Blog post

"Break the swarm": Paul Mason reflects on the new politics of the network

Huw Lemmey23 January 2012


In a thought-provoking video interview with Oliver Laughland for the Guardian, Paul Mason elaborates on how technological development and the banking crisis have "nullified" the ideological impasse of the past 30 years, and how the decodified, radicalised youth springing up in its wake are beginning to tear up decades of stagnation with a new, networked form of activism.

"It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" – so wrote Fredric Jameson in Archeologies of the Future, and this, for Mason, best sums up the "Roveian Reality" which shaped the popular imagination since the 1970s:

The social theorist Mark Fisher calls this "capitalist realism"... There is no alternative to the reality you can't escape from- the reality of marketisation, neoliberalism, the individualisation of people's lives, the retreat of a generation in between the two earbuds of the iPod, into a cocoon... I think Fisher, in that concept, really succinctly put his finger on what the intellectual zeitgeist of, broadly speaking, the Left, had been for 20 years.

For both Fisher and Mason, the credit crunch and the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers "represented a rend in the fabric" of capitalist realism:

...suddenly you could imagine an end of capitalism. Some in the markets couldn't imagine anything but an end of  capitalism. What it's done for a generation is kind of cancelled their future, and a generation, that lived for the future, sees their predictable future cancelled,  suddenly adopts really quite radical ideas in response.

Mason cites the financial crisis as an impetus for radicalism, but notes that it is enabled by advances in technology which operate on more than a level of effective communication. Networks are not simply the routes of information passed between activists, but the basic ideology in itself. Horizontal organisational structures, consensus decision-making, the wisdom of the hive mind: these have replaced the fixed programmes for social transformation that marked previous anti-authoritarian movements. According to Mason this creates new opportunities for side-stepping authority:

social media in a revolution gives you a free hit of extra knowledge, and a momentum... you can sense when the time comes to break the swarm, swarm away, and stop attacking. You can sense the moment very easily when consensus is over. To the 20th century theorist of social order this a terrible weakness, that they are mercurial. Actually, what I write in the book is this ability to swarm and then break the swarm is one of the crucial things about nonheirarchical protest that leaves the heirarchies really struggling to cope with them.

Whether these movements can actually deliver social transformation without a more established political programme, or whether we can expect capitalism to fail through its own contradictions, is left open here. Writing in the Huffington Post James Deneslow points 0ut that it is

the critical heart of Mason's argument that while technology has allowed empowered individuals to overthrow authoritarian governments, globalisation itself may fail as the economics of the financial crisis of 2008 continue to unravel.

Mason explores the relationship between technological innovations and young protestors in his new book, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere. Ian Finlayson, writing in the Times this Saturday,  says "Mason writes like he sounds on TV and radio - headlong, well-informed, enthusiastic and hands-on."

Visit the Guardian to watch the video in full. James Denselow's review of Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere can be found on the Huffington Post


Filed under: interviews, reviews