The past 18 months have seen extraordinary outpourings of discontent. But what links them? In this extract from his new book, Paul Mason examines how technology has been at the heart of the global unrest, and finds parallels less with 1968, and more with 1914
It was a cold Friday night early last year, sometime between the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and the fall of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. I got a call: would I do a lecture on the history of the Paris Commune for something called The Really Free School in Bloomsbury?
I turned up to the venue to find it was a squat. They had formed an ad hoc university, occupied an 18th-century townhouse in the heart of London and stuck a sign on the door saying "Journalists Fuck Off". Here was the hard core of the student protest movement: dedicated eco-warriors, veterans of suicidal sit-downs in front of tanks in Gaza, the demobbed Clown Army and, as my host put it, "the Situationist Taliban".
The discussion buzzed: is it technology, economics, mass psychology or just the zeitgeist that's caused this global explosion of revolt? I inclined to a technological-determinist explanation: "Look how your eyes shine when we talk about the network. It's the network!"
Glancing at my iPhone, I realised why they seemed occasionally distracted: they were tweeting the entire conversation, live, to their friends.
The next morning I wrote a blogpost based on the conversation: Twenty Reasons Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere. It went viral. Within a month I met an American hacker, who told me that "there are discussion groups in the US studying your blog". Later, I found out that a global collective of protesters were working on a book critiquing it; later still I met some of them, as they tried to avoid having their heads bashed in by Greek riot police.
One thing was clear: the events taking place across the world carried too much that was new in them to ignore.
If the Arab spring had happened in isolation, it might have been categorised as a belated aftershock of 1989; if the student unrest had been part of the normal cycle of youth revolt, it could have been quickly forgotten. But the momentum gathered, from Iran to Santa Cruz, to London, Athens and Cairo.
The media began a frantic search for parallels. Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, told me: "It's a revolutionary wave, like 1848." Others found analogies with 1968 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In late January 2011, I sat with veteran reporters in a TV newsroom and discussed whether this was Egypt's 1905 or its 1917.
But there is something in the air that defies historical parallels: something new to do with technology, behaviour and popular culture. As well as a flowering of collective action in defence of democracy, and a resurgence of the struggles of the poor and oppressed, what's going on is also about the expanded power of the individual.
For the first time in decades, people are using methods of protest that do not seem archaic or at odds with the contemporary world; the protesters seem more in tune with modernity than the methods of their rulers. Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris calls what we're seeing the "movement without a name": a trend, a direction, an idea-virus, a meme, a source of energy that can be traced through a large number of spaces and projects. It is also a way of thinking and acting: an agility, an adaptability, a refusal to accept the world as it is, a refusal to get stuck into fixed patterns of thought. Why is it happening now? Ultimately, the explanation lies in three big social changes: in the demographics of revolt, in technology and in human behaviour itself.
At the centre of all the protest movements is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future. In North Africa there is a demographic bulge of young people, including graduates and students, who are unable to get a decent job – or indeed any job. By 2011, there was 20% youth unemployment across the region, where two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30. In Libya, despite high GDP growth, youth unemployment stood at 30%. But youth unemployment is not a factor confined to North Africa. In Spain, in 2011 youth unemployment was running at 46%, a figure partially ameliorated by the tendency for young Spaniards to live off their extended families. In Britain, on the eve of the student riots of 2010, youth unemployment stood at 20%.
The financial crisis of 2008 created a generation of twentysomethings whose projected life-arc had switched, quite suddenly, from an upward curve to a downward one. The promise was: "Get a degree, get a job in the corporate system and eventually you'll achieve a better living standard than your parents." This abruptly turned into: "Tough, you'll be poorer than your parents." The revolts of 2010–11 have shown, quite simply, what this workforce looks like when it becomes collectively disillusioned, when it realises that the whole offer of self-betterment has been withdrawn.
In revolts sparked or led by educated youth – whether in Cairo or Madrid – a number of common traits can be observed. First, that the quintessential venue for unrest is the global city, a megatropolis in which reside the three tribes of discontent – the youth, the slum-dwellers and the working class. The estates, the gated communities, the informal meeting spaces, the dead spaces between tower blocks just big enough to be blocked by a burning car, the pheromone-laden nightclubs – all combine to form a theatrical backdrop for the kind of revolts we've seen.
Second, members of this generation of "graduates with no future" recognise one another as part of an international sub-class, with behaviours and aspirations that easily cross borders. I saw the Egyptian revolutionary socialist Gigi Ibrahim (@GSquare86), an iconic figure in the 25 January revolution, speak to London students a few weeks after Mubarak fell. There was no noticeable difference between her clothes, language and culture and theirs. She didn't mind that the meeting was small, that people came and went at random, depending on their other social commitments; she was not put off by their texting and tweeting during her speech.
The boom years of globalisation created a mass, transnational culture of being young and educated; now there is a mass transnational culture of disillusionment. And it transmits easily. When activists such as Ibrahim began to appear on TV in vox pops from Tahrir Square, youth all over the world – above all in America, where the image of the Arab world has been about Islam, terrorism and the veil – simply said to themselves: "Heck, that kid is just like me."
There is a third social impact of the graduate with no future: the sheer size of the student population means that it is a transmitter of unrest to a much wider section of the population than before. Since 2000, the global participation rate in higher education has grown from 19% to 26%; in Europe and North America, a staggering 70% now complete post-secondary education. In Britain, the Blair government's policy of getting half of all school-leavers into higher education meant that, when it broke out, student discontent would penetrate into hundreds of thousands of family homes. While the middle-class student activists of 1968 thought of themselves as external detonators of the working class, the students of 2010 were thoroughly embedded both in the workforce and in low-income communities.
In North Africa, though many of the college students who led the revolutions were drawn from the elite, you find this same blurring of the edges between the educated youth and the poor. The story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street trader whose self-immolation on the morning of 17 January 2011 sparked the revolution in Tunisia, illustrates this well. He can't get a job because, in a corrupt dictatorship, he lacks the right connections. He's a street vendor earning $140 a month, but he's using the money to put his sister through college. The 2008 uprising in Mahalla, Egypt, saw this same overlap of worker, student and urban poor. As the blogger and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy told me, in the poor neighbourhoods of Egypt you will usually find one son unemployed, another working in a factory, another at university. The issues of poverty and repression overlap; in each poor neighbourhood the police station is basically a torture centre.
This new sociology of revolt calls to mind conditions prior to the Paris Commune of 1871: a large and radicalised intelligentsia, a slum-dwelling class finding its voice through popular culture, and a weakened proletariat, still wedded to the organisations and traditions of 20 years before. It makes the social order of the modern city highly fragile under economic stress.
The French historian Hippolyte Taine understood the essential danger of this social mix. When it comes to revolution, he warned, forget the poor and worry about poor lawyers: "Now, as formerly, students live in garrets, bohemians in lodgings, physicians without patients and lawyers without clients in lonely offices … so many Brissots, Marats, Dantons, Robespierres, and St-Justs in embryo. Only for lack of air and sunshine they never come to maturity." Taine put his finger on what, in 1789, had turned the normal rebelliousness of impoverished graduates into a force that would reshape the world. He saw that the "worm-eaten barriers [had] cracked all at once".
Technology, social change, institutional decay had unleashed something bigger than teenage angst. If this sounds like an 18th-century version of the "death of deference" complaint, well, it was. A deep social crisis was under way, then as now. But with one big difference: today, in every garret there is a laptop.
Social media and new technology were crucial in shaping the revolutions of 2011, just as they shaped industry, finance and mass culture in the preceding decade. What's important is not that the Egyptian youth used Facebook, or that the British students used Twitter and the Greek rioters organised via Indymedia, but what they used these media for – and what such technology does to hierarchies, ideas and actions.
Here, the crucial concept is the network – whose impact on politics has been a long time coming. The network's basic law was explained by Bell Telephone boss Theodore Vail as early as 1908: the more people who use the network, the more useful it becomes to each user. (The most obvious impact of the "network effect" has been on the media and ideology. Long before people started using Twitter to foment social unrest, mainstream journalists noticed – to their dismay –that the size of one's public persona or pay cheque carried no guarantee of popularity online. People's status rises and falls with the reliability and truthfulness of what they contribute.)
If you look at the full suite of information tools that were employed to spread the revolutions of 2009–11, it goes like this: Facebook is used to form groups, covert and overt – in order to establish those strong but flexible connections. Twitter is used for real-time organisation and news dissemination, bypassing the cumbersome newsgathering operations of the mainstream media. YouTube and the Twitter-linked photographic sites – Yfrog, Flickr and Twitpic – are used to provide instant evidence of the claims being made. Link-shorteners such as bit.ly are used to disseminate key articles via Twitter.
Underpinning the social media is mobile telephony: in the crush of every crowd we see arms holding cellphones in the air, like small flocks of ostriches, snapping scenes of repression or revolt, offering instant and indelible image-capture to a global audience.
And in all the theatres of revolution, blogs have offered a vital resource: somewhere to link to. Their impact can be measured by the fact that, in 2011, 7% of Middle Eastern bloggers surveyed reported they had been arrested by their respective security forces. The ability to deploy, without expert knowledge, a whole suite of information tools has allowed protesters across the world to outwit the police, to beam their message into the newsrooms of global media, and above all to assert a cool, cutting-edge identity in the face of what WH Auden once called "the elderly rubbish dictators talk". It has given today's protest movements a massive psychological advantage, one that no revolt has enjoyed since 1968.
Suddenly, the form of today's protests seems entirely congruent with the way people live their lives. It is modern; it is immune to charges of "resisting progress". Indeed, it utilises technology that is so essential to modern work and leisure, governments cannot turn it off without harming their economies. And, as Mubarak, Gaddafi and the Bahraini royals discovered, even turning it off does not work.
Because – and here is the technological fact that underpins the social and political aspects of what has happened – a network can usually defeat a hierarchy.
The pioneer of network theory, Walter Powell, summed up the reasons for this as follows: the network is better at adapting to a situation where the quality of information is crucial to success, but where information itself is fluid; a hierarchy is better if you are only transmitting orders and responses, and the surrounding situation is predictable.
Once information networks become social, the implications are massive: truth can now travel faster than lies, and all propaganda becomes instantly flammable. Sure, you can try to insert spin, but the instantly networked consciousness of millions of people will set it right: they act like white blood cells against infection so that ultimately the truth, or something close to it, persists much longer than disinformation.
Whereas the basic form of, say, a Leninist party, a guerrilla army or even a ghetto riot has not changed in a century, once you use social networks the organisational format of revolt goes into constant flux. Even in the period since the Iranian uprisings of July 2009, changes have taken place in the way protesters use social media, in the way rioting is directed (as with the BlackBerry riots in England in 2011), and in the way people evade internet shutdowns.
In the middle of the biggest upsurge in labour protests for a decade, it seems impolite to mention the name of André Gorz. Gorz was a French Marxist who for 20 years was spat on by left commentators for writing a book entitled Farewell to the Working Class (1980). Gorz asserted that the old proletariat had been dissolved by modern technology and that the class struggle would be replaced by individual personal politics. He was wrong: the world economy has created 1.5 billion extra workers since his book was written. He was also wrong to claim that capitalism was destroying skilled work. And yet parts of the book now bear rereading, in particular Gorz's definition of revolution: taking power implies taking it away from its holders, not by occupying their posts but by making it permanently impossible for them to keep their machinery of domination running. Revolution is first and foremost the irreversible destruction of this machinery. It implies a form of collective practice capable of bypassing and superseding it through the development of an alternative network of relations. By this definition we are in the middle of a revolution: something wider than a pure political overthrow and narrower than the classic social revolutions of the 20th century.
The decade before 1914 was an age very much like ours, one in which the most innovative technologies were those that produced greater freedom of action and thought: the motor car, the cinema, the phonogram and the telephone. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig summed up how it felt to be young before 1914, and what was lost when war, revolution and the swing towards totalitarianism ended it all: "Before those wars," he recalled, "I saw individual freedom at its zenith and after them I saw liberty at its lowest point in hundreds of years."
Looked at this way, the real precedent for the past 20 years of ecstasy-fuelled, iPod-engrossed, latte-sipping individualism is not the 1960s but the years before 1914. The radicals of the 60s were able to conceive the possibility of a new mode of human existence, but technology and the balance of global forces – class, race, inter-state rivalry – militated against achieving it. In the pre-1914 period, the freedom zeitgeist, technological progress and globalisation were aligned. Now they are aligned again.
The past 10 years have seen disruptions in the pattern of social life that mirror what happened in that era. But this time, it's happening at high velocity and across the canvas of all humanity.
Extracted from Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions by Paul Mason, to be published by Verso, £14.99.