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For urban geographers and those in allied disciplines, particularly urban planners, Manuel Castells occupies a crucial position in the canon. The trajectory of his work allows a unique bridge between explicitly spatial questions like urban social movements and the otherwise despatialized dynamics of cyberspace, or the network society of global information communication technology. While always more the techno-dialectician rather than the techno-optimist, Castells’ oeuvre nevertheless bears a traces of the Catalan soixante-huitard, as well as a distinctive mark of excited anticipation that likely ran thick in proximity to Silicon Valley at the end of the 20th century. In the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to the US presidency, some have taken to critiquing Castell’s earlier suggestions that a Marcusian-class of young, well-educated, digitally-enabled people would inevitably become almost spiritual agents of a new democratic global culture (Brym et al., 2018). For readers curious about how recent political events have impacted Manuel Castells’ thinking, Rupture: The Crisis of Liberal Democracy serves as a timely addendum to this vast and highly influential oeuvre. In Rupture, Castells examines a “profound movement of mass rebellion against the established order,” stemming from a dynamic in which a “majority of citizens in the world today do not trust their political representatives, the mainstream political parties, the established political institutions or their governments.” Castells highlights this common theme through a variety of circumstances; from the elections of Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, to the Brexit referendum and the political crisis of the European Union, with the most detailed attention given to the rise of Podemos in Spain.
In Rupture, Castells extends arguments developed most prominently in his Information Age trilogy. Specifically, Castells articulated a trend towards despatialization emerging from processes of accumulation mediated by information communication technologies, a new information age defined by a contradictory relationship between “the net and the self.” The network society, so it seemed, reflected a shift from place as the basis for social power to the globalized space of flows. (Castells, 1996:378). In many ways, the rhizomatic nature of the internet provided a natural infrastructure for the new social movements he documented in his canonical 1983 work, The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. However, Castells’ revisions to the initial trilogy show how early 2010s as social movements like the Indignados movement in Spain, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Movement prompted a return to the potency of place, especially urban public spaces, for voicing dissent and as stages for political mobilization. However, as romantic idealizations of direct democracy in public space revealed themselves as power vacuums, most notably in Libya and Syria, they quickly transformed into stages for civil war fought by proxies of global powers. Expanding on this previous analysis in Networks of Outrage, in Ruptures, Castells describes how the ensuing migrant crisis added fuel to the fire that was the pre-existing debt crisis, thereby radically transforming European politics. In this respect, Castells points towards linkages between the unraveling of liberal democracy over the course of the second decade of the 21st century and the emergence of Web 2.0 in the wake of the global financial crisis.
When Facebook was still in its infancy in the late 2000s, Castells had already identified the destructive cycle of scandal politics and the delegitimization of institutions that occupies a large focus of Rupture. Perpetuated by politicians and accelerated first by the 24-hour news cycle and then social media, this delegitimization of political institutions reflects a larger waning of the state-citizen relationship in favor of a contradictory process of globalization and mediated identification between the net and the self (Castells, 2009:360). Moreover, by this time, Castells’ interlocutors studying urban social movements of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Margit Mayer, observed that his earlier critiques of the state had been subsumed by NGOs and public-private partnerships, and that new social movements no longer (if they ever did) converge as a singular multi-class actor intent on urban social change (Mayer, 2006). Instead of progressing towards universal ideals such as democracy, truth, or equality, it increasingly appears we are experiencing something more akin to chaos and entropy, or, according to Vladmir Putin, Brownian motion.
Accordingly, the first chapter of Rupture briefly introduces Castells’ understanding of the self-destruction of institutional legitimacy in the political process, and its relationship to the identity crisis wrought by globalization and accelerated by the dynamics of social media. As Castell explains, a paradoxical feedback loop emerges from “the ideology of consumption as value and money as a measure of success that accompanies the neoliberal model centered on the individual and his or her immediately monetized satisfaction” (pg. 19). In particular, institutions like the Clinton Foundation epitomize the rise and subsequent suspicion of a “shadow-state” of high-profile think tanks, NGOs, and consultancies that emerged from the decentralized anti-statist tendencies of new social movements of the 1960s and 70s (Rose, 1996; Wolch, 1989). As a result, Castells’ observes that success is increasingly tied to the personal accumulation of capital generated through holding positions of power. Accordingly, a crisis of legitimacy emerges when a model of politics-as-business reduces both the egalitarian ideals of the Left and the libertarian ideals of the Right to empty gestures and slogans communicated in targeted marketing operations.
A second chapter, the thinnest of the book, briefly touches on global terrorism and the politics of fear, and the way recent wars in the Middle East have reshaped the question of identity in an era of globalization. Tracing the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, from Cold War strategic alliances to 9/11, Castells illustrates another runaway feedback loop mirroring the dynamic driving the self-destruction of political institutions. Namely, the way terrorism causes the exceptional security state to become the norm. It intensifies discrimination and profiling of Muslims, while disillusioned Muslims (and some non-Muslims), alienated with “the emptiness of life in the West’s rotten consumer societies” (pg. 29), sustain Islamic terrorism as a social movement that oscillates between online and public space. A similar analysis of white nationalist terrorism in the West would also likely hold, although Castells only gestures at this connection, focusing instead on far-right political parties.
Chapter 3, the analytic core of the book, sketches out general trends unfolding in the US, UK, France, and the European Union, while chapter 5, the largest of the book, focuses on Spain. This builds on Castells’ analysis of the role of media platforms and technologies, such as his analysis of how filter bubbles and scandal politics exacerbate a tendency for “people [to] categorize and assess the information that they receive based on their pre-existing convictions, rooted in the emotions that they feel” (pg. 20). As a result, electoral deliberation is secondary to algorithmically engineered affect and a management of the status quo by unaccountable political parties and corporate media. Steve Bannon’s contracting of Cambridge Analytica and the mobilization of these psychological profiles accumulated by our everyday digital footprints for political ends, illustrates the power built into the infrastructure that defines the relationship between the net and the self. Along these lines, there are times when the constraints of Castells’ own filter bubble become evident. For example, he indulges in aspects of the spectacle produced by Donald Trump, at times reinforcing the Andy Kaufman-esque, trans-medial performance that continues to flummox liberal elites. Perhaps the most egregious of these indulgences includes a three-page paragraph of wild speculation on the discredited Steele Dossier. Similarly, Castells’ heavy reliance on opinion polling sits awkwardly with his critique of the role of these surveys in the broader crisis of liberal democracy, and the degree to which polling and “media experts” were wrong in cases like Trump and Brexit.
Castells does critique some aspects of the liberal consensus on the failures of 2016, such as allowing that Russia was not the determining factor in the 2016 election, and that the Bernie Sanders campaign was “openly sabotaged by the Democratic National Committee”(pg. 39). Further risking the wrath of Democratic partisans, he links the way Clinton failed to hide contempt for “the less-educated classes” (pg. 40) famously captured in a soundbite referring to them as “deplorable” and the enduring controversy over her email protocol. Similarly, Castells acknowledges that while racism is no doubt prevalent in Great Britain, he argues Brexit hinged on the Polish plumber, not the Pakistani security guard, pushing back on liberal narratives that might reduce the leave vote to a question of cultural backwardness. Castells is similarly precise in his analysis of politics in France and the European Union. Forecasting contemporary Gilets Jaunes protests, his analysis reveals the astonishing self-destruction of the Socialist Party and mainstream political consensus. He shows, for example, how Macron’s 24% of the vote translated to only 16% of the electorate, while votes for candidates who demanded a renegotiation of the relationship with the European Union were over half the electorate. He identifies a similar disillusion with the European Union following the debt crisis, spreading from Greece to Italy to Austria, as Germany exerted hegemony within the supranational Troika made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Despite being a believer in the European project, Castells allows that “the subjection of national sovereignty to legislation and decisions made by the European Commission was never up for debate and certainly never voted on” (pg. 79).
Of these case studies, Castells’ perspective on the situation in Spain and Catalonia covered in chapter 5 is the most developed and in-depth. This is no doubt due to his personal relationship with politicians from the insurgent left-wing Podemos party and his self-identification as a Catalan nationalist (Castells and Ince, 2003). As grounds for optimism, Castells turns to Podemos and the persistence of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in the face of attacks by the political establishment of his own Socialist Worker’s Party. How well founded these hopes are remains to be seen. In the recent Spanish election, Sanchez appears able to assemble a coalition, but Podemos has slipped from roughly 21 to 14% while the far-right enters parliament for the first time since the Franco-era with the VOX party earning 10% of the vote.
On the whole, perhaps Castells’ most insightful observation concerns the ways extreme right parties have exerted a pull on traditional center-right parties, shaping political decision making from outside the political establishment. While the reactionary dimension of these movements is undeniable, it is a reaction that seeks to “leverage control over the global currents that dominate, life, and culture by using the traditional state machinery over which the public do have some influence” (pg. 63). Recalling Wendy Brown’s (2017) recent documentation of the resurgence of fortified border landscapes in an age of supposed globalization and openness, the local objects to the global using the only tool at hand: the border. In this sense, the question of space re-emerges, not as “public space” of the city but as the territory of the nation-state. This is of course distasteful to the cosmopolitan urban elites of Paris, Los Angeles, or London, citizens of the world whose very power and status invariably grows out of the global spaces of flows. However, moralizing about open minds and tolerance towards other cultures can often appears transparently self-serving, and may tend to backfire. As Castells points out in the context of Brexit, the British elite’s evocation of the virtues of global citizenship is invariably self-serving “precisely because they hold all the power and wealth within this system” of global flows (pg. 63). At the end of the day, this appears to be the raw political calculation driving a resurgent cultural emphasis on Hobbesian nation-state sovereignty against the global liberalism that seemed infallible following the Cold War, but that perhaps suffered mortal wounds over nearly two decades of Global War on Terror.
Nevertheless, Castells appears to maintain faith in the idea of a “resistance,” the unified block of grassroots social movements that made up the late 20th century New Left, a finally realizable immanent force for social change activated by the rhizomatic capacities of information communication technology. Despite this optimism, for Castells, the ruptures we see today are not questions of presidential politics, but, referring to the case of Trump’s election, expressions of “sharp social conflicts that cannot be processed any longer through the established procedure of liberal democracy” (pg. 57). As Castells describes in the American case, Trump enjoys unqualified support from some 30% of the voting populace, and another 10% from Republican partisans. If these are the exhausted limits of liberalism, what lessons are to be learned from these earlier optimistic prognostications that now seem to belie a teleological assumptions about social progress and technology? To what degree can “the self” can form a site of resistance for “the net?” For geographers, what are the emergent spaces of these social fissures, and how do they play out in spaces ranging from the border camp to the university? There is no doubt Castells’ oeuvre provides important analysis of these dynamics at their emergent form, and will endure as important early framework. For this reason alone, his updates and revisions are worthy of continued attention.