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How the Revolution Went Viral

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  • Dan Clore
    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 8, 2012
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      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      Global Unrest: How The Revolution Went Viral
      By Paul Mason
      Source: The Guardian
      Sunday, January 08, 2012

      The past 18 months have seen extraordinary outpourings of discontent.
      But what links them? In this extract from his new book, Paul Mason
      examines how technology has been at the heart of the global unrest, and
      finds parallels less with 1968, and more with 1914

      It was a cold Friday night early last year, sometime between the fall of
      Ben Ali in Tunisia and the fall of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
      I got a call: would I do a lecture on the history of the Paris Commune
      for something called The Really Free School in Bloomsbury?

      I turned up to the venue to find it was a squat. They had formed an ad
      hoc university, occupied an 18th-century townhouse in the heart of
      London and stuck a sign on the door saying "Journalists Fuck Off". Here
      was the hard core of the student protest movement: dedicated
      eco-warriors, veterans of suicidal sit-downs in front of tanks in Gaza,
      the demobbed Clown Army and, as my host put it, "the Situationist Taliban".

      The discussion buzzed: is it technology, economics, mass psychology or
      just the zeitgeist that's caused this global explosion of revolt? I
      inclined to a technological-determinist explanation: "Look how your eyes
      shine when we talk about the network. It's the network!"

      Glancing at my iPhone, I realised why they seemed occasionally
      distracted: they were tweeting the entire conversation, live, to their

      The next morning I wrote a blogpost based on the conversation: Twenty
      Reasons Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere. It went viral. Within a month I
      met an American hacker, who told me that "there are discussion groups in
      the US studying your blog". Later, I found out that a global collective
      of protesters were working on a book critiquing it; later still I met
      some of them, as they tried to avoid having their heads bashed in by
      Greek riot police.

      One thing was clear: the events taking place across the world carried
      too much that was new in them to ignore.

      If the Arab spring had happened in isolation, it might have been
      categorised as a belated aftershock of 1989; if the student unrest had
      been part of the normal cycle of youth revolt, it could have been
      quickly forgotten. But the momentum gathered, from Iran to Santa Cruz,
      to London, Athens and Cairo.

      The media began a frantic search for parallels. Nigel Inkster, former
      director of operations for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, told
      me: "It's a revolutionary wave, like 1848." Others found analogies with
      1968 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In late January 2011, I sat
      with veteran reporters in a TV newsroom and discussed whether this was
      Egypt's 1905 or its 1917.

      But there is something in the air that defies historical parallels:
      something new to do with technology, behaviour and popular culture. As
      well as a flowering of collective action in defence of democracy, and a
      resurgence of the struggles of the poor and oppressed, what's going on
      is also about the expanded power of the individual.

      For the first time in decades, people are using methods of protest that
      do not seem archaic or at odds with the contemporary world; the
      protesters seem more in tune with modernity than the methods of their
      rulers. Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris calls what we're seeing the
      "movement without a name": a trend, a direction, an idea-virus, a meme,
      a source of energy that can be traced through a large number of spaces
      and projects. It is also a way of thinking and acting: an agility, an
      adaptability, a refusal to accept the world as it is, a refusal to get
      stuck into fixed patterns of thought. Why is it happening now?
      Ultimately, the explanation lies in three big social changes: in the
      demographics of revolt, in technology and in human behaviour itself.

      At the centre of all the protest movements is a new sociological type:
      the graduate with no future. In North Africa there is a demographic
      bulge of young people, including graduates and students, who are unable
      to get a decent job – or indeed any job. By 2011, there was 20% youth
      unemployment across the region, where two-thirds of the population is
      under the age of 30. In Libya, despite high GDP growth, youth
      unemployment stood at 30%. But youth unemployment is not a factor
      confined to North Africa. In Spain, in 2011 youth unemployment was
      running at 46%, a figure partially ameliorated by the tendency for young
      Spaniards to live off their extended families. In Britain, on the eve of
      the student riots of 2010, youth unemployment stood at 20%.

      The financial crisis of 2008 created a generation of twentysomethings
      whose projected life-arc had switched, quite suddenly, from an upward
      curve to a downward one. The promise was: "Get a degree, get a job in
      the corporate system and eventually you'll achieve a better living
      standard than your parents." This abruptly turned into: "Tough, you'll
      be poorer than your parents." The revolts of 2010–11 have shown, quite
      simply, what this workforce looks like when it becomes collectively
      disillusioned, when it realises that the whole offer of self-betterment
      has been withdrawn.

      In revolts sparked or led by educated youth – whether in Cairo or Madrid
      – a number of common traits can be observed. First, that the
      quintessential venue for unrest is the global city, a megatropolis in
      which reside the three tribes of discontent – the youth, the
      slum-dwellers and the working class. The estates, the gated communities,
      the informal meeting spaces, the dead spaces between tower blocks just
      big enough to be blocked by a burning car, the pheromone-laden
      nightclubs – all combine to form a theatrical backdrop for the kind of
      revolts we've seen.

      Second, members of this generation of "graduates with no future"
      recognise one another as part of an international sub-class, with
      behaviours and aspirations that easily cross borders. I saw the Egyptian
      revolutionary socialist Gigi Ibrahim (@GSquare86), an iconic figure in
      the 25 January revolution, speak to London students a few weeks after
      Mubarak fell. There was no noticeable difference between her clothes,
      language and culture and theirs. She didn't mind that the meeting was
      small, that people came and went at random, depending on their other
      social commitments; she was not put off by their texting and tweeting
      during her speech.

      The boom years of globalisation created a mass, transnational culture of
      being young and educated; now there is a mass transnational culture of
      disillusionment. And it transmits easily. When activists such as Ibrahim
      began to appear on TV in vox pops from Tahrir Square, youth all over the
      world – above all in America, where the image of the Arab world has been
      about Islam, terrorism and the veil – simply said to themselves: "Heck,
      that kid is just like me."

      There is a third social impact of the graduate with no future: the sheer
      size of the student population means that it is a transmitter of unrest
      to a much wider section of the population than before. Since 2000, the
      global participation rate in higher education has grown from 19% to 26%;
      in Europe and North America, a staggering 70% now complete
      post-secondary education. In Britain, the Blair government's policy of
      getting half of all school-leavers into higher education meant that,
      when it broke out, student discontent would penetrate into hundreds of
      thousands of family homes. While the middle-class student activists of
      1968 thought of themselves as external detonators of the working class,
      the students of 2010 were thoroughly embedded both in the workforce and
      in low-income communities.

      In North Africa, though many of the college students who led the
      revolutions were drawn from the elite, you find this same blurring of
      the edges between the educated youth and the poor. The story of Mohamed
      Bouazizi, the street trader whose self-immolation on the morning of 17
      January 2011 sparked the revolution in Tunisia, illustrates this well.
      He can't get a job because, in a corrupt dictatorship, he lacks the
      right connections. He's a street vendor earning $140 a month, but he's
      using the money to put his sister through college. The 2008 uprising in
      Mahalla, Egypt, saw this same overlap of worker, student and urban poor.
      As the blogger and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy told me, in the poor
      neighbourhoods of Egypt you will usually find one son unemployed,
      another working in a factory, another at university. The issues of
      poverty and repression overlap; in each poor neighbourhood the police
      station is basically a torture centre.

      This new sociology of revolt calls to mind conditions prior to the Paris
      Commune of 1871: a large and radicalised intelligentsia, a slum-dwelling
      class finding its voice through popular culture, and a weakened
      proletariat, still wedded to the organisations and traditions of 20
      years before. It makes the social order of the modern city highly
      fragile under economic stress.

      The French historian Hippolyte Taine understood the essential danger of
      this social mix. When it comes to revolution, he warned, forget the poor
      and worry about poor lawyers: "Now, as formerly, students live in
      garrets, bohemians in lodgings, physicians without patients and lawyers
      without clients in lonely offices … so many Brissots, Marats, Dantons,
      Robespierres, and St-Justs in embryo. Only for lack of air and sunshine
      they never come to maturity." Taine put his finger on what, in 1789, had
      turned the normal rebelliousness of impoverished graduates into a force
      that would reshape the world. He saw that the "worm-eaten barriers [had]
      cracked all at once".

      Technology, social change, institutional decay had unleashed something
      bigger than teenage angst. If this sounds like an 18th-century version
      of the "death of deference" complaint, well, it was. A deep social
      crisis was under way, then as now. But with one big difference: today,
      in every garret there is a laptop.

      Social media and new technology were crucial in shaping the revolutions
      of 2011, just as they shaped industry, finance and mass culture in the
      preceding decade. What's important is not that the Egyptian youth used
      Facebook, or that the British students used Twitter and the Greek
      rioters organised via Indymedia, but what they used these media for –
      and what such technology does to hierarchies, ideas and actions.

      Here, the crucial concept is the network – whose impact on politics has
      been a long time coming. The network's basic law was explained by Bell
      Telephone boss Theodore Vail as early as 1908: the more people who use
      the network, the more useful it becomes to each user. (The most obvious
      impact of the "network effect" has been on the media and ideology. Long
      before people started using Twitter to foment social unrest, mainstream
      journalists noticed – to their dismay –that the size of one's public
      persona or pay cheque carried no guarantee of popularity online.
      People's status rises and falls with the reliability and truthfulness of
      what they contribute.)

      If you look at the full suite of information tools that were employed to
      spread the revolutions of 2009–11, it goes like this: Facebook is used
      to form groups, covert and overt – in order to establish those strong
      but flexible connections. Twitter is used for real-time organisation and
      news dissemination, bypassing the cumbersome newsgathering operations of
      the mainstream media. YouTube and the Twitter-linked photographic sites
      – Yfrog, Flickr and Twitpic – are used to provide instant evidence of
      the claims being made. Link-shorteners such as bit.ly are used to
      disseminate key articles via Twitter.

      Underpinning the social media is mobile telephony: in the crush of every
      crowd we see arms holding cellphones in the air, like small flocks of
      ostriches, snapping scenes of repression or revolt, offering instant and
      indelible image-capture to a global audience.

      And in all the theatres of revolution, blogs have offered a vital
      resource: somewhere to link to. Their impact can be measured by the fact
      that, in 2011, 7% of Middle Eastern bloggers surveyed reported they had
      been arrested by their respective security forces. The ability to
      deploy, without expert knowledge, a whole suite of information tools has
      allowed protesters across the world to outwit the police, to beam their
      message into the newsrooms of global media, and above all to assert a
      cool, cutting-edge identity in the face of what WH Auden once called
      "the elderly rubbish dictators talk". It has given today's protest
      movements a massive psychological advantage, one that no revolt has
      enjoyed since 1968.

      Suddenly, the form of today's protests seems entirely congruent with the
      way people live their lives. It is modern; it is immune to charges of
      "resisting progress". Indeed, it utilises technology that is so
      essential to modern work and leisure, governments cannot turn it off
      without harming their economies. And, as Mubarak, Gaddafi and the
      Bahraini royals discovered, even turning it off does not work.

      Because – and here is the technological fact that underpins the social
      and political aspects of what has happened – a network can usually
      defeat a hierarchy.

      The pioneer of network theory, Walter Powell, summed up the reasons for
      this as follows: the network is better at adapting to a situation where
      the quality of information is crucial to success, but where information
      itself is fluid; a hierarchy is better if you are only transmitting
      orders and responses, and the surrounding situation is predictable.

      Once information networks become social, the implications are massive:
      truth can now travel faster than lies, and all propaganda becomes
      instantly flammable. Sure, you can try to insert spin, but the instantly
      networked consciousness of millions of people will set it right: they
      act like white blood cells against infection so that ultimately the
      truth, or something close to it, persists much longer than disinformation.

      Whereas the basic form of, say, a Leninist party, a guerrilla army or
      even a ghetto riot has not changed in a century, once you use social
      networks the organisational format of revolt goes into constant flux.
      Even in the period since the Iranian uprisings of July 2009, changes
      have taken place in the way protesters use social media, in the way
      rioting is directed (as with the BlackBerry riots in England in 2011),
      and in the way people evade internet shutdowns.

      In the middle of the biggest upsurge in labour protests for a decade, it
      seems impolite to mention the name of André Gorz. Gorz was a French
      Marxist who for 20 years was spat on by left commentators for writing a
      book entitled Farewell to the Working Class (1980). Gorz asserted that
      the old proletariat had been dissolved by modern technology and that the
      class struggle would be replaced by individual personal politics. He was
      wrong: the world economy has created 1.5 billion extra workers since his
      book was written. He was also wrong to claim that capitalism was
      destroying skilled work. And yet parts of the book now bear rereading,
      in particular Gorz's definition of revolution: taking power implies
      taking it away from its holders, not by occupying their posts but by
      making it permanently impossible for them to keep their machinery of
      domination running. Revolution is first and foremost the irreversible
      destruction of this machinery. It implies a form of collective practice
      capable of bypassing and superseding it through the development of an
      alternative network of relations. By this definition we are in the
      middle of a revolution: something wider than a pure political overthrow
      and narrower than the classic social revolutions of the 20th century.

      The decade before 1914 was an age very much like ours, one in which the
      most innovative technologies were those that produced greater freedom of
      action and thought: the motor car, the cinema, the phonogram and the
      telephone. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig summed up how it felt to be
      young before 1914, and what was lost when war, revolution and the swing
      towards totalitarianism ended it all: "Before those wars," he recalled,
      "I saw individual freedom at its zenith and after them I saw liberty at
      its lowest point in hundreds of years."

      Looked at this way, the real precedent for the past 20 years of
      ecstasy-fuelled, iPod-engrossed, latte-sipping individualism is not the
      1960s but the years before 1914. The radicals of the 60s were able to
      conceive the possibility of a new mode of human existence, but
      technology and the balance of global forces – class, race, inter-state
      rivalry – militated against achieving it. In the pre-1914 period, the
      freedom zeitgeist, technological progress and globalisation were
      aligned. Now they are aligned again.

      The past 10 years have seen disruptions in the pattern of social life
      that mirror what happened in that era. But this time, it's happening at
      high velocity and across the canvas of all humanity.

      Extracted from Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global
      Revolutions by Paul Mason, to be published by Verso, £14.99.

      Dan Clore

      New book: _Weird Words: A Lovecraftian Lexicon_:
      My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
      Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
      in charge on this island?
      Professor: Why, no one.
      Skipper: No one?
      Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
      -- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"
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