The transformations of Civil Society in the Information and Knowledge Society
Oscar Mateos (Ramon Llull University, chair), Joan Coscubiela (UOC-IN3), Gemma Galdón (UOC), Ada Colau (Plataforma d’Afectats per la Hipoteca).
What are the big changes that we are facing?
It is not an era of change, but a change of era, Joan Subirats. The 15M movement has put the spotlight on many ongoing dynamics that were working for the change. And, arguably, the ones that understand the 15M are part of it, and one can only be part of it if one understands the movement. There are new languages, platforms, ways to communicate, and that is part of the change too. And maybe these processes are the very true outcomes of the movement, and not what it is traditionally asked to a movement: an impact on institutions or the taking of power.
Our society is in a dire crisis, especially in our social organizations. And this crisis is boosted by technological change.
The relationships between economics and politics, and between corporations and unions have been altered, and the balance of power amongst these institutions has radically changed. Some reasons are that the habitat (the factory) has been radically transformed; the disappearance of the aggregation of interests due to the disaggregation of identities; the difficulty to build a collective identity upon which to leverage a movement.
The dismantlement of the factory, the dismantlement of the national economy, and the dismantlement of the nation-estate. The integrated factory becomes the networked enterprise. There are central workers and workers on the periphery.
There is also a crisis of the communication channels in traditional unions, based on the integrated Fordist factory and the assembly of workers.
All these crises are undoubtedly weakening the strength and even legitimacy of traditional trade unions. But, if this crisis of legitimacy will be especially tough in Anglo-Saxon unions (based on the firm or the factory, or European unions (based on the economic sector), it might be that Mediterranean-type unions (based on the notion of class, or of social equity) will have it more easy to regain legitimacy, even if a deep transformation is notwithstanding required.
The great opportunity for trade unions is how to leverage the power of ICTs to regain legitimacy to refund the forms of participation.
With the coming of the Internet and the intensive use of social networking sites and similar tools make the medium become the message: the fact that the 15M movement is very live on the Internet is part of its very definition, of its DNA, and tells much on the nature and characteristics of the movement.
There is a qualitative leap in the way participation is understood: besides being present on a demonstration, being active on the Internet (gathering information, commenting, creating opinions, broadcasting messges, etc.) can be as much important as physical presence. Notwithstanding, either on the street or on the Internet, legitimacy comes not from the diffusion of information, but from being committed with the movement. Only commitment leads to legitimacy and reputation, and not only mere participation by being active on social networking sites.
The logic of expansion of social movements is no more centralized, but rhizomatic: it obeys to no traditional logics, especially cultural logics or logics of power.
Indeed, social movements of the past five years have detached themselves from the international political and economic agenda. Nowadays movements no more follow international leaders to their international meetings of the World Bank or the G8. Social movements increasing have their own agenda, and an agenda that is created and updated ad-hoc.
This change is partly due because information and the communication tools have been democratized to the limit. What is difficult now is opacity and non-transparency. Diffusion of information and ideas and calls to action are now cheap and fast. On the other hand, this is a double-edged sword: repression is now more easy than ever for the ones in power, as identification of individuals and collectives is immediate.
The problem is: are we making any impact? When the whole world protested against the second invasion of Irak, nothing happened. And, worst indeed, there does not seem to exist an alternative to the broken representative democracy.
The challenge is how to leverage the common sense we reconquered and turn it into a driver of change, based on new forms of political transformation.
The new forms of participation not only surprised the traditional social movements, but also the newer ones, that became “obsolete” even if they were recent. These newer social movements were based on platforms that (a) focused on a specific issue and (b) acted as a helping collective so you could reach out (instead of a vertical organization where the individual helps the organization to reach out). These platforms had to transform into networks and the new ways to organized that the Internet and, especially, social networking sites made possible.
That was the case of V de Vivienda [H stands for Housing] in Spain, on of the seeds that afterwards would nourish the 15M Spanish Indignants movement. V de Vivienda was auto-convened and auto-organized, by means of SMSs and e-mails.
V de Vivienda succeeded in putting on the political agenda the housing bubble and the social and economic problems derived from it.
The answer from the political institutions to the movement was very shy and
myopic. So, after all the energies poured into the movement, it does not seem be having much impact. What to do about it? How to keep on without being discouraged? The new strategy is increasingly being civil disobedience, so that a change in the Law is forced. But civil disobedience is individual, not collective, so the collective has to find ways to support the individuals that will enter civil disobedience (i.e. in the present case debated here, resistance to eviction and the movement helping people to resist evictions and, at last, stop them).
The network helped in building a critical mass around the issue of mortgages and evictions, as this is not a geographically concentrated problem, but quite a spread one.
Manuel Castells: one of the reasons of the crisis of trade unions is that they are part of the power, they come from a paternalistic way to understand society. And social movements are fighting just against that.
Manuel Castells: changes, real and structural changes need their time and own pace, and that that change begins with a change in the processes.
Ismael Peña-López: acknowledging the truth of the aforementioned statement, the problem is that people’s lives happen in the short run (evictions, unemployment subsidies have limited time spans in the range of months), and thus some milestones have to be achieved in the short run. This is especially true not only to protect the victims of economic crisis, but also to avoid the draining of energy of social movements, that can fade away and dissolve if anything tangible and concrete can be achieved (and this should be achieved without violence).
- Mesa III: Las transformaciones de la Sociedad Civil en la Sociedad de la Información y el Conocimiento, by Ricard Espelt.
Civil Society and Politics transformation in the Internet Age (2011)
If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:
Peña-López, I. (2011) “Communication and Civil Society (V). The transformations of Civil Society in the Information and Knowledge Society” In ICTlogy,
#97, October 2011. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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