There isn’t enough positive writing about revolt in the modern world. So it’s good that Paul Mason’s new book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, is so enthusiastic about revolution.
“The events of 2011 showed that ordinary people—the 99 percent—have the ability to reshape their circumstances to achieve in a day what normal progress achieves in years,” he writes.
“An economic crisis is making the powerful look powerless, while the powerless are forced to adopt tactics that were once the preserve of niche protest groups.”
Mason is the economics editor for the BBC’s Newsnight programme and the bulk of his book draws together his reporting of 2011’s momentous events.
In between Mason sets out his political pitch, which lays a heavy emphasis on the impact of new technologies such as mobile phones and the internet.
“We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near collapse of free market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation,” he writes.
So there is much in the book about young women going to Starbucks and using social media to plan revolts. Yet the irony is that this praise for the new itself has a long history.
Mason at one point cites André Gorz’s 1980 book, Farewell To The Working Class. Gorz thought that the decline of the traditional working class had made revolution impossible.
He argued instead for “an alternative network of relations” that could “bypass” the machinery of power rather than taking it on and destroying it.
Mason buys into this. But he thinks three forces have combined to make revolution possible—young tech-savvy graduates, slum dwellers and organised workers.
There are problems here, however. Too often Mason’s categorisation relies upon a superficial sociological view.
For instance, striking tax collectors in Greece become part of Mason’s new graduate class rather than being treated as part of the labour movement.
This is because they are smartly dressed. Meanwhle a BNP voting ex-miner is Mason’s example of the working class.
Mason likes all the clever and angry young people he meets on his globetrotting tour of protests. But he likes their iPhones even more.
At times this tips over into an autonomism-lite that thinks new technology can brush aside the difficulties of organisation and building movements.
He writes, “Leninism is looking shrunken and disorientated, horizontalism can stage a great demo, but does not know what it wants... Labourism appears politically confused.”
His argument instead is that “the network beats the hierarchy”. But at this point evidence gets dropped for assertion. And some distinctly old fashioned class biases start to creep in.
So while Mason celebrates the August riots as a “youth revolt”, ultimately they merely serve to prove that Britain has slum dwellers too.
He offers far less analysis of the riots compared to his painstaking account of university occupations using social media.
Mason takes a selective approach to technology. Much is made of Twitter. Little is made of the deeply unhorizontal satellite TV.
Mason tends to ignore how methods of revolt are shaped by wider political factors.
Using the internet as an organiser was often forced on people in dictatorial regimes. But as soon as that repression was seriously challenged, people rushed into the streets. There was a flowering of apparently old fashioned phenomena—speeches, leaflets, papers, demos and strikes.
Mason argues there are two potential mistakes. One is “to imagine the material antagonism between the democratic business class and workers can remain suppressed forever”.
The second “is to think there is nothing new”.
But there is a third mistake, which is to get the relationship between the old and new wrong. For all his enthusiasm, Mason is too often blinded by the shock of the new.
The paradox here is that the “newness” of these movements is the aspect of them that least troubles the existing order.
The nightmare for the ruling class is an older one—that the working class could bring down the system. And it is that deeper threat that Mason, unfortunately, fails to properly analyse.
Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions by Paul Mason is published by Verso, £12.99. You can buy it from Bookmarks—phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk