|Revolution on the agenda|
|Magazine - Book Reviews|
|Monday, 27 February 2012 20:36|
Mick Brooks reviews Why it’s kicking off everywhere, by Paul Mason, published by Verso, price £12.99 pbk.
Paul Mason sets out to analyse the reasons for the revolutionary wave that has rocked the world since the Arab Spring began a year ago. Mason is a brilliant journalist, giving vivid first hand accounts of struggles around the world.
Mason’s book reminds us that, to the surprise of many, revolution and counter-revolution are very much back on the agenda. He correctly connects the revolts to the recession that began in 2008. Of course, there is no mechanical correlation between deprivation and radicalisation. To the big question: “Why is it happening now?” he replies, “Ultimately the explanation lies in three big social changes: in the demographics of revolt, in technology and in human behaviour itself.”
By demographics, Mason means the existence of a mass of unemployed youth, including graduates, with no future. Capitalism has made this a fact of life from Cadiz to Cairo. The older generation has often written off today’s youth as incurably materialistic and apolitical. Now they have shown their mettle. These young people have been in the vanguard of revolt from Tahrir Square to the Occupy movement all over the world.
Mason stresses that capitalism has produced a massive underclass of urban slum dwellers, living on the margins of existence. “Commodity price inflation,” he goes on, “turns the ‘acceptable’ poverty of $2 per day into utter destitution.” In Egypt food prices rose by 19% during the year before Mubarak’s overthrow. Barings Asset Management found that the level of inflation in food prices correlated exactly with the level of unrest in different countries last year. In fact, it caused the upheavals in exactly the same way as it triggered the revolutions of 1848. No wonder the cry in Egypt was, ‘Bread, freedom, social justice!’
As to the significance of communication by Blackberry and the importance of Facebook and Twitter in drawing people together for a cause, Mason comes over as a technological determinist. With snappy talk of “the Jacobin with a laptop” and “ the networked revolution” he surmises that, “The revolts, then, are the results of a technological revolution driven by the deployment of digital communications at work, in social life, and now in the forms of protest.”
I think this is wrong. They didn’t have Facebook in 1789 or 1917. The fundamental factor in making a revolution is a determination to change society, plus human ingenuity. That is a permanent characteristic of human behaviour. Technology can help or it can hinder. In fact Mubarak shut down the internet and the mobile phone networks in Egypt. It didn’t stop his overthrow. In addition the idea floated by Mason that exposure to Foucault’s postmodernist gobbledygook helped to radicalise a generation of young people is frankly bonkers.
Mason underestimates the significance of the organised labour movement. He doesn’t mention the big union battles in 2011 in the USA. An insurrectionary mood developed in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker moved to eliminate public sector trade union collective bargaining. On the other hand, the unions won a great victory in Ohio over the right-wing Republicans. In a referendum Ohioans voted overwhelmingly against a proposal to ban public sector strikes and shred bargaining rights. This shows how public opinion can be mobilised behind the cause of labour.
The unions have shown their solidarity with the Occupy movement. For instance the Occupy movement in New York survived with moral and material support from the rank and file of the teachers’ union and the healthcare union SEIU. The two movements are in the process of coalescing.
Before the high profile mobilisation in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Revolution had been prepared by years of a bitter and significant strike wave. There were 3,000 labour actions between 2004 and 2010. Mason mentions the virtual uprising in Mahalla in 2008. It arose out of a strike at Misra Spinning and Weaving mill which employs 27,000 workers. The movement there was led by the working class, drawing the unemployed and the intelligentsia behind them. That shows what is possible.
Mason puts his finger on the nub of the issue. “If you were to summarise the problem for the mainstream left in the present crisis, it comes down to three points: free market capitalism has failed; there’s a wave of resistance to wage cuts and austerity; the political leaders of social democracy cannot accept points one and two.” That’s spot on. It’s no wonder rebellious youth are not attracted to politicians who misunderstand the nature of our times so fundamentally.