In his new book, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being, Paul Mason, the former BBC journalist turned roving political commentator, presents a vision of humanity under siege. He identifies four distinct but related threats: the rapid advance of artificial intelligence, coupled with the vast, unaccountable tech monopolies that administer it; neoliberal economics and the adjoining “cult” of free-market competition; the rise of the authoritarian right, as embodied in the politics of Donald Trump and other populist strongmen; and academic post-modernism, which has steadily undermined public support for scientific inquiry and the legacy of the Enlightenment.
If you think this sounds like a lot to pack into 300 pages, you’d be right: it is. Mason shifts frenetically from one theme to the next, stringing together references from popular culture, political philosophy, tech science, and neurology, as well as drawing on his own experiences as a reporter in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. He has a habit of lunging into distracting tangents: an entire chapter on the worldview of Xi Jin Ping, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, for instance, could’ve been better summarised in a few short paragraphs. But for the most part, his bracing premise—that human freedom will either thrive as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or be obliterated by it—survives his anarchic writing style.
Here is the condensed version of Mason’s (expansive) argument: over the past 40 years, society has witnessed the ascendancy of so-called “machine values” at the expense of democracy and human rights. The development of hyper-intelligent software capable of posing questions people “may not even be able to formulate” has generated a new kind of mystic belief in the power of digital information, to the extent that billions of us, every day, through relentless use of our laptops and smartphones, have surrendered to algorithmic control. At the same time, globalisation has hobbled organised labour, stripped the nation-state of its economic sovereignty, and forced individuals to adopt the market’s neurotic obsession with material consumption.
The political fallout from these trends has been disastrous. Our democratic systems have been gutted and our economies are increasingly insecure. This, in turn, has opened the way to a revival of the hard right, in the form of politicians like Trump, Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro—xenophobes who despise knowledge and actively promote disinformation through social media. The left, meanwhile—which should be leading the defence of universalism, rationalism, and empiricism—has been weakened by decades of post-modern “bullshit”; the notion that “nothing is true” and that Western science is just another expression of Eurocentric oppression.
Taken together, these factors amount to a full-frontal assault on our uniquely human ability to apply what we know about the world to our collective betterment as a species. Confronted with an avalanche of political uncertainty, financial precarity, and fake news, we have elevated technology and economics to an almost god-like status in our lives. People, Mason says, are no longer at the centre of history; critical thinking has given way to apathy and superstition. “We are facing the biggest attack on humanism since it was formulated in the days of Shakespeare and Galileo,” he writes. “Humanism was central to Western concepts of social progress for more than 400 years. But since the late 20th century, opposition to [it] has been building in several directions at once.”
The breathlessness of Mason’s narrative somewhat overshadows his plan to counter the anti-humanist tide, but he does outline a handful of policies in response to the crisis. It is vital, he argues, that AI is never allowed to become fully autonomous, particularly in the context of free-market capitalism. To keep it in check, we need much tougher regulation of the tech industry and a commitment, from the tech giants, that future AI projects will adhere to a “comprehensive ethical system” that protects and maintains human life. Equally, governments should harness the revolutionary scope of modern technology by accelerating the automation of work, de-linking work from wages, and implementing a basic citizens’ income, thereby undercutting the economic fatalism that has fuelled support for the alt-right.
Unfortunately, this is about as specific as Mason gets. At one point, he suggests that, if we are serious about achieving a lasting transformation of society, networked individuals simply need to “find each other and act”, as though existing social hierarchies can be casually transcended by a quick chat in the supermarket check-out line. For a self-described Marxist-humanist, he is also strangely supportive of the “rules-based global order”, which he believes needs to be rescued from a “catastrophic reset” by Trumpian nationalists. But this only makes sense if you view Trumpian nationalism as an aberration in American post-war foreign policy, rather than its default setting.
Another odd feature of the book is Mason’s relatively cursory treatment of climate change. He acknowledges that it exists, of course, and that it represents an urgent threat to human existence. But on the whole, it receives much less attention than other, arguably less pressing challenges—the ruinous influence of French post-modern thought, for example. Given the current pace of global warming—according to the UN, we have 11 years left to salvage the planet for future generations—this seems like a sizeable omission. Moreover, if, as Mason claims, progressives need to rediscover their belief in the universal values of the Enlightenment, surely the looming collapse of our environment—a phenomenon rooted in binding scientific fact—provides the ideal opportunity for them to do just that?
Mason tries to conclude on a hopeful note. He encourages readers to “live the antifascist life” by seizing “a tiny piece of liberated space long enough for other people to populate it.” All the anger “emanating from misogynists, ethnic nationalists, and authoritarians is evidence that they can [also] feel how close we are to that ‘next step forward’,” he writes. And yet, despite its title, the message at the heart of Clear Bright Future doesn’t exactly ring with optimism. Mason has produced an undeniably compelling account of the apocalyptic dangers that await us as we hurtle into the 21st century. Now that we’re all much more acutely aware of those dangers, we shouldn’t have to feel good about them, too.
This article is a review of Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being by Paul Mason.