Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reading :: End of Millennium

End of Millennium: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Volume III
By Manuel Castells

Manuel Castells' End of Millennium is the third and final book in his series The Information Age, following The Rise of the Network Society and The Power of Identity. Whereas the other two books covered the transformation of capitalism into informational capitalism and its effects on individual and collective identities, this book focuses on the crisis of statism. The book has a sense of urgency and doom that was muted in the other two books, and I wonder if it has anything to do with this passage in the Acknowledgements: "I would like to thank my surgeons ... whose care and professionalism gave me the time and energy to finish this book" (p.xiv). Indeed, the book seems not just more passionate but also more loosely edited and less economical than the other two. (Castells, incidentally, appears to be still alive and publishing more than any ten scholars.)

Castells argues that the changes surveyed in the book have precipitated a crisis of statism. Beginning with an in-depth analysis of the Soviet Union, Castells argues that industrial statism is threatened by the network society. The fourth world, he argues in Chapter 2, is rising. To make this argument, he draws a distinction between processes of social differentiation. On the one hand is distribution/consumption, characterized by inequality, polarization, poverty, and misery. On the other hand is production, characterized by the individualization of work, the over-exploitation of workers, social exclusion, and perverse integration.

The individualization of work involves "precarious" labor relations. Labor is defined in specific terms for each worker and for each of the worker's individual contributons, "either under the form of self-employment or under individually contracted, largely unregulated, salaried labor" (p.72). Over-exploitation involves discrimination against categories of workers (p.72). Under social exclusion, certain individuals or groups are systematically barred from positions that would afford an autonomous livelihood (p.73). Perverse integration involves labor process in the criminal economy (p.74).

The ascent of informational global capitalism, Castells argues, is characterized by simultaneous economic development and underdevelopment, inclusion and exclusion. Certainly these conditions affect whole countries -- Castells points to the predatory states that have developed across Africa (p.96) -- but they also affect patches everywhere, such as US inner cities (p.134), which have been hard-hit by the deindustrialization of the US and the placing of workers into individualized working conditions where they are left to their own individual fates (p.135). The extraordinary diversity of labor arrangements leads to a premium on workers with unique skills (p.135), skills that may not be available to vast numbers of workers. "Informationalization spurs job growth in the higher tiers of skills in America while globalization offshores low-skilled manufacturing jobs" (p.139). Consequently, "black holes" of social exclusion are manifested throughout the planet, not just in sub-Saharan Africa, but in every country and city (p.165). Such areas are termed "black holes" because it's almost impossible to escape them.

Castells next turns his attention to international criminal networks, which follow the organizational logic of the networked enterprise. They subcontract each other so that they can operate on each others' turf and share capacity (p.169). I can't do justice to the chapter in this brief review except to say that criminal networks appear to be increasingly independent of states.

In Chapter 4, Castells details the Asian market crisis of 1997-1998, a crisis that sounds very familiar as I look at the headlines of 2008-2009. It involved the "loss of investor trust and the sudden lack of credibility of Asian currencies and securities in global financial markets" (p.209). The penetration of global financial flows led to an addiction to massive short-term borrowing, leading to vulnerability to the reversal of investment flows (p.211). As our Congress contemplates a "stimulus package" of over $800b -- produced via short-term borrowing -- reading about the effects of the Asian crisis was sobering and depressing.

Chapter 5 addresses the European Union, which was incipient at the time of writing but which Castells envisioned as a possible "network state" (p.331). Such a state would be characterized by the sharing of authority along a network (p.352). A decade later, I think the jury may still be out on how the EU functions.

Finally, we get to the Conclusion - which, being the end of the series, summarizes the major themes of that entire series. Castells argues that this new world we are facing is the result of the coincidence in the 1960s-1970s of the IT revolution, the economic crisis of statism and capitalism, and the blooming of cultural social movements (p.356). Capitalism has been transformed, and now thrives as a global informational capitalism with a largely common set of economic rules (p.358). In this new capitalism, we face a structural transformation in relations of production, power, and experience (p.361).

In terms of production, productivity is driven by innovation and competitiveness is driven by flexibility. IT is essential for these. A new split is realized between self-programmable labor (in which education allows people to continually redefine and access skills for a given task) and generic labor (programmed by others, predictably transforming defined inputs into defined outputs, and consequently able to be outsourced or automated) (p.361). Flexibility "requires networkers, and flextimers"; the variable geometry of working arrangements leads to the coordinated decentralization of work and the individualization of labor (p.362).

Global financial markets colonizer the future via speculation. These are the actual collective capitalist. Global financial networks are the nerve center of informational capitalism (p.363).

If innovation is the main source of productivity, knowledge and information are the essential materials and education is the key quality of labor (p.365).

Under these conditions, we find a more complicated mechanism than under industrial capitalism. Employment relationships are tendentially individualized. Increasingly, producers control their own work processes and enter into horizontal relationships as individual producers. Earnings flow into global financial markets, making these producers collective owners of capital (p.366).

These conditions also introduce social cleavages: information producers vs. generic labor; exclusion of segments of society whose value as workers/consumers is used up; and a separation between market logic of global networks and the human experience of workers' lives (p.366).

Finally, in the new networked state, we find a new structure of power dominated by the network geometry, in which power relations are specific to given configurations of actors and institutions (p.367). "There are no more stable power elites," Castells declares, since power lies in networks of information exchange and symbol manipulation (p.368).

Castells ends with several predictions, which turn out to be largely correct a decade later. These include a rise in terrorism, multilaterial decision-making, and the more belligerent rise of Russia as a reconstituted power.

As with the other books in this series, this one was fascinating to me. It does not increase my confidence in short-term global fortune, but it does help me to think through some of the things I'm increasingly seeing in my studies of work and work organization.

No comments: