It’s kicking off

imageTony Traub discusses Paul Mason’s new book.

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions

Verso £12.99

Paul Mason is a BBC journalist who is not afraid to confront the shortcomings of the capitalist system. This book is a very good account of the mass movements which in particular swept through the Arab world in the early part of 2011 but also the more advanced countries in the last couple of years.

Mason sets the scene with a description of the Egyptian revolution which swept away the Mubarak dictatorship early last year. He describes the conditions which gave rise to the uprising. “Like all modern slums, Moqattam is really a giant informal factory: its micro-economy is both essential to global capitalism and in the process of being destroyed by it”. For the majority of modern times the slum had its own trash collection system with the rubbish being collected by so-called zabaleen or ‘garbage people’. They fed the organic waste to their pigs and recycled the remainder. In 2003 Mubarak son Gamal oversaw a privatisation programme which saw 3 sanitation companies – 2 Spanish and one Italian – being given lucrative contracts and come in to ‘modernise’ the city’s waste collection system. However this just led to chaos with most of Cairo’s residents refusing to use the big plastic bins which were now placed on street corners (prior to this there had been door-to-door collections). The rubbish just piled up. In an act of spite, the regime ordered the mass slaughter of pigs, ostensibly in response to the swine flu epidemic of 2009. It led to a virtual uprising in the slum which was then heavily suppressed by the regime’s thugs.

Mason traces the revolution to the strikes and rebellion in the Delta city of Mahalla. 400,000 people rioted for 3 days in 2008 in response to the suppression of a textile strike and rising price of food.

In late January 2011 people responded to the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia. Facebook played a large part in mobilising young people. A few set themselves on fire. The student activists went to the slums and mobilised the poor. The urban poor responded to two issues in particular: police brutality and the price of bread.

On January 27 the government switched off the Internet but this simply spelt its own death-knell. Mason traced the overthrow of the regime to splits with the army which had its own economic interests. Mason gives a good account of the workers struggles which rocked Egypt. There was a rebellion of workers outside the framework of the state-run unions.

Mason gives a flavour of why the experts didn’t see the warning signs of the Arab spring. Even when Tahir square was occupied, Clinton dismissed it, saying the Egyptian government was stable. He then goes into a discussion about the impact of the Internet on modern revolts.

Mason then goes to give an overview of the present situation in Western countries. From late 2008, various events triggered the present situation. Firstly there was the Dec 2008 uprising in Athens. For 3 weeks after the police shooting of a 15 year old student, there was rioting in the city.

The next trigger was the Dec 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza. This brought together disaffected youth at all levels into the struggle.

After Gaza came Iran’s ‘Twitter revolution’. There was widespread fraud in the elections and pictures of the brutality of the state against the demonstrators found its way into the social media. Indirectly the Gaza and Iran rebellions led to the student protests in various Western countries, including US and UK. Because of the gloomy economic situation students suddenly lost their faith in the future. Mason talks to a lot of young people involved in the protests to find out what motivated them. He talks about the big UK Uncut protests which closed down some Vodafone stores. At the end of November 2010 there was a huge student march in London which ended in violence. In Hyde Park half a million trade unionists marched in biggest rally. Then Mason talks about the riots in London during 2011 which resulted from death of Mark Duggan.Mason analyses the reasons behind the present revolts:  One underlying factor is the graduate with no future. Across North Africa there was 20 per cent youth unemployment.

Mason believes that technology led to the expanded power of the individual and fomented social unrest. He talks about the differing networks and the role they play. “Facebook is used to form groups, covert and overt, Twitter is used for real-time organisation and news dissemination, YouTube is used to provide instant evidence of what is happening. In the Arab world, blogging has been most influential in the Arab world to bypass censorship.

Young people suddenly had no faith in their future. Mason talks to a lot of young people involved in the protests to find out what motivates them – he talks about UK Uncut which closed down Vodafone stores. At the end of November 2010 there was the huge student march which ended in violence. In March 2011 there was the massive trade union rally in Hyde Park. In August there were the riots which erupted over the death of Mark Duggan.

Mason talks about the impact on technology on society, in particular modern methods of communication such as e-mail, Twitter plus Facebook. Talks about the networked individual although I must admit he lost me here! Here again Mason uses academic jargon to describe what are essentially the motivating forces behind the activist movements. The significance of 2011 was that people realised that instant collaboration could extend out of Facebook groups and wikis and that amateur news could be more reliable than the professionally produced propaganda of TV networks. Mason then goes on to discuss how the nature of learning has been transformed.

He also goes into the underlying economic factors behind the Euro crisis. This is a very clear analysis and goes into the forces which led to the huge debts incurred by the likes of Greece and Ireland. He also devotes a chapter to the US where he spent some time.

Overall, the book is a good account of the mass movements which have led to the present situation. He stresses how in many ways the majority of young people involved in present struggles have not taken part in traditional left politics. This is something radicals have to relate to.


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