PAUL MASON’S (not so) Clear Bright Future at Border Sessions Festival in The Hague

Paul Mason speaks in fitful bursts of  enthusiastic prose littered with phrases like ‘radical humanism’ and a ‘post-work future’. He tells us that he has always wanted to occupy an American Embassy (he speaks to us in the converted Ambassade building on the Lange Voorhout in the Hague) and explains that the title of his latest book, ‘Clear Bright Future’, is in fact taken from a quote by Trotsky himself. 

One time music teacher and long-time BBC journalist, Mason hails from greater Manchester, his grandfather was a miner. Coming of age in Thatcherite Britain, the writer describes himself as a ‘humanist Marxist’ and situates himself firmly in the time-honoured tradition of the traditional left with its trade union movements and dreams of a communist utopia. However Mason is clear when he says, ‘I want the Left to leave behind the utopia of Soviet Russia.’ The problem, he says, is that the only utopia currently on offer is that of the far right, the populists.

Mason explains his latest book in terms of the key theme of agency. ‘This book argues, that if we can solve the problem of human agency, we can overcome the crisis in which we currently find ourselves.’ He locates what he terms, ‘the hollowing out of the self’ at the junction of the various crises experienced by the neoliberal status quo. The economic crisis of 2007/8 has resulted in an evaporating respect for the rule of law, compounded by the ‘algorithmic wave’ at whose mercy we will increasingly find ourselves.

‘You can’t keep an ideology on life-support’ – Mason

As homo economicus, we have learnt to justify everything in terms of economics, this worked as long a the neoliberal model functioned, Mason explains. This is no longer the case. ‘The central banks keep the system on life support with 16 trillion dollars of quantitative easing’ he continues. ‘You can’t keep an ideology on life-support.’ The author compares neoliberalism to a religion that we have all lived under for the past 40 years. He ascribes the rise of populism  to a turning back to ‘the old religions’ of racism, fascism and misogyny, now that neoliberalism is dying. ‘We need a radical reform of capitalism’ he argues, because in its current form, it is causing many to ‘reach back into the dustbin of human history and pull out the rubbish.’  

Mason’s dexterity with words combined with his enthusiasm for far-reaching ideas are infectious and perhaps explain the popularity of his books. However his leaps of thought are genuinely gymnastic at times, or as one reviewer put it, ‘his conclusions seem premature’.  Indeed Mason’s previous book, PostCapitalism: a Guide to the Future, presents the rise of technology, specifically the internet, as the means by which a genuine socialist utopia, of the kind imagined by Marx and Lenin, could be achieved. However, in Clear Bright Future he also warns of the dehumanising effect of technology and speaks of the various ‘waves of dehumanisation’ that currently assault us.

‘The radical defence of humans, starts with yourself’ – Mason

Thus Mason calls for Humanism and argues that the Left in particular must rekindle its belief in human beings. He acknowledges that in many parts of the world, humanism is ‘a dirty word’ because of its association with the Enlightenment, specifically some of the products thereof – slavery, colonialism, imperialism etc. However, Mason is unequivocal in his defence of the need to return to our core values. ‘The radical defence of humans, starts with yourself’. He calls on everyone to stop performing and start instead to act on one’s own core values. In so doing, we create new virtues. The writer admits that he is a fan of moral philosophy and that workers’ movements of the past were ‘always intensely moral, even moralistic’. This brings him on to the so-called snowflake generation, sensitive millennials who are largely individualistic in outlook. In spite of these short-comings, Mason calls for a snowflake revolution and argues that this generation represents ‘an irreducible core of resistance with which we can ultimately work’.

Looking to the future,  Paul Mason agrees that his vision of the Left is very different from that of the 20th century. He acknowledges that the Left’s traditionally ‘no’ approach is founded in its loss of faith in previous utopian ideals. This means that it has offered few constructive solutions to problems of the last forty years. He also agrees that the Left needs to move away from its ‘pure focus on work’ and look toward a ‘post-work future’ at the core of which sits a ‘play ethic’, rather than the work ethic of neoliberal societies. In order to do this, he agrees that the Left will need to co-operate with the centre while remaining ‘hyper-democratic’. For this reason, he sees little hope in the sort of communist model that China represents and admits that he ‘fears the evaporation of belief in the democratic process’. This he sees happening in his own country, at present.      Souwie Buis     13th June 2019