IN A recent interview with Guardian Unlimited, British playwright David Hare argued that the BBC’s news reporting had become “incredibly cowed” with the exception of Paul Mason. “It’s 10:45 every night before Paul Mason finally comes on bringing news of places and issues which ought, rightfully, to be covered from morning till night. In fact in the last few years he’s become a sort of BBC within the BBC.” Hare couldn’t be more on the mark. Only the quality of Mason’s reporting has shielded him from being stifled in a mainstream media world hostile to looking closely and critically at what the powerful do and their impact on billions of people.
In Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, Mason, economics editor for BBC2’s Newsnight, investigates the dynamics of social upheavals in Cairo, Athens, Tehran, London, Wisconsin, and beyond since the world economic crisis in 2008. His new book follows his excellent recent books, Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (2007) and Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed (2009). Challenging the notion that the working class was becoming irrelevant, Live Working documented the dramatic growth, and struggles, of a global wage-earning class of 2.5–3 billion people during the past three decades of neoliberal economic expansion. In Meltdown, Mason provides a blow-by-blow account of the unraveling of the global financial system and documents the bankruptcy of free-market economics.
Mason’s on-the-ground journalism vividly captures the moving forces in the struggles and revolts that shaped 2011. But his writing is more than journalism. Bringing together, in his words, “reportage, essay, tweet, anecdote, and cyber-psychology,” the book is laced with informed analysis, sharp insights, a wide historical scope, and a good grasp of the economic turbulence underpinning class conflict in country after country. He describes, for example, divisions within the Egyptian ruling elite, the contradiction of economic growth alongside deepening inequality, and, how these factors impacted the social forces that brought down Mubarak:
All the ingredients were present in the uprisings that would, eighteen months later, galvanize the Middle East and beyond: radicalized, secular-leaning youth; a repressed workers’ movement with considerable social power; uncontrollable social media; the restive urban poor. And then there was an élan, a poetry about it, an absence of postmodern cynicism.
Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, as its title suggests, is more than a description of these revolts and revolutions. It also attempts to develop some conclusions as to what is driving the struggles forward, the ideas of those involved, the character of organizing, and how struggles can develop and are likely to succeed. Here he makes some perceptive observations. However, some of the conclusions he reaches are confusing and fundamentally problematic. More than this, Mason presents a frontal assault on Marxism and a series of sweeping distorted characterizations of the revolutionary Left.
Twenty years of “capitalist realism” and the triumphalism of the right produced disorientation, passivity, and rationalizations of defeat on the left. “The key problem,” Mason argues, “was spelled out by the theorist Fredric Jameson in 2003: ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.’” The global meltdown in 2008 made it possible to imagine the end of capitalism and the new social upheavals have broken the prevalence of cynicism. Absent from the new global protests in region after region is the sense of cynicism that defeat was inevitable and that another world was not possible.
The failure of social democracy and Stalinism means that no coherent ideology shapes the new movements. Marxism and Leninism have been rejected; indeed, argues Mason, they are completely irrelevant to those in the “demographic youth bulge” who are at the center of the new struggles. The politics of “hard-core” activists have become “gestural.” Mason quotes one activist’s dismissal of theory because “I don’t like talking about what I think; it’s bullshit. It’s this action, this protest, Iraq, Palestine, Deptford.”
Horizontalism, Mason observes—the mix of consensus-based decision making, the spurning of leaders, the creation of liberated spaces, and seeing the movement itself as “prefiguring” the future—is the common sense outlook of a new generation of activists. The creation of “liberated spaces,” in Mason’s estimation, has become the single most important theme of the new revolts. This is certainly true for an element of the movement, but not so for the broad millions who have protested austerity and fought to bring down dictators; nor does it quite capture the fruitful mixing of occupation and movement building (including the links drawn between Occupy and organized labor) that marks the high point of the Occupy movement.
While the the Egyptian Revolution demonstrated the potential for “synthesis” between students, the urban poor, and the working class, the struggle against austerity in the UK failed, according to Mason, to achieve this synthesis. Mason describes how the actions of a few hundred Black Bloc activists eclipsed the protest of 500,000 trade union members against austerity in London on March 26, 2011—the biggest trade union action in postwar British history. The media focused on rampaging bands of masked anarchists smashing windows and engaging in confrontations with the police. Mason explains that this has led to a crisis for the British horizontalist movement from which it has yet to escape.
“It was an advance preview of the problem which youthful, socially networked, horizontalist movements would have everywhere once things got serious,” notes Mason. “The absence of strategy, the absence of a line of communication through which to speak to the union-organized workers. The limits, in short, of ‘propaganda of the deed.’”
Though Mason here correctly identifies one of horizontalism’s central flaws, the rest of the book seems to uncritically applaud aspects of it, arguing that spontaneity and “social networks” are the key to changing society. Moreover, though it’s clear in Mason’s account that the working class in Egypt and Britain are centrally important in the struggle, he doesn’t explain why. Absent is Marx’s idea that workers have a specific kind of power because of their social weight and role in the process of production. Horizontalism rejects the idea that we should prioritize the struggle of workers at the point of production. Instead, all forms of resistance are of equal importance.
For Mason, it is not the working class, but the “networked individual” that is the new revolutionary subject. According to Mason, new technologies—the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter—are driving behavioral change and have created this networked individual. Networked individuals, he writes, “challenge the old methods: parties, trade unions, leaders, hierarchies” by forming horizontal social networks that can “zap the enemy” by spontaneously “swarming” it and then dissolve. Networked individuals come together for specific purposes and have weak ties. This makes creating political organizations based on collective ties and visions, such as political parties and trade unions, anachronistic. Moreover, these spontaeously forming movements, unlike revolutionary movements of the past, don’t attack the state or seek power, but rather “bypass” and “supercede” the machinery of power. The network, according to Mason, is destroying what are deemed permanent relationships like those of the boss and workers and the repressive power of the state. The rise of “info-hierarchies,” he claims, constitutes a challenge to “repressive states, corporations and hermetically sealed ideologies,” among which he includes “fascism” and “clunking Leninism.”
In a pivotal chapter titled “I tweet in my dreams,” Mason asks if it is possible to imagine liberated individuals and spaces within the womb of capitalism. “What if—instead of waiting for the collapse of capitalism—the emancipated human being were beginning to emerge spontaneously from within this breakdown of the old order?”
New communications technology, he believes, is creating a new kind of individual freedom that makes all previous forms of collective organizing unnecessary. The struggle of the individual is now more important than collective class struggle. Ironically, he uses Marx to make this argument:
It is often forgotten that Marx’s goal was not “class solidarity” or “proletarian power” but the liberation of individual human beings. In 1843 he wrote a passage that has become newly relevant in the context of social networks:
Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself. Human emancipation will only be complete when the real individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being.
Marx believed this truly social life—“species-being”—could only be attained by abolishing capitalism.
Yet for Marx the road to human liberation moves not through abstract “individuals,” but through the collective struggle of the working class. Capitalism atomizes and fragments workers, but through collective action they develope collective class consciousness. Marx called the working class the “universal” class because their own liberation from class oppression would lead to the liberation of all of humanity. He was therefore highly critical of theories of socialism that purported to stand “above” class distinctions and professed to speak to the “higher” interests of mankind. The utopian socialists he chided for seeing theselves “superior to all class antagonisms.” Of the German “true socialists,” he wrote in the Manifesto of the Communist Party: “Since it [socialism] ceased in the hands of the German to express the struggle of one class with the other, he felt conscious of having overcome ‘French one-sidedness’ and of representing, not true requirements, but the requirements of Truth; not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy.”
Mason discards Marx’s conception of the working class as the class whose own liberation would lead to the liberation of humanity, replacing it with a concept of generic “human” liberation to be achieved by individuals without even necessarily challenging capitalist social relations. “Is it now possible,” he asks, “to conceive of living this ‘emancipated’ life as a fully connected ‘species-being’ on the terrain of capitalism itself—indeed on the terrain of a highly marketized form of capitalism, albeit in conflict with it?”
The argument Mason makes inflates the role of technology both in shaping social relations and in its impact on social struggle. New forms of communication may change some of the ways we organize, but not the fundamental social relations of capitalism. Technology has certainly widened the horizons of large numbers of people and is a tool in organizing for change, but the vast majority of people still spend at least half their waking hours in workplaces making or selling commodities under the autocratic rule of the boss, and the ruling class’s monopoly of violence ensures that this power relationship remains intact.
Technology certainly can aid radicalization, but it is not what drives it forward or what gives people power. The Egyptian Revolution used Facebook and Twitter effectively, but was equally succesful reverting to leaflets and other more “arcane” forms of communication when those avenues were cut off by the actions of Mubarak’s security apparatus. The point is that it was a myriad of mounting social tensions which created the conditions for the outbreak of revolution in Egypt, not the invention of Facebook in 2005.
Austerity, unemployment, corruption, and police violence are undermining the authority and legitimacy of ruling institutions all over the globe. Organizing and resistance sharpen radicalization and the consciousness of those involved, as does clashing with the boss and the forces of the state in struggle. This is experienced individually, but it is only of consequence when it is collective. This process can create individuals who are liberated, but only in the sense that they have developed a consciousness of the world’s contradictions and a desire for change. But no matter how “networked,” individuals as well as collectives cannot fully liberate themselves from capitalist social relations, let alone challenge them without challenging the system.
All initial mass radicalizations have some sort of beginning and the ideas of those can advance in response to the challenges faced and the lessons learned. Therefore, theories, strategies, and organization become all the more important as the struggle advances and becomes more intense. The content of horizontalism and the forms of organization it prioritizes are an expression of this primitiveness. Ridiculously then, Mason points us towards the The Coming Insurrection as the modern equivalent of The Communist Manifesto.
The Coming Insurrection was written by insurrectionary anarchists who call themselves The Invisible Committee. It has some insights into modern society, but the authors’ proposals on how we should change it are a dead end. Mason quotes The Coming Insurrection: “Get going...find each other...start from what’s political in friendship.” Expect nothing from established organizations. Above all, “form communes”—that is, form autonomous groups to engage in sporadic acts: “Becoming autonomous could just as easily mean learning to fight in the street, to occupy empty houses, to cease working, to love each other madly, and to shoplift.”
Mason starts by pointing out the limitations of horizontalism and then leads us back to its most primitive, infantile, and sectarian form. It would have been much better if he encouraged readers of Global Revolutions to pick up a copy of The Communist Manifesto or find it online; a work that is perhaps more relevant now than when it was first penned in 1848.
Why its Kicking off Eveywhere is a very engaging book from which any reader will learn a lot. The chapters on Egypt, Greece, global slums, and the origins of the economic crisis are particularly useful. The chapter comparing 2011 to previous waves of global revolts raises challenging points and ideas that deserve discussion.
Mason’s book isn’t just a journalist’s account that documents what is happening and what people are doing. This book should be viewed as an intervention into debates about how the global revolts can go forward. Whatever its strenghts and weaknesses, it is an important book for activists to read.