Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reading :: The Power of Identity

The Power of Identity: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Volume II
By Manuel Castells

Castells' The Rise of the Network Society was an enormously influential book in terms of understanding the emerging information economy (or whatever you like to call it). Its follow-up, The Power of Identity, was less influential - my colleagues who have started it have given up on it. For me, though, it continued to fascinate. And depress.

Whereas The Rise of the Network Society focused on the changes in work organization and structure precipitated by a number of factors, The Power of Identity focuses on how those factors are affecting social movements and politics. The network society is characterized by "the globalization of strategically decisive economic activities"; "the networking form of organization"; "flexibility and instability of work, and the individualization of labor"; "a culture of real virtuality"; and "the transformation of material foundations of life" (p.1). This transformed capitalism has been accompanied by "widespread surges of powerful expressions of collective identity that challenge globalization and cosmopolitanism on behalf of cultural singularity and people's control over their lives and environment" (p.2). Between these two trends, the nation-state is called into question, precipitating a crisis of political democracy (p.2).

Castells pledges to take an analytical view of these changes, not a right/wrong or progressive/regressive view (p.3), and for the most part he keeps that promise, though in some cases he cannot restrain himself from making value judgments. More on that in a bit.

To start his analysis, Castells outlines three types of identity: legitimizing identity, which is "introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize their domination vis a vis social actors" and generates a civil society; resistance identity, which is "generated by those actors that are in positions/conditions devalued and/or stigmatized by the logic of domination" and generates communes or communities; and project identity, which comes into play "when social actors, on the basis of whichever cultural materials are available to them, build a new identity that redefines their position in society and, by so doing, seek the transformation of overall social structure" - producing subjects, i.e. collective social actors (pp.8-10). The subject, he argues, is no longer built on civil society but instead on communal resistance (p.11). One form is fundamentalism, in which collective identity is constructed by "the identification of individual behavior and society's institutions to the norms derived from God's law, interpreted by a definite authority that intermediates between God and humanity" (p.13, his emphasis).

Fundamentalism -- and Castells examines it in Islamic and US Christian contexts -- is seen in this analysis as a reaction to the threat of globalization and the concomitant threat to paternalism (more about which in a moment) (p.25). Fundamentalism constructs social and personal identities on the basis of images of the past, projected into a utopian future (p.25). Similarly, nationalism in the networked society has become detached from the state (p.30); nations are "communal cultures constructed in people's minds and collective memory by the sharing of history and political projects (p.51, his emphasis - he really likes italics). Such cultural communes are "the main alternative for the construction of meaning in our society"; they tend to be defensive, culturally constituted, and reactions to social trends (p.65).

Castells explores social movements more deeply in the next couple of chapters. In Chapter 2, he discusses how globalization and informationalization result in sudden changes, resulting in resentment at the loss of control. He examines three disparate movements -- the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the American militia, and Aum Shinrikyo. The first is, of course, a case study for netwar. The second is an entirely networked movement made possible through Internet connections, incoherent in ideology but united in distrust: as he argues, the FBI searches in vain for an organized conspiracy connecting these groups, because the actual "conspiracy" flows in and emerges from the information networks (p.92). The third, Aum Shinrikyo, formed a shadow government to oppose a united world government (p.100). Despite their extreme differences, the three movements have crystallized around a common adversary, the new global order. Each movement opposes to a specific principle of identity: Zapatistas see themselves as oppressed citizens fighting for their dignity; militia members see themselves as original citizens fighting for their sovereignty; and Aum Shinrikyo see themselves as a reconstructed spiritual community (pp.105-106). In all three cases is an appeal to authenticity (p.106). And in all three cases, weapons are not owned for their own sake, but as signs of freedom and as event-triggering devices (p.106). New communications technologies are fundamental conditions for these movements to exist (p.106): "The revolutionary cells of the information age are built on flows of electrons" (p.107).

In Chapter 3, Castells performs a similar analysis of the environmental movement, creating a typology of identity, adversary, and goals for segments of the movement (p.112). He argues that environmentalism introduces a new concept of time to the global discourse - glacial time - as well as a new identity for human beings (as a component of nature within that glacial time) and a new enemy (state nationalism, which asserts control over territories) (p.126). The movement is different from those studied in Chapter 2, but the characteristics of the movement are quite similar.

Chapter 4 brings us to the crisis of patriarchalism. Castells argues that patriarchalism, a global phenomenon, is built on the patriarchal family - and that family is fundamentally challenged by the transformations of women's work and women's consciousness, transformed by factors such as the rise of the informational economy, technological changes in reproduction, and of course the surge of women's struggles (pp.134-135). Gay and lesbian movements have of course been devastating because they fundamentally challenge the molar unit of patriarchalism (p.137). These factors combine to form, not the end of the family, but the end of the family as we know it (p.139).

In particular, the network society demands more flexible workers, and women are disproportionately supplying this labor due to residual patriarchalism among other factors. This flexible labor takes the form of part-time, temporary, and self-employed work (p.173). Women bring wages and therefore more bargaining power into their households, and men lose their justification not to help with home care and childcare (p.173). In the larger trend, marriages become more egalitarian -- or break up. Castells helpfully provides a typology of women's movements (p.195). But he waxes most poetic when discussing gay and lesbian movements, which he links to the trend toward economic independence from large-scale organizations (p.205) among other factors. "The power of identity seems to become magic when touched by the power of love," he enthuses (p.221), breaking his pledge to take a strictly analytical view of identity changes. I think I can find it in my heart to forgive him.

Castells ends with a discussion of the future of the family. Men tend to fall in love romantically, he argues, whereas women engage in more complex calculations (p.230). He sees the salvation of the family in raising boys to become responsible fathers and raising girls to be able to love husbands (p.234). Marriages become reconfigured as egalitarian if they are to survive at all.

In the wake of the breakup of patriarchalism, "new personalities emerge, more complex, less secure, yet more capable of adapting to changing roles in social contexts" (p.240). Coincidentally, this profile matches the ideal knowledge worker, continually engaging in learning, continually interfacing with different workers across borders, and without hope of lifetime employment or career.

In Chapter 5, Castells turns his attention to the state. The state's days as autonomous entities, he says, are over. Economies are too deeply linked, and the only measure that can keep currency markets stable is supranational coordination -- meaning that individual states lose control over fundamental elements of their economic policies (p.245). Even US economic independence, he says, is an illusion: "likely to dissipate in the future when living standards will reflect competitiveness in the global economy" (p.246). Similarly, the nation-state is increasingly powerless in deciding budgets, organizing production and trade, collecting corporate taxes, and providing social benefits (p.254). The globalization/localization of media is tantamount to de-nationalization and de-statization of information (p.259). Crime becomes globalized (p.259). Even in terms of projecting force, the most militarily independent state -- the US, due to its independent production of warfare equipment -- is not independent in terms of committing forces abroad (p.264).

Based on these trends, Castells expected the year 2000 to be a crisis of government along small-government lines: economic populism, political isolationism, and the rejection of governmental interference in private lives (p.290). (In reality, 9/11 appears to have reversed these trends, at least in the short term.) Castells also argued that nation-states' power is threatened by the diffusion of surveillance capacity and the potential for violence outside state institutions and borders -- both of which appear to be true. We generally don't have to fear Big Brother, but we do have to worry about a crowd of Little Sisters gathering unprecedented amounts of information on us (p.300). Rather than centralizing control, the trend is toward decentralizing surveillance, leading to a surveillance society rather than a surveillance state (p.301). "In historically relative terms," he argues, "today's state is more surveilled than surveillant" (p.302).

Furthermore, the nation-state has lost its monopoly on violence to transnational terrorist networks and communal groups (like Aum Shinrikyo) resorting to suicidal violence. The state is caught in a double bind: if it doesn't use violence, it fades, but if it does, it precipitates an endless emergency, leading to fading legitimacy (p.302). (This should sound very familiar to anyone who has examined the Threat Advisory or heard speeches on the War on Terrorism.) The new power system, Castells argues, is characterized by the plurality of sources of authority and power (p.303). Nation-states now compete with the international polity as well as networks of capital, production, communication, crime, international institutions, supranational military apparatuses, nongovernmental organizations, transnational religions, and public opinion movements (p.304).

This leads to Chapter 6, the question of the crisis of democracy. To sum it up quickly: democracy is now mediated through electronic media, particularly broadcast media. To gain a groundswell of the vote, parties veer toward the political center. In the absence of sharp policy differences, scandal becomes the mode of differentiation. "With political parties fading away, it is the time of saviors," Castells concludes, daydreaming of President Colin Powell (p.349).

In sum, Castells is attempting an enormous job in this series, and he consequently covers a great deal of ground in his discussion of identity. This book was not as interesting to me as the first one, but it's still a crucial piece of the larger argument, and it gave me insights into how people are developing, self-representing, and interacting in the network society. Give it a read.

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