Fancy footwork with the facts
Published in The Observer (January 15th, 2012)
Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions by Paul Mason (Verso)
One of the best things about Newsnight in recent months has been its economics editor Paul Mason. His reports, especially from Greece, have blended concise global analysis with sympathetic news from the frontline, revealing angry and scared people staring into a bleak future amid the wreckage of shattered certainties.
So his analysis of global unrest was one I looked forward to immensely, especially having myself spent chunks of last year watching revolutions unfold in Africa and the Middle East and protests grow in Europe. What was it that suddenly propelled a generation on to the streets in search of social justice? And how real are the claimed connections between technology and protest, between the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square and their pale imitations in tents by St Paul’s Cathedral?
Sadly, there are few answers to be found in this book, which has Mason flitting from Athens to Arizona to Cairo searching for answers to why it’s “kicking off everywhere”. For all his undoubted reporting skills and passion for the cause, this collection of essays is little more than a jumble of often questionable generalisations, tendentious assertions and impressionistic sketches. Ultimately, Mason is let down by his desire to force the messy mosaic of last year’s amazing events into the straitjacket of his own ideological leanings.
So when Lehman Brothers crashed, it became possible to imagine “the collapse of capitalism”; last year was all about “a revolt against Hayek and the principles of selfishness and greed he espoused”. Mason claims the present system offers the poorest a route out of poverty but only by impoverishing the workforces of the west, ignoring the fact that recent decades have seen global rises in living standards, health and lifestyles unmatched in history.
Huge urban slums, meanwhile, are supposedly “the hidden consequence of 20 years of untrammelled market forces, greed, neglect and graft”, not the highly complex communities they have always been, offering rural migrants an often brutal entry point to a more prosperous life. And his claim that the deprived half of humanity, those struggling to live on $2 a day, are impervious to the internet age ignores the transformative power of mobile communications he himself witnessed in Kenya.
From the opening pages, the evils of capitalism and neoliberalism are presented as one of they key causes of the Arab spring. This ignores another uncomfortable truth for Mason: the spark was lit by the self-immolation of a fruit vendor who was a repressed entrepreneur, and thisis why it reverberated so strongly around the region, where so many people’s attempts to earn a living were hampered by corrupt officials and governing kleptocracies.
Even in Egypt, which Mason uses as a key example, these are false targets. One analyst told me last month his biggest worry was that market-based reforms just starting to deliver results before the revolution would be choked off now, because of their association with Gamal Mubarak and the corporatist stranglehold of a military dictatorship that still controls perhaps one quarter of the economy.
The seed of this book was planted with an impassioned blog that went viral, which Mason wrote following a discussion about the Paris Commune with 60 students in a Bloomsbury squat. This sets the tone for the whole book, sprinkled as it is with references to Chomsky and Debord. Mason claims the subsequent Millbank student protests were “one of those unforeseeable events that catalyse everything”, while on the “flame-lit” face of protesters “you saw the look of people who had discovered the power of mayhem”. There is lots of this sort of stuff.
And rather annoyingly, many of the students – and others – are repeatedly referred to by their Twitter tags. It is all a bit Dad dancing at the disco, an impression reinforced by bumbling forays into pop culture, such as calling hip-hop artists “black dudes with diamond earrings” and muddling up dubstep and “the grime”.
As one would expect from a journalist with Mason’s pedigree, there are some sharp ideas lurking among all this. His take on technology is often acute, examining the impact of networked individuals, the power of collaboration and the challenge horizontal social networks pose to repressive states, corporations and hermetically sealed ideologies. And he is right to identify the rise of the graduate without a future as a potent force in many parts of the world along with the impact of rising food prices. But unfortunately, this book does little justice to either the magnitude of its subject or the reputation of its author.