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Thomas Wägenbaur

Systems or Agents? The discursive (De-)Construction of Globalization

Our proposition is basically to classify the growing body of literature on globalization according to the distinction between system and actant.[1] We will have to proceed discourse-analytically since quite often the language of these texts shows what they don’t say. We will not clarify here at great length our distinction between system and actant models of society since the names of Luhmann on behalf of the former and Bourdieu and Giddens on behalf of the latter model speak for themselves. Who effects changes in a society – and globalization, as we understand it, is all about change - the system or individuals? Do new states of social systems emerge from earlier ones through some evolutionary process of selection or are some individuals – statesmen, managers, inventors – ingenious enough to have things their way? Obviously, the system has trouble explaining the ingenious individual and the advocate of actants has trouble explaining the anonymous forces of the system. Also, neither can deny the existence of the opposite. One would assume that common sense would compromise between the two, systems and actants, but still most authors put themselves in either one or the other camp. For brevity’s sake we will here only take issue with two systemic approaches to conceptualising globalization since within these systemic approaches actants play a entirely different role.

The obvious case for a systemic notion of globalization is Manuel Castells’ The Rise of the Network Society.[2] Castells comes to the conclusion that as a historical trend, “dominant functions and processes in the information age are increasingly organized around networks” (500). He argues that “this networking logic induces a social determination of a higher level than that of the specific social interests expressed through the networks: the power of flows takes precedence over the flow of power” and therefore he claims “the pre-eminence of social morphology over social action” (500).

Castels presses the appropriate sociological questions, primarily: “who are the capitalists?” (504) and “What happens to labor, and the social relationships of production, in this brave new world of informational, global capitalism?” Quoting Aldous Huxley Castels becomes polemical and occasionally rather metaphorical: “While capitalism still rules, capitalists are randomly incarnated, and the capitalist classes are restricted to specific areas of the world where they prosper as appendixes to a mighty whirlwind which manifests its will by spread points and futures options ratings in the global flashes of computer screens.” (505, my emphasis) In other words: Castels extensively analyses social networks becoming increasingly anonymous and here personifies it (“its will”) as a quasi natural force as if there was almost some kind of metaphysical gnosticism behind it.

Today’s capitalists, on the one hand, are not the legal owners of the means of production, nor the corporate managers, who “do not control, and do not even know about, the actual, systemic movements of capital in the networks financial flows” (504). Apart from all kinds of human-flesh capitalists or groups thereof the “mother of all accumulations” (504) is the global financial network. This “network of networks of capital” (505) both unifies and commands specific centers of capitalist accumulation, structuring the behavior of capitalists around their submission to the global network. It is indeed “capitalism in its pure expression of the endless search for money by money through the production of commodities by commodities.” (505) But money has become almost entirely independent from production, including production of services, by escaping into the networks of higher-order electronic interactions barely understood by its managers.

On the other hand, labor and its social relationship to capital has been profoundly transformed: capital is global, labor is local, which implies that labor is “disaggregated in its performance, fragmented in its organization, diversified in its existence, divided in its collective action.” (506) In other words, the network of global capitalism becomes systemic to the extend that labor loses its collective identity, becomes individualized in its capacities, working conditions, interests and projects. “Who are the owners, who the producers, who the managers, and who the servants, becomes increasingly blurred in a production system of variable geometry, of teamwork, of networking, of outsourcing, and subcontracting.” (506)

Castels relentlessly emphasizes the growing disparity between capital retreating “in its hyperspace of pure circulation” (506) and labor dissolving “its collective entity into an infinite variation of individual existences.” (507) Under the conditions of the network society, capital is globally coordinated, labor is individualized. Castels sees the struggle between capitalists and workers subsumed into “the more fundamental opposition between the bare logic of capital flows and the cultural values of human experience.” (507)

Within this opposition he clearly implies a hierarchy of the meta-network over all other social networks and as the reference to “The end of history” (507) is supposed to indicate no way back.

Castels stance is quite different from another systemic model of globalization which, however, arrives at quite different conclusions. Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s analysis of globalization in Empire shares most structural elements with Castels, but whereas Castels only occasionally allows for indicative metaphors, Empire is metaphorical to the extend that analytically minded readers find it illegible.[3]

Empire is the rather equivocal metaphor for post-national sovereignty: “It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command.” (xii-xiii) In other words Empire could be understood as some kind of personification of Castels’ Network Society, which makes all the difference since Empire is in fact impersonal, but it “manages”, which means it could be taken as an entity at least. The word empire, even after the end of colonial history proper, means that we are subject to it; that we may have even subjected ourselves to it. But Empire also means that we could object to it, use it to our own ends and this is clearly what Hardt and Negri are aiming at: “The passage to Empire and its processes of globalization offer new possibilities to the forces of liberation. Globalization, of course, is not one thing, and the multiple processes that we recognize as globalization are not unified or univocal. Our political task, we will argue, is not simply to resist these processes but to reorganize them and redirect them toward new ends. The creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing a counter-Empire, an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges.” (xv)

Foregoing further exploration of Empire and what it has to say in response to Castels widely accepted analysis of capitalism and labor we would like to point out the relation between Castels’ Network Society and Hardt’s and Negri’s Empire, which is one of inversion. Whereas Castels carries his sober analysis to the bitter end of naturalising the informational meta-network of global finance in the metaphor of a “mighty whirlwind which manifests its will”, Hardt and Negri did not conduct a massive analysis and instead studied their political and literary theory to leave sweet hopes in humanizing the system: “The creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing a counter-Empire, an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges.” Somehow, Hardt and Negri pick up exactly where Castels leaves off which are “the cultural values of human experience”. Where Castels sees “the more fundamental opposition between the bare logic of capital flows and the cultural values of human experience” they do not see an opposition, but an involvement of all – capitalists as well as workers – in the new system or sovereignty of Empire. Conceptually this may very well be an appealing way out of the systemic network determination of social forces, if only it were also realistic. There is unfortunately no way in Empire how the reader could possibly understand when and where the multitude will take what action in order to change things to the better. The way the authors present Empire it seems a continuous reciprocal process: in the final analysis there is no difference between Empire and Counter-Empire, since it’s always dialectics working at its own suspension. As fatalistic as Castels analysis might be it lends itself to take concrete action, whereas Hardt’s and Negri’s implicit praise for the anti-globalization movement even leaves their supporters with very little analysis to conceive of such action.

These two systemic approaches to Globalization invert the role of the individual: no chance in Castels’ Network Society, more chance than ever in Hardt’s and Negri’s Empire. Further readings of such globalization conceptualizations will show that market-oriented authors tend to emphasize the systemic side and politically oriented authors will emphasize the actant side. The goal, however, should be to combine the two to at least a theory of (global) action - if not a practice. It still is always a matter of how one puts things in language and certainly not just as a selling asset, but as revealing one’s ideological background. In this case we have ever so briefly tried to reveal Castels as a naturalist and Hardt and Negri as utopists, both having their place in dealing with globalization on the conceptual level.

[1] We deliberately use the term actant instead of agent in order not to perceive the individual as being part of a system
Manuel Castells, The Information Age, vol.1: The Rise of the Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. Further quotes in text.
Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, Harvard UP, 2000. All further quotes in text.