David Garcia on Tue, 23 Apr 2002 00:14:15 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Castells in Amsterdam/short report

Manuel Castells in Amsterdam

I am posting this in a hurry but hesitantly. It is no more than a sketch
based on rough notes taken last night and does not contain the many
references with which Manuel Castells supported his arguments. As those who
know his work would expect these were wide ranging and appeared credible.
However, not being a political scientist, I cannot really judge. The
following report will contain inevitable mistakes but as I noticed  that
there were other nettime contributors present I hope they will step in to
both correct either my facts or interpretations and give a fuller picture.

21/4/02. 16.00 De Balie Amsterdam

Just hours before the thunder bolt from the French elections a lecture and
discussion was taking place in the Amsterdam cultural institute De Balie
which could not have been more timely. The political and social theorist,
author of the network Society (and more recently Internet Galaxy) Manuel
Castells used his years of analysis to illuminate some of the causes of the
progressive breakdown in trust between citizens and the political class.
In the midst of the Dutch national elections, Amsterdam was treated to a
rare event, a senior national politician in open discussion with a political
scientist during  one of the most important election campaigns in years.
Whatever the outcome De Balie and the organizers of the event should be
congratulated on raising the level public debate at a critical moment in
Dutch political life.

The evening consisted of the lecture by Castells followed by a response by
Ad Melkert the leader of the Dutch center left party PvdA.. There was then a
more open discussion which included questions from the floor.

>From the outset Castells made it clear what was at stake. He declared that
the most dangerous potential outcomes of the crisis in the legitimacy of
party political democracy he was describing was that the system would become
vulnerable to populism and demagogory.  Ad Melkert In his response to
Castells indicated that he preferred the word "difficulty" to crisis. The
events in France a few hours later showed that it was Castells who had
chosen the correct word . Unfortunately this supports the impression that
Melkert's campaign lacks the appropriate urgency. Especially as the
Netherlands is now in the grip of its own xenophobic populist movement which
has all the potential of creating an equivalent political earthquake in the
polders. Melkert, a decent thoughtful man, in the midst of a political
campaign, gives the impression of struggling to respond to a world in which
the old collegial atmosphere of the last decade of Holland's purple alliance
no longer applies.

Supported with an array of statistical and empirical and reported evidence
(as if it were needed) Manuel Castells reminded us of the almost universally
low esteem in which professional politicians are held, with very few people
in any democratic nation feeling that they, their interests or values were
not represented by the available political parties. He maintained that this
was not based on a crisis in ideology but a crisis of trust. Neither was
there any evidence of an equivalent rise in the traditional forms of
association which characterize a successful civil societies of the past, on
the contrary they were in steady decline as our society becomes
progressively individualized. For example although feminism remained a
powerful social force organised women's groups were in steady decline.

He declared that the crisis was not due to the fact that politicians as
individuals were becoming worse or more corrupt. Rather there are structural
factors inherent in the networked society that had given rise to this
crisis. And that it was only armed with an adequate analysis that human
agency could effectively intervene and shape an alternative.

The litany was familiar but worth repeating (and it did have some surprising

A key factor in the perception of national politics as ineffectual is the
progressive erosion of national sovereignty leading to skepticism about the
power of national politicians.
He outlined a number of standard strategies being used for dealing with this
erosion. There was xenophobic populism in all its varieties. There were the
attempts to regain some power by becoming part of supranational entities EU,
NATO, World Bank, WTO ( a new state, the state of the information age
[Empire?]). National governments believe that by ceding some degree of
sovereignty  in some areas, they would accrue more national influence in
overall terms. It goes without saying that this strategy compounds the
problem of legitimacy as people feel even less represented by these
Finally he seemed to suggest the most positive approach was one of
coordinated decentralization
Some administrations (Spain with Catatonia, and the Blair administration in
the UK devolving power to regional assemblies) are learning to be more
responsive to regional struggles for identity, administrations have to be
prepared to decentralize or devolve in other ways. Interestingly he
characterized the 40.000 existing NGOs as a decentralized extension of
government rather than a reconstitution of civil society. But in the end
these forms of decentralized coordination do not address the problem of the
erosion of the nation state.

His description of the structural causes in the breakdown of trust between
citizens and the political class were made up of the following primary

* Erosion of the sovereignty of the state:
this creates a reality and a perception of elected national politicians with
less and less room to materially affect the life chances of their citizens.
The erosion of apparent power of the political class in the face of
globalization processes over which they have limited control means that it
is inevitable that voting (let alone any deeper involvement in mainstream
political life) is seen as unlikely to make any real difference.

Fight for the Middle Ground
Although parties may represent very different values the critical ten
percent who decide elections lie in the center. this leads to political
parties to devise programs that have progressively less differentiation.
Again sustaining the view that whatever I vote it makes no difference.

Cost of mediatized campaigns cause corruption
* Values and meanings are transmited and constructed through the media.
Which are (contrary to the belief of many intellectuals, trusted by most
people, who do not see them as a means of manipulation but of
representation. And television is the most trusted of all. Seeing, it
appears, is still believing)
The need to create effective media campaigns has made party politics a
hugely expensive business. Without individuals being necessarily "on the
take", there is widespread (he implied almost universal) illegal financing
of party politics. Those responsible for arranging party finances know that
to be able to compete, a political party cannot rely on its own membership
for funds. Political parties can only find the resources to mount an
effective campaign with the support of powerful (i.e. wealthy) interest
groups. And this fact alone creates inevitable spaces for both real and
inferred corruption.

* The politics of scandal as a weapon
Across the globe scandal is a determining factor in the destinies of many
administrations. To take just one example 12 scandals have occurred in
Germany since the storm that broke around Kohl's retirement.  If people are
more likely to vote reactively on the basis of aversion rather than positive
conviction it follows that the most devastating ammunition in this process
is the scandal. In all modern (therefor mediatized) democracies
institutionalized corruption is inevitable, frequently identifiable and
amplified by a scandal hungry commercial media facilitated by "scandal
brokers" (although he did not use this term he described a new class of
traders in damaging information). It is above all the  politics of scandal
that feeds the crisis of political legitimacy.

In summary there is a general perception of party political democracies as
self reproducing systems. With political parties as little more than
electoral machines: empty shells in terms of real potential for social
This is not about the end of ideology but a crisis in trust.
Although cynical about politicians Castells rejected the view that people
were cynical in general. Indeed there was ample evidence that people are
willing to be mobilized for a variety of issues beyond self interest. An
important factor are the new social movements which propel their values into
society. It is these movements which  he saw as the source of innovation
rather than the established political parties.

22/4/02 Amsterdam

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