Castells’ scandalous democracy
by Dan Leighton
7/07/09 Dan Leighton writes on Manuel Castells and how information technology is changing our democracy.
The shockwaves the MPs expenses scandal sent through the core of our political system surprised even the most seasoned of political observers. Yet it would have come as little surprise to Manuel Castells, who will be sharing the thinking behind his latest book, Communication power, at a Demos event this Wednesday.
In The Power of Identity, published just as New Labour came to power promising to be whiter that white, Castells contended that:
“The logic and organisation of electronic media frame and structure politics. […] Parties and candidates must act in and through the media to reach society. Scandal politics is the weapon of choice for struggle in informational politics. […] Not that the media are the Fourth Power: they are instead, the ground for power struggles […] What is characteristic of scandal politics is that all political actors practicing it become entrapped by the system, often reversing roles: today’s hunter is tomorrows game”
Castells’ contention was grounded in a gargantuan analysis of social and technological change; this turned on how global flows of money and information in the network era where overwhelming the nationally rooted institutions of the industrial era. As parties forged in this era become devoid of agency and meaning, the only way for politicians to differentiate themselves, to an increasingly unaligned electorate, is to attack the personal character of their rivals.
While professional politicians have become ‘entrapped’ in the space of the electronic media, it has enabled the diffusion of political innovation and expression into society at large. For Castells such innovation is driven by the new identities and movements that emerge in defence of specific places, against ‘the placeless logic of flows characterising social domination in the network society’. These movements produce and disseminate new cultural codes by which people develop their identities: from the reactive communalism of nationalist and religious fundamentalists, to the proactive cosmopolitanism of ecological and human rights activists. These new forms of mobilisation further the crisis of “classic liberal democracy while fostering the emergence of the yet to be discovered informational democracy”.
Castells’ work provided a remarkably prescient framework for understanding the first decade of the 21st century: from the ongoing crisis of liberal democracy to Al Qaeda’s mediatised terrorism and the global collapse of the banks in the ‘space of flows’. I’m intrigued to know whether he thinks we’ve got any closer to discovering ‘informational democracy’ and how, if it all, this can take us beyond today’s scandalous politics.