Manuel Castells: Academia and Public Policy: An Impossible Love?
On June 2, 2011, Manuel Castells was inducted into the American Academy of Political and Social Science as the Harold Laswell Fellow. Upon inducting Professor Castells, Paul DiMaggio called him a “serial innovator” who “has made groundbreaking contributions to the fields of urban studies, world systems theory, communications research, and social theory.” Professor Castells remarked that the “recognition of [his] colleagues is the most meaningful reward. In fact, it is the only one that matters … for a life dedicated to research, teaching, and service toward the advancement of science for the benefit of society.” The following is a transcript of Manuel Castells acceptance remarks.
Good evening. Thank you very much. My colleague, Professor DiMaggio, my colleague Douglas Massey, dear Fellows of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, distinguished persons present in this event, respected members of Senator Moynihan’s family, let me first say how honored and humbled I feel by your invitation to join a most distinguished community of scholars, united by the project of science in the public service. After spending the last thirty-two years of my life in the enchanted world of American research universities, be it at Berkeley, M.I.T., or the University of Southern California, the recognition of my colleagues is the most meaningful reward. In fact, it is the only one that matters to me for a life dedicated to research, teaching, and service toward the advancement of science for the benefit of society. I will correspond to your cherished distinction in the only way I know, by pursuing my scholarly endeavor while embracing the academic and ethical values that you embody.
In preparing these remarks, I was advised to reflect on my own experience of interaction between my research and public policymaking, specifically with that focus, and I obliged. Indeed, this has been a constant feature of my life, in fields as diverse as urban sociology and urban policy, economic development, or the interdisciplinary study of the communication information technology revolution and its social implications. I have advised in the national organizations such as U.S.A.I.D., The World Bank, The European Commission, The United Nations, including the Secretary General. I have discussed policies with many distinguished governors around the world and I have met extensively with prime ministers and presidents, some of whom were personal friends. Thus, I have been in close contact with public policymakers while keeping an arm’s-length distance from the politicians domain, a distance symbolized by my explicit condition I always had before providing any advice, not to be paid for it, as in the world we live is this the signal of independence. And yet with all this experience in trying to make my work useful beyond academia, it is a very meager harvest I can present to you. I frankly do not know how much my research has permeated public policy. I know that I was working on the importance of the internet in every domain of society before Al Gore got interested in it. I know that the concept of a network society that I developed is now commonplace in policy speeches and business strategies. I also know that many international commissions on the information society refer to issues I have investigated over the years. And yet, for me this is rhetorical convergence rather than knowledge contribution to policymaking. This conclusion is not bitter, because I never gave into skepticism. It is simply a descriptive statement. It is based on my direct experience of advisory ventures in multiple public scenes. Here I could engage in a litany of faded hopes with names and dates and even juicy details – that I can provide over dinner – but it would exceed the time and protocol of this ceremony and I will just give two brief examples.
The first one took place in Russia in 1992, in the initial moments of the Yeltsin administration. Because of my close connection with the Russian democratic movement during the perestroika years, Gennady Burbulis, then one of the three vice-premieres of Yeltsin and his most trusted confidante at the time, asked me to organize and chair a small international advisory committee on the sociopolitical transition of Russia, parallel to a similar, yet very different, committee on the economic transition headed by Jeffrey Sachs. I appointed Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Alaine Touraine, Steven Cohen, and Martin Carnoy. We worked for several months. We met in the historic room the Communist Party Politburo in Old Square, and we were lavishly housed in what used to be the private residence of Kosygin. We quickly identified the key issues for the transition: Absolute lack of institutions, no real functioning democracy, and absence of an effective rule of law. Our diagnosis: Without proper institutions, a market economy cannot function, as John North demonstrated. Thus, rather than a market economy, a criminal economy based on the provision of public wealth by powerful bureaucrats would emerge. Politically, we said that unless they write a new constitution, form a presidential political party, dissolve the Communist-dominated parliament, and call immediately for true free elections, they would have to dissolve the parliament with tanks. Institutionally, we recommended a deep reform of the state bureaucracy and establishment of a French-style called Nacional de Administracion. The report was delivered in April 1992. In May, Yeltsin rejected it and dismantled our committee. In July, in the absence of any dialogue, I gave an interview to Izvestia mentioning the key points of our report. It was actually published as there was a free press in Moscow at the time. He went in the following year, vindicating, of course, our analysis. I could not understand the rejection until sometime later it became all clear. Gaidar, who ultimately prevailed over his peers, and Yeltsin were, in fact, happy with the lack of institutionalization that would allow them to keep control over all the political factions and privatize the wealth of Russia for their cronies, the future Russian oligarchy. The whole thing was under the mantle of the market economy, blessed and supported by the United States and despised by the majority of Russians, that eventually found refuge in the neo-authoritarian regime of Putin, who restored the dominance of the state over the oligarchs. We did not fail. In fact, we were too accurate and politicians do not like the truth when it interferes with the realization of their secretive missions.
Second example, less poignant but perhaps more telling. In 2003, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was President of Brazil at the time, received from Kofi Annan the charge of creating a commission to propose a new system of relationships between the United Nations and the civil society. I was the only academic appointed to the commission, together with leaders of N.G.O.s and some ambassadors. We worked hard for eighteen months, and came up with a document that suggested a number of what appeared to me very moderate recommendations; to open up the United Nations to stakeholders beyond national governments in a world that was experiencing, as it does now, a deep crisis of political legitimacy. Kofi Annan was very pleased and the strongest support of our report. He presented it to the General Assembly. It took only twenty minutes for the United Nations General Assembly to dismiss our report as wishful thinking, which overlooked the fact that the only legitimate representative of the people were already in the Assembly, national governments, of course, in contrast to unaccountable N.G.O.s and a fictitious global civil society. So, back to business as usual but, for instance, to the organization of the U.N. on the Information Society in 2005 in Tunisia, a country with severe repression of freedom of the internet, for reasons the world later understood. Which prompted, of course, my resignation as Internet and Telecommunications Advisor to the Secretary General.
These and many other instances of disappointed interface between my research and the proper institutions to make use of it could be read as the naiveté, mixed with arrogance, of a public social scientist who wants to be heard without paying attention to the realities and complexities of the world that only politicians know. Or it could, instead, be considered material to ground an alternative hypothesis, that politics is all about seizing power and holding onto it. Sometimes, being generous with some of the leaders is a means to do good for society. But even in this case it remains that without being in power, they think, and they are probably right, there is no chance to improve anything. Thus, ultimately the input from academics has to contribute in one way or another to power making, according to the strategies of the relevant political actors. They hear what they want to hear. They use what is useful to them, thus for the country. The rest is interesting weekend reading. In fact, this is correct from the point of view of democracy. Why should the researcher be entitled to shape public policy decision? Her role should be confined to enlighten the people’s prince and it is up to the people prince to decide what is good in the research so that he or she can cover his or her decisions under the mantle of science. This implies that science should be produced from the outside of the political realm in order to be useful to the conduct of policy, when and how power makers decide.
In his seminal lecture on science as a vocation, Max Weber concluded, “What is the meaning of science as a vocation, now after all these former illusions have been dispelled?” Tolstoy has given the simplest answer with the words “Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us, what shall we do and how shall we live? That science does not give an answer to this is undisputable.” Indeed. But who, then, should decide how we live? The prince? His advisors? Or every person, every citizen, for her and for the community. And if it is so, is the relationship between academia and policy impossible or is it the wrong partnership? Because those who are usually in the dark are barefoot citizens. Those who need light to find how to live are not the politicians who already have the answers which they have fabricated for themselves, but their subjects whose subjection is largely based on the lack of alternatives available to them because of the absence of knowledge and information. And so maybe our deep desire for public service cannot be fulfilled because it is simply misplaced. Maybe, rather than being in the public service, we should be in the service of the public, of those who ask themselves every day how shall they live in a world of sorrow, cynicism, and deception.
Thank you for your attention.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.