Paul Mason is a journalist for the BBC who wrote a blog post last February, just before Hosni Mubarak was taken out of power, called "Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere." It was meant to explain, in broad social and historical and ideological terms, why there were so many protests and uprisings going on at that moment in Europe and the Middle East and North Africa. That post went viral, and now, just over a year later, Verso has published a book by Mason entitled Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions.
The book is a mix of reporting and essays, the former dispatches from Egypt, Greece, the U.K., the United States, and the Philippines, the latter somewhat longer versions of the lightweight theorizing from the blog post. Mason writes, "The book makes no claim to be a 'theory of everything,' linking LulzSec to global warming and key dates in the Mayan calendar. And don't file it under 'social science': it's journalism."
It feels as if this book wanted to be a broad, intellectually rich exposition, one that doesn't hesitate to talk about highfalutin philosophers like Slavoj Žižek or Frederick Jameson; in reality, it's a series of on-the-ground vignettes from an incomplete set of all the places in which things have been "kicking off." (Mason doesn't report, for instance, from Occupy Wall Street, or from Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, or Yemen.)
Nevertheless, as journalism, Why It's Kicking Off justifies itself, insofar as it brings together impressions from the edges of society, from the kind of places an upright, law-abiding citizen would tend to want to avoid and ignore, from the front lines of a protest in London or Athens and a homeless shelter in New Mexico to an ICE detention center in Arizona and a waterway slum in Manila.
Some of the stuff Mason sees and records even felt so refreshing, so clever, so un-ironic, that I wanted to write it down to re-read again later, to save it like a snack for the soul. For example, there was this description from a London protest of, let's call it, highbrow hostility: "At the point of the wedge, alongside the estate youth, are the self-styled 'Book Bloc.' They've gone into battle in green helmets with mattress-sized mockups of book covers: Endgame by Samuel Beckett, Negative Dialectics by Theodore Adorno; Debord, of course; and—for levity—the tales of an unruly school-kid, Just William by Richmal Crompton. They've copied this tactic from a group of Italian students, who are at the same moment lobbing firebombs into the side-streets of Rome."
Or there was this quote from an Egyptian protestor, a girl who had just been hatched from the egg of her old ideology: "Someone who knows nothing about history, the opposition, nothing about freedom in Egypt and how it's been suppressed—because I've been so disconnected—you see all these people around you chanting the same thing and it triggers something in your mind…You see people running towards the police, hurling bricks at them—and wow: the normal scenario would be to run away. I went home and I told my mother—I am not myself. I am somebody new that was born today."
However, if the purpose of Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere was to explain all these "new global revolutions," it's somewhat of a let down. Mason talks about out-of-control debt. He talks about struggling twentysomethings. He talks about new forms of digital communication. But he talks about all these things briefly, quickly, without any more depth than you'd get in Newsweek or The New York Times.
And with regard to where all these revolutions are headed, Mason sits on the fence. In some sections, he's grim and pessimistic, saying how the world is in a kind of convulsive state not unlike 1914, just before WWI. And yet, at other times Mason is a techno-optimist, suggesting that a young person sitting in a Starbucks, staring catatonically at the screen of her computer, is a sign of great things to come, of how a new networked form of life is going to come into being and take down the old-fashioned forms of hierarchy, of government, academia, the media, etc.
Mason writes: "…I cannot help believing that in the revolutions of 2011 we've begun to see the human archetypes that will shape the twenty-first century. They effortlessly multitask, they are ironic, androgynous sometimes, seemingly engrossed in their bubble of music—but they are sometimes prepared to sacrifice their lives and freedom for the future." He insists that Facebook, that Twitter, that smartphones are helping people to re-engage with reality, to reconnect with each other, and to make the world better. That would be nice to believe, but I couldn't help but think of a quote from David Foster Wallace, about what all our new technology lets us do to ourselves, of what the terminus is for the struggle for freedom:
"…the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation."
Are the Occupy movements, the austerity protests in Europe, the insurrections in the Arab world, are these ways in which all the lonely young men and women of the world will be able to leave behind their "skull-sized kingdoms" and walk into the light of a community and a cause? Mason seems to think so. I know that when I first visited Occupy Chicago in October of this past year, I felt turned off. I dismissed it as naïve, vague, unruly, and indulgent. Reading Mason's book, listening to his optimism, made me reconsider whether I wasn't missing out on something. In that sense, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere was worth reading, even if its analysis skips along too quickly, even if its reporting is incomplete.
The book is a 200-page reminder of everything that was going on in 2011, and for someone who, like myself, frequently wants to ignore what's going on out there, to just hole up and both hope for the best and be expecting the worst, it made me think that maybe I should just get outside a little more often, with a mind that is slightly less than closed to the possibility of giving my energy, my effort, my attention to something, anything, other than myself. It made me think that my cool disdain is also a means with which to be the almighty master of a sad, silent, "skull-sized kingdom."
Paul Mason's Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions was released on January 9 by Verso. To purchase it, click here.