“Clear Bright Future”, an interview with author and journalist Paul Mason

Paul Mason is a British journalist and author of books such as “Post-Capitalism: A Guide to the Future” or “Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions”. He was economics editor at Channel 4 News and the BBC and writes for titles such as New Statesman, The Guardian or Le Monde Diplomatique.

Mason’s latest book, “A Free and Radiant Future: A Passionate Defense of Humanity,” explores the moral, political, and economic challenges posed by the crisis of neoliberalism and the automation and increasing monitoring of society. He defines himself as an “anti-fascist, humanist, and radical social democrat” and argues that automation and collaborative production can help humanity achieve a post-labor, post-carbon economy if it can resist algorithmic control and the monopoly of the technological giants.

This year, he releases a new book, “How to Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance” – an analysis of the rise of the new far-right movements and the ideological roots of fascism. Mason believes that history has taught us what to do to defeat this ghost, and that we have the opportunity today to create a more equal and more just society. But with technology evolving ever faster, how can we guarantee freedom and transparency? Who decides the future we are building? And what can we do not to lose control?

In “Post-Capitalism” and “A Free and Radiant Future: A Passionate Defense of Humanity” you write that technology offers us the possibility to completely change our relationship with work, thus anticipating the end of capitalism as we know it. How do you see this evolution in the coming years?

In the same way that we will transition beyond carbon, we can transition beyond capitalism. Unlike all previous generations, we have the technological means to do so. There is amazing potential in automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI).

We are entering the automation of human processes, and I think in the next twenty years we will witness the arrival of machine processes that have no relation to human processes. The real automation revolution is when intelligent machines give us answers to questions we haven’t asked yet. The scary part is when they give us answers to questions we can’t understand – that’s possible too.

If mechanical processes are no longer similar to human processes, how do we ensure that we don’t lose control?

If we want to create machines that pass the Turing Test – a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to or indistinguishable from that of a human, so named in honor of its creator, Alan Turing – those machines must have more than a series of algorithmic controls.

For example, the Koreans have an automated lethal weapon, but the weapon cannot fire without permission – they understand what a problem it would be if that were not the case. Beyond the algorithmic controls, the machine has to be programmed with a theory of humans, it has to have an attitude towards humans as a species. What we traditionally call moral philosophy.

Can the companies that develop these technologies address the issue of moral philosophy in algorithmic processes?

One of my first messages to corporations and technologists is: stop looking at machine ethics as if it were medical ethics, that is, as if it were a closed problem – “Here’s my problem, the disease, and the drug. Let’s test it on people: if it goes well we have to abandon the trial and give it to everyone, if it’s going badly we have to abandon the trial and start again. It’s an algorithm: yes or no.”

That’s not what we need to do in the world of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and big companies have already started bumping into this. Google, for example, appointed an ethics board in its AI division and dismissed it the following week. If Google hits its head on a pole on the first repetition of the problem, we can see what a problem it will be for developers of cars, public transportation or smart cities. The short version is: smart machines need to have a moral philosophy, and it is we humans who have to define and debate that moral philosophy.

Human bias reproduced in algorithms can have disastrous consequences. For example, COMPAS, an algorithm used by the US justice system to estimate the likelihood of recidivism in the prison population, predicted twice as many false positives for black offenders as for white offenders. In 2015, Amazon admitted that the algorithm used for hiring employees discriminated against applications from women. In the future, will it be possible to design automation free of bias?

Human bias will always be passed on to algorithms. No technology is socially neutral. What needs to be done is to erect legal barriers to algorithms, period. It’s like Asimov’s famous principles say: if we interact with a robot, it should tell us it’s a robot. Similarly, if we are interacting with an algorithm we should have the right to know that it is there and know what its purpose is. Privacy is freedom in the information society, so we need limits on both surveillance and algorithms.

How do we set these limits?

We need to incorporate these principles into our moral selves. Who in the 21st century has ever had that conversation with themselves: do I want to be controlled by algorithms?

In the 19th century, even a seven-year-old child working in a factory wondered if he or she had a desire to be controlled by a machine. In 1819, male and female workers in factories were already holding strikes of revolution and agitation against machine control. I think we need to wage war against algorithmic control – not against the algorithm itself. Working men and women quickly learned that it was a bad idea to destroy machines, what we needed to do was control the circumstances under which humans operate them. The same is true with algorithms. We need to make an advanced statement that we are the ones in control, not the machines.

And why haven’t we started asking those questions yet? Because the algorithms that surround us and the way they impact our lives are not fully visible?

They are completely invisible. To paraphrase Fredric Jameson on capitalism, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – today, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than Mark Zuckerberg publishing the Facebook algorithm.

I used the example of the first industrial revolution for a good reason – if you asked a factory boss in 1815, the year of the battle of Waterloo, should children work? They would say – “Of course! All children work in factories, there is no law against it.” If you asked, should the speed of the workers’ bodies be dictated by the machines? They would have said – “Of course.” In 1850, the answers were completely the opposite, because people fought back. I think we are in that pre-fight phase, and that is why we need to fight.

Technology has the power to end capitalism and eliminate notions of value and labor, but the truth is that business model of selling, extracting and analyzing data from big tech companies like Facebook or Twitter eventually made us also a product to be sold in the market. Hasn’t technology facilitated this?

Yes. I would say that the way we are exploited is now multiple. If you think about my father’s generation: he would go into the factory, punch in, work for several hours, leave the factory. After that, the factory had no claim on him. Today, I not only work and am exploited – in the traditional Marxist sense of being exploited at work – but I am exploited in consumption, in the co-creation of products, in the co-creation of experiences. [Co-creation is a management initiative, or form of economic strategy, that brings together different parties, for example, a company and a group of customers, in order to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome].

And yet, my argument is that there is an intrinsic limitation to this process. It is an intrinsic limitation that Jeremy Rifkin and, before him, Peter Drucker talked about: information wants to be free. The natural price of an information product is zero. Without a monopoly and enormous pricing power and a manipulated market, the price of most information goods would plummet. In fact, this is already happening: the price of a megabyte of memory is now tiny compared to its initial value. Perhaps things will stabilize sooner or later, although Deloitte – which is not exactly anti-capitalist – says that these technologies always tend towards exponential growth. If that is true, “work” ends in the middle of this century.

This exponential evolution of technology took place in the capitalist system. What do you think would happen to technological innovation and development without the incentive of market competition?

I am certainly willing to say that capitalism has driven technological advance. Although, and Mariana Mazzucato asserts this point, the real innovator was the American state. DARPA, the touch screen, UNIX, most of the things on the iPhone, were originally created by state-owned or state-supported enterprises in the US. Of course, we don’t know – we’ll have to leave it to science fiction writers – if American companies had not been so dominant, whether a more democratic path of innovation would have developed.

The Marxist critique of capitalism is not that it is regressive, but that it creates technologies that at some point conflict with the social arrangement that once fostered those technologies. It is as Marx says, at some point the forces of production clash with the social relations of production – that is what is happening in Silicon Valley, for example, which was once an example of a place of innovation, but is not today. The de-installation of capitalism is going to take a long time. I don’t think we need to lose the ability to innovate in the process.

Do you believe that the business models of these companies will survive this process?

Some business models will survive this process – they won’t survive the end of capitalism, but they will survive almost to the end. The ones we have to proactively undermine are the information monopolists. If there were ten Facebooks as there are ten banks, what would happen? The profit rate of those ten Facebooks would equalize, downward, and the monopolies’ profits would disappear, forcing them to compete.

If someone said “we have no advertising” or “we’ll show you the algorithm – you have the right to see it” and Zuckerberg continued with the “screw it, we want to keep it secret” stance, what would happen? We would migrate elsewhere – that’s what happens to banks and energy companies that mistreat customers. We can use competition law to do a lot with these companies. Going back to the idea of living in a post-labor society – is there a need to consider a change in the political system? Perhaps other forms of democracy?

Probably yes, but I’m not sure it’s a logical sequence from one to the other. What I think will happen is: all utopias are based on work, and leaving that behind would be much more difficult than representative democracy. What does a young person aspire to? A good job, making a lot of money. Marxism is a labor-based utopia, social democracy is a labor-based utopia, even Catholicism has become a labor-based utopia. If you think about what happened at the end of the 19th century, Catholicism adapted to capitalism and began to glorify labor in the same way that Marxism did. We walk under the so-called “Protestant work ethic” and that is what we talk about leaving behind.

Is post-labor a new form of utopia?

One has to recognize this potential that we never have to do necessary work, that we can live in something like the utopia that the Bolshevik writer Alexander Bogdanov imagined in his science fiction novel “Red Star.” To me, that would be a good outcome for human history. The idea is that we all have plenty of free time and enough education to use it wisely – that’s a larger human goal. And again, as Karl Marx said, “Communism is fishing in the morning, hunting in the afternoon, and criticizing literature at night.” He was clearly obsessed with animals, but to me that is the goal – not to fill our lives with work.

In “How to Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance,” to be published this year, you write about the rise of the far right around the world, from Modi’s India to Bolsonaro’s Brazil. How have social networks and new technologies fueled these movements? The networked aspect of fascism is responsible for its virality, but the reason why some fascists have gone viral is not to do with the network. It has to do with the illogicality and incoherence of neoliberal ideology.

I wrote in “A Free and Radiant Future” and I write again, in more detail, in this new book: what is causing the rise of the far right is the collapse of the neoliberal self. The self-image we have created around ourselves for forty years around economic transactions, that everything is fine as long as we are in a market. Anyone who chooses fascist ideology or action should be blamed – fascism is bad and we should have the courage to make moral judgments about others, but whose fault is it that this genie is out of the bottle? It is the fault of those who imposed austerity on the poor and underdeveloped world. The European Commission, Angela Merkel, Dijsselbloem, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama are to blame. If capitalism worked for most people, few people in their right mind would care about QAnon.

After all, how can we stop fascism?

The way to fight the new fascism is to suppress it. Just as in the Weimar Republic, just as in the French Republic in the 1930s, fascism was suppressed. Just as the Spanish Popular Front government suppressed fascism. It wasn’t just the militias that were fighting Franco – it was the state. We need the state, and the state needs to act on the networks that promote fascism. And I’m afraid we are beyond the sympathy stage: networks that promote fascism must be shut down.

Does the left bear any responsibility for not foreseeing or allowing these things to happen?

The left is guilty for two reasons. For example, when we see American leftists say – “Why are we supporting the police on Capitol Hill? Those poor people got it wrong, they have financial problems, maybe even love problems, and we hate the police. How can we support the police, even against fascists?” This is the same argument of the Communist movement of the third period – between 1927 and 1935 – which simply backed down and said “we don’t care whether you are liberal or fascist, you are all the same.” So, first of all, the left is guilty of not having learned its history.

This is related to the general problem the left has for never having accepted that the events of the 1930s were largely of its own making. The German working class could have defeated Hitler and the Italian working class could have easily defeated Mussolini, but their leaders did the exact opposite of what needed to be done. My book is about that – it seems to be a story from the past, but it is extremely relevant.

And secondly, the left is still obsessed with the economy. I care about the economy and I care about wages and reversing inequality, but when people have become fascists it’s not because they have low wages and are too unequal. It is because their self-image and their image of society has been broken and there is nothing to replace it.

How can the left counteract this phenomenon and create a new image of society?

The worst thing the left has done is refuse to talk about utopias. In a way, mainly because of the postmodernist theory that says utopias are inherently fascist, the left is afraid of utopias. However, if we could say in simple, emotive language, “we are here and this is our idea of the future, here is how we are going to fight for it,” we would not be in this situation. Instead, the left has retreated into academia, offering only economic solutions. This is where we are guilty. This was the mistake of Jeremy Corbyn [defeated leader of English Labour], for example. He went to the traditionally right-wing working-class community and told them: however different your lives are, your struggles and interests are the same as a black person in London.

Only this is not true for those white working class people. In London, there are jobs and subway stations and no matter how poor you are, in London there is money flowing. It’s not the same in these broken down, de-industrialized communities where the high street looks like a zombie movie. This is the problem that social democracy needs to focus on.

Originally published in Contacto.