Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The ‘space of flows’ and the social elites of today

In Manuel Castells’s influential book, The Rise of the Network Society (Second edition, 2010, Chapter 6), he devotes a very revealing discussion to what he describes as the dominant spatial form of the network society, namely the “space of flows”.

In his theorisation of the novel, now dominant spatial mode – the “space of flows” – which has replaced the traditionally dominant “space of places”, Castells (2010: Chapter 6, Section 5) points out that the new kind of “mega-city” taking shape today in various parts of the world as an interconnected series of functionally connected urban areas (around Hong Kong, for instance), can be understood as a process, rather than as a place in the traditional sense.

If this seems counter-intuitive, consider that, as he shows at length in the book, contemporary society is articulated through “flows” of various kinds – “flows of capital, flows of information, flows of technology, flows of organisational interaction, flows of images, sounds, and symbols”. Moreover, “Flows are not just one element of the social organisation: they are the expression of processes dominating our economic, political, and symbolic life” (Castells 2010: Chapter 6, Section 5).

Hence, he defines the novel, dominant spatial mode as follows: “The space of flows is the material organisation of time-sharing social practices that work through flows. By flows I understand purposeful, repetitive, programmable sequences of exchange and interaction between physically disjointed positions held by social actors in the economic, political, and symbolic structures of society. Dominant social practices are those which are embedded in dominant social structures. By dominant structures I understand those arrangements of organisations and institutions whose internal logic plays a strategic role in shaping social practices and social consciousness for society at large.”

Fortunately, given the sometimes confusing level of abstraction involved, Castells makes the “space of flows”, as material support of flow-oriented social practices, more concrete by specifying three constituent “layers” of such material support: first, “ … a circuit of electronic exchanges”; second, the “nodes and hubs” of the space of flows; and third, “ … the spatial organization of the dominant, managerial elites”.

The first layer comprises broadcasting systems, telecommunications, micro-electronics-operated devices, computer processing, but also transportation at high speed, because it depends on information technologies. What makes this different from former material support systems, is that here – in a manner uncannily mimicking the poststructuralist re-interpretation of Saussure’s structuralist notion of language as a diacritical system of differences (signifiers that have meaning only in terms of their differences, inscribed in each signifier as a trace) – “no place exists by itself, since the positions are defined by the exchanges of flows in the network”. Castells adds something that emphasises the precondition for being a potentially significant participant in today’s “processual” society: “Thus, the network of communication is the fundamental spatial configuration: places do not disappear, but their logic and their meaning become absorbed in the network”.

The “nodes and hubs” of the second layer are an indication that, while the structural logic of the space of flows is “placeless”, this space is not. The electronic network that underpins it functions as a link between specific places – more or less like a “rhizome”, in Deleuze and Guattari’s botanical metaphor for contemporary society – with specific functions, such as exchange or communication “hubs”, or the “nodes” where strategically significant functions are located. Not all of these are of equal weight in the system – the “key” hubs and nodes occupy hierarchically higher positions in the system than others, always subject to change, depending on the evolution of network activities.

As an example of this nodal structure of the space of flows Castells mentions the system of decision-making governing the global financial system, although it is equally valid for advanced technology manufacturing. Important to note is the fact that the level of fulfillment of a certain function in the network, rather than location, determines the overall importance of a “nodal” entity. The fact that Castells can simultaneously refer to centres of advanced medical treatment as well as of the production and dissemination of narcotics (e.g. cocaine) production as instances of the contingent evolution of hierarchically important nodes, confirms Jacques Derrida’s claim, in Specters of Marx, that international criminal networks have become inseparably entwined with the capitalist economic system.

The third material layer of the space of flows involves the spatial distribution of the social agents that dominate this space, to wit, the “managerial elites”. To anyone under the illusory impression that the “representative democracies” of today enshrine the principle of social and economic equality, Castells’s description of the social hierarchies engendered by the processes comprising the space of flows, would come as a surprise – and here in the work of an “impartial” social theorist, and not in that of Marxist thinkers such as Hardt and Negri, or a poststructuralist political philosopher such as Jacques Ranciére.

Castells’s description of the directional functions of these elites leaves no doubt that contemporary society is “asymmetrically organised around the dominant interests specific to each social structure”, and that, while these interests may differ between identifiable groups – and hence involve different spatial logics – the dominant interest-groups have a spatial logic of their own. Here Castells (2010: Chapter 6, Section 5) issues an important reminder:

“But such domination is not purely structural. It is enacted, indeed conceived, decided, and implemented by social actors. Thus, the technocratic-financial-managerial elite that occupies the leading positions in our societies will also have specific spatial requirements regarding the material/spatial support of their interests and practices. The spatial manifestation of the informational elite constitutes another fundamental dimension of the space of flows. What is this spatial manifestation?

“The fundamental form of domination in our society is based on the organizational capacity of the dominant elite that goes hand in hand with its capacity to disorganise those groups in society which, while constituting a numerical majority, see their interests partially (if ever) represented only within the framework of the fulfillment of the dominant interests. Articulation of the elites, segmentation and disorganization of the masses seem to be the twin mechanisms of social domination in our societies. Space plays a fundamental role in this mechanism. In short: elites are cosmopolitan, people are local. The space of power and wealth is projected throughout the world, while people’s life and experience is rooted in places, in their culture, in their history. Thus, the more a social organisation is based upon a-historical flows, superseding the logic of any specific place, the more the logic of global power escapes the socio-political control of historically specific local/national societies.”

Castells goes on to indicate that this logic of domination appears in the space of flows in a twofold manner, both of which are familiar to all of us, albeit not as participants. The elites establish “their own society” (including secluded communities, exclusively priced real estate, spatially restricted, networked, subcultural, decision-making interactions such as those on the golf course, in exclusive restaurants or airport lounges), and they create a culturally distinctive “lifestyle” intent on unifying and “standardizing” the symbolic spatial environment of elites globally (e.g. international hotels with similar room-design and decoration). This makes for a society that is, to say the least, as hierarchical as Plato’s ideal Republic.

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