Ben Knight talks with British author and journalist Paul Mason about the crisis of capitalism, our growing powerlessness and why, despite the current doom and gloom, he’s so optimistic about the future. Catch up before Mason presents his latest book, Clear Bright Future, at the International Literature Festival on Sunday.
Paul, last time we talked was two years ago because I was working on a film about preppers, and you told me that although you could understand the logic of preparing for catastrophe, you personally believed in an alternative beyond neoliberalism and would rather refocus attention on the existing society we live in and mend it. How has Corona affected this?
For the short time that we’ve had it in Britain, America, and in Brazil, where it’s been badly handled, the coronavirus pandemic is potentially collapsing the basic thing that capitalism is based on that human beings do: coercive work. Capitalism is about what makes me have to get up in the morning and go out to work, because unless I do so, I don’t get any money and I can’t live. Likewise, we are almost coerced into relentless consumption.
When the lockdown started, we were coerced not to work and we were coerced not to consume. That’s a pretty major hit in itself, but yet at the same time, it opens several possibilities. Remember, this is why workplaces existed, because in the 1790s, early 1800s, the British capitalists said, “We’d rather have all the weavers together in one room, please, where we can beat you up, make you be silent.” That’s what the factory system is. The modern factory system is the office, and suddenly we don’t need the office. Next, our “work-life balance” is far more under our own autonomy when we’re in this situation, and we’re still working.
Do you see the lockdown as an experiment in “post work”?
We’ve got to be careful, because the people really suffering here are the poor who have to work because they’ve got no savings. Many of them work for coercive employers who try to make them go in and do work. Many of them are essential workers like security personnel, bus drivers, nurses and carers. They’re not enjoying this because they’re working way, way over the number of hours they’re normally meant to work. Look, I don’t see this as a benign experiment in post-work, I see it as a shock, but a shock during which people have discovered things they didn’t know about the relationship between work and life.
This also shows that we’re in a crisis at so many different levels…
It’s a triple crisis. We’ve got an economic system that doesn’t work. We’ve got falling consent for democracy, the rule of law, universal human rights, and as a result, people just go, “There’s got to be something wrong with the situation we’re in.” There’s also a crisis of technological control. There is a greater asymmetry of power between me and Mark Zuckerberg than there was between a peasant and the Pharaoh of Egypt.
It’s a triple crisis. We’ve got an economic system that doesn’t work. We’ve got falling consent for democracy, the rule of law, universal human rights, and as a result, people just go, “There’s got to be something wrong with the situation we’re in.”
A lot of this you already address in your book, which is pre-Corona. How is the virus impacting this situation?
In the book, I argue that the economic, the technological and the political crises we’re living through all reflect what I called a crisis of the neoliberal self. The typical social character created in the last 30 years can’t survive this level of uncertainty about the future. Many people are looking for radical answers. I also think that a combination of climate change and the zoonotic viruses – the crossover viruses that we’re seeing, of which coronavirus is one – also tells us that capitalism is not just reaching its social and economic limits. It’s reaching the limit of the planet to tolerate it.
As we speak, the Brazilian real has plummeted because of the crisis, because exports have plummeted. As a result, (President Jair) Bolsonaro has removed almost all obstacles to burning down the Amazon – there’s Amazon burning going on right now. What’s that going to cause? It’s going to cause greater friction between humankind and the biosphere. What we’re seeing are the symptoms of a kind of general crisis of capitalism: coronavirus, the economic crisis, the crisis of technological control. We’ve got firms like Palantir able to just reach into the British state and say, “Okay, I’m going to take parts of this and take over whole chunks of the health service monitoring functions, without anybody having any democratic control.”
A lot of climate activists are feeling an existential despair about the future. In a lot of ways the Extinction Rebellion movement has grown out of that. What do you say to them?
I think the fact that so many people have internalised the methodological thought architecture of postmodernism has opened up a huge section of the left and the progressive movement to the despair politics of the right, because Nietzschean nihilism emerges from the same wellspring. In my book, I describe Bruno Latour’s famous U-turn: he pioneered the idea that science is socially constructed, that all scientific knowledge is just basically the same as a tribal religion. Then around about 2004 he realised, “Oh shit, I’ve just created the thought architecture of climate denial. Better reverse out of it, let’s be empiricist again.”
I’m pretty depressed about Trump, about fascism and about the failure of governments to address climate change. That doesn’t make me think that the human species is going to go extinct. Not at all. I read ‘Extinction Rebellion’ as a rhetorical thing, but the danger is that lots of young people have a kind of queasy, psychological mindset.
But it’s clearly not all postmodernist rhetoric either, right?
In a way, postmodernism and neoliberalism mirrored each other because they both took their adherents into an intellectual cul-de-sac, of which the only way out is a reversal. If you’re a neoliberal, you believe that neoliberal free-market globalisation is the last form of human society. It’s perfect. Nothing better. If you’re a postmodernist, you believe: there is no truth. There is no objectivity. Everything is language, everything is symbol. Human beings are just machines. There’s nothing better. Once you accept that there is no way forward, you can’t have postmodernism 2.0.
The only way forward is to do something that the left just doesn’t want to do, which is to engage in virtue ethics.
The only way forward is to do something that the left just doesn’t want to do, which is to engage in virtue ethics, to engage in a form of moral philosophy that the working class were always very engaged with. That is, to ask the question: what does a good human being look like in a good society? That’s the question that created the labour movement, but the mechanistic, anti-human Marxism can’t see the point of that. My book is an attempt to blow that problem away.
Towards the end of the book, you talk about networked individuals and about how a new social movement could come about. Do you feel that the protests in America and in Britain are pointing the way towards that?
The Black Lives Matter movement and the movement against structural racism here in Britain are contingent movements – they were triggered by an event. The fact that they came about so quickly and that they were so mimetic, that one group does exactly the same as the other without actually communicating with each other, is a product of 10 years’ worth of networked protest and 20 years’ worth of the rise of what we call the networked individual. People are living multiple online personalities so that they’re able to shapeshift from one stage to another, are able to communicate in a more horizontal way.
So to sum up, “Clear Bright Future”, the title of the book, is not meant to be ironic.
The title is certainly not ironic, but these are dark times. The other day I went to report on this fascist demo of about 4000 extremely drunk racist men in central London. Over and above all the political critique you could have of their ideas and their lack of education and their horrible behaviour, what is clear is that they’re lost in modernity. They’re lost in a world where people have to be civil to each other. They’re lost in a world where a robot builds the car they drive. These guys, these racist bigots – their world is over. And a couple of weeks ago I went to a Black Lives Matter demo, which was youthful, multi-ethnic, educated, future-orientated. The fascists are past-orientated people. That should give us hope because the fascists of the 1920s were not past-orientated people: Think of Marinetti and the Futurists, for example, or Jünger’s obsession with the “new man”. The new fascists are using technology, but to recreate a hierarchical society that I just don’t think the majority of human beings would accept. I may be wrong, but there you go.