. But they cannot directly hit the network: for example they cannot bomb Hamburg, where the 9/11 attacks were planned.

Al Qaeda’s tactics and Arab humiliation

Castells sees the fight of mobile global networks against states subjected to the nation as an asymmetrical conflict in which the networks enjoy a decisive advantage. The states attempt to construct global state networks, but while these networks increase the state’s punitive capacity (they can bomb more places), they do not increase its effectiveness. Nodes proliferate in many different points, mix with the population and attack when and where it suits them, generating an infinite spiral of violence.

The networks’ nodes are a global-scale version of the compartmentalized cells of the traditional revolutionary movements. In reality, freezing the funds of financial, economic and charity institutions whose real purpose is to finance Al Qaeda operations is a much more effective blow to the network than any kind of local bombing or imprisonment of leaders. And when done transnationally, it represents a step towards the creation of the network state.

Al Qaeda’s organizational flexibility is deployed in two basic tactics: terrorist strikes and the use of the communications media to transform consciences, particularly those of the Muslim men and women who are Al Qaeda’s real objective. In contrast, the terrorist network aims at the heart, rather than the mind, of Westerners. It wants to be feared rather than understood and so acts according to the old anarchist tradition of exemplary action. For Castells, this is exactly what Hamas and Islamic Jihad are doing in Israel and Al Qaeda is doing in the world. They are hoping that the response of their adversaries, particularly the United States, will be as irrational as responses triggered by fear.

Castells feels that the US policy on Iraq, a mere spectator in this conflict, demonstrates that the strategy is working. And it is all the more effective to the degree that the US government’s fear is linked to contempt for these eastern peoples, stereotyped above all in the status of their women and in their “savage governments,” as Rumsfeld recently called them. This is precisely the humiliation that Arab peoples have felt for centuries and was increased by the colonialisms of the past two centuries. Castells considers this humiliation to be at the root of the brutal terrorist response to what are seen as enormously unjust Western actions. This is particularly true when those reacting are people from ancient civilizations, with enough economic means to have appropriated modernity and its technology but nonetheless still feel alienated in the face of Western values.

Iraq: A mere spectator

Castells bases his assertion that Iraq has been a spectator in this conflict on the fact that Al Qaeda’s religious identity means it has no sympathy for a secular and lay regime like Saddam Hussein’s, just as it is very suspicious of the Palestinian cause and above all its leader Arafat, considering it more nationalist than globally religious.

Castells feels that the US determination to attack Iraq was caused by its lack of understanding of Al Qaeda’s quality as a global network. He argues that the aim of disarming Iraq, even at the risk of provoking a costly war, is rooted in the conviction that the only real danger could come from state-supported terrorism. Thus the United States attacked Afghanistan in November 2001 to remove a state government because the Taliban regime was protecting Al Qaeda. But while representing a very large blow, its attack failed to destroy the global network’s operational capacity. Furthermore, Castells thinks that no link has ever been demonstrated with Iraq. What we are faced with is rather a war against Iraq motivated by the ideology of preventing a possible enemy strike and by the concrete interests of the petroleum and arms industries, as well as by imperial pride badly directed by an ultra-reactionary government team.

Networks linking poverty
and religious resistance?

There is possibly little sympathy in the Islamic world for Saddam Hussein, whose lack of scruples toward his own people is notorious. The unpredictability of the situation created depends on how the global networks of world Islamism react to the extreme arrogance of the US-led “coalition” and the civilian victims of the conflict, many of them good Muslims. It is also remains to be seen if some UN mechanism for supranational dialogue can be reconstructed after the war.
For Castells, what could really change the course of history would be the establishment of links between poverty and religious resistance. If a link were established between the revolt against socioeconomic irrelevance and the resistance of identity against Western cultural domination, this would set global networks of faith and terror against global networks of wealth and technology. Through the former, the Arab peoples would have appropriated a great part of the technological legacy of the Information Age.

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