Networks of outrage and hope

Systems of domination always provoke resistance. All resistance emerges as a result of social networks.

This was the opening theme of a talk given by the UC Berkeley Professor Manuel Castells at the RSA recently. If it is true it has profound importance for the future of social networks online.

Castells says that movements that are essentially about resistance or revolution don’t happen without social ‘networks’ - and these days says Professor Castells, technology enables both the formation of social networks and their growth and operation to be much faster and have much greater reach than those that rely only on ‘word of mouth’.

He says resistance movements are always spontaneous in their origins - there is an initiating ‘message’, followed by a ‘call to action’, then the ‘call to action’ is repressed, when it is repressed, there is resistance, then the resistance to the repression becomes viral… and the reaction continues.

Though resistance movements emerge as local phenomena, they almost always refer to other, wider, global networks - as those in Egypt and the Arab Awakening did, and the Occupy movement. These online movements are leaderless – and they are leaderless because they are networks – so ‘decisions’ such as they are, are made ‘collectively’. Networks are horizontal structures, so they do not have hierarchies. These movements are boundary-less – they have no membership, they open to all, they are highly self-reflective, their adherents are generally highly educated, generally unemployed or under-employed, and their average age is around thirty-five.

The main demands of online networks of resistance are relatively simple, they can be summarized as “we want to change the way decisions are made” – but they are not ‘programmatic’ in that they have no manifesto, no list of demands. So a good example of this is the success of the Five Star Party in Italy’s recent general election – it rejected a ‘programme’, rejected leadership, rejected the use of TV and traditional campaigning, yet asserted itself as a totally grassroots-driven, internet-based social movement of political resistance to Italian political orthodoxy, gaining electoral success by marshaling the widespread collapse of trust in the political system.

While governments don’t control the internet they do maintain surveillance of it and they have the power to jail the messengers of networks of resistance. But they can’t stop the message and governments’ ability to disrupt networks – especially online – is limited. They may ‘cut’ one of the nodes but the nodes quickly re-configure – as was and still is a particular feature of the Egyptian resistance - and of course the enduring difficulty in finally defeating Al-Qaida. It is characteristic of horizontal structures - they can dynamically embrace new ideas and resist hierarchical domination. It is therefore remarkable how vertical organisations like the churches or other organised and orthodox religious groups, states or armies have been singularly unable to take advantage of networks. They are structurally incapable of doing so.

But what are the outcomes of such networks of resistance? What do they achieve? Once again, the answer to that is complicated and different from the political outcomes of ‘real world’ networks of resistance like political parties, trades unions or even pressure groups. Online movements reject a ‘product’ in a capitalist or statist sense. The process of social engagement – the emergence, the growth and development of the network is the product and because - conceptually and historically - all social movements are destined to die, to become institutionalized or crushed, they therefore see themselves as ‘romantic’.

Perhaps the best example of this is the position of women in the twentieth century – arguably they represent the most profound social change over that time and particularly in the last 40 years. It is not the practical or pragmatic reality of women’s lives that has changed, but the change in the way women think about themselves that is most real, fundamental and lasting.

While that change has not come about as the direct result of online social networks of resistance, the fact that what happens in the real world is always a template for what happens online holds out great prospects of potential and hope for the role of online networks and communities of the future.

Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age

By Professor Manuel Castells

Published by Polity Press, March 2013