On Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future

This review was published in The Weekend Australian in September, 2019.

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Paul Mason, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being

Allen Lane; $35; 368pp

In his 2015 book, Postcapitalism, Paul Mason described the way in which information technologies are undermining market forces. Since information can be reproduced for close to ‘zero marginal cost’ its tendency is to collapse traditional price mechanisms and thus the ability of businesses to turn a profit without ‘rent seeking’ (i.e. through creating artificial scarcity). This situation, Mason suggested, had both precipitated the global debt crisis and was part of a broader crisis of capitalism from which escape would prove impossible. Meanwhile, the new technologies were preparing the ground for an economy beyond capitalism. A different society, based on different principles, was growing in the belly of the one we know. 

In that book, ‘postcapitalism’ was largely a placeholding term. It did not describe a particular society, let alone a future utopia, but a society no longer organised around private property, profit and waged labour, the nature of which was yet to be determined. As a veteran of the radical left, Mason hoped (and still hopes) for a society based on common ownership and human equality. But notwithstanding his belief that automation and information technologies have the potential to liberate humankind from scarcity and class antagonism, his aim in the book was principally descriptive. To put it in terms of moral philosophy, it was concerned with the ‘is’, not the ‘ought’, of the problem.

Those who admire Mason, as I do, have thus been looking forward to a book that sets out how a future society based on the ideals of abundance and equality might be constructed, or at least brought closer, and I dare say I am not alone in imagining that Mason’s latest book, with its upbeat title, might be it. But Clear Bright Future is something quite different. Much darker than Postcapitalism, it is focused not just on the crisis of capitalism but on the political crisis that has grown from it, and on the role the new technologies may play in facilitating political extremism. For all that it puts forward a positive case for what Mason calls ‘radical humanism’, its stance is (sometimes hysterically) defensive. Standing at the crossroads between socialism and barbarism, Mason’s focus, for now, is squarely on the latter.  

For Mason the current crisis consists of three elements: the failure of neoliberalism examined in Postcapitalism; the turn against democracy, human rights and the rule of law represented by the populist right; and the role information technologies now play in facilitating the right’s political program. Each of these elements is connected to the others, and Mason spends some time in the book anatomising the relationship between them. It was neoliberalism, for example, that manured the ground for rightwing populism by so destroying human solidarity that only toxic forms of it (racism, xenophobia, misogyny) could emerge in the wake of the debt crisis. At the same time, it made human beings ‘governable’: to the extent that neoliberalism conceives of humans as little more than ‘bits’ in a machine called ‘the market’, it has softened them up to ‘algorithmic control’. Thus Mason’s ‘crisis of the neoliberal self’ is one in which fascism and fatalism combine, and could soon congeal into something more poisonous than even the political movements of the 1930s: lethal bigotry backed up by Big Data.

That something like this dystopian scenario is possible is not in doubt: another shock to the world economy, combined with a deepening climate catastrophe, could indeed precipitate a political crisis of the kind that Mason fears. But that fear also leads him to mischaracterise the situation as it stands right now. Drawing on Hannah Arendt, he describes the ‘new fascism’ as an alliance between the ‘elite and the mob’ in which the part of the elite is taken by a coterie of tech billionaires, rightwing media outlets and demagogic politicians and the mob is pretty much everyone who voted for Trump, or people like him. Buying in to the simplistic dichotomy between ‘class’ and ‘culture’ that tends to characterise debates about rightwing populism, he then suggests that the mob is motivated not by economic stress but by white resentment and misogyny. It is identity politics, not economic precarity, that is driving the recrudescence of the far right.

Of course, it’s true that Trump and his ilk have some very powerful backers. It’s also true that those who vote for them are often racists and misogynists. But Mason’s elite-mob combo is a straw man. Worse, it is an essentially liberal fantasy that both closes off any political strategy based on winning back votes from the right and gives an out to the neoliberal ‘centre’, which is never more exquisitely complacent than when draping itself in the ‘progressive’ ideals of openness and cosmopolitanism. I think Mason underestimates the degree to which neoliberalism is still hegemonic and how useful such formulations of an irredeemably bigoted ‘mob’ are to it.

The best thing about Clear Bright Future is Mason’s defence of ‘radical humanism’, which he pits against the ‘anti-humanists’ of both the extreme right and the postmodern left. Here Mason recruits Marx, whose view of human nature becomes the basis for a set of ‘virtue ethics’ that can ‘ground’ humanity in the struggles to come – placing decisions about, say, AI, or automation more generally, in a human-centred framework. It also underwrites Mason’s bracing call to radicals to ‘un-cancel the future’ – i.e. to think about the kind of society they want to see and to take action in its name. The book’s final chapter – part manifesto, part motivational talk – urges radicals to cultivate a number of ‘reflexes’ to this end. For Mason, as for Marx, human nature is a combination of the inborn and the mutable. Cooperation, language and imagination are naturally evolved properties of the human animal, but those properties also set us on a path, which Mason is not embarrassed to call a telos, which is to say an object or purpose. That doesn’t mean that the future is set; it means that human beings have the ability to imagine their own future – to set themselves free. At its best, this book is alive with that idea. But its dark view of the present seems like an odd basis on which to build a clear bright future.