The Postcapitalist Political Meaning of Social Networks

An Argument with Networks of Outrage and Hope, by Manuel Castells.
Argument by Anthony Signorelli.

“The networked social movements of the digital age represent a new species of social movement.”[1] They are qualitatively different, they are operationally different, and they are socially different. So asserts Manuel Castells, Professor at UCLA and Professor Emeritus at UC-Berkeley, and author of Networks of Outrage and Hope. The professor may be correct, but the limitation with Castell’s perspective, in my view, is that he does not pursue this line of thought into a projected future. His assessment of how social movements have changed is helpful, but it says nothing of how they are going to change, nor of what this actually means for society. As postcapitalism emerges, social movements may be a laboratory and early model for how organizations will change and operate.

Two Requirements of Social Movements

According to Castells, social movements manifest through two key means—communication and the occupation of public space. Communication is required to coordinate the events of the movement, while the occupation of public space is primarily a challenge to the state’s monopoly on violence—it dares the state to use that power, challenges that power, and at times fights that power. In these conflicts, barricades are built in order to draw a line in the sand. They may be built by either side, but they define the zone of the conflict geographically and symbolically. As witnessed in the Arab spring, Occupy, and even at Standing Rock, these barriers carry enormous meaning in these conflicts. Both communication and occupation are essential to the assertion of a social movement’s power, and both are being changed by the Internet.

How the Internet Has Changed Social Movements

Communication modes enabled by the internet are changing the very nature of the movements and how they operate. As Castells says, “Historically, social movements have been dependent on the existence of specific communication mechanisms: rumors, sermons, pamphlets and manifestos, spread from person to person, from the pulpit, from the press, or by whatever means of communication were available.”[2] Most of these mechanisms are hierarchical. Sermons, pamphlets, and manifestos arrive in a top down fashion—from the preacher, the leader, or the writer to the participants. Hence, movements tended to have leaders—Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi, or Gloria Steinem, or Lenin and Trotsky. King’s civil rights workers, for example, had to sign a declaration of principles, including non-violence, to be able to volunteer for his organization.

Internet based networks, however, provide non-hierarchical, horizontal communications. These communication platforms are used not just for spreading rumors, but for connecting, “…for mobilizing, for organizing, for deliberating, for coordinating and for deciding.”[3] In other words, they become an early prototype for the networked world.

Castells points out that this network makes the movement hard to repress. There is no center and no leader to be destroyed. The assassinations of both King and Gandhi were a natural way to target their respective movements, and both events were definitive for their movements. But who would an opponent assassinate to deal a similar blow to Occupy? There were no well known leaders, largely because of the horizontal structure reflecting the networked organization of the movement.  Similarly, we all know what Standing Rock is, but few people could name a “leader.” Of course, both actions had key people in them, but their networked nature de-emphasizes those individuals because its true power is dispersed in the organization. As Castells says: “The role of the Internet goes beyond instrumentality: it creates the conditions for a form of shared practice that allows a leaderless movement to survive, deliberate, coordinate and expand.”[4]

The Growing Irrelevance of Occupation

The second development in contemporary and future social movements is the de-emphasis on occupying space. Still crucial today, occupation defines the challenge to hierarchical power—especially state power. Spatial occupation matters in the state-based capitalist world because geography matters. States are defined by their territory. Capitalism required the control of territory from which to extract, which is precisely why states became the dominant form of organization as capitalism arose.

In a postcapitalist world, however, networks de-emphasize territory as an organizing principle. Networks are territorially agnostic—they do not control territory and they don’t care to. Yet they are poised to become the single most important organizing principle of the next hundred years. Networks will yield and direct power, but it won’t be over territory because territory has nothing to do with networks. They don’t care where people are, or how they connect. The value is in the fact of the connection and the channel of influence it provides, not in the territory it controls.

In social movements, we are now seeing the very early stages of this. While the occupiers at Standing Rock, Occupy and Egypt were all still important, the far more important aspect was the tens of thousands not occupying, yet following, supporting, organizing and deciding through the digital networks. While today the occupation action still carries most of the weight, it is predictable that both the state and the protesters will begin to de-emphasize this because occupation will lose its symbolic meaning. In the world of digits, no one will care about territory.

Can We End the Alienation?

Most social movements arise from deep discrepancies between the actions of the elites who run societal institutions, and the lives and desires of the people in the society. The problem, according to Castells, “…concerns the lack of representativeness of the political class, as elections are conditioned by the power of money and media, and constrained by biased electoral laws designed by the political class for their own benefit”[5] (italics mine). In other words, social movements arise from political alienation. Because the elites are focused on the capitalistic projection of state power, which is always territorial, the occupation of space matters.

But what happens when this changes? There is the possibility that social networks actually replace representation altogether, thus removing the primary cause of alienation. After all, if a social movement can mobilize, organize, deliberate, coordinate and decide—i.e., if it can self-govern without representation—why can’t government? Autonomy provides agency, and networks provide a means for connection, expression, and direct participation which eliminates the need for representation. People can participate directly and vote on bills themselves. If this occurs, the whole reason for social movements—i.e., the lack of representativeness—disappears. There is no representation; there is direct voting. Social movements won’t disappear; they will just arise for a different reason based on the new logic.

Why Watch Social Movements

In our coming postcapitalist future, the political meaning of social networks will lie in how they replace current structures of power in all kinds of organizations. In social movements, networks will rise above the power of the individual leader, just as they will in organizations of all kinds. Networks will also render territory irrelevant, thereby forcing a new relationship to power and what it means. And finally, networks will change the very nature of how social movements arise by changing the DNA of democracy—representation disappears, and the people vote directly in true self-governing fashion.

While this may look like a utopia to some, it will also no doubt create its own discontents. Those who lose will be unhappy, but they won’t be able to blame representatives. Perhaps this will create a different form of social movement. What’s clear is that the social movement will change along with the power of the network, and reflect the coming postcapitalist world.

[1] Castells, M. Networks of Outrage and Hope, Polity Press, 2012. p15.

[2] Castells, p 15

[3] Castells, p229

[4] Castells, p229

[5] Castells, p235

Posted in Arguments with Books, Networks, Postcapitalism and tagged , , , , , , , .

Anthony Signorelli is the author of Speculations on Postcapitalism, and other books. They are available as Ebooks on Amazon:

The Postcapitalist Manifesto
Speculations on Postcapitalism Ebook
How to Find Your Purpose, Passion, and Bliss: A Mythological Guide for Young Men