Book review: Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere

That the Middle East will adopt democracy is far from certain. Picture: Getty
That the Middle East will adopt democracy is far from certain. Picture: Getty
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A lone voice in the blogosphere spawns a new appraisal of how the net is inspiring global protest, writes Kenny Farquharson

THE senior journalists entrusted by the BBC to explain to us how the world works are almost always establishment insiders. Andrew Marr is the consummate Westminster animal. Robert Peston is a habitué of blue-chip boardrooms. And John Simpson has downed many a G&T with diplomatic types in St James’s clubland. Generally speaking, the Beeb’s most senior analysts share the world view of those whose actions they are tasked with reporting. The glaring exception to the rule – and long may he continue to get away with it – is Paul Mason.

As economics editor of BBC2’s Newsnight for the past decade, Mason has enjoyed an astonishing degree of free reign as the most high-profile former Trot on the telly. He used to be a member of the revolutionary communist faction Workers Power, which sees itself as heir to Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International. These days Mason is coy about his political views, describing them as “complex”. But we, the viewers, have good cause to be thankful for his antecedents.

Old lefties have their uses. They are capable of looking at world events and seeing not just isolated happenings and the actions of individuals, but the broad sweep of historic change, powered by dynamic social and economic forces. This gives Mason the confidence to step into the chaos of Tahrir Square, or the ferment of an Athens riot, or the tension of an Occupy Wall Street stand-off, and see what’s happening as symptom and consequence, not just actualité. This makes for great TV – direct, insightful and thought-provoking. But does it make for a great book?

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere started out as a single blog posting, composed one cold Friday night early in 2011 after Mason had given a talk to the Really Free School, a commune of political activists squatting in an 18th-century townhouse in Bloomsbury. His subject was the Paris Commune, but as the evening wore on it developed into a discussion about all the various revolutions talking place in the world and whether they were connected. Back home, Mason sat down at his computer, battered out his thoughts and pressed send. The blog went viral, discussed by radicals and would-be revolutionaries across the globe, and this book is Mason’s attempt to put flesh on its bones.

Mason explains how, after decades of stasis in a world controlled by seemingly immutable political and economic forces, change suddenly seems possible. This, he argues, is partly due to a global economic crisis that fundamentally challenges the credibility of the established order, from Athens to Santiago. But it’s also, he argues, a consequence of technological advances – especially social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter – that can turn a handful of rebels into the yeast that makes a nation rise.

With relish he describes how a “Jacobin with a laptop” can short-circuit the time-honoured and time-consuming conventions of revolution. This, he says, is as true of “the BlackBerry riots” in England last summer as it is of the Iranian revolt of July 2009. And it’s in this kind of comparison where Mason risks coming unstuck. Many readers will find it bordering on bad taste, if not downright offensive, to draw direct comparison between the Egyptian uprising (a very real revolution against a very real tyranny) and the Occupy movement (where the protest is often gestural, lacking both public support and intellectual coherence). Frankly, it’s an insult to the former and an aggrandisement of the latter.

You will learn something new and challenging on every page of this book – how Egyptian democracy protesters were getting nowhere until they stopped demanding elections and started demanding bread; how massive quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve caused a global surge in commodity prices that was a direct cause of Arab revolt – and the insights Mason offers into the 21st-century art of technologically connected revolution are fascinating. But the old Trot emerges far too often, and there is an element of wishful thinking in Mason’s attempt to link the unemployed Tunisian worker and the white dreadlocked anti-capitalist tussling with NYPD’s finest in Lower Manhattan.

His conclusion comes close to a call for a world revolution to end poverty and injustice. “If we go on as we are, the route out of poverty for billions of people will take generations,” he writes. “Meanwhile, a small elite will go on getting richer... But the events of 2011 show simply this: that no situation is hopeless, and everything is susceptible to change. Against the life-destroying impacts of poverty, inequality and monopolised power, millions of people now realise the truth of what was chanted in Tahrir Square: ‘When the people decide to live,/Destiny will obey,/Darkness will disappear/And chains will be broken.”

• Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere by Paul Mason, Verso, £12.99