Historical patience

Rupture – The Crisis in Liberal Democracy
Forfatter: Manuel Castells
Forlag: Polity Press (USA)
MISCELLANEOUS: Manuel Castells paints a picture of today's democratic decline that is as recognizable as it is bleak.


"It Was Once a Democracy" is the title of the opening chapter of Manuel Castell's book, and it really is like a dark adventure – a kind of political version of the Grimm brothers' stories, where cruel and creepy powers are just as likely to lose their victory like the scared little heroes do.

Rend is nevertheless far from being a culturally critical sketch or a political lament. Soberly and precisely, Castells travels through various parts of the western world where liberal democracies have prevailed over the last 75 years. In country by country and region by region he shows how the political institutions are shaking. This is supported by statistical material located on the book's website at Polity Press. As a sociologist and communication theorist, Castell is empirically oriented. He delivers precise explanations of the political crisis we have been through the last decade – without being disturbed by the search for solutions or scapegoats.

The problems are individual actors such as today's populist leaders on the one hand and terrorist organizations on the other, but also vaguely political moods of cynicism, disillusionment, fear and rage. Still, Castell's strength lies in his clear insistence that the problems stem from structural changes. Deeper change and confusion comes from the networking community and globalization – and individual states and individuals. Here lies the original fracture – the Rupture – the rest are consequences, countermeasures, reactions.

Systematic disruption

With his trilogy about the networking community – written in the 1990s – Castells is a pioneer. When states and individuals are woven into global networks, they are exposed to international destabilizing forces. Globalization carries a vague threat in a caricatured and concrete form: the terrorist. This is the stranger who needs to enter the local here too now with a world geographical and world historical agenda – and flawlessly spreading fear and destruction. From here, those who choose to view themselves as victims – hungry for meaning and something to believe in – resort to crusade rhetoric. And state leaders declare authoritarian exception states.

Left movements and extreme right groups above
all of Europe is rebelling against the established order.

Castells points out the irony that the two nations that first embarked on globalization and deregulation of the world economy – Britain under Thatcher and the United States under Reagan – are now desperately trying to paddle out of the wild currents they released when too many locks were opened at the same time. In short, liberal democracy collapses because politicians – something people clearly understand – have stopped representing the nation and the people. States participate more in international games characterized by agreements and strategies that have at worst degenerated into speculative gambling.

Populism and identity

According to Castell's laws populists and demagogues a new identity by breaking with the institutions that have disappointed the people – both conventional parties and democratic schemes. At the same time, they are breaking with the cosmopolitan elites who have lost their eyes to the people. Castells calls this a "mass revolt". The term is extra charged when it comes from the Castells Spaniard, since it plays against the title La Rebelión de las Masas ("The Revolt of the Masses," 1929), a book the philosopher Ortega y Gasset wrote during the populist wave of the early 1930s: " The rebellion of the masses "was a hatred of the elites who brought the people into the arms of demagogic leaders who pretended to represent them – and their sterile revolutions that did not really carry the story forward. 30s Spain was polarized in a radical and rebellious left and an equally radical and rebellious right. Together, they helped undermine the possibility of a pragmatic, peaceful and democratic policy. Perhaps this constellation haunts Castell's back, where he now sees commonalities between the left movements – Syriza in Greece, Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal and Podemos in Spain – and the extreme right-wing groups across Europe. They all revolt against the established order.


The rebellion is still unsuccessful because people understandably long for a lost secure identity. This is just as much an organized mass escape from global common problems – the migration and the climate crisis included. And gathered in the figure of the climate refugee that represents the greatest political challenges of the future.

Chaos or transformation? However, our identity is precisely what makes us feel part of something bigger – and thus a prerequisite for politics whatsoever. Instead of a return to the tribe's logic back to customs, language and history, there is a progressive, forward-looking identity. This is according to Castells what the EU has tried, albeit with mixed success: to build a common future.

In a famous book by Ortega y Gasset, España invertebrada ("Invertebrate Spain"), a similar argument is put forward, which also sheds light on the EU: All empires have used power, but those who have succeeded have involved all participating countries in a positive project. When Spain was losing the Basque country and Catalonia through the 1800th century, it was according to Ortega y Gasset because they had not had a positive project for hundreds of years.

As Castells dedicates a long chapter in the book to recent Spanish history, it is hoped to draw a general lesson from this. The Podemos party ("we can") has integrated the networks in a positive way and revitalized the belief that democratic politics can work. After Podemos, in collaboration with the PSOE Labor Party, overthrew Rajoy's corrupt government, Castells allowed himself to see some hope in a time of crisis.

Although Castell parenthetically mentions that the task of ensuring that the planet remains habitable for the next 75 years – most of all a joint project – he urges us neither to seize the first and best horse cure nor to want us back. Rather, we should muster historical patience to allow the small streams of freer systems to grow. But it could be added that those who drive change can hardly be as distant, defensive and patient.

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