1848 and all that

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, by Paul Mason, Verso, RRP£12.99, 244 pages

Just days before the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt last year, Paul Mason, economics editor of the BBC’s Newsnight, published an impassioned blog post about the waves of protest sweeping through Europe and the Middle East.

Written following a debate about the Paris Commune with some radical students in a Bloomsbury squat, the post, which subsequently went viral, set out 20 bullet-point reasons why it was “kicking off everywhere”. These included some lively but loosely connected observations about the unrest, ranging from the obvious (the web’s really useful for communicating) to the strikingly implausible (protesters from St Paul’s Cathedral to Tahrir Square have been mugging up on the Marxist theoreticians Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri).

At the end, Mason admitted that these were “generalisations” designed to elicit a response and should be read as such. This book is an attempt to turn that scatter-gun list into a more detailed analysis of last year’s events.

Europe has experienced revolutionary waves before – in 1848 and, more recently, 1989. So it is reasonable to ask whether, and why, we are living through another one. What defines the protests? How are they linked? And where’s everywhere, precisely? Mason’s title promises the earth but the book barely mentions Russia or China.

Sadly, he never really comes up with answers. In Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, Mason may have fleshed out his blog with diligent reportage, trekking from Athens to Manila to find out what drove people on to the streets. But what emerges is not a convincing explanation, merely more loosely connected generalisations.

It does not help that Mason’s political sympathies are rather too much in evidence. For him, last year’s events were “a revolt against Hayek and the principles of selfishness and greed he espoused” in which “doomed graduates, precarious workers and the poor” fought back against “the atomising effects of the modern marketplace”.

This sort of stuff might go down well in a Bloomsbury squat but it is harder to square with the motivations of those who, for instance, ushered in the Arab spring. The original Tunisian rebel-martyr, Mohamed Bouazizi, a self-employed fruit seller, didn’t set fire to himself to bring down free enterprise but to protest at the petty restrictions imposed by a kleptocratic bureaucracy that denied him a chance to compete. He sought fair access to the marketplace, not its dissolution.

Similar frustrations can be discerned in some of the European protests. For many young Greeks and Spaniards, the enemy is not capitalism per se but a bastardised form that rewards politically connected insiders and leaves almost everyone else in the cold.

Mason’s relentless focus on the evils of capitalism seems even more out of place when he arrives in Manila and embarks on a tour of the slums that ring the capital of the Philippines. These, he declares, are “the hidden consequence of 20 years of untrammelled market forces, greed, neglect and graft”. Well maybe, but they are also a rough and ready entry point for millions of the rural poor into a global economy that has in the past two decades delivered dramatic improvements in living standards, health and life expectancy. That is why – despite the hardships to be found in such places – people keep flooding in.

Nor does Mason offer any solution. The closest he gets is when he calls for a “new more equitable and sustainable form of globalisation – with new treaties; new transnational organisations; [and] a new deal on global currencies”. As an outcome, it is hard to argue with; as a prescription, though, it’s woollier than a Bloomsbury radical’s bobble hat.

But though Mason struggles to squeeze last year’s events into the political mould he has fashioned, his book does not lack insights. He is interesting about the role of technology in the unrest, especially the way protesters have used social networks. It’s not just a case of allowing rioters to exchange tactical information (as in Britain’s “BlackBerry riots”); in repressive societies, the constant exchange of ideas, tweets and posts helps to filter out duff information. One wonders, however, what Mason’s BBC bosses, who paid for his global odyssey, will make of the unfavourable comparison he draws between the riot coverage on Twitter and that on “mainstream media”.

Mason does make some telling observations – especially about the predicament facing the west, from the problem of finding jobs for the educated young to the sheer difficulty in societies hardwired to expect rising living standards of adjusting to diminished expectations.

In the end, though, one is left with a feeling of disappointment. There are too few answers, and what is offered is basically an impressionistic contribution to the conversation. Mason’s blog post caused a stir when he put it up last year. Perhaps he should have left it at that.

Jonathan Ford is the FT’s chief leader writer

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