Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog


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Alternative Economic Cultures – Manuel Castells

Possibly relevant to our upcoming Thursday discussion, and worth a listen regardless: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n9yg1

Update:

I just revisited this recording and felt compelled to write about it. Castells, who has written about the network society extensively, has a new book out called Aftermath: The Cultures of the Economic Crisis. In the recording Castells is interviewed about this new work as well   as some of his older ideas.

Paul Mason begins by summing up a key argument made by Castells in the new book. He notes that Castells seems to be outlining a kind of four-layer economy. This involves a much-weakened public sector, a highly concentrated and successful private sector based on high tech and financial arenas, a third layer of ‘survival models’ of traditional business, and finally, and most interestingly for me, a layer of ‘post-capitalist alternative economic cultures’. Upon being questioned about these last he argues they are expanding, giving the example of interest-free lending taking place in Barcelona in the aftermath of the economic crisis.

There are a few points about this that struck a chord with me. Castells argues that the economic crisis has provided a galvanizing force for the energy that exists in all societies towards change. He argues that the crisis is really a crisis of trust, wherein people no longer trust either the economic/financial systems, nor the political systems that sustain them. People have seen not only that the economic systems are based on highly unreliable economic models, but moreover that when they are at risk of collapse, the political systems change the financial systems in order to prevent their collapse, thereby demonstrating their allegiance to the economic systems at the expense of caring for the people.

As more people become aware of this situation, the possibility for change is enhanced. Elements of society who have been living differently either by choice or not are now poised to either create larger social change (or in some cases to fall into a pattern of complete rejection leading to extremism and an attempt to go back rather than forwards). As a potentially positive outcome of the crisis, Castells sees a more mainstream adoption of counterculture practices, a mainstreaming of the alternative if you like. He sees an increasing number of people beginning to reject capitalist consumerist culture in favor of models which allow to flourish the thing which he says statistically people value most: love. This represents a cultural shift. Rather than people thinking that a new car will bring happiness and therefore pursuing a lifestyle that will allow them to buy that new car, he suggests that people are waking up to the idea that they are trapped in the machine which affords more value to the car than to their time, to love, to family, to relationships, to the things that are really valuable to people… and are beginning to reject this.

Castells’ network society is one in which the hierarchy of government, alongside its connection to the capitalist system, is ever-increasingly rejected by the people, who, connected to each other through far reaching and supportive systems are able to bypass in many ways and in many cases, the hegemony of mainstream political and economic systems in order to live fulfilling lives. In some ways, this is still far off, as we are still beholden to so much control by the state, but the idea that the crisis could set us off on a trajectory of positive change is an appealing one indeed.