Paul Mason has become well known as the economics editor of Newsnight. He couldn’t have picked a better time to take up that post, he certainly has had no shortage of material. From the collapse of Lehman Brothers onwards, the crisis of capitalism has played out across the globe. But Mason hasn’t just stuck to stock prices and Bank of England statements. He has chased the story from the boardrooms to the streets. In this book he looks at the origins of the crisis and examines the wave of struggles erupting across the globe from Tahrir Square to Greece to the council estates of London. Finally he puts forward a thesis about the new layers involved in struggle, the new forms that this struggle is taking and the problems facing these worldwide rebellions.
Mason argues that post-2008 we are living in a new era. With the state stepping in to prop up banks on a vast scale, economically speaking the neo-liberal idea of the ‘small state’ is as dead as Stalinist Marxism.
The economic crisis has left a new generation of young people who had been co-opted by the system with promises of rising living standards, now facing unemployment and a poorer standard of living than their parents. Mason raises the spectre of new generations of bitter graduates plotting revolution from their bedsits, not unlike Paris in 1879 “but with one big difference, today in every garret is a laptop” (1)
This new generation has used the tools at their disposal to organise and take to the streets of Cairo, Tehran, Madrid, Athens, London, New York and beyond.
Mason is a little vague and contradictory about just how informed this new generation are, at times talking about the volumes of theory to be found around the typical student occupation and at other times saying that activists only want tweets or wiki summaries of theory. In likelihood elements of both are true.
Social Networks not Gunpowder
Speaking of the widespread use of the Guy Fawkes mask of his revolutionary anarchist character ‘V’ from the ‘V for Vendetta’ comic and movie, creator Alan Moore said “Today's response to similar oppressions seems to be one that is intelligent, constantly evolving and considerably more humane, and yet our character's borrowed Catholic revolutionary visage and his incongruously Puritan apparel are perhaps a reminder that unjust institutions may always be haunted by volatile 17th century spectres, even if today's uprisings are fuelled more by social networks than by gunpowder. Some ghosts never go away.”
For Mason, the victory, albeit temporary, at Tahrir Square proves another pillar of his thesis, that the network will always beat the hierarchy. The network in this case means the flexible and responsive networks built through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Another example could be the V mask wearing ‘anonymous’ network who have used computer hacking to attack targets of greed and oppression from the banks to the security services.
But the network in itself is just a means of communication and coordination. It allows certain tactics that can be used to respond flexibly but it depends on access to those networks. The question of ownership of those networks is also key. Facebook has a business model that is built on selling your data. Oppressive governments can try to tap or block networks. But the network is just a tool, it is neither the solution nor the problem. Perhaps the next step will be to have new social media applications that are more decentralised and anonymous.
The struggles themselves are based on material conditions and class antagonisms. Networks can be useful but in a class struggle organisation such as a trade union or political party it is necessary to have structures that are accountable and transparent. Possibly some of the traditional organisations will need to look to the flexible tactics of the networks to survive and outmanoeuvre anti-trade union legislation and belligerent employers.
Mason looks at how the different groups who are involved in struggles relate to each other. On the one hand traditional organisations such as trade unions and political parties and on the other the new ‘horizontal’ groups such as arose from the student struggles, the ‘Occupy’ movement and the likes of UK Uncut and Anonymous.
The former, on paper at least, have more power. It was the trade unions on November 30th 2011 who put millions on the streets and shut down most of the public sector in the pensions dispute. The latter however have more élan and flexibility.
Whilst they have common interests they can quickly diverge in the realms of struggle. Mason gives the example of the large TUC anti-austerity demo on 26th March 2011 where the mass of trade unionists were entirely isolated from both the peaceful UK Uncut sit-ins and the violent Black Bloc mobilisation.
He writes “it was an advanced 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’.” (3)
As struggles escalate that divide becomes sharper. In Greece it ended up with police leaving Communist union stewards to fight off anarchist youth who were trying to attack the parliament.
Building useful links that enable these groups to leverage each others strengths productively is key. Groups like the Coalition of Resistance can play a role in that (see Mhairi Mcalpine’s article elsewhere in this issue) but there is plenty room to build a wider unity.
A New Society
Mason looks at the Marxist idea of alienation and how Marx changed his views (for a more detailed view on this, this link
is a good starting point). Mason argues that humanity has started to use the internet to build a ‘connected life’ and break out of alienation. He goes on to argue that this connectedness and collaborative aspects of information technology such as open-source software points towards ways a new society could potentially organise for the common good. This section is really just sketched out but contains plenty of food for thought.
Mason is very good at combining journalism and analysis to outline the context of the current wave of struggle and to outline some of the problems that have arisen. It will be up to those engaging in that struggle to sort these problems out and look to create new forms of organising that can unite all sectors of the movement.
(1) Paul Mason, ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions’ page 73
(3) Paul Mason, Ibid, page 63