“You may have thought such days were gone – such idealism, such eloquence, such creativity and hope. Well they’re back.” So begins Paul Mason’s fast-paced account of the struggles that have swept across the world since the end of 2010. From strikes and riots across the eurozone, through the Arab Spring to the Spanish indignados and Occupy, the last two years have witnessed the return of uprisings and revolutions that mainstream commentators argued had been relegated to history.
In describing these events, Mason gives a visceral account filled with empathy for those protesting, anger at the ruling class, and hatred of the police. Drawing historical parallels with previous revolutionary waves (particularly that of 1848), he clearly ties these struggles together as part of an uprising against both the crisis of capitalism and austerity.
However, when it comes to his analysis of why it’s all “kicked off”, Mason’s book runs into serious problems.
Taking his blog “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere” as his starting point, he points to the power of the “networked individual” – the expanding power of the individual combined with an increased connection to “networks”. If all this sounds abstract, it’s because it is. With a shockingly distorted interpretation of Marx, he goes further in arguing that rather than history being one of class struggle, it is in fact a history of the emergence and suppression of “the free, networked individual”. So for Mason, the new struggles are cutting edge and modern because they supposedly reject traditional ideologies and organisation – Leninist parties, trade unions and so on.
Throughout the book, he accepts the misconception held by some on the left that organised labour is so undercut and atomised by neoliberalism that it can no longer present itself as the leading force. One example is Mason’s treatment of the TUC’s March for the Alternative. Although acknowledging the huge trade union presence on the demonstration, his focus ends up falling almost exclusively on the direct action of UK Uncut and the Black Bloc. Consequently he sees the lack of action by these groups in the summer, along with union negotiations on pensions, as a “crisis” for the protest movement and a loss of momentum. There is no mention of the return of coordinated strikes in June, the launchpad for the magnificent strike of 30 November (N30). The book reflects arguments that have arisen in the new movements, but offers nothing concrete on how to take the struggles forward. For many involved, the key question is not how to liberate themselves through the internet’s “democratised networks”, but how to organise against austerity, the ruling Egyptian military regime and so on. Trotsky argued that “without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box”. Organisation is critical not just in agitating for struggles, but for pulling these movements together into a force that can smash capitalism.
Mason’s championing of “the expanded power of the individual” also dovetails with a crude technologically determinist argument about the role of social media and the internet. The book is filled with references to the internet altering the balance of power and creating non-hierarchical structures that in and of themselves can challenge the ruling class. There’s no doubt the internet has been an invaluable tool for many activists. But Mason goes much further, even asking whether emancipation can be achieved through the internet without getting rid of capitalism or the state. The answer, for many courageous revolutionaries in Tahrir Square on the day that the Mubarak regime unplugged the internet, would seem to be a simple “No”.
All this can be incredibly frustrating, as it goes against much of Mason’s own analysis of the social processes involved and how the state will use violence and repression to defend itself. The idea that genuine liberation could be achieved without confronting capitalism directly seems to contradict many of his own arguments. By shifting the focus away from the centrality of the working class, he struggles to present any kind of vision of what could replace the horrors of capitalism that the book eloquently describes.
The real power to challenge the ruling class doesn’t lie in individual action or abstract notions of the internet, divorced from concrete conditions. As N30 showed in Britain, just as the workers of Egypt, Greece, France, Wisconsin and elsewhere have shown, the real power to challenge capitalism lies in collective action and the working class. Rosa Luxemburg once argued that “where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken”. Somehow I don’t think she was talking about Twitter.
Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere is published by Verso, £12.99
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