Written by Dan Poulton
Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere investigates the global revolt sparked by an epochal crisis of capitalism which has overturned ‘the old world, where everything was stable and imagination was dead’ (p.24). Quoting Fredric Jameson’s line that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’, Mason claims that much of the thinking of mainstream left intellectuals in the 1990s was dominated by pessimism (p.27).
Referencing the ‘ironic’ defeatism exemplified by Slavoj Žižek, Mason describes a ‘zeitgeist of impotence’ where ‘nothing can change. Dissent is not strong enough to break the media’s stranglehold; only irony or flight is possible...’ (p.29). He argues that such a malaise originated from the apparent victory of ‘globalisation’ over the dominant political narrative, quoting former Bush advisor Karl Rove: ‘We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’ (p.31).
However the wave of revolt which began with a failed uprising in Iran in 2009 has brought an end to ‘an era of defeat’ (p.29). Things have changed and Mason seeks to analyse ‘what’s new’ about the current situation. However, too much significance is given to ‘autonomist’ modes of operating and the Marxist left barely gets a look in. Lenin, Mason asserts unreasonably, has been dismissed as ‘left fascist’ and ‘horizontalism’ rules. In a world where academic lectures by renowned Marxist geographer David Harvey attract hundreds of young activists hungry for theory, such dismissals do not quite fit, although it is true that most of the Marxist left has failed to grapple properly with a new revolutionary situation.
Why is it kicking off everywhere?
For Mason, the ‘unpalatable’ truth is that the current revolt is a product of globalisation ‘and the resulting monopolization of wealth by a global elite’ (p.108). Since 1989, he explains, the global workforce has doubled to three billion, whilst labour has been globalised through outsourcing and migration. With the ratio of capital to labour halved, ‘the impact on wages’ has been ‘startling’ (p.108). As the first wave of globalisation halted ‘around 1999’, seemingly unlimited supplies of credit picked up the slack of falling wages, until the sub-prime mortgage collapse of 2008: ‘The rise of finance, wage stagnation, the capture of regulation and politics by a financial elite, consumption fuelled by credit rather than wages: it all blew up spectacularly’ (p.109).
A ‘perfect storm’
In a particularly vivid passage, Mason explains the development of the crisis with reference to James Cameron’s sci-fi classic, Alien. The banking system is the eponymous monster, ‘the perfect parasite’, clamped to John Hurt’s face (presumably a metaphor for US society). In an attempt to remove the creature with a scalpel (allowing Lehman Bros to fail) the alien’s acid blood (toxic debt) burns through layers of the ship (the global economy), stopping just before fatally burning through the outer hull, destroying the whole system. The first layer to burn was the credit system. Next up was the real economy which experienced a rate of collapse ‘in line with post-1929’ (p.110). The deck that did not burn was the massive state intervention of 2009 which avoided a Great Depression-style slump, but at the cost of turning states that could not cope toxic.
As the crisis spread, Europe’s politicians were ‘trapped in a time warp of their own creation’, unable to see that the ‘medicine’ of state-funded bailouts for the banks, and spending cuts for ordinary people, was ‘killing the patient’ (p.92). In Greece, a proposed austerity budget would cut public wages by a third, ‘suppress growth by half a decade’, keep a generation of young people out of work, and force a debt default before a third bailout could take place. All the while the very real possibility of contagion and financial collapse spread via European exposure to bad Greek debt in the form of ‘credit default swaps’, and threatens to ‘explode like an anti-tank missile, straight through the armour of the entire global system’ (p.99).
The wave last time
For Mason, the current global revolt has ‘intriguing’ similarities with the last truly global upheaval. He tells of an analysis mapping food price data from 1848 against wheat price movements in the Arab world in 2010. Tunisia, Yemen and Lebanon experienced price rises which would have caused ‘expectations of violent revolution’ compared with 1848. Egypt, Palestine and Jordan were ‘off the scale’ (p.121).
The US is described as gripped by an ‘advanced culture war’ between liberals and conservatives which is ‘paralysing national political institutions’. Such a crisis, he claims, has parallels with the long period of economic and political turmoil of the 1850s and echoes of the American Civil War. This standoff, he tells us, is ‘in danger of creating two hostile camps which no longer want to exist inside the same polity’. For Mason the resolution to this deadlock will ‘affect the way the whole world exits the crisis’ (p.180).
Mason explains that the rise of social media platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter only really took off in earnest in ‘the years of imminent crisis’, between 2004 (with the launch of Facebook) and 2008. Having taken two years since its launch in 2006 for Twitter users to rack up one billion tweets, by 2011 two hundred and fifty million users were sending one billion tweets a week. In the three years of crisis since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, Facebook ‘put on six-sevenths of its user base’ (p.135).
With over fifteen percent of the Arab world (and approaching one seventh of the global population) on Facebook, the potential role of social media in revolutionary upheavals is huge. ‘For the first time in decades’, Mason notes with barely concealed relief, ‘people are using methods of protest that do not seem archaic or at odds with the modern contemporary world’ (p.65). Mason illustrates how the parallel developments of mobile phone technology and the internet have permeated deep into much of society, from texting slum dwellers to illiterate doormen watching Youtube via bluetooth.
The semi-causal relationship between disaffected students organising protests through social media, and poverty-stricken slum dwellers taking to the streets in Egypt is detailed here too. But Mason acknowledges that more traditional forms of working class organisation can outgun the ‘horizontal’ approach of the radicalised ‘graduate without a future’, a social category which unites even the most disparate regions of a world in revolt.
In his less critical moments Mason is perhaps taken in by the ‘utopian’ aesthetic of the horizontal network narrative. What this misses is the vertical within the horizontal: unconscious hierarchies lack the necessary counterweight of conscious democratic (‘vertical’) structures. Mason recalls the 2002 US military war game Millennium Challenge where a retired US general (playing the Iranians) defeated the American army by unleashing a ‘swarm’ attack, which transmitted communications via unconventional (‘horizontal’) means and trained all missiles on a single target. As an example of horizontal superiority it misses an important factor: such an attack was deployed by ‘vertical’ means; through the rigid command system of a military operation.
The prize for the revolutionary left would be a synchronous fusion of ‘horizontal’ networks with the discipline of ‘vertical’ democratic organisation. This book rightly challenges outmoded ‘old left’ strategies but without pointing the way forwards for those who still see an urgent need for a Marxist response to the crisis.
In every garret a laptop
The ‘networked’ student revolutionaries of today, Mason explains, are more organically linked to the working class than the student radicals of 1968. Whereas the latter sought to be the ‘detonators’ of working class revolt, the students of 2010 were ‘thoroughly embedded both in the workforce and in low-income communities’, often living ‘in close proximity to the urban poor’ (p.70).
Mason’s claim that the internet has ushered in a change in human behaviour is overstated, but contains some truth. Technology is being integrated into the social experience of millions of people across the world at an eye-watering rate. However this process is limited by the capacity of capitalism to provide continuous technological growth. If the global economy does explode as Mason suggests, such development could halt or go into reverse and then, as he says towards the end of the book, ‘the whole deal is off’ (p.191).
Social media is also limited by the state’s ability to switch it off, as Mubarak did in Egypt, by putting in a series of ‘analogue’ phone calls to service providers. The interesting unintended consequence of this was to compel people to leave their homes and internet cafés to see what was actually going on the streets of Egypt, thereby swelling the ranks of the people in Tahrir Square.
Claiming the primacy of social media in the Egyptian revolution also downplays a decade of trade union activism, underground conferences, and radical organisation. In the run-up to the 25th January demonstration, secret leafleting ‘rehearsals’ and mock demos worked out the logistics of revolt in painstaking detail.
The use of PA systems in mosques to deploy popular militias to tackle thugs and looters is also absent from the picture, which is more complicated and intricate than the ‘networked revolution’ narrative allows for. But it would be a big mistake for the left to turn their noses up at the importance of social media. The ‘networked’ activists of Egypt, as in Yemen and elsewhere, were in one sense a kind of ‘vanguard’ bringing other sections of society out on to the streets. However, it is important to stress that there is much more to the picture.
As Mason says, ‘the Egyptian revolution may have begun on Facebook’, but once social forces like the slum dwellers of Cairo were mobilised, ‘that was the point that things got serious for Hosni Mubarak’ (p.6). This is an engaging and thought-provoking examination of the global revolt. What are needed now are serious answers to the questions posed here that can further advance the struggle for radical change.
Published Friday, 09 March 2012 at: