Clicking off everywhere? Social media and social movements

Why it’s kicking off everywhere: the new global revolutions
By Paul Mason
Verso Books
RRP $27.95

2011 was a phenomenal year of protest and resistance. From the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia to the mass strikes in Greece, the occupation of city squares by Spain’s Indignados to the global Occupy movement, it really did seem, as this book’s title suggests, that it was kicking off everywhere.

Paul Mason is economics editor of the BBC’s Newsnight television programme. He travels from Europe to the Middle East and from North America to Asia reporting the actions, conversations and ideas of ordinary people that so often remain undocumented in mass movements. A British student on a half million strong trade union demonstration in London explains: “We’re sick with the government in general. For decades nobody legitimately can tell the truth, the nature of the hierarchy means only the imbeciles, the suck-ups, only the scumbags ever get to the top. So to truly be free is for everyone to take our part and decide for our freedom”.

Young women camp outside the finance ministry in Athens, part of a group of 100 graduates who had trained to become tax collectors but are now unemployed. Anna Palamiotou: “The whole problem is our future is unpredictable. Even our short term future. In three to six months’ time we don’t know what will happen. We hope, of course, that’s the best we can do.”

Not far away thousands rally in Syntagma Square demanding, and receiving, the resignation of Prime Minister Papandreou. A banner reads “The dictatorship never died in ‘73 but we will finish it off in this square”.

In a passage entitled “The Collapse Of Invisible Walls”, Cairo psychiatrist Mohammed Shafiq describes how mass protests radicalised Egyptian workers in the lead up to Mubarak’s fall: “I had been in Tahrir for about ten days. I’m tired. I’m hungry, so I decided to go to my own hospital as there was a standstill between the regime and the protesters. In the hospital there was a revolutionary mood. Even those who supported Mubarak knew the situation could not go on. I started a petition, with some of the demands I’d been hearing in Tahrir Square: all the doctors signed and then, amazingly, nurses started coming to me, saying: ‘You are demanding a cut to hours and an increase in wages—what about us?’”

Mason is convinced we are in the middle of a global revolution, one that apologists for capitalism failed to see coming despite warning signs during the last decade. He believes the best parallel might turn out to be 1848, when revolutions from below, not just mass protests or a process of change largely controlled from above, as in 1968 or 1989, leapt across borders. “The events of 2011 showed that ordinary people—the 99 percent—have the ability to reshape their circumstances to achieve in a day what normal progress achieves in years,” he writes.


Mason identifies two causes for this revolt: the near collapse of free-market capitalism, combined with the internet and social media. Rebellion against austerity and new technologies are now interwoven. Wisconsin trade unionists occupying state parliament eat pizza ordered online by revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. A photograph of a Tahrir Square demonstrator holding a sign “Leave Mubarak, my arms are tired!” is liked by millions on Facebook. The tweet “Uninstalling dictator: 99 per cent complete” leaps from Tunisia to Egypt then trends globally. Youth in a Manila slum watch it all on Youtube at makeshift internet cafes. Solidarity, it seems, is now downloaded rather than built.

Social media can be an important tool for activists, but doesn't replace the need for political organisation on the ground

Mason’s is optimistic but not uncritical of the new movements. He recognises the current weakness of the left, and the limits of street protest. He also reminds us of the possible outcomes of defeat, in the form of fascism and war. He is astute enough to observe police withdrawing to allow Black Bloc protesters to smash shop windows in London’s West End. But his call for better policing tactics will disappoint those trying to win people away from street theatre towards revolutionary politics based on the working class. His book has other weaknesses.

Mason’s analysis has been influenced by the 2009 book Here Comes Everybody by sociologists Clay Shirky and Manuel Castells in which they argue that organisational forms such as political parties and trade unions have been superseded by online social networks. Open source technologies and the wiki concept herald a new mode of economic activity called “collaborative production” in which people can work together on shared projects without managers or profit motive, they argue.

There is no doubt that the internet as well as Facebook and Twitter, sometimes known as “web 2.0”, are useful tools for left-wing activists. But this does not automatically mean a rise in new mass movements. Social media is also a tool that can has been used extensively by the right, for instance the Tea Party and supporters of right-wing libertarian Ron Paul in the US. Taki Oldham’s film on the populist right in the US The Billionaire’s Tea Party, even goes inside workshops used to train Tea Party activists in manipulating online activist tools. The Kony 2012 campaign showed how a distinctly top-down campaign group with plenty of money behind it can become a social media success story.

Many socialists will be familiar with the idea that new technologies can provide alternatives to capitalism, first articulated by figures such as Robert Owen and the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century and influencing many movements since.

Mason believes the new movements powered by social media pose a fundamental challenge to Marxism. But these new tools do not do away with the political issues thrown up inside any movement—like issues of strategy, how to deal with state repression, whether the existing institutions of society can be reformed to deliver change and where the power to change society lies. The need for a revolutionary organisation capable of taking up these debates, and bringing the lessons of past struggles to bear on the movements of today is as important as ever.

At times Mason seems to acknowledge the need to go further than simply celebrating the new movements, observing that the student revolt in Britain provided: “an advance preview of the problem which youthful, socially networked, horizontalist movements would have everywhere once things got serious: the absence of strategy, the absence of a line of communication through which to speak to the union-organised workers. The limits, in short, of ‘propaganda of the deed.’”

These are some of the issues the movements will need to overcome if their aspirations of an alternative society are to be realised.

Michael Douglas


Solidarity meetings

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