White Supremacy Online in Global Perspective: Castells Revisited

Renowned sociologist Anthony Giddens has compared Manuel Castells’ trilogy, The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture, to Max Weber’s classic Economy and Society. One of the problems with writing a 1,500 page, three volume tome is that people are often daunted by the task of actually reading the work. Originally published beginning in 1996, Castell’s volumes were prescient in their anticipation of the enormous impact of the Internet and globalization on everyday life. However, as I was re-reading Volume II: The Power of Identity book coverrecently for reference in my own work, I was struck by what Castells misses in his analysis of what he refers to as ‘the Patriot movement’ in the network society. He starts out this volume with the premise that:

“Our world, and our lives, are being shaped by the conflicting trends of globalization and identity” (p.1).

And, in this, his point is similar to Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld. In these two possible political futures— “both bleak, neither democratic” — Barber sees “McWorld” as a commercialized, homogenized, depoliticized, and bureaucratized future while “Jihad” is parochial, tribal, and fractitious. In both Castells and Barber, globalization is allied with tolerance while identity is implicated in racism. In his Power of Identity, Castells explicitly takes up the issue of white supremacists, globalization and the Internet in a section called, “Up in Arms against the New World Order: the American Militia and the Patriot Movement in the 1990s” (pp. 84-97, Indexed ref’s to “white supremacists” p.86, p.92). The primary source for this section according to footnote #18 (p.84) is the 1996 Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Klanwatch/Militia Task Force,” cited extensively throughout the chapter as KMTF, now published online (and in print) as The Intelligence Report. There are a number of other sources that Castells draws on for this section, most notably Ken Stern’s A Force Upon the Plain (1996). Castells uses these sources to make four points about the ‘Patriot movement,’ including: 1) it is an extreme libertarian movement and the federal government is their primary enemy; 2) more than the federal government, the ‘new world order’ (i.e., globalization) is seen as an ominous threat; 3) the movement features a backlash against feminism, gays, and racial/ethnic minorities; and 4) it promotes an ‘intolerant affirmation of the superiority of Christian values’ (pp.92-94). Castells’ larger point here is that this movement (along with the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, the religious cult responsible for the sarin gas attack on the Toyko subway in 1995) is a reactive movement, reacting against globalization. In this way, he casts ‘the Patriot movement’ as resistant to the more cosmopolitan strains of globalization; similar, again, to the Jihad side of Barber’s equation, set against McWorld.

There are several problems with Castells analysis for understanding white supremacy online in global perspective. First, he misplaces the Patriot movement as the larger category that encompasses all other white supremacist organizations, as in this passage:

“The militia are the most militant, and organized, wing of a much broader, self-proclaimed ‘Patriot movement,’ whose ideological galaxy encompasses established, extreme conservative organizations, such as the John Birch Society; a whole array of traditional, white supremacist, neo-nazi, and anti-semitic groups, including the Ku-Klux-Klan, and the Posse Comitatus; fanatic religious groups such as Christian Identity, an anti-semitic sect emanating from Victorian England’s British Israelism; anti-federal groups, such as the Counties’ Rights Movements, Wise Use anti-environmental coalition, the National Taxpayers’ Union, and the defenders of ‘Common Law’ courts. The Patriots’ galaxy also extends, in loose forms, to the powerful Christian Coalition, as well as to a number of militant ‘Right to Life’ groups, and counts on the sympathy of many members of the National Rifle Association, and pro-gun advocates” (pp.85-6).

While the Patriot movement was certainly an important force on the American plain for white supremacy in the 1990’s, it did not then and does not now represent the broadest category in the ‘ideological galaxy’ of white supremacist organizations that Castells lists here. Rather, the Patriot movement was then and is now just one branch, and an increasingly insignificant branch, of the wider white supremacist movement. Indeed, as the SPLC reports, the Patriot movement is currently in ‘free fall,’ with dramatically declining numbers while the rest of the movement continues to thrive in the U.S. (up 48% since 2000).

This first problem with Castells’ analysis leads to a second. By taking the Patriot movement as his index case study for understanding the entire white supremacist movement, Castells erroneously locates white supremacy as a U.S.-only movement and it’s not. White supremacy in the information age is global, and quite self-consciously global. Don Black, a white supremacist based in south Florida, established one of the earliest white supremacist sites, Stormfront, in 1995. Stormfront’s tag line and vision from the beginning has been: “White Pride Worldwide,” a motto that speaks to the global reach of the site. For some time, Stormfront has featured specific discussion areas for supporters from Australia, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Switzerland, The Netherlands, The Baltics, and South Africa. As valuable a resource as the Southern Poverty Law Center is, it’s limited in that it only focuses on the U.S. Sources outside the U.S., such as the French anti-racist group J’Accuse estimates there are 60,000 racist sites worldwide, a number much higher than the SPLC’s estimates because the French group takes a global view. While it is difficult for various methodological reasons to accurately estimate the number of white supremacist organizations or individual supporters, by selecting U.S.-based sources such as SPLC and Stern’s book as his primary data for this section, Castells comes to the conclusion that this is a U.S.-based movement. A curious choice in a book about globalization.

Third, while he is quite right in his assessment that “identity is people’s source for meaning and experience” (p.6), because he is so focused on region rather than race as the fundamental organizing category of the white supremacist movement, Castells misses the importance of the Internet for the formation of a global white identity that transcends local and regional ties. For instance, on pages 87-91 he has a lengthy discussion of militias and then shifts to the role of the Internet:

“For conspiracy enthusiasts like militia members, unverified statements from cyberspace reaffirmed their set conclusions by providing an endless stream of additional ‘evidence.’ Also the frontier spirit characteristic of the Internet fits well with the freemen, expressing themselves and making their statement without mediation or government control. More importantly, the network structure of the Internet reproduces exactly the autnonomous, spontaneous networking of militia groups, and of the Patriots at large, without boundaries, and without definite plan, but sharing a purpose, a feeling, and most of all an enemy. It is mainly on the Internet (backed up by Fax and direct mailing) that the movement thrives and organizes itself” (p.91).

Castells is mostly correct here in terms of “linkages” but what he misses here is any analysis of race, or more specifically of whiteness and white identity as central to these linkages.   And, to be fair, writing in the late 1990s, that is how most of us understood the Internet. But, since that time, there has been a burgeoning field of scholarship (much of it drawing on sociologist Sherry Turkle’s groundbreaking, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet) that has documented the way that identities are formed online and through online communities, particularly along lines of racial identity and at racially dedicated social networking sites. (See also, Dara Byrne, “The Future of (the) Race,” MIT Press, 2007).   By focusing on region and ignoring race as a fundamental organizing category for these groups, Castells cannot see the global white identity that is being formed online via this racist cyberculture.

This global white identity is what Les Back has referred to as translocal whiteness (Back, L. (2002) “The New Technologies of Racism,” in D.T Goldberg and J. Solomos (eds) A Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies, Maldon: Blackwell, pp. 365-377). Suvendrini Perera, writing about racial terrorizing of an Aboriginal community in Sydney, Australia, illuminates how the Internet facilitates a global white racist identity:

The appearance of the “race-mixing” posters … was clearly designed to terrorise the long-standing and highly visible Aboriginal community in the area, as well as targeting other racial minorities and people of colour in the vicinity—notably, international students at the nearby universities and English language colleges. The originating point for the poster was the website of the White Pride Coalition, from where it could be downloaded, along with a variety of other racist literature, images and regalia. The availability of these materials on the website allows their owners to disclaim responsibility for their dissemination and public display on the street. It also enables individuals or small cells of people to act alone and in anonymity while drawing on the resources of a global white racist cyberculture…”

Here, local (Australian) whites affirm a self-consciously white, racial identity via a global white racist cyberculture and use the materials downloaded from there to terrorize the local (Aboriginal) people designated as ‘non-white’. The global formation of explicitly racist white identity via the Internet is not unlike the global formation of other subcultural identities in the information age, such as queer identities. (One of the key differences is that the formation of white racist identity has implications of terror for those excluded from that identity formation, and the formation of queer identity can mean terror for those included by that definition.) The point here is that translocal whiteness is a racial identity shaped by global information flows; yet, for Castells race and ethnicity are regional/territorial identities (i.e., “religious, national, ethnic, territorial,” (p.2), and thus his analysis cannot take into account global white identity shaped via the Internet.

‘Race’ in Castell’s analysis is also configured as a demographic characteristic and this further undermines his analysis. For instance, he writes:

“There is one clearly predominant characteristic in the Patriot movement: in a large majority, they are white, heterosexual males” (p.94).

By adopting race as one among many demographic characteristics rather than a fundamental organizing principle of the movement, he misses the importance of racial identity, systemic racism and the white racial frame. Castells continues in that passage to acknowledge that the ‘Angry White Male’ theme “does connect with much older rejection of racial equality by white supremacist groups” but his analysis of this ‘theme’ ends there. Instead, he argues that:

“Rather, they are, fundamentally, a cultural and political movement, defender of the traditions of the country against cosmopolitan values… Right-wing populism is hardly a novelty in the United States; indeed, it is a phenomenon that has played an important role in American politics throughout the country’s history. Furthermore, angry popular reactions to economic distress have occurred in both America and Europe in different forms, from classic fascism and Nazism to the xenophobic and ultra-nationalist movements of recent years. One of the conditions that can help explain the fast spread of the militia, besides the Internet, is growing economic hardship and social inequality in America. Men’s average income has deteriorated substantially in the past two decades, particularly during the 1980s” (pp.95-96) [emphasis added].

Here again, Castells makes a regionally-based argument about white supremacist movements and ties them to other forms of ‘right-wing populism’ formed in response to ‘economic distress.’  While Castells is careful in other sections of the chapter not to interpret the Patriot movement as entirely class-based, he does not offer anything that might be considered a robust racial analysis. Indeed, as the passage immediately above illustrates, race is missing from his analysis entirely. And, the lack of a racial analysis weakens Castells’ overall argument, as becomes evident on the following page when he offers this example of the way he conceptualizes economic inequality fostering the militias in the American west:

For instance, Montana, the seedbed of the new militia, is also one of the favorite destinations of the new billionaires, fond of acquiring thousands of acres of pristine land to build ranches from which to run their global networks. Ranchers in the area resented these moves (pp.96-97).

Perhaps Ted Turner and other billionaires buying up land in Montana has fostered resentment among some ranchers in the area, but this geographically-specific example hardly seems adequate to the task of understanding white supremacy and globalization in the information age. Castells concludes this chapter by saying:

“The social movements I have analyzed in this chapter are very different. And yet, under different forms, reflecting their diverse social and cultural roots, they all challenge the current processes of globalization on behalf of their constructed identities, in some instances claiming to represent the interests of their country, or of humankind, as well” (p.108-109) [emphasis added].

By drawing parallels between the Japanese religious cult Aum Sinrikyo and the white Patriot movement, Castells reasserts his claim that these reactive movements are responding negatively to globalization but fails to  explain the role of the Internet in the identity formation for those within these groups, but rather partitions the Internet as a mechanism for providing “linkages.”

Again, Castells is to be commended for his farsighted sociological vision of the importance of the coinciding trends of globalization and the Internet for the transformation of social, economic, and cultural life.  Yet, his analysis in Power of Identity (Vol.II), falls short of offering an adequate understanding of white supremacy online in the global information age because: 1) he misreads the Patriot movement as the larger category that encompasses all other white supremacist organizations; 2) he uses the Patriot movement as his index case study and thus erroneously locates white supremacy as a U.S.-only movement when in fact, it is a global movement; 3) he focuses primarily on region rather than race as the fundamental organizing category of the white supremacist movement, and therefore misses the way the Internet figures in the formation of a global white identity that transcends local and regional ties; and 4) by adopting race as one among many demographic ‘characteristics,’ rather than a fundamental organizing frame, he misses the importance of racial identity, systemic racism, and the white racial frame for understanding white supremacy online.

What is needed to understand white supremacy online in global perspective it seems to me, is to join the insights of Castells to those of Feagin’s concept of the white racial frame set within a global context.   More on that in another post.


  1. Joe

    This is an excellent serious piece on Castells, thanks for the details.

    Another big problem with Castells’ analysis is the foundational reality of the white supremacist (aka white racial) frame from the 1500s onward. He is class oriented and just cannot see this deep racial foundation. Extremist groups are but the tip of that iceberg.

    Today, the top corporate executives who run the world economy are mostly white, and they or their elite forerunners have been for centuries. They circulate the most important white supremacist ideas and framing, because they hold far more power over the media and global institutions than any extremist group — as you just begin to suggest at the end. The corporate elites just put their racist views in less flamboyant terms than the extremist groups do, but many of their ideas on racial matters are the same, and have been for centuries. And they are far more powerful than those of Patriot type groups.

    On a related note, we see this use of white supremacist ideas constantly in the “mainstream media’s” attacks on Senator Obama….. Like by the ABC moderators last Wednesday…..

  2. Jessie Author

    Thanks, Joe ~ glad you liked the post. With regard to Castell’s class analysis, he seems to have moved away from his earlier focus on class and economic inequality. This is what he says in an interview about the influence of corporations:
    “… first of all, there is this general misunderstanding that corporations run the world. Corporations run what they can run. But to start with, they don’t even run the economy, because they are dependent on an uncontrollable system, which is the global financial markets. Corporations have their money in the financial markets. They depend on how investors perceive them and value them in the global financial market.

    In March, 2000, Cisco Systems, which is a very good company in many ways in terms of the practice of the company — I don’t say that in terms of their values, but the practices of the company, it’s a very effective company — was valued at $550 billion and was the largest, the highest-value company in the world. In March, 2001, one year later, it was valued about $120 billion and had collapsed in the stock market. Still a great company — 85 percent of the Internet equipment market.

    So the turbulences of information that control the financial markets, the ability or not of companies to ride the subjectivity of financial markets, determines the fate of the company. So in that sense, companies do not run the world, because they cannot even control the global economy.”
    More here.

    In the trilogy, he seems to adopt a view that embraces shifts in cultural values prompted by ‘proactive’ (rather than ‘reactive’) social movements advocating for change and those changes mediated by the state. His big examples of ‘proactive’ social movements that have effectively created change are feminism and environmentalism, and race is completely missing in both these discussions.

    But, you’re right about the corporate elite and more ‘mainstream’ whites and their views. There’s certainly nothing in Castells to help us understand that white racial frame.

  3. Joe

    Yes, Castells and other neo-Marxist analysts do accent the role of financial capital in global capitalism these days, and they are right about that. But, still, the majority of key players are the top corporate executives of large nonfinancial corporations, such as Exxon, Toyota, and the like. They are the ones that control the global factories, even if they need bankers to do that.

    And the majority of top corp. executives are still white Americans and Europeans, and the not-whites among them are almost all trained by white professors at American and European universities — they all thus tend to think out of a global racial frame that sees the 82 percent of the world’s population that is not white as more or less expendable, and thus as dangerous as they protest and organize. It is not the environmentalists and feminists who are the big threat to the white-oriented corp. elite, but the people’s movements in places like Bolivia, Venezuela, and South Africa. When indigenous peoples rise, they scare the devil out of that elite. They fear people of color about as much as they fear anything.

  4. Jessie Author

    Right, ‘race’ is always an epiphenomenon for Marxists (neo- and otherwise), always less important than class, the actual motor of history. And racism…well, that just doesn’t seem to exist in the analysis.

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