The Last Optimist of the British Left: An Interview with PAUL MASON
As Britain Brexits, prospects for a better future seem to recede. But PAUL MASON, last optimist of the British Left, will have none of it: a Clear Bright Future (Mason’s title, Trotsky’s words), he says, is almost within our grasp.
In Thomas More’s Utopia, written half a millennium ago, a traveler stumbles across paradise. On the island of Utopia (the word is More’s invention) the workday is six hours long. Property is communal; chamber pots are made of gold. Priests can marry, divorce is fine, and – best of all – there are no lawyers. More’s traveler, Hythloday, spends five years there and, relatably, cannot believe how shit England feels when he gets back.
The roots of More’s coinage are often pointed out: ou-topia is Greek for “no place” or “nowhere.” Less often noticed is the double entendre, although More alerts us to it in an addendum: ou-topia is also eu-topia, the “good place.” (“Wherfore not Utopie, but rather rightely my name is Eutopie, a place of felicitie.”) It’s the elision – the good place is no place – that underlies the contemporary pejorative sense of “utopian” as fantastical. Paradise, More seems to suggest, is an impossibility: Hythloday is Greek for a bullshitter.
These days most would agree with More: utopia has never felt further away, especially from the recently announced Shittest England Ever. Tory majorities, climate catastrophe, the continued rise of the authoritarian Right – hard enough to avoid hell on earth, let alone build heaven. Last week’s landslide Conservative victory was a triumph of pessimism. Future imperfect.
If you want to find someone outlining utopian visions, you’d do better to look in Silicon Valley than the embattled British Left. With one prominent exception. The British journalist Paul Mason argues that a leftist utopia is not just possible – it’s right around the corner. In Postcapitalism (2015) and Clear Bright Future (2019), Mason prophesies a future of automation-enabled leisure time, technologically facilitated plenty, and democratic socialism built from the rubble of neoliberalism.
Mason made his name as, successively, the economics editor for BBC Newsnight (2001-13) and Channel 4 News (2013-16). In these posts he covered the global financial crisis and the inevitable protest movements that followed, offering a rare mix of bird’s-eye-view economic nous and street-level battle experience. Revolution or not, it certainly was televised, and quite often by Paul Mason.
In 2016 Mason quit public service journalism, shedding impartiality to throw his weight behind a renascent radical Left. These days you’ll find him protesting Brexit in Parliament Square, or working on a book or a play in his favorite cafe in Soho, Bar Italia, where I met him earlier this year to swap protest stories, discuss utopianism, and hate on Downton Abbey.
Daniel Beatty Garcia: Today, to call something “utopian” is often derogatory or dismissive. But you argue that utopian thinking can be pragmatic – in order to persuade, you must offer an alternative.
Paul Mason: If the Left doesn’t have a utopia, then it’s not simply that it can’t persuade. We don’t know where we’re going. To misquote [Rabindranath] Tagore, history is mankind’s struggle to be free. But what makes people struggle to be free is an ideal – whether it’s Christians in the year 302, or the French Revolution, or Berlin in 1948, or now. If the Left isn’t prepared to propose an ideal form of human society, then it’s going to lose. And I don’t want to lose to a mixture of Mark Zuckerberg and Milo Yiannopoulos. I just don’t. I think the world could be better.
Silicon Valley seems to have captured the collective utopian imagination. You share with the Mark Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks a certain hope in the liberating potential of technology. What distinguishes your ideas from theirs?
The utopias of Silicon Valley are hyper-individualized. Their tendency is towards antihumanism, which has two aspects. One is the belittling of all humans in relationship to all machines – machine worship. The other is a man-superman break, because the humans that have perceived their power in society are always better than the ones who can’t. There’s a profoundly Nietzschean antihumanism to Silicon Valley’s utopianism.
But it’s not true that Silicon Valley has the only utopia. The far right has a utopia: a return to an all-white, male-dominated nationalistic past. That vision draws its strength from the reification of the past that you find in popular culture. Babylon Berlin (which is good), Downton Abbey (which is not so good) — they all reify the past into something unified. There are servants who sleep with their masters. There are strippers. There are drug dealers. There are all the things we have. But there’s none of the class struggle. Have you seen Peaky Blinders? The class struggle is the background: there are communists, there are factories. But you never actually see the struggle. All you see is the Homeric epic hero dealing with everything. It’s true in Babylon Berlin, it’s true in Peaky Blinders, it’s true in Downton Abbey. So it’s no wonder that when people ask, “What’s better than this shit that we’ve got around us now?” the past can seem quite attractive.
If the past is ironed smooth, not only does it look more attractive: it becomes harder to see how the present or the future could offer something really different. When structural fault lines or cracks are painted over, you can no longer see where the breakpoints in the present are, and where or how you could act to make a difference. Mason calls the accompanying experience of disempowerment or loss of agency “fatalism,” the “quasi-drone, quasi-zombie state of mind where people can’t imagine their own actions producing better outcomes.” For Mason, fatalism involves the denial of a species-defining innate capacity for utopianism: we are not predetermined automata, he argues, but born “imagineers.”
You argue that our ability to imagine alternatives is somehow inherent, even a defining part of “human nature.” It’s another departure from current leftist orthodoxy: trying to build political projects from biologistic theories of human nature is more often the province of anti-egalitarians like Jordan Peterson, who use claims of an immutable human essence to deny the possibility of radical change, not motivate it.
My account starts with Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. In these early texts Marx is an essentialist, yes – but from the point of view of a changeable human nature. There is a human essence, and that essence is to change ourselves. In that sentence, I think, is the whole of Marxist humanism. Once you understand that’s where Marxism comes from, the idea of it becoming some kind of antihumanist, hyper-determinist quasi-science is ludicrous.
“Fatalism” is one of your bêtes noires – whether in the form of Althusser’s structuralist Marxism, neoliberal “end of history” claims, or contemporary neuroscientific determinism. How to break free from it?
You fight fatalism by convincing people that things can change. The Marxist epistemology is very simple: we know by doing. So in a word, what you need is practice – in German, praxis.
An example from earlier this year, when we were on the streets protesting Boris Johnson’s first power grab, when he prorogued parliament. There’s a huge field outside Parliament called College Green, which is allocated to broadcasters. And sometimes, on big days, there are these huge constructions that broadcasters set up like an instant stage. On this day there were very few. And on the pavement, by now, there were five or ten thousand people. So we all went, “Why the fuck are we standing on the pavement when they’ve got a field?” We just lifted the barriers. And you could feel… I’m a veteran protester. But you could feel, for a lot of the people who experienced it, the sudden realization that you can do this, that you can just pick the barriers up, take them apart, and the police won’t stop you.
Mason sees moments like these as signs of what could be in what already is, the horizon of a future that’s already becoming visible. The problem is how to exploit them – how to turn them from repositories of potential into an interconnected force. The hard lesson of the failed protest movements of this century is that it’s not enough to create isolated, temporary islands from capitalism. Without long-term strategizing, movements have no staying power.
In the book these momentary experiences of freedom play an important role. You’re walking a difficult line: bleak descriptions of the present combined with hope for a better future. A lot rides on these pockets of the future that already exist now. How do you think these small moments can be scaled up into a broader struggle?
It’s the same as what the effect of going on strike was, or being on the picket line. That’s what I said in a play I wrote based on Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere [Mason’s 2011 grassroots account of “the new global revolutions”]. That’s what people were saying to me. If you occupy a square it creates a power in you that never goes away. You become a resilient individual. And if you learn how to be self-activated in a situation of social struggle, then you can bring other people with you – without any need for hierarchy, or parties, or trade unions.
The 2011 movements you covered – Cairo, Athens, Wall Street – were organized on social media, erupting from the virtual into the actual. At the time a lot of people celebrated Twitter as a new avenue for horizontally-organized revolutionary action, with hashtags as the new weapon of choice. But since then, scandals like Cambridge Analytica and the spread of fake news have led to a lot of people changing their mind about the transformative potential of social media. Have you lost faith?
I joined twitter during 2009, during the Iranian Green Revolution. Back then Twitter was without a doubt a tool for revolution. In Tahrir Square in 2011 I saw people holding up banners saying “Thank you, Facebook.” Illiterate people were hearing about protests via Bluetoothed videos.
Governments had to find a strategy to dissolve this potential. First they tried propaganda – it didn’t work. People would just call bullshit. Then they tried to shut the websites or even the whole internet down – Mubarak in Egypt, Erdogan in Turkey. That didn’t work either: people publicly graffitied foreign IP addresses so anyone could get back online. Then came the final phase, and we should have expected this because it’s Information Theory 101: the way to stop an information network is to flood it with noise. And that’s what they did. They flooded the networks with so much disinformation and abuse that the prevailing feelings became mistrust and anger. Now, I think there is a solution to this. But it’s one which we need to apply carefully, both from above and below. The solution is non-anonymity.
On Twitter Mason has roughly 600,000 followers. His combination of journalism, activism, and expertise has made him ubiquitous in the new media landscape, like a Lancashire Yanis Varoufakis. Through selfie videos, threads, even hand-drawn diagrams of constitutional permutations, he’s become the de facto guide to the Brexit crisis and the general election for many on the Left. (Scroll down for more of his photos.) But what sets him apart from other commentators is a willingness not just to diagnose, but to outline what the fuck we should do next and, beyond that, where we should be aiming to get to.
I also took part in and reported on the anti-globalization movement of the early 2000s. It became clear to me that one of the reasons activists were so frightened of power was that they were frightened of what they would do if they ever attained it. They hadn’t thought through what a transition would look like, from now to where we need to get to. What compelled me to write Postcapitalism was thinking, “I’ve had enough of resistance.” Resistance is good, but out of resistance must come a goal. The USSR – the only concrete utopia of the 20th century – was such a disaster that utopianism on the Left collapsed. But if state socialism won’t work, we need to propose a more granular alternative.
The defining quality of the alternative you propose is a drastic reduction in the amount of time we spend working. In post-capitalism, the five day working week will be replaced by automated labor on one hand, and a universal basic income on the other.
The USSR, Marxism, and the labor movement classically, had a utopia based on work. This is an idea we have to abandon: we need a utopia based on non-work. This is a huge challenge for the left – in Germany as well. The people who find it the hardest are the parties with the word “Labour” in their names.
The Leisure Party doesn’t have quite the same ring, though, does it?
They’ll stand there and say to me, “New jobs have always been created by technology, so they always will.” And I say, that’s a big gamble to take if your name is the Labour Party. And if experts at J.P. Morgan, McKenzie, and Oxford University all believe that you’re completely wrong, what are you going to do about it? This is why the Green New Deal is a brilliant thing. The way most people imagine the future is a complete shimmer – a complete mythology. Because they believe good, new, high-paying jobs will be created. They won’t: if we do it right, there won’t be any jobs created. Hours of work will fall, and we’ll get used to it. “Work less and save the planet” should be the slogan of the 21st century.
Last week’s resounding rejection of the UK Labour Party’s transformative agenda not only showed that people don’t believe that a better future is possible: it showed that until they do, such a future must remain an impossibility. In this light, the real importance of Mason’s militant optimism becomes clear. His socialist prophecy doesn’t just express hope for a better future – it helps galvanize that hope. Just as the old neoliberal mantra of “there is no alternative” was self-fulfilling, so is its negation: it’s only if you insist that things could be better that they really can be. An analytical philosopher might say that utopian hope is its own condition of possibility. Or, as a closer intellectual ally of Mason’s, Karl Marx, wrote in a letter to his friend Arnold Ruge: “The world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality.”