Holberg Prize laureate 2012 Manuel Castells. Photo: Holbergprisen / Marit hommedal / Scanpix
Allow me to express, from my heart, how grateful and humbled I feel for the distinction the Ludvig Holberg Memorial Fund has bestowed upon me in recognition of my scientific work. I am particularly moved and honored by being associated with the name Ludvig Holberg, a native of Bergen, who exemplified academic excellence and artistic creativity in a multidisciplinary perspective, while dedicating much of his effort to assert the culture and language of the Scandinavian societies without yielding to cultural domination of powerful states. I will always have in mind the continuation of his intellectual and ethical legacy as my contribution to the values that the Holberg Prize represents.
Indeed, as it was the case for Ludvig Holberg, my life has been dedicated to academic teaching and research since my first job as an assistant professor at the University of Paris when I was 24 years old. During my long journey across research universities around the world, I have investigated many different topics and grounded my analysis in the observation of social processes from many different countries. I started my career as an urban sociologist, I then studied social movements, economic development in Latin America and Asia, the origins and consequences of the revolution in information and communication technologies, the process of globalization that has changed economies and societies throughout the planet, the rise of the network society as the social structure of the Information Age, the transformation of communication by digital networks, mobile communication, and the Internet, and the impact of this transformation of communication on power relationships. Yet, in spite of this thematic diversity, at the heart of my research for over four decades, there has always been one overarching theme studied in the plurality of its manifestations: power.
My research on cities contributed to the creation of what came to be known as “the new urban sociology”, whose defining feature was to shift the emphasis from urban integration, in the tradition of the Chicago School, to urban conflict and urban politics as the key processes in shaping urban space and the delivery of urban services. My studies in economic development in Latin America and the Asian Pacific showed the critical role of the state, both in growth and crisis, in contrast to the misplaced emphasis on the predominant role of international market mechanisms. Indeed, the success of a Communist state in leading China to become the most dynamic economy in global capitalism vindicates this approach. And of course state policies are rooted in politics, as I also showed in my studies on Chile (in 1970s and in the 2000s), Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. I approached the analysis of globalization by showing that the process of this late globalization was initiated by policies of states, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, and therefore was shaped according to the economic interests supported by these countries, such as the deregulation of finance and the asymmetrical liberalization of trade and services. So, globalization is now irreversible, however, it was not a structural necessity but the result of a complex set of policies and politics. This is why millions of people around the world are currently not opposing globalization, but opposing this particular form of globalization and arguing that another globalization is possible. By closely studying the information and communication technology revolution in Silicon Valley from my vantage point in Berkeley, I also showed how the culture of freedom shaped the kind of technologies that emerged from this revolution and how countries, such as the Soviet Union, who could not incorporate this freedom of information and innovation, were stalled in their economic development and ultimately in their military power. This was a defining process that we documented in our field work based on the study of the collapse of the Soviet Union I did with Emma Kiselyova. I also showed the interaction between technological change and social change, mediated by policies and politics, as a guiding approach to understanding the rise of the network society, the society where we live. In return, these technologies of freedom decisively contributed to the spread of social movements, challenging unjust politics and policies, the networked social movements, which are my current research theme. Within all of these diverse areas of inquiry, I always pursued the same analytical thread: cherchez le pouvoir
This is not just a matter of personal taste, but a research strategy focused on understanding the primary source of social structuration and dynamics. Power relationships are the foundational relationships of society because those who have power construct the institutions that organize and regulate social life according to their values and interests. I see power relationships as the DNA of society, with a specific configuration for each society, derived from its history, geography and culture.
I understand power as the relational capacity that enables certain social actors to asymmetrically influence the decisions of other actors in ways that favor the empowered actors’ will, interests and values. Power is exercised by means of coercion (the monopoly of violence, legitimate or not, by the control of the state) and/or by the construction of meaning in people’s minds through mechanisms of symbolic manipulation. Power relationships are embedded in the institutions of society and particularly within the state, although they permeate all key dimensions of human activity, particularly in finance, production, consumption, trade, media, communication, culture, health, education, science, and technology. However, since societies are contradictory and conflictive, wherever there is power there is also counterpower, which I understand to be the capacity of social actors to challenge the power embedded in the institutions of society for the purpose of claiming representation for their own values and interests. All institutional systems reflect power relationships, as well as the limits to these power relationships as negotiated by an endless historical process of conflict and bargaining. The actual configuration of the state and other institutions which regulate people’s lives depends on this constant interaction between power and counterpower.
Coercion and intimidation, based on the state’s monopoly of the capacity to exercise violence, are essential mechanisms for imposing the will of those in control of the institutions of society. However, the construction of meaning in people’s minds is a more decisive and more stable source of power. The way people think determines the fate of the institutions, norms and values on which societies are organized. Few institutional systems can last long if they are based just on coercion. Torturing bodies is less effective than shaping minds. If a majority of people think in ways that are contradictory to the values and norms institutionalized in the laws and regulations enforced by the state, the system will change, although not necessarily to fulfil the hopes of the agents of social change. This is why the fundamental power struggle is the battle for the construction of meaning in the minds of the people.
Humans create meaning by interacting with their natural and social environment, by networking their neural networks with the networks of our natural environmental and with social networks. This networking is operated by the act of communication. Communication is the process of sharing meaning through the exchange of information. For society at large, the key source of the social production of meaning is the process of socialized communication. Socialized communication exists in the public realm beyond interpersonal communication. The ongoing transformation of communication technology in the digital age extends the reach of communication media to all domains of social life in a network that is at the same time global and local, generic and customized in an ever-changing pattern. The process of constructing meaning is characterized by a great deal of diversity. There is, however, one feature common to all processes of symbolic construction: they are largely dependent on the messages and frames created, formatted and diffused in multimedia communication networks. Although each individual human mind constructs its own meaning by interpreting the communicated materials on its own terms, this mental processing is conditioned by the communication environment. Thus, the transformation of the communication environment directly affects the forms of meaning construction, and therefore the production of power relationships. In recent years, the fundamental change in the realm of communication has been the rise of what I have called mass-self communication – the use of the Internet and wireless networks as platforms of digital communication. It is mass communication because it processes messages from many to many, with the potential of reaching a multiplicity of receivers, and of connecting to endless networks that transmit digitized information around the neighbourhood or around the world. It is self-communication because the production of the message is autonomously decided by the sender, the designation of the receiver is self-directed and the retrieval of messages from the networks of communication is self-selected. Mass self-communication is based on horizontal networks of interactive communication that, by and large, are difficult to control by governments or corporations. Furthermore, digital communication is multimodal and allows constant reference to a global hypertext of information whose components can be remixed by the communicative actor according to specific projects of communication. Mass self-communication provides the technological platform for the construction of the autonomy of the social actor, be it individual or collective, vis-à-vis the institutions of society. This is why most governments are afraid of the Internet, and this is why corporations have a love-hate relationship with it and are trying to extract profits while limiting its potential for freedom (for instance, by controlling file sharing or open source networks).
In our society, which I have conceptualized as a network society, power is multidimensional and is organized around networks programmed in each domain of human activity according to the interests and values of empowered actors. Networks of power exercise their power by influencing the human mind predominantly (but not solely) through multimedia networks of mass communication. Thus, communication networks are decisive sources of power-making.
Networks of power in various domains of human activity are networked among themselves. Global financial networks and global multimedia networks are intimately linked, and this particular meta-network holds extraordinary power. But not all power, because this meta-network of finance and media is itself dependent on other major networks, such as the political network, the cultural production network (which encompasses all kinds of cultural artefacts, not just communication products), the military/security network, the global criminal network and the decisive global network of production and application of science, technology and knowledge management. These networks do not merge. Instead, they engage in strategies of partnership and competition by forming ad hoc networks around specific projects. But they all share a common interest: to control the capacity of defining the rules and norms of society through a political system that primarily responds to their interests and values. This is why the network of power constructed around the state and the political system does play a fundamental role in the overall networking of power. This is, first, because the stable operation of the system, and the reproduction of power relationships in every network, ultimately depend on the coordinating and regulatory functions of the state, as was witnessed in the collapse of financial markets in 2008 when governments were called to the rescue around the world. Furthermore, it is via the state that different forms of exercising power in distinct social spheres relate to the monopoly of violence as the capacity to enforce power in the last resort. So, while communication networks process the construction of meaning on which power relies, the state constitutes the default network for the proper functioning of all other power networks. Power in each one of these networks is in the hands of those who design the performance of the networks according to goals and procedures that favor their interests, such as financial laws to protect primarily financial institutions or electoral laws to favor the interests of the dominant parties at the time when the law was elaborated. The programmers of the critical networks that organize human activity are the power holders in the network society. However, networks are multiple, and therefore there is a plurality of power holders, as programmers of each network do not coincide. And so, how do power networks connect with one another while preserving their sphere of action? I propose that they do so through a fundamental mechanism of power-making in the network society: switching power. This is the capacity to connect two or more different networks in the process of making power for each one of them in their respective fields. Switching power is, for instance, the power of media over politics via the framing of the public debate (an extreme case being the manipulation of public opinion by the media owned by Rupert Murdoch), or the government’s policy of regulating or deregulating environmental protection, or the influence of financial corporations over the main media conglomerates.
If power is exercised by programming and switching networks, then counterpower, the deliberate attempt to change power relationships, is enacted by reprogramming networks around alternative interests and values, and/or disrupting the dominant switches while switching networks of resistance and social change. Actors of social change are able to exert decisive influence by using mechanisms of power-making that correspond to the forms and processes of power in the network society. By engaging in the production of mass media messages, and by developing autonomous networks of horizontal communication, citizens of the Information Age become able to invent new programs for their lives with the materials of their suffering, fears, dreams and hopes. They build their projects by sharing their experience. They subvert the practice of communication as usual by occupying the medium and creating the message. They overcome the powerlessness of their solitary despair by networking their desire. They fight the powers that be by identifying the networks that are.
Indeed, social movements, throughout history, are the producers of new values and goals around which the institutions of society are transformed to represent these values by creating new norms to organize social life. Social movements exercise counterpower by constructing themselves in the first place through a process of autonomous communication, free from the control of those holding institutional power. Because mass media are largely controlled by governments and media corporations, in the network society communicative autonomy is primarily constructed in the Internet networks and in the platforms of wireless communication. Digital social networks offer the possibility for largely unfettered deliberation and coordination of action. However, this is only one component of the communicative processes through which social movements relate to society at large. They also need to build public space by creating free communities in the urban space. Since the institutional public space, the constitutionally designated space for deliberation, is occupied by the interests of the dominant elites and their networks, social movements need to carve out a new public space that is not limited to the Internet, but makes itself visible in the places of social life. Then a new public space is created, a hybrid of cyberspace and urban space. I call this third space the space of autonomy. From this space of autonomy, new projects are created to transform social life and enhance our capacity to live together, and in peace with our natural environment, when the old institutions of society are exhausted in their legitimacy and in their efficiency in managing our lives.
We are currently at one of these historical crossroads. The financial crisis that has shaken global capitalism is not simply an economic crisis. It is a crisis of the values underlying the flows of capital creating virtual wealth out of speculative maneuvers enacted with the help of powerful computer networks and mathematical models. It is a crisis that results from the disregard of human well being and natural conservation, counting on the bail out of these cynical lords of the space of financial flows by the powers of the state using the real wealth produced by their subjects. Furthermore, the financial crisis is coupled with a crisis of crisis management, as the crisis of political legitimacy spreads around the world. The data show that in most countries in the world (although less so in Scandinavia) the majority of citizens do not trust their governments, their parliaments, and their political parties. They, in fact, despise what has come to be known as “the political class”.
The combination of an untractable financial crisis with a deep crisis of political legitimacy opens a period of uncertainty in the lives of people at large, particularly in Europe and in the United States. In such periods, the old tricks of fundamentalist nationalism, bigotry, racism, xenophobia and intolerance are played by demagogues to conquer the state over the ruins of a fatigued democracy. But these are also periods in which new social movements rise to assert human values and to reconstruct democracy, real democracy from the bottom up, grassrooting participatory institutions. This is the practice of the networked social movements that sprung around the world in the last two years, and that I have investigated and analyzed in my last book, Networks of Outrage and Hope, to be published in September 2012. What I have observed gives indeed reasons to hope for a better world in the aftermath of the crisis. Because millions of people are actively and peacefully engaged in finding new ways of sharing, living together, and searching for a meaningful life. The fundamental issue still unsolved is the reaction of the current political institutions, vis-à-vis these waves of goodwill that do not recognize themselves in the bureaucratized and sometimes corrupted channels of our aging democratic institutions. If our current leaders give priority to the defense of their obsolete political system tailored for their own interests, we will descend in a maelstrom of social disintegration. Instead, if they accept the challenge and decide to learn new politics by joining, in good faith, the effort of finding alternative economic policies and ways of participatory democracy, then we may be at the threshold of a true humanistic revolution, supported by our extraordinary technological capacity, that we have not truly tapped into until now because of our lack of audacity in reinventing society.
These are times of trouble. And it is in these times when rigorous social science, committed to the betterment of humankind, must rise to the occasion and deliver its promise of understanding our world to help those daring to imagine a better one, and who are willing to fight for it.