No future? Journalist and author Paul Mason on how people power can fight our current political and economic crises
Journalist turned political commentator and author Paul Mason's latest book Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being explores the moral, political and economic challenges posed by the current democratic and economic crisis, along with our increasing subservience to digital algorithms. He spoke to David Roy about the book in advance of today's online talk at the Imagine Belfast Festival
"CLEAR Bright Future is challenging to people because it answers questions that a lot of people don't know they need to ask," explains Paul Mason of his recent tome in which he posits potential system-changing humanist solutions to our current democratic and economic problems.
"A lot of people know there's something wrong with the economy and civil society but when you say to them 'we've got to defend something called humanism', they think 'well isn't everyone a humanist?' But when you poke your finger in, they're not.
In the new book, Mason explains how the collapse of the neoliberal economic model, a widespread decline in the consent for democracy, the rule of law and Universal Human Rights and the rise of self-learning algorithmic machine control have conspired to create an existential crisis which threatens to roll back 400 years of rationality.
However, a Marxist humanist at heart, the Lancashire native believes that a cross-class and interest mass movement of the centre and the left is still capable of working together against the authoritarian conservative right and the far right to enact positive change like suppressing the market, taking control of the energy system, tackling fascism, preventing the breakup of the global system and stopping Trump (Mason is confident that the US Democrats will ensure he's a one-term President) – basically, that humans can not only still determine our future, but ensure it's a bright one involving a utopian low-work, zero carbon economy that Marx himself would be proud of.
"The book is really a message to people saying 'if we're going to get through this political, social and technological crisis, then we are going to have to ground our defence of ourselves on something philosophical," he explains.
"It's not just about taking a position like 'we're on the left of the Labour Party' or 'we're for or against Brexit' – you've got to have something deeper than that. And that's what the book is trying to do."
The former economics editor for Newsnight and Channel 4 News, whose other books include Postcapitalism: Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere and Rare Earth: A Novel, Mason explains that Clear Bright Future is a call to action in the face of an accepted left wing doctrine which paints a bleak picture for the future.
"This book is in many ways designed to challenge the left that I'm part of," he says.
"There are so many people on the left who are like knee-jerk anti-humanists who don't really believe in human agency. You'll hear things a like 'let's let humanity die so the planet can live'. So it's been a challenging read for some of them.
"When they are challenged with a view which says we are not machines, we are different from everything else in reality and we have a unique function in nature – that we are imagineers, technologists, engineers, collaborators who can determine our own future – that's when they start having problems.
"Rather than there being nothing we can do about the situation we're in, my book is a plea for people to act together and change things. We must project a coherent humanist vision of the future, because the right has a vision of the future – and it's a vision without black people, without Muslims, without gays and lesbians, with women back in the kitchen."
Given that such affirmative action will require cross-class and interest co-operation, it's interesting to learn that some of the most enthusiastic responses Mason has enjoyed on his recent promotional tours for Clear Bright Future have come not from fellow Marxists but from true believers of a rather different stripe.
"Amazingly, a lot of the people who really 'get it' are religious," he reveals.
"My tent at the Green Belt festival – which is like a touchy-feely Church of England festival – was packed with like 1,000 people who were all really interested. Not that they all agreed with me but they were interested in the intersection between what I am, which is a Marxist humanist, and what they are which is progressive religious people.
"What I find as a long-time lapsed and critical Catholic is that actually some of the issues that are quite leftfield for the left are quite central for religions, like 'virtue ethics', which is one of the things I write about in the book – the idea that we need a new form of virtue ethics which equips us for the era of artificial intelligence and algorithmic control – they could kind of get that.
"Even if they don't agree with the answer, they understand the question."
As for the current crisis in leadership on the left of British politics, which saw Boris Johnson's Tory party winning a huge majority last year, including the turning of several former die-hard Labour strongholds, Mason believes that Jeremy Corbyn and co were unable to adapt to the changing nature of the problems facing them.
"I was a big supporter of Corbyn and for a while on the inside with what he was doing," he tells me.
"In the middle of the last decade, the political centre was wedded to austerity and all the social injustices that it brings, and it was absolutely right that Corbyn stood against that and the people who wanted to do more of the same. But the new enemy is a very aggressive and ruthless alliance of the right and the far right – and the left can't defeat that on its own.
"He's a genuinely good guy, but my frustration with Corbyn was that he was unable to come up with some sort of alliance between the left and the pro-Europe political centre that could defeat Brexit and defend a society based on social liberalism and openess. And so we move on."
Part of that will involve resisting 'machine control' – and it seems we can start small with our rebellion: next time you nip out for a coffee (whenever that might be given the ongoing coronavirus crisis) remember this:
"If you walk into a Starbucks, it's quite difficult to get a coffee if you treat the person behind the counter as a human being," observes Mason.
"If you start asking about their grandma, they're completely flumoxed by it. What they want you to do is play out a scripted act – 'would you like a latte?', 'do you want a marshmallow on that?', 'have a nice day'. If you stick to the script, you get the latte – I want us to disrupt that, to end 'performative' behaviour based on a script created by a corporation."
:: Paul Mason's discussion Capitalism After Covid – What We Need to Change and Why can be streamed from 5pm today via Imaginebelfast.com
IMAGINE! BELFAST REBOOTS AS VIRTUAL FESTIVAL
HAVING been forced to abandon over 90 public events because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Imagine! Belfast Festival is going 'virtual' from today with with 25 events available to stream between March 25 to 27 via its website Imaginebelfast.com and social media platforms.
:: Imagine!'s webcasting programme includes a talk by award-winning journalist and writer Paul Mason, journalist and author of the best-selling book on the north's RHI scandal, Burned, Sam McBride in conversation with William Crawley and Open Democracy editor Adam Ramsay talking about the current threats to democracy across the world.
:: As well as talks, the wide-ranging programme also includes poetry, film reviews, comedy and panel discussions on the big issues of our time. Keynote topics that will be addressed in the webcasts include; climate extinction, how to combat the coronavirus, the impact of this crisis on the arts sector and 'is more economic growth the answer?'
:: Other speakers include; Neil Jameson, the founder of Citizens UK, Grainne Walsh, director of Stratagem public affairs consultancy, Professor John Barry responding to the planetary emergency and Robin McAlpine on the future of the UK.
:: Slugger O'Toole will convene a panel to discuss the political response to Covid-19, and local film-maker Nicky Larkin will preview the world premiere of his documentary exploring the creation of The Belfast Ensemble's Abomination: A DUP Opera.
:: Other events in the virtual festival will focus on community banks, the need for a Universal Basic Income, the legacy of the Troubles, humanising healthcare and the need for more participatory politics. It also has a number of events interrogating aspects of local history with a talk by leading historian Barry Sheppard on bicycles and protest, a book launch by Fergus Whelan on Belfast United Irishman William Drennan and the history of whiskey and politics in Belfast with Martin McAuley.
:: Elsewhere, poetry will be well represented with a special reading by award-winning local poet Chris Agee and a special edition on politics from the Queer as Spoke team.
:: Full virtual programme details available now via Imaginebelfast.com