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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