Viewpoint: Manuel Castells on the rise of alternative economic cultures

Image caption,
Manuel Castells studies the links between the internet and protest movements

Prof Manuel Castells is regarded as one of the most-cited sociologists in the world. When most of us were still struggling to connect our modems in the 1990s, the Spanish academic was documenting the rise of the network society and studying the interaction between internet use, counter-culture, urban protest movements and personal identity.

Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason interviewed Prof Castells in front of an audience at The London School of Economics for BBC Radio 4's Analysis about his latest book Aftermath: The Cultures of the Economic Crisis.

Prof Castells suggests we may be about to see the emergence of a new kind of capitalism, with businesses growing out of the counter-cultures of the last 20 years. Here are some extracts from their conversation.

The rise of new economic cultures

"When I mention this alternative economic culture, it's a combination of two things.

"A number of people have been doing this for quite a while already because they don't agree with the meaninglessness of their lives. Now there is something else - it's the legion of consumers who cannot consume.

"And, therefore, since they do not consume - they don't have the money, they don't have the credit, they don't have anything - then they try at least to make sense of their lives doing something different.

"So, it's because of needs and because of values - the two things together - that's why it's expanding."

Paul Mason: You write that economies are cultural - can you expand on that?

"If we want to work to make money, to consume, it's because we believe that by buying a new car or by buying a new television or a bigger flat, we are going to be happier. This is a particular form of culture.

"On the contrary... people are reversing the notion: what is important in their life cannot be bought, in most cases. But they don't have the choice anymore because they are already trapped in a machine.

"What happens when the machine is not working anymore? People say, 'well I am really stupid. I am running all the time for nonsense'."

Paul Mason: How big is this culture change?

"It is fundamental because it triggers a crisis of trust in the two big powers of our world: the political system and the financial system.

Image caption,
Occupy protests have made a mark in cities all over the world

People don't trust where they put their money and they don't trust those who they delegate in terms of their vote.

"It's a dramatic crisis of trust and if there is no trust, there is no society.

"What we are not going to see is the economic collapse per se because societies cannot work in a social vacuum. If the economic institutions don't work, if the financial institutions don't work, the power relations that exist in society change the financial system in ways favoured to the financial system and it doesn't collapse. People collapse, not the financial system.

"The notion is the banks are going to be alright, we are not going to be alright. So there is a cultural change. A big one. Total distrust in the institutions of finance and politics.

"Some people start already living differently as they can - some because they want alternative ways of life, others because they don't have any other choice.

"What I refer to is about the observation of one of my latest studies on people who have decided not to wait for the revolution - to start living differently - meaning the expansion of what I call in a technical term 'non-capitalist practices'.

"They are economic practices but they don't have a for-profit motivation - such as barter networks; such as social currencies; co-operatives; self-management; agricultural networks; helping each other simply in terms of wanting to be together; networks of providing services for free to others in the expectation that someone will also provide to you. All this exists and it's expanding throughout the world."

Paul Mason: 97% of people you surveyed [in Catalonia] have engaged in non-capitalist economic activity.

"Well, it's about 30-40,000 who are engaged quite fully in alternative forms of life. And I differentiate between people who consciously organise their lives around alternative values, with people who live normal lives but at the same time they look in many, many aspects to live differently.

"For instance, during the crisis, one third of Barcelona families lent money, without interest, to people who are not in their family."

What is the Network Society?

"It's a society where the main activities in which people are engaged are organised fundamentally in networks, rather than in vertical organisations.

"The difference is very simple - network technologies. It's not the same thing to be constantly interactive at the speed of light than just simply have a network of friends and people.

"So all networks exist, but the connection between everything and everything - be it financial markets, politics, culture, media, communications, etc - that's new because of the new digital technologies."

Paul Mason: So we live in a network society. Could we reverse out of a network society?

"Can we reverse to a pre-electricity world? It's the same thing. No we can't.

"Although many people now are saying 'well why we don't start all over again?' It's a huge movement called the de-growth movement. Some people would try to go to different forms of communal organisation, etc.

Image caption,
Prof Castells says it is impossible to reverse the trend of the networked society

"However, the interesting thing is for the people to organise and debate and mobilise for de-growth and communalism, they have to use the internet.

"We live in a culture of not virtual reality, but real virtuality because our virtuality - meaning the internet networks - are a fundamental part of our reality.

"All the studies on the internet show that people who are more social on the internet are also more social face-to-face."

Paul Mason: You have these diverse groups, they protest against subject A today, and subject B tomorrow, and they play World of Warcraft at night - but they're not going to achieve what Castro and Guevara achieved, are they?

"The impact on the political institutions is almost negligible because the political institutions are impervious to change. But if you look at what's happening in terms of the consciousness... you have things like the huge debate of social inequality that didn't exist three years ago.

"In terms of demonstrating, the system is much stronger than the embryos of the movement... you reach the minds of the people through a process of communication, and this process of communication is today fundamentally through the internet and debating.

"It's a long process from the minds of the people to the institutions of society. Let's take an historical example: toward the end of the 19th Century in Europe, there were basically the Conservatives and the Liberals, right and left.

"But then something happened - industrialisation, working class movements, new ideologies and new movements started. All this was not in the political system. It took 20 to 30 years, then you have the socialists and then the split from the socialists... and the liberals disappear basically.

"It will change politics, but not through organised forms of politics in the same way. Why? Because networks are different and networks don't need hierarchical organisations."

Where will it end?

"All this together is not going to be a great electoral coalition, is not going to be any new party, any new anything. It's simply society against the state and against the financial institutions - not against capitalism, by the way - against financial institutions, which is different.

"With this climate what happens is that more and more our societies will become ungovernable and, therefore, we can have all kinds of phenomenon - some of them very dangerous.

"Of course we'll see many expressions of alternative forms of politics which will escape the mainstream traditional political institutions, and some of them, of course, going back and trying to have a nationalistic, primitive community to attack everybody and to ultimately build a commune cut off from the world and oppress their own people.

"But what happens in any process of disorganised, chaotic social change, there are all these phenomena co-existing and the way they play out, one against the other, will depend ultimately if the political institutions open up enough channels of participation for the energy that exists in society for change that could overcome the resistance of the dark forces that exist in all societies."

Paul Mason interviewed Prof Manuel Castells for BBC Radio 4's Analysis. You can hear the full interview via the Radio 4 website or via the Analysis download.

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