Paul Mason's an ace journalist who is currently the economics editor of Newsnight. This week he had a major article published in G2 called "The Revolution Goes Viral". It's basically a trailer for his new book, "Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions".
Global unrest: how the revolution went viralhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/03/how-the-revolution-went-viral
The past 18 months have seen extraordinary outpourings of discontent. But what links them? In this extract from his new book, Paul Mason examines how technology has been at the heart of the global unrest, and finds parallels less with 1968, and more with 1914
I got a call: would I do a lecture on the history of the Paris Commune for something called The Really Free School in Bloomsbury?
I turned up to the venue to find it was a squat. They had formed an ad hoc university, occupied an 18th-century townhouse in the heart of London and stuck a sign on the door saying "Journalists Fuck Off". Here was the hard core of the student protest movement . . .
The discussion buzzed: is it technology, economics, mass psychology or just the zeitgeist that's caused this global explosion of revolt?
One thing was clear: the events taking place across the world carried too much that was new in them to ignore.
There is something in the air that defies historical parallels: something new to do with technology, behaviour and popular culture. 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.
For the first time in decades, people are using methods of protest that do not seem archaic or at odds with the contemporary world; the protesters seem more in tune with modernity than the methods of their rulers. Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris calls what we're seeing the "movement without a name": 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 stuck into fixed patterns of thought. Why is it happening now? Ultimately, the explanation lies in three big social changes: in the demographics of revolt, in technology and in human behaviour itself.
At the centre of all the protest movements is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future.
The financial crisis of 2008 created a generation of twentysomethings whose projected life-arc had switched, quite suddenly, from an upward curve to a downward one. The promise was: "Get a degree, get a job in the corporate system and eventually you'll achieve a better living standard than your parents." This abruptly turned into: "Tough, you'll be poorer than your parents." The revolts of 2010–11 have shown, quite simply, what this workforce looks like when it becomes collectively disillusioned, when it realises that the whole offer of self-betterment has been withdrawn.
In revolts sparked or led by educated youth – whether in Cairo or Madrid – a number of common traits can be observed. First, that the quintessential venue for unrest is the global city, a megatropolis in which reside the three tribes of discontent – the youth, the slum-dwellers and the working class.
Second, members of this generation of "graduates with no future" recognise one another as part of an international sub-class, with behaviours and aspirations that easily cross borders.
The boom years of globalisation created a mass, transnational culture of being young and educated; now there is a mass transnational culture of disillusionment.
There is a third social impact of the graduate with no future: the sheer size of the student population means that it is a transmitter of unrest to a much wider section of the population than before.
This new sociology of revolt calls to mind conditions prior to the Paris Commune of 1871: a large and radicalised intelligentsia, a slum-dwelling class finding its voice through popular culture, and a weakened proletariat, still wedded to the organisations and traditions of 20 years before. It makes the social order of the modern city highly fragile under economic stress.
Technology, social change, institutional decay had unleashed something bigger than teenage angst. If this sounds like an 18th-century version of the "death of deference" complaint, well, it was. A deep social crisis was under way, then as now. But with one big difference: today, in every garret there is a laptop.
Social media and new technology were crucial in shaping the revolutions of 2011, just as they shaped industry, finance and mass culture in the preceding decade.
The crucial concept is the network – whose impact on politics has been a long time coming.
If you look at the full suite of information tools that were employed to spread the revolutions of 2009–11, it goes like this: Facebook is used to form groups, covert and overt – in order to establish those strong but flexible connections. Twitter is used for real-time organisation and news dissemination, bypassing the cumbersome newsgathering operations of the mainstream media. YouTube and the Twitter-linked photographic sites – Yfrog, Flickr and Twitpic – are used to provide instant evidence of the claims being made. Link-shorteners such as bit.ly are used to disseminate key articles via Twitter.
Underpinning the social media is mobile telephony: in the crush of every crowd we see arms holding cellphones in the air, like small flocks of ostriches, snapping scenes of repression or revolt, offering instant and indelible image-capture to a global audience.
And in all the theatres of revolution, blogs have offered a vital resource: somewhere to link to.The ability to deploy, without expert knowledge, a whole suite of information tools has allowed protesters across the world to outwit the police, to beam their message into the newsrooms of global media, and above all to assert a cool, cutting-edge identity in the face of what WH Auden once called "the elderly rubbish dictators talk". It has given today's protest movements a massive psychological advantage, one that no revolt has enjoyed since 1968.
Suddenly, the form of today's protests seems entirely congruent with the way people live their lives. It is modern; it is immune to charges of "resisting progress". Indeed, it utilises technology that is so essential to modern work and leisure, governments cannot turn it off without harming their economies. And, as Mubarak, Gaddafi and the Bahraini royals discovered, even turning it off does not work.
Because – and here is the technological fact that underpins the social and political aspects of what has happened – a network can usually defeat a hierarchy.
The pioneer of network theory, Walter Powell, summed up the reasons for this as follows: the network is better at adapting to a situation where the quality of information is crucial to success, but where information itself is fluid; a hierarchy is better if you are only transmitting orders and responses, and the surrounding situation is predictable.
Once information networks become social, the implications are massive: truth can now travel faster than lies, and all propaganda becomes instantly flammable. Sure, you can try to insert spin, but the instantly networked consciousness of millions of people will set it right: they act like white blood cells against infection so that ultimately the truth, or something close to it, persists much longer than disinformation.
Andre Gorz's definition of revolution: taking power implies taking it away from its holders, not by occupying their posts but by making it permanently impossible for them to keep their machinery of domination running. Revolution is first and foremost the irreversible destruction of this machinery. It implies a form of collective practice capable of bypassing and superseding it through the development of an alternative network of relations. By this definition we are in the middle of a revolution: something wider than a pure political overthrow and narrower than the classic social revolutions of the 20th century.
The radicals of the 60s were able to conceive the possibility of a new mode of human existence, but technology and the balance of global forces – class, race, inter-state rivalry – militated against achieving it. In the pre-1914 [Russian Revolution] period, the freedom zeitgeist, technological progress and globalisation were aligned. Now they are aligned again.2012 is already shaping up to be a very interesting year. Today President Obama announced massive reductions in United States military spending. Who says his period in office has been a complete failure? He even appears to have the military on his side on this one. It's an obvious thing for the USA to do, given their huge and unsustainable expenditure on their armed forces. But when was the last time an American president did things that were clearly necessary . . . and right?
The past 10 years have seen disruptions in the pattern of social life that mirror what happened in that era. But this time, it's happening at high velocity and across the canvas of all humanity.