Manuel Castells calls for a less polarised democratic dialogue

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“Is there hope in a society plagued by polarisation, aggression, and growing geopolitical tensions?” This is the question that the sociologist and former Minister of Universities Manuel Castells tried to answer in the keynote conference organised this Tuesday by the think tank Re-Imagine Europa, the Social Observatory of the ”la Caixa” Foundation, and the European League for Economic Cooperation (LECE). The conference, titled “Is there hope? Polarisation and crisis of democracy: causes and possible solutions”, brought together a large audience at the CaixaForum Macaya.

The event began with a few words of welcome from Juan José López Burniol, vice president of the ‘la Caixa’ Foundation, who warned about the great challenges of misinformation and the crisis of confidence in politics and the media. The event was attended by Françesc Homs, president of LECE; Erika Staël von Holstein, CEO of Re-Imagine Europa; and other relevant personalities from the world of politics, economics and academia, such as the former Minister of Health, Social Policy and Equality Leire Pajin, current Director of Global Development of IS Global; MEP Laura Ballarín Cereza; Javier Creus, founder and director of Strategy at Ideas for Change; or Dr Enric Banda, former Secretary of State for Universities and Research, who has also directed institutions such as the European Science Foundation and the Institució Catalana per a la Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA).

In a thorough analysis, Professor Castells focused on the need to “find transformative solutions that respond to our greatest challenges”, which range from the climate crisis to the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, xenophobia, or the reaction of some groups of men to advances in women’s rights. “We face many crises, but the worst crisis is the crisis in crisis management,” he noted.

Even in Europe, “the percentage of citizens who support the European Union does not reach 50%. Looking ahead to the June elections, the sociologist sees “an embryo of hope.” “There is a growing confidence of citizens in Europe over recent years and the recognition that some issues necessarily require cooperation,” as demonstrated during the management of the Covid pandemic.

Despite these glimmers of hope, Castells highlighted the political stagnation, characterized by increasingly deep polarisation and social fragmentation. “There is a marked ideological and political polarisation. The other is an adversary, an enemy who must be exterminated. And extreme polarisation leads to violence, as we just saw in Europe” with the attack against Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico.

Although it may be comfortable to attribute growing radicalisation to social media, Castells expressed his conviction that the reasons have to do with deeper problems in society. “One in five European citizens is currently below the threshold or at risk of poverty, and almost half of households have difficulty making ends meet.” “The root of polarisation is not social networks. Society is polarised, people are polarised. Social media just amplifies it massively, often through robots,” he noted.

Faced with this reality, Professor Castells urged political forces to “sign a non-aggression pact with a decalogue for democratic dialogue, engage in constructive dialogue to provide effective responses to the real concerns of citizens and regulate social networks.”   

CaixaForum Macaya, Barcelona, Spain

As a passionate defender of social movements and citizen participation, the sociologist highlighted the ideas expressed by the citizens of Barcelona in the Dialogues on the future of citizens, held during the Spanish Presidency of the EU at CaixaForum Macaya, highlighting the values common that emerge when we allow ourselves to transcend the most polarising narratives. “Many of the conflicts we witness are due to misunderstandings,” he warned. “That is why it is important to use techniques that help understand messages and create more positive narratives, such as the anti-polarisation methodology developed by Re-Imagine Europa to prevent extreme discourses from dominating the debate”. Furthermore, he highlighted some initiatives that remind us that there is hope, such as “the movements against the massacre in Gaza that are observed especially on university campuses in the United States” or “actions like those of Palumba, that he has developed or who has developed an application to help young people decide their vote for the European elections.”

After the conference, the professor led an Open Dialogue with the journalist Álex Rodríguez, La Vanguardia Deputy Director, and with the attendees, when issues such as the role of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in the current and future geostrategic situation, the growing economic inequality and its effects on polarisation and social fragmentation, the need to effectively legislate Artificial Intelligence or the importance of developing European communication platforms, were addressed. “If we have managed to create an Airbus that is gaining ground on Boeing, why can’t we create a European Google or a giant in artificial intelligence?”, he asked.

In the opinion of Professor Castells, Europe has the talent and resources necessary to develop communication technologies with more ethical principles, which allow for rebuilding the trust of citizens and putting a stop to polarisation. “Trust is the basis of all coexistence. If there is no trust, there is fear. And our societies are dominated by fear right now”, warned Castells, who despite everything wanted to leave a positive message: “Is there a way out? Yes. Is there hope? Yes, there is. As long as we don’t lose hope.”