Paul Mason, Economics Editor of Newsnight, was interviewed by Allan Little as the first in a series of Independent Voices debates at the Bath Literature Festival. Supporting the release of his book Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere, Mason explained why the world is going to hell in a handcart. From Cairo revolutionaries to Occupy protestors, from Athens banner-wavers to London rioters, his was the picture of a world out of control and in which the powers-that-be have no answer to the big questions asked by the malcontents.
Mason named 15 September 2008 as year zero: the day that Lehman Brothers went bust and, for him, "the day a model falls apart."
The model was that of consumption, specifically of consumption based on credit. The background to that system hitting the wall – wage stagnation, growth spurred on by purchasing based on credit that was in turn sold between banks – is familiar to anyone who has heard from the likes of Robert Peston, Alistair Darling or any number of other economists who have explained the financial crisis. What Mason did was explain the link between this and civil unrest.
"It's the switching off," Mason said, "the idea of getting richer throughout your life… the under-thirties realise that has gone. The shock of that, without a narrative to replace it, is what's causing the discontent."
The nihilistic uncertainty that has emerged is instead characterised by a youth that can look forward to no wage rises, no asset building, and no welfare safety net. Mason made comparisons to the French Revolution with one, very modern addition: "In every garret there is a laptop."
Those laptops allow the communication of people linked by what Mason called "a kind of sociological or demographic internationalism". Unlike protest movements of old, these are not individuals who must co-ordinate via hierarchies and protracted debate; instead memes replicate across the globe – such as the #notanumber hashtag – and create "communities of shared digital experience".
Mason stopped short of suggesting that social networks have caused cvil unrest, but their role in information sharing, both locally and internationally, is having a radical effect on the world's societies. "The social networks have come at us like an express train," said Mason, stating that Twitter is "really a news network". He added that mobile telephones have a disproportionate effect when dropped into very poor, "semi-feudal" societies, in which people might not be be able to travel far or communicate easily.
This spread of information stops governments wielding power through disinformation; or, as Mason's best line went: "If you give Frodo Baggins a mobile phone, then the story of The Lord of the Rings becomes much shorter."
Specifically talking of north Africa and Syria, but also touching on other countries like Egypt, Mason said that "The [social] networks allow you to escape the tyranny of the powerful." They also, as seen in the London riots and in Tahrir Square, allow mobs to "swarm" and "dissipate".
"The swarm of the network can usually defeat the hierarchy – which is slow to adapt," he observed. We now see "a mob acting more intelligently, in a way we have never seen a mob act before." These mobs are evolving their responses at rapid speed so the powers-that-be cannot respond.
Significantly, Mason also discussed the purpose of these anti-hierarchy events, in which people no longer wish to seize power – for they have seen what becomes of those in power – but seek to "negotiate a space where they can live despite the existence of power" in "islands of autonomy".
And these civil protests are unlikely to stop. In contrast to, for example, the 1848 revolutions, these are not worker's revolutions – class warfare has not emerged, so "the revolutionary alliance has persisted." Furthermore, those in control have been unable to propose a route forward towards growth once the protests are contained, so they will keep springing up.
In the end, Mason said: "Revolutions happen because elites don't do the obvious thing." In the British context, this is protecting banks' interests while everyone else gets poorer. "It's probably the wrong thing to do if you want a mainstream outcome," he said.
Chilling words for a sunny Bath.
Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere by Paul Mason is out now, published by Verso.