Paul Mason wants to Make Humanism Great Again

The author of PostCapitalism argues in a new book the need to renew our focus on what it means to be human so we can achieve techno-utopia

Utopia is back. The idea of the ‘perfect’ society — out of fashion since the collapse of the Soviet Union — has been making a comeback in the latter half of the decade. From Rutger Bregman to Aaron Bastani, a range of thinkers are answering the dystopian present of ascendent populist nationalism, big tech monopolies and climate crisis, with a new idealist vision for a social system beyond want. Common to each is a theory of life after capitalism, and the movement traces its beginnings to the 2015 release of two books with the term ‘post-capitalism’ in their titles: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason.

Mason is back with a follow-up book, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being, in which he defends his previous work against accusations of “cyborg socialism” by sounding a clarion call for a reinvigorated humanism. The volume critiques neoliberalism and postmodernism via an exploration of the works of Aristotle, Marx and Hannah Arendt, providing a radically optimistic solution to a failing economic model, the return of fascism and the spectre of algorithmic domination by Silicon Valley and Beijing.

Last week Mason spoke at LSE’s Sheikh Zayed Theatre about Clear Bright Future, and I got chance to talk to the former broadcaster about the book in a bit more detail. Below is the first part of a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, with the second part following later this week.

Professionally, you were a journalist at the BBC and Channel 4 until a few years ago when you went freelance. Ideologically, you were of the Trotskyist left when you were a student, and now describe yourself as a ‘radical social democrat’. How have those different journeys led you to writing Clear Bright Future and how do you define ‘radical social democracy’?

In 2015, I brought out a book called PostCapitalism that advocates a long-term transition beyond the market economy. It is a different route to traditional socialism. I was a traditional 20th century leftist, I just believe that information technology makes utopian socialism possible. The peer-to-peer movement, the open source movement, universal basic income — the state needs to make this happen, it is the project of radical social democracy. The concept of a fourth industrial revolution is blocked by the social relations of neoliberalism. We have to get rid of neoliberalism, that’s the urgent task. We have to save globalisation by doing less of it, because you do not want to live in a world where the multilateral global system has fallen apart. The left must have a project which is unashamedly a utopia — a post-work, post-scarcity utopia.

That book came out in the week of the incredible standoff between the Greek government and the European Central Bank. It said ‘neoliberalism is shit, capitalism is doomed, corporations need to change or die’, and the next job was covering Tesco’s quarterly results. I realised I couldn’t go on doing that. After a certain time you’ve got to be able to say what you think.

In the intervening period times have moved on. The most important thing is the phenomenon I hope all LSE students are most concerned about: the rise of both the new far-right; their echo chamber and enablers in authoritarian conservative governments like Trump, Orban, Bolsonaro, etc.; and a new neo-reactionary culture that’s very pervasive. Clear Bright Future is not essentially a book about political answers, but the one political takeaway is, just as Georgi Dimitrov said to the Comintern in 1935: Do you want to be in a concentration camp, or do you want to form governments with liberals? I say that’s our moment, that’s the choice facing us.

Neoliberalism is still the enemy: I want to overcome it. But a new form of nationalist neoliberalism — which I call ‘Thatcherism in one country’ — has replaced it as the main adversary, because it wants to destroy the freedoms that students at the LSE assume are basic and irreversible. We have to defeat that. I’d say the liberal centre wants to defend neoliberalism and humanise it. It can’t, because it’s a terrible, unworkable system. But the one thing that we [the left] do share with them is a commitment to the rule of law, democracy and universal human rights. That is the fight.

I interviewed my friend Paul Greengrass after his film on the Utøya massacre came out and he said something which has stuck with me: “For me and you, in our 50s, the rest of our lives will be spent fighting this New Right.” It’s going to take your [LSE students’] generation to finish that job. The book is about why it is so prevalent. I situate the answer in the loss of concept of the self that took place during neoliberalism.

You’ve talked about how you feel sorry for the generation who went to university in the nineties and noughties for being completely listless in the current turmoil. In what way is Clear Bright Future an attempt to provide the generation of students at LSE with a framework for understanding and overcoming this moment?

When I worked at Newsnight, the generation that went to university in the nineties and early noughties, during the relatively successful upswing of neoliberalism, would say to you: “The middle way is best, there is no catastrophe, there’s no crisis left. The 20th century is over.” And within less than 20 years, totalitarianism is back, there’s a triple crisis: of economics, belief in democracy and algorithmic control.

When I say I pity that generation, the problem is everything they studied was a version of the Fukuyama thesis of ‘the end of history’. That generation mapped the values of universalism, liberalism, democracy, human rights etc., almost indelibly on to the economic system. You can see this most clearly in the European Union which even wrote the economic system into its political constitution and is now stuck with a dead fish in the marketplace.

That generation also now expresses two really weird sets of ideas: technological euphoria combined with geopolitical doom. In their presentations about the tech pathway of their company for the next five years it’s all: We’re going to roll out this product, we’re going to revolutionise genetic medicine. In the bar afterwards they’re talking about buying an island to try and escape the coming meltdown of Western society.

I argue to the present generation — the Extinction Rebellion generation that’s on the streets right now — both technological optimism and geopolitical doom are rational. Human history is about progress through technological change by hierarchical societies that always go wrong, and ours has gone wrong spectacularly. For over 10 years now, neoliberalism has been kept on life support through central bank intervention. You can keep a system on life support with fiat money, but you can’t keep an ideology on life support.

The religion of neoliberalism — belief in the permanence of a market society — has collapsed. Sadly, in human history when religions die or fail, it’s very rare that someone says: Let’s find out if there’s any future religions that we ought to be inventing. They tend to go: What were the old religions? In the Western world, the old religions are: colonialism and white supremacism; misogyny and male supremacy; anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The ideas of the neo-reactionaries are just a reinvention of the thought architecture of fascism.

A problem I have with a lot of Marxist critiques is they tend to ascribe a nefarious agency — a sort of shadowy elite seeking to oppress — to what are essentially structural phenomena. What are the mechanics through which neoliberalism and the current technological revolution denigrate the individual? Are Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos actively conspiring to turn us into automata, or is it more subtle?

In the book I go into great length how the neoliberal self was constructed by big demonstrative acts by governments. My dad’s generation, in the Keynesian era, were experts in negotiating collaborative relationships. We became experts at destroying them. We were taught to do that, globally, by the experience of the favela and the slum, where only the backstabbing criminal survives. We were taught to do it through the rise of self employment and, after the mid-nineties, through the financialisation of our psychology. Costas Lapavitsas describes the process very well — we began to conceive ourselves as financial entities and think about our assets and our liabilities in a way that my dad’s generation never had to. They never had any assets, they had houses that they paid off in ten years. They weren’t in the financial system.

A combination of financialisation, the atomisation of individual life, the celebration of criminal audacity, and also the fact that none of the crises ever lead to doom. There’s a kind of safety net within the neoliberal psyche that says: Russia can go bankrupt, Enron can go bankrupt, Lehman can go bankrupt, but nothing bad ever really happens. Because the central banks always bail you out. That created a kind of mentality that blew up. I do believe globalisation and neoliberalism were policies. You might call them structural but they were imposed. They had to be imposed and neoliberalism is a system of coercion. I agree with Goldsmith’s Will Davis’s basic definition of it: the coercive imposition of market norms of behaviour into all aspects of life.

One of the themes of my work is to always take the endogenous crisis of the capitalist system alongside the social crisis created by the technology. My frustration in social science is a dysfunctional tech economy and dysfunctional macro economy are often treated completely separately. I try to establish the two are interlinked. Is the technological control aspect all being planned by elites? There’s one place it absolutely is and that’s China. The experimentation on the Xinjiang population, the use of smartphone technology to discipline the Communist Party cadres themselves, and the plan for a social insurance system in the mid-2020s where your behaviour is surveilled and rewarded. That is absolutely the imposition of an elite.

Now with Silicon Valley, we don’t know the history, it’s invisible to us. I assume based on what I observed in the boom, corporations like this just see what works and then exploit it. What worked was targeting advertising to a highly surveilled population. The kind of advertising happening on Google, Facebook, Amazon, is a very clear step change in the manipulation of human behaviour. The impulse is only what you see in Madmen in the 60s, but the effect is technologically empowered.

As regards Marxists being obsessed with elites — we are engaged in a class struggle, and neoliberalism created a very unusual elite. When my dad went on strike in the 1970s, the boss of the factory, whose name was actually on the factory in gold letters, sat down, negotiated with people and handed out beers. Today nobody knows who owns the factories — probably a hedge fund or private equity company. The managers have no intention of creating a societal relationship with the workforce and they do appear — I would never use “shadowy elite” — but there is an elite detached from the national civil societies it is exploiting. We have to be aware of the potential for general conspiracy theories — I don’t believe the Bilderberg Group or the group of 40 or anything like that. The central banks control capitalism and they do operate in an opaque way. They meet at the Bank for International Settlements and what they discuss is not often transparent. But you have to be aware of the anti-Semitism problem; of ascribing a global elite with no roots in its civil society to Judaism, which I absolutely would not do.

The one thing you can’t accuse me of is missing the structural thing. My earlier books about the 2008 meltdown were an attempt to say this is the structure of capitalism collapsing; the elites are not essentially bad actors in the destruction of the system. In Clear Bright Future I try to revive a ‘fractions of capital’ debate which would have been raging in the LSE in the 1970s. Financial capital and industrial capital do have two ways of exploiting both the workforce and each other. In the United States this has been replaced — and this is the source of Trump and many other of these type of phenomena — by a fraction of capital that cannot live with the very puny social contract it’s created with labour and with small business. It’s very interesting that so many of the backers of the New Right are private equity people — their model of capitalism is not dipping into the cookie jar on an equal basis; it’s hiding the cookie jar. A structural analysis of where the elite part of the New Right comes from was necessary and I’ve made my attempt to do so.

But you also have to ask where does the mob come from? This is Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase: fascism is an “alliance of the elite and the mob”. This mob needs access to history. The kind of people who go to Trump rallies and shout the word “cunt” at Hillary Clinton, they just need progress to stop. They also need rationality to be defeated because if climate change is right, their lifestyle is over. They need climate change to be wrong and all sources of rationality — science, the scientific method — to be discredited and suppressed.

Go to part two of the interview…

Image courtesy of LSE Events


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