Verso Books (2012)
Seasoned activists from many of this country’s 20th century movements gathered for an extraordinary weekend in Birmingham with Narayan Desai—a prominent biographer of Gandhi who spent decades living with him in the ashram before going on to become a leader in Gandhian nonviolence in his own right.
In the midst of such widespread protest I thought it odd that, of the sixty or so participants, more youth were not attracted to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn, nearly firsthand, the spirit, tactics and strategy that was able to liberate India from the British Empire. We enjoyed the privilege of experiencing the spirit of Gandhi from one of the last living practitioners of satyagraha who knew Gandhi intimately. But, I wondered, what is the relevance of their weathered experience for today’s unfolding global revolutions?
The scale and depth of the worldwide protests of the past few years—with 2011, in particular—are unprecedented. Paul Mason, in his new book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, details the arrival of these global uprisings that are youth driven—and, in many places, prominently nonviolent.
Mason’s journalistic project, which grew out of a blog—“Twenty Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere”—that he maintained as economics editor for the BBC, is rooted in the “near collapse of free-market capitalism.” This collapse, combined with “an upswing in technological innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in human consciousness about what freedom means” has led to a crisis and protest around the world.
These “global revolutions”—the crossroads of potential widespread social change—are as much about confronting failing systems as they are about the emergence of new modes of relating and being in the world. The uniqueness of these global revolutions are reported by Mason:
many of the activists I’ve interviewed are hostile to the very idea of a unifying theory, a set of bullet-point demands, a guru or a teleology … For the youth, increasingly, knowledge is drawn, on demand and free, from online articles and commentaries and—often breathless—tweets. And for many, politics has become gestural: it is about refusing to engage with power on power’s own terms; about action, not ideas; about the symbolic control of territory to create islands of utopia.Allergic to ideology. Technologically fluent. And not interested in traditional politics but militantly political. Considering these essential characteristics of the global revolutions and reflecting on the crowd gathered at the Birmingham retreat it begins to dawn on me that the kind of shift we are in is more than just the kind of social change—best exemplified by the nonviolent campaign—as expected by my elders.
With stunning insight—because he listens—Mason provides an exciting account of how the revolutions and uprisings in Greece, Spain, Cairo, New York and elsewhere unfolded. The book’s journalistic style, even to the point of citing “tweets” by including #hashtags and @followers, reflects one of the first attempts to detail the revolutionary shift made possible by a faltering capitalism, social networking and alienated but educated populations. But Mason is more than just a reporter; he is also a commentator—a guide—through the confusing geography of network theory, revolutionary history and social psychology that corresponds to the new global revolutions.
It is at this intersection between social change and identity that Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere helps me unpack the competing hopes, dreams and criticisms for the Occupy movement: the anthropological understanding of the revolutionary is changing. Thankfully, Mason has recorded for militant occupiers, hopeful revolutionaries and exiled malcontents—young and old—a useful map for understanding the milieu of protest and constructive programs (borrowing the Gandhian term) that embody the contradictions of a postmodern resister to capitalism organizing from an iPhone to bring down a dictator.
At a Gandhian gathering such as it was in Alabama, it may come as no surprise that Occupy was front and center in our conversations. But the frustration, despair and even anger of an elder generation with the nascent movement palpably outweighed the excitement, creativity, freshness—and dare I add success—that many of my generation have found among occupiers.
To be sure, this generation of elders, who cut their teeth in the civil rights, peace, anti-nuclear and Central American solidarity movements, are ardent supporters of the Occupy movement. David Hartsough, co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce, called it the best hope for confronting the empire. As I listened to the impassioned cries from a generation who walked with the civil rights movement and successfully shut down nuclear power plants by occupying them grieve over Occupy’s apparent leaderlessness, lack of strategy and wavering commitment to nonviolence, I began to realize why I was one of the few young people in attendance—we are speaking a different language.
One of the most challenging aspects about the Occupy movement, for the establishment left and an aging generation of pacifists, is its stubborn commitment to leaderless structure and its militant emphasis on holding public space, direct defiance of the police, and aversion to make demands.
Setting aside the diffuse nature of the movement—and its burgeoning successes as part of the resistance against home foreclosures—one the main criticisms still tossed at Occupy is that it lacks focus. But what the global revolutions suggest is that the bizarre, pseudo-apolitical lack of focus is part of its method, in addition to being capable of toppling autocratic regimes. Bernard Harcourt coined the term “political disobedience” and Mason observed it in the riotous, anarchistic streets of Greece, the town squares of Spain and the General Assemblies in Zuccotti Park.
Some dismiss the Occupy movement as short-sighted or, as the 99% Spring subtly suggested in their announcement for massive nonviolent direct action training, undisciplined in their revolutionary quest. But oddly enough and rarely recognized, the occupiers in Zuccotti Park, many suspicious of the American dream appealed to by the 99% Spring in the first place, also reflect some of that Gandhian spirit. Their adamant commitment to horizontalism, what Mason calls the “norm for a generation,” affirms process over product and confirms a generation’s hope for alternative political spaces.
In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi wrote that “there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the ends as there is between the seed and the tree. We reap exactly as we sow.” When speaking of means and ends, the exhausting discourse on diversity of tactics comes to mind. And while Mason does a fine job resisting polemics as he documents the different tactics (and their intended and unintended consequences) utilized by the various protest movements around the world—such as the Black Bloc presence at the UK Uncut protests in March 2011 in London—the often over-looked relationship between means and ends has to do with occupations themselves. “The act of taking a space,” writes Mason, “and forming a community within it might be just as important as the objective of the struggle.”
Because the discourse of tactics eschews a steadfast commitment to nonviolence, as Gandhi clearly embraced, and the emphasis to reclaim and hold public space as the commons seems to neglect a concerted struggle for justice or peace, the old guard is having some difficulty recognizing what many youth, poor and working class people instinctively recognize: an individual can be liberated in horizontalism; Mason, citing a British anti-globalization activist, calls it “the most useful method for people with no power.”
When veterans of social movements who are used to being consulted as the experts are upstaged by some unemployed kid from the slums or an inexperienced, living-with-the-parents college graduate whose voices are equally valued in the assembly, a revolution of another sort is taking place. The orators, experts and professionals must take a back seat because the global revolutions embrace skepticism to the ready-made answers that are complicit with hierarchy and profit.
What the elders are wondering is if a self-absorbed generation plugged into Facebook and YouTube, jumping from the latest Black Eyed Peas hit on iTunes to an InterOccupy call or a livestreaming General Assembly, can really be the next Dr. Kings? A brief story from Mason reveals what may be the most challenging aspect for anyone who is less-than-adept with the latest social networking info-technology to realize: the “plugged in” individual is part of a community. Breaking down network theory and its role in protest movements, Mason cites a London student by her Twitter name, @littlemisswilde: “I can be hanging out in the same room as another activist, tweeting, and other people will see us and say: you’re being antisocial. But in fact, we’re being ultra-social.”
For many reasons, it is hard to imagine Gandhi on Twitter. But no one can deny that he, too, was “ultra-social,” especially how his open-ended fasts could mobilize all of India to end outbreaks of violence. The point, one concludes from Mason, is that social networking, leaderless movements and a dislocated or alienated populace don’t need Gandhi-type leaders to inspire revolt or occupy a park. Combine the appropriate #hashtag and networked individuals with a trigger event such as police brutality gone viral or a desperate and courageous self-immolation. Add high youth unemployment and economic anxiety and stir. A revolutionary occupation emerges.
Paul Mason’s work is a must-read for those captivated, either as participant or observer, by the global revolutions that are fundamentally altering how the alienated youth and the poor are understanding and relating to power. So as I meet young people—occupiers and otherwise—who don’t care much for the kind of conversations that I have with my elders about Gandhi’s piety or the finer points of satyagraha, I am still impressed by their commitment to a better world and their willingness to fight for what is right at great personal cost. Maybe the global revolutions are on their way to Gandhi’s liberating practice of nonviolence and truth. Because, as even Gandhi would say, satyagraha is a process—a praxis—more than an ideology. And an elder generation is poised to join in that struggle and offer its wisdom gained from blood shed and experience weathered—but it must do so first and foremost as listeners in the catharsis of the global revolutions that represent the best hope for another lost generation of young people.