Paul Mason’s blog turned book is definitely the read of the moment. It’s compelling reading and its explosive content is being updated and underlined by the minute. At the time of writing there is a forty eight hour general strike rolling out in Greece. Once again Athens is the scene of angry rioting and police attack. Syria is collapsing into civil war and Egypt shows no signs of quietly settling into a new military dictatorship. The Eurozone still hovers on the edge of implosion and the world economy shows little sign of dragging itself out of recession. The debt mountains grow ever higher and the government imposed austerity measures are imposing misery on those who can least afford it.
And they don’t work. In short, the rich are getting obscenely richer and the poor are left in desperation and destitution. No wonder it’s kicking off everywhere.
Mason offers his readers a wide range of anecdotal evidence to support his thesis that 2011 is a close parallel to the year of 1848, both years representing moments of revolutionary upsurge, only this time on a global scale. But what, Mason goes on to argue, makes our current protests and uprisings so pregnant with possibilities, is our new found global connectivity. Its a seductive argument complete with the powers of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, but in the end, not a fully convincing one. I cant help but feel that despite the social and political upheavals of the so called Arab Spring, despite the riots and protests in London, Athens and other western cities, and notwithstanding the more than impressive Occupy Movement springing up in over 900 cities and town, what Mason has really got caught up in is the froth of history.
Time and events may well prove me wrong on this assessment, and in one sense I hope they do. And when it comes to political predictions I have a pretty poor track record. Mason may be right on the ball, and the post war capitalist edifice may truly be on the edge of the precipice. Just one more shove and over it goes. But in Mason’s account there is much talk of revolution and freedom but precious little discussion as to what these slogans actually mean in the 21st century. What is the economic content of this revolution that Mason seeks to give expression to, and what is the essential nature of this freedom that he sees on every horizon?
The anecdotal material from Greece, from the UK, from the USA and from North Africa and the Middle East is powerfully presented, and the chapter from the slums surrounding Manila is particularly poignant. Put together, the whole truly seems greater that the sum of the parts. And it is equally true that the vague protests against globalisation that erupted a decade ago are now far more focused it is capitalism itself that is now in the firing line – at least by the more articulate youth around the world’s capital cities. But few of these protests actually define the economic content of their incipient anti-capitalist revolution. And for the most part, Mason himself avoids any precision at all on this all important question. Surely the transition from private capitalist ownership to forms of social, collective ownership will need to be the most conscious of all revolutionary changes, but Mason seems content, for now at least, with the noise and fury of the street.
It is probably a little unfair to suggest that Mason does not provide any polemic on the unfolding events. He does, and it is a highly provocative one. The polemic starts in earnest in chapter 4 where Mason states:
As well as a flowering of collective action in defence of democracy, and a resurgence of the struggles of the poor and oppressed, what’s going on is also about the expanded power of the individual. P65
This is the theme that Mason is keen to develop. For Mason, the new communication technology has empowered humanity to express itself individually and collectively in ways that were simply unimaginable just a few decades ago. Mason enthusiastically quotes sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris who is also swept up with the revolutionary potential of the new technologies. It is a movement without a name declares our learned sociologist. Of the new viral protests he enthuses that they are:
A trend, a direction, an idea-virus, a meme, a source of energy that can be traced through a large number of spaces and projects. It is also a way of thinking and acting: an agility, an adaptability, a refusal to accept the world as it is, a refusal to get into fixed patterns of thought. P66
Well all this may be true but it doesn’t stop the State, special bodies of armed men as Lenin would have it, imprisoning, torturing and eliminating the opposition. The jury is out on just who will prevail in the Arab Spring; the twittering forces of democracy or the jack boot of the State.
In the face of all this newfound enthusiasm for the newly empowered individual I find myself retreating back into my own dull economic determinism. Confronted with amorphous notions of freedom and democracy, supposedly enhanced by social networking, I am still forced to ask the same old routine questions; who owns the means of production and which class controls the state? Anyone who believes that the state would not close down Facebook in a moment if it felt existentially threatened is surely deluding themselves. Capitalism may be on the ropes but remember, there is nothing more dangerous than a cornered wild animal. Through a devilish combination of carrot and stick, the capitalist state still has huge resources to co-opt even the most vociferous of opponents.
Mason, undeterred, is now in full flow with his thesis of individual empowerment, claiming: The boom years of globalisation created a mass, transnational culture of being young and educated; now there is a mass transnational culture of disillusionment. And it transmits easily. P69
Yes it does, but so too does the debilitating and demeaning culture of global sport, fashion, monarchy and pop celebrity. Add to that the noxious ideologies of nation, race and religion and it is easy to see that capitalism is far from playing its last card- that of fascist dictatorship. And anyway, what does this army of disillusioned, educated youth really want a radical transformation of the way we organise the planet or simply a few more crumbs from the global capitalist cake? Is theirs a demand for a social economic system on a global scale or merely a petulant cry for a return to the boom years of endless credit and consumerism? Mean spirited questions perhaps, but questions that need to be put and answered.
Mason is not yet done. In fact he is warming to his task. Enlightening us hopelessly out of touch aging Marxist luddites, he writes: The network, in short, has begun to erode power relationships we had come to believe were permanent features of capitalism: the helplessness of the consumer, the military-style hierarchy of boss and underlings at work, the power of mainstream media empires to shape ideology, the repressive capabilities of the state and the inevitability of monopolization by large companies. They (the protesters) have used the very technologies that produced the atomised lifestyle in the first place to produce communities of resistance. P80
Hey presto! Monopoly capitalism and the repressive State that has subsided and protected it for centuries has been crushed, eliminated and consigned to the dustbin of history and all with the click of a mouse, a blog and a tweet. I think not!! As the ever expanding global proletariat drags itself off to work tomorrow morning for another mind-numbing, soul sapping day of toil, of which nine tenths of the effort will be expropriated by the capitalist owner, I am sure they will be heartened to know that their moment of liberation is just a tweet away.
The fact that so many voices in the Occupy Movement are openly and coherently polemicising against capitalism is indeed music to the ears but protests and revolts are not revolutions, though of course under certain material conditions and the accompanying ideological clarity things can move rapidly from one to the other.
In Chapter 7 Mason brings matters to a head and this chapter alone makes the book essential reading. Mason pursues his theory concerning the power of the networked individual, but not just the power to unsettle the global status quo but, and here is the crunch, the power to defeat the atomised alienation that capitalism inevitably and relentlessly engenders. Suddenly Marx’s youthful vision of humans slowly overcoming their alienation having seized and collectivised the means of production, is now possible, argues Mason, right here and now in the fight against capitalism. For Mason, alienation now becomes a state of mind rather than an economic category intrinsically linked to our dehumanising, subservient class role in the production process. Not for Mason the Marxist view that under capitalist commodity production every thing and every relationship including our labour power would inevitably become little more than a commodity to be bought and sold for maximum profit. I’m sure Mason once knew this well but in the heat and commotion of battle he is in danger of losing sight of the fundamental economics that underpins all our cultural and social relations. This is Mason on Marx and alienation a lengthy passage but a crucial one:
On individual freedom, Marx’s argument amounts to this: any project to deliver a classless society, with wealth distributed according to need, must be based on the most advanced technologies and organisational forms created by capitalism itself. It can’t be based on schemes originating in the heads of philanthropic bosses or philosophers. And you can’t return to the past. Capitalism, Marx argued, was heading in the direction of big enterprises, which the capitalists would own collectively via the stock markets. Co-ops and utopian villages were a distraction. You had to find a way to take control of this big stuff finance, Industry and agri-business and create enough wealth so that, when you redistributed it, it would eliminate human need. Only then, said Marx, could you begin to address the alienation and unfreedom at the heart of human existence. P14
That is a fair summation of Marx’s position and Mason correctly concludes: Because Marx believed capitalism could only atomise, only alienate, he concluded that this ultimate human emancipation, in which people would express their freedom through communal interaction, could only happen after it was gone. P143
Mason now thinks he no longer agrees. He boldly conjectures: The technological and inter-personal revolutions of the early twenty-first century pose precisely this question. Namely, is it now possible to conceive of living this emancipated life as a fully connected species-being on the terrain of capitalism, albeit in conflict with it? I don’t know the answer, but merely to pose the question is exhilarating. P143
My suggestion to Paul Mason is to stop travelling to the hot spots because clearly it is obscuring a scientific approach. Yes, the seeds of a non alienated humanity living in some form of communistic society can be seen all around us, from the humble amateur sports club organiser or the local charity workers whose only reward is the feel good factor. But these seeds cannot possibly germinate while billions of us must daily prostrate ourselves in the global labour market, selling the only commodity we are allowed to own our labour power. And if the global capitalist labour market chooses not to buy our labour power we are free to starve. Under these grim material conditions we can never free ourselves from our alienated self no matter how ferocious we tweet our plight around the world.
So how should we define the present era? Humans have, hitherto, built great nations, great empires and great corporations all with great human savagery. The next task, one that was falteringly started in the twentieth century, is to build a great global village with humanism at its core. I can concur with Paul Mason that our new found technological connectivity will act as a useful catalyst and even a cement in that most daunting of projects. Of course we cannot approach history from a quasi-religious, teleological standpoint. There is no certainty that we humans will succeed. No guarantee that we will successfully outgrow our tribal pre-history. A global, classless society may take another thousand years to materialise. It may never materialise. It may end prematurely in atomic dust. It may simply fail because the internal contradictions are too great. But either way, this is the sole remaining task of this earth based era. To fail will certainly see a relapse back into medieval barbarism as if we are not already barbaric enough. But this is not a task of choice as Mason implicitly suggests, but one of necessity. Every day there are a quarter of a million more mouths to feed. Soon there will be ten billion citizens on a resource finite planet. Either we cooperate or we perish collectively. It’s as simple and obvious as that.
I suggested at the beginning of this review that Mason was too caught up in the froth of history. Put that another way, we need to reassert the primacy of material production in the never-ending dialectic between consciousness and matter. How we survive economically will always and everywhere, in the final instance, determine what we think and how we think. The medium of communication may change but the primacy of matter over consciousness is for ever!