2011: How Protest Changed the Debate (Part One)

by Paul Mason, Maeve McKeown

In this first part of a two-part interview, Paul Mason discusses the main themes of his new book Why it's Kicking Off Everywhere; including graduates with no future and the crisis of capitalism.

First published: 01 February, 2012 | Category: 

Paul Mason is Economics Editor of BBC2’s Newsnight.  This week sees the launch of his new book Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere.  Based on a blogpost that went viral in February 2011, Mason explores the global revolutionary social movements of the past couple of years.  In this interview he discusses some of the major themes of the book with NLP co-editor, Maeve McKeown.

The first reason for why its kicking off everywhere on your original blog was the proliferation of ‘The Graduate with no Future’.  You argue that social unrest involving this sociological type is potentially more potent than that of organized labour.  Why do you think that is?

I think at the moment, at a given juncture, it’s proved – not potentially but proved – to be more important in the sense of being more decisive, more of an actor in history. 

The blog was free-formed out of my head and it was the kind of person I was meeting constantly.  Not just the masses on demonstrations, but the individuals who were sticking out of the movement and becoming its spokespeople.  I’d also being doing talks about my last book to students.  I’d always draw a curve of expectation on the whiteboard saying this is the curve capitalism offered in the neoliberal era: become a slave to a corporation, conform, get a conformist-looking suit, there will be a dip in your earnings when you’re effectively learning to be in this corporate system but then it eventually offers you an escalating salary, any assets you’ve got escalate in price, you’ve got endless access to credit, and there’s this big remnant of the welfare state that’s going to look after everything.  What I say was that the curve inverted after Lehman, the curve now goes: college, you’re in debt, you never get out of it, you can’t get on the property ladder, assets are declining in value anyway, you can’t support yourself in retirement on a pension because the old pension schemes have gone, you’ll have to work longer.  I was sitting there watching hundreds of heads nodding, so that’s what put it into my mind. 

When I came to write the book, I was vaguely aware of various student manifestos.  But going back to the American student occupation movement of late 2009 in search of antecedents for this movement, what was really clear is that not only were they very radical in their action (occupation) and also their rhetoric, but some of the actual thinking through of the future role of the young graduate had been done.  Above all, the Communiqué from an Absent Future

I’d been aware of, and written about, Richard Sennett’s work on the modern workforce where he describes almost a vanguard workforce of the technological elite in the mid-90s, as having weak ties, working horizontally, weak loyalty to each other, weak loyalty to the organisation, but as a result everything’s held together with networking and I just recognised that these were the people protesting.  Sennett is very pessimistic about them.  He says they’re not great material for social change, but I recognise that human material as being almost exactly the same kind of people who were doing the protests and they were doing it in all the same ways, and my conclusion is: this is how this networked salariat revolts.

In that case do you think we’ll see more of these revolts, because surely if the curve has become inverted it’s only going to get worse?

I think it’s going to go beyond revolts. It’s going to go into political answers.  Right now, while we’re speaking, Davos is going on.  Three years ago when I wrote that the old model of capitalism is doomed, finished, people kept saying “you’re wrong”.  Now that’s the theme of Davos – there’s a search for a “new kind of capitalism”.  But actually, they’re searching in vain, because they’re rummaging in the bargain basement of the old capitalism. 

I think there is a big inflection point underway in capitalism – it’s growth moving to the South, growth moving to Asia, Asia and the South are creating a depressive pull on wages and incomes on the West.  The West simply has to decide whether it wants a form of capitalism whose narrative is “your life can get better”.  If it does, it’s got to do something about this fundamental imbalance in the model.  What I think it’s going to lead to is politicians eventually deciding on a more state-ised form of capitalism.  But then within it – because Nazi Germany was a state-ised form of capitalism and Rooseveltian America was – there’s always a struggle over the social justice element of it.  You could say the struggles over social justice will shape the form that new form of capitalism takes.

You argue that the age of capitalist realism is over.  But is this really true?  Governments are still pressing ahead with their austerity policies, and now we’re having debates about “responsible capitalism” – this is the new buzz word.  So the discourse is still couched in terms of capitalism – just a slightly different form of it.  I thought this was a classic illustration of Marx’s failure to see that capitalism is immensely successful at adapting to new challenges.  Instead of these social movements breaking capitalism apart, it’s finding new ways to reinvent itself.

Yes but that’s not such a bad thing.  Let’s take the argument in parts.  I think the essential point that Mark Fisher makes is valid, that under twenty years of neoliberalism the left rationalised its own inability to change the world by constructing all kinds of rationalisations for the permanence of a neoliberal form of capitalism.  That’s effectively what The Matrix is, it’s what a lot of Zizek is about, it’s what post-modernism is, it’s what the post-modernist art forms are - they’re surface critiques of a capitalism that can never change.  My premise is, economically neoliberalism is finished.  So it doesn’t surprise me to see suddenly the falling away of the ideology. 

When I use the word “left” here, I mean everything from the middle of liberalism leftwards, because all of these things are influenced by the world-view of the changeability and malleability of capitalism itself.  The left is a continuum, albeit with very different parts and emphasises.  In that sense when I use the word “left”, the left was suddenly bereft of its key premise, which was that neoliberalism would always exist.  That’s where I think the intellectual upsurge has come from.  You then say, oh but all people are discussing is replacing one kind of capitalism with another.  I think at the moment that’s because the tools of discourse are quite limited.

As the crisis deepens, I’m afraid (I use the word in all its senses) that it will deepen, what you do get are people saying “we’re anti-globalisation”.  The last person I interviewed who said, “I’m an anti-capitalist, anti-globalist” was the leader of the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary.  Though they're right-wing racists, their critique of capitalism is not that different actually to left social democracy, or stalinism, or parts of the anti-globalisation movement.  I think the next thing that’s going to happen is that a debate’s going to start about what a post-capitalist society looks like.  Even using the word “post-capitalist” is interesting, because what is it?  Protesters are not using the word socialist.

If you go back to Marxism – you say Marx’s failure to anticipate capitalism’s ability to morph – well Marx is not the whole of Marxism, is he?  I’m a big fan of Kondratiev, and Kondratiev got shot for saying there is no final crisis of capitalism.  But before that he managed to elaborate this – he refused to call it a theory, he called it a series of stylised facts – that describe the way in which fifty-year cycles of capitalism have led to morphing of the model.  I think very definitely there’s a Kondratiev moment where neoliberal capitalism is morphing in a big way, towards something quite different from the model we saw in the 1990s and 2000s.  Then if you go back to Marx, what Marx said was that if you’re going to transit to something better then you have to start from the most advanced form of what there is.  My book is full of speculative attempts to imagine, unashamedly, and I say what if you imagined the transition to that something better beginning from things like Google, open-source software, Wikipedia, Wikileaks, cooperatively designed companies, non-profits, slum co-ops, what if you imagine starting from that? 

Do you think what we need then is another Marx?  Another left-wing genius economist who will give us a model of a post-capitalist economy, is that what we’re really lacking?

The funny thing is that Marx almost never played that role in the emergent labour movement of the late nineteenth century.  I think the essential role Marx played for the labour movement at that time was to say: begin the march to utopia from the advanced positions of capitalism.  People who throw around when you do interviews, “but capitalism’s the most advanced form of society we’ve ever created” and I answer “yes, a) you can find that written in the first line of The Communist Manifesto, and b) so was feudalism in the year 1345.”  Nothing is permanent. 

There are some interesting debates that dominated official economics in the 20s and 30s, between the right and left about what you do with the state and how useful a tool the state is towards advancing material wealth.  This was the debate between Hayek, von Mises, Keynes, Schumpeter and Kondratiev (who was part of that circle, albeit never allowed to physically leave the Soviet Union).  Hayek’s strongest point is something you’ll actually find echoed in Trotsky, which is that a completely state-ised society run by a bureaucracy with inadequate access to information will lead to a new form of slavery. 

So why I bring this up is that if you’re going to comb through the history of economics and the encounter between right and left, it’s not Marx and his critics in the 1870s and 80s that’s relevant: I think it is in fact, Hayek, Schumpeter, Mises, Keynes, Kondratiev that is well-worth a revisit.  In fact somebody should do a project of re-looking at their debates because we are, come what may, moving towards a capitalism that is going to have to adopt state-ised methods.  Because its finance system is busted, it’s completely busted, and we don’t even really understand how badly busted.  The European sovereign debt market is gone for a generation.  It doesn’t matter whether Greece goes bust or not, it’s just that the model is gone.  And the banking system is on life support. 

What you have to find – and I think this is something both the right and the left have to find – they have to start looking for anyway, is what is the germ of the new model in the anti-crisis measures of today.



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.

Part Two will follow on Thursday 2nd February.

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