In 2011a year portentously accompanied by earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns and floodsa wholly unanticipated form of struggle washed onto the shores of the Mediterranean: the movement of squares.[i] Starting in Tunisia, it spread throughout the Middle East and across the sea before arriving in the Anglophone world as #occupy. An internationalist phenomenon from the beginning, the movement of squares linked struggles across a mosaic of high- and low-income countries. Unlike the anti-globalization protests, this conflictuality was not contained within one city, nor did it hop sequentially from one city to the next. Instead, occupations proliferated across city centers, attracting precarious wage-earners and a frightened middle strata, as well as organized labor, the slum-dwellers and the new homeless. Nevertheless, besides chasing a few aging dictators down from their perches, the movement of squares achieved no lasting social transformations. This new form of struggle proved unable to change the form of neoliberal crisis management, let alone to destroy class society.

Yet, as Paul Mason tells us in Why its kicking off everywhere (Verso, 2012), something has undeniably shifted in the social imaginary. There is a widespread sense that Things [will] now kick off in the most unlikely places, and involve people nobody ever expected to resist. So, are we really opening up on to a new era? Like many recent commentators, Masons answer is easily summarizedyes, we are. However, the way Mason says yessets him apart from the wider field of occupy-boosters. Why its kicking off provides the single best account of the 2011 wave of struggles. That is first and foremost because, like the struggles themselves, Masons account is truly global in its scope. He recounts events in Egypt, England, Greece, Spain and Israel in a set of exciting first-hand narratives. Mason is able to offer up these narratives because he was there, in his role as a BBC journalist. He talks to more people in more places than anyone else. Just as a record of the events of that year, the book stands heights above its competitors. But, of course, Why its kicking off is not merely a record of events.

As the books title makes clear, Mason also puts forward a provocative analysis as to why all of this is happening. Before discussing his answers to that question, it is worth pointing out that Mason goes about answering it in the right way. First of all, Mason does not try to stuff the entire years events into a single theoretical box, as if a unified theory could explain everything that happened in 2011. Instead, Mason provides a multifaceted account of the global conjuncture. Second, Mason tries to suss out the divisions among participants in the years events not only in terms of their differing political perspectives, but also in terms of their varied socio-economic locations. That is to say, Mason analyzes the movement of squares in terms of the class composition of those involved. Finally, Mason tries to compare the particular concatenation of insurgencies that unfolded in 2011, to its historical predecessors: in 1848, in the 1910s and in 1968. Mason makes these comparisons in order to raise the question of periodization. In what follows, I focus on the second of these features.

Thats because the strongest feature of Why its kicking off is the way Mason analyzes of movement of squares in terms of its class composition. Masons model, here, is tripartite: first, there are the graduates with no future,” second, the youth underclass,” and third, the organized workers.” It is the first in this listthe unemployed graduateswho take the center stage. Paraphrasing the French historian Hyppolite Taine, Mason tells us that, when it comes to revolutionone should forget about the poor and worry about poor lawyers.” Today Taines lawyers have become indebted graphic designers, impoverished administrative assistants, and unpaid interns. These are the jacobins with laptops,” who, Mason suggests, have some real revolutionary potential. Deng Xiaoping would have agreed: ever since the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Chinese Communist party has been much more worried about disaffected college graduates than peasant riots. However, looking back on 2011, it is apparent that the disaffected graduatesstruggles only became explosive when they were invaded and overwhelmed by the poor. That becomes clear in the course of Masons own recounting. In Egypt, the January protests took off because the young activists started their marches in the slums. They adopted demands not only for the political freedom that they wanted, but also for bread and social justice. The same was true in England: the key phenomenon in the 2010 student protests was the entry of the youth underclass. They came out in force to protest the discontinuation of the Education Maintenance Allowance, a payment of up to £30 a week Labour had introduced in 2004 to combator conceal, depending on your viewpointstructural youth unemployment.”

The point here is a more general one: Masons class analysis overlooks a common feature of the movement of squares. Insofar as the 2011 struggles generalized, they tended to do so in ways that destabilized their central demands. There was a pressure towards generalization that nonetheless failed to unify the class. After all, what does it mean to demand freedom in a sea of Cairos slum-dwellers? There is no chance that they will be integratedas normal workers/consumersinto any economy, whether that of an autocratic or a liberal Egypt. By the same token, what does it mean to fight tuition hikes alongside youth from the council estates? They have been excluded from the very economy into which college students are seeking entry by getting degrees. For that reason, alliances between college students and the poor youth have been uneasy. Nevertheless, we should be clear: this tension is not the same as the one that rent the 1960s, dividing middle-class from working-class youth.

Thats because higher education has been thoroughly transformed in the half-century since 1968. In the rich countries, universities are populated not only by the children of the elite, but alsoand largelyby children of the working class. These students are overworked while studying. Even so, they rack up massive debts in order to get a degree. At this point, it is necessary to mention that Masons analysis of the neoliberal era differs in key respects from the analyses on offer in a standard critique of neoliberalism. For Mason, the period since 1980 was not only about the globalization of misery. It was also about the globalization of hope. Education plays a central role: the specifically American Dreamfreedom through private enterpriseuniversalized itself by means of an expanding access to college education. Get yourself a degree has replaced Guizots enrichissez vous. For that reason, the 1990s and 2000s were an era not only of class defeat, but also of class compromise. Now, that compromise has been shaken, or perhaps undermined, by the crisis.

So far, I have said nothing about Masons third class fraction: the organized working class. For Mason, it was the lack of synthesisbetween the struggles of the youth and those of the organized workers that broke the protest movementsstrength. March 26th, 2011 is a date that weighs heavily in Masons narrativeand indeed, in his analysis as a whole. On that day, the English trade union, the TUC, called for what would become the biggest trade union demo in post-war history.” But in the act, half a million low-paid public servantswere eclipsed by the actions of 400 people: the news bulletins were dominated by images of masked kids, broken windows and a smoldering wicker horse in Oxford Circus.” Mason seems to read this moment as a failure on the part of the jacobins with laptops,” whom he spends most of his book praising. In England, they failed precisely when they came up against the old, hierarchical forms of protestthat define the workersmovement.

Things played out in the same way in Greece. The outcome of the Greek crisis has been at least partially determined by the ferocity of the class struggle there. However, even in Greece, the organized working class remained within its traditional boundaries.” The unions were not infected by new forms of struggle. On June 11, Greeks were out on the streets, protesting the terms of the second EU bailout. They were fighting the police in massive hand-to-hand combat. But at no point [did] the communists and trade union stewards join the fighting: eventually they [formed] up and march away.” This is in contrast to Egypt where, in the final days of the Mubarak regime, workers were beginning to form unions separate from the state run union, often seizing the workplace and kicking out the boss.” More and more workers went out on strikeon all-out strikes until the fall of the regime.” Mason describes this process of contagion with a phrase lifted from a psychiatrist he interviewed in Cairo: what he saw was the collapse of invisible walls.” This psychiatrist was referring to the walls between fractions of workers. In the hospitals, doctors, nurses and porters all began talking to each other as equals, making demands together. The walls came down.

One of Masons key arguments is that, if the walls did not come down in Europe, it was due to a clash between organizational forms. Both the graduates without a future and the urban youth-underclass formed networks, while the workers continued organized themselves into hierarchies. However, there is a deeper limit here that Mason misses: it concerns the form of the struggle as well as its content. This deeper limit is hinted at when Mason briefly proposes a second model for thinking about class composition, today. This model splits the class in two. On the one hand, there is the skilled workforce, which is no longer dominated by blue-collar male workers with manufacturing skills, but by a different demographic: more ethnically diverse, more clerical and admin, sometimes predominantly female.” On the other, there are the chavs,” whose lifestyle has been dissolved by globalization and inward migration.” This First World split parallels one in the Third Worldbetween a small, formally organized sector and a vast slum-dwelling informal proletariat.

As Mason himself admits, this splitting of the working class has made it hard for social-democratic and left-liberal parties to create a unified narrative or program around class or class interest.” This was not merely a difficulty; it was fundamental limit of the 2011 protests. The absence of a unified class interest split the protestors into two camps. Among the protestors, there were those who experienced the crisis as an exclusion from secure employment: students, young precarious workers, the children of immigrants, etc. And then, there were those who were already included in secure employment. They experienced the crisis as one more threat to their sector. In short, the youthwere locked out of a system that had failed them; whereas the organized workers were mainly concerned with trying to preserve what they knew to be a very fragile status quo ante. That status quo ante had to be preservednot merely against the onslaughts of the austerity state--as well as against the hordes of students and the poor, who were trying to force their way into it. That became clear in the aftermath of the protests, when, continuing an earlier trend, the youthwere easily rebranded as the immigrants,” stealing jobs from deserving citizens. Here, it really is a question of content of the struggle, of what people are fighting for. So, what were they fighting for in 2011?

Mason points out that many of participants in the movement of squares said they were fighting for freedom.” Again and again, he talks to people who discover their taste for freedom on the streets. Here is a seemingly universal feature of struggle. But what sort of freedom did people want? A minority of participants demanded the sort of freedom that can only be won beyond wage labor and capital, beyond class, race and gender relations. But the vast majority sounded like Musa, the Coptic Christian slum-dweller, who told Mason: What we need is for Egypt to be like Americaso that if you have an idea, if you want to start a business, you can do it freely.” Everywhere he goes, Mason talks to people whose primary political experience, since 2008, has been one of disgust at corrupt businessmen and corrupt politicians, for having destroyed the economy: under the cloak of freeing up markets, they actually just helped one another to the spoils. In this way, many protestors found themselves criticizing the reality of neoliberalism in terms of its innermost ideals.

This perspective helps us understand certain features of the movement of squares: the preference for direct democracy, the attempt to model properly working political and economic systems, and so on. The content of the movement was its forms. But contained within those forms was already the fracturing of interests among the participants. There was a disconnection between the interests of the includedand the excluded”—as well as among the latter, insofar as their modes of entry into markets put them into conflict with one another. Because they still believed in the economy, the protestors could not believe in each other. It was that sensibility that constituted the blockage, preventing the new networks from dissolving the old hierarchies. The black bloc, in that case, was less the problem than its symptom.

Under conditions of a global labor surplus, workers have found that they can only exist as workers by competing with one another, bitterly, for jobs. For going on forty years, that has been the situation in times of crisis as well as in times of prosperity. What would it take to reverse this situation, for workers to find that they share an interest in the formation of new unions, new workersparties, etc.? To put it simply: there would have to be such an enormous increase in the demand for labor that the majority of the class would come to see itself, once again, as necessary to social reproduction, rather finding itself utterly contingent to that process. But to renew conditions of high labor demand, today, would require such a leap in the total size of the economy that it would destroy the very conditions of human life on Earth. The only other option is to massively reduce each persons share of the total social labor. But that would necessitate a thoroughgoing transformation of social life. This latter could not be a demand for sharing work, but rather for the end of valueof the very distinction between work-time and leisure-timeas a means of regulating our lives.

At this point, it is difficult not to agree with Masons conclusions: the endgame is dictated by economics.” In 1848, similarly to 2011, struggles were put down by force. Heavy repression was necessary to tear down the barricades, just as it has been necessary to clear the squares. But if the embers of revolt died out in the 1850s, that was not only a matter of repression but also of prosperity: Because 1848 delivered economic progressalmost independently of the actions of the main playersrepublican socialism died out, to be replaced by respectable trade unionism and social democracy. Is such a thing possible, today? If rapidly rising asset-prices resume, then the class compromise of the 2000s may be restored in the rich countries. More people will find themselves shut out of an economy that does not need them, but the majority will acquiesce. A similar situation prevails in the poor countries. In Egypt, wouldnt many protestors be satisfied by neoliberalism with a human face? Capitalism is unlikely to deliver on these minor promises. That is when we are likely to see the clash evolve in new directions. What does Mason think those directions might be?

Why its kicking off is partly structured around a provocative thesis: the networked individual represents one of the human archetypes that will shape the 21st century.” Noting that there has been a repetition of key features of the 1990s anti-globalization movement, Mason asks, how did the whole menu of horizontalistpracticeforms of protest, decision making, world viewbecome, in the space of ten years, the norm for a generation? Masons answer is that new technologies have not only changed the way we communicate with one another; they have also changed us, fundamentally. Of course, it is easy enough to call to mind the freelance web-designers congregating in Zuccotti Parkwith their laptops, iPhones, and twitter feedsand to dismiss this figure as a sideshow act. However, Mason is thinking much more of the slum-dwellers with cell phones. What happens when people everywhere begin to use these gadgets to coordinate their revolt? Suddenly, the form of todays protests seems entirely congruent with the way people live their lives ... it utilizes technology that is so essential to modern work and leisure, governments cannot turn it off without harming their national economies. The speed with which struggles linked up was unprecedented.

But it is more than just a matter of speed; it is about what Fred Jameson calls cognitive mapping. Finally, collectivities are coalescing that are capable of grasping globalization as an object. News about student protests in Quebec is shared on twitter; militants hop on airplanes or connect on Skype. People are finding new ways to connect with one anotheroutside of the circuits by which capital normally unifies them. Mason quotes Manuel Castells to that effect: From the safety of cyberspace, people from all ages and conditions moved towards occupying urban space, on a blind date with each other and with the destiny they wanted to forge as they claimed their right to make history. But even that does not get at the core of whats new about these technologies, for Mason.

In a manner that is hard to ignore, Mason believes in those technologies. He tells us, almost breathlessly, that a network can usually defeat a hierarchy.” And he argues that this victory of networks over hierarchies is what explains the spontaneous anarchism or anti-authoritarianism of movements today. There is an insight here: in a world in which nothing seems to harbor revolutionary potential, an increasing number of people affirm the horizontalism--more ideal than reality--of Internet, as such. It represents, for them, the privilege site of new openings towards human emancipation. Hayek claimed that nothing could match the ability of markets to spread information and decentralize decision-making. But the Internet can do that just as well. What makes this insight incomplete is that, like the Internet itself, it tends to obscure its own material conditions: the mess of copper wires and fiber-optic cables, the windowless warehouses full of servers, and the huge quantities of electricity and rare earth metals, all of which must be produced or procured. However free we become, in cyberspace or occupied spaces, there is still the issue of how we earn our daily bread, IRL. In our daily lives, we continue to link one another through circuits of capital accumulation.

It seems that, between the first and second editions of Why its kicking off, Mason was forced to temper his own excitement, regarding the revolutionary potential of networks. In a new afterward, he remarks that with hindsight, late 2011 was the moment the sheen on horizontalism faded.” The protests had found their dynamism in the formation of multiple networks, flat hierarchies and weak commitments.” But these tools had not been up to the immense tasks facing the protestors. From among these three (multiple networks, flat hierarchies and weak commitments) it is clearly the third that has been most troubling. If anything, the absence of disciplined organizations and inflated hierarchies is bemoaned only insofar as it seems to point the way to renewed commitments. Why have commitments been so weak? What sorts of strong commitments are still possible, today?

Mason discovers a historical example of a loose network with strong commitments in early 20th century syndicalism"a new kind of unskilled trade-unionism that sparked an upsurge of strikes, unionization drives and sit-ins across Europe, the Americas and the Pacific between 1909 and 1913.” In fact, syndicalism did not die with the onset of the Great War, in 1914. Within a year, workers were organizing again, outside of official channels. The shop-stewards movement grew through waves of mass strikes. Cities were overcome with rent strikes, bread riots and other demonstrations. We tend to forget that World War I did not end because one side was defeated. On the contrary, it ended because these struggles overflowed into revolutions, between 1917 and 1923. Syndicalists played a key but now largely unremembered role in the uprisings of those years. What separates us from their erathe most radical era of the labor movementis the disappearance of a shared working class culture.” But then, it is not only a matter of a culture: in factory experience workers saw the outlines of an emergent form of life that needed only to be freed from capitals domination. That was what allowed the syndicalist ideas and practices to spread so widely.

Heres the thing: the very same technologies that created the new networked individuals have also undermined the possibility, for most workers, of affirming their working-class identity. Formerly, an ever-expanding industrial workforce was engaged in building the modern world. Today, that same workforce is stagnant or shrinking. Moreover, the oil-automobile-industrial complex, which that workforce was formerly engaged in building, now portends ecological destruction, not liberation. Many workers have experienced the dematerialization of labor, heralded by the dawning of the age of the supercomputer, as a forced exodus into dead-end service jobs, or whats worse, into the vast informal sector of the Global South. At work today, most people find that they are nothing outside of their relation to capital. For them, the project of workersautonomy from capital is dead.

However, the death of that project has not spelled the end of strong commitments altogether. Strong commitments are still possible among fractions of the class. What has been lost to history is the possibility of unifying those isolated fractions under the banner of workerspower. As a result, we find ourselves oscillating between two poles of attraction. On the one hand, strong commitments bind us to particular others, with whom we share concrete situations. Together, we fight defensive struggles in workplaces, in neighborhoods, or on the basis of some other social link (e.g., as queers, as second-generation immigrants, etc). On the other hand, weak commitments connect us to huge numbers of individuals, across diverse situations. We confront the state by means of a loosely held identity, or in terms of a widely held demand. Here are the 99 percent. Here, too, are the massive demonstrations calling for the exit of autocrats. Just as the strong commitments are forged in the course of defensive struggles, weak commitments seem to coalesce around negative demands: ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam (the people want the regime to fall)!

Negativity seemed to have conditioned a return of the popular front, with all its attendant problems. The squares were occupied by impassioned cross-section of society because no one could accept the options that the crisis had put in front of them. However, everyone rejected those options for different, or even mutually exclusive reasons. The virtue of the square occupations was to create a space, between an impossible class struggle and a weak populism, where internal conflicts could be suspended. But it remained that: a suspension of conflicts. As soon as the occasion was over, or the demand was met, these fronts revealed their essential disunity. Then, they decomposed.

What would it take for mass struggles to recompose themselves on a different plane, one that coheres not only around anti-austerity or even anti-capitalist demands, but rather communist acts? It would be hubristic to try to anticipate the specific forms-of-organization-to-come, in advance of their emergence from within the pressure-cookers of struggles themselves. Certainly, a communist solution to the present crisis will announce itself only on the basis of a massive intensification of class conflict, itself dependent on an extension and deepening of the crisis tendencies of capitalism. Nevertheless, it may be possible to identify a positive moment within present-day struggles, a moment that makes it possible to imagine a phase shift from anti-capitalist to pro-communist. If there were such a moment, it would be located in the way that the occupiers made leaving identities behind a condition of entry into the occupations. It was not as workers (or even, in the better moments of the struggle, as Greeks or Egyptians) that one participated in the life of the occupied squares. It was being there, as suchsimple presencethat made one worthy of inclusion.

The overcoming of the capitalist class-relation will not occur on the basis of any of the identities that take on consistency within the terms of that relation. Those identities can only divide us; they provide for our unity, but only as separated. These invisible walls must come down.
 



[i] Portions of this text have previously appeared in Endnotes 3, available at endnotes.org.uk
 
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