In Networks of Outrage and Hope (2012) Manuel Castells presents an “inquiry into the social movements of the network society” motivated by the “hope of identifying new paths of social change in our time” (p. 4). His analysis of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, the Arab Uprisings, the Indignadas in Spain, and Occupy Wall Street leads him to locate several common characteristics of networked social movements (p. 221-228). For instance, he concludes that networked social movements have horizontal rather than vertical organizational power structures, are non-violent in principal, are simultaneously local and global, and become movements through the occupation of urban space. An important aspect of his project is to challenge the “meaningless discussion in the media and in academic circles denying that communications technologies are at the roots of social movements” by showing how networked social movements are fundamentally different than those that came before (p. 228). In order to demonstrate these differences, he turns to the theory of power that he presented in Communication Power (2009) to show how “communication networks are decisive sources of power-making” (p. 9). Optimistic about the potential outcomes of networked social movements, Castells insists that “the Internet provides the organizational communication platform to translate the culture of freedom into the practice of autonomy” (p. 231). In other words, social networking and digital multimedia have the potential to support movements that make “real democracy” a reality.

I was particularly interested in one of Castell’s common characteristics of networked social movements: his observation that they are rarely programmatic movements (p. 227). He explores this idea at length in his chapter on Occupy Wall Street (p. 287-297). The OWS protestors often did not have a shared list of demands or policy changes that they were able to mobilize around. Since the groups were leaderless and represented desperate interests brought together through a loose horizontal power structure, they did not come to a consensus about concrete outcomes and plans for strategic, focused policy changes. Nevertheless, Castells points to some important achievements of the OWS, namely, a greater awareness among people both in and out of the movement of class struggle and a more widespread distrust of financial capitalism. Indeed, I think that George Lakoff’s characterization of OWS as primarily a “moral movement” is quite apt. Castells explains that the non-programmatic nature of networked social movements are both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. On the one hand, a lack of specific demands makes a movement more open to mass participation and more difficult for political parties to co-opt. On the other hand, there is the question of how much concrete change can happen if the movement is unable to focus on any one particular goal or project.    

This same question about networked social movement’s ability to enact meaningful change was taken up by Malcolm Gladwell in “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” (2010). Unlike Castells, Gladwell is convinced that networked social movements cannot make the same concrete impact that earlier movements – such as the civil rights movements in the US – were able to because of their vertical power hierarchies and the “close tie” relationships of the pre-internet era.

Personally, I am not sure where I stand on this question. I understand that horizontal power structures of the networked social movements are the only ones that are “truly democratic.” I also think that a movement that promotes critical consciousness of class struggle in a large portion of the population is accomplishing something meaningful. After all, a change in values and assumptions can lead to changes in the political system. However, I feel like Gladwell has a point too. How can a social movement achieve goals if the power structure of the movement does not allow for the official adoption by the group of specific goals?      

Discussion questions:

1.     How do you react to Castells’ and Gladwell’s different approaches to the question of meaningful change and networked social movements?  

2.     Castell offers an interesting analysis of the ways that communication technologies restructure social movements. Castells suggests that part of the reason that power structures in networked social movements are horizontal is because of a distrust of political parties. However, he recognizes that the majority of OWS protestors identified with the democratic party and that the democratic party consciously presented Obama as representing the interests of the 99%. In a way, it did seem to me that the OWS movement was co-opted by a political party. Is it possible for a networked social movement in the US to forward a radical critique of the political system if it is still dominantly situated within the mainstream bipartisan system? Where are the implications of networked social movements for the future of the far left? 

Kim Christen
2/12/2013 12:00:34 am

I think the problem with Gladwell's argument and any that pits "real" pr "true" anything..democracry, activism, feminism...etc is relying on a false binary and ascribing to a notion of authenticity that ultimately upholds the horizontal power structure any are critiquing. We need to get away from is this or is this not activism vs slactivism or real social movements and look, s Castells does at the meanings made through these practices, there is no meter that we need to read to see if they are "real." They are.


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