Saturday, 23 October 2010

16: Castells: the Future of Capitalism

Largely by coincidence, the weekend following the horror show of the Comprehensive Spending Review saw an interesting series of events in my home town all focused on the future of capitalism.

On Friday I attend two talks organised by the Department of Sociology at Cambridge University by Manuel Castells the most widely known sociologist of 'the information age'. At the first he reflected on 'the multi-dimensional crisis of informational capitalism'. While the economies of many countries around the world were fundamentally sound or even thriving, Western Europe and North America are facing the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. The contribution of sociology is as ever to move beyond a narrow, mechanistic  economic determinism and to return to the insight that economies depend on social norms, values and institutional arrangements. On one level the current crisis is of course the result of the failure to regulate and manage 'informational capitalism' adequately (Castells provided a detailed discussion of this) but more fundamentally the crisis is about a disjuncture between economic practices, institutional arrangements and cultural values. Thus Western countries now depend on a financial system which no one can trust, control or even fully understand, banks who are highly profitable again but will not lend money to business, and a consumer society in which many people cannot now consume.

According to Castells, we have reached one of the moments in the history of capitalism - like the 1930s and the 1970s - when someone, somewhere has to press CTRL ALT DEL and reboot the system. The capitalism that emerged in the 1940s involved forms of production, politics, institutional practice, State management and culture that would have been hard to imagine in the 1930s. Similarly there can be no return to pre-crash capitalism. Attempts to 'fix' the system either through Keynesian demand management or deficit reduction were doomed in part because of their nostalgia for earlier eras. The key questions is what novel  economic cultures and institutions will emerge out the current crisis.

An important feature of the crisis is a growing 'culture of anger' in the West. This is expressed in the success of the Tea Party in the USA and in a growing tide of  xenophobia and racism sweeping Europe.  While acknowledging their more positive objectives, Castells would also classify many of the left protests again austerity as falling into the same category in that they are driven by resentment of the ending of the old certainties of capitalist societies. A more interesting aspect of the culture of crisis in Castell's eyes is the value shift epitomised by the spread of 'non-commodified life practices' - forms of production and consumption (or 'prosumption') that circumvent individualised market capitalism. These practices are driven by a combination of need (i.e. capitalism is not delivering) and desire (a rejection of the pace, acquisitiveness and individualism of the boom years).

Castell's second talk focused squarely on emerging non-commodified life practices. It centred on the showing a film Homage to Catalonia 2 which was scripted by Castells and gives a flavour of an extensive research project into alternative economic practices in and around Barcelona. The film highlighted a wide range of developments including the rise of consumer and producer co-operatives, new forms of communal living, barter networks, alternative social currencies and ethical finance, urban farming, shared child care and 'free universities' to illustrate prosumption in action. People interviewed in the film were motivated by a vision of life as a creative process and the mantra 'let me be happy with my friends and family'. For Castells the developments explored in the film are at the cutting edge of wider transformation: in the future many may still participate in the capitalist economy but will not make this the centre-piece of their lives. In places like Spain where already 35% of the under thirties are jobless it is clear that the lifestyle of working to borrow to consume is dead. The challenge is how to live a good life, to get along positively in these dramatically changing times.

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