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Festival of Ideas

How Can We Preserve Our Humanity in an Age of Uncertainty? Paul Mason

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Paul Mason explores how we can reclaim our values and defend universal human rights and freedoms from the politicians and corporations who are trying to exert new forms of technological control.

Ranging from economics to Big Data, from neuroscience to the culture wars, he draws from his on-the-ground reporting and his own childhood to show how the notion of humanity has become eroded as never before. It’s not simply the fraying of the post-war global order, he believes: there is an all-out attack on values that have underpinned Western societies for hundreds of years.

He argues that we need to conduct a radical defence of the human being. We need to fight for universal rights, for human-centric institutions, and for the right to resist control of our lives by algorithms. We have to rekindle something close to a shared moral philosophy, a collective idea of our human nature, to shape our resistance and our future.


Audience Member Review

Written by Isaac Kneebone-Hopkins

Paul Mason identifies three major threats to society:

1. Silicone Valley and its creations.

2. The new breed of fascists

3. Climate change (although this was not covered in depth in this discussion)

These crises, he suggests, have grown into the cracks of a flawed (patriarchal and top-down) society of solidarity smashed in the 1980s by Thatcher, Reagan and the neoliberal project. In the rubble, these interwoven threats have been able to take root and enmesh society.  Personally, as someone from a similar political persuasion to Mason, I find him much more convincing when identifying the issues of society rather than the solutions. He has identified that Silicone Valley is the next stage of an ideological project that makes us “eminently governable”. He also points towards the alienation caused by the enclosure of our social lives within the logic of capitalism on social media. I think one could go further and link up the issues that he identifies. The “new breed of fascists”, as he calls it, are a direct result of this enclosure within a capitalist system. The ramping up of rhetoric in order to maintain levels of attention has allowed contrarian posers such as Milo Yiannopoulos to act as cover for ideologically devout Nazis to take root online and spill out into the real world. Similarly, the distraction and numbing effect of social media have had the contradictory effects of alerting us to the problems facing us while cognitively numbing many and extracting free labour in the form our time and attention to be used by some of the largest corporations that have ever existed.

Mason states that as a society we need to deal with “fascists now, machine control in the future”. A point never quite made by Mason is that it will likely be the same companies who created the social media algorithms, which many blame for our polarised political landscape, who will eventually create the algorithm which will surpass humans in cognitive ability. These large failures cannot be ignored given our current trajectory. The point Mason is making is that there is evidently a need to regulate these industries. Just recently a Facebook founder called for the company to be broken up, an approach Mason spoke favourably of. This is where he sees the need for a Radical Humanism grounded in ethics. There are certainly serious ethical questions to be grappled with, yet the New Age Libertarianism of those in Silicon Valley not only refuses to engage with these issues but is singularly unable to deal with them, given its amoral stance in favour of progress. What Mason is highlighting is that the unchecked powers of these monopolies, concentrated in the hands of individuals such as Mark Zuckerberg, means that each of their mistakes has an impact not just on their bottom line but on the entire world. This is especially true in an increasingly connected globalised economic system.

His answer to these problems facing the modern world is his own version of Marxism. Interestingly for someone with a background in economics, Mason’s Marxism is one that draws more on the humanistic and philosophical early work of Marx rather than the economic arguments in Capital. He even differentiates between two types of Marxism: the nihilistic anti-humanism that believes that “History is a machine and humans are its subjects” and a radical humanism that is focussed on human flourishing. In the twenty-first century, I think this is a slight mischaracterisation. It’s certainly fair to say that some on the Marxist left (as in any radical belief system) lack certain social skills and can fall back on certain economic dogma to make up for this. Marxism is, at its very core, a project dedicated to moving beyond an economic system that oppresses us not just economically but psychically, limiting human potential and our intellectual horizons. Mason uses the idea of “Capitalist Realism” popularised by Mark Fisher to talk about how neo-liberalism makes it so that we feel like there is no alternative to our current society. But given that Fisher is the most popular theorist amongst the left currently, it’s not clear why Mason is asserting that there is virulent anti-humanism amongst them.

He has then patched up the holes he perceives in Marxist theory with a wide array of philosophers from Hannah Arendt to Alasdair Macintyre. He acknowledges that he doesn’t agree with all that these writers’ beliefs but uses certain aspects and concepts. In his recent appearance on the podcast Talking Politics, one of the hosts seemed a little uncomfortable with this approach (particularly his characterisation of Nietzsche), but it does have a precedent on the left, most noticeably Marx’s treatment of Hegel. Given his major project, as he presents it, is to create a Marxism that is more accessible to a wider audience, by allowing himself to use these philosophical texts despite acknowledging that he is “not setting himself up as a moral philosopher” he is attempting to seize these works from the protective hands of the gatekeepers of academia and allow them to be used by all. However, it seems an interesting choice that in his talk he just focussed on the sometimes complicated philosophical concepts rather than some of the easy to understand fundamentals of Marxist economics, such declining rate of profit over time, which also have a useful role to play in his stated project and analysing the modern world.

What Mason’s talk highlights overall is that there is a need for a shift in thinking in order to deal with the fast pace of change. It is exciting to see one of the most prominent left-wing thinkers being willing to push outside of the accepted norms both in mainstream thought and even on the left. Even if people do not agree with his conclusions, they should applaud Mason’s attempts to engage critically with the issues at hand and willingness to dive so deeply into work both inside and outside of the mainstream philosophical canon.

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