BBC journalist Paul Mason’s blog post early in 2011 titled Twenty reasons why it is kicking off everywhere almost instantly filled my Twitter feed and discussion on multiple email lists. You might have called it the History 1.0 version of explaining the Arab Spring, Occupy, the indignados of Europe – everything important from 2011. He has just returned to the subject with Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions; you might call it version 1.3 – a few initial kinks ironed out, a little more perspective obtained, a few more experiences added. Wisely, he very explicitly says this is journalism, not history, and he disavows any claim to be trying to provide a unifying theory of events, or to be the movements’ guru.
Nonetheless, he does provide a useful perspective for thinking about the current state of world protest – in simple terms, what is the best historical parallel, and what lessons might be drawn from it? He looks at 1848, which followed an economic crisis, the politics starting in Paris where the Parisian workers overthrew the monarchy (“a shock because, like Saif Gaddafi and Gamal Mubarak long afterwards, King Louis-Philippe had counted himself something of a democrat”) and the subsequent wave of revolutions in Austria, Hungary, Poland and states in what is now Germany, with monarchies forced into constitutional form elsewhere.
His general conclusion about what then went wrong then? “Once the workers began to fight for social justice, the businessmen and radical journalists show had led the fight for democracy turned against them, rebuilding the old, dictatorial forms of repression to put them down. conversely, where the working class was was weak or non-existent, the radical middle classes would die on the barricades, often committed to a left wing programme themselves.” He doesn’t explore how that translates into modern times, but the possibilities are obvious.
Other options he proposes are 1917, but these were events led by “hardened revolutionary socialists” and involving a “large industrial working class”; 1968, but that was more “surge of protests with students in the lead, workers and the urban poor taking it to the verge of insurrection only in France, Czechoslovakia and America’s ghettos,” and 1989′ but that occurred, with the exception of Romania, by “demonstrations, passive resistances and a large amount of diplomacy”.
Soberly, he concludes 1848 is the best parallel, events which ended of course in widespread war and the general triumph of reaction.
If he does provide one simple philosophical framework for undestanding today – and I think it is a pretty good one to be working with – it is that 2011 is “a revolt against Hayek and the principles of greed and selfishness that he espoused”. (His explanation of Hayek runs “he said that social justice was unachievable and that the inequality and misery produced by capitalism we both moral and logical”.
Yet the analysis is only a small part of the book. What it is primarily is an informative, colourful wander through many of the flashpoints of the past year – in which Mason’s journalist’s eye is used to full effect to allow small anecdotes to throw light on a big picture. He’s in London at the student protests and early Occupations, in Egypt as Mubarak falls, in Greece as riot police and protesters clash on the bloody steps of parliament, he drives from Oklahoma to New Orleans through “jobless America”, and visits the astonishingly educated slums of the Philippines.
I can say from personal knowledge that he sometimes lets the quality of the anecdote overcome the strict facts. (There were in fact police “in attendance” when the Trojan Horse went up in flames on Oxford Circus on the 26 March union march – I was about 100 metres away and there were police between me and it.) But still I basically trust the impression he gives, the meanings he allocates.
Mason sees in the young a whole new political approach “it is satisfied with the conquest of space within the system rather than seeking to smash the system.” So he says “the impulse to create areas of self-control has led … to an almost mystical determination by protesters to occupy a symbnolic physical space and create within it an experimental shared community … the hardcore activists have read their Chomsky, Guy Debord, Hardt-Negri and Gene Sharp, and understand the principles; but more importantly the ideas therein have become ‘common-sense’ to a much wider layer of people who have never read any of it. They see the various ‘revolutions’ in their own personal lives central to the change they’re trying to make”.
But as Mason says, “the system is not in stasis, it is in crisis. After the economic meltdown of 2008 it is highly capable of smashing itself.” He quotes Alexis de Toqueville from 1848: “I believe right now that we are sleeping on a volcano. Can you not sense by a sort of instinctive intuition … That the earth is trembling again in Europe? Can you not feel the wind of revolution in the air?”
Mason’s certainly done a pretty good job of capturing that movement in the wind.