Allen Lane, 2019, 368 pp., $39.95
If you spend time on a university campus, or participate in intellectual polemics on the internet, or simply follow the careers of leading political figures in several Western countries, you’ll know that Marxism has made a big comeback. Let’s leave aside the learned exegesis of Senator Bernie Sanders’s contribution to the critique of political economy. It is perhaps enough to note that the leader of her Majesty’s Official Opposition—and quite possibly the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom—would until recently express his deep political thoughts in a newspaper called The Morning Star (né The Daily Worker).
To be sure, Marxism, as distinct from social democracy, never fully disappeared in the West. Though wounded grievously by the decline of the Soviet Union and China’s so-called economic opening, some versions of Marxism held on through the 1990s and 2000s in faculty lounges and countercultural texts that academics produced. Yet the political energy of Marxism, the energy that sought a replacement of capitalism by some abolition of private property and collective ownership of the “means of production,” seemed spent. Over these decades, postmodernism reigned. The most influential European intellectuals, such as Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida, though raised in Marxism themselves, came to lampoon both Marxism and Western neoliberal capitalism as equally illusory. In their writing they congratulated themselves on having exposed the comical emptiness of our politics—and perhaps all politics.
To trace the resurgence of a more confident, less academic, and allegedly less postmodernist Left from the 2000s and particularly from the financial crisis of 2008 would be a large and worthwhile work of intellectual history. The evidence drawn from recent popular works, with titles like Fully Automated Luxury Communism and The Socialist Manifesto, demonstrates that this is now a fully formed movement. Of the works I have seen, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being, by the British broadcaster and journalist Paul Mason, is the clearest and the most jargon-free. This is not to say that it is a good book. Its principal aspiration—to herald the coming of a world that both abolishes private property as well as any need for work—is absurd on its face. And yet in arguing this position ardently, Clear Bright Future presents a good opportunity to study the principal features of the New Marxist mind. The evidence drawn from a study of that mind indicates that the Revolution might still be on hold for a while.
Little known in the United States, Mason is a prominent British public intellectual who seems to have become more famous along with the ascent of the political Left over the last decade, and particularly with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, Mason’s work is, at least in part, an attempt to justify Corbynist ideology and the Momentum political movement that helped propel Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party and that now helps keep him there. Mason himself has called Corbyn’s leadership of Labour “brave.” Some sympathetic American readers might hope that Mason’s writing might provide intellectual fodder for cognate American movements such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Justice Democrats that aspire to reorient the Democratic Party.
Clear Bright Future argues that the “neo-liberal” capitalism of recent decades has reached a crisis point. It has been exposed as both de-humanizing and weak. Through its craven weakness and rapacity, neo-liberal capitalism has itself unleashed the dangerous “nationalist,” “populist,” and “fascist” tendencies we seen around the world. In fact, in Mason’s view, these movements are the logical outgrowths of capitalism itself. In the book’s most disgraceful segment, Mason resuscitates the old academic thesis that the rise of Nazism should be attributed largely to capitalism. Focusing on fascism as “the elite’s response to the possibility of working-class power,” the chapter does not even consider the part in the rise of Nazism played by someone called Hitler.
Yet, according to Mason, the current crisis in capitalism has led to growing awareness that the system is destined to fall. And Mason believes that what awaits us is a radical reconfiguration of the relationship of individuals to one another and to society at large. Unlike in American “political” books, Mason is under no obligation to offer “policy proposals.” Mason does not say how, concretely, the changes he foresees will come into place. Yet he implies that private property will be abolished or at least dramatically limited: “the socialization of knowledge through technological progress will bring us up against the limits of a society based on private property.” Freed from the shackles of capitalism, human beings will then free themselves from religion and other superstitions, finally governing themselves according to facts, reason, and science. The “clear bright future” (Trotsky’s phrase) involves harnessing the material wealth and the transformative power of new technologies in order “to enhance the collective power of human beings over nature and—by abolishing our need to work—unleashing individual freedom.” As evidenced by Mason’s work as well as the aforementioned Fully Automated Luxury Communism, the dream of a future without work, of a “Garden of Eden without any forbidden fruit,” features prominently in the New Marxism in a way it did not in many versions of the old.
Clear Bright Future is theoretically ambitious. Diagnosing the failings of neo-liberalism, it argues that Marxism offers a fuller portrait of human nature. In the most interesting part of the work, Mason sternly warns fellow leftists about falling for the siren song of non-Marxist critiques of liberalism, such as those of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and different disciples and epigones such as Hannah Arendt on one hand and postmodernists such as Jacques Derrida on the other. If, in Allan Bloom’s memorable analysis, the 20th-century Left sought to combine Marx and Nietzsche, Mason attempts to disentangle the two once and for all. In his final section, Mason argues that a Marxist perspective on human nature and our politics would allow us to regain control of things like “globalization,” “the market,” and “technology” that we have in recent decades “fetishized” and thus refused to subject to social deliberation or political choice.
It is possible to briefly summarize Mason’s Marxist theory of human nature and history. The human being, says Mason following Marx rather accurately here, is a “species being” who, unique among the animals, works on behalf of others that he or she may not even know. But, in the process of doing this work, human beings also “alienate” their true selves by imbuing objects with transcendent meaning. But objects are always historically contingent, destined to be replaced by new things that humans make as technology and relations of production change. History is thus a process of growing “alienation,” which reaches a crisis point under capitalism. In the factory capitalism of Marx’s day, workers did not own the product of their own labor since it went immediately into the hands of the bosses, who returned subsistence wages to workers. In our time of neo-liberal financial capitalism, human beings are alienated from the products of their labors by the manipulation of financial flows and information technology by giant oligarchic financial firms and technology companies. Alienation may be more severe today since we are not permitted to understand the inner workings of the new forms of social control. Meanwhile, the neo-liberal theory of human beings, meant to entrench the current situation of exploitation, has no answer to the crisis. Positing human beings as isolated asocial creatures, it reinforces their weakness and isolation but also their desire to progress to something better.
The upside of a crisis, in Mason’s account, is that a crisis cannot last. The human story is ultimately resolved by our productively harnessing our work through collective ownership of it in pursuit of social ends. Currently, according to Mason, digital technologies are merely reinforcing despotic social control. But they have the potential to finally help us overcome our alienation. Automation can unleash the ample, (though, pace Marx, not unlimited) wealth of the world and turn it to social ends, to humanity as a whole.
There are some interesting social observations in Clear Bright Future. As Mason persuasively argues, Westerners over the last few decades largely have refused to exercise responsible political choices regarding economic questions, technology, and other matters, preferring to traffic in ideological abstractions. Like some “moralist” Marxist writers of old, Mason is refreshingly critical about degradations in contemporary culture. The lazy postmodernism of the last few decades does deserve every word of the critique that Mason offers. In adamantly rejecting discussions of human nature as “essentialist,” postmodernism contributes mightily to the sense of powerlessness and anomie that predominate in our societies. Social and political thinkers do need to take up Mason’s challenge to return to human nature.
And yet, there is human nature and there is human nature. Mason’s atheistic, materialistic depiction of the human being is no more persuasive than previous articulations of the same thesis. Citing Aristotle, Mason argues that the human being is a social and altruistic one. He does not mention that Aristotle also says that man is, at least in certain way, a political animal. And the political animal does not merely work with and behalf of others but disputes with them in seemingly endless disagreement about fundamental questions of life, and competes with rivals for mastery. Recalling the rather genteel Marxism of figures like Léon Blum, Mason expresses the unexamined faith that man is only a wolf to man under the conditions of capitalism, or that it’s possible to bring about an order in which the desire for mastery or oppression is eliminated. One might well argue that “liberal theory” itself has an insufficient account of the “political animal” and the desire to rule. But whatever their shortcomings, original liberals never were naïve enough to think that such desires and such political competition could be fully eliminated.
Though he dismisses religion as superstition, Mason’s materialist view of human beings leaves basic problems unanswered. When confronted by questions such as “what is the soul?” or “what is thinking?”, materialists can only utter something about “brain wiring” that tells us about the material function of the brain but nothing about what a thought actually is. The inability of materialists to definitively refute such questions, or to stop them being asked, keeps open all sorts of questions about the proper task of human beings in the world. And the inability to resolve such questions stands in the way of achieving heaven on earth.
Mason’s criticisms of contemporary society and politics similarly do not point to revolution as a plausible or necessary alternative. Let us grant that the “fog” of neo-liberal ideology, as any ideology can do, has clouded our judgment on matters of economics, technology, diplomacy and the like. Yet is good judgment all a question of ideology? Just in the last few years, the French government led by Emmanuel Macron, derided by the Left as the poster-child of clueless neo-liberalism, has instituted common-sense policies that reassert political control over big tech—by, for instance, banning cell phone use in all public schools in France. Likewise, the European Union, another “neo-liberal” behemoth, has fought sensibly for digital privacy rights and the so-called “right to be forgotten.” At the other end of the spectrum, China has for several decades devoted itself with assiduity and intelligence to science and engineering thanks to an intelligent political calculation that its power and independence ultimately depended on self-sufficiency in these areas. These are examples of good political choices made by both “neo-liberals” as well as “state communists.” Blaming ideology can only get us so far.
Paul Mason calls for revolution without telling us much about who his foot soldiers will be. The book mostly addresses “human beings.” Mason, at least on the surface, does not speak to “fellow Brits,” or “fellow Westerners,” or even fellow “proletarians” of every nation, as Marx and Engels had done. Who, then, is the subject that will bring about revolutionary change? Is the “human being,” understood abstractly, working on behalf of humanity at-large and not some concrete political entity, a reliable political actor?
Mason is not unaware of the difficulty. And, truth be told, he has good reason to reject, as he explicitly does, the classic Marxist answer that the proletarians are the decisive actors in world history. As one recalls, the proletarians are therefore permitted to establish a temporary dictatorship in order to ensure the bringing about of the new order. Mason recognizes the crimes committed by Communists in the last century while invoking this theory. An avowed anti-statist, Mason also rejects Stalin’s “socialism in one country,” which used the language of socialism to enforce brutally personal and state power.
Ironically, it is the genteel side of Mason’s Marxism that leaves him in a bind. Without recourse to the workers of the world, Mason makes a vague appeal to “networked individuals” all over the world. Such people, he claims, are gradually waking up to the oppression and injustice of the current order. When enough of these networked people wake up, revolutionary change will come. One may doubt, however, whether young people working on their laptops in fashionable coffee shops in fashionable cities could ever constitute a “revolutionary army” worthy of the name. Leo Strauss famously called Trotskyism a “flag without an army” and, as a result, “refuted by its own principle.” The same charge could be leveled against Paul Mason’s theory. While he attempts to get beyond the postmodernism of recent decades, his appeal to “networked individuals” is functionally postmodern since it abstracts from concrete attachments such as class, nation, and religion that actually motivate individuals to act politically. Though claiming for itself the mantle of radical Marxist politics, this work thus merely reinforces the cultural predilections of the urban bourgeoisie. As Marx might have said, neo-liberal capitalism is a much more cunning rival than it lets on.