Newsnight’s Paul Mason, author of a new book on the revolts sweeping the world, speaks to Red Pepper
You highlight the commonalities of the different revolts of 2011, but how do we understand the differences between revolts against authoritarian regimes and exhausted democracies? Is there a problem with this generality?
I’m looking for what’s common rather than making generalities. First of all, one revolt feeds off another, and you can’t underestimate the physical link: again and again, among people who were involved in March 26 in the UK, J14 in Israel, Wisconsin, you meet people who had been to Tahrir.
Spain isn’t Greece, and Tahrir and Tunis are very different. But there is the archetype of the educated youth whose life chances have been blighted by a combination of economic downturn and a regime they realise is unsustainable.
You can’t underestimate the extent to which those dictatorships had linked themselves to the economic programme of neoliberalism. Many say that the key moment in the Arab Spring was the loss of fear, and in the west it has been the loss of apathy, but the sources have been the same thing: people suddenly realising ‘change is necessary, change is possible’. The more I think about it, the more I trace it back to the collapse of the economic model – it just took a while.
One of the interesting things linking the revolts is that there isn’t an alternative economic blueprint they’re moving towards.
The lack of a strategic, hierarchical alternative system is what makes this new for those of us who have lived through the late 20th century. But it’s very like the early years of social democracy. The debate in German social democracy in the 1890s was ‘are we trying to overthrow capitalism, or aren’t we?’ The left said ‘Yes, but it will take a long time and we’re doing it through a combination of voting and workers’ struggles.’ The right said ‘No, but in the process of building the movement, we’ll build a better capitalism.’
Eduard Bernstein was the progenitor of modern social democracy, and his key phrase was ‘the movement is everything, the ends are nothing’. Go down to Occupy Wall Street, and that’s what they’re saying. Looking through a 100-year prism, orderly German social democracy, with its libraries and clubs, looks like disorderly anarcho-syndicalism, with its libraries and clubs. It’s people doing what horizontalist theorists would call ‘living despite capitalism’ – creating the areas of civilisation within the jungle.
Related to this lack of a clear alternative, it looks like 2012 could be defined by a resurgence of economic nationalism, and so conservative forces may well have a good year. How will the movements respond?
The power of the horizontalist movements is, first, their replicability by people who know nothing about theory, and secondly, their success in breaking down the hierarchies that seek to contain them. They are exposed to a montage of ideas, in a way that the structured, difficult-to-conquer knowledge of the 1970s and 1980s did not allow. We’re talking about different human beings; they have different ways of thinking.
And this is very difficult to contain, even by right-wing parties who get 20 per cent of the vote. Whether it’s the True Finns or Jobbik in Hungary, it’s ‘Kinder, Kirche, Kuche’ (family, church, and women in the kitchen) – that’s what they stand for. They do not stand for dance parties, multiple partners or women’s liberation.
But the protest movement isn’t immune from ideological disorientation. In Britain many of these people flip from being Lib Dems to class-struggle anarchists within weeks. In acute crises, you tend to get severe psychological flips in the population. We’ve had a big flip towards horizontalist leftism among the young generation, and its not impossible that it could flip in another direction.
I want to probe the newness you describe. To what extent is this generation picking up and reconfiguring ideas that were developed in the 1970s, appropriated by the ‘new capitalism’, and are now being rethought?
In the book I say there is a linearity from the New Left to feminism and such movements that attempted to do networks. But they were up against different hierarchies, and those hierarchies corrupted what was liberatory about them. They were also squashed by class, by technology and one other thing that this generation might have to go through again: repression that works.
In the 1960s, the non-violence turned into violence, because non-violence didn’t work. And then the workers acted and a lot of former anarchists just decided they had to be Leninists, or something hierarchical at least.
There are interesting issues in terms of how technologies fit into these new movements. Social media technology has made horizontalism in revolts more possible, but it has also led to a certain amount of deskilling – as Facebook and Twitter rise as organising tools, groups and protests emerge very quickly, but also disappear very quickly.
These are all the attributes of modern work: a flat hierarchy, weak ties, constant deskilling, the ability to learn a new skill more important than having a skill. Companies that were big 10 years ago don’t exist anymore – that’s modern capitalism.
In the Fordist era, you would have big, hierarchical companies that would persist for a long time on one strategy, and you also had oppositional movements with hierarchies, permanent strategies, strong ties. Here’s the heretical thought: those old movements thought they were movements for overthrowing capitalism. By and large they didn’t, they co-existed with it and mirrored its attributes. What you’re seeing here is probably more honest: movements that don’t like capitalism, which don’t have a strategy for replacing it on a global level, but are highly adapted to living despite it.
Actually the problem they have is that capitalism is in crisis. Social democracy had this problem too. There was a 40-year programme for getting more votes, so that in the 1890s they imagined they would maybe have an electoral majority in the 1920s.
In the middle of the process, bang! World War One; bang! women and unskilled youth flood into the workforce. Suddenly, their world is gone. This is the problem for this movement now – what if the world goes bang?
What do you see in terms of responses to the precarious, come-and-go features of the current movement? The Camp for Climate Action, for instance, disbanded this year.
The big question for horizontalist movements is that as long as you don’t articulate against power, you’re basically doing what somebody has called ‘reform by a riot’: a guy in a hoodie goes to jail for a year so that a guy in a suit can get his law through parliament.
After a while in the 19th century workers saw there were other ways: form your own party and stand in elections, with all the difficulties that has, or your own newspaper, and basically join the grown-up world of taking responsibility for stuff. I think a lot of people in the horizontalist movement are at the point of considering this, but are hesitant.
Isn’t there something that is between durability based on hierarchy and structure, and complete chaos? For example memory and also sociality of a meaningful kind.
You identify an important dichotomy between technology-based social networking and face-to-face socialising. The thing I observe is that the progenitors of the big ideas within the protest movement were also strong in the ‘flesh world’. The Tarnac Nine, who wrote The Coming Insurrection, said ‘find each other’, do little things together.
Activists I have spoken to about the book say ‘you’re over-emphasising the technological, you’re neglecting the personal’. But it’s a bit like telling a member of the Levellers in the 17th century that ‘what you do would be impossible without the printing press’. I say, ‘what you’re doing would be impossible without this technology’. Without it, the Tarnac Nine would just be the nine people.
There are signs of attempts to constrain the liberatory use of the internet. Looking at the history of the printing press, you go from having dozens of radical, mass circulation working class papers, to the press becoming an establishment tool. Is a similar trend possible with the internet?
Ask yourself this question: what businessperson or politician can really be on Twitter – saying ‘I just split up with my girlfriend, I just drank three gins’? The hierarchy wants to own Twitter but it can’t. Even if they did, they would have to live in that world of gin and girlfriends.
A great moment in the Egyptian revolution must have been when Mubarak shut down the internet and people came to him and said ‘general, they are getting round this by a website called hidemyass.com’. So the biggest military in the Middle East was being defeated by hidemyass.com.
During the Reformation and the Renaissance, over a period of generations, the old world was dragged into the new. So eventually the behaviour and ideas of the elite change.
You could say the printing press civilised the reactionaries as well as empowering the agents of change. The possibility exists that today’s tech revolution civilises the old order. But to the extent that elites can’t use this technology, they can’t exist in the modern world.
And the noticeable thing about modern politics is the disconnect between the elite and the masses. The masses are much more homogeneous: the way a young slum dweller in London lives, and the way a student lives, and the way a young professional lives, are not that different. They share a common culture in Twitter and Blackberries.
By contrast the elite are building themselves into a kind of walled turret – that’s dangerous for democracy, and it’s dangerous for them.
Given your role as an observer, what do you see in terms of new ways of articulating with power? Do you see signs from your global travels that there are other ways?
In Hungary mainstream politics fell apart. The government is right-wing nationalist, the main opposition is far right and anti-Gypsy.
But the NGO-based left suddenly formed quite a successful party – Politics Can Be Different – which now has MPs, power etc. If Hungary is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for the EU, I would expect some of today’s horizontalists in Europe, North Africa and America to start forming parties in the next years.
How would you sum up the experience of 2011?
To me this movement – weak-tied, mercurial, sporadic – this is completely the product of modern work of a certain kind. This movement is content to live within capitalism, to create its space with capitalism, but the problem is capitalism might be about to go into the level of crisis that doesn’t allow you to do that.
This generation of protesters could easily suffer the fate of social democracy. In 1914 it had to choose between being a recruitment sergeant for mass slaughter, or becoming an underground movement, and there was no middle ground. That could still happen in the world of 2012.