Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Change is happening worldwide…

On October 15 and 21 2012 the Current Affairs programme on the BBC’s Radio 4 broadcast a documentary in the form of an interview with the most cited sociologist and social theorist in the world, Manuel Castells, at The London School of Economics on his (then) recently published new book, Aftermath: The Cultures of the Economic Crisis (on which I have written here before). The interviewer was Paul Mason, and he did not waste any time to ask Castells about the “four-layer economy” of the post-financial crisis world — “a weakened public sector, a highly-concentrated successful private sector in the high-tech and financial arenas … the survival models of traditional businesses; and then at the bottom this fascinating new layer of post-capitalist alternative economic activities”. Then he wanted to know how long this “new layer” could survive, and Castells answered:

“Well it’s expanding, as a matter of fact. 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, meaning 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 also will provide to you. All this exists and it’s expanding throughout the world.”

In my view this is very good news, because it means that the days of the hegemonic, exploitative system of neoliberal capitalism are numbered. Castells makes no bones about it, and he has the numbers to back up his claims — in Barcelona, New York and Los Angeles the figure he and his colleagues “measured” (his word) is 25% of the population (and growing). So what does this phenomenon amount to? Here is Castells again:

“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. But 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 at the same time because of needs and because of values — the two things together — that’s why it‘s expanding. And this has been in the third world for a long time, but it’s different. It was survival waiting to be integrated in the system where this is a massive pull-out from the system. And it’s not the same thing in the social movement. It’s something different.”

So why this withdrawal from the conventional system? Here Castells confirms what many people have suspected for some time, but could not really demonstrate. In this case his research among these people — on the ground, as it were — brings it to the fore unambiguously. When Mason asks him what he means by claiming that the change is fundamentally “cultural”, even if it involves the economy, and how big this cultural change is, Castells says:

“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. People don’t trust where they put their money and they don’t trust those who they delegate in terms of their vote. All the statistics are there. It’s a dramatic crisis of trust and if there is no trust, there is no society. It’s simply institutions that still try to control citizens. But the main thing is the acceptance in their minds because nothing else is possible. So 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. Then people realise two things: first, this financial system was built on completely unreliable mathematical models in fact, with the implication that we don’t count there; second, when we use the institutions that we have to control the financial system, to change it, to re-equilibrate it, the notion is the banks are going to be alright, we are not going to be alright …”

Of course, one could read the book, as I have, to realise that these things are happening — and this is unpalatable news for the greedy managerial elites of the world — but somehow, in the format of an interview, where Castells was speaking off the cuff, it comes across far more dramatically. Mason’s response to Castells’s last remark, above, was a laconic “We save the banks, we let people fall”. To which Castells responded:

“Well not only that. We give the money to the bank. The banks mismanage our money, and then our politicians go and save the banks and let us down. So, therefore, there is a big cultural change — a big one — total distrust in the institutions of finance and politics. So that’s the first part. Then from there, two things happen. 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. And it’s the combination that’s always in history of a cultural innovation by some cultural innovators with those who try this particular solution because they don’t have anything. That combination is what may create a process of social change or a process of social rejection and extremism, trying to go back rather than go forward.”

Castells elaborates on the reasons why people in societies across the world cannot reverse history in an effort to go back to previous forms of existence, despite the fact that there is a “huge movement called the de-growth movement”, intent on precisely such a turning back of the clock. He points out that today, we live in “the network society”, and we can’t go back (unless of course, I would say, a natural catastrophe forces us) to a former kind of society. Ironically (and this confirms his argument) even the people who organise “communalism” and de-growth do so by using the internet. In this regard his response to Mason’s observation, that Castells’s work has shown that the “networked” way of living is “doing something to our minds” (an argument also put forward by Bernard Stiegler) is interesting:

“The more we are connected to everything and everybody and every activity, the more we need to know who we are. Unless I know who I am, I don’t know where I am in the world because then I am a consumer, I am taken by the market, I am taken by the media. There are all these powers that control everything. Well, fortunately, humans we resist everything. There is one basic law in humankind — is that wherever is domination, there is resistance to domination. That’s the number one law. And, therefore, people decide that they are going to be different. But to do that, they have to identify themselves as individuals, as collectives, as nations, as genders — all these categories that sociologists have already constructed [some] time ago.”

Apparently this is what increasing numbers of people worldwide are already doing. To mention one example, according to Castells 97% of the people surveyed in Catalonia “are engaged quite fully in alternative forms of life” — non-capitalist economic activity, such as one-third of Barcelona families lending money without interest to others who are not family. Evidently capitalism cannot break the human spirit, and that should give one courage for the future.

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    • Steven Rhan

      Of course, “Custom-erz’ Only!” Capital free markets require real time crowd-sourced confindent consumer spending volumes and the tangible value results of innovation strictly funneled to a relative few owners and investors to keep the whole deceptively convincing facade afloat as long as possible- whatever the market will yet bear. But indeed, as impossible as it yet seems in fact a universal real time point of diminishing returns to credibly continue leveraging volume-based profits against debts/costs was crossed over around the infamous Maya/Toltec date. Only evident in hindsight, now the long cherished friend of the dominant, driven conservative business profile, passing time, will increasingly no longer line their volume-loving pockets anymore. The imminent condition closes-in beneath the mainstream radar screen and a vast majority of unsuspecting noses, intentionally kept blind, unaware until the last moment.
      Doesn’t mattet if any want to believe or not, or whatever anymore:
      Enoch I, Isaiah 24, 34, 35 and Rev 18 spells what is nigh at the doors plenty sufficient.
      And this article is right on track, thr very new beginnings of what will certainly be.

      Third in The Zodiac
      Third Rock from The Sun
      Gemini, over and out

    • Steven Rhan

      Exactly! Already existing networking capacity on s host of levels all but completely voids the necessities of traditional capital market structure and attendant sophmoric restrictions accordingly. “The system” simply isn’t fundamentally capable of addressing each unique individual alone to engage their unique capacities, individually and collectively. And so must pass from operable relevance.
      And of course the vast majority would find such a notion most uninspiring. There’s no apparent money in it. Lol…

    • Partyforever

      In what world do you live? “a weakened public sector, a highly-concentrated successful private sector in the high-tech and financial arenas”

      A weakened public sector!?

      Google government spending percentage of GDP britain

      44.4% of the UK economy is government income and activity in the economy.

      Most of the world has seen an unheard level of spending by governments!

      Look at the historical government spending percentage of GDP britain

      Google UK Public Spending As Percent Of GDP

      It’s the highest since World War 2!

      UK government spending in 1900 it was 19% – that’s at the height of capitalism! Government spending of nearly all nations are at an all time historical high!

      Google government spending percentage of GDP Sweden

      53%!

      Google government spending percentage of GDP France

      57%!

      Google government spending percentage of GDP Italy

      51%!

      Google government spending percentage of GDP Spain

      43.6%!

      It is not “a weakened public sector, a highly-concentrated successful private sector”

      It’s an overwhelming unproductive public sector with just the successful private sector that is carrying the economy and most of the job growth.

      It’s like South Africa – the government spending is at an all time historical high and there’s no real massive jobs being created! No new products! No new services! No new products for export! No profits!

    • Partyforever

      Rather state that capitalism cannot handle its excesses and shortages and is an inherent unstable system that make some incredibly wealthy, develops a middle class, but requires enormous input and sacrifices from the poor and middle class.

    • Bert Olivier

      Partyforever, you did not understand Castells’s intended meaning re “a weakened public sector” – whatever money is spent in that domain does not mean that it is powerful; the power is concentrated in the hands of the private sector, that is, in those of the capitalist corporations. The tail is wagging the dog. You are dealing here with someone (Castells) who has done his research thoroughly, I can assure you.

    • Richard

      I wonder how this system could be implemented? Barter is all very well if you have apples and somebody has pears, and you can swap them, but how will it work for sophisticated apparatus? If you are an undeveloped country, and only have minimal goods to exchange, how will you acquire medical equipment, say? It may be said that undeveloped countries don’t do too well under the current system, but I don’t see how any progress could be achieved at all. For instance, if China needs agricultural land to grow food, and it acquired this in Zimbabwe, say, it can pay the Zimbabweans, and they can buy goods they need in Canada. Under a barter system, they would have to hope that China possessed the Canadian goods they needed, or could acquire them by bartering with Canada, perhaps via another party. The various permutations of exchange would be enormous, and hugely complicated in a world of so many people. I can see bartering working in a simple world with few people, and where wood is exchanged for bronze, but how in a sophisticated one?

      Think of drivers for development of goods. Would a company like Apple be content with having to barter with hundreds of countries, or millions of consumers, who wish to procure their devices? How would authors or artists survive? Let’s say I wanted a new computer. I would know what it would cost, and that I would need somehow to procure funds to do that. If it were barter, and the computer company only wanted tungsten, how might I procure that?

      If money were to be stripped of its commodity-value – i.e. used strictly for exchange – that might solve some of the problems. After all, it is the “extra” value that capital enjoys that causes the problems, but how is one to do this? Such controls and limitation of accumulation of capital was tried in Soviet times, but they simply fell further behind in development, still suffered inflation and recessions, and in the end disappeared. Capital will always enjoy extra status, because there is a temporal dimension: I can acquire the goods I need now, instead of waiting until I have saved up enough by the end of the year, if I pay somebody a bit to do this for me. After all, they are depriving themselves of the utility of their money by letting me use it. That deferment on their part comes at a price.

      I think the idea of certain functions being performed for exchange of labour or goods is a good idea, although of course am aware that this simply reduces the measured GDP. Socialised medicine can work, if controlled, because being healthy is not a motivation for work, it is a precondition for being able to work.

      The inherent problem is that people want to do things for money, and it motivates them to try new things. The only other way this can be done is through a bureaucratic system of watching and forcing, as in Soviet days. It is the old problem of social control either being through fear of poverty, or fear of the sword. Until we are no longer motivated by personal acquisition, and really will do things for the common-wealth, we will always be plagued by this problem.