Paul Mason:
future proving

Paul Mason predicted the destruction of globalisation four years ago. Now the main threat to our humanity is fascism, but he’s oddly optimistic

Hero image

It would be a classic post-modernist’s trick to look for the subtext or irony in the title of Paul Mason’s new book but he’s straight up about it: Clear Bright Future means a happy ending. Yet there are some dark dystopian landscapes to navigate on the way, inhabited by fascists and all-powerful machines – and the occasional post-modernist.

Billed as a “radical defence of the human being”, Mason’s book asserts that humankind has been undermined by the neoliberal system that has challenged our freedom with its illusory economic choices and now can’t even deliver on its promises of decent jobs and rising wages. The reeling human being now has to contend with the even greater threat of the rise of the far right and artificial intelligence ending up either in the wrong hands or its own hands.

The four years since his last book, PostCapitalism, seem like a long time. “In that book I said unless we drop the neoliberal economic model, globalisation’s going to be torn apart, and that’s what’s happened since I wrote it,” says the journalist, author and broadcaster.

With Donald Trump providing momentum, the result is what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called an “alliance of the elite and the mob” and Mason describes as a “far-right movement that is attacking women’s rights, and attacking the multi-ethnicity and the openness of society”.

Mason is known for his reporting on economics and politics for BBC’s Newsnight and Channel 4, with something of a speciality in covering protest around the world. He has stepped back from frontline news since PostCapitalism but it still informs the  new book.

From Patriot Prayer demonstrators in Oregon calling for migrants’ heads to be “smashed against the concrete” to “standout kleptocrats” like Turkey’s Erdogan and Orban of Hungary, he writes, “such people are on the march in every continent”. Today, he tells Big Issue North, global neoliberalism is not the main enemy. “It’s fascism. And fascism is coming.”

“The horrible thing is we thought we had defeated the logic of the white supremacist and misogyny.”

The vast sweep of Mason’s book takes in zombie movies, the miners’ gala in his hometown Leigh, quantum physics, and the fatalism of both neuroscience and Game of Thrones – “just the latest in a long line of mass entertainment products in which humans are depicted as ultimately being the playthings of the gods”. But to build defences against this fatalism, he narrows his focus to the basics. Human nature exists, he asserts, and morality ought to.

That’s why the post-modernists of the left like French philosopher Michel Foucault are also in his sights. Their attempts to account for an increasingly complex reality ended up with anti-humanist assertions that nothing is true, that humans can’t know anything, and that a photo of a screaming Syrian child running out of a burning building is fake if an online troll says so.

“If I walk into a university and say I believe in human nature, truth and the verifiability of the scientific method, an evolutionary biologist might say you’ve got a few details wrong but you’re essentially right, and a physicist might say there’s indeterminacy and complexity but we still make aircraft fly because we understand fluid dynamics. Walk into a humanities department or sociology department, or above all an art department, and they will tell you you are talking bullshit: there is no human race, we are machines. That’s a fight people on the left need to take seriously.”

But not the main fight, which is against a far right occupying hidden encampments. The racist hatred expressed on sites such as 4chan and 8chan is well documented. “But where you really want to look is on Xbox and PlayStation. Their voice channels are full of hatred of women.”

Misogyny is no by-product of this far-right movement but “the glue” holding it together, according to Mason. Online threats to rape women journalists or publish their addresses and private details are used to silence critics. It’s also an expression of the “disorientation” faced by some members of half the population of the world. Since the 1960s women have achieved more control over their lives and full sexual reproductive rights – which Mason calls “the most significant change in human power relations” – while for men, “every film they watch tells them man has to be some macho, super-muscular, silent, illiterate brute”.

He says there are no lads’ mags anymore because people can share their misogyny via WhatsApp groups, and that the fantasies on publicly available porn sites have got darker over the last 10 years.

“The horrible thing is we thought we had defeated the logic of the white supremacist and misogyny. Most white blokes, they want to be good people. But lurking in their minds, you know – how many Jason Bourne movies can you watch? The silent, hulking man. Interesting that Jason Bourne never has sex.”

What makes it worse is Trump, who not only expresses the fears of the far right but is quick to dehumanise his opponents. “Academic research on far-right populism used to ask whether it was caused by cultural dislocation or economics. The answer now is it’s caused by the president of the US, who’s a white supremacist. We’ve got to have a better answer to the fascism that’s coming.”

Not least because it combines with increasingly sophisticated technology. “For me it came down to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: tech-heavy companies facilitating a guy with coshes, tear gas and assassins – Putin – to rig the election in America and to help rig the Brexit referendum. You can see the confluence of these two things: the brutal new fascism and Silicon Valley anti-humanism.”

In the week we speak prosecutors in England demand access to rape victims’ mobile phone communications before agreeing to press charges. In China there is mass surveillance of 13 million Uighurs, an app demanding Communist Party members watch ideological videos and, coming down the line, a system to record citizens’ behaviour and use it to decide whether they deserve anything from financial credit to promotion at work. Mason welcomes extensive Chinese investment in Manchester – investment “opens the world” – but says it’s entirely possible China will start offering to sell us this tech as well as funding the city’s business parks and buying blocks of flats.

And as AI develops to work in ways even its own engineers don’t fully understand, the need for human beings to reassert themselves only grows.

“We are increasingly going to be asked to give up our humanness, and our ability to choose and express our choices freely, by powerful people in control of very powerful machines,” says Mason.

The answer for the optimistic Mason is not to pull back from the tech – his automation-driven future of freedom is at stake. Nor is it in the bullet points of the tech giants’ dubious ethics committees. Instead, it’s in a return to the fundamentals of human nature and full-blown moral philosophy. That way, technology can be used to increase co-operative production for sharing, a “massive reduction of hours worked and the expansion of human freedom and self-knowledge”.

For morality, he looks as far back as Greek philosopher Aristotle, who in the 4th century BC advocated living a virtuous life. Twenty-three centuries later Karl Marx, in his early writings, provides a “concept of human nature which I think stands the test of 150 years of scientific discovery”.

Marx says we evolved as a species of imagineers, technologists and linguists. “Because of that it’s in our biological nature to change ourselves and our surroundings – we are the only species to do that. Because of that it’s possible to imagine we will set ourselves free of the species’ social and economic limitations.”

This is not the Marx who says humans are just cogs in history’s machine. History is instead “fundamentally a result of people’s individual choices”, says Mason. He adds that he is hardly the first person to point out that Marx was mistaken in his belief that the agents of historical change would be the proletariat of the industrial age. But he says: “Communism is the freedom of human beings and the preservation of the natural environment, or improvement of the natural environment. I don’t describe myself as a communist. I think the word is very tainted. But I want to defend that as the basis of a left wing and oppositional politics.”

Mason’s agents of change are basically everyone who is unhappy with the world – a growing band as the assault on their freedom continues – and particularly young networked individuals who first made their political mark in the uprisings across the world of 2011-12.

Globally, he says, they should demand a strategy to control technology, breaking up private-sector information-hoarding monopolies and replacing them with non-profit companies or public utilities, paying everyone a basic income to compensate for the automation of jobs and giving control over people’s data back to the individual.

Defiance can of course include bringing down dictators but also range from “setting up human-centred projects in your neighbourhood to simply defying machine logic in your daily life”. But he stresses the importance of prioritising the urgent over the important in fighting the far right. That means an alliance of the left and the centre, however unwilling they are to be yoked together.

There is perhaps a touch of fatalism when Mason – who has informally advised Labour and is speaking on the day the party’s National Executive Committee can’t quite bring itself to strengthen its commitment to a second referendum – admits he has no great hopes about the Labour hierarchy at the moment”. But, describing himself as a “from-below leftist”, he’ll be supporting the party at the coming European elections and trying to stop Brexit.

The elections take on particular significance in the North West, where the far-right extremist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – who calls himself Tommy Robinson – is standing as an independent. The far-right vote is likely to be split because of Ukip and the new Brexit Party on the ballot paper and he has little hope of success, but this is the region that once elected the BNP’s Nick Griffin as an MEP.

For Mason it’s all about getting the turnout up. “I would say all the democratic parties have got to think very strongly about putting a common message out – not to vote for each other’s parties but a common message. That’s very important. The stakes in this election are that we have to defeat the right otherwise, in the year of Peterloo’s 200th anniversary, we become a region that elects a fascist. Do you want that?”

Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being is published by Allen Lane (£20)

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Paul Mason: future proving

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.