Kicking out at Kicking Off

kicking offIt’s not a good idea to read the books you got for Christmas 2011 some time after Christmas 2012. But it does at least allow you to read zeitgeist-y political books with some perspective.

 This is very much the case with Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions which rode the wave of the Newsnight economics correspondent’s single brilliant blog post, arguing that the Arab Spring was just the most powerful manifestation of new and epoch-making wave of global protest.

 The (recently re-issued) book doesn’t in truth add a great deal to the ideas sketched in the blog post:  there is some decent reportage from hot spots of protests round the world Athens, New York, London – with Mason’s writing about the slums of Cairo and Manila particularly insightful – but in the end this is just high quality padding.

As in the original blog, the reasons Why It’s Kicking Off are essentially straightforward and threefold:  the strains imposed by global economic contraction; the new possibilities for decentralised, horizontal organisation opened up in by the internet and social media; and the role of ‘graduates without a future’ who feel the full brunt of the new insecurity but are also digital natives who ‘tweet in their dreams’.

But there is a slightly deeper underlying argument running through the book. Mason’s original post, as he is happy to relate, sent to have come from a conversation in the pub with activists at the Really Free School (then) at squatted premises in Bloomsbury. He was, as he appears less happy to confirm, a former member of the Trotskyist Workers Power group at some point. He certainly clearly comfortable and knowledgeable with the politics of the far left – both historically and now – in a way that few mainstream journalists are unless they have been on the inside of such movements. (The BBC’s Andrew Marr –  once a member of  the Workers’ Liberty groupuscule – is another example).

Paris Barricades June  1848

Paris Barricades June 1848

Read carefully Why It’s Kicking Off  has a clear left libertarian anarchist slant in its interpretation of politics and history:  the logic of all major political struggles is one opposing the forces of authoritarianism, hierarchy and centralisation and to demands for individual autonomy and self-determination. Although the grimy struggle for resources and the hard lives of working people are important, the class politics that dominated the 20th century are ultimately something of detour.

 In the early 21st century, the book tells us, we are in a sense, back with a social, economic and political landscape that resembles 1848 or 1871 (or occasionally 1914) more than 1945 or 1989: a weak labour movement; an ideologically disoriented left with no grand narrative –  loosely social populist ; a  mass of casualised and/or welfare-dependent urban poor; a globalised economy linking up seemingly disparate crises of different regimes and regions; and  pulsating breakthroughs in communications technology.

 While clearly sympathetic to the movements he covers, Mason shies away from  offering any programme or partisan perspective, slipping back into the role of journalistic observer. But he does offer a warning. What is at stake in the multiple ‘global revolutions’ he argues, is the potential unwinding of economic – but perhaps also political and cultural – globalisation  and a retreat into inward looking trade and political bloc with nasty, but unspecified, political consequences. The logic is very much that dilemma between isolated, inward looking fundamentalisms of all kinds and bland, souless turbo-capitalism posed in Benjamin R. Barber’s classic 1992 essay (and book – were no blog posts in those days) Jihad Versus McWorld.

Anarcho-syndicalism lite

The book’s clever readable anarcho-syndicalism lite is in many ways its most interesting and though-provoking element. But in other ways, even as a journalistic essay, it is a damp squib which sees the fizz of Mason’s brilliant blog post burn away to nothing very much at all.

The book’s view of the Internet and social media as straightforwardly empowering horizontal networks of citizens against those in power comes across a plausible only for a moment – and then seems naive. True as far as it goes certainly. The role of the net in facilitating social control and demobilising citizens into info-tainment and consumerism has been ably, if long windedly, explored by Evgeny Morozov. in The Net Delusion Kicking Off offers us only  doe-eyed techno-determinism.

 It fails to make much of a case for that the protests are deeply interconnected – except in the rather superficial sense that in a globalised world everything is always connected with everything in some way –  and that political activists are, of course, always generous in their expressions of affinity and solidarity with whoever else seems to be up against it and ‘in struggle’ anywhere else in the world. Tahir Square might indeed have been a ‘meme’ take up on the placards and posters of unionists in Wisconsin or student protesters in London (and why not?), some of whom even showed up in Cairo. As BBC4’s Storyville showed last week, Hackers from Anonymous spontaneously set out to help Egyptian bypass the Mubarak regime’s shut-down of the internet.

 I finished the book while listening to the excellent BBC Analysis programme on the Alouite sect in Syria, which made it clear that – while Twitter and identikit ‘graduates with a future’ might indeed have helped kick things off (partly though the demonstration effect of events in Egypt, Libya) – the grim and violence struggle for the country’s future was being determined by deep-rooted history, culture, geo-political and religion. In hindsight comparison of the storm-in-a-teacup anti-tuition fees/anti-austerity student protests in the UK with the momentous events in the Arab world are frankly rather embarrassing – and perhaps reveal an odd blind spot in the book’s analysis: it makes no distinction between regimes which, whatever their flaws, are liberal democratic as far as shifting governments and basic human rights are concerned, those which, despite pseudo-democratic trappings, were Mubarak’s Egypt or Ahmadinejad’s Iran patently authoritarian.

Obsolete horizontalism?

 The book’s ideas about graduates as a key social group clobbered by the onset of recession – and thus the trigger (potentially) for social unrest; the waning of traditional ideology and political organisation and the upsurge of a desire for horizontal, informal organisation and self realisation; the emergence of the underclass as a rough and ready social force for change are also less than new.

 ObsoleteWhile the book abounds with cool anachronistic comparisons with 1848, it rather oddly over-looks (and dismisses) the more obvious and recent parallel with ideas of the (post-) 1968 new left and New Social Movements of 1970s. Paul Mason tells us that in the UK graduates without secure or well paid jobs to go to are merging with disaffected inner city youth in a new undercurrent of protest and dissent. He may be right. But delve into some old paperbacks and you see the same points made by academic gurus of the New Left like Robin Blackburn and student leaders of the 1968 evenements like Daniel Cohn-Bendit (now an MEP for the German Greens worried about the future of the EU). Observing British anti-tutiton fee protests Paul Mason  is enthused by a ‘Dubstep Rebellion’ in which

‘… a good half the marchers are undergraduates.. [but]…. the key phenomenon, politically is the presence of the youth: banlieue-style youth,   from places like Croyden and Peckham  or the council estates of Camden, Islington  and Hackney. [There are]  … small groups of young men dressed in the hip-hop fashions of working class estates…’

More esoterically he quotes the Nomadic Hive Manifesto put together (also in Camden) by activist opposing local arts provisions, which – not implausibly in my opinion – sees undercurrents of social discontent bubbling below the surface of everyday life:

“If you listen care­fully, all that moan­ing, the sound that can be heard just behind the drone of every­day life, cars and the slurp­ing of lattes, has become a little more urgent: a hum­ming of dis­sat­is­fac­tion becomes dis­sent.”

Writing some forty year earlier in the wake of the May evenements Daniel Cohn-Bendit, was there already.  In Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative (Penguin, 1969) -which draws on some of the same left libertarian thinkers that Paul Mason clearly knows- Cohn-Bendit, then known as Danny Le Rouge wrote:

“What we need is not organisation with a capital O, but a host of insurrectional cells – be they ideological groups, study groups – we can even use street gangs. (…) .”

“… put on your coat and make for the nearest cinema. Look at their deadly love-making on the screen. Isn’t it better in real life? (…) Then during the interval when the first advertisement comes on, pick up your tomatos…and chuck them. Then get out in the street … and discover the message of the days of May and June. Stay awhile in the street and remind yourself the last word has not been said.”

Sous le pavé la plage. In fairness Mason does, make a few, rather out of the way points about the legacy of 1968: that the idea, for example, of politics as performance, show and entertainment fed to us through the media – have bled, almost unnoticed into mainstream culture. We are all situationalists now and these days even Michael Gove quotes Gramsci.

Activists of the Occupy generation are, Mason observes, much less explicity – or to put it more brutally, much less coherently – ideological than soixantehuitards like the young Cohn-Bendit. Obsolete Communism – a mass market paperback remember – contains a fairly hefty theoretical critique of Marxism and a stiff does of anarchist political theory. In the rhetoric of the ‘new global revolutions’ in the rich West while there are references to The System, Neoliberalism etc, we have something  tricksier, more stylish but in the end very empty. The knowing, post-modern ironic tones of the Hive Manifesto (‘On Beeing and Nothingness’ – ho ho) –  whose style and subtance almost a pastiche of the kind of appeal Cohn-Bendit and others were penning four decades ago- seems calculating more to make you want to slurp another latté than throw a tomato.

Paul Mason’s  response (again rather brief and buried) is that Twitter and Facebook  have changed everything, making the situationalist, soixante-huitard vision of decentralised, fluidrebellion materialising from nothing at last a reality. An arguable point. Perhaps Peppe Grillo is indeed today’s Danny Le Rouge. But the huge social mobilisations of the past didn’t need Blackberrys – indeed perhap they were huge because they didn’t have them. Nor is it clear how the new counter-culture would resist the co-optation and commercialisation that – as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argued in  The Rebel Sell – blunted and subverted earlier movements. The internet and  social media –  which lend themselves as much to viral marketing and technocratic projects of social control as kicking off protest –  look in many way as flimsy are the abandoned barricades of 1848 recorded in the classic early piece of photo journalism above.

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