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The wisdom of gravediggers—Paul Mason at the LSE

Huw Lemmey17 February 2012

In his recent address to LSE, available now as a video and podcast, Paul Mason delves into the complex behavioural mechanics and social and economic phenoma that, for him, suggest the uprisings that began in 2011 may be something very unusual: not a normal business cycle, or a  "50-year Kondratiev Wave", but an epoch-changing convergence of economic collapse, technological revolution and new networked subjectivities.

First outlining the collapse of North African regimes throughout the Arab Spring through the analogy of a Shakespearean history plays, Mason goes on to look at the shifting change in peoples' relationship with power structures, and how the development of new communication technologies have opened up public discourse about those power structures.

Unable to maintain a narrative of dignity and respect, the old authoritarians who maintained social order at the price of justice saw their ideological foundations slip away in the face of public derision. Like those very Shakespeare plays, Mason says, "the innkeepers and gravediggers sound like philosophers", whilst the strong-men and their courtiers look increasingly like fools, holding on to the certainties of old dogmas that are being washed away.

What is causing this erosion of respect, or appearance of such, for authority? For Mason, it is the combined result of the economic repercussions of neoliberalism - namely, wage repressions hitting the educated middle-class and the growth of post-Fordist labour models replacing production based upon the mass worker - and new technological developments changing our consciousness and relationships with others in society.

This was a distinction grasped by those Mason calls 'The Graduate without a Future', a sociological type raised to expect a higher standard of living but now looking forward to significant personal and financial insecurity, long before the Arab Spring shook the world. A generation whose "future has been stolen" were aware of the impending crunch of expectations: Mason cites the pamphlet Communique from an Absent Future as evidence of an understanding the inevitability of the crisis as a result of the economic fatal flaw within neoliberalism: the "gap between consumption driven growth and stagnation at level of incomes is driven by credit", a credit system that is now bust. It is also this generation, with its similarities in economic prospects, "weak ties" in organisational forms and shared cultural references, that make comparison between anti-austerity struggles in Europe and those in Tahrir Square possible, however outrageous it might seem to an older generation. This young middle-class are the contemporary equivalent of Hippolyte Taine's Jacobins in the garret- except now "the Jacobin has a laptop."

The influence of technology upon personal relationships with power and dissent can hardly be underestimated, according to Mason. He begins a basic, cohesive narrative of the "networked revolution", not with techno-utopian zeal but by acknowledging that fundamentally it is the human agency of the maligned citizen which activates that technology. Still, Mason posits, we need to study how the growth of communication technology is changing us. He cites Granovetter's "Strength of Weak Ties" as a key principle of new political insurgency, drawing people together not as tight comrades, but as large networks of individuals with common aims. This network, in contrast to a hierarchical movement, is capable of new tactics of swarm and dispersal, and is inherently much harder for monolithic state power to crush.

The sense of new possibilities is palpable in the lecture: dipping into early internet theorists, network ideology and proxy connection technology as well as the implications of Islamism, the Govian "reality-based community" and the lessons we can learn from the collapse of feudalism, Mason attempts to draw out some sense of coherence about our contemporary state. But how that state plays out is another question. For Mason, we must focus on how new technologies can engender social justice. He invokes George Orwell, writing about an Italian soldier he encountered whilst fighting in the International Brigades:

He symbolises for me the flower of the European working class, harried by the police of all countries, the people who fill the mass graves of the Spanish battlefields and are now, to the tune of several millions, rotting in forced-labour camps... The question is very simple. Shall people like that Italian soldier be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan't they? Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later--some time within the next hundred years, say and not some time within the next ten thousand.

As technology collapses time and shrinks space, that fight becomes imperative: an issue of decades, if not years.

To see the full video, or to download the podcast, please visit the LSE website.

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