Book Review: Paul Mason, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere

Published online 10 March 2012.

I was attracted to this book by this interview on Alternet some time ago — it’s a scintillating interview, and it heats up especially well with the discussion of “capitalist realism” on page 2.  Mason, then, thinks the “capitalist realism” narrative has collapsed, and this was what most interested me about this interview.  It gets especially exciting over on page 4 where Mason asks:

What is the story now? Can you tell me what the story is that capitalism has to offer in the developed world other than a race to the bottom on wages?

Oh and here’s this real gem of a question for the Ron Paul-haters here at DKos:

When I observe the left, I still think that’s the job of work they would need to do. It’s no accident that the only coherent and holistic model on offer to America right now in the election is the Ron Paul model. He’s clear on what it would mean—a return to 19th-century-style capitalism, boom and bust, poverty. Where’s the left’s equivalent to that? Where’s the left’s statement of what it is?

Ron Paul is a repulsive sexist and racist, but he has a coherent answer to the existing dilemma, even if it is wrong.  Do you have such an answer?Well?

Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere is a pretty exciting book — it’s about the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement and the various uprisings in Europe.  Mason’s analysis of events is pretty on target, and his skills as a storyteller are pretty fully in evidence.  Moreover, Mason attempts to theorize that which he is seeing — he’s read a lot, and there are enlightening aspects of what he’s doing although he is all over the place theoretically.  In this book review I shall try in some way to sort out what he’s doing in the book.

The beginning of this book is a brief and anecdotal history of the Arab Spring, with an interlude as regards “capitalist realism” — the belief system which, according to Mason, dominated the politics of both Right and Left up until recently.  Mason suggests that “the Left,” whatever that was back then, believed throughout the ’90s and ’00s in the indefinite tenure of the capitalist system, that economic exploitation, political domination, and mass media flak would form an unchallengeable system of power.

But economic dislocation and the emergence of social media as networking tools unveiled a different reality, one which defied “capitalist realism” and created a new world of protest.  Mason claims that “the age of capitalist realism was over” (p. 39) amidst Paris protests in October of 2010.  Now, much as I approve of Mason’s optimism, I can’t bring myself to believe in what he said there.   In reality, the protests, from French rallies against hikes in the retirement age to the Arab Spring to the breakdown of Greek society to the Occupy movement, have perhaps shaken the foundations of capitalist realism a bit — but what dawns upon us still (asGopal Balakrishnan speculated back in 2009) looks like a period of “drift” in which “In the absence of organized political projects to build new forms of autonomous life, the ongoing crisis will be stalked by ecological fatalities that will not be evaded by faltering growth.”  Thus “capitalist realism” still appears as the alternative to that drift.

Mason highlights an interesting manifesto titled Communique from an Absent Future, written in 2009 by a UC Santa Cruz student, which reveals the dilemma of the “student with no future,” that group of students who face the same job at Starbucks regardless of how many years they spend attending college.  Mason himself argues it as follows:

Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, students had been told they wre society’s new archetype.  Their knowledge work would ensure a prosperous future; their passion for personal electronics would keep China’s factories in business; and their debt repayments would fuel Wall Street for half a century.But by 2010, students all over the developed world were coming under economic attack, through a combination of fee increases, hikes in the cost of student credit and a job downturn that had seen casual work dry up. (p. 38)

Thus protest becomes the main recourse of those whose mainstream avenues appear to be ending in cul-de-sacs.  Mason is interested, then, in students, whose pursuit of degrees appears increasingly fruitless, but also in the underclass, with its growing access to the Internet, to cell phones and Facebook and Twitter such as proved invaluable in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.  The underclass, of course, is also interesting for its growing frustration with predatory policies under neoliberal governance, whether it be of the US government, the Greek government, or the Egyptian government.Mason waxes glowingly about the power of social media and of the Internet.  After his chapters on the Arab Spring, on the economic downturn, and on the protests in Britain and Greece, he discusses the power of social media in creating (among other things) Occupy.  His seventh chapter celebrates “the rise of the networked individual”: here Mason suggests that “the 1960s laid the basis for a new model of individual freedom which, though never fully realized, was at least clearly conceived: it’s been labeled ‘networked individualism” (130), and the new social media have set it free.

Here the author speculates:

If you are an anti-utopian and want to build a socially just society starting from the most modern and advanced forms of capitalism, what exactly is that most advanced form?  What if it turns out not to be Microsofit, or Toyota, or another highly profitable corporation, but instead this emerging, semi-communal form of capitalism exemplified by open-source software and based on collaboration, management-free enterprise, profit-free projects and open-access information?Iinstead of waiting for the collapse of capitalism — the emancipated human being were beginning to emerge spontaneously from within this breakdown of the old order?

The problem, of course, is that the “post-industrial society” (as argued by numerous authors for decades now) is based on industrialism, and specifically upon industrial capitalism.  Someone still has to manufacture those microchips through which dictators are overthrown (and, perhaps, new ones are installed).  Meanwhile, nobody is waiting for the collapse of capitalism.  To be sure, the new pseudo-democratic “leaders” still have to deal with great masses of people possessed of Twitter and Facebook, with which to instigate collective revolt.  But the elite 1% and their political patrons still have plenty of tools with which to confuse the masses, as the pundits continue to crow over “economic growth figures” that would have elicited their sneers four decades ago.  Those of us who didn’t believe in “capitalist realism” when it was popular are not surprised that it’s drawing a few questions now.  We still think the revolution is yet to come.Mason concludes his book with rousing chapters on the life of the underclass in the US (here he follows US route 66, the trajectory of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” from Oklahoma to Arizona), and the life of the underclass in the Philippines.  Even if there is an ambiguous lesson to be drawn from busted-farmer Oklahoma, anti-immigrant Arizona, or the slums of Manila, Mason’s writing is entertaining.  His book has broadly expanded the debate about social change, making important connections between the Internet, popular revolt, economics, and the dubious future of the capitalist system.  Recommended.

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