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Sharp ideas skewed by ideology: Ian Birrell finds Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere hard to swallow

Huw Lemmey16 January 2012

Paul Mason is straightjacketed by his own ideological leanings, according to Ian Birrell in the Observer, and this leads him to seriously misattribute the causes of the Arab Spring and the "amazing events" of the last year.

Despite his "undoubted reporting skills" and "sharp ideas", Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere is, according to Birrell, fatally flawed in its failure to acknowledge that the legacies of neo-liberal market reforms worldwide are not precarious economic uncertainties and the impoverishment of workforces in the west, but "global rises in living standards, health and lifestyles unmatched in history."

Mason's reportage is one of the highlights of BBC Newsnight, with the reporter making his name from blending

concise global analysis with sympathetic news from the frontline, revealing angry and scared people staring into a bleak future amid the wreckage of shattered certainties.

But despite this background of frontline reporting, Birrell feels that Mason misses the underlying causes of the Arab Spring. For Birrell, who rose to prominence as speechwriter for David Cameron and rhetorical architect behind the "Big Society", the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East are more representative of a zeitgeist of revolt against government red-tape and nanny-state restrictions on small business. Mason's critique of neo-liberalism leads him to ignore a fundamental truth: the key event that triggered the revolts, the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, was not a protest against autocracy but the cry of a

repressed entrepreneur, and this is why it reverberated so strongly around the region, where so many people's attempts to earn a living were hampered by corrupt officials and governing kleptocracies.

Likewise, Mason's reports on urban slums, from Estero de Paco in Manila to Moqattam in Cairo, fail to offer a more even-sided economic analysis, focusing on their existence as "the hidden consequence of 20 years of untrammelled market forces, greed, neglect and graft", and ignoring their role as an "entry point to a more prosperous life."

For Birrell, such an ideological, anti-neoliberal slant indicates a very dangerous tendency to throw the free-market baby out with its authoritarian bathwater. Despite the entrepeneurial inspirations for the Arab Spring, the Egyptian insurrection is now in danger of choking Gamal Mubarak's "market-based reforms" that were "just starting to deliver results before the revolution".

Birrell finds Mason's examination of the implications of graduate unemployment, rising food prices, horizontal organisational structures, and technological developments to be focused and insightful. But ultimately, for Birrell, Mason's ideological bias against Hayek "and the principles of selfishness and greed he espoused" prevents him from seeing that the desire for economic deregulation and an end to state interference was a key driving force behind last year's insurrections.

Visit the Observer to read the review in full.

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