Paul Mason’s thought-provoking ideas on Humanism, small acts of resistance and the future of society; a talk in Vienna with a post-script on the clear and present danger of the Jew-hate in the UK Far Left and the Labour Party and what the author and radical activist thinks should now be done.
In his new book A Clear Bright Future, published in German translation by Suhrkamp, Paul Mason wants to bring back the values of the Enlightenment, reason and rationality with the human being at the centre of his preoccupation. Contrary to Claude Levy Strauss who believed that the ideas of the Enlightenment led to the Holocaust, Mason believes, as expressed in the English subtitle of his book that they lead to the defence of the human being. The German editor who must have read the book carefully realized that Mason is defending a philosophy that is centred on the human being but not as an individual but as humanity in general. Therefore, Suhrkamp changed the German subtitle to read: “in defence of Humanism”. It seems that German Suhrkamp editors are greater sticklers for accuracy than their English counterparts when it comes to describing on the tin what’s inside it.
Mason’s defence is not or not primarily of the human being as an individual but as a species-being (Gattungswesen), Karl Marx’ term for humanity in larger social groups and classes or humanity as a whole. As Slavoj Žižek likes to remind us: A Marxist is a person who loves humanity but hates people. Paul Mason lacks Žižek’s biting wit and self-deprecating sense of humour. He makes up for this by an apparently sincere and engaging passion for his ideas and an interest in connecting with his audience.
With the philosophical stance, which he propagates in his book, Mason sticks his neck out. Arguing for Humanism a bold approach that runs contrary to current trends in philosophy and academia. In Viennese-born philosopher Sir Karl Popper’s framework, Mason puts out bold hypotheses which are open to corroboration and refutation, as opposed to postmodernist double-speak. For that he deserves respect.
The primary enemy Mason identifies is the one and only form of liberalism he ever mentions: Neoliberalism. This, in his view, has destroyed and continues to destroy the lives of people in the lower classes in the West, so that today they are in a desperate state. He has adopted a definition of Neoliberalism as the advancement of the market into all areas of the economy as well as in all our social and private lives.
Mason dismisses the EU summarily as an enterprise that was made into a Neoliberal institution by Margaret Thatcher. For him, as for the rest of the UK radical left, she is the late wicked witch of the English south. The German social market economy (Soziale Marktwirtschaft) and its ordo-liberal tradition and similar ideas implemented in Northern European EU countries do not warrant a closer look as far as Mason is concerned.
A consequence of Mason’s Humanism is that it puts Humanity above the environment. So, he struggles somewhat to include current fashionable environmental ideas and I suspect he would not be against environmental engineering solutions to climate change problems. A second problem for potential leftist converts to the Humanist cause is that all Humanism’s key thinkers are men.
A further unusual aspect of Mason’s worldview is his support for the Catalan (nationalist) uprising and the Scottish drive for independence. Nationalism does not usually sit well with the left. And what today is a socialist-led nation might tomorrow become neoliberal or even Alt+right state. Here Mason doesn’t think like many in the continental European left who remember bitter experiences with the rise of nationalism.
For Mason the market is a giant black box algorithm that humanity in the Western World has handed over control to, and dragged the rest of the world mostly kicking and screaming along with it. This has led to disaster for the lower classes in the Western World.
Mason also strongly criticises the current Chinese government’s approach in a chapter called Reject the Thoughts of Xi Jin Ping. So, we won’t hold our breath while waiting for him to speak at a Confucius Institute in our neighbourhood anytime soon.
Mason is both nostalgic for the lived solidarity among the mining community of Leigh in Lancashire where he grew up in the 1960s. He sees an example of the ethics of virtue advocated by Aristoteles. He holds a deeply-felt grudge against Margaret Thatcher who in his view destroyed these communities and much that was good about the England of the 1950s and 60s. He speaks movingly about the experiences of his father in this regard.
Mason believes that the Western world is dominated today by western neoliberalism and that neoliberalism is in such crisis, so hollowed out, that not a major violent revolution, but small acts of resistance against Neoliberalism’s purely performative incorporation of progressive ideas will bring it to collapse.
Hearing him speak, one detects an interesting parallel to Christian evangelism. If you just do good deeds and come to church every Sunday you will not be redeemed, progressive liberal!
Only if you accept Jesus into your life, or in Mason’s case the Marxist-Humanist world view will you truly find forgiveness for your Western liberal sins.
The clear bright future for mankind that Mason envisages is were humanity, i.e. the Marxian species-being, takes control of the great-big-algorithm that is the market and all the great-big-algorithms which the age of digitalization and Artificial Intelligence has brought and will yet bring.
Alienation is the consequence of working and if humanity takes control of the algorithm rather than lets the algorithm take control of it a clear bright future where machines do the work and human beings are kind to each other, democratic and equal beckons.
How can we make the “clear bright future” come about? By individuals and groups making use of their human agency and refusing the performative nature of the neoliberal life through small daily acts of resistance. What might these be? An example: treat your Starbucks barista like a human being rather than as a machine when you buy your coffee there. I sure can live with that, and suspect so can many bourgeois liberals.
Mason is an engaging speaker who seems keen on explaining his ideas and sincerely connecting with his audience. He attacks theAlt+right in America and is intelligent enough to not underestimate the intelligence of its adherents and leaders. On two occasions in his speech, he mentions Jewish themes. To emphasise the evil of the US Alt+right he mentions the shouts of the Charlottesville protesters “Jews will not replace us”. When he comes to mention the importance of small acts of resistance, he mentions the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. It was a heroic act of resistance whose end in the death of those who directed and performed it was always the almost certain outcome.
Following his talk, Mason is interviewed by Robert Misik. Misik’s questions are answered by Mason with relatively long monologues. Perhaps Misik is also not quite comfortable in English. His questions are, like humanity described in the late great Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, “mostly harmless” almost fawning. Probing they are not.
Paul Mason is welcomed as a friend and admiration for him and the UK left by Misik is palpable. No probing questions here about his support for Catalan and Scottish nationalism here. And why would the Corbynist left to which Mason belongs support national self-determination in those countries but call Jewish self-determination as expressed in the state of Israel “a racist endeavour from the start of its creation”. This even though the Zionist Po’alei Tzion Union were founding members of the Labour Party?
Robert Misik opens the floor for questions from the audience. First, a lady who has some critical questions to ask him about the lack of feminism and women in his ideas of Humanism makes a pertinent point.
Then I get my chance to gently break into the comradely atmosphere of the event and exercise the critical faculties which my years as a student of the social sciences at the London School of Economics has inculcated in me.
I have heard Paul Mason speak at the London School of Economics a few weeks back, and he adapts his speaking style to who he thinks his audience will be. At LSE, his talk contained the occasional “fuck” and “bullshit” when describing people and ideas he did not like. A way of connecting to a younger international audience, no doubt. In elegant Vienna with a more aged audience none of that.
Here a from memory a summary of my question and Paul Mason’s answer.
In early1945 while the Jews of Europe were murdered by the German and other Nazis in Auschwitz, Treblinka Maidanek and other death camps as well as outside of these, George Orwell wrote about Antisemitism on the Left. In his essay Antisemitism in Great Britain, he highlights that the people he speaks to deeply dislike Jews because of what they are and do. They deny, however, that they are anti-Semitic. They say Hitler and the Nazi-party are anti-Semitic and they are the enemy, we on the other dislike the Jews and believe that they do for good reasons. Orwell points out that he himself finds it attractive to dislike the Jews and so has some empathy with that view but he also realizes that it is a wrong view Orwell would like to know why it has such a strong hold over people, even people like him who know it is untrue. Here a link to his article.
The Labour Party has a “both-and” strategy with respect to Jew-hate that is not dissimilar to the FPÖ’s in Austria: The Labour Party is theoretically against racism including speech acts, threats and physical acts of Jew-hate. In practice, however, almost every day prominent members of the Labour party and Corbyn-supporters inside and outside the Labour Party perform a lot of Jew-hating acts. For instance, many women Labour Party Members of Parliament who are Jewish and not Corbynist are constantly inundated with Jew-hating abuse by Corbyn supporters. Would Mason recommend that other European Leftist parties that are currently in trouble like the German SPD and the Austrian SPÖ also adopt this both-end strategy towards Jews?
In his answer, Mason, who is familiar with George Orwell’s essay, mentions three sources of Jew-hate in the Corbynist left in the Labour Party. One is that the poor and downtrodden in the UK are suffering a lot of oppression from the neo-liberal system. They do not, however, identify this as a systemic problem. They want to identify the people who suppress them rather than the system, among the international billionaire business elites and these people are often Jewish. This, secondly, gives rise to a lot of conspiracy theories; it is necessary but difficult to fight against these. Thirdly, within the UK Labour Party, there is an age-old fight between Jewish Anti-Zionists on the one hand and Jewish Zionists on the other. This has extended to large swathes of the party exceeding in importance and in the tone of the debate its actual proportions. Mason thinks that it is important that the British left not be deflected by the Zionism debate. There are more important issues at stake. He also wants to have a more active education about the Holocaust in the Labour party taken groups of Labour Party members to Auschwitz and Maidanek. In his remarks, Mason also says Corbyn is not an anti-Semite.
I only have the right to one question, which is fair, so I cannot probe how sincere Mason is in his views. What does he mean by Anti-Semitism? After all the Corbyn supporting Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said recently “Hating all the Jews in Israel is not anti-Semitic”. It is, however, certainly Jew-hate.
On the day Mason speaks in Vienna, there are numerous reports in the news dealing with tweets and tape recordings expressing Jew-hate by members of the Labour Party including National Executive Committee Members like Mr. Willsman, the Labour Party candidate standing in the by-election in Peterborough and member of the left and talk show host for Rupert Murdoch George Galloway “there will be no Israeli flag on the Cup” Galloway triumphantly writes in his hateful message alluding to Tottenham’s Jewish connections in North London. The assertion that one can be virulently anti-Zionist without veering into vile Jew-hate may work in theory but turns out to be untenable in practice. Just read the comments by Corbyn supporters in the Independent and Guardian on-line when these issues are part of an article in those papers.
Given that Labour Party this week became subject of an official investigation by the statutory UK Equality and Human Rights Commission Paul Mason’s sincerity maybe born of legal necessity rather than personal conviction. Mason had mentioned earlier that he had recently worked in the theatre. And as someone once said: “The most important quality in the theatre is sincerity and if you can fake that you have really got it made”.
Nevertheless, Paul Mason appears sincere if incomplete in his response and ready to discuss and engage.
I wanted to end my report on this hopeful note but unfortunately for the international far left, but unfortunately I cannot.
A young Austrian man asks to speak and starts to sharply question Mason. I am very surprised at your response, he says. Why do you accept that there is Jew-hate in the left of the UK Labour Party? Are you not aware that all this is trumped up charge by Blairites and agents of the Israeli government who want to stop Jeremy Corbyn? This has been proven by Al-Jazeera I can show you the sources, the young man says.
Mason seems a bit uncomfortable but looks like he has heard this before. Not wishing to lose a potential left-wing Humanist just because he spouts conspiracy theories, Mason says that what the young man says may be true but doesn’t change what he Mason said about the subject even if it were.
I, on the other hand, leave the event with the feeling that the Jew-hating acts of the Labour Party left are spreading their poison internationally. Someone once said: Primary Antisemitism is the anti-Semitism that led to Auschwitz, secondary anti-Semitism is the anti-Semitism because of Auschwitz. Similarly, the Jews who fight the vicious Jew-hate widespread in the left are the cause of Jew hate (they are dubbed Blairite Jews, Trump-loving Jews, colonialist slave trader Jews, etc.). It looks like the UK’s Labour Party’s left and their allies’ poison of Jew-hate has now spread internationally. This is not the time for dropping one’s guard to the Jew-hate of the Alt+right and the Far Left.
Robert Misik (left) and Paul Mason
Small editorial changes were made on 5 June 2019 at 17:45 to my paraphrasing of Orwell's essay: Antisemitism in Great Britain.