Paul Mason – Kicking Off the Revolution

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.

Review: Why It’s All Kicking Off Everywhere by Paul Mason

‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,’ Fredric Jameson, a leading theorist of post-modernism, wrote in 2003. Not anymore it isn’t. If the culmination of Francis Fukuyama’s Whiggish ‘End of History’ was the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 – scuttling liberal democracy’s claims to historical inevitability – what’s happened since has arguably been more radical still: revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, street protests in the West, social unrest on a scale not seen for generations.

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere is a journey, both empirical and analytical, through a world in tumult. Paul Mason, economics editor on BBC’s flagship Newsnight and one of the UK media’s most familiar faces, is essentially an old-fashioned beat reporter, but with a patch that stretches across the globe: the book begins a year ago in an occupation in Bloomsbury, central London and ends among slum protestors Manila, with our correspondent popping up everywhere from Tahrir Square to Bakersfield, California in between.

Mason warns readers ‘don’t file (this book) under ‘social science’: it’s journalism’. The 10 chapters that follow alternate – some more seamlessly than others – between first-class reportage and theoretical and historical expositions on the changing shape of politics, society and, most prominently, economics.

Like any good journalist, Mason doesn’t bury the lead. In the introduction he writes: ‘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.’ In short, the global economic system is banjaxed and the web has fundamentally altered the political visions of the next generation, leading to a renewed search for social justice.

Mason – who, with this dulcet Lancastrian tones and background in leftwing politics, often cuts an unlikely figure among the plummy, small ‘c’ conservative BBC voices – comes to praise, not bury, what he terms ‘the new global revolutions’. Changing technology, and particularly social media, is central to his thesis: Facebook and Twitter don’t cause revolutions – as so many over-excited commentators proclaimed as first Ben Ali in Tunisia and then Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fell amid popular protest – but they do connect people in new and unexpected ways, sometimes with explosive results.

For Mason, the network is king. Like Howard Beale in the eponymous 1976 movie, millions of (mainly) young people are ‘mad as hell and won’t take it anymore’ – but while Peter Finch’s neutered news anchor’s only recourse is to threaten suicide live on air, now decentralised modes of communication allow protestors to directly challenge traditional power structures and ideas.

Big claims are made for the power of the network, supported by Marx, Foucault and other theoretical heavyweights. At times, however, this shock of the new feels slightly oversold and the power of diffuse, coordinated networks to defeat static hierarchies of power more often stated that demonstrated. Why It’s All Kicking Off is at its most persuasive, and engaging, when Mason moves away from sociology and onto the street. His terse dissection of the uprising in Egypt combines a coruscating analysis of the ‘neoliberal fiefdom’ built by Hosni’ Mubarak’s son and would be heir, Gamal, with interviews from Tahrir Square and among the zabbaleen, the 65,000 ‘garbage people’ who eke out an existence sifting through Cairo’s rubbish.

A spectre is haunting Europe (and beyond). Unlike 1848, this shadow is not communism; it’s the young, ambitious, connected graduate with a Blackberry in their hand and no prospects of a decent job. By turns inquisitive and informative, Mason is a peerless guide through the rapidly shifting milieu of global protest and revolution. Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere provides a timely and highly readable firsthand account of a wave of unrest that shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

Why It’s All Kicking off Everywhere is out now published by Verso. This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, January 29.

At Edinburgh Sheriff Court

Supporters of Occupy Edinburgh were thin on the ground at the city’s sheriff court on Wednesday, 25 January, Robert Burns Day. Only 15 or so activists went to protest against their eviction from St Andrews Square, outside the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland (whose chief executive has just received a £963,000 bonus). ‘Oh, you’re with that lot,’ the security guard manning the metal detector said when I asked where the Occupy case was being heard. ‘Should have got rid of them months ago.’ After rummaging through my rucksack and confiscating my Dictaphone, he pointed in the direction of Court 13.

The case against Occupy was brought by Essential Edinburgh, a city-centre initiative representing various high-end retailers, including Harvey Nichols, RBS and Virgin Money, with interests in the lucrative and mostly privatised shopping streets around St Andrews Square. The occupation began on 15 October, with considerable popular and (largely opportunistic) party political support. Since then, however, numbers have dwindled amid negative press coverage, most of it focused on anti-social behaviour and alleged anti-semitism as well as concerns about the movement’s direction, or lack of it.

‘We want to present ourselves in the right manner,’ the veteran socialist Willie Black told the sheriff, Katherine Mackie. Unlike Occupy LSX outside St Paul’s in London, the Edinburgh protesters had agreed to vacate their site before the eviction notice was even served. Courtroom drama was in decidedly short supply. There were no Guy Fawkes masks or grandstanding statements, just a mundane exchange as counsel for Essential Edinburgh pressed for an eviction notice from the court. Sheriff Mackie demurred, ruling that the occupiers had the rest of the day to clear St Andrews of all remaining persons – namely the many homeless people who had congregated around the camp in ever greater numbers – and their belongings.

Outside the sheriff court, Jamie, a fourth year journalism student with a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ badge on his jacket, said: ‘This is global, this isn’t the end.’ Chris, a 24-year-old freelance copywriter responsible for Occupy Edinburgh’s Twitter feed, said the movement needs to regroup and refocus but will live to fight another day.

In front of a single TV camera, Black spoke of the need to protect the vulnerable in society, especially Edinburgh’s growing homeless population. ‘You can take our square but you’ll never take our freedom,’ shouted a middle-aged woman with long purple hair. Another protester held up a whiteboard that said, in red marker: ‘It’s coming yet for a’ that.’

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Sean O'Casey in Tahrir Square

In 1936, Robert Merton published a seminal paper entitled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” in the American Sociological Review . Seemingly minor events, the then 26-year-old argued, can have profound, unanticipated implications. The “law of unintended consequences” was born.

Mohammed Bouazizi was the same age as Merton when he provided the digital age’s most iconic demonstration of the sociologist’s maxim. On December 17th 2010, Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor frustrated at his treatment by a local policewoman in the town of Sidi Bouzid, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. Inadvertently, what we now call the Arab Spring was born.

Just over a month later, on January 25th, the Egyptian revolt began, as tens of thousands gathered in Cairo and in town and cities across the country to protest against Hosni Mubarak’s brutal regime. One year on, Egypt’s revolution remains unfinished.

Clashes between protesters and the now-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) have become a regular feature of daily life, particularly in Cairo, in recent months. The spark for the latest confrontation, last month, was a football inadvertently booted into the grounds of the Egyptian Cabinet Office near Tahrir Square. An activist who climbed in to retrieve the ball was badly beaten by guards.

Protesters responded by setting fire to cars in a nearby street. The situation escalated from there with portentous speed.

Following similar violence in November, many Egyptian protesters swapped the wide, open (and easily infiltrated) spaces of Tahrir Square for the narrow confines of the Magles El Shab Street, abutting the Cabinet Office. As I watched the shocking scenes of repression at the self-styled “Occupy Cabinet” protest on YouTube recently, one of my first thoughts was of Sean O’Casey. Not that the jerky camera-phone footage bore any resemblance to the playwright’s stage directions but because it reminded me of Ahmed.

I met Ahmed at Occupy Cabinet. The afternoon prayer, Asr, had just finished across Cairo – one of Mubarak’s last acts as president, although no one knew it at the time, was to synchronise the muezzin in the city’s 4,500 mosques, putting an end to centuries of discordant prayer calls – and I was sitting among a group of young men in a makeshift tent outside the Egyptian Cabinet Office’s filigreed gates.

Noiselessly, a tall, balding figure, slightly older than the rest, appeared by my side. Ahmed.

During a lull in the heated conversation about the mendacity of the Scaf, I introduced myself as an Irish journalist. Ahmed’s dark eyes lit up. “Ireland, you’re from Ireland.” It was more a declaration than a question, delivered in clear, faultless English. “Do you know Sean O’Casey?” January’s revolt against Mubarak’s kleptocratic rule was motivated, in part, by Egypt’s dire economic situation. Around half the population live on $2 a day or less. Despite the Nasser-era laws to the contrary, even a university education is no guarantee of a decent job – unless you have wasta, connections.

Growing up in Mubarak’s Egypt, Ahmed had no wasta. After graduating in science, like many ambitious Egyptians, he left his homeland for the Gulf. He found Sean O’Casey while working as a hospital porter in Dubai.

“One of the doctors on the ward was an Irish man, he gave me a book of his plays,” he explained. “After that I read more and more.” Now almost 50, Ahmed returned to raise a family in Egypt, but struggled to find a steady job. Having enthusiastically joined the street protests in January he was, like the vast majority I met in Tahrir and Occupy Cabinet, disheartened by the slow pace of change and the army’s tightening grip on power.

What, I asked, was his favourite O’Casey play. “ The Plough and the Stars, ” Ahmed replied, after a moment’s consideration. “I like the language but also the message,” he said, shouting a little to make himself heard above a rousing chant that had broken out among the several hundred strong crowd. Behind us self-appointed revolutionary guards policed the barbed wire entrance to Magles El Shab Street, while relatives wept in the wan light over mock coffins representing those killed by police during November’s rioting. Just before he left, Ahmed translated the protesters’ shouts for me: “We will get our rights or we will die just as they died”.

All across Cairo I found unflinchingly demotic political discussions.

About where Egypt is and where it should go. Doubtless O’Casey would have approved, although given his disdain for nationalist fervour, it’s less clear what the committed socialist would have made of the machinations of Egypt’s rolling revolution.

The Plough and the Stars opened in the Abbey on February 8th 1926. During a performance just three nights later the audience, angered by the treatment of the Easter Rising and egged on by the widow-martyr Mrs Sheehy-Skeffington, rioted. Consequently, intentional or otherwise, O’Casey went into exile soon after, where he remained until his death in 1964.
This piece originally appeared as the Irishman’s Diary, in the Irish Times January 16, 2012.