A revolt the world over

February 2, 2012

Leela Yellesetty reviews journalist Paul Mason's book on the global rebellion of 2011.

THERE IS no doubt that historians will be studying the events of 2011 for years to come. Paul Mason offers a more immediate take--"don't file it under social science: it's journalism"--on this momentous year in Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions.

Testament to his instincts as a veteran journalist, Mason managed to be everywhere right as things were kicking off--traversing the globe from the Middle East to Europe to America to Asia. Largely a compilation of his blog posts written over the course of the year, the book combines a feel for the breathlessness of events as they unfold with a historian's eye for patterns and precedents.

Mason's prose beautifully captures the almost surreal mood that often accompanies mass shifts in consciousness. Take this scene in Athens:

As the vote goes through, people cluster around TV screens in the cafes around Syntagma, which do not stop serving even while rocks and grenades are hurled twenty yards away. One TV shows the vote in parliament split-screened with the riot itself; if you look in the other direction, you can see the same riot in real life just behind you.

As the socialist MPs vote one by one for the austerity program, people thrust their open palms at the TV screen, a traditional Greek gesture of disgust. Many are zoned out from so much tear gas and anger. As they watch the vote unfold, you can see in their eyes that intensity of people watching penalty shoot-outs at football finals. To see those arms and hands outstretched, those contorted faces, is like seeing legitimacy drain away from Greek democracy.

British students protest against rising fees and budget cuts to education
British students protest against rising fees and budget cuts to education (Chris Beckett)

Of course, this year was marked not merely by mass anger and disillusionment, but more significantly by the heady rush of hope that comes from the experience of people flexing their collective power for the first time. As one Egyptian student put it, describing her first protest on January 25:

You see all these people around you chanting the same thing, and it triggers something in your mind...You see people running toward the police, hurling bricks at them--and wow: the normal scenario would be to run away. I went home, and I told my mother--I am not myself. I am somebody new that was born today.

MASON ALTERNATES chapters between this anecdotal, firsthand reporting of events and reflections on why it's all happening now. He begins by looking at why nobody saw it coming, noting that it was not only the adherents of capitalist triumphalism who were blindsided, but also much of the left.

Nonetheless, the warning signs were there leading up to 2011: from uprisings in Iran to student protests against budget cuts in California to mass strikes in France and many other rumblings of discontent:

In 2010, those in power comforted themselves with one thought: that postmodern society had eradicated solidarity. The young would never go out onto the streets to fight for the rights of the old, established workforce; the feral youth of the inner cities would never combine with the educated elite. There might even be an "age war" between the baby boomers and iPod generation. There would be strife, but it would never be coherent.

The events of 2011 defied all of this conventional wisdom, but on closer examination, they are not all that difficult to explain. Mason's explanations revolve around two central themes: the economic crisis, particularly its impact on youth, and the role of technology.

From Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation, which kicked off the Tunisian revolution, to the 46 percent youth unemployment rate sparking occupations in the plazas of Madrid, to revolts against tuition hikes and police violence in Britain, the archetype of "the graduate without a future" was a running theme in 2011:

The financial crisis of 2008--which would bankrupt states as well as banks--created a generation of 20-somethings whose projected life arc had switched, quite suddenly, from an upward curve to a downward one. The promise was: "Get a degree, get a job in the corporate system, and eventually you'll achieve a better living standard than your parents." This abruptly turned into: "Tough, you'll be poorer than your parents."

To be sure, the scale of the economic crisis has left no demographic untouched. As Mason is careful to note, if youth have often been the spark for the various revolts, their elders have not been far behind. Furthermore, unlike their predecessors in the 1968 generation who "thought of themselves as external 'detonators' of the working class, the students of 2010 were thoroughly embedded both in the workforce and in low income communities."

In the subterranean tunnels of Manila's slums, Mason finds business administration students surfing the internet on their BlackBerries, even as they work multiple jobs to secure the bare minimum of subsistence and a one-room hovel for their families.

Throughout much of the globe, a small rise in the price of bread spells the difference between barely surviving and absolute destitution for millions. Reflecting on the parallels between 2011 and another year of revolutionary upsurge--1848--Mason pinpoints the intimate correlation between food inflation and revolt, then and now.

THE ROLE played by social media in the revolutions of 2011 has been repeated ad nauseum in the mainstream media, but Mason offers a more sophisticated analysis:

Suddenly, the form of today's protests seems entirely congruent with the way people live their lives. It is modern; it is immune to the charges of "resisting progress." Indeed, it utilizes technology that is so essential to modern work and leisure, governments cannot turn it off without harming their national economies. And, as Mubarak, Qaddafi and the Bahraini royals discovered, even turning it off does not work. Because--and there is the technological fact that underpins and political aspects of what happened--a network can usually defeat a hierarchy.

This is Mason's central insight: social network technology amplifies the ability of ordinary people to broadcast their stories, seek out the truth and coordinate activity, but it also changes the way we do all of these things. He writes, "The new technology underpins our ability to be at the same time more individualistic and more collective; it shapes our consciousness and magnifies the crucial driver of all revolutions--the perceived difference between what could be and what is."

Although many of his observations are compelling, Mason at times contradicts himself on this point, suggesting that the new technology could spontaneously evolve a new emancipated humanity within capitalism, while in other passages acknowledging the real barriers to achieving this ideal within a crisis-driven economic system and the states which defend it.

Overall, on the question of where things will go from here, Mason is appropriately tentative. The global economic crisis and new wave of revolt has posed many more questions than answers. Mason does not shy away from the real dangers of deepening crisis provoking a revival of ugly scapegoating domestically--witness the rise of the Tea Party-- and trade wars internationally, as each state attempts to secure the interests of its own ruling class at the expense of the rest.

He also acknowledges the weakness and incoherence of the left internationally, and the challenges facing activists that cannot be solved by technology alone. In a chapter on the student revolt in Britain, he describes "an advance preview of the problem which youthful, socially networked, horizontalist movements would have everywhere once things got serious: 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.'"

In the years to come, the stakes will only get higher, the debates more pronounced, and the outcomes are far from certain. But as Mason concludes:

[T]he events of 2011 showed that ordinary people--the 99 percent celebrated in the Occupy Wall Street protest--have the ability to reshape their circumstances--to achieve in a day what normal progress achieves in years. The plebeian groups that kicked things off-- from Iran in 2009 to Egypt, Libya and Chile in 2011, possess, in fact, a surplus of the most valuable properties on earth: skill, ingenuity and intelligence.

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