Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – 2

[This post is an extension of my book review of Paul Mason’s book as well as a response to Lambert’s post over at Corrente, in which he is much too kind to call me a scholar.]

So, we are having of them cross-blog dialogue on Paul Mason’s book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions and Lambert has produced a first response to part of the book and my review and some commenters have chimed in. So, here is my disjointed response to his response.

The occupation thing: the Occupy movement did not invent occupation, of course. It has been part of the repertoire of contention of landless peasants and indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, but especially, and more recently, in the Sem Terra movement. The crucial difference is, of course, that the point of peasant / indigenous occupation is to occupy land ill-used or not used by private owners or governments and to occupy it in order to use it for sustainable farming and survival, but also as alternative form of governance (something that the Occupy movement has tried with sometimes weird results). Similar occupations occurred in Chiapas as well. Again, it has been a major tactic of indigenous peoples (1) precisely because land ownership is the problem, but also (2) as protest against what kind of land management neoliberalism leads to.

The quest for historical precedent is useful because it is a matter of using the right framework to think about current movements. The 1848 revolutions were centered on class conflict and one of Mason’s points is precisely that last year’s movements brought back social class to the forefront. This is why comparisons with 1968 are inaccurate as 1968 was the beginnings of identity politics, which contributed to shoving off class off the stage (until now) to the great benefits of conservatives, opening the era of major union-busting across the US for instance.

And all the examples that Mason provides in the book as lead-up to social movements point the end point of neoliberal governance without any systemic opposition. So, sure, gay rights and all, but those identity-based movements rose on the ashes of the labor movement, which facilitated the neoliberal institutional consolidation.

On success, there is still so much that up for grabs what with the collapsing European countries, the French election (which seems to crystallize issues beyond just France, with, for instance, the unprecedented Merkel intervention in a foreign election), the British dismantling of the welfare state, and with still a lot of unknown in the Middle East. And there is not much to hope from US Democrats. At the same time, there are no real alternative models of institutional governance (and “back to the local” ain’t gonna do it).

Actually, Lambert, for the 1%, success or systemic failure is still in the air because if movements were successful in at least some degree of systemic reform, that would be a failure. But this is truly a test of the capacity of the power elite to flex its muscles and regain control over discourse (as power, to go all Foucault on y’all), whether it means some shock doctrine and structural adjustment (which is what austerity is) or more meaningful change that will most likely come from emerging nations (Brazil), collapsing nations (Greece), or some labor revival (out of Asia). What seems to be the success though, is that austerity policy with turn states left with only their repressive and aggressive functions (police for domestic repression, and military as main foreign policy tool), which has always been a conservative dream.

The social movements themselves are composed of large numbers of people who have grown up in the era of individualization and networks. It remains to be seen how networking and individualizing really prove the strength of weak ties beyond being able to organize demonstrations and flash mobs to evade police repression. The cases of Egypt and Libya certainly offer reasons to be mildly pessimistic.

But who knows, maybe the end of Winter in the Western hemisphere will bring back some activism.

On the technology thing: there is no way around the digital divide. Ultimately, the strength of these movements will be on the streets (and street success may very be due to the presence of labor on the street alongside the students with their cell phones). Sure, technology will provide neat tools to organize, coordinate, etc. But at some point, there has to be street presence. Let’s see if that Kony 2012 thing works, then we can talk.

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