The Informational Mode of Development

Manuel Castells is perhaps Daniel Bell’s most forceful and celebrated acolyte—sharing with Bell a youthful Marxism that soured into inveterate liberal sycophancy and led to wide fame. At the time of the publication of the first (and most universally lauded) book of his seminal The Information Age trilogy of books, The Rise of the Network Society (note the structural parallels with Bell’s title), Castells was hailed not just for a new theoretical approach, but for reigniting sociology altogether: in a particularly fawning review, William Anderson notes critical reception has treated Castells as single-handedly saving sociology, leading to a “rebirth of sociology in its grand classical tradition” and saving the “queen of the sciences” from its state of “free fall”. He cites giants of the discipline such as Anthony Giddens, who claim that Castells’ work deserves to be hagiographically slotted in along the work of Max Weber and Karl Marx (comparing it directly to Weber’s landmark Economy and Society!), and makes further note of the extension of Castells’ work outside the academy, appearing in the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal.


It is difficult at this juncture to not return to Thomas R. Bates’ discussion of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony and the role of hegemonic intellectuals, wherein “Civil society is the marketplace of ideas, where intellectuals enter as “salesmen” of contending cultures. The intellectuals succeed in creating hegemony to the extent that they extend the world view of the rulers to the ruled, and thereby secure the “free” consent of the masses to the law and order of the land” [emphasis mine]. Perhaps there is no better way to characterize Castells; similar to the way in which Bell proffered an escape route from the 1970s crisis, Castells repackages ruling class ideology as novel by trimming the dross and blunting the theoretical edge of capitalism’s weapons—all the while presenting himself as a proponent an European social-democratic ‘sober’ neo-, post-, non- or whatever x-Marxism which claims to have transcended Marxism, to have grown up and settled down. Anderson, though writing from a conservative-libertarian position, nevertheless is incisive in the question he poses to Castells: “does he simply peddle the same old sociology with a techno-twist that appeals to the new suburban bourgeoisie and to an academia fatigued by the pointlessness of postmodern scholarship?”


To the structure of Castells’ argument. Though it is remarkably similar to the sketch of the post-industrial society as offered by Bell, perhaps the strength of The Information Age is its employment of a vulgar Marxist sociology in order to give credence to its arguments. Where one gets the impression that Bell was writing a much more pragmatic, transductive text, Castells, writing two decades on, obtains the benefit of being enmeshed within the surface changes that Bell predicted. Commentator Frank Webster nicely summarizes Castells’ arguments across his landmark trilogy: firstly, that we live under the auspices of a “new structure of stratification” which centralizes “informational labour”, thus killing off both the ruling and the working classes of old—beginning, similar to Bell, with a claim that capitalism is dead. But Castells departs from this position to claim that what is actually at work within the post-industrial information age is the arrival of what he terms the “informational mode of development”, to be contrasted with the previous industrial mode. In Castells’ own words, the mode of development accompanies the Marxist mode of production, arising from the “the use of the means of production by the application of energy and knowledge”. To elaborate, “modes of development are the technological arrangements through which labor works on matter to generate the product, ultimately determining the level and quality of surplus”.


The mode of development, despite its courting of Marxist terminology and reliance upon Marxist concepts for its realization, nevertheless immediately is employed in order to define Castells’ supposed post-industrial, world-historical shift. He first establishes a largely agreed upon succession of temporal stages: first there was the agrarian mode of development, and secondly the industrial. He then continues: “In the new, informational mode of development,” Castells writes, “the source of productivity lies in the technology of knowledge generation, information processing, and symbol communication”. Further, he specifies that the informational mode of development derives wealth not from, as it did in the industrial mode, the “introduction of new energy sources, and in the ability to decentralize the use of energy throughout the production and circulation processes”, but in “the action of knowledge upon knowledge itself”.


This statement possesses a completely circular, tautological logic. By defining the mode of development as a feature over and above the mode of production, as aggregative of production in total, Castells is able to make what appears to be an airtight case that we have proceeded to a new age. His approach diminishes labor, industrial and otherwise, in favor of the category of “knowledge” which is simultaneously capable of taking action upon itself. What is the character of this action? In what way can his knowledge-subject perform upon its twinned knowledge-object? Castells labels this action “informational processing” which, in a “virtuous circle” is focused solely upon the improvement of the “technology of informational processing”. Later, he clarifies further: “the products of new information technology industries are information-processing devices or information processing itself”. Though he does not mention the concept, the formulation of knowledge working on knowledge takes off from Castells’ reification of Marx’s concept of the “general intellect” as developed in the Grundrisse.


Castells’ information age is, apparently, defined by a developmental mode freed from, if not material constraints altogether, than from the messy requirements of energy. In his cosmogeny, the passage from the industrial to the informational is contingent on the replacement of the primacy of energy in production with the primacy of autopoetic knowledge. Does this hold true? Of course not. One only needs to turn to recent discussions of fracking, the Keystone Pipeline, or various alternative energy technologies to see that energy concerns remain at the very heart of the production process. Further, to take Castells’ own technological considerations to heart, there is the problem that information does not come from anywhere; it cannot perform an “action” on itself without the energy investiture of existing and new networks of extraction and circulation. The energy expenditure of the internet, for example, was estimated in 2016 to be 70 billion kilowatt-hours per year, and has doubtlessly risen since. Castells’ insistence that knowledge is a demiurgic force—that inexplicably, wealth can be generated from nothing, from the mind itself—completely disregards the enormous consumption required to sustain the informational arena. That aforementioned 70 billion kwh is equivalent to the combined output of 8 nuclear power plants or double (as of 2016) the United States’ solar energy capacity. And, let’s not forget that energy generation is matched at the other end of the process by emissions: by 2020, it is projected that the energy usage of the combined internet will account for 3.5% of the world’s emissions, projected for a rise to 14% by 2040. In what is perhaps a further twist of the knife, the total combined power usage of bitcoin is projected to reach 48.16 terawatt-hours this year. Castells’ world of knowledge, the reaching of heaven through techno-brilliant autopoesis, cannot disentangle itself from energy and thus the sticky realities of the material, the infrastructural, the industrial. Informational-wealth is simply a clever sleight of hand, a wink and a trick, a wry twist of industrial-wealth into “something else” which wears an illusory “uniform” to obscure its character.


This is not to make a specific ecological argument against Castells; to do so would take too long. The intention here is simply to note that Castells, despite his Marxist pretentions, trips over himself as he rushes to hold his technocratic standard aloft. The new regime of total disintegration, in which knowledge consistently refines and reproduces itself in a technological manner, cannot be extracted from industrial mode of production by his own admission. His claim that energy concerns, that the messy tactility of the industrial mode of development, falls apart based on its own foundational principles. If the informational mode of development exists, it in no way can be claimed to be outside or apart from the industrial mode which has not been sublated or relegated in any way to history. The old, creaking industrial armature selectively enables informational development only as a particular, highly isolated aspect of what we may perhaps call a higher stage of industrial development; it represents a particular method of harnessing industrial surplus and externalizing not just its basal accumulations but also, by way of a vulgar “cyberspace ideology”, the entirety of the surplus altogether. Much as Europe constructed itself through a primitive accumulation which it has rendered invisible, knowledge qua knowledge colonizes industry, which is to say it colonizes labor, and proclaims that which sustains it effectively dead, or to have retreated from the world-historical stage. If Castells’ argument is at all relevant, it is only insofar as it describes the contingent historical development of today’s (petit) bourgeoisie—which have become “workers of the immaterial intellect”. In contrast, according to a recent paper on post-austerity Greece, 75% of surveyed households trade other essentials in order to have adequate heat in winter months.


It is clear that Castells’ network society is a reified fiction with no bearing on reality, outside of an exclusive coterie which he (again strip-mining the Marxist lexicon) refers to as the entrepreneurial class of knowledge workers, the masters of the new economy, those “manager-technocrats who “control” but do not “own” the means of production”. In effect, Castells resurrects Louis-Auguste Blanqui and his conspiratorial view on social change, in which a small and utterly devoted cadre would function as the vanguard party in making revolution for the entire working class. Castells would like to think his knowledge workers likewise do the same for all of humanity, sweeping both proletariat and bourgeoisie into the dustbin of history or metamorphosing elements of them into his controlling “white collar” class. This argument is not as novel as Castells would perhaps like it to be. His argument bears a startling similarity to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” of labor intrinsic to the industrial form. “Taylorism” is defined by, among other things, the “decisive separation of a knowledgeable management from a knowledge-less workforce….of mental from manual labor”. Durkheim, likewise, notes that in the industrial division of labor, the individual is “no longer anything but an inert piece of machinery, only an external force set going which always moves in the same direction and in the same way”.


Durkheim hoped that the proletarian condition of machine-life was merely a transitory feature and the alienation then experienced was merely a transitional moment in the general development of the division of labor. Castells merely introduces a third pseudo-class by separating the powers of ownership and steersmanship over the means of production, leaving the first to the capitalist grand bourgeoisie and assigning the second to his informational class of petty bourgeoisie. All he has done is he has made the division of labor unworkable, has deepened the existing divisions until he can break the classes apart altogether and capitalist society itself disintegrates into the Castellian space of the network.


The Network Society offers soothsaying to the petit, or petty, bourgeoisie, who have found themselves utterly transformed, and attempts to be a travel guide to a class swept along a path which they do not understand. Lukács understood this was their station in history: “The petty bourgeoisie will only be able to play an active role in history as long as these objectives happen to coincide with the real economic interests of capitalism”. This pseudo-class casts about for clarification on its position, scared as it is, and finds the objects of its sycophancy (the “grand bourgeois”) mute and strangely powerless. “The position held by the capitalist class,” Lukács clarifies, referring to the whole and unreconstituted bourgeois class without Castells’ illusory distinction, “and the interests which determine its actions ensure that it will be unable to control its own system of production even in theory”. There is not a soul that isn’t flying blind—the market remains chaotic, despite the much-needed injection of ‘knowledge’. Castells tries desperately to offer sense, an emergent logic, to the latest permutation of an inherently unstable system, and at the end is in fact able to do so—but only at reality’s expense. He must first redefine society, must establish the precise, contingent conditions in which his sociology works and offers a scientific assessment of society. In so doing, Castells employs the same shadowy trick which Lukács identifies almost 80 years earlier: “They seek refuge in the methods of natural science, in the way in which science distills ‘pure’ facts and places them in the relevant contexts by means of observation, abstraction and experiment”. An abstraction which becomes a tautology: the network society, founded on the principles Castells lays out, of course conforms perfectly to his supposedly empirical assessment. This is only by virtue of his ability to command and define the limits of the experimental field, which he claims is world-historical society but is in fact an economic pseudo-class. “The ‘pure’ facts of the natural sciences arise when a phenomenon of the real world is placed (in thought or in reality) into an environment where its laws can be inspected without outside interference. This process is reinforced by reducing the phenomena to their purely quantitative essence. to their expression in numbers and numerical relations”.


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