The waves of protest rocking our brave new world

Paul Mason
Paul Mason
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In his latest book, journalist Paul Mason tries to make sense of recent global protests and revolutions. Chris Bond talks to him.

WE are living in tumultuous times. Just how tumultuous they are only time will tell, but during the past five years we’ve endured the biggest global financial crash since the 1930s that has seen ordinary men and women taking to the streets of Spain, Greece and Italy in protest against austerity cuts. We’ve had the Arab Spring, the end of repressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and the rise of the anti-capitalist Occupy movement.

Writer and journalist Paul Mason, Newsnight’s economics editor, had a ringside seat for some of these historic events and two years ago he examined the wave of struggle that swept from Tahrir Square to Wall Street in his book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere.

Now the former Sheffield University student has written an updated version, Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, encapsulating new flashpoints such as the alarming rise of the Golden Dawn in Greece, anti-Putin protests in Russia and the Pussy Riot furore.

“I spent mush of last year working in Southern Europe, reporting from Greece and Spain and a lot has happened since I wrote the first book,” he explains. The global financial crash of 2008 and the near collapse of free market capitalism are at the root of much of the unrest we’ve seen in the world. “Ideologies can survive financial crashes and they can survive recessions but if you can’t explain to young people why they can’t afford to buy a house, or how they are going to pay for their retirement and why they’re still doing the same job they did before they went to university, then you have a problem,” he says.

Mason is interested in the social and cultural aspects of these new revolutions, what he dubs the “Human Spring.” “What we’ve seen is the creation of a new kind of person, what sociologists call the ‘networked individual,’ and there’s a feeling that something new is happening to people and that old world certainties are disappearing.”

The proliferation of mobile technology and social networking sites have undoubtedly changed the face of protest around the world.

“Back in the 1980s, if you wanted to express solidarity you held a meeting, you would pass a motion and in a few days you would send a fax or letter.

“Now you can just send a text message, post a picture on Facebook or upload a video on YouTube which can be seen by a huge number of people and galvanise them in a way that simply couldn’t happen 20 years ago.”

Mason grew up in a working class family in Lancashire’s industrial heartland and went on to study politics at Sheffield University. “I arrived when the steel strike was happening in the run up to the Miners’ Strike in 1984. I saw the old forms of protests led by the unions and activists,” he says. “I came from a small mining and cotton town so moving to a big steel city in Yorkshire was a huge culture shock.”

At that time the city was a hotbed of political activism and militancy. “I remember a group of us in a pub called The Hallamshire House arguing about Marx and his negation of the negation and there was an old man with a flat cap sipping his half of bitter who joined in. He must have been at least 90 and it turned out he’d been an engineer at the time of the First World War and had been a communist in his youth, it was a really magical moment talking to someone with all that history.”

Until the emergence of the Occupy movement today’s generation of students had been criticised for their political apathy, but Mason believes attitudes among young people have changed and that while many of the uprisings may eventually fail, the motives behind them aren’t easily eradicated.

“Don’t think because tear gas and rubber bullets have cleared the streets that the ideas that brought people there have gone away, too. They still exist they’ve just become more volatile and unpredictable,” he says.

“2011 was the year of the collapse of hierarchies and non-violent protest. But then 2012 was the revenge of the hierarchies with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in 
Egypt and the resistance of the old Mubarek supporters and the struggles in Syria and Libya.

“A lot of people are looking at what is happening around the world with real interest.

“There’s a sense that something is happening which is a signal to me that historians will look back on this period just as they did before the First World War, as a moment when the human character fundamentally changed.”

Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, published by Verso, is out now priced £9.99

Global protest in the 21st century

Dec 2010, a man in Tunisia burned himself to death in protest at his treatment by police, sparking pro-democracy rebellions across the Middle East.

In the Spring of 2010 the first anti-austerity protesters hit the streets of Greece. 
Since then there have been protests across Europe including in Portugal, Spain and Italy.

Jan 2011, Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the focal point of opposition to Egypt’s President Mubarek.

In 2011 a series of anti-capitalist protests took place in New York leading to the Occupy Movement spreading around the world.