A Review of Castell’s Networks of Hope

If you have ever been involved in social change work, you have probably puzzled over the question – what is the right balance between digital organising and face-to-face organising?

For instance, when is the tech world just “clicktavism,” and when does it open up spaces that can change the world?

In a study of the whirlwind of social movements that was the Arab Uprising, Occupy and the Indignados in Spain – Manuel Castells tries to answer that question. Alongside this, he engages in a powerful discussion about how prominent social movements are working in the 21st century.

Networks of Hope is now five years old, and some of its findings have dated with time, but what is remarkable about the book is how long lasting much of its analysis is.

Its greatest contribution is to present a framework for understanding when digital and offline organising can work in a powerful and complementary way. Castells was the original theorist on the power of networks and the Internet. But what he does in Networks is present how social movement power can come from an effective combination of offline and online organising. He talks about how the hybrid of cyberspace and urban space can create spaces of autonomy for social movement activists to build and create radical change. He explores this through the stories of uprisings in Cairo and Spain in particular, where Facebook and social movement organising sparked dissent, that was then made concrete through direct action in urban spaces like square occupations. These loose digital and social networks allowed the movement to create a transformative force beyond and outside traditional “left” organisations (like unions or political parties) and beyond the eyes of the dictator (in Egypt).

These stories are indicative of future strategies to pursue in this space. He doesn’t buy into arguments that suggest that online or offline is best. He argues you need both. And here’s why. Online without offline is “withdrawal” – online without action, and without real world relationships, can devolve into escapism and entertainment rather than politics. But the answer doesn’t simply lie in face to face collaboration. Offline without online gives over the power to mediate and interpret the world to the state and corporations that we are trying to change. Social movements need to be active in creating their own narratives online as well as offline. Vacating the online space also denies social movements layers of connectivity and collaboration that are crucial to building creative, experimental connections and thus exercising new forms of power.

There are very tangible implications here. Castells implores organisations like GetUp.org.au, 38degrees.org.uk or Change.org to have offline as well as online strategies. It stresses the importance of peer-to-peer communication in digital organising rather than just “email pushing.” The Facebook groups in Spain and Egypt were flat and conversational, a space for strategy development. Podemos’s use of Reddit to develop a manifesto was all about online collaboration, not just the recruitment of people into pre-fabricated tactics.

But it is equally a critical clarion call to the digital luddites. To the Industrial Areas Foundation the book argues that “you can’t ignore the internet.” Castells suggests that online conversations are an important strategy for “mediating” how we interpret the world. Sure we shouldn’t obsess about digital organising to the exclusion of face to face, but neither can we ignore its potency.

Castells also criticises those in the union movement and NGO sector who have a tendency to “moblise” people to rallies, events and action, rather than organize them into spaces where they have a substantive say over strategy. From Spain to Cairo, these social movements were not traditional “mobilisations.” People didn’t passively turn out, rally, and then go home. People became leaders in these movements, setting up affinity groups, attending General Assemblies. They became civic leaders in the process of struggle. Castells gives us a deeper and more meaningful way to understand “mobilization” – suggesting there are ways that social movements can help identify and develop the leadership of citizens in the process of engaging in momentary political struggle.

The book explains why organising strategies that cleverly integrate online and offline techniques work. It helps explain why Mom’s Demand action against Gun Violence have had such success with using Facebook groups in organising local chapters. Facebook connects and keeps alive the movement, while face-to-face then plans local action. This synergistic online/offline organising is working at a new level since the election of Trump. We see this in the strategies of the Women’s March and Indivisible that have creatively combined online and offline organising. As Castells would say, in harnessing the hybrid richness of both digital networks and urban space, they are creating a networked transformative power.

There is more that is useful in the book. In sharing the stories of the Arab Uprising and beyond we see the importance of a series of strategies. We saw that momentum from one place to another was built using symbolic days of protest – it was “Days of Rage” that spread the uprising across the Arab World. Global action was also possible through using symbolism – there was a Global Day of protest on 15 October 2011, six months after the M-11 Protests in Spain. This became a focus around which disparate and disconnected networks could combine and organise – powered by the symbolism of coordinated action.

But the book also opens questions that it leaves for others to answer. Networks of Hope is a study of a mobilization moment. It describes what happens in an eclectic and extended period of social upheaval. But the book begs the question – what happens when the heat dies down? What lasting change is left? Is civil society changed? Are political parties changed? What does a mobilization like this mean for ongoing organising in the city?

The book focuses extensively on the idea of “leaderless” movements, but it doesn’t consider if and how these leaderless movements might change the institutions around them. For instance, in Spain, unions were initially quite separate to the Indignados in May 2011, yet by October 2011 several unions were visibly present – had the unions changed in a measurable way?

This speaks to one of the limitations of the book – by focusing on the “leaderlessness” of these social movements it tends to not have a clear theory of change about how these movements slowly, substantially change everything around them.  This is left for future researchers to explore. Castells gives us tools to understand the uprising, but we now need to create new concepts to understanding the wake of this storm.

Another limitation is Castells argument that political parties didn’t figure in these social movements. This is where the timing of the book let Castells down.  In Spain most obviously, but in Iceland as well, political parties were a fundamental part of the aftershocks of the uprisings. In Spain following M-15 over 400 political parties were established, now new Indignados are Mayor in both Barcelona and Madrid. In Iceland, the support of a radical left coalition of parties was crucial in the country’s ongoing response to the economic crisis. Parties matter, and it will be useful to further understand the dialectics and creative relationships between parties and social movements if we want to understand how to sustain the change that social movements spark.

One difficulty I had with the text was how Castells used the language of power. He argues that “power” is the power of the state and corporations, arguing that power is negative. He then presents “counterpower” as the force for good; as the energy produced by social movements. I fear that this can confuse an understanding of power. Power, according to the dictionary, means “to be able.” It isn’t riddled with value judgements. Power can be corrupted, and it can be emancipatory. The state and corporations can use power aggressively and negatively, but so can civil society. It’s incredibly important for us to realize that we all must guard against power’s “tendency to corrupt.” By using a new word, “counterpower,” it almost romanticizes the “power” used by civil society. This romanticisation is a problem. Inside the General Assemblies of these movements, in the squares and the camps, there were examples of leaders using emancipatory power, and examples of them falling victim to the tendency to corrupt. The camps tried to develop strategies to guard against the “tendency of power to corrupt” by having rotating leadership. Having a more wholistic understanding of power would have helped us understand social movement behaviour in all its complexity.

My final wish from the book was that I wanted it to discuss the modes of organising more. It was a fine narrative on the social movements, particularly extraordinary given how quickly it was written following the uprisings. But there is a need a different kind of analysis. We need to know more about the “how” when it comes to organising in the city. For instance, Castells describes some of the difficulties built into consensus decision making, but doesn’t give us tools for understanding why it was so frustrating. I would have liked him to unpick how consensus-making can often lead to “lowest common denominator” demands. It would have been interesting to explore how the breadth or depth of an agenda connects to how easy or hard it is to operationalize that agenda with action.  This is just one example. A more detailed understanding of the grandular processes involved in how these social movements worked helps future social change makers learn lessons for their next endevours.

This book is worth a read. It is a fast paced narrative that takes the reader on a journey of uprisings from Tunisia, Iceland, Egypt, Syria, Spain and America. It introduces concepts about the relationship between digital and offline organising that can help good campaigners evaluate and improve their work. But it also highlights there is more to be done – we still have more to learn about what it will take to successfully organize sustainable civil society transformation in our cities.


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