Clear Bright Future review: Paul Mason redraws Marx for the 21st century

The Irish Times, by Ed O’Loughlin
11.05.19

The demonstrations against the introduction of water charges in 2014 were a clear example, whether you agreed with them or not, of how mass public protests can change government policy. They succeeded because they mobilised people from a wide sweep of backgrounds and beliefs to show their peaceful opposition, in person, on the streets of Ireland’s towns and cities. Many of these people had little or nothing in common.

Some, a small hardline socialist fringe, presumably disagreed with money itself, to charging for anything. Others believed they were already paying for water through their taxes, and objected to what they say as an austerity scam to make them pay twice. There were even those, and plenty of them, who would have been happy to pay for their water, for both environmental and economic reasons, if they hadn’t believed the government was planning to privatise Irish Water, a vital national resource, and sell it to corporate rent-seekers (as happened in Britain).

The second of the two biggest protests, held in freezing rain on the inauspicious date of Wednesday, December 10th, nevertheless brought tens of thousands of people of all ages and classes on to Dublin’s O’Connell Street – cheerful millennials on their first “demo”, old-school agitators in army surplus jackets, young mothers with prams, busloads of people up from the country.

This eclectic, good-humoured and energised crowd marched through the streets and then gathered in the rain at the GPO, the culmination of their protest. And there normal service resumed. On a scaffold over the crowd, Damien Dempsey launched into a long and mournful solo lament about the death of James Connolly. This was later reported as a highlight of the day, presumably because it happened on the stage.

Power fail

Where I was standing, the crowd’s energy evaporated. Many drifted away. People who would never normally take to the streets had done so en masse, looking to a shared future, only to find the pulpit for protest reclaimed, as so often before, by the pieties of a revolutionary past that – let’s be blunt – had its chance and failed to take it.

Which brings us (thanks to Marina Hyde for the all-purpose segue) to Paul Mason’s new call to arms, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being. It’s a very interesting book, wide-ranging, insightful and yet still optimistic. Paul Mason – a Guardian columnist, left-wing thinker and former journalist for the BBC and Channel 4 – is a very thoughtful and well-travelled person; he is passionate in his defence of enlightened humanity against the current two-pronged onslaught from the politics of fear, hate and unreason (fascism, for short), and the tech-driven dream of the super-rich to free themselves from the rest of us while keeping our money.

But if the product is good, the branding could do with a bit of a makeover. Mason’s title derives from the writing of Leon Trotsky – “the experience of my life … has not only not destroyed my faith in the clear, bright future of mankind, but on the contrary has given it an indestructible temper”. Trotsky, like Connolly, had his go a long time ago. It didn’t work out for him, either.

The ideas of Connolly and Trotsky live on, of course, as do those of the man who chiefly inspired them, the great German philosopher Karl Marx. At the core of Mason’s book is an attempt to reinterpret Marx as a champion of humanist freedom and not the grim prophet of historical inevitability cited by Lenin, Stalin and Mao as they fed millions of people into mincers in his name.

Life without greed

Marx, argues Mason, believed it was man’s essential nature to be free, and that technology should be a liberating force. IT, automation and artificial intelligence could, if deployed in the interests of all people, rather than for greedy elites and their well-paid servants in the legal and banking professions, free mankind for a new life without greed, forced labour and oppressive hierarchies, based (Mason reckons) on the Aristotelian idea of a life lived for virtue.

If that sounds utopian (it does) consider the alternative: if we go on as we are, Mason points out, runaway capitalism, whether in league with neoliberalism, as at present, or fascism, in the near future, will in a matter of decades consume not only humanity but the planet itself. If, having eliminated all the other possibilities for survival, we are left with utopianism, logically we should give Utopia a shot.

Mason has read widely in philosophy, and some of his glosses on the history of ideas, and their impact on our troubled present, are alone worth the price of the book: he explains, lucidly and persuasively, how the uncertainty principles of quantum mechanics – questionable in themselves – have bled, via post-modernist theory, into the climate of irrationalism and fatalism that fuels Brexit, Putin and Trump. If people have no free will or material existence, if cause and effect no longer exist, what’s the point of fighting for survival, much less for freedom, truth or dignity?

Yet sometimes Mason’s need to frame his arguments in terms of what Marx wrote or thought becomes a drag, for me, on his overall message. Karl Marx is one of the greatest political thinkers ever to have lived. Even many of those who oppose him would concede that some of his ideas are still relevant. But they aren’t relevant because it was Marx who first expounded them. Darwin and Russell didn’t invent evolution, they noticed it and described it. Evolutionary theory used to be known as Darwinism, but few people call it that now. Perhaps Marx’s followers, mindful of all the unfortunate baggage attached to his name, should give Marx himself a rest. They used to pride themselves on their pragmatism.

Reclaiming ‘snowflake’

Mason is not, in any case, an orthodox Marxist. He rejects the idea that only a working-class revolution can complete the destruction of capitalism, instead looking to a coalition of networked individuals of all classes and backgrounds (a bit like those water protesters). He is a fan of mass action, and seems to enjoy a good riot, but he stops short of calling for violent revolution, that traditional Marxist requirement.

Mason still believes in people and persuasion, the power of reason, and he embraces the alt-right insult of “snowflake”. No two snowflakes are identical, and as their fractal symmetry is dictated by the known chemistry of water, he writes, they serve both as symbols of individual humanity and proof of the validity of science and reason.

“If I could design a banner for the movement that will defeat [the new right],” he writes, “it would be a flag with a snowflake – but every example would be randomly-generated and unique.”