Why it's kicking off everywhere by Paul Mason – review
This is a review of Paul Mason’s new book ‘Why it’s kicking off everywhere’ – which will be available soon in all good bookshops.
Paul Mason’s new book, out this month, made me laugh and made me cry. It gave me hope and helped me understand. “Why it’s kicking off everywhere” essentially does what it says on the tin. Building on his widely read blog post from early 2011 “20 reasons it’s kicking off everywhere”, the Newsnight economics editor tells the story of 2011 in a way that perhaps only he can.
Who else was on the steps of the Greek Parliament as it was stormed, in the slums of Cairo as they were mobilised and at the economic summits as dry eyed Finance Ministers struggled to understand? Mason retraces the route of Steinbeck’s Oakies to witness the new dust-bowl, travels to the slums of Manilla to meet the new urban poor, and stood on the steps of St Paul’s as they were occupied. The book tells the stories of his travels: the tales of one of the few to witness so many of the revolutions of 2011. But it does much more than that.
In his introduction, Mason insists that the book should be categorised as journalism, not social science. And it is – journalism at its analytical best, a wide angel lens on global society. To explain the uprisings, he references Marx and Engles, Slavoj Zizek , Deboard and Delius, @Ghonim from Tahrir and @littlemisswilde from the UCL occupation, The Matrix and The Truman Show, Picasso and a 1910 opera ‘so revolutionary that no one noticed’. His thesis on why its kicking off everywhere is essentially that spelled out in the blog – the interaction of changes in class structures, new technology – particularly social media and the failure of free market capitalism.
For me, most of it rings true. His macro-economic analysis of the collapse – only a small portion of the book – is as superb as you’d expect (if at times too despairing for my taste). His capacity to deftly draw parallel after parallel with uprisings throughout history shows not just his depth as a labour historian, but also his breadth of knowledge of culture and arts, and what they say about society and shifting ideologies (Wikipedia tells me that he was once a music teacher). He paints his case in academic multicolour: history, economics, social movement theory, sociology, business theory, psychology, philosophy, urban planning… And it is compelling. But one question constantly troubles me – has been troubling me for a while now.
For Mason much of the book seems to be a justification of his argument that “the network beats the hierarchy” – and to an extent that new technologies have made this possible. And I want this to be true. But I am not convinced he doesn’t slightly over state the case. Because whilst the networked protests in Tahrir square had immense power, it was when the army stepped in – with their own grievances with Mubarak’s neo-liberalism, that the old man fell. And whist much is made of twitter, little is made of the other, more centralised, information revolution in the Middle East – Satellite TV. How many more Egyptians, Tunisians or Syrians have had their world view changed by the thousands of dishes you find in any Arab city than have by their twitter feed? In Britain, he talks about the destruction of our movement that night in March that many of us slept in cells across London. Surely this shows the hierarchy of the police beating our network? At least for a moment. In Spain, in Greece, in Wisconsin, even in Egypt and Libya so far, our networks have lost either to the old enemies, or new ones. We can achieve shock and awe protests, but haven’t yet demonstrated our capacity to keep coming and coming – once attention drifts, the hierarchy swoops back. As Burns might put it:
“Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white-then melts for ever;
Or like the Borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the Rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.”
For me, this isn’t because his core thesis is necessarily wrong. It may be that our networks are, so far, too small. When he describes @littlemisswilde, introducing her as a character, he allows us to get the impression that she is typical – that there are hundreds like her. The truth is that within two sentences, I thought ‘oh, that’s Jess’. There’s only one of her. Our world is smaller than we like to admit. Our network, here in the UK at least, is weaker than we like to admit.
Mason often hints at this – in the original blog post, he talks about how “They all seem to know each other”. He implies this is good for protest movements. It isn’t. It shows how few we are, and that we are our own clique, not fingers into vast communities. In the book, he often talks about how young people in Cairo or in Britain or in Spain all speak the same language, have the same confidence, drink in identical Starbucks and have the same laptops and phones. Perhaps he is allowing us to join the dots, but he doesn’t himself. What this implies is a problem. Our networks – supposedly non hierarchical, empowering, are in fact led by the emerging international anti-capitalist elite. He writes too about the working class uprisings, about the differences in class, and how, in the 1840s, the bourgeoisie turned on the proletariat.
And so whilst the book gave me hope – it tells the tales of millions around the world who are now prepared to fight for our collective future – it also added to a gnawing fear I’ve had for a while: we don’t yet have the strength in breadth to win our struggle for humanity. That’s my worry. I may well be wrong. But I’ll return to this theme another day. Because I digress.
Here’s the point. The book is brilliant: educational, moving, sizzlingy written. If you want to understand 2011 – the year of global revolutions, then read it.