A new humanist politics?

Submitted by AWL on 5 June, 2019 - 11:02 Author: Matt Kinsella

Paul Mason’s latest book, Clear Bright Future, is written as a defence of humanism and human-centred politics, against the resurgent threat of the far-right, from Trump to Bolsonaro, Le Pen to Salvini. The title is a reference to Leon Trotsky’s testament. Mason entreats us to fight “all evil, oppression, and violence”, and shares Trotsky’s optimism for the future.

Mason draws a convincing link from the financial crash in 2007-08 to Trump’s election. Mason emphasises how the monopolisation of information (think Google and Facebook) has led to systems outside our control, for example, of online advertising. Trump paid $150m in online advertising during the election. Facebook even trained Trump campaigners to use its algorithms to target potential voters based on things like shopping habits, friendship networks, and even porn habits.

Negative ads about Hilary Clinton were also targeted at potential Democrat voters, to encourage them not to vote. This is yet another area in which workers’ control is necessary! Mason sees the recent growth of the far right stemming from an anti-universalism, that took particular forms, from supposedly ironic memes, to the prevalence of “fake news”, to the links made between the far-right, the populist right, and the mainstream conservative right. The aims of Russian bots, far-right groups, and misogynistic internet trolls was to “pollute the networked space with so much disinformation and abuse that people recoiled from it”.

The intellectual origins of this anti-universalism go further back than the crash however. Though Mason emphasises some of the positives of the post-modernist and post-structuralist academic left, in highlighting oppressions such as racism and sexism often sidelined by the traditional left, he traces a fatalism inherent in many of its thinkers. In its most extreme post-modern variations, truth and falsehoods just become “social constructs”. It is one thing to, for example, acknowledge the role that homophobia in society played when the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) included homosexuality as a disorder.

It is quite another to entirely junk the entire scientific method, and the belief in empirical enquiry. We might think of the famous Sokal hoax. The “new materialism”, which emphasises either the “agency of objects”, or the idea that it is impossible to make a “truth-claim”, contains a fundamentally anti-Enlightenment belief in the powerlessness of human beings, and our ability to observe and change the world around us.

Mason points to Marx as a philosopher who welcomed the best of Enlightenment rationalism, and whose philosophy is predicated on the idea that humans are different from animals in our capacity for our imagination, and our ability to work and change the world, based on our mental conceptions of it – labour, in short. This is contrast to many of the post-modern thinkers, who either ignore class (Mason writes convincingly about how Hannah Arendt, and believers in the “horseshoe theory” of authoritarianism ignore class – though I would suggest Mason himself fails to apply this rigour to his ideas of the “networked individual”), or rely on Friedrich Nietzsche’s reactionary beliefs in biological hierarchy — Lukacs said Nietzsche possessed a “reactionary romantic pessimism for all time”.

Mason draws a link from the vitalism and fatalism popular in Weimar Germany, to the growth of twentiethcentury fascism, to post-68 Althusserian belief that history was “a process without a subject”, to the postmodernist idea that there can be little or no human agency (there will always be “power structures”). All stem from the smashing or defeat of workers’ movements, which emphasised the possibility of humans changing the world around us, and these ideas reflect the subsequent ideological retreat into forms of idealism and belief in fate. This particularly concerns Mason, given the extraordinary changes in computing power over the last forty years.

It is hard to imagine a world without smartphones today, yet the iPhone is barely twelve years old. Mason continues his theme of ideological resignation following defeat, by suggesting that after the collapse of stability in the neoliberal order in the 2007 financial crash, and the subsequent austerity programmes, many ideologies, indifferent to the human being, now surround this future technology, from the right-wing libertarianism of Silicon Valley tech billionaires, to post-humanist techno-claims that there are no essential human characteristics. Mason rightly point out that “we must impose on artificial intelligence, robotics, and projects to enhance human beings biologically… an ethical system that prioritises all human beings”. Mason’s solution to these problems is contradictory, however.

Whilst his reassertion of Marx as a philosopher committed to the belief in human agency, or in Raya Dunayevskaya’s words, a Marxist humanism, is welcome, this is also tinged by utopian socialist ideas. Mason believes future political projects must “nurture… non-profits, collaborative production, the peer-to-peer economy, and open source software and standards”. Paraphrasing the sociologist Manuel Castells, Mason states that internet users “created a temporary model of the society they wanted to live in”, and idealises the squares occupations of 2011.

The idea that we can create pre-figurative “bubbles” or “islands” outside of capitalist control is straightforwardly a utopian socialist idea. Mason also asserts that to overcome the dichotomy between utilitarianism (the greatest happiness) and deontological ethics (rights), we must return to a system of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

The relationship of Marxism to systems of ethics is an interesting discussion (I have agreed in the past with Terry Eagleton that Marxism is a hybrid system, one that “views the moral good as the promotion of general well-being, but not, say, at the expense of the deontological imperative that all men and women have a right to participate in this process”), but I believe the necessity of a human-centred politics can be made without strict adherence to a particular school of ethical thought.

Mason’s utopian socialist ideas, leanings towards techno-determinism, and thought-experiments about ethics, should not stop the reader from enjoying the book. From his explicitly Marxist account of trade union struggles in Live Working, Die Fighting, to his most utopian work to date, PostCapitalism, Mason has always written fluently, and in the style rare of activists and historians, by, story-like, weaving everyday struggles into big political ideas.

The book’s sections on Trump, the Paris Commune, the failures of post-modernism, and futurist yet grounded speculation of how technological advances will change our working lives, are interesting and largely convincing. Those passages remain encased in Mason’s more sci-fi and “pre-figurative” politics. Yet a new attempt to argue for rationality, universalism, freedom, and the central importance of human agency in politics must be welcomed.

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