New Global Revolutions
* Book: Paul Mason. Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. Verso, 2012
"Paul Mason’s remarkable and highly readable book does a great job of putting the uprisings of 2011 in a longer-term historical context, as well as helping to emphasize that they are far from over." 
"The world is facing a wave of uprisings, protests and revolutions: Arab dictators swept away, public spaces occupied, slum-dwellers in revolt, cyberspace buzzing with utopian dreams. Events we were told were consigned to history—democratic revolt and social revolution—are being lived by millions of people.
In this compelling new book, Paul Mason explores the causes and consequences of this great unrest. From Cairo to Athens, Wall Street and Westminster to Manila, Mason goes in search of the changes in society, technology and human behaviour that have propelled a generation onto the streets in search of social justice. In a narrative that blends historical insight with first-person reportage, Mason shines a light on these new forms of activism, from the vast, agile networks of cyberprotest to the culture wars and tent camps of the #occupy movement. The events, says Mason, reflect the expanding power of the individual and call for new political alternatives to elite rule and global poverty." (http://www.akpress.org/whyitskickingoffeverywhere.html)
Excerpted from Kate Webb in Red Pepper (UK):
"In the January round-ups few critics will fail to register 2011’s historic nature, but Mason, I’d wager, will be the only mainstream figure who’ll go so far as to propose – as Virginia Woolf once did of human character in 1910 – that in this year human consciousness altered. He calls himself a “technological determinist” and argues that just as body shape changed during the industrial revolution, so the way we relate now, as “networked individuals” with socialised cognition, will change the map of our minds. The key point about the internet is that it is an ever-expanding learning loop, feeding back information about how things might be otherwise and already are elsewhere; its strongest meme is that being linked, we are powerful, because “a network can usually defeat a hierarchy”.
It was this knowledge, Mason argues – the fruit of “info-capitalism” – that created a tipping point in 2011 bringing people onto the streets in greater numbers than ever before. Those in the Middle East, unable any longer to put up with what Auden called “the elderly rubbish dictators talk”, came to topple tyrants; while westerners disappointed of their expectations (“the graduate with no future”, the worker losing her pension), challenged the ‘market is king’ orthodoxy that was destroying livelihoods and corroding democracies.
His account of this collapse in deference is engaging and informative – particularly fine is the opening chapter on how globalisation destroyed the micro-economy that, with great ingenuity, Zekry and other workers created out of Cairo’s rubbish, depriving them of a living and leaving them no option but to join the uprising. It is a story that distils a larger argument, though one not immediately apparent to the reader because the full audacity of Why it’s Kicking Off takes a while to reveal itself. Mason’s title promises answers to why 2011 was such a momentous year, but the narrative he comes up with does much more, suggesting that events now unfolding demand a revised reading of history, one from which we might – just possibly – find a new way into the future.
Yet what he’s writing, he insists, is journalism, albeit today’s opened-out journalism, still rooted in street-level reporting and the detail of individual lives, but invigorated and made increasingly speculative by the pressure of information (he draws on voices from social media, internet psychology, modernist art, radical manifestos, political and economic theory, labour history, sociology and urban planning, as well as re-working his own tweets, blogs, Newsnight reports and earlier books). Like the ‘netizens’ he describes, Mason is intellectually promiscuous, chopping between different ways of considering the world, but in a voice so conversational it goes some way to masking the designs he has on us.
As well as reportage from Egypt, Britain, Greece, America and the Philippines, there’s a briefing, updated from his 2009 book, Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed, on the decisions that brought capitalism to the brink, characterisation of the new activists (non-ideological, “without loyalty”, highly individualised), debate about why the year’s revolutionary uprisings were unforeseen (dogmatism on the right, defeatism on the left), analysis of how today’s ‘horizontalist’ movement is succeeding where earlier democratic movements faltered (a congruence of popular mood and technological means, making radicalism fashionable and potent again), and a range of historical and cultural parallels to mull over, many where economic decline and technological innovation also spurred revolt (Europe in 1848, the Paris Commune, modernism and the belle époque, syndicalism and the Great Unrest, the counter-culture of 1968).
In order to understand these connections between past and present, though, Mason thinks it necessary to reconsider the narrative of workers’ history and, with this, the left’s idea of what it should be doing now. The attempt of ordinary people to wrest control of their lives and communities, he believes, is not the dominant story of trade unionism and class struggle, but (as syndicalists once claimed) something more pioneering of modernity, more autonomous, imaginative, and less straitlaced.
It’s an argument he was already making in 2007 in Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, before Lehman Brothers collapsed and before the current wave of uprisings, and which now, in their wake, seems vindicated. What we see in today’s protests and occupations – resourcefulness, improvisation, knowledge- and pleasure-seeking, the euphoria of annexing spaces or simply of taking part – can be seen throughout history in waves of creative revolt and experiments in living. This is what Mason is thinking of when he tweets: “I will never tire of the minutae of minute by minute conquest and reconquest of #Tahrir by the people, a year after it started…”
Unlike “the actual history of organised labour”, these intermittent raids on freedom were invested with what Karl Marx, in his early, humanist phase argued for: not proletarian power, but the desire for “the liberation of individual human beings” in which people would “express their freedom through communal interaction”, so becoming a “species-being”. Because capitalism atomised and alienated workers Marx thought this could only be achieved after its rout. But Mason suggests that new technology poses the possibility we can achieve species-being – connected and expressive as we now are – inside capitalism.
Such an idea raises questions about the ground the left is fighting on: if we no longer need to wait for the revolution to end time and start it up again, we can begin to change things here and now – precisely what Mason thinks his “new type of human being” is already doing. What they have grasped is that capitalism’s most advanced form may not be run-for-profit corporations like Microsoft or Toyota, but a “semi-communal form of capitalism exemplified by open-source software and based on collaboration, management-free enterprise, profit-free projects, open-access information.”
It’s a wildly iconoclastic thought that turns capitalism into a machine of emancipation rather than enslavement, driven by curiosity and cooperation rather than greed. The prospect it holds out of accelerated learning and problem-solving makes our current ‘free-market’ system look archaic and superstitiously restrictive. More than this, for the left it allows reconciliation with a re-modelled capitalism without the spectre of apostasy, without losing faith with the history and tradition of workers’ liberation.
For these reasons the book ends not in one of 2011’s hotspots, with the dancers and drum-beaters facing down power, but in a Manila slum where the future is beginning to take shape. With great inventiveness, in cramped and shit-smelling conditions, inhabitants here have created something “orderly, solidaristic” and entrepreneurial. Making his way in a warren of tunnels Mason finds a store, an internet cafe (“the unmistakable whizz and pop of something digital”), and a DIY police force, all run by graduates in business admin, engineering and political science. He sees satellite dishes and solar panels, and thousands of people living hugger-mugger without too much in the way of crime or prostitution or drugs.
He talks to urban planners who explain how much we have to learn from slum-dwellers – how those who are managing such low-impact, highly-educated, technologically connected lives, look like a good model for our future on a resource-limited, overcrowded planet. It is by no means a starry-eyed response, however: as in the opening chapter, Mason’s narrative emphasises the complexity of slum politics while keeping his eye trained on individuals like Len-len, who – barely able to feed her children, unable to pay for the course that might change her life – has no control over the global system she is part of.
A book as propositional as Why it’s Kicking Off (“The lesson is this”, “Exhibit one”, “I propose a different reading”) means to provoke argument. My reservations concerned the paradoxical way in which his new human beings, for all their “elevated individualism”, are presented as so improbably alike, largely undifferentiated by religion or sex, all jeans-wearing, looking “just like you” – as if homogeneity were a necessary pre-condition for their modernity. There is too, and perhaps for the same reasons, a disregard of the extent to which multinational corporations and power elites have already infiltrated the net (a Saudi prince owns 5% of Twitter) and to which governments are increasingly using it as a tool of repression." (http://www.redpepper.org.uk/history-in-the-making/)
From a double review which also discusses, The Uprising:
"The Marxian concept of General Intellect has been inspiring to me for a while already. I wrote about it at length in Nowtopia, using the concept to contextualize the myriad ways people take their time and technological know-how out of market relations to begin producing a social and technological foundation for a post-capitalist life. The concept goes back to Karl Marx’s Grundrisse and “the Fragment on Machines” which has been heavily plumbed in the past couple of decades for its prescient analysis of the stage of capitalism we seem to be in now, more than a century after Marx first described it. The most commonly quoted piece of it is this: “The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.”
Paolo Virno wrote a much-cited essay on Marx’s concept of General Intellect wherein he criticizes Marx’s limitations on behalf of a Postfordist, autonomist sensibility:
- According to Marx, the general intellect – i.e. knowledge as the main productive force – fully coincides with fixed capital – i.e. the ‘scientific power’ objectified in the system of machinery. Marx thus neglects the way in which the general intellect manifests itself as living labor. The analysis of Postfordist production compels us to make such criticism; the so-called ‘second-generation autonomous labor’ and the procedural operations of radically innovated factories … show how the relation between knowledge and production is articulated in the linguistic cooperation of men and women and their concrete acting in concert, rather than being exhausted in the system of machinery. In Postfordism, conceptual and logical schema play a decisive role and cannot be reduced to fixed capital in so far as they are inseparable from the interaction of a plurality of living subjects. The ‘general intellect’ includes formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and ‘language games’. Thoughts and discourses function in themselves as productive ‘machines’ in contemporary labor and do not need to take on a mechanical body or an electronic soul.
Mason and Berardi both address General Intellect in their recent books, in interesting ways. Mason makes the simple but important point that people now “know more than they used to.” He attributes it to the proliferation of new technologies, the Internet especially, and the many portable devices that have allowed it to become part of the daily life of people across the world. Mason tends to overemphasize what we might call “technological enabling” in explaining the changes in the world lately. No doubt there are many more ways to access much more of the accumulated knowledge of humanity now than there were a generation ago, and that is a big help to an evolving population and to the diffusion of complex ideas.
But I would argue that the technology is secondary to the spreading political sensibilities that favor horizontalism vs. hierarchical structures, the increasingly commonsense idea that everyone has the capacity to contribute usefully to whatever is being done. The emergence of assemblies across the planet during the past two years, with their consultative and participatory styles, is the best evidence that something quite different is emerging beneath the lumbering collapse of the status quo.
It is becoming instinctive for people to assemble themselves on an ad-hoc basis rather than building elaborate bureaucratic structures (such as political parties or unions); by doing so they have so far retained a remarkable flexibility and creativity in confrontations with the powers-that-be. That said, it is also true that there have been no definitive victories yet in terms of overthrowing life as we know it… at the same time, the millions of people who have been transformed as they participated in occupations, protests, demonstrations, etc. over the past couple of years are still alive. They weren’t slaughtered in the tens of thousands as they were after the Paris Commune in 1871, or in the millions during WWI after the widespread “Great Unrest” class wars of the 1905-1913 period.
Credit to Paul Mason for introducing the “Great Unrest” period to my awareness — I’ve been very aware of the hot class war in San Francisco from the turn of the 20th century to the 1917 entrance of the U.S. into WWI, but didn’t realize it was a nearly global phenomenon. He also makes an important analogy between that period (he is using 1908-1913) and its flourishing humanism, individualism, and cultural ferment, and our contemporary era. It’s a cautionary analogy since his point is that few involved in the bacchanalian, ribald, tradition-busting subcultures of the 1910 period could imagine that the whole of Europe would soon descend into the barbarism of WWI, much as we today have a hard time imagining the world becoming smaller again, more closed, harsher and less tolerant, or even the possibility of another globe-spanning war.
Berardi has a chapter in his book called “The General Intellect Is Looking for a Body,” and he sounds a contrary note about the liberatory prospects for the general intellect:
- “… even if the general intellect is infinitely productive, the limits to growth are inscribed in the affective body of cognitive work: limits of attention, of psychic energy, of sensibility.”
This is part of Berardi’s longer effort to understand the transformation of work during the Postfordist era: from the life-killing rhythms of industrial factories to the fragmented, fractal, and recombinant bits of labor time that we occasionally sell to enterprises embedded in global flows of signs, symbols, fashion, software, brands, etc. But immaterial work is not all-dominating, as Berardi tends to have it in his analyses, given that as Mason correctly points out, the world’s labor force nearly doubled since the late 1980s, with millions in China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, east Asia, Africa, and South America all entering into global production, leading to a stagnation or fall in real wages in the U.S. and Europe.
Berardi became very depressed after the non-event of Y2K (hilariously he calls it “the most horrible night of my life” because he’d staked everything on claiming it would wreak havoc and nothing happened), and the near collapse of political movements after 9/11, writing elsewhere that after the unprecedented demonstrations on February 15, 2003, there might never again be a political movement capable of physically taking to the streets. When the Arab Spring and Occupy movements erupted in 2011, he was happily repudiated by reality, and wrote the aforementioned collaborative essay with Geert Lovink.
Paul Mason quotes it in his book:
- There is only one way to awake the lover that is hidden in our paralyzed, frightened and frail virtualized bodies. There is only one way to awake the human being that is hidden in the miserable daily life of the softwarist: take to the streets and fight.
Mason is also addressing the new social subjects who emerged during the 2011 uprisings:
- But what we’ve seen since 2004, above all in the events of 2009-11, are revolts led by fragmented and precarious people. They have used the very technologies that produced the atomized lifestyle in the first place to produce communities of resistance …
When I wrote about the so-called Oakland General Strike I was making a similar point. While it wasn’t a “general strike” as understood from past shutdowns of the Bay Area or elsewhere, it was a mass strike of tens of thousands of people who for the most part are not the old working class, but rather the new one, the precarious, temporary, irregular one—still people who need money to make ends meet, but whose relationship to steady employment is haphazard at best. They are often employed in the service sector, but that can be making espresso as likely as software, and in either case, without any certainty of a steady job.
Berardi’s important, if depressing, contribution to this conversation, has been his emphasis on the social outcome of all this precarization of work.
- Social subjectivity seems weak and fragmented against the backdrop of the financial assault. Thirty years of the precarization of labor and competition have jeopardized the very fabric of social solidarity, and workers’ psychic ability to share time, goods, and breath made fragile. The virtualization of social communication has eroded the empathy between human bodies… Since the 1980s, precarity has provoked a process of desolidarization and disaggregation of the social composition of work. Virtualization has been a complementary cause of desolidarization: precarization makes the social body frail at the level of work, while virtualization makes the social body frail at the level of affection.
The fragmentation of working class communities achieved by the global restructuring of the past few decades has left most people more isolated than ever. Berardi deconstructs the near-universal enthusiasm for our supposed “connectedness” by making a sharp distinction between connecting and conjoining—the former requires homogenized, standardized systems of message creation and transmission (email, facebook, etc.) and a heavily capitalized and energy-subsidized infrastructure, while the latter involves the meeting of misshapen bodies in real space and time, with the full panoply of sounds, smells, intonations, winks and nods, et al, that create deeper relationships than can ever be approached by electronic communication.
Mason is more optimistic about the outcome of network communication, arguing that it “leaves a residue of collaboration.
- … This understanding of the intangible, hidden value inside the network relationship has begun to permeate not just commerce and work, but protest. When doomed graduates, precarious workers and the poor use social networks to coordinate protests, they are waging a human fight-back against the atomizing effects of the modern marketplace.
One of the key challenges in these moments between upheavals is to dissect the relationship between liberation and cooptation that resides in nearly all our daily acts. No matter how much we might want to escape the bounds of capitalism and the logic of submission, our most subversive acts sometimes embody also the logic we are trying to escape. The most obvious example is the incessant clamor to “shop responsibly” as though we could alter the world by buying the right products, instead of understanding that every time we are reduced to “consumers” we’ve already lost the battle. But even when we engage in political efforts to fight evictions, overturn the domination of private cars, resist agribusiness, etc., we can discover that our projects are also reinforcing larger assumptions about how life should be carried on, how we reproduce ourselves within the institutional framework of this society.
Berardi again gets to an essential dilemma we face:
- The prospect open to us is not a revolution. The concept of revolution no longer corresponds to anything because it entails an exaggerated notion of political will over the complexity of contemporary society. Our prospect is a paradigmatic shift: to a new paradigm that is not centered on product growth, profit, and accumulation, but on the full unfolding of the power of collective intelligence.
And this in turn brings us back to the notion of the general intellect. We know more now than we did a generation ago. We know more about how to organize ourselves within complex and highly technologically mediated relationships, maybe more than any previous constellation of people on earth. And maybe, just maybe, we’re becoming aware of the insane speed-up and intensification that has been imposed on our lives by the virtualization of communication, the imposition of a 24/7 economy that requires full attention at all times. The slower pace offered by bicycling, by growing and/or preparing your own food, by stopping to talk to neighbors in the street, by occupying public spaces in assemblies and taking as long as it takes to hear everyone out—all of these are examples of a human pace taking the deliberate steps it will take to derail the empty frenzy of modern life whose main purpose is to keep us dazed and confused, wondering why we’re missing out when everyone else is having such a good life.
Actually the good life is there to be produced, but not as isolated individuals. It’s only something we can do together.” (http://www.nowtopians.com/work-and-the-economy/in-the-trenches-with-general-intellect)
See also: The Uprising, by Franco Gerardo Bifo