Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Review: Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere by Paul Mason

“I believe right now that we are sleeping on a volcano.  Can you not sense by some sort of instinctive intuition… that the earth is trembling again in Europe?  Can you not feel the wind of revolution in the air?” -- Alexis de Tocqueville, speech to the French Assembly in 1848 (192)
In Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, Paul Mason attempts to trace a common thread through the various populist revolts that have taken place all over the world during the past half decade.  Mason covers events such as Greek protests (in 2008 and 2011), the Tunisian, Iranian and Egyptian uprisings, UK protests and riots, Spanish indignados, University of California student protests, Israeli J14 protests, and Gaza War protests.  

In a work he insists is “journalism” and not “social science” (2), Mason’s thesis is that “We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in human consciousness about what freedom means.” (3) In chapter four, Mason identifies the three major causes for the uprisings as 1) unemployment among educated youth 2) the spread of communication technology 3) horizontalist means of organizing (“a network can usually defeat a hierarchy” (77)).

Mason is careful not to be too sweeping with these generalizations, prefacing his book with the disclaimer that “The book makes no claim to be a ‘theory of everything.’” (2)  Indeed, he notes that other demographics have different motivations for rebellion; he notes that the Egyptian poor “responded to two issues in particular: police brutality and the price of bread.” (13)

Mason points out the folly of those who predicted that such massive social foment was impossible.  He cites Fredric Jameson (“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” (27)), various media outlets, pundits and politicians as being dead wrong on the subject.  The signs of coming unrest were there to see, he observes, if only one didn’t write off Iran and Gaza as being about Islam and Greece as an anomaly.  Furthermore, radicals were voicing their opinions about imminent upheaval; Mason points to UC Santa Cruz’s Communique from an Absent Future and The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection (which, humorously, of mainstream media members only the right-wing demagogue Glenn Beck seemed to notice) as influential texts.

In a couple chapters that feel misplaced, Mason visits some decidedly non-revolutionary locations: despairing Middle America and the crowded Philippine slums.  I suppose the subtext is that these locations could be politically significant if they got angry (well, Middle America already has that down but the Philippine slums are strangely placid) and organized.

Mason flirts with many historical comparisons to the present moment -- The Paris Commune, the 1905 Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Weimar Republic, The French Revolution, Paris protests of 1968, The Berkeley Free Speech Movement, etc. -- but eventually devotes a chapter to explaining how “the events of 1848 provide the most extensive case study on which to base our expectations of the present revolts.” (173)  He ends up concluding that “What becomes of the present wave of revolts -- political, social, intellectual and moral -- now depends completely on what the global economy delivers.” (192)

Mason’s narrative about the primacy of economics as a factor in politics and the factors compelling the uprisings is convincing.  However, despite his insistence that social science is not the book’s aim, Mason does occasionally stray into it, with less than satisfactory results.  He is better when sticking to his journalistic guns, detailing his adventures through the tear-gas filled streets of Athens, or analyzing the proximate causes of what he is experiencing.  His ventures into amateur political-economic analysis are interesting, but leave more to be desired.  In sum, Mason provides a short, readable and entertaining trip around the revolting world, crafting a necessary and sufficient explanation for the worldwide protest movement.

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