2011: How Protest Changed the Debate (Part Two)

by Paul Mason, Maeve McKeown

In this second part of a two-part interview, Paul Mason discusses the main themes of his new book Why it's Kicking Off Everywhere; including the concept of equality, horizontalism and technological determinism.

First published: 02 February, 2012 | Category: 

Paul Mason is Economics Editor of BBC2’s Newsnight.  NLP is the media partner for today’s launch of his new book Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere.  Based on a blogpost that went viral in February 2011, Mason’s new book explores the global revolutionary social movements of the past couple of years.  In the second part of his interview with NLP co-editor Maeve McKeown, he discusses the concept of equality, horizontalism and technological determinism.


I’m interested in the idea you have that we could possibly live emancipated lives within a capitalist system.  I wasn’t entirely sure what you meant by that.  Do you mean that capitalism is needed to produce the technology upon which the type of emancipated, networked individual needs?

There’s one aspect of Marxism I always thought was completely disproved by the facts, and that is the idea that capitalism so dehumanizes a worker that there is nothing in the life of the worker (read today the ordinary Jo, salariat, woman in Starbucks) that pre-figures the kind of life they could lead if you got rid of exploitation and oppression.  Actually, the working class never bought that because all they ever did was construct alternative lifestyles based on solidarity, community and self-help - unbelievably complex and sophisticated societies when they had the chance in boom periods – such as the first period of globalisation in 1880-1915.

However, growing up in a cotton town, as I did, and having grandparents who lived in the Edwardian period, you could still buy the point that capitalism doesn’t give you the education, it doesn’t give you the access to knowledge, it doesn’t give you the time to do become a fully emancipated human being.  Ewan MacColl, the folk singer, described sitting in his bedroom looking down at the rainy slate roofs one after the other, and thinking it’s a dead, barren thing, the working class community.  That resonated with me.

So back then, you could still buy that aspect – the alienation idea.  But now, look now, go to a Chinese factory, yes they’re drudges, yes as they come out they look like a sort of army; but put them in an internet café and they’re off being god-knows-what – World of Warcraft dwarf, crossing-dressing whatever – they’re off living a parallel lifestyle.

For example, my town had a decent library – Leigh in Lancashire in the 1960s and 1970s.  If you wanted to break out of what you were being told by school, by priests, and you went to the library, there were maybe a hundred books worth reading in it that were vaguely alternative, vaguely interesting, not this stultifying rubbish.  You had to sit and wait for that book to come back in, you had to work out what the hell it was on about; you had to work it out in your own mind because you couldn’t turn round to somebody in the library and say “what is this?”  Now you can go on Wikipedia - quite a lot of the world’s knowledge is there.  As I point out in the book, academic knowledge is leaking out of the walled garden of intellectual property – it’s out there.  And the conversation is there, you can learn amazing things – how to pick guitar like a 1950s blues man – you don’t have to literally travel to Memphis, Tennessee and find one as you would have had to in the 1970s: now you get a little clip on Youtube.  I think this instant availability of knowledge, and the ability to use social networks to challenge propaganda, does challenge that Marxist account of what human beings can be under capitalism. 

I actually think that human beings want to live this connected life – that’s where Marx was right in 1848 - they want to live a connected life, that’s their natural thing to do.  He asked the right question. But now, actually only ten, fifteen years into the information revolution we are prepared to construct leaky personas, leaky selves, we’re prepared to share quite a lot of our inner thoughts out there in a trusting social environment on the internet.  I just think that is a fascinating glimpse of what kind of life people would like to live if they could free themselves of all constraints of necessity.

Even if some individuals, because not everyone has access to the internet, could achieve emancipation within capitalism surely we’d still have the problem of inequality.  Do you think we’re prepared to sacrifice equality for this kind of connectedness?  And also, you don’t really mention equality in the book; I didn’t see it in the index.  I was wondering in terms of the social movements of the past year, do you think that’s just not on the agenda for them, and in that case, can we really talk of them as left-wing social movements?

Good question.  First of all, they don’t use the concept of equality.  I think the concept of social justice is a coming concept.  But it’s in a process of definition.  I think John Rawls’ version of it is inadequate.  It’s very unfortunate that he cornered the term because his definition of it is just a reductive, arithmetical, utilitarian, piece of logic that seems to be devoid of any empathy for human beings.  For me, social justice is about a minimum standard of things that are essential to human life and as the economy develops those things become more extensive – so a mobile phone, internet access, food, personal freedom.  And what I mean by that is: freedom from some of the things that have previously defined inequality, because we’re beginning to define the social goals through a set of individual experiences.  I think the interesting thing is the word “equality” is ebbing away. 

What do people want?  The female hairdresser in Nairobi, probably lives in a slum; what she wants is to be free of the feudal relationship of the hairdressing salon parlour, where the woman who owns it is more-or-less your slave master, she more-or-less owns you.  You’re indentured, you’re there, there’s physical violence, there’s constant verbal violence, a network of family relations can freeze you out or put you six feet under if they really wanted.  Lots of parts of the developing world are like that.  What that woman wants is personal space – economic space, freedom from sexual harassment, freedom from physical violence, obviously food, shelter, a mobile (essential).  This is a good example because it’s a real example.  Once she gets a mobile the first thing she does is say “up yours” to the madame who owns the parlour.  She begs, steals or borrows as many of the contact numbers as she can from the clients, goes off and becomes a self-employed individual person. 

These stories are being replicated millions of times over in the developing world because of the combined impact of globalisation and technological advances. Thus what a lot of what that human individual wants can actually be defined through legal rights and what you might call socially acceptable norms and practices.  Therefore, maybe the absence of demands for equality is signalling to us that basic human existence has advanced so far that it allows people to conceive of a future more perfect state in a more individual way and the focus is less on pure distribution of wealth.  Again, I’m speculating so I could be wrong.

But not everyone’s reached that level.  There are still a billion people on less than a dollar a day.  And also, this idea that technology is the key to unlocking human emancipation – I’m not sure I entirely agree with you on that.  For the reason that there’s also a negative side to it – so things like online bullying, deindividuation where people can attack others online because they disguise their identity, trolling, invasion of privacy, the inability to disappear, and new forms of coercion, control and surveillance more generally.  New technology can also reinforce already existing forms of oppression and domination.  You talk in the book about a Masai woman who said her husband checks her mobile phone to see if she’s cheating on him.  While you say, ‘technology has expanded the power and space of the individual’, I also think it has opened up new ways to control individuals.  We might have gained something, but what have we lost?

There’s two questions there.  I agree with you that the existing forces of political repression, of gender oppression - and in the developing world it’s often something between the family, patriarchy, physical coercion aspect of things - do invade this new space, they are there.  All I would argue, if you take the pure example of trolling – the classic right-wing blogger, spewing out sexist anonymous rubbish and personal attacks on people, the point is what happens is that they can do that as long as they only want to be in the equivalent of a kind of Amish online community – that is, they can seal themselves off from the rest of reality. 

Except in extreme cases, everyone who’s a victim of this trolling or online bullying, what happens is: you find that the rest of online society kind of rallies round them.  There are far more decent people than there are not decent people.  Surely that’s the only basis of any progressive project in politics – that there are more decent people than there are bastards.  Therefore, purely at the behavioural level, you could say I accept that all these negative behaviours occur online, but my observation is that, certainly within movements, the empowering aspect has been stronger than the disempowering aspect. 

However, there is another part of it.  I think the forces of reaction and the forces of repression are very, very interested in how they can use this.  In fact all governments are.  The USA has cyber-attacked Iran, China is cyber-attacking the West.  Cyber warfare’s going to be a key thing in the twenty-first century.  We think about it as a side issue in warfare but it isn’t anymore.  All warfare now is thought about as space and cyber-enabled warfare. 

What the Americans model for, when they model defending against a cyber attack, is that there’s a forest fire in California, the worst one for twenty years because of climate change, and then somebody takes down the entire Californian information system.  Because they’re modelling for it, you have to assume they’re also modelling how to inflict it on other people.  So don’t think cyber warfare is just somebody coming in and doing a denial of service attack on you; it’s going to be very serious. 

Next down are the rather crazy attempts – like the Iranian regime ordered its reactionary thuggish militia, the Basij, to set up ten thousand blogs.  I’m not aware of the content of these blogs, but one can almost predict what they are, since they can only be the Islamic equivalent of a what North Korean blog would be, which is how great is the leader, how beautiful is the religion.  This is just not going to work. 

Right-wing plebeian movements can indeed use the internet, and I think they have done so successfully.  In America, for example with the Tea Party, it’s very obvious that they’ve used it.  But I think, like the hard left when they discovered the internet, what they did was to create a bit of a closed online world. I just think the hermetic internet ends up just like all those hermetic business models in the late 90s that said, “we’re going to capture the internet and build a walled garden, into which everybody has to pay to come”: they just collapsed.

I’m still interested in the idea of whether these social movements are actually left-wing.  Because you mentioned that really what people want is more personal freedom, and an individualised space and lifestyle, and that the internet sort of facilitates that.  That seems to tie in with the libertarian and anarchist threads within these social movements, are they are product of the neoliberal era?

They’re certainly a product of the neoliberal era, but I think we also have to bear in mind that they’re a product of a reaction to the twentieth century.  The extremes humanity pushed itself to in the twentieth century, the extremes of unfreedom in the name of hierarchy, whether it be nation, class etc, those extremes are still something that, rightly, haunt us. 

These movements’ determination not to play the game of hierarchical-power-corrupting politics does self-limit it.  I mean we could use the example of the anti-globalisation movement or the student movement in the West.  But you could also look at it in Egypt.  In Egypt, those youths who led the January 25th demos, often Western educated, very secular, very liberal, some of them leftist, as soon as they’ve got the masses on the streets and won, their next problem is, as someone said to me, “we have no Mosques, we have no Imams”.   “We go to the poor areas and we educate people.  We do voluntary work, literacy work, but on a Friday they go to the Mosque and the Iman tells them that we’re all faggots, and that we want to rip the veils from the women’s heads.  We have no Imams, that’s the problem.” 

Now, what’s the answer?  The answer traditionally to that is to form a liberal, secular, democratic, middle class party that fights for secular, Western values. But my experience is a lot of these youth are so turned off they won’t do that.  They’ve looked at their dads who were maybe oppositionists, maybe under Sadat, under Mubarak, and they know how their dad operated.  And their dad operated by getting a big fistful of dollars, going to the village and distributing the dollars and getting the votes.  In other words, the old liberal intelligentsia of North Africa and much of the developed world, does power politics as well. 

So when I went to Egypt and interviewed people, often after interviewing them about the most critical phases, they’d talk very clearly about what they were aiming for on Day X or Day Y, or the movement, then just afterwards in the aftermath of the interview they’d also say, but I’m also trying to be a DJ, or I’m also trying to be an actor.  What they weren’t also trying to be was a politician in these newly formed parties.  As a result the secular liberal left did badly in the Egyptian election.  That’s the explanation for the domination of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, that no alternative party existed with a long history and roots among the people.

The self-limiting nature of individualism means – and this is the difficult question for this generation – are they prepared to sit back and watch while other forces who are interested in hierarchical power politics actually shape the final destiny of the crisis?

I’ve actually interviewed people who say yes.  They say it’s only the role of activists to force power into taking actions, but we never want to be in power.  There is a logic to it.  Anybody who’s seen what power did in the twentieth century… I keep quoting Stefan Zweig in the book: he committed suicide in 1942, his memoir of the switch from the world of freedom in the pre-1914 period to the world of totalitarian craziness is one of the most valuable documents because it explains what a great fall humanity subjected itself too.  Twenty years ago most leftism would have placed itself absolutely in the tradition of Marx, Lenin, Bolshevism, I think it’s even the Marxist, Leninist, Bolsheviks that are still around are engaged in a critical rethinking actually of that whole tradition, so it’s not surprising to me that whole new forms of structured leftism or even structured social democracy and secular liberalism are not yet arising.  I don’t know actually what the outcome’s going to be. 

Let me just add one thing, shocks tend to move people quite radically.  I’ve interviewed people who were Lib Dems in May 2010 and black bloc anarchists by March 26 2011.  I probably go on too much about historical parallels, but there is a moment that you can recognise and that is 1934 in France.  This was four years into the depression and the left had spent two to three years fighting each other; both left parties – socialist and communist – were tiny, absolutely minuscule.  The unions were more or less in a state of collapse, nothing was happening.  And people were content with this, because the Soviet Union existed and they consoled themselves with that. But then there was a hundreds of thousands strong fascist demo, rioting, and there was nearly a coup.  From that it takes just three years until France creates an alliance of liberal democratic politicians and the left. The detonator moment is the big fascist demo.  Why I raise it is because I think this quite happy-go-lucky generation of autonomists might actually get asked the question: “well what are you going to do about x?”  Hungary’s the one place that’s the most obvious, where you’ve got the far right on 24%, a right of centre nationalist government that’s acting, most mainstream European politicians believe, quite dangerously.

Well that’s an important question isn’t it - can horizontalizm provide an alternative form of society and would it be viable as such, or is it just a useful protest tactic?

It doesn’t want to.  What it wants to do is provide little forms of the alternative society.  I think The Coming Insurrection is the clearest exposition.  I do keep recommending people read it because it was prophetic and it is clear about what the goal of such movements can be and that is to find each other, to create little islands of the future society within the capitalist society and to live “despite” it.  That’s what they’re trying to do.  That is why they’re on a farm in France, and not in a factory in Paris. 

But you mention in the book that groups like The Invisible Collective are way to the left of majority opinion.  Do you think the majority opinion is for not a utopia – or a little bit of utopia within capitalism – but is for social justice; a better form of liberalism or social democracy?  Do you think that’s what the social movements are after?

Scratch the social movements and you find early social democracy in so many ways.  First of all, the debates inside German social democracy in the 1890s, between the right and left went like this: the left said we want power, the power will come through the ballot box but we have to be prepared to supplement it with mass action to defend the workers.  The right said, not “we don’t want strikes”, what they said was “the way is everything the final goal is nothing.”  Building the movement is more important.  It’s often been interpreted that they just didn’t want power, therefore they didn’t want to clash with the ruling elite of the Prussian Empire.  It’s not the case.  Bernstein who’s the theorist of it, makes it clear that “the movement is everything, the goal is nothing” is in fact the defence against the contamination of popular movements by power. 

And so you scratch the Occupy London Stock Exchange people and I just find a lot of Bernsteinian socialism.  It’s quite interesting.  In practice you find not very radical forms of what the early workers movement did.  I don’t mean to belittle them there, because in fact if the labour movement had carried on having flowers as it symbols instead of clenched fists, history would have been different.  I admire their determination not to get sucked into hierarchical power relationships but it does limit their project.  And as you say, in some ways they’re not even a left project.  The point here is to describe accurately, and what I mean is that I think most people in my profession don’t even know what me and you are talking about in this interview, they don’t even know, so the media and social commentary is missing the tools to understand.

It seems to me that there are lots of contradictions within these movements that some people are conscious about and some people aren’t necessarily conscious about.  And I felt there was bit of a contradiction in your book between the idea that people know more about power through reading thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, Hardt and Negri, and Chomsky etc., and your claim that a lot of activists reject theory completely and they’re only interested in action. Do you think that they are using theory or not?  And do you think we’re missing a trick in not using it?

I think there’s just too much theory.  The twenty years of neoliberalism and post-modernism have produced way, way too much theory.  Too much to read. In the 1970s for people interested in politics, right or left, there was a bookshelf about two feet long you had to read. Now its endless.

Of course, then the problem is having the discussion with power through a series of actions that are quite inchoate, mute actions that force mute responses.  I have met some of the activists who do that and I understand why they do it, in the circumstances, but I think all things have a life-cycle.  And I’m sensing the life-cycle of simply carrying on doing that is coming to an end because of the scale of the crisis.

You suggest that if the financial crisis isn’t sorted, we could face a very bleak future.  We are perhaps like Weimar Germany on the brink, with a potential threat of nationalist movements, fragmentation and isolationism, maybe leading to war.  On the other hand, the book seems quite optimistic about the wave of protests in 2011.  Are you optimistic or pessimistic for the future?

I’m optimistic.  When I say optimistic, it’s not optimistic because a bunch of students went on the streets in 2010 or because there’s a lot of radical graffiti on the walls of Cairo.  I’m optimistic because I think - and call me a technological determinist if you want - I think technology is empowering the human being; that’s the source of the optimism.  Technology empowers the human being, it empowers them to recognize bullshit a lot earlier and quicker than my generation did at college, and it allows for more diversity of answer. 

There’ll be people reading your New Left Project who don’t like Cameron, but I think the fact that Cameron’s made a speech about the unacceptability of some of the impacts of globalisation, the fact that Mandelson today as we speak has issued a document saying that globalisation has harmed the poor and it needs to be reigned in: these things are significant. For anybody whose sat in a tent or linked arms or had pepper spray put into their faces, you can at least say they’ve played a part in changing the debate.


Paul Mason is the economics editor of the BBC’s flagship current affairs program Newsnight and appears frequently on BBC World News America. He has covered globalization and social justice stories from locations around the world, including Latin America, Africa and China. His book Live Working, Die Fighting was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.  His latest novel, Rare Earth is out now.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?