On a bright Saturday morning early last year, a bleary-eyed Paul Mason sat down to pen a blog for Newsnight, the BBC current affairs programme on which he is economics editor. The previous evening he had delivered a lecture on the 1871 Paris Commune to a collective of free thinkers and radical students in a squat in central London, before retiring to discuss technology, economics, and the revolt spreading across the globe over a few ales in Karl Marx’s old haunt, the Museum Tavern.
Mason’s blog post – entitled ‘Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere’ – was a Martin Luther-nailing-his-95-theses-on-the-door-of-a-church-in-Wittenberg moment for the Occupy generation. Written in the penumbra of the Arab Spring, at the tail end of a winter of student occupations in the UK, Mason’s perspicacious analysis of the dynamics of the new political mood went viral almost as soon as it was posted. ‘Within 24 hours over 100,000 people had read it, people were retweeting it, posting it on Facebook, commenting on it. It was incredible,’ Mason says in the considered Lancastrian lint that has been a familiar feature of late nights on BBC2 for over a decade.
The Newsnight blog became the catalyst for Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, Mason’s lively, thought-provoking ten-chapter jaunt through a world in tumult. ‘It’s not just a set of musings. It’s more like a series of glimpses into what’s happening around the world.’ Mason remarks of the book, which opens in a garbage collector’s house in Cairo and ends among slum protestors Manila, with our engaging correspondent popping up everywhere from Bakersfield, California to Syntagma Square in Athens in between.
Just as he is in person, on the page Mason is everything you would want from a guide: knowledgeable, measured, garrulous and unflaggingly generous. The long-form format also gives him the opportunity to flex his not inconsiderable intellectual powers, with theoretical and historical expositions on politics, society and, most prominently, economics added to the first-rate reportage that has become the hallmark of his Newsnight packages.
Speaking on the phone from his south London home, Mason says that what is happening today is nothing short of a ‘fundamental change in politics and society’. As he writes in the introduction to the book: ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in consciousness about what freedom means.’
Central to this thesis are two factors: the rise of social media and a burgeoning class of jobless graduates. The revolt in Egypt that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last February is often referred to as ‘the first Facebook revolution’, but Mason, a social media acolyte with over 30,000 followers on Twitter, proffers a more subtle analysis of the power of technology: ‘What social media has done is allowed networks of protest to form. Now protesters can move faster, assemble faster and on a much more minimal basis than ever before.’
While Twitter and Facebook have changed ‘the dynamics of protest’, the protesters are changing too. The rigidities of the old Left – the seemingly endless marches, the inky newspapers – has given way to a new mobile, educated generation disillusioned with a system that offers little prospect of stable employment. These ‘graduates with no future’ – point number one on that seminal Newsnight blog post – occupy a vanguard role in Mason’s analysis: the similarities between the young, secular liberals in Tahrir Square and the occupiers in University College London, he argues, are greater than their differences.
‘This generation was already different – they live in a networked world. Their motto is ‘information wants to be free’. Now they find that their futures have been dashed, the jobs they were taught to expect aren’t there anymore.’ For Mason, the network changes everything: new, decentralised modes of communication allow protestors to directly challenge traditional structures and ideas in new, unexpected ways. Over time the power of the network will, he says, defeat the sclerotic hierarchies of established politics.
‘Mainstream politics stands in danger of quite rapidly being dissolved by the new political mood.’ A lifelong trade unionist with a passionate commitment to social justice that has defined his career, Mason prophesises the changing of the political guard more in expectation than trepidation. ‘The impact on politics of the networked generation is going to be very interesting. Eventually those on the streets will begin to look to parties and to politics – that’s when we’ll start to see changes.’
There are traces of the autodidact in Mason, who came late to journalism, abandoning a career as a musician because ‘I needed to make some money’. While Kicking Off Everywhere fizzes with the energy of the street, it also brings in healthy doses of critical social theory, from Marx all the way up to influential American sociologist of work Richard Sennett. It is an education in contemporary thought that Mason began while studying for a postgraduate degree in music in the early 1980s: ‘We sat around and read Das Kapital, we read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, at some leisure. Except during the holidays I never did a stroke of paid work.’
From Marx and Smith, Mason moved onto the current generation’s most obvious antecedents – the thinkers that inspired the 1968 student revolts, most notably the doyen of Situationism, Guy Debord, who argued that capitalism has replaced genuine social life with an inauthentic ‘spectacle’. ‘I wish mainstream politicians today had a little more exposure to those sorts of ideas, it might allow them to think a little bit more freely through the problems that they are confronting right now,’ Mason says.With one ear to the street and another to the boardroom, Mason knows better than most the sheer scale of the challenge facing politicians today. On the day the Sunday Herald spoke to the broadcaster, the latest bailout deal for Greece hangs in the balance, with bankers’ bonuses dominating the news headlines. Mason, whose last book Meltdown, was subtitled ‘The end of the age of greed’, is preparing to fly to the United States, which he contends could be the next country ‘kick off’. ‘It will take a lot for the poor of the US to rise up – but if they do they do, hold on to your hat,’ he says with the calm assurance of a man who has become an expert in spotting a storm brewing on the global horizon.
It is a far cry from the obscure trade mags that Mason cut his teeth on in the late 1980s. It was hardly glamorous but Mason quickly discovered he had found the career for him. ‘Journalism was a profession I liked. And it liked me. It used up all my creative energies, at least most of them.’ What was leftover went into fiction, which remained unpublished until the release earlier this year of Rare Earth a racy novel about a washed up TV reporter who stumbles across corruption – and a whole lot more – in Western China.
Mason wrote Rare Earth, which was based in part of his Newsnight investigations of corruption in China, in the back garden of the house he shares with his wife, an NHS nurse. It was the summer of 2009, and Mason ‘couldn’t get on the telly’. ‘The expenses scandal was raging and most people thought the crisis was over’.
As the continuing turmoil in the Eurozone attests, the meltdown began by the collapse of Lehman Brothers shows no signs of abating. Now in his early fifties, a time of life when many prominent BBC phizogs are to found fronting non-threatening documentaries, Mason continues to immerse himself in the white heat of the street, most recently in a series for Newsnight from a conflagration engulfed Athens. Such committed reporting won Mason ‘specialist journalist of the year’ at last month’s RTS television journalism awards.
Mason has no children himself but feels a gnawing obligation towards the next generation. ‘I am acutely aware of this fact: I have a pension, albeit it not a brilliant one. I have 30 years of intermittent work behind me. My education was free. I’m from a working class background. The level of insecurity in the minds of the people I’m observing is so high. I look at them and often wonder if I would have come out like I have today. I don’t know the answer.’
Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions is out now, published by Verso, priced £12.99. Paul Mason will be appearing at Aye Write on March 10.
This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald, March 4, 2012.