Sunday, February 19, 2012

BOOK REVIEW - Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – the new global revolutions by Paul Mason

reviewed by Alan Woodward
This book – the author’s third – is a volume of two distinct parts. The first part follows the pattern of his first publication in that it looks at the experience in different countries while the second part offers some miscellaneous thoughts, comparisons and explanations on what is happening now in the Arab Spring , and Europe too . This are of quite different approach – and quality - and while sometimes separated neatly into chapters, are also put in sequence with factual reporting. Hence the overall effect is something of a mish mash. The book , or reportage as the author would have it, is certainly timely, with occasionally insights , and in places quite significant politically.

It is necessary to look at the two components as such and their strengths and weaknesses. Firstly we are taken through events in Egypt , Greece, the Philippines, USA and Britain. Paul Mason has visited each and records his experience from direct contact with the victims of the new capitalism of Thatcher and Reagan, especially in the current crisis. In Egypt for example he talks to many activists and in particular to the rubbish sorters in Cairo, their battles against Mubarak and the rapidly developing nature of their current collective fight back. This is unique and offers a genuine insight into the insurrection. Of course this personal approach cannot give a rounded account and one publication by Mouvement Communiste is more general . It also corrects a bias in the text which writes off completely the traditional labour movement’s contribution – it outlines in particular the strikes of the textile workers of Mahalla and their Organising Committee of Ten. This opening chapter does include new details about the use of the Facebook, and internet messaging etc but more on this later..

On Greece the story is darker, outright police oppression against the desperate protesters, even the tax collectors, in the demonstrations . There is only a sketch on the events of 2008 but the neglect of history runs throughout the book and is an integral fault. The on-going nature of the political crisis in Greece has been examined elsewhere and we can only await developments.

The situation in the Philippines revolves round some urban  "slums" in Manila, their astonishing solidarity and again a fight against local bureaucrats for their very existence. Here the resistance is piecemeal and fractured – apart from some brave community leaders – and the author is reduced to interviews with sympathetic professionals , priests and ‘ liberal’ city bosses. Even the erstwhile militias get no more than a brief mention without any talk of precedents. The example of these poverty stricken city dwellers is perhaps typical of new immigrants to urban life across the world but I would have like more information on this It could be said that the book in these sections presents merely an alternative travelogue rather than a proper journalist analysis .

Mason here sets out to follow the journey of the 1930’s ‘Okies’ who left the dust bowls of Okalahoma to find a better life in California, the theme of Grapes of Wrath. This turns into a long story about the poverty of the American poor – a seemingly endless tale of misfortunes. It seems few have the spirit of John Steinbeck’s Joads, and in particular the fortitude of Tom Joad and his acceptance of the necessity of a determined resistance to repression. The passivity theme is notable again in the travelogue text, which goes no further than a television programme would. On Britain the scene is better – there is a useful account of the student demonstrations in 2010, anti kettling and all that. UK Uncut gets lots of space and the story ends with the Spring time conventional marches against the government’s cuts. The riots are only briefly mentioned .

This section around the present revolts is curtailed by the method. Syria and Libya came too late and other pockets are excluded by the personal approach of this section. Personally I would have like a bit more on the events of the early 20th century when the communists were at their best with resistance . It is difficult sometimes to recall the era of outright oppression by fascists and absolute monarchs, and there is not much to thank the communists for after the suppression of the 1917 Russian workers councils, but the history of the period has some really heroic accounts of the efforts of pioneer communists in these countries. Just Egypt and Greece alone have such narratives [Perrault on Curiel]. Of course , subsequently their subservience to Moscow wrecked their credibility and support [Potter] This is all part of the inheritance and could be examined by the diligent reader.

Second element
Moving on from the factual pages to his general paragraphs, numerous themes can be identified but four are selected :
  • the role of modern technology,
  • historical precedents and references to Mason’s core beliefs in marxism
  • economic causes of the crisis
  • the exposure of British social democracy, in the form of the Labour Government , an event which has monumental political implications
Facebook, Blackberries and internet messaging
Mason is enthusiastic about the use of modern communications technology, as a key theme. He quotes some bloggers at great length and records, especially in Egypt, the extensive use of the text messaging service. There is no doubt that protestors and demonstrators clever use of this technology has enabled them to outwit the authoritarian and bureaucratic police services on many occasions. Even the State shut down of the internet in January 2011 came days after the crucial 25 January protests. Events had their own momentum by then. He digresses at length into the networked revolution, a quite new ingredient, and one that for now we can note, as no doubt the security force are also doing.

So just how significant are mobile communications in political events ? It is not enough to compare overall numbers to the population as Mouvement Communiste do – and dismiss it all - but equally, to elevate a method to a key element as Paul Mason does, seems to prejudge examination.

Precedents and explanations
In a preliminary historical analysis, the author believes that certain past periods allow strong comparisons with the immediate past decade. His points are mainly a recent rapid advance in technology, and the raised level of inflation in food prices. On this basis, he identified the 1848 revolutionary year and develops his point convincingly. A second period which he suggests invites comparison is that of the pre world war one, the great unrest up to 1914. The brief paragraphs are a useful insight but insufficient as conclusive evidence, and the comparison need further evidence.

Next Mason next leaps to political conclusions and tries to draw lessons from the early writing of Karl Marx before 1848 .Readers may recall that the philosophical explanations of society, based on the concept of alienation contained in marxist writings, were subsequently jettisoned in favour of massive economic research on the mechanics of capitalism. Marx and Engels also later clarified their beliefs and, drawing on other writers, structured them into a theory of ‘scientific socialism’ about the key role of the State and its associated political role for workers. It was this second point that led to the titanic battle with more libertarian forces of Proudhon and Bakunin . It was this concern with the latter’s prediction of a State and Party based revolution and its degeneration into a new totalitarian regime, that created division. For many, post 1917 Russia confirmed the prediction. The conflict lives on to the present.

Marx ‘s economic writings have a validity far above any other writer of the time, if the historical and political elements are ignored. But the valid points of economic analysis are frequently lost in the general rejection of the main political idea. The ‘scientific socialists’ keep using the core themes anyway despite the evidence, and the ideas surface regularly in a variety of sources Still it is difficult to understand how the general marxist theory of political action continues to keep the support of modern writers like Mason.

Overall it is clear that historical events do have a underlying theme , without sketchy political embellishments from Lenin and Marx, but the subject needs a more substantial volume than the presence treatment,

Economic causes
In a chapter entitled ‘Errors of the System’ , the writer neatly summarises the economic detail of the present world wide crisis This is concise and apparently comprehensive as a summary, and could make many other sources irrelevant – readers can investigate for themselves

The Collapse of the British Labour Party ‘s government and the future
Mason dissects the effect of the crisis on a government that boasted it had abolished ‘boom and bust’. The powerful pressure to cut back on spending to pay for the debts the bankers had incurred was disastrous for Labour . In the past , along with the Tories, they had announced that it was greedy workers and their pay claims , egged on by trade unions , that created the problem for capitalism. Since the miners strike - and other factors like mass unemployment – this facile excuse could no longer be used . The blame sat squarely with capitalism itself and now the compensating policy of welfare benefits and services were now to be removed as well.

Mason is relentless about the policy gymnastics that Milliband and co must undertake. Going beyond the domestic difficulties, he explores the future perspectives for capitalism. He draws attention to the experience of the great depression of the thirties and its consequences; protectionism, nationalism, devaluation, currency then trade wars, debt defaults and so on

He charts already the rise of the political rightwing , the Tea Party in the USA, many workers voting BNP in the UK and his picture of the possible developments are alarming to say the least. He does not cover the German led resistance to new capitalism and its insistence on State intervention but how strong that will prove in the wake of the Euro zone problems remains to be seen. This option appears as the only option for Labour, if it can take it.

What next ?
Hence the likely political implications for the decades to come expose the ideological ranting of David Cameron and associated Tories. To say their policies are futile seems an underestimate right now and the contributions of Nick Clegg just laughable. It could be speculated what effect political warning like this volume could have had if it were published in 1920 – could it have prevented mass misery and war and the killing of millions ? Probably not, and there is every indication that capitalism will again ignore perceptive commentaries of this sort and press on with more accumulation, money , profits , dividends and the like in the age old way. Mass resistance , workplace occupations and the move for a new society is the only alternative – and prospects for that seem bleak

Political perspectives and Conclusions

Finally we are drawn to tentative conclusions about the nature of the current insurrectionary events for those who think beyond conventional categories, leninist parties and other bandwagon joining.

At one extreme, there is the crude cynicism of some anarcho syndicalists for whom the whole events are little more that palace revolutions [ASR #56, Headline - Say hello to the new boss , now get back to work]. Eventually such a conclusion may prove to be a rough approximation to the truth but right now millions of people are registering their opposition to both new and old capitalisms – and taking to the streets as well. Egypt rumbles on and the decisive conflict is still to come; the masses in Syria fight against the armaments conveniently supplied by the capitalist regimes in Europe, North America, etc . Libya remains a confusing scene and in all the countries the working class, as a political force, are playing an active role in their future . This is active participation not the passivity our rulers strenuously promote. The potential of the mass revolt cannot be dismissed with a one line sentence above and we need to make further investigation.

  An even cruder offering by the marxist Counterfire group gives all the usual slogans but little else. [Rees]. When will these corpses finally get buried ?

A second option is that of a series of strong nationalist regimes, capturing popular opinion, and representing most crucially the military senior officers, in Egypt and other countries. Such a solution would not doubt be favoured by western capitalisms for their usual self serving interests. The role of the military, armed by the west, could subvert the whole ‘revolutionary’ process as capitalism attempts restoring stability through nationalism.

Thirdly , a new and darker dimension could be present but has so far eluded serious discussion . There can be no doubt about the heroic and courageous resistance being shown by the insurrectionaries now. The daily television pictures of people risking their lives against tanks and snipers and other weapons should stir our respect for these individuals and their struggles. Yet forces bigger than heroic individuals are involved in this and we need to look back at history , as this is not the first such event in the middle east region . I am referring to what we could call the ‘Iranian Spring’ of 1979 .

Equally courageously, the Iranian people in that year tackled the burden of the Shah, his secret police, armed force and his US backers. The risk was great, yet even in such circumstances local councils , or shuras, were established. Round these, the forces demanding political freedom firstly in the workplaces and then in society, managed to coalesce . The tyranny was thrown over and a new world opened up.

Tragedy however followed. The revolution was hijacked by fundamental Islamic groups who got rid of the original revolutionaries by various means and installed a new tyranny - religious in this case . Shuras/Councils were taken over, individuals arrested and a new state representing fundamental Islam put in place. This was a crude but similar event to the leninist subversion of the 1917 Russian revolution and the repression of the people has continued ever since. While the above summary has the main facts, Assef Bayat’s book gives chapter and verse of the whole relentless process. Persecution continues to date.

Now the present insurrectionary wave is different to the Iranian dispossessed revolution and Mason gives examples of muslims and christians working together on the barricades in Egypt. Yet the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, Party of Light , etc, is growing and still there. The muslim groups are already the largest in the Egyptian ‘parliament’. They protest their devotion to the system of capitalist representation but it is common knowledge that the revolutionary process is not yet over.

The Cairo masses continue to show their disagreement with the modest new government and there could be further movement either towards a genuine collective structure, or more worryingly, towards an emerging muslim state. From reports by Paul Mason subsequent to the book, it is clear that many of the insurrectionaries have noted the Muslim alliance with the Army and continue to struggle on regardless [Guardian] . The danger remains of a new fundamentalist regime, and it is likely to be similar to the present repressive Iranian one. Also, one of the springs of resistance to the undoubtedly radical uprising in Syria is that many are apprehensive about the nature of a replacement new Muslim state , and that is perceived to be hostile to christians for example. The memory of the Iranian workers’ councils remains in the people’s awareness, despite the Tehran tyranny.

For our purposes, Socialist Libertarians would like to see a system based on ground level bodies like workers’ councils. The embryo of such a system can be found in such bodies as the Mahalla Committee of Ten. As the later article by Mason points out , four of the workplaces occupied by workers have already been nationalised. Whatever the reservations we may have about State control, this trend is seen as a move away from freemarket capitalism. And such moves in past insurrections have turned out to be only a stage. It remains true that workers’ councils have been shown to be the model for advanced resistance in numerous countries at regular points in workers history. There is an urgent need for a socialist analysis , beyond this incomplete Paul Mason publication, that spells out the history and reiterates the genuine revolutionary conclusions

Lastly the author
Paul Mason is reported to have been active in the Leicestershire Miners Support Committee and the marxist grouplet Worker Power in the past, but now holds the significant position of Economics Editor of BBC2 ‘s Newsnight. Viewers can hear his concise and non technical reports most evenings. His first publication Live Working or Die Fighting – how the working class went global presented a round up of journalist- type reports of key strikes or insurrections in history and links each of these to a recent or current event from the ‘third world’. It is probably the best available introduction to subjects like insurrections and workers councils etc. His second book Meltdown is an explanation of the causes of the present crisis, and he has also written a fiction volume, Rare Earth.

The present volume arose from meetings with libertarian occupiers in London, and of course he has spoken at the ever popular London Anarchist Bookfair. He still leans heavily on marxist writings. The book however deserves a full recommendation, despite its ahistorical approach, with its summary of the state of play in the various countries. it was published in January 2012 but an edited reprint will make interesting reading later on.


 Assef Bayat: Workers and Revolution in Iran [1987, 227pp] recommended general text with traditional approach ;

 Anarcho Syndicalist review #56 : ‘Say hello to the new boss , now get back to work ‘ [ 2011, 11pp] ;

 Guardian, 1 Feb 2012 ;

 Paul Mason;; Live working or Die Fighting – how the working class went global [2008, 304pp]

 Phil Marshall: Revolution and Counter Revolution in Iran [1988, 128pp] ,

 Mouvement Communiste : Egypt : a historic compromise over an attempt at democratic insurrection [ 2011, 62pp] ; interesting and not expensive A4 publication from an active group ;

 Maryam Poya : Long Live the Revolution ... Long Live Islam ? in Revolutionary Rehearsals, edited by Colin Barker [1987, 270pp].

 Bob Potter : The Greek Tragedy - the failure of the left . Solidarity pamphlet 28 [1968, 38 pp] ;

 Giles Perrault : A Man Apart , the life of Henri Curiel [1987, 210 ] vol 1 of 2 ; Egyptian communist pioneer

 John Rees and Joseph Daher : The People Demand - a short history of Arab revolutions [2010, 141 pp] ;

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