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Popular Front 2.0: An Interview With Paul Mason
Michael J. Brooks , June 15th, 2019 09:56

With the publication of his new book, Clear Bright Future, Paul Mason talks to Michael Brooks about Brexit, fanaticism, and why Jason Bourne is basically an incel

“I’ve just started learning to play the bouzouki,” Paul Mason tells me as I start by explaining The Quietus’s focus on alternative music, “but you really need a beer gut to prop it up on.” Music may not be quite the illogical starting point that it seems for a conversation with someone labelled “a worthy successor to Marx”, given Mason’s unusual CV.

Mason studied music and politics at university, becoming a lecturer in music at Loughborough University in the 1980s (his 2013 documentary for BBC’s The Culture Show on northern soul is also well worth a watch on YouTube). After moving into journalism in the 1990s, he was offered a stint as Newsnight’s Business Editor, with his first appearance being on 11 September 2001. He became Newsnight’s Economics Editor, making his name in the wake of the 2008 global crash and the 2011 Arab Spring, for his Orwell-like ability to weave together multifarious strands of turbulent current affairs and global trends into a coherent analysis of what is happening and, more importantly, why.

In 2013, Mason left the BBC to become the culture and digital editor on Channel 4 News, before quitting in 2016 to throw himself into freelance work. And throw himself he has, with a prolific output that has seen him ascend to become one of Britain’s leading public intellectuals and political commentators, not to mention dabbling in writing plays for the theatre. Clear Bright Future is his follow-up to 2015’s bestselling PostCapitalism and posits itself as being “a call for resistance against the politicians and corporations who are trying to exert new forms of technological control.”

You start with the compelling proposition that societies have allowed the market to be elevated to the status of an autonomous decision-maker, and therefore have prepared themselves to accept machine control. What inducements do AI and algorithms provide that will have a similar submissive effect to the material wealth and individualism of the free market?

If I asked you to hand over all decisions in your life to a machine you’d say ‘get lost’ – or worse. But for forty years we’ve handed over all decisions to the market. What the government can and can’t do is limited by the market, and we’ve increasingly defined ourselves as ‘market actors’.

It’s made us what Michel Foucault predicted – people who are ‘eminently governable’. What it does is disarm you in the analysis of power. These minds and selves that have been hollowed out are defenceless against racism, sexism, misogyny, white supremacy. That’s bad now, but one day in this century, there’ll be a machine clever enough to ask, ‘on what basis do you demand the right to control me?’ If we stay as we are – hollowed out, fragile, not really understanding the world, with no overall project of hope or progress – we’re just going to reply, ‘well, we see your point’.

For me, what links the problem of AI to the problem of now is this ‘hollowed self’, and the inducements that AI will give us to accept their control are pretty clear. If you said to an AI, ‘we’ve got this philosophy, utilitarianism – the maximum happiness for the maximum number of people is the best outcome of any decision’, and you ask ‘how should society be run?’, then it’d just invent an aerosol full of morphine which it squirts up your nose. It’d be a lack of a centre of gravity like at the height of the dot-com boom, or in the years leading up to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. We need to align its expectations with our expectations, and the reason I sub-titled the book ‘A radical defence of the human being’ is because that’s where you have to start.

You suggest small acts of defiance against machine logic in daily life. Many of those of pre-broadband age might be sympathetic and supportive of that idea, but what of today’s children and yet-to-be-born, what logic is there for them in defying a world and prevailing technological relationship that will seem entirely natural?

My theory of humans is that we evolved – quite accidentally – into beings which are naturally imaginative. Engineers, linguists, creatives – that’s who we are. The weird theory that tells us this is Marxism.

Marx wrote in 1884 that humans are ‘species-beings’, we are born to collaborate. A million years ago we weren’t, we evolved to collaborate. I’m not worried about the ‘spark’ of humanity being snubbed out by being born into a really controlling society, because every generation until about 1776 was more or less born into such a society, and even beyond that if you think about China until about 1919, or India until the late-19th century; there was a pre-destination, everything was fixed. If you watch Game of Thrones, it’s all about this, the ‘gods playing games with the people’. That’s what it felt like to be a human for the first 2,000 years.

What we could lose is the culture of rebellion, which isn’t just punk rock or the French Revolution; it’s the Enlightenment. Whether there’s a god or not, we as human beings have an incredible power to discover the laws of nature and test our theses against them. Human beings of the mid-21st century will be very different, as you suggest, and a certain level of algorithmic control will be there, but then again, for the last 200 years we’ve had the factory proletariat which started out being very oppressed. But by 1880, the skilled working class was in control of the factories and remained in control until about the 1970s.

We’re good at working around control mechanisms that we’re born into, there’s always that sense of ‘we can resist this, there’s another way’. I worry more about a collective loss of the culture of resistance.

How does this “micro-level resistance” expand and snowball into larger societal change?

Let’s look at what the micro-level resistance might be. There was a report a few years ago into Pret à Manger and the way it drills friendly behaviour into the workers on the front desk. A mystery customer comes in and the entire shift gets their wages deducted if someone doesn’t smile. What you want to do is start saying to the Pret staff that we’re going to interact as human beings, don’t try and nudge me like one of those automated checkouts at WH Smiths that always tries to sell you a Toblerone.

It’s not just individual acts of resistance; we could impose legal restrictions on the amount of nudging and behavioural economics that are applied to us. One of the reasons for writing the book was to say this is not just about resistance, it’s about transformation. If we do it right we will recreate a more humane culture around us.

There’s a proliferation of critics referring to ‘Cultural Marxism’, conservatives using it to lambast political correctness, the ‘snowflake’ generation, etc. What does it say about the intellectual curiosity of the right when a best-selling author like Jordan Peterson can use ‘Cultural Marxism’ as a form of criticism while also admitting never having read Marx? And what does it say about Marx’s legacy that he is still such a hate figure for the right?

If I could write a book about radical humanism without mentioning Marx, I would, because there is a lot of bad stuff attached to him – his complete failure to understand the women’s oppression question, his early life opposition to human rights as a concept, his technological optimism which presumed there were no natural limits to human development. There’s lots to critique in Marx and I’ve done that.

The American Right theory of Cultural Marxism is directly descended from the Nazi theory of Cultural Bolshevism. When a bunch of Marxists were run out of Germany when Hitler took power, they’d already given up on the proletariat and the idea that workers could transform the world, and they said what we need to do instead is critique the world. Some of them in the 1950s – Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer (the ones the American Right really hate) – came up with the conclusion that there was an alternative to the proletariat, it was black people in the Deep South, or women, or third world guerrilla struggles like Cuba at the time. From that, the right-wing writers extrapolated the theory that the Marxists couldn’t win in Europe so came to America and polluted society with their political correctness.

The real question is why is that so persuasive? First of all, it’s because deep inside western societies, I would argue, there is a hypocrisy. Look at a metrosexual progressive Hollywood actor like Matt Damon. His character of Jason Bourne never has sex, is ultraviolent, pumped up, and speaks very little. He’s basically an incel. The macho myth, along with the ‘feminised woman’ – all women have to have long eyelashes, long nails, hyper-contoured bodies – has been sitting there for the last 30 years.

Where Hitler in the 1930s offered disaffected and damaged individuals who saw their lives going nowhere, a uniform and the opportunity to beat the shit out of Communists, now what the American Right does is say that virtually you can do the same: political correctness is a lie imposed by Marxism on society which should really be characterised by macho alpha men, feminine women, whites above blacks. It gives them permission to revert to that. The frightening thing is that [talk of] Cultural Marxism was there in the work of William Lind, it was there in Anders Breivik, and the shooter in Christchurch, but Trump was told by his advisers that it is the main enemy.

Now, I’m a real Marxist and all the pessimism involved in the Frankfurt School, I try to overcome. The way to overcome it is to rediscover humanism so that the agent of change is 99% of human beings and their reason for wanting the change is that they don’t like the world as they find it. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion, are viral movements of people who aren’t centrally organised. The right are justifiably terrified; their chosen economic model of neoliberalism is fucked, and because it no longer holds society together, something else has to and it’s now the ideology of hierarchy.

I respect Jordan Peterson because he’s a learned and consistent right-winger. He tends not to depart into language of hatred. Every right-winger who doesn’t depart into the language of violence or hatred is a bulwark against the people who do, and you can see what’s happening to those who do now – they’re getting sliced off Facebook and Instagram – which is good and I support that. So I want to keep people like Peterson as enemies, but enemies on the terrain of academia and ideas, because we do have to smash the real fascists.

Is there a problem with using terms like ‘Marxism’ and ‘communism’ – are they too loaded in the general public’s mind to be capable or worthy of rehabilitation? And do you worry that they might be doing your ideas a disservice by alienating people from them?

I don’t call myself a communist, I call myself a post-capitalist. The reason why communism is so tainted historically are that the regimes of East Europe ran torture chambers, and some of the best Marxists, including my hero the economist Nikolai Kondratiev, were shot in the gulags.

The point is, I call myself a Marxist for the simple reason that Marx was a political philosopher and there’s enough there in it to be rescued. For me, the key idea of Marx is radical humanism, the liberation of individual human beings and living alongside nature which we co-create. The other problem with communism and Marxism is that 1.3 billion people live under a regime that calls itself both. Rest assured, China looks capitalist and is in effect capitalist, but I’ve met party officials in China who are convinced that it’s a communist country – albeit one with 1 million Muslim Uighurs under mind control, facial-recognition scans, DNA tests, all of that.

But Marx as a philosopher is unavoidable. With China being overtly Marxist, and the American alt-right being overtly anti-Marxist, we’ve got to either defend or critique him, and what I do in the book is both.

JG Ballard said “I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boredom”. With that in mind, can the existential problems of angst, misogyny, male suicide, depression be blamed in part on declining status, through a lack of purposeful work and the proliferation of ‘bullshit jobs’? Won’t this only become more severe if work is gradually abolished?

We have to leave behind utopias based on work. Marxism was a utopia based on work, so was traditional social democracy and labourism, but so is Christianity and the Protestant work ethic, and Catholicism adopted its own work ethic in the late-19th century.

If we get this right, in this century we can use automation to radically reduce the amount of work needed to support life on this planet. It doesn’t mean that the other hours in the day aren’t going to be filled with activity; it’s just not going to be paid, and it could actually be more fulfilling.

My choice would be to limit the amount of work and make it intense. When I’m working I want to work intensely; when I’m playing ‘Elder Scrolls’ online I want to be on there for a few hours without interruptions. Likewise, when I’m in the pub with my mates, I want it to be a long easy session.

There’s no need to be depressed about the absence of work, but of course it was the source of status for a lot of manual, poorly-educated, low-skilled people in the 20th century, and the absence of it is what’s driving things like Brexit and the far right. Men are going to have to understand that because work and male dominance is going, what it means to be male is going to have to be rethought, and if you look for cultural references as to what that’s going to be like, you really have to search quite hard. They are mostly all warriors, tricksters, powerful men with money, etc. #MeToo is almost the last gasp of oppression because it says in the last place where hierarchy is guaranteed – the workplace – that dominance is now off-limits.

My book is primarily about what people need to do about the new reactionary movement which I argue has come out of the economic crisis and morphed into this new architecture of fascism. The fact that it’s attached itself to racism and misogyny is utterly inevitable because if the market god fails – which it has – what gods are left? Either you need a transformative project – for me it’s not communism, but a decisively automated workless, classless society – or you regress in racism and sexual terms to the 1940s/50s. The younger generations are going to have to put their plans on hold and fight against the latter because there’s no other bigger thing going to happen to you in your lifetime.

You write in the book that “as far as possible, the radical left and liberal centre should stop fighting each other … and regroup/find common ground as a means of defeating conservation and the creep towards fascism.” Given that so far the liberal centre (in the UK and US) has appeared more concerned with undermining the progress of the left than the right, how realistic is this – and why ally with those who are still wedded to the neoliberal model?

I have changed my view on this from when I wrote Postcapitalism in 2015. I’d just come back from seeing the Greek democracy smashed by neoliberalism, and the main enemy then was the Eurozone, the ECB, Wall Street, IMF. They’re still enemies, but the difference now is that there’s a bigger enemy.

In 1935, a Bulgarian Communist apparatchik Georgi Dimitrov put to the left, would you rather have a government with liberals in it or be in a concentration camp? Because if you want to avoid the latter, we need to form left-liberal governments.

Within a year of that two had formed: the French and Spanish Popular Front governments. The former unleashed the biggest wave of sit-down strikes and social unrest ever. The Spanish government survived for three years but was overthrown by Franco in the Spanish Civil War. You could argue that the third popular front government was Churchill’s in 1940-era Britain when the Labour Party effectively took over after the Dunkirk crisis and said what was needed was an anti-fascist coalition.

The gauntlet I want to throw down to modern liberals is, who’s your main enemy? We have a joint interest in defending democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. You don’t like fascism any more than we do, so let’s defeat it. And that’s the basis of Popular Front 2.0.

If Twitter is anything to go by, you seem to have changed your view on Brexit in recent months, you’re now of the view that it is something that needs to be reversed and defeated..?

My view has changed because the facts have changed. I started out before the referendum being so against the EU because it’s a neoliberal construct, and I wondered whether Labour could run a left Brexit campaign. Once you saw what the real Brexit campaign was, it was always the project of the right – xenophobic, nationalist, Thatcherism in one country – I said that I would like to leave the EU but I might not vote to do so, because I don’t want to fuel a right wing backlash. That developed into the ‘remain and reform’ campaign.

I wish we’d criticised Europe harder, that was our mistake and I take a bit of responsibility for that. We’re a parliamentary democracy. Parliament said it would enact the referendum, and my view was that we should get on with it but mitigate the risks with the softest possible Brexit, there being no mandate for hard Brexit.

It was obvious to me, from July 2018 when they revealed the Chequers plan, that there was no form of Brexit possible that will be supported by those who support Brexit. At that point I said that the second referendum was on the agenda for the simple reason that Parliament can’t solve it.

I would argue that Brexit, as designed by the Tories, is going to be a disaster, so we need to stop it. And if we can’t stop it we have to mitigate it. Then there’ll be a culture war in Britain in which we have to take part.

The big ideas that this book explores, as well as those of other leftist writers like Ash Sarkar, Owen Jones, and Grace Blakely, are surely down to the resurgence of the left in Britain and elsewhere in the west. But do you worry that the long-term credibility of these ideas is contingent on Labour not fucking things up?

For me, Labour’s turn to the left since 2015 is just one phase of what we need to do. Like with Bernie Sanders, it had to use a battering ram of socialism embodied in a very old man. Sanders, Corbyn, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, are all from the same leftism, quite focused on old state interventionism. I always thought this would be a phase in the resurgence of a new left, and what we lacked was a set of ideas to underpin it.

As we’ve developed the ideas, one of the things that does concern me is the authoritarian machine Marxism, the theory that sees history as a machine you can’t escape, which is quite anti-human. What I do see in some of the younger leftist writers is the inadequately developed consciousness that this is a big danger.

There is a streak of fanaticism in all leftism. I’ve been a fanatical leftist my entire life. I have to recognise that in the desire to get things done, leftists can very easily make excuses. What’s coming is a barbaric attack on democracy, human rights and freedom, and what will decide the 21st century is whether we defeat it. Once we’ve defeated them, that’s when Act 2 begins, when our solutions get put to the test. But they must be realistic, prudent, and resilient.

I’m incredibly excited by the new intellectual ferment on the young left here and in the US, but part of the reason behind writing this book and the last one is to bequeath to them what I’ve learnt from opposing totalitarian modes of thought and to try and defend the idea of theory – theory doesn’t have to action-less, it can guide action.

Trotsky is the inspiration behind the term ‘clear bright future’. When he was in deep shit, about to be murdered, all his followers were in workcamps, he wrote ‘my faith in the clear, bright future of humankind is stronger than ever’. The radical defence of the human being starts with you.

Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being is out now, published by Allen Lane