It’s All Kicking Off
Tahrir Square, Cairo. Photography by Ramy Raoof
From The Guardian:
Is there much value in describing again the demonstrations, encampments and activist movements already covered, seemingly exhaustively, by the traditional and new media over the last two years? The quality of Mason’s observation and storytelling quickly dispels any such doubts. This is from Athens during one riot last summer: “In the side-streets – abandoned by police, shops shuttered – you see isolated individuals, masked, texting; some people are hammering at a piece of marble, breaking it up to make rocks. A few yards away, couples who have been protesting walk hand in hand … shambling wearily … Two young lads take their shirts off, wrap them around their heads and dance in front of a fire they’ve lit … just out of projectile range – they hope – from a platoon of police.”
Such disorder has become so familiar, and yet also remains so dizzyingly at odds with the seemingly steady, semi-tranquilised state of things in much of the west from the end of the cold war until quite recently, that there is great value in the journalist who can simply make you register how much the world has changed. Yet Mason is also much more sophisticated and thorough than most reporters in explaining exactly how the new protest cultures came into being and developed.
In Egypt, he anatomises the hastily built coalition of slum-dwellers, union activists, unemployed graduates, faith groups and even football hooligans that drove Mubarak from power. When history is being made on the streets of his chosen countries in 2010 and 2011, Mason, it seems, either sees it happen himself, or can always locate the key witnesses and participants. The writing style of this reportage is compact, urgent, present-tense, declarative, addictive. There are one-sentence paragraphs, a hint of machismo in the fondness for military and other muscular metaphors (“why it’s kicking off“), and frequent, breathless digressions that charge off like a breakaway group from a student march. The fast-talking, economically encyclopedic Mason familiar to Newsnight viewers is very much present, but let loose from his BBC shackles. Towards the climax of a particularly fizzing chapter on the political power of social networking, Mason asks whether the truly empowered citizen envisaged by Karl Marx in the 1840s can, thanks to the internet, exist simultaneously within capitalism and in fundamental conflict with it – the anti-banker activist with the Apple Store habit. “I don’t know the answer,” he writes, “but merely to pose the question is exhilarating.” Occasionally his descriptions of the world’s discontented “youth” (his favoured term) are a little star-struck.
Yet Mason also effectively deploys his less sexy knowledge of modern western business culture and free-market economics, and their possibly fatal flaws. Pithily and authoritatively, he describes how globalisation, assumed by many supporters and critics alike to produce economically vigorous, politically docile societies almost in perpetuity, has in fact since around 2000 increasingly produced societies that are neither, whether in the dictatorships of the Arab world or the democracies of the eurozone, Britain and the United States. Yesterday’s upwardly mobile graduates have turned into today’s angry unemployed, he says, with their networking skills intact and suddenly politically potent. The expansion of higher education means that they can no longer be dismissed as an unrepresentative elite, as they often were in the past. And once-obscure theorists of protest have made their way from the margins to the mainstream of academic life. At last year’s London student actions, “Many students were familiar with [Guy] Debord and his situationist movement, for the simple reason that he is taught on every art course.”