by Anne Archist
Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason (allegedly a former member of Workers’ Power, though I don’t know if this is true or not) has written 20 theses on the current situation, particularly regarding anti-austerity dissent in Europe and the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East. He specifically asked for comments and replies on twitter, so I’m here to remind him to be careful what he wishes for…
1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future…
Is there? “It all” here refers not only to the student protests in this country, and the wider anti-cuts movement, but also anti-austerity mobilisations elsewhere in Europe and even the rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Can we put all of these down to the “graduate with no future”? I think not – my experience of the anti-cuts movement in this country is that it is largely composed of activists, students and trade unionists. Only some of these students have “no future” (yes, some people who do have secure futures are capable of dissent too!) and only some of them are in higher education.
2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany [sic].
True to an extent, but it is important to bear in mind the descriptive and potentially momentary nature of this. The fact that people are using the internet a lot doesn’t imply that people ought to rely on it; there is massive potential for these sorts of coordination to be hampered or prevented altogether if it becomes really necessary (apparently the USA are working on an internet kill switch that would allow the president to unplug the country on a whim).
3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.
There’s no reason to assume that truth moves faster than lies through social networks!
4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.
Au contraire – membership has risen for Labour and far left groups, and I’ve been in contact with sixth formers keen to learn more about Marxism and Anarchism, for instance.
5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.
To put this down to the development of modernised markets undermines the hard work that has been done throughout the history of social struggles to improve the lot of women within them. Would “modernised labour markets and higher education access” have ensured the same result without the input of socialist-feminists taking male leaders to task, the active and conscious selection of women as spokespersons for campaigns, the use of women’s caucuses in trade unions, etc? Most groups purposely and self-consciously deal with gender issues within the campaign, and to put the observation of women organisers/etc down to economic factors is to do a political disservice to these groups and to the hard work of women within them. Women had to fight for the position they are now beginning to occupy, and it’s by no means assured or entirely equal!
6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.
Perhaps Mason means something specific by ‘vertical’ hierarchies (are there such things as horizontal hierarchies?), but hierarchies of sorts certainly persist in the face of technology. They may be different kinds of hierarchies (those who have a smartphone vs those who don’t), and they may in fact be even less appealing ones. This is the sort of point made well in the classic pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness. At least a democratic hierarchy allows us to choose and change who is at the top; emergent accidental hierarchies may be decided by factors like income, etc.
7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.
I don’t have anything to add here…
8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.
Again, though, this idea of ‘networks’ can be dangerous if it leads to the formation of cabals that are unaccountable, personality cults, etc.
9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess [sic] – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.
People get unhappy when the economy turns to shit – nothing too surprising there.
10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.
I’m not entirely sure what this is about – how is it “compounded”? Maybe I just don’t understand what’s being said here.
11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.
But a revolution of poor lawyers produces a social order organised for rich lawyers – the French revolution was an essentially bourgeois revolution, this is no surprise. Unrest in the Middle East, China, etc may lead to a revolution of poor lawyers that throws off political repression and so forth (and this is by no means inevitable). More economically developed, liberal-democratic states are already organised for rich lawyers, however…
12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.
Well, this in itself is making very few claims – in what sense is the intelligentsia predominant? What has the relationship changed from and to? I’m not convinced that the claims it does make are true – the intelligentsia seems to have little to do with anything when it comes to the politics of the street that are emerging.
13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he [sic] old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.
This is a pedantic point, but it’s not a loss of fear if they’re young radicals that weren’t involved in social movements like this before, because they never had occasion to fear in the first place. Taking a day off from protesting (and occupying) is not as easy as it may seem – certainly you won’t get people threatening to break your legs, but you might reasonably expect peer pressure, guilt, and so forth. On the other hand, it may be true that the struggle these days is being fought in a more ‘tactical’ hit-and-run fashion. The question remains whether this is merely a transitory phenomenon or whether we are in a new era of struggle; soon we should be seeing a lot more industrial action, and we’ll see how comfortable people feel from having a day off then…
14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.
This isn’t to do with the changed nature of class relations within the movement or anything of the sort. The core activists of most campaigns do tend to overlap, and they always have done historically. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Socialist groups in the 60s in the USA would have had a place in the civil rights/black power struggle, the women’s liberation movement, the unions, community groups, the anti-vietnam protests, etc.
15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.
This is an interesting observation from an academic point of view, but I doubt as to whether it tells us much about the nature of the movements we’re examining.
16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons [sic] – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.
I don’t have anything to add here either.
17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.
This is romanticising protest aesthetics as if they were a source of political power in themselves – to paraphrase Mason, “they use graffiti” is missing the point of what they use it for. Furthermore, it’s always been possible to bring down a government without spending years in the jungle – “international pressure and some powerful NGOs” is not the way to do it, however. The Russian February Revolution was the work of the women proletarians and the product of bread queues. International pressure generally comes to nought unless it consists of foreign interference; Egyptians don’t want the US to replace Mubarak with a CIA-approved puppet, they want to force him out and decide what follows.
18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.
Again, this is part of the Laurie Penny narrative according to which young people have no truck with old-fashioned notions that social workers and billionaire property tycoons have conflicting class interests. This isn’t representative of the consciousness I encounter in the movement, however.
19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.
The task of socialists, of course, will be to reverse this, as it has always been!
20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.
Expanded the space of the individual? At this point Mason seems to be getting a little too keen on Foucault. It’s interesting that he mentions CCTV cameras as if they expand the power of protesters; this thesis forgets that for every blog there is now a tank, for every smartphone there is now a wiretap, for every soundsystem there is now a Forward Intelligence Team.