Newsnight's economics editor and author of Meltdown and Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, talks to The Occupied Times about Occupy, the financial crisis and the role of the media
The Occupied Times: The Occupy movement saw protestors initially gather, en masse, at significant financial centres across the globe, but the movement received heavy criticism – with claims that protestors failed to present an alternative to what the Financial Times later conceded was “capitalism in crisis”. Undaunted by this criticism, many thousands will be mobilising throughout May to further challenge economic injustice. Do you believe that movements such as Occupy bear the seeds for a sustained overthrow of the economic status quo?
Paul Mason: No. For the simple reason that Occupy doesn’t yet have either the means or the intention to “overthrow” the economic order. It’s striking that while the present system – free market unregulated capitalism – is facing a crisis of sustainability and belief, the so called anti-capitalist movement still can’t answer the questions: what do you want, what would you do if you could decide things?
It looks a lot like a new form of utopian socialism, or utopian anarchism. I do not belittle that, of course – my job is to study these movements in real time: but as far as I can see it remains a critique of capitalism “within capitalism”, destined to create small islands of alternative lifestyle or alternative economics, not a systemic overthrow.
At the same time I do believe Occupy has created a new zeitgeist, and that it reflects a wider discontent, and that it’s a product of something that is going on objectively, which is a new inter-personal and psychological revolution, and a revolution in human expectations combined with a rejection of the old economic order and the old power elite.
This year is the 200th anniversary of Luddism, which prefigured other, more successful organised labour battles. Somebody inside the movement said to me: “Maybe we’re like the Luddites, we’re a prefigurative movement for something else”.
In America you can already see Occupy melding with other more local and deep-rooted movements: with the Trayvon Martin protests, with protests around abortion and contraception rights.
Whatever else happens, Occupy is now a meme that won’t go away and I would expect it to influence subsequent waves of struggle and resistance.
OT: You recently told the Guardian’s Comment is Free site that the global revolts of 2011 have signaled the end of Mark Fisher’s concept of Capitalist Realism, whereby it seemed easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. These revolts could be seen as a global rejection of long-standing neoliberal economics. So if we are to believe that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” are we now in Gramsci’s “interregnum” – experiencing “a great variety of morbid symptoms”?
PM: Well that Gramsci quote gets rolled out a lot. I would see it as having a lot of relevance in Britain: old newspapers and media business models dying; the media obsessed with an agenda dreamed up in the unreal bubbles we call political parties; the voice of the gentleman’s club and the public school still ubiquitous; our “alternative” culture dominated by ageing standup comedians and millionaire concept artists.
I think Lehman was the moment where the fatalism the capitalist realism concept describes did die; but I also think you have to admit there is quite a lot of “the new” actually being born. The iPhone has conquered the world since Lehman; six out of seven Arab Facebook users joined after the revolution started. There is rapid uptake of technological change going on, and the rapid creation of alternative forms of media. Likewise if you look at the Rio+20 summit, the UN has suddenly become obsessed with “transition” projects.
So I would rephrase Gramsci: the old world is on life support because too few people want the chaos that an attempt to create a new world might bring. Instead of “morbid symptoms” you’ve got zombified symptoms.
OT: There seems to be an inability on the part of both those in the financial industry and among many financial journalists to fully understand the complexities of the economic system. It sometimes feels like we’re speeding along in a driverless car and when you ask around what’s wrong, everyone shrugs their shoulders. What does this situation mean for the potential success of policy responses – and can we even seek to comprehend what is going wrong before the shit really hits the fan?
PM: I dispute this: there are many journalists and economists who get what’s gone wrong: at least 12 significant academic economists predicted one or another aspect of the credit crunch.
Increasingly there’s a default counter-crisis policy coalescing: you saw it in Berlin in April at George Soros’s INET [Institute for New Economic Thinking] conference: it’s basically repress finance, rebalance western economies towards production and hi-tech through state intervention, and upskill the western workforce. But it’s actually very hard to implement: once the answer to every question is not “the market” you need experts, strategists, planners; “competitiveness” becomes not about “getting fit” but “winning the race by putting your spikes into the knee of your opponent”.
I’ve said before that the big unspoken question is protectionism: how much of the rebalancing can you hope to achieve without protecting your domestic market and restricting the supply of unorganised cheap labour. I think it’s coming back – in both left and right wing forms.
If you look at the French elections, it’s the candidates to the left and right – Le Pen and Melenchon – who’ve been prepared to break these taboos. The challenge for people around Occupy, which tends to shy away from “demands”, still less harsh demands that actually inflict pain on one section of society by wielding political power on behalf of another, is that we might be entering a decade of demand-based radical politics. So what are you going to do if politics and economics enters a world of class vs class, nation vs nation?
OT: A look back at the lead-up to the current global economic crisis reveals that a number of marginalised voices were accurately forecasting a crash well ahead of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. What changes can we hope to make to economic reportage in order to accommodate input from the likes of critical commentators such as Steve Keen, Nouriel Roubini, David Harvey and Nicholas Taleb?
PM: Each of the figures you mention are big figures who pick and choose their interventions carefully. I’ve hosted most of them on BBC outlets.
For me, economics reporting is not about theory anyway: it’s about bringing in the granular and unexpected details of real life into the world of theory. It’s about reporting before it’s about economics – such as when I got in a car and drove across most of the southern USA, looking at poverty and displacement. It taught me a lot more about effective demand, and real labour market, than the monthly stats could.
OT: You write in your new book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere (WIKOE), of an “almost mystical determination by protestors to occupy a symbolic space and create within it an experimental, shared community”. You also mention that this creation of “instant liberated spaces” is the most important theme linking the global revolt. Does this mean that you wouldn’t subscribe to the meme that is popular with some in the Occupy movement that you “can’t evict an idea”? Is holding onto a Tahrir, a Zuccotti Park or a St. Paul’s crucial to the success of the movement?
PM: I was reporting in Zuccotti myself two weeks ago and got physically evicted, despite my BBC press pass. Then the place got swamped with cops and tourists in equal numbers. Then one slightly deranged guy started to meander through the space shouting “Occupy Wall Street”, which echoed off the office blocks and completely defined the situation.
So I suppose that’s a good illustration of the idea being impossible to evict. However, if you look back at the history of opposition movements in, say, France, you would say ideas, eventually, can get evicted. Entire generations of radical French workers clung to the idea of the social republic, despite it being “evicted” physically twice, in 1851 and in 1871. Eventually they gave up on it: the character of opposition politics transformed as a result.
After a while then, an idea gets ground to pieces by repeated failure. How to avoid failure? Social history tells us it’s numbers and relevance.
If you contrast Zuccotti to Tahrir: in Tahrir there are still tens of thousands of ordinary people prepared to risk life, injury and careers to be in Tahrir, even more than a year on, to expand the democratic rights they won in February 2011. I think it’s an open question whether Occupy in the USA and UK will revive as the weather gets better, or whether it dissolves into whatever is coming next. Certainly, if you look at Spain and Greece, the indignado movements have now moved on to a more worker and politics oriented agenda, as you’ve moved into general strikes and election campaigns.
OT: In WIKOE you’re keen to draw historical parallels between our times and the Edwardian Age or “Belle Epoque” at the turn of the 20th century rather than the more common comparisons most people make with the economic turmoil of the 1930s or the youthful protests of the 1960s. Why is this?
PM: We’re not yet in a 1930s situation because the main economies in the world chose to bail out the banks instead of letting them go bust. Students are poor; young workers are low paid. But go into any bar or shopping mall where students and young workers hang out and you will see them still spending money: that money they are spending is some of the trillions of dollars, euros and pounds that’s been created to stave off crisis. By contrast my grandad’s generation literally spent their last penny and then starved. And even then it took the threat of fascism to rouse them from sporadic strikes and protests to really transformative mass action.
The 1960s do have a resonance: but as I say in the book, back then the revolution in individual lifestyles and freedom ran into very powerful forces linked to the Cold War, to the resilience of the economic system, which could still deliver life improvements to ordinary people.
The parallel with the pre-1914 days for me comes from the fact that you’ve had this revolution in individual lifestyles that is congruent with a technological revolution and, until 2008, growth – but it’s a cultural parallel I am drawing. And I do so to raise a question I don’t know the answer to: if it all gets really ugly, economically and socially, could the powers that be really roll back all the personal freedom we’ve gained? We have to remember that Berlin went from the gay nightclub capital of the world to a Wagnerian cultural desert in the space of two or three years. It happened then.
OT: We’re interested in the ability of mainstream media outlets to be a check on political and corporate power. Are organisations like the BBC doing their job properly? Or have we reached a situation where the real speaking of truth to power comes out of movements like Occupy, UK Uncut or from independent sources?
PM: I think all the mass and mainstream media knows it’s facing a huge challenge as social media empowers ordinary people. And I don’t see the first job of the media as “speaking truth to power”: it is much simpler – it is telling the truth. Finding it, uncovering it, testing out claims, creating a coherent picture of what’s going on and then publishing it. What I say to people who get irate at reporting they don’t like in the mainstream media is: in the end of the day it’s not as important as it was. If you don’t like it; do your own reporting and disseminate it yourself. What unites activists and bloggers on the right and left – in the USA and increasingly here – is how little they trust or care about what the mainstream media says.
OT: Given that the PR industry has grown at an almost directly proportional rate to which newsrooms have shrunk in recent decades, how do you feel this has changed reporting, and is it causing serious problems?
PM: No. The only serious problem it causes me is RSI [Repetitive Strain Injury] as I methodically delete press releases from my email in-box. I cannot say it has really changed my reporting. More of a problem is the relentless legal guerilla warfare corporations engage in with the media; and their endless complaints and lobbying efforts outsourced to the public affairs industry. But my philosophy is: if you are straight, and play fairly with everybody, most of it is like water off a duck’s back.
OT: A lack of representation of working-class people in politics is obviously problematic for democracy, but what is the impact on society of a Fourth Estate disproportionately populated by people from white, privileged backgrounds? What advice would you give to young working-class people keen to become journalists?
PM: Marry somebody who owns a ski-lodge in Verbier and a 60ft yacht! Seriously you put your finger on a problem. In the media in general wages for the producers, young reporters, internet writers etc are so low they’re impossible to live on unless your dad is rich. I regularly look at adverts for research fellowships in Higher Education, or entry level school teaching, and think, heck, that’s way more than people earn in TV and newspapers. So a lot of working class would-be journalists simply give up, or can’t survive in the “prestige jobs” – so they move to the more lucrative edges of the media – which tend to be less altruistic, or they go into PR. Going back to the advice: I would say start a blog now; start producing video now; start posting your pictures on Tumblr or somewhere now. Start reporting, even if its only for an audience of a few hundred. You may already be out-performing your local newspaper in terms of readership! And get a specialism. I started on a magazine covering “heavy plant” – ie digging machines. But this problem of low wages, and too few entry level jobs that pay, also reflects the rise of social media and the crisis of mainstream business models.
OT: A hero of yours, George Orwell, masterfully depicted tyranny and hierarchy in 1984 and the nature of power in Animal Farm but he wasn’t to know how new technology would herald the explosion of networks now connecting people across the globe; networks that you say will invariably defeat hierarchies. We think the important question is: would George have been a keen Tweeter or more of a Facebook fan?
PM: Orwell would have closed his Facebook account the moment they started messing around with the privacy options. He would have been tweeting Anglo-Saxon epithets but getting trolled by a combination of right wingers and Stalinists, as he was in 1937 when he wrote Homage to Catalonia. Also, maybe, he would have sold more books by self-publishing on Kindle than he ever did with Victor Gollancz. Also he would have ripped the **** mercilessly out of Occupy. Read his description of two ILP [Independent Labour Party] members getting onto a bus in Letchworth dressed for a socialist summer camp to see why.
Republished from The Occupied Times