Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason review – in the midst of crisis, a work of radical optimism

The Guardian, by Eliane Glaser
26.04.19

In a classic Little Britain sketch, David Walliams, playing a bank clerk named Carol, flatly refuses applicants for a loan – however reasonable, hopeful or desperate – with the robotic “Computer says no”. As this catchphrase illustrates, the everyday consequences of our surrender to machines are by now maddeningly familiar. Less evident is the political and intellectual work that has gone into legitimising it. In his latest tour de force, the former TV economics editor turned activist and author Paul Mason traces how an alliance of popular science gurus and Silicon Valley tycoons has led us to belittle our unique capacities as human beings, preparing the ground for the approaching supremacy of AIs.

As with machines, so with markets, whose worship has reduced relationships to competitive transactions, and individuals to homo economicus – a crass fictional construct programmed to maximise financial advantage at all times. Mason also chides the newer discipline of behavioural economics for framing us as flawed decision-makers who need to be “nudged”.

We have forfeited faith in our own capabilities, Mason argues, just when we need to strategise our way out of multiple political and environmental crises. The good news is that the current chaos contains the seeds of revolutionary change: the “clear bright future” of the title is from Leon Trotsky. We can uncancel this future, Mason insists, but only by rediscovering a quality that has become curiously unfashionable – humanity – and seizing control of technology. The socialisation of knowledge will enable us to overthrow capitalism, and automation will abolish our need to work.

Mason sources philosophical rocket fuel for his ambitious vision from a vast range of thinkers: Aristotle, Erich Fromm, Virginia Woolf, Hannah Arendt (rather grudgingly, as if cross about her recent popularity), and above all, the young Karl Marx. In contrast to later works that portray revolution as an impersonal, historical process, Marx’s early writings locate potential in humans’ innate desire for collective transformation. “Man is a species-being,” he wrote, “because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being.” Mason believes we are on the brink of achieving what Marx wanted: “the alteration of human beings on a mass scale, in order to take advantage of such freedom”.

I’ll get on to the merits of this prescription in a moment, but first let’s deal with the diagnosis. Mason is right to take on the facile determinism of a thousand TED talks, the post-humanists and transhumanists who want to “pay for a bionic arm or an enhanced libido”, and bestselling economics and science writers such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who insists we are “playthings of randomness”, or Yuval Noah Harari, who believes that “free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented”.

The sharpest blame, however, is directed at the academic left: “Never forget,” Mason writes, “they were behind all this.” It’s fine to dismiss the more obscure excesses of cybernetic theory and object- oriented ontology as either dangerous or bonkers. But it’s a shame to see the evidently erudite Mason succumb to the common myth that postmodernists denied the existence of truth and humanity. Theorists such as Jean Baudrillardlamented rather than celebrated how, in capitalist culture, “all that is solid melts into air”. Deconstruction, for the most part, was about demanding that so-called universals be rigorously defined: protecting them, in fact, from the vulnerability of inherited assumptions. Default “human nature” has too often been western, white and male.

Ironically, Mason himself distinguishes between timeless liberal humanism and radical humanism, the decision to pursue emancipation in a specific historical context. Liberals’ complacent assumption that our freedoms are permanent, he notes, renders them defenceless to attacks by the populist right. Elsewhere, the distinction between liberal and radical humanism wears a little thin. At times it’s Marxist, at others associated with reason, democracy and the Judeo-Christian Enlightenment. It’s easier to defend humanity from existential threats than to define what it is.

Clear Bright Future’s account of our political predicament is thrilling, but its link to his central argument is tenuous. The alt-right may derive inspiration from cyber-libertarians such as Peter Thiel, but they are also the product of deindustrialisation and disenfranchisement. Yes, racist nationalism dehumanises minorities and undermines human rights, but it has also, Mason suggests, replaced neoliberalism, which he has previously defined as quintessentially anti-humanist. Likewise, Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis and Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no alternative” are rightly blamed for foreclosing democratic choice; but what then should we make of the fact that history has returned?

In fact, it is far from clear that neoliberalism has collapsed: it has mutated, but is still hegemonic. The lessons of the 2008 crash have not been learned, and what should be a crisis for economics has been diverted on to politics. Aside from a brief resurgence of left parties, populism is now eroding the system wholesale.

This book’s most glaring contradiction, however, is between its admirable defence of humans against machines, and its cyber-utopianism – rehearsed in Mason’s previous book PostCapitalism. On the one hand, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will not put everything right; on the other, AI could be the tool that liberates humanity. In proposing a technologically enabled society in which most things are consumed for free, he starts to sound like the former editor-in-chief of Wired, Chris Anderson.

Meaningful, decently paid work is surely distinct from alienated labour. There is no mention of William Morris or John Ruskin here, and their critique of the dehumanising effects of 19th-century industrialisation. “The ideal of the future,” Morris wrote in News from Nowhere, is not “the reduction of labour to a minimum”, but “the reduction of pain in labour to a minimum, so small that it will cease to be pain”.

Mason wants machines without markets, but in our era of platform capitalism they are hopelessly intertwined. His admission, in a single line, that Evgeny Morozov’s vision of digital feudalism is “a bigger danger than I originally thought” is putting it mildly. Even with open source software and ethics committees, Mason’s technological utopia is neither credible nor desirable. Tech facilitates the rise of incels and nerds seeking revenge on women in particular and culture in general, while dumbing the rest of us down. But for Mason, the fact that screen-addicted millennials spend their days endlessly curating their online selves is fine, because “snowflakes are beautiful”.

Reading this book is like meeting a brilliant autodidact at a party, who talks at you for hours until you start to be convinced that everything is related to everything else, only to suspect the next morning that the argument doesn’t quite hang together. It provides rich food for thought along the way, but I’m not convinced by its destination. It’s also not clear how we’d get there.

Mason’s route to the anti-fascist life involves a universal basic income (the go-to concrete policy for utopians), suppressing rent-seeking behaviour, breaking up information monopolies, and enabling individuals to regain control over data (all simple as that). Change, for Mason, is just around the corner: since we live in a networked society, the spark is simply to find each other.

For all its revolutionary enthusiasm, this book’s best prescriptions are old-fashioned: a defence of democratic institutions and the rule of law, to allow us to live the good life. Clear Bright Future ends with a rather provisional proposal, by the leftist writer John Holloway, to “create cracks in capitalist domination, spaces or moments in which we live out our dream of being human”. It’s an unwitting reminder that, as a species at least, the best may be behind us.

 Eliane Glaser’s books include Anti-Politics: On the Demonisation of Ideology, Authority and the State. To buy Clear Bright Future for £17.50 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.