By Sarah Jaffe · 27 Feb 2012
Journalist Paul Mason covered the uprisings of 2011 as they occurred. His new book "Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere," explains why they all happened at once.
We're at an inflection point in history, a shift not just in our politics but our consciousness, says Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight economics editor, author and journalist.
From Madrid to Madison, Tahrir Square to Syntagma Square, London student occupations to Occupy Wall Street, Mason has covered the uprisings of 2011, and he found some surprising similarities everywhere. Those similarities are the subject of his new book, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere (Verso), which combines economic analysis, first-hand reporting, and a theoretical understanding of technology, sociology and history into a potent explanation of why 2011 was the year of the protester.
AlterNet caught up with Mason in New York to talk about the book, the ongoing economic crisis, and what's next for the young revolutionaries of 2011.
Sarah Jaffe: Tell us what's happening in Greece; you just returned from a reporting trip there.
Paul Mason: The bailout they did Monday night, I think, is designed to do two things: to put off the inevitable moment of Greek default, and to save the rest of Europe from the impact. That doesn't mean that Greece isn't going to slide very quickly into a social crisis—rather, it's already in a social crisis. In the book I document what it's like for the youth who are waking up to the sound of helicopters, moving homes every two or three days; it's like being in the French resistance.
Now for the workers it's going to get much worse. People have a misconception that it's all about the public sector, but for the Greek bailout to work, public sector wages have to fall 15 to 20 percent. The minimum wage has been slashed by 20 percent.
On my last reporting trip I went to a clinic that's run by the Greek equivalent of Doctors Without Borders. It's aimed at migrants who've fallen through their social security network, and have no healthcare. Now it's swamped by Greeks who've also fallen through the network.
Their border with Turkey has become completely porous, it's a freeway in for migrants from all over the world. I met some of them clustered in an abandoned factory; it looked like a scene out of Modern Warfare 3. One of the guys there said something to me that stuck in my head. He said, “This is not Europe, I've lived in Europe, this is not Europe, this is Asia, police can kick you, the population hate us.”
At the bottom rungs of society you're seeing already breakdown. Every time there's a big demonstration, you're seeing very rapid recourse to policing tactics that completely break up the peaceful part of the demo. At best maybe there are 4,000, 5,000 hardline anarchist demonstrators in Athens. There were probably a quarter of a million on the streets the night before the parliamentary vote; they didn't even get a chance to assemble.
The IMF and EU and political class of Greece signed off on seven bailouts and two rescue plans. Nothing worked. And every opinion poll that comes out has the far left having 43 percent of the vote. Even quite sensible journalists look at it and they're in denial. They don't want to see this 43 percent but it's not by any means a joke or an accident. The stage is now set for an election which probably won't return a viable government.
The left can't govern—the Communists don't want to collaborate with anybody; they're the most moderate of the three left parties, the other two used to be together and they split. They don't want to form a government, and also they're frightened because what do you do? You still have to impose the austerity, so it's a no-win situation for everybody.
The amazing thing to see is the resilience of people, the resilience of these young kids who've never had jobs.
Sarah Jaffe: Economic issues are at the heart of the uprising in Greece, but in some of these other places you cover in the book, mainstream commentators don't seem to want to admit the economic issues at the heart of the fight—Egypt, for example.
Paul Mason: One thing that has to be said, and I say it in the book, is that the left for 20 years has subscribed to what an English commentator, Mark Fisher, calls capitalist realism.
That is, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, their model of social justice was tax the rich bankers, deregulate banking, and then channel the money to poor blue-collar communities where there will never be adequate work again, the factories aren't coming back, you might work for the state or for a charity but you're never going to work for a decent factory.
This was very win-win. You, the politician, get to hobnob with the bankers because you're deregulating them. Meanwhile your mass base, the workers, you're delivering to them. That's over. What is also over is an era where organized labor is just quiescent.
What has changed is that the collapse of the economic model, the collapse of the narrative of neoliberalism, the collapse of the “recreate-reality” Karl Rove doctrine, means that a space is opened up where the left has to redefine itself towards the emerging events. It's caused a huge crisis for social democracy in Europe and I would argue is probably the root of the crisis inside the various Occupy and Occupy-like movements as well. In Britain UK Uncut is probably the most successful example of a spontaneous horizontal movement, and it completely entered a crisis as soon as it had to define itself against extreme anarcho-violence, and hasn't done anything sense.
Sarah Jaffe: You pointed out that the Wisconsin uprising was an economic fight firmly located within the culture wars.
Paul Mason: As a journalist working primarily outside of the USA, I would say one of the most stunning things to me is how little Americans understand the severity of this culture war thing going on.
Sometimes traveling through America it's not hard to see two nations. This doesn't matter if you've got strong institutions. What happened in American politics in the 1850s was the institutions could no longer contain it. And one of the organizers of the right-wing protest outside the Pittsburgh G-20 in 2009, a radical right-wing Republican, he told me “My fear is, a lot of the people I talk to basically would like to lock their gates, get a dog and load their gun for the final showdown.”
I'm not saying the country's getting into civil war, but unless the institutions—the media, Congress, the judiciary, the intelligentsia, can hold it together—what then happens is, as America has to confront these massive exogenous shocks, there's no consensus about how to deal with them.
Sarah Jaffe: What's been interesting is that watching Occupy happen, as that went on you could watch the bottom sort of fall out of the Tea Party narrative. When Occupy happened, one of the first things these kids did was reach out to the unions. Everybody's talking about the Democratic party needing to win back the white working-class -- maybe they'll finally figure out how to do that by reconnecting with labor.
Paul Mason: When we use the term “white working-class,” we're talking about people who've been left behind by education; the gap has opened up between low-skilled labor and everything else. But even if you're in that demographic, if you happen to work for a local government, whether it's the city of New York or the city of Leeds in England, you're in a situation where there is equal rights legislation in action, your client group will be multiethnic, you're in contact with lots of people who are in unions.
But if you're not--and this is the minority, but we shouldn't let this minority demographic define what we mean by working class—then you are left to be prey of solutions that are essentially nationalist, localist, you spend your entire life grieving for a lifestyle that is gone because the new lifestyle is worse.
It makes it very hard to talk about a “working-class” solution to things. Some of the movements that are the most successful, the networked horizontal types of organization, allow you to actually say there's space for difference. The new labor movement might have to be a space where difference exists. What I mean by that is where the sort of lifestyle and values of the traditional white workers can exist in a bit alongside the values of the salariat. Because if they don't, you more or less are abandoning the former to the right.
But at the end of the day the one thing that determines what people vote about is their stomach. All these issues that mesmerize people, abortion, gay marriage—at the end of the day, Roosevelt built a coalition overcoming the opposition of people like Father Coughlin, overcoming the right wing of his own party because he was able to understand a way of articulating the demands of people who were not progressive, because he put food into their stomachs.
The real people that Steinbeck wrote about were not progressive. I went last year and interviewed lots of modern-day Oklahoma farmers and for the simple reason that the Right wants to cut their subsidies, they are part of an alliance that wants a big state. In a way the challenge for the American center and left is to work out how to galvanize everything.
I do think that we're likely to see quite a large part of the networked protest people flip into a pro-Obama position. The beauty of modern political activism is you can do a lot of things parallel, a lot of contradictory things.
Sarah Jaffe: I wonder, because then we go back to what you call in the book “the graduates with no future.” There's a lot of kids who were on the Obama campaign in 2008 who are now out of school, they have a heck of a lot of student debt, they don't have a job or if they do they don't have the job they thought they'd have, and they're pissed. They're not going to go out and do the same kind of work for Obama that they did in 2008. They will probably grudgingly vote. But do they flip when they get jobs? Do they remember?
Paul Mason: Two texts really struck me when I was writing the book. One was that University of California-Santa Cruz “Communique from an Absent Future” -- not only how eloquent it was, but what you just described—did we do a degree to get a job writing hearts in cappuccino foam? But when it was written people thought it was an exaggeration, because in 2009 people thought the recovery was happening. Instead we got this stagnation and double-dip and uber-crisis in Europe, and then we had the Arab Spring, and now we're getting the Nigerian spring. That language doesn't look so apocalyptic.
Because even if you get a job the story has to be, how am I better in 30 years time? Where does my healthcare come from, where does my pension come from, where does my rising asset wealth come from? None of that is possible because of the overhanging debt, we're due for a decade more of deleveraging. Even if we get a recovery in America that's not completely jobless, the jobs on offer will be low-paid, they will be insecure.
So the strategic question for the West is, do we want to race to the bottom, meet China halfway? In some American states it already feels “third world,” the infrastructure is crumbling, the rule of law is tenuous, you've got attempts at defiance of federal legislation. But if the answer is no, we want a distinctive lifestyle that rewards the skills and education of people, globalization has got to be radically reconfigured.
Increasingly you're getting people to come clean about what the neoliberal answer is. Tidjane Thiam, who is the head of a big global insurer called Prudential, he said we just abolish minimum wage in Europe. You might get growth but it's growth on the backs of penury for the young.
So what's the alternative?
Sarah Jaffe: That's where we get back to the lack of any leadership among the liberal to social democratic parties. We didn't expect global financial meltdown and we weren't expecting, in 2011, to be talking about revolutions and uprisings across the world, but it seems that leaders didn't either.
Paul Mason: Let's just for a minute go back to the Arab Spring, because a lot of people object to me speaking about the Arab Spring in the same sentence as a bunch of student demonstrations.
First off, the detonator is often the same, it's the graduate without a future. Secondly, social media is not a causal thing, but social media is a great weapon if you are facing a decrepit dictatorship or, as in America, a media that doesn't want to take issues of social justice seriously. Social media allows you to swarm around it, you can swarm at them or you can swarm around and organize yourself.
I think one has to acknowledge the specificity and the bravery of the Egyptian and Tunisian and Libyan youth. I always argue that maybe, it's because the Egyptians could see an achievable goal. There are a lot of people around the world who can't see an achievable goal. Greece is a good example.
But suddenly those Greek youth are, far from saying it's all over when the bailout goes through, they're saying it's all going to begin, we're going to achieve something. A lot of the time they're forced into the horizontalist style of politics by the sheer lack of reaction of official politics. The strength of horizontalism doesn't just derive from the fact that it's a good idea: it's the only option.
The really frightening thing—I'm 52, I remember the collapse of Keynesianism, state capitalist economics. I remember the end of the miners' strike, miners who'd literally been on strike for a year, the next time I saw one of them he was in a pinstriped suit and had become a financial adviser. Though they didn't like it, there was a story. The old story is over, the new story is selfishness, financial capitalism.
What is the story now? Can you tell me what the story is that capitalism has to offer in the developed world other than a race to the bottom on wages? Because if it is only that, we're probably facing a bigger ideological crisis than the 1930s, because at least in the 30s there was an alternative.
Now both intellectually and policy-wise, we're four years into the crisis and there's very little.
Sarah Jaffe: And then we get back to capitalist realism, which maybe you can elaborate on a bit for those who haven't read Mark Fisher?
Paul Mason: Fisher borrowed the phrase from Frederic Jameson, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”
What does that statement imply? What it implies is an acceptance of of neoliberalism's extreme proposition, which is that the free market is a steady end-state of capitalism.
A lot of the left just basically accepted that, because once Stalinism had collapsed and lost its allure, they couldn't see a way of organizing society that would be more coherent than the free market.
When I observe the left, I still think that's the job of work they would need to do. It's no accident that the only coherent and holistic model on offer to America right now in the election is the Ron Paul model. He's clear on what it would mean—a return to 19th-century-style capitalism, boom and bust, poverty. Where's the left's equivalent to that? Where's the left's statement of what it is? Equally, if you read The Coming Insurrection, you begin to think that for this generation there might be a third pill, and the third pill is do it yourself. Don't worry about the state level, find each other, create communes, create little islands of civilization within the jungle. That is in fact what early social democracy and early anarchism did a hundred years ago.
As I say in the book, a lot of the horizontalist left would be quite happy to live despite capitalism. The problem is capitalism is quite capable of completely falling apart as you stand there at the sidelines. Certainly in Greece, what is the space for autonomy now, if a massive clash at the level of the state is about to happen?
While people have overcome the psychological paralysis they had during the capitalist realist phase, it's very difficult to see a holistic answer coming forward. There's a fear of engaging with the real and the possible because for so long people think that means putting on a suit and tie, or greenwashing corporations. The fear of compromise is huge.
Yet as a labor historian I know that the entire story of labor in the last 150 years has been the inadequacy of the local and partial solution. Because if the progressive part of society doesn't impose it, the reactionary part of society can impose it, because it always inhabits the world of the power, the structure, the hierarchy, the Nietzschean world.
I keep saying to people, if we did flip into a reactionary nationalist racist world, it would be a much bigger flip this time than occurred between the 20s and 30s. This coffee bar couldn't exist under fascism. The relationships between people, the public discussion, couldn't exist. But it took five years for Berlin to go from a gay nightclub heaven to a book-burning fascist paradise. Berlin was the liberal center of Europe. Don't imagine that the cultural ties would stop it happening. Economics is all.
Sarah Jaffe: But you also say, “Don't presume that nothing is different this time.” And the thing that is different is this technology, that is connecting people on different continents.
Paul Mason: When I speak about my thesis, I boil it down to three things. One is the collapse of the economic narrative. Two is the availability of networked technology and network kinds of thinking by people, networked protest, circumventing of mainstream media, horizontalist activism, but the third thing, and I would say a lot of my audience switch off when I say this, we're talking about different types of people.
Who knows whether there's anything neurological, but certainly behaviorally, people are exhibiting a greater propensity to behave in a networked way. Manuel Castells, who did one of the few mass studies on this, does say that the more you use the Internet, the more inclined toward autonomous and progressive personal ideas and behaviors you become.
If that's true, it means that the human material for regimented, reactionary movements, like Stalinism, like fascism, is going to be much harder to assemble. The second thing is that all progressive projects have to take into account the fact that everything today is about herding the individualized people.
I'm a union rep at work, I have led a strike, I have been on the picket line, I have been put in the right-wing press for being on a picket line, but 90 percent of my union activity has dealt with what I call the “me agenda.” Don't mess with me, don't bully me, don't sexually harass me, don't deny me this promotion; as soon as these issues come up, knock-knock on the door, “Can I join the union?”
What people expect unions to do is to defend their individual rights and occasionally they'll in return do something collective. We're past mourning that situation. One has to kind of celebrate it because to me the root of all progressive politics--I would argue that it's even the root of Marxism--is the liberation of the human individual, before it's about class, before it's about power, before it's about anything. If the individual is more confident, has greater ties, can hold in their minds levels of knowledge that it would take one person a lifetime to assemble for ten minutes, work with it, and scrap it and work with something else, if that's the new real, that's surely good.
But it brings its own challenges. This young woman said to me, “Fuck politics, why don't we just vote on Twitter, every day? On everything? Why not just give everybody an account and then poll them?”
To me it sounds vaguely outlandish, to most politicos it would sound crazy, but she wasn't being mischievous, she actually meant it.
I would keep going back to this human individual thing. Virginia Woolf famously wrote “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” She was absolutely right to spot an inflection point. When the masses became exposed to mass consumption, cinema, holidays, unified information that everybody could get at the same time, their behavior did change.
The people who made the Russian Revolution in 1917 were very different people than the cigar makers in Chicago in 1870. The 1870s labor movement used to have this obsession with egotism. They thought the young generation were egotists because they consumed, they had extramarital sex—there was a big boom in relationships in the 1910s.
It's easy to recognize the 1910 thing now because all TV dramas about the Progressive era, the Edwardian era, the Belle Epoque, always contain a young middle-class woman who's been empowered. They never say what's empowered her. We've got the contraceptive pill—she had basic access to some form of contraceptive knowledge.
Sarah Jaffe: That's why they're trying to take it away now, why we're having a huge fight over it in American politics right now.
Paul Mason: In the book, I quote from the story of the French Revolution, how the young graduate without a future, essentially, is a revolutionary in waiting. To make them a revolutionary, all the barriers that would normally civilize such people as they get jobs and get older, need to crumble and fall away.
What neoliberalism did for 20 years was destroy the barriers. Feminism partly collapsed because a lot of women could solve some of their social problems on the terrain of a very rip-roaring booming individualist capitalism. When you don't use muscles, they atrophy. The muscle of fighting for basic things like reproductive rights atrophied.
I was brought up in the 1970s, among manual workers who popular culture believes to be sexist. I find modern culture pervaded by anti-woman, violent oppressive images that would've shocked these so-called sexist male manual workers. We are living in a world that is glorifying violence against women, in a way that the so-called reactionary middle-20th-century never did. That paradox explains why you've got the seeming respectability of positions on women's rights that we thought we'd sorted out.
Because while people were solving their own problems individually, society created this. We're in a situation where the fight for women's reproductive and general basic rights are going to have to be done, and the intellectual apparatus is gone.
This is why the behavior in the movements has become a problem. A lot of the anarchists and autonomous people I've interviewed talk about the problem of “manarchism.” I remember left organizations and also unions in the 1970s expelling men who could bring factories on strike, leaders, over domestic violence issues, and they did so at the snap of your fingers because they understood something that I think the modern movements have let go to the back burner: that you can judge the character of any social movement by what its attitude is to women's emancipation.
Sarah Jaffe: I've been quite impressed as well by the internal debate within Occupy Wall Street about how to deal with crises like rape, like violence. They were and are working on mechanisms to deal with these problems within the movement.
Paul Mason: I think that all movements have to deal with and in the end compromise with society as it is. All mass movements have that issue, it's never black and white. Even in Tahrir Square, I think you've seen the movement evolve a response. At first there was almost no response; a few brave feminist women would call out people who attacked them on Tahrir, but you then have to move into the organizations of people who think it's OK to attack, and who are those? They're Islamist organizations. There the debate is suddenly on a very different terrain, you're in a world of compromise.
The young people who've done the last two years worth of activism, they find compromise hard to negotiate. To get into your head the reason you're making the compromise is not because you like what you're compromising with, but in order to mobilize the resources to do what has to be done you have to have a lot of diversity of people, whether it's street people in Occupy, Islamists in Tahrir Square—life is hard to do all on your own.
The politics of social oppression, of women, oppressed minorities, gays, have a particular plight in modern society in general, that is important and often is a key to understanding where you're going to go—I don't call that identity politics. When it becomes identity politics is when you're on a losing streak. While you're discussing your identity politics, the Right has won the election.
Sarah Jaffe: And so what next?
Paul Mason: The amazing possibilities that the situation globally offers arise from the mismatch between the general pissed-off-ness of people about a world in which the rich just get richer and they don't, and the absence of alternatives coming from those in power.
Even though the crisis today isn't as bad as the 1930s, what is worse is the absence of any kind of an answer, other than more of the same but a little bit less. That is what makes it so volatile, and so what is next is quite clear. Greece, social breakdown. Crisis in Italy, Spain.
I do wonder how long the American poor will go on passively accepting their role. I think the fact that so many people have been put in jail--when you meet the urban poor in America, you meet so many passive men, why? Not because they're not angry, because inside they're teeming with anger, but they know the minute they raise their voice they're back inside. But maybe America will be lucky and the jobs coming back will get to a point of preventing another Watts riot situation.
Because there haven't been any, it's been remarkable. I think if there was another Watts it wouldn't just be black people, it would be all the people who just feel they've just got no stake in the situation. I think there's a big IF hanging over the American situation.