Presaging the 21st century

Paul Mason, Why it is kicking off everywhere: the new global revolutions Verso 2012, pp244, £12.99,reviewed by Mark Kosman

Some people may dismiss Paul Mason as just another journalist, especially since he advocated more effective policing to contain the ‘Black Bloc’ after the March 26 2011 TUC demo. [1] Yet this is no reason not to read Why it’s kicking off everywhere: the new global revolutions.

Simply by bringing together insightful reports from the uprisings of 2010-11 - in Egypt, Greece, Israel, Spain, the UK and the US - Mason helps the reader get an overview of the present state of global class struggle. But, more than this, he puts these struggles in a historical and theoretical context and so provokes more interesting questions than any other recent book.

Mason’s main historical analogy is to compare the uprisings of 2011 with the waves of unrest in Europe in 1848 and in the period before World War I. He argues that the radical intelligentsia, the newly unionised workers and the slum-dwellers of the 19th century can be compared to the “graduates without a future”, the shrunken trade unions and the precarious workers of today. He also claims that the globalisation of the world economy, the revolutions in communications technology and the striving for individual freedom at the start of the 20th century can be compared to similar tendencies at the start of the 21st century.

Mason sees the internet-networked individual, driven to struggle by an unprecedented economic crisis, as the key participant in the uprisings of 2011. He even goes so far as to say that “in the revolutions of 2011, we’ve begun to see the human archetypes that will shape the 21st century” (p152). He wants these uprisings to lead to real change and is not afraid to cite Marx’s criticisms of inadequate alternatives, such as cooperatives and ‘back to the land’ socialisms. He writes that Marx argued: “you had to find a way to take control of the big stuff - finance, industry and agri-business - and create enough wealth ... to eliminate human need ... [and] begin to address the alienation and unfreedom at the heart of human existence” (p142).

This is genuinely revolutionary stuff. But in other sections of the book he appears sympathetic to the reformist New Deal policies of the 1930s (p169). He also claims that today’s politicians have a choice: either “a new, more equitable and sustainable form of globalisation ... or [a] retreat behind national barriers” (p124). And, in an interview with Mute, he denies that a socialist alternative is even an option. This is consistent with the pro-capitalist, neo-Keynesian policies he advocated in his earlier book, Meltdown, the end of the age of greed. There he merely proposed wealth redistribution, the “re-regulation of global finance” and a “wider reinsertion of the state into the economy” (pp163-72).

Keynesian reform and war

Mason’s main concern is less bringing about revolutionary change and more that, without such neo-Keynesian state intervention, humanity will descend into “nationalism and protectionism”, “competing economic blocs” and an end to “rising personal freedom” (p124). In a Red Pepper interview, he even claims that “this generation of protestors could easily suffer the fate of social democracy in 1914, [which] had to choose between being a recruitment sergeant for mass slaughter [and] becoming an underground movement.”

But how likely is it that the present crisis will lead to a return to 1914, a return to nationalism, authoritarianism and global war? And how accurate is it to contrast ‘good’ Keynesian reform with ‘bad’ nationalism, authoritarianism and war? Surely, it is more accurate to say that the peacetime Keynesianism of the New Deal was a failure, considering that, by 1939, the US still had 10 million unemployed. Indeed, Keynesianism could only be made to work once nationalism, authoritarianism and the 1939-45 war had devalued sufficient capital to restore profitability, and the US had become the dominant global power. [2] Keynesianism then required the cold war to maintain both military spending and a wartime discipline, in which militant workers could be discredited as conspiring with the ‘communist’ enemy.

In other words, rather than being an alternative to nationalism, authoritarianism and war, Keynesianism actually required these horrors. The moment that nationalism and wartime discipline declined, as they did in the 1960s, workers took advantage of Keynesian full employment and welfare provision by striking and working less, and the whole Keynesian system went into crisis. [3]

This is why the ruling class are so reluctant to return to Keynesianism and have, instead, opted for long-term austerity. But austerity also requires war. Whether Stalinist, fascist or Thatcherite, 20th century rulers could only impose austerity on people by both distracting and uniting them through a constant state of war emergency. The cold war was ideal for this. However, all attempts to revive it in the 21st century, as the ‘war on terror’, have resulted in failure.

Despite the brutality of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, international opposition deterred the US from attempting to bomb and massacre people into submission as it did in Korea and Vietnam. At the same time, the US population’s reluctance to sacrifice its soldiers compelled the US military to use so much violence to protect its personnel that it created irreconcilable hostility to the American presence.

Unable to risk putting troops on the ground in Libya, Syria or Iran, the US now finds it increasingly difficult to unite western populations around military confrontations with smaller powers. What western capitalism really requires is a new ‘communist threat’. But the only candidate for this is China. And, having had to contain its own workers by deindustrialising, western capitalism now completely depends on the ability of the Chinese communists to contain Chinese workers while they manufacture the world’s consumer goods. This makes a new cold war, with an increasingly unstable China, highly unlikely. As Hillel Ticktin argues, unable to revive either the credit boom, Keynesianism or the cold war, capitalism simply has no strategy. [4] Maybe all it can do is to disintegrate slowly, while people’s expectations of a better life are dashed again and again.

This situation may last for years. But there has never been a time in history when people have put up with endless impoverishment, while the available technology could so easily create abundance. And, as the collapse of the Soviet empire and Arab dictatorships shows, when regimes cannot provide a better life, people start looking for alternatives - which, once expressed in an oppositional movement, tend to spread internationally very quickly. Such movements can be repressed for a while. But, without the justifications of the cold war, repression delegitimises any regime that uses it, and this just creates more opposition.

This all means that Mason is right to say that we may be returning to something like the social unrest before 1914. The big difference is that today, unlike in 1914, our rulers cannot escape such unrest by launching a global war.

Big history

Mason appreciates some aspects of this situation and predicts “repeated stand-offs between the masses and the policymakers” (p90). However, all his historical references, from 1848 to the 1960s, involve social conflicts that were eventually followed by a revival of the capitalist system. Yet what if such a revival is no longer possible? We would then need historical references on a larger scale than the past 200 years. We would then need to compare the present crises of capitalism with the rise and fall of social systems over thousands of years.

Mason, however, is reluctant to explore bigger historical patterns. He insists both that “there is no predestined outcome to ... the development of ... class struggle or individual freedom” and that “you can’t return to the past” (pp152, 142). These statements are, strictly speaking, true. But it is also true that people’s desire for community and freedom does create cycles in history, in which the past does, in some ways, return.

Marx was not averse to predicting such cycles. For example, when writing about a range of ‘primitive’ societies, including Russian village communes, he not only says that “the vitality of primitive communities was incomparably greater than that ... of modern capitalist societies”. He also says: “The best proof that this development of the ‘rural commune’ is in keeping with the historical trend of our age is the fatal crisis which capitalist production has undergone in the European and American countries, where it has reached its highest peak, a crisis that will end in its destruction, in the return of modern society to a higher form of the most archaic type - collective production and appropriation.” [5]

Marx was wrong in this prediction of a fatal capitalist crisis in the 19th century. He also failed to predict how capitalism would be able to use two world wars, the cold war, Keynesianism and, more recently, cheap credit to prevent any fatal crisis in the 20th century. But, if capitalism has, at last, run out of survival strategies, then Marx’s prediction could turn out to be uncannily prescient in the 21st century.

If capitalism cannot revive itself to, at least, give the younger generation the hope that they will be better off than their parents, then we need to prepare ourselves for some interesting times. And we certainly need to do more than just repeat the political projects of the 20th century, such as Keynesianism, Leninism or anarcho-syndicalism.

Any return to Mason’s 19th century model would be little better. After all, his favourite revolutionary project, the Paris Commune of 1871, soon began to go in the same authoritarian direction as the similar projects of the 20th century - such as the factory committees of the Russian Revolution and the anarchist collectives of the Spanish Civil War. [6]

In its short life, the Paris Commune attempted to forcibly repress prostitutes, beggars and drunkenness. The state tobacco company decided to threaten dismissal for insubordination and even for singing at work. And the ‘socialist’ leaders of the Louvre cooperative complained that its workers were lazy and greedy and that: “Communism’s a joke. Hard workers shouldn’t feed idlers.” [7]

People in the 21st century will not risk the upheavals of revolution just to create this sort of authoritarianism. People will only be attracted to anti-capitalist revolution if it enables them to create a freer society than capitalism, a society without any alienated work, a genuine communist society.

Such a ‘genuine communist society’ seems impossibly utopian until we recall that vast amounts of music, films, software and books - things that used to cost significant amounts of money - are already available free on the internet. If these things are free today, why not food, housing and transport tomorrow? If artists, hobbyists, activists and many web content providers can be productive today, without the motivation of wage labour, why can’t all production be based on unalienated labour tomorrow?

Few people will be interested in such genuine communist ideas while they still believe that capitalist prosperity will return. But, when they realise that it will not, more and more people will feel compelled to search for real alternatives to capitalism. Imagine a situation in which protests, like the 2011 Occupy movement, became regular events, involving millions of workers on the scale of the 2003 anti-war demos, bringing cities across the world to a halt, again and again. Rather than going back, the next day, to their insecure individual lives, wouldn’t people be tempted to end this insecurity for good and to take over - to occupy - everything? Wouldn’t they be tempted to start networking globally and to start working out how to run this world without poverty, insecurity or alienation?

Such communist insurrections might well be defeated by a combination of repression, Keynesianism and nationalism. But, if capitalism still cannot improve living standards, any defeats will merely educate workers in how to succeed the next time.

Women and genuine communism

These speculations on future revolutions raise many more questions, such as who would be at the forefront of them? Mason’s suggestion of “graduates without a future”, in alliance with both organised and more precarious workers, is plausible. He also suggests another element when he notes that women were the backbone of the 2011 uprisings. Indeed, one of his interviewees points out that the Athens protests especially attracted “young single mothers, who realise that this crisis is going to hit them very hard” (p89). Meanwhile, in Britain, one survey claims that 70% of families are living on the edge financially and that almost half of the mothers who responded to the survey feel abandoned by the government in their time of need. [8]

These tendencies towards women’s politicisation are consistent with past revolutionary situations. From the women’s march to Versailles during the French Revolution to the women workers who started the Russian Revolution in February 1917, impoverished women have repeatedly catalysed social revolutions. Having overthrown the old regimes, these women then retreated from the public sphere. Meanwhile, hunger and scarcity discouraged people from sharing things or from even attempting to live without the alienation of wage labour. These post-revolutionary societies then descended into civil war, reinforcing masculinist militarism and restoring women’s subservient role.

However, the revolutions of the 21st century will be different from this, if only because women have already overthrown much of this subservient role. As Mason noted in his original blog post, ‘Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere’, “the ‘archetypal’ protest leader ... now is an educated young woman”. [9]

The other difference from past revolutionary situations is that industrial production now has the potential to end all significant scarcity. Under these circumstances, it is less likely that future revolutions will descend into brutal civil war - especially as men are already less willing to fight than they were in previous centuries. It is also less likely that any post-revolutionary society, especially its working class female members, would settle for a new regime centred on wage labour and the economy. Surely, any post-revolutionary society would be more likely to centre itself on sharing, community and child-rearing? [10]



1. Mason ends his March BBC report by saying: “Today many union members are outraged at the scale of violence and destruction ... And, with the ‘Black Bloc’ growing, the policing methods needed to contain it may need to evolve some more” (Newsnight on March 26 2011TUC demonstration).

2. J Holloway, ‘The abyss opens: the rise and fall of Keynesianism’ (available at libcom.org).

3. H Ticktin, ‘A Marxist political economy of capitalist instability and the current crisis’ (available at libcom.org).

4. H Ticktin, ‘Marx’s spectre haunts the wealthy and powerful’ Weekly Worker December 1 2011.

5. Any idea of returning to the ‘archaic’ past is unsettling for many people - including many Marxists. Marx himself, however, insisted that “we must not let ourselves to be alarmed at the word ‘archaic’” (MECW Vol 24, pp346-59). See also Origin of the family, private property and the state which Engels wrote at Marx’s “bequest” and which ends with a similar prediction of a revival of ancient relations. The most scientifically rigorous development of Marx’s and Engels’ anthropological insights has been that of the Radical Anthropology Group: see C Knight, ‘Solidarity and sex’ Weekly Worker August 31 2006, and L Sims, ‘Primitive communism, barbarism and the origins of class society’ Weekly Worker February 9 2012.

6. M Seidman Workers against work; labor in Barcelona and Paris during the popular fronts Los Angeles 1990.

7. The Daily Telegraph February 16 2012.

8. R Tombs The Paris Commune 1871 pp87-96.

9. www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/paulmason/2011/02/twenty_reasons_why_its_kicking.html.

10. See, for example, The Cambridge encyclopaedia of hunters and gatherers.