Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: the New Global Revolutions
Verso, 244pp, £12.99
OR Books, 358pp, £10
Gramsci's advice to revolutionaries was to maintain "pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will". For the first decade of the new millennium, however, much of the left seemed to pay heed to only the first part of this injunction. In an editorial to mark the relaunch of New Left Review in 2000, Perry Anderson wrote: "The only starting point for a realistic left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat. Capital has comprehensively beaten back all threats to its rule."
Near the opening of his account of "the new global revolutions", Paul Mason launches an impassioned j'accuse against such fatalism. He denounces the "zeitgeist of impotence" that led the left to believe that City banks were no less immutable than Arab dictatorships. Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere is a rapid-fire attempt to make some sense of the tumultuous events of the past two years. "This book makes no claim to be a 'theory of everything'," Mason writes. "And don't file it under 'social science': it's journalism." Journalism it is, a finely executed example of what John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World, called "intensified history".
Mason, economics editor of the BBC's Newsnight, has emerged as possibly the most engaged mainstream journalist of our age. He was there when anti-austerity protesters stormed the Greek parliament, when students occupied Millbank Tower and when Cairo cast off the shackles of tyranny. He has reported from the slums of Manila and, retracing the route of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, from the new dust bowl of Oklahoma. Mason draws on all these experiences to support his thesis that several factors - the growth of social media, "the graduate with no future", the collapse of the neoliberal consensus - have combined to form a global rebellion without parallel.
Although the title refers to revolutions in the plural, the only revolution, in the classical sense, that is described at length is the Egyptian one. Consequently, Mason redefines revolution as a form of collective practice capable of "bypassing and superseding" the machinery of power. He also asserts that the new class of protesters - digitally savvy, ideology-lite - has a better chance of achieving its "basic goals".
And yet by any reasonable measure, the university tuition fees protests, which Mason analyses at length, were a failure. It was the National Trust that forced the biggest U-turn of the coalition government's first year in office, over the attempted privatisation of forests. UK Uncut and Occupy London have succeeded in focusing attention on tax avoidance and "responsible capitalism" but have made no concrete gains. The important but less glamorous campaign for a living wage goes unmentioned by Mason, who shows little interest in social-democratic incrementalism.
Thanks to his compulsively vivid style, however, even sceptics will find this a page-turner. The side streets of Greece are "like a Lowry painting but imbued with menace" and students at an economics conference wear "hypersexual retakes on the cocktail dress" and "Mormon-sharp suits".
Given the virtuosity of his prose, it is no surprise that Mason has ventured into fiction. Rare Earth, his first novel, follows David Brough, a television reporter who bears more than a passing resemblance to the author, on the trail of a corruption scandal at a nickel plant in western China. Via erotica, humour and motorcycle chases, Mason largely succeeds in his ambition - to humanise an opaque country shrouded in secrecy.
But it is hard to imagine him opting for the solitary life of the novelist. One senses that Mason, who came late to journalism, is simply thrilled that there are people on the streets again. Though careful to meet the BBC requirement of political neutrality, he has an unambiguous commitment to social justice and workers' rights. Occasionally his enthusiasm impairs his judgement. He refers to the English summer riots as an "insurrection" of the urban poor, as if the mobs that looted Dixons and Foot Locker were the modern equivalent of the sans-culottes.
Mason raises the possibility that "hope, solidarity and ironic slogans" will prevail against "austerity, nationalism and religious fundamentalism". Yet, for now, it is the forces of reaction that hold the whip hand. The cult of austerity has spread as fast across Europe as revolution has seized the Middle East, while the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have emerged as the chief beneficiaries of the Arab spring.
At times Mason, transfixed by what Slavoj Žižek calls "the sublime beauty of uprisings doomed to fail", veers dangerously close to the view that the protests are ends in themselves. After years in which the parameters of political debate narrowed, however, there is something thrilling about the chance to have such discussions again. Those who doubt it should read Mason's exuberant narrative.