Paul Mason: The Global Revolutions, Social Networking & The Demonisation of Arabs

Live Magazine‘s interview with Paul Mason.

Paul Mason made his first appearance as economics editor of BBC’s Newsnight on the evening of 9/11. He covered the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, which triggered the worldwide recession, live from its HQ in New York. His groundbreaking reports on the rise of China as an economic power won him the Wincott prize in 2003.

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Omar Shahid, Live’s Politics Editor, caught up with Mason in an exclusive interview about his new book, Why it’s kicking off everywhere. He explains why the 2011 revolutions happened, how social media has changed our behaviour, the implications for professional journalism, how young people will react to continued unemployment and whether the demonisation of Arabs has ended.

In a nutshell, why did it all kick-off?

It kicked off because the economic system started to fall apart, that changed young people’s outlook as to what their prospects were and did so almost immediately – and over large sections of the western world.

It happened at the end of 10 years in which communications technology has become very democratic. This is rushing at us and the combination of social media, a huge economic crisis, empowerment of individuals and a generation that acts and thinks differently, has basically produced the explosion

Why are they acting and thinking differently?

The human being who experienced the arrival of movies, motorcars, aero planes and phonograms, were very different human beings to their parents. They acted, moved and dressed differently. Even the women were freer than 20 years before that.

There has been a historic change in human behavior driven by mass consumption. What I’m saying is, above all, social media and mobile telephony have literally changed the way we do [things]. They have even changed the way what we do with different bits of our body, our thumbs – we type text messages with our thumbs.

Okay we are still human beings, we are the same animal, but the social side of us and the empathy we have with each other, has been enabled more. It’s very hard to pin down, nobody is theorising it, nobody can study it scientifically, there is no mass sociological study of it yet, but it’s the job of the journalist to notice this stuff.

There is a quote in the book by a young person who says “social media isn’t making us more antisocial but ultra social.” Is social media really making us more isolated individuals – and is it such a bad thing?

I think there is strong evidence that a creation of an online world is a creation of an extra human space that has its own laws of interaction just like the physical world does. Margaret Wertheim said there is an extra bit of consciousness being created and when we are in this world we’re not so defensive of ourselves and our personas. That we can’t share our intimate feelings and thoughts with people we hardly know. That’s quite interesting. Nobody knows where it’s going.

Another young person in the book said: “I can’t believe people still read articles when we have instant information from social media.” What’s the future for young journalists when social media is becoming the main tool for journalists?

All the business models of media are in crisis. That doesn’t mean they can’t exist, it just means we have to find something people are prepared to pay for.

For a journalist, the question is: how do we create the content people want? People already have a lot of the truth coming at them, unmediated by us – they choose who to follow on Twitter. I followed the right people in Libya so I could work out when they had started the assault on Tripoli way before even the newswire started reporting it. I thought, “shit they are going to assault Libya, this is amazing.“

Does that mean I don’t want a fantastic photojournalism essay of the assault on Tripoli? No. I want to read it.  All it means is that us, as craftsman, as journalists, are the only people who can make the whole thing. I just think there are going to be fewer journalists making lots of money and a lot of people doing bits of journalism for free. It has changed the dynamics of it.

In that case, is it worth going abroad to pursue journalism?

I think it’s the story of this generation. In emerging markets in places like: Brazil, Columbia, Turkey and Egypt – Egypt and Turkey are so developed that if you are a professional you can live a very decent lifestyle.  With the right language and the right social skills and the ability to fit in – I think people of all professions: finance, engineering, architecture; people are going from the west to these emerging markets.

I think for journalists there is only so much you want to read about your own world. Journalism has to bring the unknown into you. Sometimes the unknown is an estate in Manchester but sometimes it’s in Mongolia.

With our country’s debt pile now at £1 trillion, youth unemployment still bad ­–  here and around Europe — how will the youth react in the next year?

I think this generation of youth – even people who are very disadvantaged in terms of money and education – are still very self-educated, they know more than my generation 20, 30 years ago. And therefore they are able to be more entrepreneurial; some will be pure business entrepreneurs but others, social entrepreneurs. But they are very individual people. Like I say, this has happened before in the world where generational change has taken place and people’s behavior is different.

Yes, the west is going to be crippled by debt probably for a decade, yes the form of capitalism will have to change, at the very least if it going to deliver anything like social justice.

Do I know what the final outcome of that change is? No. Can we predict some things? Yes. What can we predict? It’s going to have to be greener.  The Germans are pouring money into green technology, it’s going to have to be more hi-tech, the point is through hi-technology we will create new markets. There will probably be markets in genetic medicine in 10 years time.  Not just genetic medicine but genetic, cosmetic surgery. Out of that will come the Richard Branson of the future, and other stuff that might be more attractive than Richard Branson.

How have the recent protests differed from those over the last 200 years?

This is the paradox. Something like the Egyptian revolution is following a classic pattern of revolution that we can recognize from the year 1848, which was the big year of revolution in the 19th century. It was led by the educated youth but with the workers and the urban poor proving the decisive numbers to overthrow the government. And then, also in 1948, you get an election – huge numbers of religious, rural dwelling people who get the same vote as everybody else, quite rightly – and they vote for reactionary religious parties. So anybody who has read history knows the revolution to be predictable.

Because of social media, the young students, the educated youth, people who have dragged themselves out of slums to become educated, are in a more global world. They are on my Twitter feed, I am on their twitter feed. When you watch the Twitter feed of fighters in Libya, sometimes it’s about Gaza or a piece of hip hop music  – and it is this fascinating unpredictable bit of it that I’m trying to study.

What makes these revolutions different, however, is their sustainability through virtual communities, even when parts of reality turns bad, the ability to sustain the spirit, feeling and discussion of what you are fighting for, through this global medium of interchange of ideas, is new.

What role do you think the likes of CIA and Mossad have played in the Arab revolutions and what role will they look to play now?

I think the CIA and Mossad isn’t the end of the list. The state department, of course, had a project to support liberal oppositionists in various Middle East dictatorships. One would like to think they [the state department] could see the dictators would fall but they had no idea. The state department held training sessions for young liberals – that’s what the American state department did in the cold war as well.

I don’t see these revolutions as a tool of the west; I don’t see them like that at all. And as for Mossad, the Israeli military and intelligence community was as surprised as everyone by the Egyptian revolution.

And of course there is a third big security service in the Middle East and that is the Iranian one and they have lost control as well. If you think of Iran’s proxies  – Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria – they are all in crisis.

The modern world is not a world of the hierarchical, structured religious – or ideological in [President] Assad’s case, I’m certain that all of that is doomed. I don’t see anything of this as the creations of western interests. Maybe you do, I don’t know.

In Tunisia, Libya, and possibly in Egypt, we will see moderate Islamist parties ruling the countries, is this something we should fear?

For decades, Europe was ruled by “moderate Christianist” parties in France, Germany, Italy. So one should have no fear of the term moderate Islamist.

Given that the leaders of many of these parties [in Egypt] were treated as terrorists by [Hosni] Mubarak, we should celebrate the fact they are willing to play the game of democracy. Part of me wants to celebrate the Muslim Brotherhood being able to hold itself together and be a party that contests elections like any other. The Muslim Brotherhood may be riding high now but it is being disintegrated by forces.

What forces?

The forces of modern youthfulness. Its own youth wing broke away and formed a separate party not because they are secularists but because they are Muslims who don’t want to be in this sense, Islamists.  They want to be devout but don’t want to be defined by it.

If, along the way in Egypt,  a whole bunch of parties that are Islamist but are prepared to take part in a essentially secular constitutional system, that would be a great achievement. But many who began the revolution want to go further than that: they want social justice, social democracy, liberalism and secularism.

Florence nightingale once said the Arab would be beaten to death rather than give up. Did you observe a difference between the Arab’s mentality and ours in the West?

What I observed on the streets of Egypt is that when you see the possibility of everything changing – and you realise they can kill some of you but they can’t kill all of you – things will change. This is what has made it different to the Intifada [in Palestine] which has come and gone, and while the youth have been at the forefront, it has been led by Fatah or Hamas.

What I observed was something much more fundamental, and that is when an entire community comes out – which I think is not open to the Palestinians – and see total liberation was at their grasp.

The fact they [the Egyptians] could do it with such humour and good nature. It was an insurrection of joy such as which the Arab world has not seen.

As a white, western journalist, I do think so much of what we have produced hasn’t helped to understand the Arab or the Muslim world. It’s partly because in Britain and in the west, Islam exists as a community and it, like it or not, seems like a separate community and all the differences with the west are emphasised. But if you go to a Muslim country and stay there for any length of time, it is just like anywhere else. This may upset some Islamists, but I’m afraid there are drunks and prostitutes [in the Muslim world], just like there are in Brixton.

Once we realise that the “other-isation” of Islam becomes pointless – it’s just a religion. The west has got into this situation because we only see the Arab world through the eyes of Islam when there is what you might call the “Arab culture”, which embraces the secular liberals – the dancing, the jazz clubs, the folk singing – on Tahrir square. As somebody said about Tahrir: “It’s Glastonbury without Bono.”

Does Egypt, therefore, have a positive future?

I think it [moderate Islamism] might lead to dictatorships, that’s the problem. What a lot of the secular left in Egypt talk about is “Attaturkism”. [They say] “We aren’t going to have any Sharia Law so we have to insulate the country against religion by having a strong army that cracks down on anybody who tries to ‘religious-ise’ Egypt.” I think the Brotherhood has got to be quite careful because the Salafis are so strong and they are recruiting from the poor and it is very difficult to combat it especially amongst uneducated people. And especially when they are playing the same game which Hamas and Hezbollah played which is to give money. They will exert a big pressure on the Brotherhood.

So do you think our perceptions of the Arab world is now changing?

There is a struggle between the “Arabists” and the people who are still reducing issues to terrorism, violence and religion – and there are people like me who want to see beyond that. I’m afraid Syria, and then the war in Libya, has allowed this image to come back. Look, people shout Allah hu akbar. Why are they shouting it? It’s because they think they are going to die. They want it to be their last word. They aren’t shouting it because they are religious fanatics.

When I’m watching the news I just want people to pop up and explain why they are shouting Allah hu akbar! It was Edward Said who said 30 years ago that we still haven’t grasped the complexity of the Muslim and Arab society.

“I’m a devout Muslim, I’m a hip hop artist, I’m a dancer I’m a revolutionary.” I met a leftist revolutionary who said: “I want to study Hebrew so I can understand the Israelis”. None of it fits the stupid two-dimensional stereotype, none of it.

Why should a young person buy your book?

My book takes you on a tour of the ideas, the people, and the biggest thing that has happened in your lifetime. It’s the first draft of history so it’s quite rough, some of it will be proved wrong.

What I’ve tried to do – because of my background in understanding social history and the Labour movement history – is try to relate these movements to stuff that has happened in the past that has been forgotten.

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