28 June, 2019 • • 40.4Politics & SocietyTechnology

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Humanism, Reprogrammed

Oliver Eagleton

Paul Mason 
Clear Bright Future : A Radical Defence of the Human Being
Penguin Books
2019
368pp
£20.00

 

 

 

 

For critics of neoliberalism, the policies of Thatcherism and Reaganism were an ideological assault on various social protections including the welfare state, workers’ rights and regulatory controls. The erosion of these economic orthodoxies was more than just an attempt to increase the power of capital over labour; it was also a bid to roll back cooperative activity in the name of competition and individualism. In Clear Bright Future, Paul Mason makes an even broader claim: that the final goal of neoliberalism is not to change specific laws or values, but to destroy humanity itself. His book is an expansive and ambitious account of late capitalism which aims to spotlight its irreconcilability with human nature (or ‘species being’, as Marx called it). For Mason, the present political moment can only be understood as a struggle between the human being and an economic system which deprives us of our in-built, fundamental attributes. We can either defend these attributes – and use them as the basis of an emancipatory project – or we can surrender to the ‘anti-human’ forces which have come to dominate twenty-first-century politics. The choice is stark and ineluctable, and Mason urges us to confront it head-on.

Humans, in Mason’s view, are singular in their capacity for ‘conscious, imaginative labour’: they ‘differ from animals because they can imagine changes in their environment…and execute them through work’. This ability to enact change makes us thoroughly historical creatures, imbued with the unique potential to determine our own destiny. The power we wield over our future is communal, not individual, since humans have an unmatched aptitude for collaborative labour. Our linguistic and cognitive structures make us especially good at working together towards creative goals. Hence, while other species cannot transcend the immediate experience of their environment, we can reflect upon it from a distance, formulate and communicate alternatives, and realise them through collective effort.

Humans demonstrate another exclusive characteristic when they project meaning onto the objects they produce. For thousands of years, people have invested significant parts of themselves – their beliefs, emotions, traditions and ideals – in cultural products. Artefacts like the Sumerian Lion Man or the Eiffel Tower are not inanimate lumps of matter, but vibrant canvases painted with the values of their makers. Which means that the human being has a distinct interest in grasping and controlling the things she creates, because when one loses sovereignty over the object of one’s labour, one loses more than just an object – one surrenders a part of oneself.

If we acknowledge these intrinsic and inimitable qualities of human life, writes Mason, we can identify the ways in which neoliberalism infringes upon them. The human being’s historical character – the agency she exercises over her future – is denied by a system that purports to mark ‘the end of history’, the ultimate apex of progress and development. This Fukuyaman discourse, coupled with the neoliberal doxa that ‘there is no alternative’ to free-market capitalism, tries to abolish imaginative reflection on the outside world. Its attack on history is also an attack on humanity, if we see the creative manipulation of our environment as an essential aspect of the latter.

The same denial of human nature is manifest in the atomising effects of our economic model. By minimising the scope for cooperation – busting unions, fuelling the rise of a fragmented ‘precariat’, destroying communities through gentrification and so on – neoliberalism rails against the human proclivity for communal labour. Mason asserts that, at the most basic level, everyone is born with the ability to collaborate on mutually beneficial projects. Yet contemporary capitalism replaces collaboration with the pursuit of narrow individual interests. It rejects the universal and egalitarian concept of human nature for a Nietzschean vision of perpetual, ruthless conflict – one in which the strong and powerful are expected to rise above the weak and lame. This philosophy, which insists that certain humans are naturally superior to others, is embedded in neoliberal logic: if the free market is a fair, neutral mechanism, then those who succeed financially must do so because they possess higher capacities than their peers, which makes inequality a natural and unavoidable phenomenon. Mason’s analysis is deft in exposing this biological essentialism at the heart of neoliberalism. He argues that, when one accepts the neoliberal justification for inequality, it only takes a small step to embrace neofascist populism: another discourse which claims that some people (straight white men) are intrinsically better than others, and that their privileged social position is an expression of biological hierarchies. Clear Bright Future contends that a universalist concept of human nature is therefore needed to combat both the economic impact of global capitalism and the societal effects of resurgent misogyny, homophobia and racism. ‘Socially liberal’ capitalism cannot combat fascism, since these ideologies share the belief that inequality is an essential fact of humanity.

Theorists before Mason have pointed out that neoliberalism undermines our deep-seated impulses by eradicating history and community. But the most original chapter in his book explores the tension between technological advancement in a capitalist economy and the Marxian species being. If, as Marx claimed, we see ourselves in the objects we make – and if this creates a human need to understand and control those objects – then the rise of artificial intelligence is a threat to human freedom. “We are about to take a step beyond what’s been routine for 40,000 years”, warns Mason. “We will soon be able to create tools that know more than us, and which may quickly develop attributes we cannot control nor even observe”. The danger is that, as technology becomes more complex and less comprehensible, humanity’s alienation from its own creations will increase. Our ability to use technology for human purposes will erode, as machines acquire autonomous goals and interests. At which point, the stage is set for us to accept the dominance of AI, outsourcing social and economic decisions to advanced algorithms whose concern for human life is negligible. In this dystopian scenario, we will no longer harness machines to improve our lives; we will reshape our lives to serve machines.

Mason describes how neoliberalism has conditioned us to submit to machine control. If the neoliberal subject cannot choose her own destiny, then a being endowed with superior rationality should be entrusted to make important societal decisions. If she has been taught to surrender to the unassailable logic of the market, then she should also bow down to the supreme intelligence of technology. If unfettered competition has replaced horizontal cooperation as society’s governing principle, then it is only right that AI bots – smart, resilient, adaptable, amoral and self-interested – must wrest power from their puny human counterparts. Neoliberalism’s ‘anti-humanist offensive’ deprives us of the intellectual framework to defend humanity against automation. The exaltation of the market in the late twentieth century will give way to the deification of the machine in the twenty-first – unless, says Mason, we forge a humanist movement which protects our right to control AI, ensures that machines serve us (rather than vice versa), and restructures society to reflect the basic human qualities which neoliberalism has besieged.

In presenting this hypothesis, Mason’s conviction that certain political principles flow from species being (such as egalitarianism, cooperation and common ownership) is a firmly Marxian position. But he rejects the precept that these ideals can only be realised through the revolutionary activity of the proletariat, which he sees as an outdated nineteenth century dogma. Instead, Clear Bright Future proposes a new agent of historical change: ‘the networked individual’. This is a ‘connected and educated’ subject, constantly plugged into thousands of information and communication channels, for whom “the whole of human intelligence [is] one thumb-swipe away”. Capitalist exploitation and malign technologisation can only be averted, in Mason’s view, when progressive individuals use digital networks to bring about social change. If technology has the potential to enslave us, it also has the power to set us free, so long as we believe in our capacity to harness it for human flourishing. In this sense, Mason is right to present the automated future as politically indeterminate – ready to be seized by the left or the right, the ‘humanists’ or their opponents. His fear of an AI ascendancy does not contradict his techno-utopian vision of ‘postcapitalism’, as some critics have claimed. It is rather that the dual potential for a hierarchical machine-age and an emancipated society exists within our current technological coordinates. It is up to us, as networked individuals, to decide which one we actualise.

Inevitably, when one designs a theory as far-reaching as Mason’s, it is difficult to keep the quality of the analysis consistent. There are several points in Clear Bright Future where intricate events, texts, traditions and thinkers are flattened out to fit the overall thesis. This is particularly apparent when the author tries out the role of intellectual historian, describing complex philosophical movements in terms that are often too cursory or convenient. For example, Mason provides a slapdash genealogy of post-truth politics, which he sees as one of the ‘anti-human’ forces plaguing our society. He states that the Trumpian disregard for fact and reason is an outgrowth of postmodernism, which was itself enabled by Nietzsche’s dismissal of the Enlightenment. While there is some validity to this account, its broad and superficial brushstrokes lead Mason to a simplistic conclusion: that Enlightenment rationalism was an empowering and humanistic discourse, while its detractors are responsible for contemporary far-right disenchantment. Such an argument, worthy of Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins, cannot be upheld by any dialectical thinker. For one thing, it ignores the extent to which Nietzsche’s critique of the Enlightenment rests on a materialist philosophy that bears important similarities to Marxian species being. Just as neoliberalism is ‘out of touch’ with human instincts, the abstracted reason of Enlightenment was, in Nietzsche’s estimation, irreconcilable with human energies and passions. Indeed, Mason’s valiant attempt to protect humanity from the detached, technocratic logic of late capitalism would be arguably impossible if not for Nietzsche’s prior defence of the human (in all her irrationality, creativity and bestiality) against the cold, dull ratiocination of seventeenth century thought. It is also worth pointing out that, in tying Nietzsche to fascism, Clear Bright Future neglects that he was also a pivotal figure in the modern existentialist movement, whose Marxist and humanist credentials are undeniable. Conversely, the European Enlightenment legacy that Mason deems ‘progressive’ was appropriated by fascism to justify rigorously ordered governance, pseudoscientific race theories, nationalism and neocolonialism. So, when surveying the history of philosophy, it is easy to counterpose Nietzsche, postmodernism and populism to rationalism, Marxism and humanism; but it is just as easy to pit Nietzsche, existentialism, Marxism and humanism against rationalism, liberalism, neoliberalism and fascism. I am not claiming that either of these narratives is more ‘accurate’. But both must be considered if Mason’s humanism is to avoid making a reductive, Dawkins-style fetish out of Western reason.

However, the main problem with Mason’s tome is not its brusque philosophising, but the confidence with which it divides its objects of study into two binary categories: pro- or anti-human. As we have seen, the Enlightenment is pro while Nietzsche is not; early Marx is, but late Marx is not; Aristotle is, Kant is not; Alasdair MacIntyre is, Foucault, Althusser and Latour are not. The first question to ask, given the vast amount of anti-human phenomena that Mason identifies, is the following: if intrinsic human needs and tendencies can be said to exist, why aren’t they more evident in human life? How do we explain the rift between our supposedly ‘natural’ state of being and our political structures, intellectual culture and economic order? Clear Bright Future has no convincing answers. But more worrying than this omission is Mason’s decision to frame contemporary politics as a straightforward clash between humanism and anti-humanism. By putting ‘the human’ at the centre of his politics – instead of the proletariat – Mason makes himself vulnerable on two fronts.

First, he risks replicating the biological essentialism that he identifies in neoliberalism. If ‘humanity’ is constituted by various natural properties which must be translated into socio-economic structures, then our political agency is diminished, not enhanced. Politics, in this analysis, becomes the realisation of pre-existing human qualities, as opposed to the generation of new ones. In the event that our ‘nature’ tends towards a specific form of societal organisation (a dubious claim to begin with), we find ourselves in a political straitjacket – one which, although comfier than its neoliberal counterpart, is equally immobilising and perhaps equally sexist. Mason writes that “humanism has to incorporate a female idea of freedom that diverges in some respects from the male idea” – a sentence which should rouse the suspicion of any feminist. Is he saying that there are innate biological distinctions between the sexes which mean that they should receive different societal treatment? Couldn’t this ‘female idea of freedom’ be appropriated by misogynists to justify women’s ‘emancipation’ from the workforce, their ‘liberty’ to stay at home and raise the children? Mason would argue that this distorts his position. But there is no doubt that his appeal to ‘nature’ creates a political inflexibility which reproduces the essentialist bigotry and Fukuyaman fatalism that he intends to undermine.The second problem with Mason’s humanism is its reformist tendency. Though his reliance on ‘the human’ can lapse into a rigid determinism, it can also serve as an excuse to water-down his leftist principles. Once we have shunned Marxism for humanism, and ousted the proletariat for ‘the networked individual’, we have lost the foundation for revolutionary praxis. In the Marxist schema, there is a structural tension between proletariat and bourgeoisie which will erupt when the former gains historical self-consciousness, seizes the means of production and establishes a socialist society. Say what you like about the relevance of this model today, but its prescription for political action has always been clear and radical: the subaltern class must confront and defeat their dialectical opponents. Mason’s vision, meanwhile, lacks both the lucidity and bravery of Marx’s. The task is no longer to promote a particular class interest, but to further the interests of ‘humanity’ itself. The new historical protagonist is not chosen because of her structural position, but because of her vaguely delineated status as a ‘networked individual’ who could belong to any class (except, that is, the marginal ones with limited access to communication channels). Marx’s revolutionary programme – based on a concrete evaluation of societal interests and positions – is thereby replaced with a loose opposition between the networked humanist (who could be a Goldman Sachs executive or a Gezi Park protestor) and the anti-humanist offensive (which encompasses figures from Althusser to Trump). Mason’s decision to foreground ‘the human’ rejects the Marxist image of society as a series of clashing material interests with some destined to triumph over others. Instead, it shifts the primary opposition onto philosophical grounds, pitting those that believe in humanity against those that don’t. Patently, when one’s focus is on abstract beliefs, rather than structural antagonisms, that is a clear route out of socialism into liberalism, and out of materialism into idealism.

When we consider this incompatibility between Mason’s theory and revolutionary socialism, his rightward shift in recent years seems easier to grasp. His support for NATO, nuclear weapons, hard borders and the EU – as well as his attacks on Corbyn’s inner circle – can be understood as iterations of the anti-Marxist strain which runs through Clear Bright Future. His supposition that a renewed faith in humanity is needed to harness the possibilities of automation is sound. But his conclusion, that politics must be totally reoriented towards species being, is politically toothless. It is up to Mason’s readers to combine the redeemable elements of his humanism with a truly radical programme.

Oliver Eagleton is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the TLS, Jacobin and Novara Media, among others.