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History in the making

Kate Webb reads Paul Mason's "Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions" (Verso)

January 22, 2012
9 min read

I was wondering what Jessica Riches – public school educated, Lib Dem voting – was doing in the middle of Paul Mason’s new book on the global revolutions of 2011. In the company of turbulent figures like Musa Zekry, a Cairo rubbish recycler who joins the protestors at Tahrir Square “to make a revolution and get freedom”, and Len-len, an unemployed mother trapped in a rural Philippino shack, but dreaming of escaping to the city to become a “lady security guard”, Riches, with her taste in chick-lit and talk of dinner parties, seems a little unpromising, historically speaking.

Then it struck me that she shares some of the qualities of an oddly un-imprinted character in Angela Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance (1966). Having somehow escaped the clutches of history, Emily is invulnerable to myth, in control of her biology, adaptable and pragmatic. Riches may not be quite so original, but as a child of the technological revolution who “tweets in her dreams”, and who deploys her digital self (@littlemisswilde) in the services of the Occupy movement, she is, like Emily, a harbinger – one of the figures in Why it’s Kicking Off that Mason is trying to identify, not unambitiously, as “a new type of human being”.

In the January round-ups few critics will fail to register 2011’s historic nature, but Mason, I’d wager, will be the only mainstream figure who’ll go so far as to propose – as Virginia Woolf once did of human character in 1910 – that in this year human consciousness altered. He calls himself a “technological determinist” and argues that just as body shape changed during the industrial revolution, so the way we relate now, as “networked individuals” with socialised cognition, will change the map of our minds. The key point about the internet is that it is an ever-expanding learning loop, feeding back information about how things might be otherwise and already are elsewhere; its strongest meme is that being linked, we are powerful, because “a network can usually defeat a hierarchy”.

It was this knowledge, Mason argues – the fruit of “info-capitalism” – that created a tipping point in 2011 bringing people onto the streets in greater numbers than ever before. Those in the Middle East, unable any longer to put up with what Auden called “the elderly rubbish dictators talk”, came to topple tyrants; while westerners disappointed of their expectations (“the graduate with no future”, the worker losing her pension), challenged the ‘market is king’ orthodoxy that was destroying livelihoods and corroding democracies.

His account of this collapse in deference is engaging and informative – particularly fine is the opening chapter on how globalisation destroyed the micro-economy that, with great ingenuity, Zekry and other workers created out of Cairo’s rubbish, depriving them of a living and leaving them no option but to join the uprising. It is a story that distils a larger argument, though one not immediately apparent to the reader because the full audacity of Why it’s Kicking Off takes a while to reveal itself. Mason’s title promises answers to why 2011 was such a momentous year, but the narrative he comes up with does much more, suggesting that events now unfolding demand a revised reading of history, one from which we might – just possibly – find a new way into the future.

Yet what he’s writing, he insists, is journalism, albeit today’s opened-out journalism, still rooted in street-level reporting and the detail of individual lives, but invigorated and made increasingly speculative by the pressure of information (he draws on voices from social media, internet psychology, modernist art, radical manifestos, political and economic theory, labour history, sociology and urban planning, as well as re-working his own tweets, blogs, Newsnight reports and earlier books). Like the ‘netizens’ he describes, Mason is intellectually promiscuous, chopping between different ways of considering the world, but in a voice so conversational it goes some way to masking the designs he has on us.

As well as reportage from Egypt, Britain, Greece, America and the Philippines, there’s a briefing, updated from his 2009 book, Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed, on the decisions that brought capitalism to the brink, characterisation of the new activists (non-ideological, “without loyalty”, highly individualised), debate about why the year’s revolutionary uprisings were unforeseen (dogmatism on the right, defeatism on the left), analysis of how today’s ‘horizontalist’ movement is succeeding where earlier democratic movements faltered (a congruence of popular mood and technological means, making radicalism fashionable and potent again), and a range of historical and cultural parallels to mull over, many where economic decline and technological innovation also spurred revolt (Europe in 1848, the Paris Commune, modernism and the belle époque, syndicalism and the Great Unrest, the counter-culture of 1968).

In order to understand these connections between past and present, though, Mason thinks it necessary to reconsider the narrative of workers’ history and, with this, the left’s idea of what it should be doing now. The attempt of ordinary people to wrest control of their lives and communities, he believes, is not the dominant story of trade unionism and class struggle, but (as syndicalists once claimed) something more pioneering of modernity, more autonomous, imaginative, and less straitlaced.

It’s an argument he was already making in 2007 in Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, before Lehman Brothers collapsed and before the current wave of uprisings, and which now, in their wake, seems vindicated. What we see in today’s protests and occupations – resourcefulness, improvisation, knowledge- and pleasure-seeking, the euphoria of annexing spaces or simply of taking part – can be seen throughout history in waves of creative revolt and experiments in living. This is what Mason is thinking of when he tweets: “I will never tire of the minutae of minute by minute conquest and reconquest of #Tahrir by the people, a year after it started…”

Unlike “the actual history of organised labour”, these intermittent raids on freedom were invested with what Karl Marx, in his early, humanist phase argued for: not proletarian power, but the desire for “the liberation of individual human beings” in which people would “express their freedom through communal interaction”, so becoming a “species-being”. Because capitalism atomised and alienated workers Marx thought this could only be achieved after its rout. But Mason suggests that new technology poses the possibility we can achieve species-being – connected and expressive as we now are – inside capitalism.

Such an idea raises questions about the ground the left is fighting on: if we no longer need to wait for the revolution to end time and start it up again, we can begin to change things here and now – precisely what Mason thinks his “new type of human being” is already doing. What they have grasped is that capitalism’s most advanced form may not be run-for-profit corporations like Microsoft or Toyota, but a “semi-communal form of capitalism exemplified by open-source software and based on collaboration, management-free enterprise, profit-free projects, open-access information.”

It’s a wildly iconoclastic thought that turns capitalism into a machine of emancipation rather than enslavement, driven by curiosity and cooperation rather than greed. The prospect it holds out of accelerated learning and problem-solving makes our current ‘free-market’ system look archaic and superstitiously restrictive. More than this, for the left it allows reconciliation with a re-modelled capitalism without the spectre of apostasy, without losing faith with the history and tradition of workers’ liberation.

For these reasons the book ends not in one of 2011’s hotspots, with the dancers and drum-beaters facing down power, but in a Manila slum where the future is beginning to take shape. With great inventiveness, in cramped and shit-smelling conditions, inhabitants here have created something “orderly, solidaristic” and entrepreneurial. Making his way in a warren of tunnels Mason finds a store, an internet cafe (“the unmistakable whizz and pop of something digital”), and a DIY police force, all run by graduates in business admin, engineering and political science. He sees satellite dishes and solar panels, and thousands of people living hugger-mugger without too much in the way of crime or prostitution or drugs.

He talks to urban planners who explain how much we have to learn from slum-dwellers – how those who are managing such low-impact, highly-educated, technologically connected lives, look like a good model for our future on a resource-limited, overcrowded planet. It is by no means a starry-eyed response, however: as in the opening chapter, Mason’s narrative emphasises the complexity of slum politics while keeping his eye trained on individuals like Len-len, who – barely able to feed her children, unable to pay for the course that might change her life – has no control over the global system she is part of.

A book as propositional as Why it’s Kicking Off (“The lesson is this”, “Exhibit one”, “I propose a different reading”) means to provoke argument. My reservations concerned the paradoxical way in which his new human beings, for all their “elevated individualism”, are presented as so improbably alike, largely undifferentiated by religion or sex, all jeans-wearing, looking “just like you” – as if homogeneity were a necessary pre-condition for their modernity. There is too, and perhaps for the same reasons, a disregard of the extent to which multinational corporations and power elites have already infiltrated the net (a Saudi prince owns 5% of Twitter) and to which governments are increasingly using it as a tool of repression. One of Angela Carter’s last prophecies, made not long before she died in 1992, was that surveillance would become a major political issue in the 21st century.

In early reviews some critics have raised questions about Mason’s infatuation with the power of new technology and his belief in its potential for liberation. These doubts perhaps stem from the perspective of the west. For those already living in relative prosperity and freedom the changes may not be so great. But this book begins and ends in the slums of the third world – where one billion of the world’s population live, and where soon many more will follow. For these people the revolution in technology and the possibility of sharing out globalisation’s dividends more equitably, of putting info-capitalism’s knowledge-power into their hands, will be utterly transformative. It’s not hard to hear those locked out from modernity, still only permitted “accidental glimpses of human freedom”, clamouring at the door: this week newspapers carry the story of rioting outside an Apple shop in China, where frustrated customers were unable to get their hands on the latest iphone; while on the radio, a Nigerian man declares, “We have the will and resources to look after ourselves, just bring us the technology”

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