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Books & Arts

The new global rebellions

22 February 2012

Sean Scalmer reviews two accounts of the protests of 2011

Right:

Spring in autumn: An Egyptian visitor addresses Occupy Wall Street protesters in Washington Square Park in October last year. Mat McDermott/Flickr

Spring in autumn: An Egyptian visitor addresses Occupy Wall Street protesters in Washington Square Park in October last year. Mat McDermott/Flickr

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions
By Paul Mason | Verso | $29.95

Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America
By Writers for the 99% | Scribe | $19.95



IT was a year of protest: uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that overturned governments; encampments in southern Europe that resisted economic austerity; an occupation of Wall Street that incited the seizure of financial centres and town squares in many hundreds of places across the planet. Why did this happen? How was it organised? What is the lasting significance of this rising of popular energy and anger?

The commercial media were inconstant and unreliable chroniclers of the unrest during 2012, and few reporters posed these questions. Cyberspace is awash with documents, and fragmentary perspectives, but their proliferation can provoke uncertainty and confusion at least as much as illumination. Thankfully, two recently published books attempt to record current events and to provide careful if frankly sympathetic analysis. They also provoke further questions concerning the role of the writer and of the book in the unfolding of contemporary political movements.

Paul Mason is the economics editor of the BBC’s current affairs program, Newsnight, the author of several books, and a blogger of some notoriety. Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere is a highly ambitious combination of traditional reportage, primer in radical social theory, and original analysis of contemporary global crises and campaigns. As Mason explains, he has attempted to “capture the moments of crisis and revolution” around the world, to “give them context,” and to explain their “links.” Structurally, the work is something of a hodgepodge: reportage sits cheek-by-jowl with tweets and anecdote; episodes of radical history are recalled alongside essays on the stuttering of the global economy and ventures in cyber-psychology.

The mixture is inconsistent, but heady. Mason is a consummate journalist, and in reports on Egypt, Greece, the United States and the Philippines he provides sensitive and insightful accounts of life and struggles among the world’s poor and dispossessed. In his respect for individual experience, he offers sometimes startling and moving stories; in his capacity for synoptic description, he helps to convey the excitement and the terror of history being made.

Why It’s Kicking Off also realises its aim of providing a context to the increasing visibility and success of recent radical campaigns. Mason outlines the role of new technology in the promotion and organisation of protest that even those hopeless dinosaurs without a mobile phone (such as this reviewer) can easily understand. His knowledge of the dismal science helps him to connect recent economic changes not just to the Wall Street protests and to European unrest, but also to campaigns in the Middle East and elsewhere. Equally, his impressive knowledge of radical history helps him to discern points of commonality with – and the influence of – earlier moments of revolution in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The book will help readers to better understand why 2011 was a year of protest. It will also help to persuade sceptics that these campaigns matter.

If Mason’s book succeeds handsomely as reportage and explication its wider aims are perhaps less fully realised. The author’s attempt to find a commonality in so many distinct campaigns sometimes smothers important points of difference. If all of the protests he examines seek to “defy fatalism,” as he argues, they do so in quite distinctive ways, and for particular purposes. In his emphasis on the common use of new technologies Mason sometimes overlooks the continuing importance of mobilisation in physical space, as well as the many uses of the printing press, radio and television by radical activists. In his stress on the capacity of networks to defeat hierarchical institutions he tends too often to overlook the tensions within decentralised and often short-lived combinations, and the evidence of failure alongside admitted success. His attempt to show that a new kind of “individual” is emerging through interaction with new technologies is similarly challenging but one-sided. Mason insists early on in the book that he is writing journalism rather than social science, so presumably this releases him from the requirements of disciplined argumentation and systematic evidence. In its most ambitious sections the book works better as a provocation than it does as an integrated explanation.

But perhaps the seriousness of these criticisms is itself open to dispute. As Mason notes, the status of “the book” as an object of superior prestige and public intervention is increasingly being rethought by contemporary activists. Why It’s Kicking Off is in part a reworking of a blog post Mason composed in early 2011, “Twenty Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere.” This piece promoted discussion and some dissent among many activists around the world, and traces of that debate are included within the pages of this book. The new movements seek no oracles and Mason aims to act as a source of education and incitement rather than a philosopher-king. In this sense, the incomplete and fragmented nature of his book may be considered a mark of its interest and novelty rather than a simple deficiency.


A RETHINKING of the notion of “authorship” is perhaps a more obvious feature of another welcome publication, Occupying Wall Street. This book was composed by “Writers for the 99%”: a collective of some sixty participants in the Occupy Wall Street campaign. Though not an officially sanctioned work (the wider movement could not agree on the need for such a book, or on the principles that might guide its production), it bears the obvious traces of a radical construction: dozens of interviews; reflections on personal experiences and tensions; vivid prose; evocative cartoons and illustrations; a listing of pertinent websites; an attempt to counter common misunderstandings; a sometimes breathless preoccupation with tactics pursued and victories won.

Occupying Wall Street aims to “tell the story” of the “beginning” of the Occupy campaign, an aspiration it fulfils completely. In just a little less than twenty concise chapters, the authors relate the many events that spanned the few months of the New York encampment, ranging from the initial call to protest in July through to the eviction of activists from Zuccotti Park in December. Far more than a simple chronology, the book also provides much more: an account of the movement’s international inspiration; a clear explanation of the importance and operation of democratic processes; a record of official harassment by police; a reflection on the alliances that underpinned local success; a sensitive analysis of media reports; and an interesting if not exhaustive consideration of the movement’s influence on others around the world.

Two features of the book grant it particular import. First, it provides a very detailed portrait of the experience of squatting in central Manhattan and of the diurnal round of committed activism. The movement was notable for its attempt to model an “intentional community”: a space of democratic openness and respect that embodied the values of an alternative society. This means that those who hope to understand its contribution, and its significance, must try to comprehend the sometimes prosaic details of its daily life. In helping to provide insight into these matters, the book performs a fine service.

But if the Occupy movement attempted to anticipate the methods of a new and better way, then this has in fact been a quest marked by tension, criticism and many defeats. Doubt has been cast on the representativeness of those who gathered in Wall Street (apparently they are too educated and too white) and their methods of decision-making (too slow; marked by the hidden hand of power), and the viability of tactics and appeals has been subject to the most searching and persistent critique. Here the book performs its second valuable role. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Occupying Wall Street is its willingness to register the movement’s problems, to record the attempts to struggle for solutions, and to admit of the imperfection of this experiment in radical democracy. It is only in a confrontation with these failures that the movement might hope to learn the lessons of its recent history. In discharging this function, the book offers something significant to the broader cause.

Australia, of course, has been marked by its own version of the Occupy campaign. While the complacent huffed that our national economy has so far avoided a recession, they were not as quick to grapple with the broader challenges of the year of protest now passed. Like most other societies, Australia is marked by great and increasing inequality: the wealthiest 1 per cent of us earn around 10 per cent of national income. The power of business has no counterweight in the power of labour or government. Formal politics, like the established media, is regarded by many with indifference or contempt. Equal provision of public goods is now barely contemplated as a realisable aim. Young people are more educated than ever before, but also far from certain of their future prospects. One of the lessons of 2011 is that uneven and alienated societies such as what we have become will not remain forever quiescent. These excellent books incite reflection on why that might be and on what it might mean in the years to come. •

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