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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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If that's true, it means that the human material for regimented, reactionary movements, like Stalinism, like fascism, is going to be much harder to assemble. The second thing is that all progressive projects have to take into account the fact that everything today is about herding the individualized people.

I'm a union rep at work, I have led a strike, I have been on the picket line, I have been put in the right-wing press for being on a picket line, but 90 percent of my union activity has dealt with what I call the “me agenda.” Don't mess with me, don't bully me, don't sexually harass me, don't deny me this promotion; as soon as these issues come up, knock-knock on the door, “Can I join the union?”

What people expect unions to do is to defend their individual rights and occasionally they'll in return do something collective. We're past mourning that situation. One has to kind of celebrate it because to me the root of all progressive politics--I would argue that it's even the root of Marxism--is the liberation of the human individual, before it's about class, before it's about power, before it's about anything. If the individual is more confident, has greater ties, can hold in their minds levels of knowledge that it would take one person a lifetime to assemble for ten minutes, work with it, and scrap it and work with something else, if that's the new real, that's surely good.

But it brings its own challenges. This young woman said to me, “Fuck politics, why don't we just vote on Twitter, every day? On everything? Why not just give everybody an account and then poll them?”

To me it sounds vaguely outlandish, to most politicos it would sound crazy, but she wasn't being mischievous, she actually meant it.

I would keep going back to this human individual thing. Virginia Woolf famously wrote “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” She was absolutely right to spot an inflection point. When the masses became exposed to mass consumption, cinema, holidays, unified information that everybody could get at the same time, their behavior did change.

The people who made the Russian Revolution in 1917 were very different people than the cigar makers in Chicago in 1870. The 1870s labor movement used to have this obsession with egotism. They thought the young generation were egotists because they consumed, they had extramarital sex—there was a big boom in relationships in the 1910s.

It's easy to recognize the 1910 thing now because all TV dramas about the Progressive era, the Edwardian era, the Belle Epoque, always contain a young middle-class woman who's been empowered. They never say what's empowered her. We've got the contraceptive pill—she had basic access to some form of contraceptive knowledge.

SJ: That's why they're trying to take it away now, why we're having a huge fight over it in American politics right now.

PM: In the book, I quote from the story of the French Revolution, how the young graduate without a future, essentially, is a revolutionary in waiting. To make them a revolutionary, all the barriers that would normally civilize such people as they get jobs and get older, need to crumble and fall away.

What neoliberalism did for 20 years was destroy the barriers. Feminism partly collapsed because a lot of women could solve some of their social problems on the terrain of a very rip-roaring booming individualist capitalism. When you don't use muscles, they atrophy. The muscle of fighting for basic things like reproductive rights atrophied.