[This review is the opening salvo of a blog-to-blog dialogue on the subject of current anti-systemic social movements between this humble blog and the Mighty Corrente building. Corrente has been following the Occupy movement pretty closely, so I expect Lambert will have plenty to say on the subject over there. I also highly recommend David S. Meyer’s blog, Politics Outdoors, a solid blog on the sociology of politics and social movements.]
In case you haven’t noticed, things have indeed been kicking off everywhere in the past year, between the Arab Spring, the Indignados, the British riots and the Occupy movement, to name only some of the most visible social movement of the past year. So, of course, this makes Paul Mason’s book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions highly relevant. Mason claims that the book is journalism, not social science, but he certainly makes use of sociologists of social movements throughout the book. The book itself is an easy and quick read in which chapters alternate between reporting from the ground and analysis from a variety of places where things have indeed been kicking off. So, as much as he might reject the designation, I would consider the book to stand solidly in the sociology of social movements. My only reservation is with the cyber-utopian stance that he adopts towards these movements. I am more of a cyber-crank of the Morozov kind. But again, the book is quite an interesting read and well-worth anyone’s time. Indeed, it is hard to put down. I read it over one weekend.
So, why is it kicking off everywhere? The story starts in Egypt, where, surprise, surprise, some degree of neoliberal policy was involved in heightening the discontent already present there, after decades of corrupt authoritarianism and cronyism:
“For sixty years, the zabbaleen had run Cairo’s trash collection system. They picked up the waste door to door, fed their pigs with the rotting organic matter and recycled the rest for cash, trading with a traditional caste of middlemen. But in 2003, as part of a privatization programme overseen by Mubarak’s son Gamal, three sanitation companies—two Spanish and one Italian—were brought in to ‘modernize’ the city’s waste collection. These outside firms were given cleaning contracts valued at US$50 million a year. Instead of door-to-door collection, they placed big plastic bins on street corners. Instead of recycling 80 per cent of solid waste—as the zabbaleen had managed to do—their contracts required that only 20 per cent be recycled, with the rest tipped into landfill. The transformation of Cairo’s refuse system was to be crowned by the eviction of the zabbaleen, whose slum was adjacent to a new residential property development planned by friends of Gamal Mubarak.
But the new system wasn’t working. Cairo’s residents refused to use the bins; in fact, many of the high-grade plastic containers were stolen and, with poetic justice, ended up being shredded and recycled by the zabbaleen. People began to dump their rubbish onto the streets or into the disused and abandoned buildings that scar Cairo’s streetscape. So, the new system needed an extra push. When the global swine flu epidemic broke, in 2009, the Mubaraks spotted an opportunity. The Egyptian parliament, circumventing its own health ministry and in defiance of UN advice, ordered all the zabbaleen’s pigs to be slaughtered. There had been no recorded transmission of swine flu from pigs to humans.
Across Egypt, an estimated 300,000 swine belonging to zabbaleen households were slaughtered; the government paid between $15 and $50 per pig in compensation, compared to the $80 to $300 they’d been selling for on the market. Soon, two things happened. With no pigs to eat the rotting food, the zabbaleen stopped collecting it, leaving it to pile up on the streets. Then malnutrition appeared among their children. For, says Guindi, though the multinational companies were getting $10 a tonne for waste, and the middlemen $2 out of that, the zabbaleen received nothing from the contract—only what they could make from the sale of recycled waste, and their pigs. Now something else happened, equally novel: the zabbaleen rioted. They hurled rocks, bottles and manure (there was plenty of that to hand) at the pig-slaughtering teams. In response, Mubarak deployed riot squads into the slums—followed, as always, by Central Security and its torturers.” (Loc. 170 – 90)
This, of course, is very reminiscent of what happened in Bolivia when the water got privatized under the aegis of the World Bank: service deteriorated, people got poorer (albeit for somewhat different reasons), livelihood got threatened, people took to the streets, governments react with violence. The Bolivia example is not mentioned in the book but here is a quick reminder:
And part 2:
It seems pretty obvious that the same causes lead to the same effects: see – austerity all over Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, especially). But Mubarak had been in synch with the rest of global elites who meets every year in Davos. Actually, most dictators who have been removed from power in the Arab Spring were good friends of Western power. Which is partly why Western media and political classes did not see it coming and were slow to react (I remember the initial reaction of the Sarkozy administration, via the Defense Minister, offering Tunisia’s Ben Ali riot control assistance in the early days of the uprising only to backtrack later in shame and embarrassment). Why?
According to Mason, two reasons explain this blind spot: (1) a stereotypical concept of the Arab world that would make Edward Said turn in his grave (passive but violent, squeezed between terrorism and religious fundamentalism), and (2) when was the last time the mainstream media had a solid discussion of class? For as long as I lived in the US, any suggestion that gross and growing inequalities were going to be a problem at some point was shot down as “class warfare” (as if there had not been a class war since the Reagan era, one that, as Warren Buffett has told us, his class has won already). More broadly, this failure is the inability to conceptualize a systemic failure of capitalism (so, analysis of the crisis was reduced to accusations launched against the lower classes – but not class warfare! – and minorities). The events of the past year, for Mason, reveal the utter failure of capitalist realism but also of the mainstream left.
“If the rule of men like Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad had been seen as somehow separate from the rule of free-market capitalism, maybe political science would not have become trapped in the same fatalism as economics. But support for these pro-Western dictators—or more especially for their sons—had always been sold on the basis that they were ‘liberalizers’: freeing up their home market for corporate penetration and, one day soon, reforming their constitutions. This was the theme of the famous essay by Anthony Giddens, which declared Gaddafi to be a follower of the Third Way and Libya on the road to becoming ‘the Norway of North Africa’.” (Loc 557)
Mason also identifies three major precursors to last year’s social movements: (1) the Greek student riots of 2008 after a police shooting and (2) the Israeli invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead, December 2009) and (3) Iran, of course, where Twitter got its political street creds. In terms of social movements, all three were defeat for the weaker parties but they created a context where populations got galvanized by the capacity of such weaker parties to defy oppressive regimes. These precursors put together the components of the future social movements: secularized, educated youth facing massive precarization, repressed workers’ movements, the urban poor and social networking technologies. These four elements would coalesce more fully a bit later in many more countries. For all these categories of people, the promises of capitalism were not fulfilled, they actually turned out to be lies. From the other side of the table, after decades of outright repression or propagation of an individualistic ideology through the media, leaders probably thought there would be no resistance even in the event of a collapse.
Finally, for Mason, the last reason why no one saw this coming is that all these movements are really something different:
“First, probably, it’s because there is no ideology driving this movement and no coherent vision of an alternative society. Second, the potential for damage arising from violence is larger than before: the demos, when they get violent, immediately expose the participants to getting jailed for serious offences, so they will go a long way to avoid getting angry. Third, and most important, it seems to me that this generation knows more than their predecessors about power. They have read (or read a Wikipedia summary of) political thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, Dworkin. They realize, in a way previous generations of radicals did not, that emotion-fuelled action, loyalty, mesmeric oratory and hierarchy all come at an overhead cost.” (Loc. 791)
This, of course, takes place in a larger context of crisis of legitimacy, intensified by the economic crisis because the close ties between political and corporate power have been brutally exposed in its full disconnect from the rest of the population. And when the youth in London rioted, the lack of comprehension was extreme (I wrote quite a bit about that):
“All across the developed world, the generation that leaves university in the 2010s will have to work longer because the guarantee of a comfortable income in retirement can no longer be met, either by private investment or the welfare state. Their disposable income will fall, because the financialization of public services demands a clutch of new debt repayments that eat into salaries: student loan repayments will be higher, private health insurance costs will rise, pension top-up payments will be demanded. They will face higher interest rates on home loans for decades, due to the financial crash. They will be burdened with the social costs of looking after the ageing baby boomers, plus the economic costs of energy depletion and climate change.
For the older generation it’s easy to misunderstand the word ‘student’ or ‘graduate’: to my contemporaries, at college in the 1980s, it meant somebody engaged in a liberal, academic education, often with hours of free time to dream, protest, play in a rock band or do research. Today’s undergraduates have been tested every month of their lives, from kindergarten to high school. They are the measured inputs and outputs of a commercialized global higher education market worth $1.2 trillion a year—excluding the USA. Their free time is minimal: precarious part-time jobs are essential to their existence, so that they are a key part of the modern workforce. Plus they have become a vital asset for the financial system. In 2006, Citigroup alone made $220 million clear profit from its student loan book.” (Loc. 1141 – 6)
And individualization ultimately proved it had failed as well as any form of domination will generate resistance, as Richard Sennett (cited a lot by Mason… which is good) noted:
“The sociologist Richard Sennett describes how, starting in high-tech industries, a particular type of employee has become valued by corporations: ‘Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions … a self oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability [rather than actual skill], willing to abandon past experience.’3 For employers, Sennett writes, the ideal product of school and university is a person with weak institutional loyalty, low levels of informal trust and high levels of anxiety about their own competence, leading to a constant willingness to reinvent themselves in a changing labour market. To survive in this world of zero loyalty, people need high self-reliance, which comes with a considerable sense of individual entitlement and little aptitude for permanent bonding. Flexibility being more important than knowledge, they are valued for the ability to discard acquired skills and learn new ones.
However, Sennett observes, such workers also need ‘a thick network of social contacts’: their ideal habitat is the global city, at whose bars, coffee shops, Apple stores, dance clubs and speed-dating events they can meet lots of equally rootless people..” (Loc 1157 – 66)
And these conditions of resistance were:
- the global city as major site for social unrest (paging Saskia Sassen) – this is where networks are and where gross inequalities coexist along with the three components of these new social movements (slum dwellers, precarized educated youths and the working class);
- the “graduate with no future” as Mason calls hir, is by definition is global denizen (students have participated in these movements practically everywhere); one of the consequences of globalization is the diffusion of a global culture based on disillusionment that is easy to spread all over Twitter;
- and there are more college students than ever before. Quantity does matter.
The urban poor and the working class have been important components of these movements but it is students who have kicked them off. Add to this the power and networks and communication technology and all the ingredients are there. Mason is a big believer of the network effect (what gets created as additional product of people’s interaction). So, Twitter, pay-as-you-go access, photo / video-sharing services and blogging were essential tools of social movements. As a result, journalists were also engulfed in the crisis of legitimacy as their status carried limited weight on Twitter (much to the dismay of some media celebrities). Again, Mason is much more cyber-utopian as I am.
Mason then goes on at length on the economic crisis itself. There is not much that has not been already written about this, so, I won’t belabor this. One thing I had not read before is the assertion that the Federal Reserve precipitated the Arab Spring with QEII, which led to the rise in commodity prices, which led pushing a lot of people in the global South into deeper poverty.
Another interesting analytical point that Mason makes is to postulate that the correct historical precedent for these current social movements is the European Revolutions of 1848 (especially what led to the French Second Republic):
“On 22 February 1848 the ‘men in smocks’—the Parisian workers— overthrew the monarchy and forced the middle class to declare a republic. It was a shock because, like Saif Gaddafi and Gamal Mubarak long afterwards, King Louis-Philippe had counted himself something of a democrat. In 1848 a wave of revolutions swept Europe: by March, Austria, Hungary, Poland and many states of the future Germany were facing insurrections, often led by students and the radicalized middle class, with the small, mainly craft-based, working class in support. Elsewhere —as in Jordan and Morocco in 2011—riots and demonstrations forced beleaguered monarchs into constitutional reform. Within months, however, class conflict tore the revolutionary alliance apart. In Paris, the newly elected assembly was dominated not by the radicals who’d made the revolution, but by social conservatives. They hired a general to crack down on unrest; that June, he crushed the working class in four days of intense barricade fighting.
But by 1851 the revolutionary wave in Europe was over, its leaders exiled or dead. A military coup ended the French revolution, the president rebranding himself as Emperor Napoleon III. The Prussian army crushed the German states that had voted for radical democracy. Austria defeated the Hungarian uprising, put down its own and enlisted Napoleon III to suppress the republic that had sprung up in Rome. In each case, the survivors observed a similar pattern of events. Once the workers began to fight for social justice, the businessmen and radical journalists who had led the fight for democracy turned against them, rebuilding the old, dictatorial forms of repression to put them down.
Eighteen forty-eight, then, forms the last complete example of a year when it all kicked off. As with 2011, it was preceded by an economic crisis. As today, there was a level of contagion inexplicable to governments. But in hindsight, it was actually a wave of revolution and reaction, followed pretty swiftly by a wave of war. Even if today’s situation defies parallel, the events of 1848 provide the most extensive case study on which to base our expectations of the present revolts.
The demographics of 2011 resemble those of 1848 more than any other event. There is an expanded layer of ‘graduates with no future’, a working class weakened by the collapse of the organizations and lifestyle that blossomed in the Fordist era, and a large mass of slum-dwelling urban poor. As today, 1848 was preceded by a communications revolution: the telegraph, the railway and the steam boat formed part of an emerging transport and communications network clustered around the cities that became centres of the social revolution. As today, 1848 was preceded by the rapid formation of networks—in this case, clubs and secret societies. The students, worker-intellectuals and radical lawyers who led them were indeed part of an international network of activists. As today, 1848 was a revolution in social life as well as politics.” (Loc 2992 – 3038)
That is not very encouraging because these movements ended badly. And indeed, Mason anticipates some possible negative outcomes (such as the military / religious alliance and crackdown in Egypt):
- There will be a time where the middle class will break the class alliance with the working class and turn against it (as indeed happened in 1848) and the social and economic justice agenda will tone down basic labor demands;
- The rise of ‘strongmen’ from within revolutionary ranks, comparable to rise of the organized criminal networks after 1989;
- War or authoritarian backlash.
On top of this, Mason sees the culture war in the US and Israel as additionally worrisome.
And then, where is the left?… *sounds of crickets chirping*
So, where does that leave us?
“Everything depends on the outcome of the economic crisis. Before 2008, globalization ‘delivered’ in a rough-and-ready way to the poor of the developing world. It dragged one billion people out of rural poverty and into urban slums, and created an extra 1.5 billion waged workers. It provided access to life-changing technology. And it offset the decline in prosperity and status for the manual workers of the rich world with unlimited access to credit. At the same time it made the rich of every country richer, and inequality greater—even in the developing world, where real incomes rose.
What becomes of the present wave of revolts—political, social, intellectual and moral—now depends completely on what the global economy delivers. If it is nothing but heartache and penury, we are in the middle of a perfect storm.” (Loc. 3353 – 68)
As I stated earlier, if you can stomach the sometimes hyperbolic cyber-utopianism, I highly recommend the book… also, it shows sociologists are the most relevant social scientists to read.