Paul Mason, talking at the RSA on his new book “Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, supplied the bits that I had felt missing from the recent RSA Job’s Summit: he explained why the great and good – the economists and politicians with whom we entrust management of our economic and social government – don’t (and won’t – can’t) get it. (You can here a recording of his talk here.)
He was trying to explain why around the world – most notably in the “Arab spring”, but also China, Russia, and the west too (with the Occupy movement) – there had been public uprisings of one sort or another. He painted it as a Shakespearean tragedy in which the common people – the “fools” – sounded philosophical and the powerful and elite sound like idiots.
His argument had three strands:
The “global financial crisis” is not a crisis but the collapse of the neo-liberalism model: the expansion of free markets, deregulation and globalisation since the 1980s lead only to their collapse: the old idea of “get a job, get a house and save for your pension” won’t work any more. The young today will be poorer than their parents, because the nation-states themselves are bankrupt. The never-ending growth of the world economy cannot be sustained, and this is causing a massive rethink in the young. The trouble is that there is no alternative to neo-liberal economic model: religion hasn’t worked, communism hasn’t worked – where else are people going to turn?
Society’s promises to the young have been broken. The neo-liberal model helped the rich elites to grab more power, but with rampant inflation people are grabbing some back – and it is a growing, disenfranchised middle class who have nothing to lose. Mason quoted Taine from 1879 – “don’t worry about the poor, worry about poor lawyers” – except now in a garrett there is a laptop…
With easy access through mobile and broadband communications to social media, the elite no longer have control of information. Commodified technology makes anyone a publisher, and governments can’t control it. (Though I couldn’t help but recall Evgeny Morozov’s talk in which he discussed how governments can use these technological tools to manage and control information.)
To Mason, these new technologies and tools reconfigure the dynamics of power. In Kenya, for instance, the spread of mobile communications is seen as the “same as democratic transition”. Social media allow collaboration and co-operation between tribes who would previously have fought each other – they can foster trust from a distance and highlight similarities.
Knowledge is now distributed and instantly available, rather than being restricted and controlled.
These new tools are non-hierarchical – but the power-structures in society, like political parties, unions and global institutions are rigidly hierarchic, and this is why Mason thinks they “don’t get it”: they cannot understand how decentralised, self-organising groups such as the demonstrators in Tahrir Square or Occupy Wall Street can function. They cannot conceive it – no beliefs but a will for massive change, no leaders and no command structure. The demonstrators can move more quickly and fluidly than the police – mediated by social media.
- lack of leadership
Mason quoted Karl Rove describing the world’s leaders as those who create reality – ”when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities”. Now it is out of their hands: it is the those without formal power who create reality, and this is causing a parallel change in behaviour and thinking. Mason drew parallels with the changing perceptions early in the 20th century: a sea-change in society. (He attributed this view to Virginia Woolf – which someone else has verified – but I can’t find anything about Woolf expressing this.) Mason sees a new conception of the self – connected, networked and “leaky”. (Not sure if I really get this, but it is an interesting idea!)
Where does that leave us? In an increasingly uncertain world. Mason drew uncomfortable parallels with late 1920s and 1930s Europe, and we know how ell that ended. Nationalism is on the rise in southern Europe – and in Greece and Italy, elected governments have been replaced by unelected technocrats. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, is reaching scary heights. (This was the starting point for the RSA jobs summit, of course.)
There may be different outcomes in different parts of the world. And it is unknowable, perhaps. Mason questioned whether the nation state may be challenged by technology – but where would this leave the welfare state (the safety net for those unemployed, in the UK and parts of Europe at least)? Twin – and opposing – forces of localisation and globalisation may lead us to new models.
Perhaps we do indeed live in interesting times.
[Mason also gave a talk at the LSE – you can read a transcript here (pdf).]