The journalist and author takes a break from dodging teargas to explain what’s behind the global revolution
“It really is THE revolution, it’s not a by-product of say Egypt or Facebook. The problem we’ve got is the systems that were constructed before this knowledge revolution took place are all creaky, and I don’t just mean banking, politics is falling apart. I see the revolutions of 2011 as part of humanity trying to just set it right.”
A year ago, shortly after the British student protests and in the middle of the Egyptian revolution, intrepid BBC journalist Paul Mason took a group of activists to the pub to thrash out the reasons behind this sudden upsurge in revolt. His subsequent, slightly hungover, blog post ’20 Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere’ went viral: “I was asking myself what is it that has flipped this generation over? I sat there with a bunch of activists and had a long discussion; we went to a pub and carried on the discussion,” he says as we sit down to discuss his forthcoming book, which follows on from that initial post to investigate the causes of this new wave of global struggle. “We tried to work it out, what’s causing it? I just published it on the blog, went to a party, came back, switched on the computer and there was something like 83,000 retweets.”
Why do you think your initial blog post struck such a chord with people?
I think because of the 20 reasons, there’s actually only three things. One is the graduate without a future. The second thing is the network; the network is key. The third is something that’s far less tangible but something I have begun to explore – the changes in human consciousness that come about when you are living in a networked society.
Du you believe there has been an evolution of consciousness?
The great political economists ask the philosophical questions. Adam Smith is well known for saying man acts as a rational human being and always pursues his own interest, and therefore capitalism is about you pursue your interest, I pursue my own interest, and from that comes a benign deal. That’s only one of his books, his other big book is about how that is not enough – Smith writes that we’re also intimately connected people. So, Smith’s two giant books are about the nature of humankind – they’re not really about economics. That’s why, I’m no expert on social psychology, but I’ve tried to read into the debates, and the anecdotal psychology about internet users, and what we were discovering among geeks in the mid-90s is now a mass phenomena.
The standard commentary at the start of the internet era was that it was turning us all into rampant individualists, publishing stuff about ourselves all the time, but this is saying it’s evolved beyond that.
Yes, what I’m saying is several discrete things – first of all, that as one of the experts says, the more committed someone is to what you might call autonomy and freedom, the more they use the internet. But over time, this is the observation, the more they use the internet, the more committed to autonomous and free lifestyles they become. Now, that is a phenomenal discovery! What it means is it’s not the old thing Rupert Murdoch said, “There’s digital natives and digital migrants.” If you’re into the social aspect of the digital world, you’re on a moving escalator up to somewhere where we don’t know the end. Whereas if you’re not, you’re still in the old word…
It's time for everyone to get on board…
There’s time to get on board, and being on board *changes you*. In the hierarchal world, the basic structure of say a communist party or guerrilla group or a Labour party is more or less the same between 1900 and 2000. But the form of a student occupation changes every year. Because there is this massively sped-up feedback loop of learning. People reading your magazine, people growing up in that world, understand implicitly that we better not create something that’s too hierarchal, otherwise it’s going to screw us round later. Why didn’t Mubarak in Egypt implement a fascist style of dictatorship? Because he couldn’t. For two or three years before the Egyptian Revolution, on Facebook 70,000 people were all liking a technically illegal page, putting their real name. That means the dictatorship can’t handle the networked form of protest. People implicitly understand the hierarchy’s doomed.
What do you think about this desire to occupy a physical space, like Tahrir or Wall Street?
It’s a meme, oldsters don’t get memes. But memes are a rough and ready democracy – that is, something works if you see it working. It's not an advertising message created from above, it’s created by people and the meme spreads. The success of Tahrir spread everywhere else. It means you’ve got a fairly safe place to go – the educated youth, the estate youth and the workers can mingle on neutral territory. It’s where the media can go to constantly get the message. Then you get the creation of a society. We forget now but Tahrir was one long party, in a way. There were folk singers, there were constant assemblies – people would get their laptops out and form a little group, talk, discuss…
People saw that and went alright, let’s do this. It is Syntagma Square, Occupy Wall Street, before that Wisconsin, and the Chileans. It allows you to create this experimental community. Remember by 2009-10, many people had been through this thing – Climate Camp for the committed, Glastonbury for the uncommitted. There is a big tradition now among youth, not just in Britain. In the history of protest, it’s quite common actually – in the Paris Commune, it was legendary that public revolutionary meetings were just clubs the next night and the night before. Dancing, singing, revelry, drugs… same as now.
Things are moving incredibly fast. Do you ever worry things will have changed so much by the time your book comes out next year that it could already be out of date?
The act of sitting down and writing something finished makes you try and say what is there that I’ve learned that will still be true in two to five years time? I think I’ve got it. It is the fact that we are facing the collapse of an economic model, that won’t be coming back, that its ruined the lives of generations and it will get worse. There is an unprecedented outbreak of the desire for freedom and the means to achieve it, and the network is beating the hierarchy every time the two go together. That’s really what the blog was about. I think that’s going to be true.
Though is Iran currently revolution-proof, do you think?
No, I don’t think it is. Above all in 2009 in Iran the workers took a backseat. What they looked at is, when we go on the streets, there’s no going on the plane to live with rich family in New York as there is for the students – if we die, Amnesty International won’t know our names. But Iran is 75% urban, the urban workforce and the educated youth are more than capable of doing what everybody else is doing in North Africa.
You say how these economic problems really began with the onset of globalisation. Ultimately, were the anti-globalisation protesters of the late 90s and early 00s right?
I think the anti-globalisation protesters were right about one essential thing and that was that globalisation has reformed the world in the interest of the rich. Now the old world of the 60s and 70s wasn’t exactly orientated to the interest of the poor, but the balance was closer. Can we move away from globalisation? We have to try and make it equitable, we have to try and make it socially just. This is the choice that faced people in the early 30s – do we carry on with the old system at the cost of ruining people’s lives, or do we just change? If changing means reordering the world, then let’s reorder it.
Do you think you are emotionally close to the activists you write about? Not many BBC editors get invited to give political lectures in squats.
I think the worker’s movement in its 200-year history is not the history of trade unions, it’s the history of revolts and alternative lifestyles. The alternative lifestyles and freedom pioneered by working people, and the poor who decided to take control of their own communities and lives, remains to me the untold story that nobody’s interested in. I happen to be interested in it – I’ve been to China and reported on very ordinary-looking people who are organising trade unions and risking their lives to do it. To me, this is a continuum.
Am I emotionally close? No, because when you’re there in the riot the journalistic training kicks in and you’ve got to be quite emotionally detached and watch what’s going on, because that is the only way you’re going to do anybody a service. I notice stuff that other people don’t notice and write about it. In Greece, a demo is always two sets of people – communists (trade unionists) with red flags marching in orderly ranks with their crash helmets, and anarchists dressed in black with dreadlocks and nose rings. They don’t get on but they don’t like people writing about the fact they don’t get on. I’ve been smacked and messed around with for reporting and watching this happen.
Fighting between the workers and the anarchists and the students?
Yeah absolutely, they’ll go up to each other and try and batter each other and then when you go and try and film it, they’ll go and batter you. Certainly the anarchists will, and who knows whether some of those anarchists are in fact police provocateurs – that’s what they say. Whatever it is, you’ve got to go and report. To me, the deep detail is what makes reporting worth doing, and the preparedness to piss everybody off as well.
Will you be at the frontlines again this coming year?
I will be following it, filming it. 2012 hinges around one issue, and one only, and that is whether Europe implodes. It could implode financially. I’ve seen research where half the banks in Europe go bust if a number of countries leave the Euro. It could implode politically, so one country decides to take its bat and ball home and say sod this we’ve had enough. It could also happen socially, because southern Europe is full of the very tinder I’ve talked, youth, 40-50% of them with no job, no future – they’ve got a degree and highly intelligent. The world is at their fingertips knowledge-wise, but their country is collapsing around them. One would have to say in 2012, there is a high likelihood that set of people will say no more with what’s going on, and then who knows? You can’t promise them better. That’s where the danger of 2012 lies.
So is it all doom, or do you think there is really an opportunity at the moment to re-order things globally?
The argument is between the old world of capitalism, the market is king whatever happens… and human rationality saying no, we can create our own societies, our own solutions. Whether it’s a Climate Camp or a Tahrir square, or a co-operative, or a company like Google. When Google was tested in Egypt, it collaborated with the people. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a company do that, that’s true too of Twitter. That’s the zeitgeist, I’m incredibly hopeful about 2012 and beyond.
We ought to see the end of what I call ‘The Age of Greed’, the age where you just accept humanity can’t control the economy and the planet it lives on. It can, but we won’t go back to the old way of state control. It’ll be people’s control and that is what's happening now.
Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere is published by Verso Books in January 2012 / www.versobooks.com