Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

REVIEW:”Why it’s kicking off everywhere: the new global revolutions”

In A.Graham, Reviews on September 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm

by Paul Mason (published by Verso, 2012, price £12.99).
Review by AG.

Paul Mason is the economics editor for the BBC current affairs programme, Newsnight. Having such a high position at the Beeb, you might expect him to produce something, shall we say, a bit more “establishment” in tone?

But what he does give us is a work that’s informative, enlightening and sympathetic – but very disparate. When you feel that you’ve grasped the connecting thread, he veers off along another track, and the readers’ perception is forced to shift.

In the opening chapter we’re in a Coptic Christian slum community in Cairo. The mainstay of support for those who live there is recycling rubbish The garbage is collected, sorted, and sold on. Thus the community made a precarious living – until Mubarak took this this living away from them.

Those from communities like this were in the forefront of the rising tide of protest that became the Egyptian Spring.

Mason moves on to the student protests in London, and the politicising effect it had on young people. And from there he takes us on to Athens, in the summer of 2011, with street protest and anger at its height.

DIFFERENT INTERESTS:

He sees three elements at play in much of the political unrest – the plight of the urban poor, organised labour (ie, the trade union movement) and “graduates with no future” – in other words, those who have gone through university, amassing debts in the process, and now face a bleak prospect of unemployment. Sometimes these three elements come together, but at other times they have their own separate agendas.

As for the trade union movement, once the mainstay of political protest, he sees this as a declining force, thanks to finance capitalism’s demand for unskilled labour plus the long-term impact of anti-union legislation. The TUC demonstration on the streets of London was indeed impressive, but the movement was unable to sustain the momentum. Meanwhile it was the “guerilla” activities of anarchist groups and the “Occupy” movement that gained the headlines.

The “new protesters” are not rooted in history, as is the organised labour movement. But they’re well-versed in modern technology. Mobile phones, i-phones, “twitter” and You Tube are their new weapons. It’s no wonder that governments throughout the world are now trying to control and suppress these means of instant communication!

STEINBECK RE-VISITED:

There are some chapters that are quite moving. Mason sets out to retrace the journey taken by the Joad family in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, at a time when thousands fled the drought-stricken state of Oklahoma to seek a new life in California, back in the 1930s. Circumstances have, of course, changed – but once again depression hangs over the USA, and the mid-western states are once again suffering the impact of drought.

It’s a grim picture, of seedy motels, lack of work or hope – and an internment camp for Mexican immigrants in New Mexico – all against a backdrop of bible belt Christianity, with radio and TV “shock jocks” spreading the poisonous message of the right-wing “Tea Party” movement.

One question worth posing is why do certain decades become marked by a surge of protest and revolt? The last major wave was in the 1960s-early 1970s, the time of anti-Vietnam war protest, students occupying their universities and heady ideas discussed. One might wonder what happened to that ‘sixties generation (some of course ended up in the “New Labour” government), but for Mason the nearest parallel to the contemporary wave of revolt was back in 1848.

The social change that was taking place then, with the rise of industrial capitalism, was accompanied by new technology that allowed for the rapid spread of ideas and social forces. Then it was the railways, and improvements in printing technology. And an uneasy alliance of workers, students and the middle classes came together to pursue their revolutionary ideals.

The alliance didn’t last, and revolutionary gains were soon lost. But out of it all the ideas of modern Socialism were born, and the new world created was very different from the old.

Mason suggests that today new technology is equally important in spreading ideas and action – but now it’s the mobile phone or “social networking” via twitter, etc., erc., is being used by today’s revolutionaries. And engines such as You Tube have been able to spread images of action across the world far more quickly and effectively than the conventional media is capable of doing.

The last chapter looks at the shanty towns created by the slum dwellers in the Philippines. Even here, he suggests, new forces are at work and fresh social models are emerging.

Two final points, however. Mason does imply that old patterns of protest, based on a set structure and traditional patterns of pursuing goals, are now being superseded by something far more fluid and perhaps immediate. Maybe so – up to a point – but in terms of laying down a solid base for change it makes today’s protesters appear very ephemeral.

Those rooted in the history of protest and the ongoing struggle for a better world perhaps still need their heroes – the examples from history that can still keep us rooted in the reality of the struggle. Mason quotes the case of Joe Hill, an organiser for the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) who was executed by firing squad in the state of Utah in 1916. He doesn’t however quote the song that was written after his death. I can’t remember all the words, but it went something like this:

“I dreamt I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me,

Says I but Joe you’re ten years dead –

“I never died” says he.

“The copper bosses killed you Joe, they shot you Joe,” says I,

“Takes more than guns to kill a man,” says Joe, “I didn’t die”

.”… from Santiago up to Maine,

In every mine or mill,

where working men defend their rights

It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill…

It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.”

This book remains an important contribution to the debate on where we go from here. It should be read widely. Get hold of it if you can – read, and inwardly digest!

AG

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  1. An Alternative to Capitalism (since we cannot legislate morality)

    Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed: “There is no alternative”.
    She was referring to capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still persists.

    I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism for the American people to consider.
    Please click on the following link. It will take you to an essay titled: “Home of the Brave?”
    which was published by the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

    http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/steinsvold.htm

    John Steinsvold

    “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
    ~ Albert Einstein

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