Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Paul Mason Author & journalist talks Clear Bright Future

Paul Mason discusses formative years of strikes and resistance, and the ongoing political situation in Britain and beyond - which he sees as the death throes of the world that Thatcher built atop the bones of the welfare state.

462 1558348612
Paul Mason

If you only looked back to the turn of the century, Paul Mason's career arc might look a little surprising.

After working as a journalist for tabloid newspapers and computer magazines in the 1990s, he landed the business editor's slot on BBC2's Newsnight, and made his first live appearance on the fateful day of 11 September 2001, after which his coverage pivoted slowly but steadily from business toward politics, both domestic and international.

Since around the time of the banking crisis in the previous decade, he's steadily built a reputation as a stridently leftist firebrand in a journalistic landscape where bland balance and equivocation is the norm.

But if you look further back, the arc starts to make more sense. After a childhood on the Lancashire coalfields, Mason started out as a music teacher, completing both a degree (in Music and Politics) and a stint of postgraduate research right here in Sheffield during the early years of the Thatcher regime.

In this long-form interview, Mason discusses those formative years of strikes and resistance, as well as the ongoing political situation in Britain and beyond, which he sees as the death throes of the world that Thatcher built atop the bones of the welfare state.

These topics and more are at the heart of his new book, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being. They will surely also feature in his Festival of Debate appearance on Wednesday 29 May, where, if this interviewer's experience is anything to go by, he'll unload an astonishing amount of complex and interlinked ideas in a very short time indeed.

You studied in Sheffield in the 1980s, I believe. Do you have any memories of the place?

I do! I discovered Marx at Catholic grammar school, but I remember distinctly walking in Sheffield during the steel strike in 1980, and I was reading a play by Brecht called The Mother, which is about Marxism. And as I was reading it, about 15 police vans hurtled past me. It was almost like a scene from a movie. You know, here's this student engrossed in books about class struggle, and then right next to him there's this class struggle going on.

A few days later I walked a long way, from Broomhill to East Hecla Road, where the Hadfield's steelworks was [now the site of Meadowhall]. I had to start walking at 4 o'clock to get to the picket line, and I realised that this was the battle. The battle of the seventies and eighties was going on right in front of me, and I joined it.

But having lost that battle, we can't go back to that world. The real problem we face now is that this system that once put food on the table, created an element of social mobility, globalised the world, cheap flights to everywhere - that system has fallen apart. And people treated it almost like a religion - the neoliberal religion of consumer choice: cappuccino or latte? That religion has failed, and the problem we face in the world is people looking back to the older religions. Because there's no class ideology to fall back on, what they're falling back on is race, ethnicity, misogyny, nationalism.

I think a lot of people in the liberal world are underestimating the depth of this crisis and I argue that at the root of it there's a crisis in the kind of people we created during those 30 years of neoliberalism. I call it "a crisis of the neoliberal self", because it literally does not know what to do when the market doesn't work. We've hollowed ourselves out.

It's almost like you're talking about a succession of utopias. First there's the state-led utopia of the sixties and seventies, which gave way to the neoliberal utopia. But for the last 20, 30 years, utopia has been something of a dirty word. If you're a utopian, that's a distinctly negative framing. It means you're a dreamer, you haven't got a clue. What you're saying here - and I hear it echoed in some academic circles as well - is that there's a void where a viable utopia should be, and that we need some new vision to lead us forwards to the next big thing.

Well, in my last book, Postcapitalism, I said two things relevant to that argument. First of all, information technology makes utopian socialism possible: small-scale, human-centric change which leads, not via a big period of state control but directly, to the ability to form small societies based on abundance. I also echoed something that sociologist André Gorz said in the eighties: we've got to move on from utopias based on work.

In a way, Trump's utopia is based on work, the creation of tens of thousands of low-paid jobs every quarter. But for me, the other missing bit about utopian thinking is that it was profoundly moral. I've spent my life as a kind of critical Marxist and I'm well aware that Marx laughed out loud when people suggested to him a moral philosophy. Quite rightly, the worker's movement in the 19th century would ask where's the morality? How can a woman who has to sell sex to eat care about morality?

What I think Marxism always missed was that the working class consistently tried to create a moral philosophy of its own. And I argue that the new agent of history is networked individuals: everybody exploited by capital, not just in the workplace, but in the credit system, the consumer system, at college, through the surveillance and behavioural control of the smartphone. We are all victims of capital, we are all exploited by it [...] I argue that what we have to do is very similar to what the 19th century proletariat did, which is to find each other, and act, and tell a coherent story about our own self-liberation.

We certainly have a number of communications and organisational tools now that would have been unimaginable in the 19th century, but they're often privately-owned networks running on privately-owned infrastructures. How does that play out, given that some would argue those tools are already corrupting the discourse?

They're not just corrupting the discourse, I think they're disrupting the power structure of the human race.

Of course, I'm in favour of breaking up Big Tech. In the book I discuss a plan to break them up, to create a kind of publicly-owned identify registry, into which private companies can dip if we give them permission. This has already started in places like Barcelona. But we also need to move into a new era with the deployment of artificial intelligence into non-military and non-security applications, because at the moment it's trapped inside a world where human rights don't matter. AI and algorithmic machine control can't operate in a world where human rights do matter, so what [Big Tech] needs to do is sign a social contract with the rest of us, and in order to formulate that social contract, we have to have a non-passive view of our rights and humanity.

So it's not just about the commercial power of Big Tech, it's about the fact that because we've lived these hollowed-out lives, almost obeying the caricature of homo economicus, which was only created by [John Stuart] Mill in the 19th century as a kind of thought experiment. You know, "what if people only cared about economic factors?" Well, we're now living that thought experiment and we've hollowed ourselves out.

What about the tactics? I think that, things being what they are in Britain at the moment, a lot of us are looking for things we can do on the ground to make a difference. If we want to build a better world, how and where should we be pushing? Where's our opportunity for action?

One of the most revolutionary things you can do in a period of neoliberal collapse is elect a reformist government. Look, I have criticisms of Corbyn, I have big criticisms of Mélenchon, and of Sanders and AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] in the States. None of them are perfect. But if you look at the fear and loathing and panic with which the media is greeting the mere possibility that they could be elected, it tells you first of all that neoliberalism's at its end game. It can't absorb, as a system, the perfectly natural opposition that's grown up within it. So we need to elect left governments.

You asked about political tactics, but Clear Bright Future isn't about political tactics, it's about something much more granular. It's an argument that we, the people, should become intelligent clients for moral philosophy - and also that businesses should, of course.

462 picture2 1558348789

Look, the struggle against fascism starts in the space between my brain and my fingertips. I learned this working on a play I wrote with people who'd been part of the Egyptian revolution, and they said that a revolution is just about where do you put your body. That's true of resistance to Trump, to Bolsonaro, Duterte, Putin - where can I put my body?

And it doesn't just mean sticking your body in front of a tank, like the guy at Tiananmen Square. It means: how am I gonna live my life? Am I going to sustain this performative illusion that everything's all right, and just smile at people when I walk into Pret A Manger? Or am I going to treat the Pret worker like a human being, like the barmaid in the pub treats me as a human being? Let's treat everybody as human beings, and not carry on the performance, because that performance is what hollowed out our principles.

We've had 30 years now of HR managers sitting in their offices ticking boxes, saying, 'How many women do we employ, how many women on the board, how many black and ethnic minorities? Did we send a card to someone who had a gay civil partnership?' But there was no box to tick that says, 'Do we believe any of this?' Because what turned out to happen is that a lot of people didn't believe any of it, and the performance allowed us, because markets measure measurable behaviour, to believe that business had become quite progressive on hiring, on equality and so on. But the people inside those businesses hadn't. Those marches by the Proud Boys and the alt-right are full of people who have day-jobs working for corporations.

I'm almost loathe to bring it up, given the temporary respite from the circus, but what about the 'B word'? What should we be doing over the summer to get the best result out of what remains of the year?

Well, first you have to identify what caused Brexit. Leaving aside all the contingent factors, it's the fact that neoliberalism doesn't work, and so a section of the elite decided to try and make it work by detaching from what was left of the regulatory framework. But the real problem is to fight against the rising mentality of xenophobia, English nationalism, racism and, right within it, misogyny, which is probably the most effective glue that sticks together all these movements.

462 picture3 1558349123

Photo by Randy Colas (Unsplash)

And so the point about Brexit is to turn it into a battle for values. A lot of people on the left are really scared about fighting a culture war. They say, 'I don't want to be engaged in cultural warfare against the values of a lot of old people from the poorest end of the working class'. But the problem is, that war has started. It's there in every pub in the town I'm going to tonight. In Wigan, it is there.

So what you can do is say, OK, we'll bring a lot of money to this town, we'll invest, we'll create new jobs, we'll create new industries, we'll educate people, we'll restore the NHS. But you can't say we'll end gay marriage. There's nothing we can give them in terms of that. So the left has to offer that section of the working class that has decided it really wants to try to solve its problems through deglobalisation, we've got to offer them a lot - and much more than we have - in terms of resources, but nothing by way of sympathy for any reactionary ideas.

And here's an interesting thing: there's some research by American academics that I quote in the book, a survey of far-right and alt-right people in the States. They were looking to see if they had an authoritarian personality. Are they deviant? Are they psychopaths?

And no, there's no evidence of any of that. The only thing that distinguishes them, and it's very clear, is their capacity to dehumanise other people. So when asked about Muslims, or refugees, they'd show them the old Ascent of Man graph, and the Trump supporters, they'd say on this scale Muslims are like gorillas we're human, but the Muslims and the refugees and the feminists are gorillas. Whereas the far right, the actual fascists, will say no, they're chimps.

Obviously, this is an experiment, it's peer reviewed, it's one of the few things that's been done, but to me it confirms something, which is that the way we're going to split the right, into a fascist component and a component that we're prepared to live alongside in civil society, is over the question: Who is human?

Learn more

Paul Mason comes to Sheffield on Wednesday 29 May as part of Festival of Debate 2019. Tickets are £10/£8 concessions via Tickets For Good

Filed under: 

Next article in issue 134


The world of beer is an exciting one and in Sheffield we are blessed with plenty of great breweries, shops, pubs and bars. Even if you…

More News & Views

Can Sheffield end new HIV transmissions by 2030?

In anticipation of next week’s Festival of Debate panel, Rei Takver speaks with Sheffield doctor and HIV specialist Dr Claire Dewsnap about what the city still needs to do to tackle the virus.

More News & Views