The global financial crisis laid waste to balance sheets and pushed activists onto the streets. Paul Mason examines why disparate bands of protesters have managed to topple established hierarchies.
Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: the contagion of revolution
The new year has come and the people have had enough. For several days they have been occupying the main square of the capital city, demanding a change of government. Reforms have been offered. The offer of reforms has been rejected by the people. Top-level politicians and officials are reshuffled. It won't do. Protests spread to other major cities throughout the country. Videos of chanting crowds, burning cars and miscellaneous encounters with riot police appear on YouTube, and the internet is subjected to steady bursts of tweetfire, live from the scene. While digital youth tap away, less technologically minded demonstrators, including local football hooligans, engage with the authorities using more traditional tools of communication - slabs of paving stone, Molotov cocktails, things like that.
It could be Egypt in January 2011. In fact, it's Romania in January 2012. And while angry Romanians are clearly not part of any Arab Spring, the Arab Spring itself is part of a global wave of unrest triggered ultimately by the ongoing disorderly collapse of globalisation in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.
That's the basic thesis of Paul Mason's Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere. Mason is the economics editor of the BBC's flagship Newsnight programme and, as such, one of English-language journalism's most senior proponents of the idea that there is nothing like a bit of tear gas to perk up otherwise dry but significant economic reporting. Indeed, one of the charms of his book is that it offers an effective remedy for tear-gassing, picked up while on location in Athens from an angry crowd of middle-class Greek demonstrators confronting the police in Syntagma Square and passed on to readers with the understanding that we, too, may be needing it some time. (For the record, the recipe consists of a quick spray of Maalox balm, rubbed vigorously into the face until it resembles white clown make-up.)
Athens aside, the book finds Mason in activist squats in London, chatting to the Zabbaleen rubbish recyclers of Cairo and the "tunnel dwellers" in the slums of Manila, following in the footsteps of the great Okie migration as described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, and generally rummaging through a well-stocked mind for historical parallels to help define a world he sees sliding towards a paradoxical time of chaos and hope.
The book was published too late to include anything on the Romanian uprising, but it fits in neatly with Mason's insistence that economic conditions, and the political failure attendant upon them, is at the root of global unrest. The proximate cause of the demonstrations was the sacking of a popular minister for his opposition to privatisation of health services. But that privatisation is only one aspect of a wave of austerity measures, including massive public-sector job cuts and large increases in consumption taxes, imposed on Romania by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for a US$16.5 billion (Dh60bn) loan. That loan was made necessary after the financial crisis of 2008 tipped the country into recession.
At first glance there might seem to be little in common between the Romanian protests, which appear like a classic example of what the American economist Joseph Stiglitz calls "IMF riots", and the events in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere last year. These uprisings have been framed in classic political terms as a replay of Eastern Europe in 1989, as a story of populations long oppressed under dictatorial rule finally rising up and, in one cathartic moment, asserting their right to be free. This has been accompanied by lots of hand-wringing over the popularity of Islamists and a lively though somehow impertinent debate on the role of social media in the whole thing.
Clearly, the people of Egypt and Tunisia wanted to bring down their rulers. But the oppression against which they protested successfully in 2011 was a fact of life for many years and previous attempts to rise up against it had been snuffed out with relative ease. What Mason wants to know is why last year's uprisings successfully generated regime-toppling coalitions and he finds his answer in both the initial application and ultimate failure of neoliberal economic policies.
He illustrates this in his account of the Zabbaleen, the Coptic Christian waste-picking community, which for 60 years managed to recycle 80 per cent of Egypt's rubbish by collecting it and sorting it by hand, aided by the hundreds of thousands of pigs they kept to devour food waste.
In 2003, as part of a privatisation programme led by Gamal, president Hosni Mubarak's son, their work was outsourced, without compensation, to a consortium of foreign companies. When that initiative failed, in 2009 the Egyptian government decided to collect and destroy all the Zabbaleen pigs, citing the danger from swine flu. The Zabbaleen rioted and, says Mason, "that is how a mixture of repression, greed, corruption, and neoliberal economic policies managed to turn the Zabbaleen into latent revolutionaries". More generally, he argues, the establishment of neoliberal economic fiefdoms by cliques close to the Mubarak family managed to alienate previously disparate constituencies, from unionised workers to middle-class professionals, to football hooligans.
That was happening during the supposed good times. After the financial crisis of 2008, the steps taken by major economies towards recovery triggered further shock waves throughout the Middle East. The quantitative easing introduced by Ben Bernanke, the US treasury secretary, in December 2010 - the notorious "wall of money" - may have brought the dollar down to an export-friendly level for Americans, but internationally it also raised the price of goods traded in dollars, which meant price rises in basic commodities, such as bread.
The consequences were predictable. "On 17 January ," Mason writes, "three days after the Tunisian president's fall, a 52-year-old lawyer in central Cairo shouted slogans about food price rises and set himself on fire. A man in Alexandria did the same. A third man - a restaurant owner - immolated himself outside the Egyptian parliament after quarrelling with officials over the price of bread." These self-immolations were in turn a major spark for the first big revolutionary confrontation with the regime at Tahrir Square.
It wasn't the price of bread that caused Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian whose unlicensed vegetable stand was the sole source of income for his family of eight, to kill himself in December 2010. It was the fact that he had been harassed and humiliated by local officials. But his death, which sparked the chain of protests that saw the eventual overthrow of Ben Ali, exemplified the combustible mix of economic stagnation and political repression that fuelled revolts across the region.
This would seem to go against the idea that the representative figure of revolt in the Middle East and elsewhere is the passionate young activist, smartphone in hand, defining the future in bursts of 140 characters or less, communicating virally rather than verbally. Mason doesn't dispute this. In fact, this group is central to his argument. But again, he notes that the emergence of this class of activist has also been driven by economic factors, especially massive rates of youth, and especially graduate, unemployment, now a fact of life across much of the western world as well as the Middle East.
At one point in Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere, Mason quotes the 19th-century French historian Hippolyte Taine on the underemployed lawyers, notaries and doctors who did so much to drive both the French Revolution and the commune of 1870. Following the crash of 2008, many of today's students and graduates are in a similar position. But where earlier generations of revolutionaries exemplified the enlightenment project of general emancipation, their successors have been trained to work in the info-capitalist context of zero loyalty, self-reliance and flexibility. They value skills over knowledge, fluidity over permanence, networks over hierarchy. Once, they were supposed to be the job-hopping consultants, freelancers and executives of the future. "The revolts of 2010-11," writes Mason, "have shown, quite simply, what this workforce looks like when it becomes collectively disillusioned, when it realises that the whole offer of betterment has been withdrawn."
This implies an entirely different mode of protest, one that pulls the Egyptians of January 25 together with the global Occupy movement, the tax-justice protesters of UK Uncut and the main organisers of the wave of anti-Putin demonstrations that recently broke out in Moscow and other Russian cities. It's not that conditions in the US and Europe are in any way as bad as across most of the Middle East, but that the constraints of universal austerity have exposed the various fissures and pressure points in societies across the world and that protest against these is commonly led by newly radicalised former aspirants to the middle classes.
This doesn’t imply leadership in the traditional political sense. Mason argues that these are people of the network, rather than the hierarchy. Their success does not depend on persuading people to join traditional organisations following set programmes, but in building up temporary coalitions – almost on a project-management basis – of unstoppable force, generated and amplified by adroit use of social media.
Sometimes the result is forms of protest that can seem exasperatingly self-indulgent. One such example was when the Occupy demonstrators sequestered some prime real estate in central London and only then established a kind of floating think tank – the Bank of Ideas – to establish exactly what it was that they wanted to change.
Yet the global Occupy movement also shows the strengths of new forms of protest. It originated in a blogpost on the website of Adbusters, an obscure Canadian-based altermondiale publication, calling for a sit-in on Wall Street. The call went viral and suddenly, in a completely unorganised way, people began to appear at Zuccotti Park in central New York. That was on September 17. By October 9, they were joined by demonstrators in 95 cities worldwide. As of January 22, “Occupy Together”, the movement’s online clearing house, claimed that 2,818 venues across the world were occupied in some way. The slogan of the movement – “We are the 99%” – seems to sum up its naivete. After all, if one thing is 100 per cent certain, it is that 99 per cent of us cannot agree on anything. Yet it is worth noting that the slogan has captured the public imagination and is now commonly used as shorthand for “us”, the largely powerless majority, as against “them”, the financially secure and politically connected minority. So increasingly, has the word “precariat” as a description of the growing numbers of people in all occupations working on temporary or part-time contracts, and again a word inspired by the
In Mason’s view, movements such as Occupy also embody the idea of the network as an ideology rather than just a technique, emphasising horizontal organising, a pullulating hive mind and a painstaking approach to consensus-building. This, he suggests, is a natural extension of the new activism’s social character. People trained to have few institutional loyalties flip into radicalism very easily and, since the same people have little grounding in conventional political organisation, they tend to adopt the practices and techniques they once may have used for careers or social lives to pursue a programme for social change.
The details of that programme can be worked out on the fly, arising out of the wider framework of grievances held by those attracted to the protest. What matters in the first instance is that the network of protesters can act more quickly and decisively than the hierarchy of the authorities they oppose.
Sometimes, network-driven protest can produce bizarre results, as with the attempt to launch a “Jasmine Spring” in China over the first few months of 2011. Inspired by the wave of Middle Eastern protests, a group of around 20 activists, mostly based in the US, staged a call for protests in major Chinese cities. The message was spread entirely digitally, through a combination of web pages and calls to action on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and it succeeded handily in crossing China’s Great Firewall external internet blocking system. The message was enthusiastically passed on by local activists and soon came to the attention of the authorities.
It was a message very much geared to the Chinese “99%”, citing common popular grievances, including abuses of power by Communist Party officials, land seizures, corruption and lack of affordable housing. Instead of staging conventional marches and rallies, protesters were asked to simply stroll about the shopping districts of major cities making themselves known to each other by smiles, brief greetings and maybe the odd handshake. They should, said the activists, make themselves both public and invisible.
Given that the idea was for demonstrators to make themselves indistinguishable from the normal run of people milling about in an urban environment, it’s impossible to establish what effect these calls actually had on the wider public. In fact, it’s highly likely that there were no demonstrations at all. But the calls certainly had an effect on the authorities. For several weeks, a couple of dozen activists based on the other side of the world effectively controlled the deployment of thousands of Chinese riot police, simply by announcing that a “demonstration” was planned in one city or another. In some places, entire city centres were announced to be temporarily closed for “repairs”. The people responsible may have failed to mobilise the Chinese public, but they did manage to hack quite effectively into the Chinese internal security system.
From what is known of the Jasmine activists, they conform to the type identified by Mason as the drivers of networked protest – which is no surprise, since while China is still posting very high growth rates it also has quite a severe graduate unemployment problem.
But one of the most severe digitally driven uprisings last year emerged in the UK, from quite another social class.
Over five days in August 2011 rioting erupted in London and 30 other towns and cities across the UK. Crowds of young men fought running battles with the police, looted shops and set buildings on fire. This was characterised by the government as an entirely criminal enterprise and the police came under a great deal of criticism for not dealing with it more severely and effectively.
But the police were not so much out-fought as out-thought. Rather than simply confronting the police, rioters split into groups and adopted the kind of swarming tactics normally found in the more avant-garde reaches of military theory, constantly on the move, dispersing and reassembling to hit pre-identified targets without police cover, and using the BlackBerry messaging service to coordinate their movements.
Research by the London School of Economics later found that most of the rioters were what are called Neets in the UK – young people Not in Employment, Education or Training – people at the very bottom of the socioeconomic pile. Mason notes in his book that he had seen people very like them before, at protests against the withdrawal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a subsidy to poor families designed to enable their children to stay in higher education, which was in turn one of the first victims of the coalition government’s turn to austerity after its 2010 election. Here, in short, was a BlackBerry-enabled return of the repressed.
Perhaps ironically, the police trying to control the riots were described by their own union leader as “demoralised” by changes made to their pay and pensions by the new government. This was echoed more directly by his counterpart in Romania this January, who threatened to take his men over to the side of the demonstrators if their wages were not paid. The same austerity agenda driving protest may also be eroding the suppressive capacity of the state.
Even so, if we include the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as examples of a global wave of protest, so far they are the only two successful examples. In his book, Mason notes that many of the same economic factors were at work in Greece as in Egypt, that protests there involved many of the same kind of people and were duly blasted out in innumerable tweets, Facebook walls and YouTube videos. Yet none of this was enough to force change at the top. Instead, he notes an increasing disengagement with the whole process of formal democracy by the Greek public, even as politicians of all parties unite around an austerity agenda increasingly dictated at a supranational level through institutions such as the IMF and the European Central Bank.
Greece is not alone in adopting this technocratic tendency. It’s also a feature of government in Italy, where prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was removed not by the will of the people but at the insistence of international creditors, and in Spain, where the new Partido Popular government was elected by a huge majority but still seems more interested in the approval of Angela Merkel.
What seems to be evolving is a kind of standoff: “the 1%” are increasingly reliant on sheer administrative power to impose solutions from above. “The 99%”, meanwhile, have the choice between accepting these solutions, or adopting the techniques of networked protest to make them impossible to impose. In Paul Mason’s terms, the network is facing off against the hierarchy. Mason is convinced that, eventually, the network will win. It’s not clear to me from the current state of play that this will turn out to be true. But what is clear from his brilliant account of global economic insecurity and state-of-the-art protest is the fact that the majority of us (the 99%) very much need it to be true.
Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China and its growing interaction with the rest of the world.