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How Financial Crisis, Economic Inequality, Social Media, and More Brought Revolutions in 2011--and Changed Us Forever

Journalist Paul Mason covered the uprisings of 2011 as they occurred. His new book "Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere," explains why they all happened at once.

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The amazing thing to see is the resilience of people, the resilience of these young kids who've never had jobs.

SJ: Economic issues are at the heart of the uprising in Greece, but in some of these other places you cover in the book, mainstream commentators don't seem to want to admit the economic issues at the heart of the fight—Egypt, for example.

PM: One thing that has to be said, and I say it in the book, is that the left for 20 years has subscribed to what an English commentator, Mark Fisher, calls capitalist realism.

That is, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, their model of social justice was tax the rich bankers, deregulate banking, and then channel the money to poor blue-collar communities where there will never be adequate work again, the factories aren't coming back, you might work for the state or for a charity but you're never going to work for a decent factory.

This was very win-win. You, the politician, get to hobnob with the bankers because you're deregulating them. Meanwhile your mass base, the workers, you're delivering to them. That's over. What is also over is an era where organized labor is just quiescent.

What has changed is that the collapse of the economic model, the collapse of the narrative of neoliberalism, the collapse of the “recreate-reality” Karl Rove doctrine, means that a space is opened up where the left has to redefine itself towards the emerging events. It's caused a huge crisis for social democracy in Europe and I would argue is probably the root of the crisis inside the various Occupy and Occupy-like movements as well. In Britain UK Uncut is probably the most successful example of a spontaneous horizontal movement, and it completely entered a crisis as soon as it had to define itself against extreme anarcho-violence, and hasn't done anything since.

SJ: You pointed out that the Wisconsin uprising was an economic fight firmly located within the culture wars.

PM:As a journalist working primarily outside of the USA, I would say one of the most stunning things to me is how little Americans understand the severity of this culture war thing going on.

Sometimes traveling through America it's not hard to see two nations. This doesn't matter if you've got strong institutions. What happened in American politics in the 1850s was the institutions could no longer contain it. And one of the organizers of the right-wing protest outside the Pittsburgh G-20 in 2009, a radical right-wing Republican, he told me “My fear is, a lot of the people I talk to basically would like to lock their gates, get a dog and load their gun for the final showdown.”

I'm not saying the country's getting into civil war, but unless the institutions—the media, Congress, the judiciary, the intelligentsia, can hold it together—what then happens is, as America has to confront these massive exogenous shocks, there's no consensus about how to deal with them.

SJ: What's been interesting is that watching Occupy happen, as that went on you could watch the bottom sort of fall out of the Tea Party narrative. When Occupy happened, one of the first things these kids did was reach out to the unions. Everybody's talking about the Democratic party needing to win back the white working-class -- maybe they'll finally figure out how to do that by reconnecting with labor.

PM: When we use the term “white working-class,” we're talking about people who've been left behind by education; the gap has opened up between low-skilled labor and everything else. But even if you're in that demographic, if you happen to work for a local government, whether it's the city of New York or the city of Leeds in England, you're in a situation where there is equal rights legislation in action, your client group will be multiethnic, you're in contact with lots of people who are in unions.