Paul Mason – a philosophical review

In his most recent book, Clear bright future. A radical defence of the human being, Paul Mason attempts to offer a comprehensive analysis of current political struggles around the world: amongst them the rise of authoritarianism, populism, state surveillance and the loss of trust in democracy. He links these problems to current questions in the fields of AI, neuroscience and economy, as well as to digital culture. His book can thus be read as a philosophical or social diagnosis of the times – similar to approaches of thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville, Pierre Bourdieu, Zygmunt Bauman or Colin Crouch. 

Mason’s main thesis is simple: we are witnessing “the biggest attack on humanism since it was formulated in the days of Shakespeare and Galileo” (10). In order to back up this claim, Mason refers, in 20 prolific chapters, to sources ranging from the metaphysics of science to the political culture of the internet. His main argument goes roughly like this: 40 years of political unleashing of market forces have undermined our ability to make conscious choices as self-determined individuals, have coerced us into incorporating competitive behaviour in our social and personal life, and have hollowed our routines to the extent that we are, by now, performing rites which have lost their meaning to us. According to Mason, we are living, so to speak, in a state of alienation; we are unable to relate to the world in a meaningful way. He makes not only economically liberal policies responsible for this attack on human self-realization, he also refers to the role of the left postmodern thought, which, from Althusser and Foucault onwards, committed itself to deconstruct the subject as an autonomous agent. 

If we follow Mason, we are thus living in a precarious state which makes us vulnerable to two threats: populist authoritarianism and artificial intelligence. The former is argued for like this: if we are, by now, merely following empty routines, and if these routines are not fulfilling the promises of a flourishing life in an open society, but only suppress our desires to show ourselves superior to others or to transgress social convention, then we are now more prone than ever to fall prey to racist, nationalist, misogynous and xenophobic narratives and to an atmosphere of general suspicion. The latter is argued for like this: if we have already surrendered to market logic anyway, and think that invisible and uncontrollable processes can resolve complex problems better than individual human beings do, then it is unsurprising that we will also surrender to artificial intelligence, and will let algorithms and machine logic decide for us.

The conclusion which Mason draws from this is that we need a holistic and strong new defence of the human being as such. And apart from that, he demands: stronger political regulation of algorithms, a humanist ethical theory behind AI, a basic income, a swing of left politics towards the concerns of ordinary citizens, a strategic alliance of the left and the liberal centre to support the rule of law and defeat right-wing populism, local and spontaneous resistance of individuals against being nudged, scepticism against fully automated processes, a return to scientific rationalism, a defeat of psychological and social determinism, a refutation of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and Object-Oriented-Ontology, less thoughtless enthusiasm for the works of Hannah Arendt, and much more. 

To many readers, this tour-de-force can rightly seem a bit confused and sometimes self-contradictory: As one critic put it: “Reading this book is like meeting a brilliant autodidact at a party, who talks at you for hours until you start to be convinced that everything is related to everything else, only to suspect the next morning that the argument doesn’t quite hang together.” (Glaser 2019.) This definitely captures the fact that the book is loaded with far too much content. It is hard to stay focused during the reading. Much of the overall leftist rhetoric becomes at times a bit too notorious or cliché. Lots of concepts are introduced which are then not sufficiently elaborated on. The background stories with which he opens most of his chapters are not necessarily needed, as they seldomly add anything to Mason’s point. Furthermore, it is very hard to keep track of all the tiny details which Mason draws on. This is sad, for many of the details and claims are not at all trivial, and are worth being thought about. Mason clearly appears as a journalist who has tried to write a capturing story with an abundance of philosophical input, rather than as a philosopher who attempts to neatly connect the various propositions to a coherent whole. From this point of view, it might have been more in line with Mason’s intentions if he had omitted much of the additional context and focused on the raw argument reconstructed above – for it is interesting enough. 

However, Mason’s eclectic style of writing does not need to be seen as purely problematic. First, he does provide an interesting analysis of the current state of the world from a holistic and socially critical perspective, and this combination of many different aspects of reality is refreshing in times of often overspecialised and very fragmented inquiries. Also, Mason does definitely not offer a grim and grumbling leftist moaning; instead, the book is full of optimism and wit. 

A nice side-effect of it is that by doing this, Mason took a theme which is normally a home ground to techno-optimistic liberals – future and progress – and approached it from a different angle, showing that Elon Musk, Machine Learning and the Fourth Industrial Revolution do not belong to centrist and liberal economists only; but that these topics can also be creatively treated by critical sociologists or culture theorists. Thus, he re-appropriated a typically left, socially progressive theme, and showed that stories about a better future for all still have to be seen as a theme of a contemporary left perspective. In times where most people think of social-democratic politics as in a crisis, entrenched between green environmental concerns on the one side and identity politics on the other, and in which the leftists are perceived as only busying themselves with protecting minorities, whilst forgetting “society as a whole”, Mason’s book might have some beneficial impact on the overall image of left or social liberalism. 

Nonetheless, as said above, the most praiseworthy thing about Mason’s approach is probably his methodology. He combines many different ideas and fuses them into a new and surprising whole. He takes over the liberal economist’s traditional trust in science and reason and refuses the postmodern story of relativism and the complete social construction of reality and truth, but combines this with an attack on racism, transphobia, sexism, etc, which is normally an issue of postmodern identity politics; he is very critical of the role of the state, especially the Chinese model, and advocates the (neo-)liberal idea of networks, flat hierarchies and spontaneously emerging orders, but fuses this with a typically leftist suspicion of markets and a critique of (neo-)liberal privatizations; he advocates the use of technology, digital machines and AI, but demands stricter regulations and public control of algorithms. This makes Mason highly innovative at some points, and it does look as if the approach could offer a bridge over the old gap between economically and socially conservative liberals and left thinkers for whom freedom is a genuine value, but needs to be combined with social critique. Another innovative detail worth mentioning is the connection Mason draws between the rise of algorithmic control and the rise of right authoritarianism: Do the mechanisms of social networks foster an anti-democratic mentality? Has the algorithmic control over our choice on platforms like YouTube or Netflix led to a decline in independent decision-making? That Mason flags such questions up is valuable and needs to be accredited. 

However, in the rest of my review, I would like to unpack a few of the implications of Mason’s original argument as reconstructed above. I think it reveals valuable insight into how we normally think about philosophical concepts like freedom and subjecthood, and it encourages us to see them from a different angle.

One interesting observation is that even though Mason titled his book a “radical defence of the human being”, he actually ends up talking about human freedom rather than about human nature. This is not surprising. For many thinkers, the characteristic feature of the human nature is nothing but the fact that humans can act autonomously – be it through deliberation, reason, language or society – and are not simply predetermined automats. Mason never puts this conception on the spot. However, he seems to implicitly accept and follow it. It provides him with the grounds on which we might see his initial argument as cogent or at least as defensible: If a capacity for autonomy is what makes us human; and if this capacity is taken away by markets, machines or state authority, then the situation has to be regarded as dangerous and demands a “defence of the human” – which effectively amounts to “a defence of freedom”. Of course, one could take this as a direct invitation to tackle Mason’s argument. If one challenges the standard assumption that human nature involves freedom of the will (or another capacity for autonomy of some sort), then the whole intention of Mason’s project seems pointless: why attack subordination and control if there is nothing to be defended in the first place? I do not think that this is a charitable way of reading Mason, and furthermore, I think it is worth examining the claim that human nature involves a capacity for autonomy. Yet it shows that Mason’s entire project crucially depends on what he means by that.

So, what is Mason’s understanding of freedom? Unlike many other theorists of freedom, he does not follow the classically liberal understanding of freedom put forward by many Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Locke, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith or Immanuel Kant. These thinkers held that our capacity to be free is more or less innate; that it is built on the fact that we can exercise reason, “legislate ourselves” or be the cause of our own actions. Thus, they thought, any legitimate government and any legal or moral philosophy must be grounded on the postulate of human liberty. Traditions like the social contract theory (at least in its Lockean variant) emerged out of this: granted that all individuals are and ought to be free, and thus have certain undeniable rights (like the right to move freely or not to have one’s property taken away by others), the executive power of the state must be seen as the result of a mutual agreement between all free members of the society. This has profoundly affected how we normally view institutions: We imagine them to stand in some sort of means-end-relationship to us. Executive power is justified because it fundamentally is to our service, legal codes exist to secure our private sphere. In other words: we see the state as a means which works towards the end of maintaining our initial state of liberty. 

Now, Mason does not want to do away with this instrumental subordination of institutions to the interests and needs of the individual. As presented above, his whole argument aims at making machines serve humans, markets serve the individual, and so on. However, he refuses to use the liberal starting point. Instead, he follows a thinker fundamentally opposed to it: Karl Marx. This may seem bewildering. Is Marx not the paramount example of a determinist philosopher who claimed that no single human being truly possesses free will, that all our consciousness depends on the economic structures we live in, and that individuals should sacrifice their personal needs and interests to the needs of the society? 

The problem here is that it is not clear what a “Marxist” understanding of freedom really is. Most of the main ideas we normally associate with “Marxism” are based on the late Marx, who wrote the Manifesto and the Capital, opposed social-democratic reformism, talked about class consciousness, historical determinism and the inevitability of a collapse of capitalism through revolution. In the year 1848, together with Friedrich Engels, Marx first outlined his ideas of a non-individualistic theory of history in a lengthy convolute of manuscripts now called The German Ideology. The main notion: Not individual human beings make history for other individual human beings, but humankind makes history for humankind. By then, the human being as a single subject, so to speak, had disappeared from the historical stage, and was replaced by something far bigger.[1] As many revolutionaries put it: the “bearer” of historical progress will never be a subject, but it will always be a class, a collective, which comes to an awareness of its own condition and then changes it, irreversibly. Marxists in the mid-20th century took up this line of thought and radicalised it. Louis Althusser, for example, held that not only does the subject not exist as a historical agent, it does not even exist in itself. For there to be something that experiences itself as a “subject”, there needs to be a structure or an ideology in the first place, to which the subject can be “subjected” in the very sense of the word. Althusser’s disciple Jacques Lacan popularized this thought of ideology as a necessary pre-condition of subjecthood or as an all-pervading Other: “The message, our message, in all cases comes […] ‘from the place of the Other’ […]. [….]. Where is the subject? It is necessary to find the subject as a lost object.” (Lacan 2007, 186, 189.)

As explained above, Paul Mason is not very fond of such postmodern approaches to the deconstruction of the subject. What he is interested in is a defence of the human being as an individual. Given this, it is largely due to an exegetical controversy that Mason can take Marx as a starting point. It centres around the fact that not all of Marxism can be reduced to Marx’ post-1848-writings. In 1844, Marx composed a series of notes now knowns as the “Paris Manuscripts”. In these manuscripts, nearly all of Marx’ later ideas are already present – but many details look slightly different. For example, Marx would say that “perfect communism is but perfect humanism”, that it is a “real re-appropriation of human nature through and for the human being”, a “conscious return of the human being to itself.”[2] For someone who takes these statements at face value it is no surprise that Mason’s main move is to dig out the teachings of the early Marx and use them as a source for what he calls “defence of the human being”. 

The idea of such a “humanist Marxism” is not new. Thinkers like Raya Dunayevskaya, Erich Fromm or Wang Ruoshui can be aligned with it. The main idea is that Marx has not to be seen as a thoroughgoing determinist, but as a thinker for whom materialism and naturalism are still centred around the human being, and in which the material conditions stand in a reciprocal relationship with what human beings think, desire and do. Thus, it allows for the possibility of the freedom of the individual subject and its independent agency. Mason quotes Dunayeskaya: “Marxism is a theory of liberation or it is nothing.” But obviously, this still begs the question of what “liberation” means.

Mason’s strategy could be seen as a middle way. He follows Marxism in its Althusserian form insofar as he denies the classically liberal thought that there is something like an “initial state” of human freedom. However, he follows the enlightenment thinkers insofar as he takes the freedom of the individual as a normative ideal to which institutions in the broad sense should be subordinated. And as I have said, Mason implicitly ties his account of freedom to what a full “human being” or “subject” is. So, one could perhaps draw the following picture: the individual, autonomous subject is a normative ideal inasmuch as the initial state of liberty is. Mason seems to invite us to think about liberty not as a postulate which we should protect, but as a goal towards which we should work. This is in line with his general Marxist conviction that social surroundings and economic structure matter. Becoming a real, self-determined subject means going through a process of liberation of emancipation – it means freeing oneself from an initial state of unselfconsciousness, immaturity and alienation and achieving a state of reflexivity and autonomy. This very much sounds like the Kantian “dare-to-understand”, put into Marxist terminology. But the distinctive Marxist feature in this thought is that no human being can go through this process of liberation on its own. It requires collective action, communal support, reciprocal reassurance with fellow human beings in the same situation. This is a core idea of leftist, critical thought: without changing the world together, without approaching it with a common consciousness and revolutionising it time after time we will never know what the world is like. In Kantian terms: We cannot dare to understand if we don’t dare to act. But we cannot act unless we act together. On this picture, achieving and protecting freedom is fundamentally a question of individual development, linked to mutual interdependence with others, and based on whether we achieve to re-appropriate and relate to the world by means of social, cultural and economic techniques. 

Is this conception of freedom hostile to the claims of classical liberalism? In my opinion, it is not, because it accepts subjecthood and autonomy as sources of normativity. But what’s more, it highlights the instrumental importance of something often overlooked in the individualised liberal outlook: community

Given this, I think the main thought to be taken from Mason’s work is that without a critical look at what freedom entails and demands, we will never be able to achieve it – even in western, liberal societies. Probably his contribution to the current analyses of the crises of western liberalism amounts to highlighting this “realm of freedom” again – to showing that it requires infrastructure, community, culture and education, but also that it is a process of constant renegotiation and struggle. And the stunning fact about his optimism is not that he simply demands the state should take care of pre-conditions of freedom and invest more; but that he shows that it is necessarily up to us to engage with them. However, this also makes him broaden the focus of what politics should be about: not only about applying laws and maintaining order but about perpetually re-thinking how the liberated, self-determined “good life of everyone” could be facilitated given the historical and technological context. 


[1] See the original: „Diese Anschauung [the concept of the human freedom in the state of communism, M.P.] kann nun wieder spekulativ-idealistisch, d. h. phantastisch als „Selbsterzeugung der Gattung“ (die „Gesellschaft als Subjekt“) gefaßt und dadurch die aufeinanderfolgende Reihe von im Zusammenhange stehenden Individuen als ein einziges Individuum vorgestellt werden, das das Mysterium vollzieht, sich selbst zu erzeugen. Es zeigt sich hier, daß die Individuen allerdings einander machen, physisch und geistig, aber nicht sich machen, weder im Unsinn des heiligen Bruno [Bruno Bauer, M.P.], noch im Sinne des „Einzigen“, des „gemachten“ Mannes.“ MEW III, 37.

[2] My mediation, see the original: „Der Kommunismus als positive Aufhebung des Privateigentums als menschlicher Selbstentfremdung und darum als wirkliche Aneignung des menschlichen Wesens durch und für den Menschen; darum als vollständige, bewußt und innerhalb des ganzen Reichtums der bisherigen Entwicklung gewordne Rückkehr des Menschen für sich als eines gesellschaftlichen, d. h. menschlichen Menschen. Dieser Kommunismus ist als vollendeter Naturalismus = Humanismus, als vollendeter Humanismus = Naturalismus, er ist die wahrhafte Auflösung des Widerstreites zwischen dem Menschen mit der Natur und mit dem Menschen, die wahre Auflösung des Streits zwischen Existenz und Wesen, zwischen Vergegenständlichung und Selbstbestätigung, zwischen Freiheit und Notwendigkeit, zwischen Individuum und Gattung. Er ist das aufgelöste Rätsel der Geschichte und weiß sich als diese Lösung.“ MEW XL, 536.


Bibliography

Mason, Paul (2019): Clear bright future. A radical defence of the human being. London: Allen Lane.

Paul Mason is a journalist, commentator and writer. He was Culture and Digital Editor of Channel 4 News and Economics Editor at the BBC Two’s Newsnight programme. He is a visiting professor at the University of Wolverhampton.

Glaser, Eliane (2019): Clear Bright Future by Paul Mason. Review – in the midst of crisis, a work of radical optimism. In: The Guardian, 26.04.2019.

Lacan, Jacques (2007): Of Structure as an Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever. In: Richard Macksey und Eugenio Donato (Hg.): The structuralist controversy. The languages of criticism and the sciences of man. 40th anniversary ed. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, S. 186–194.

Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich (1956): Die deutsche Ideologie. In: Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels. Werke, Bd. 3. Hg. v. Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED. Berlin: Dietz, 10-530.

Marx, Karl, Engels, Friedrich (1956): Ergänzungsband. Schriften, Manuskripte, Briefe bis 1844. Erster Teil. In: Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels. Werke, Bd. 40. Hg. v. Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED. Berlin: Dietz.

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