Malachi O’Doherty remembers where he was the night the guns came out in Belfast.
“I had turned the corner on to the Falls when I heard the first string of blurts from a machine gun,” he writes in his timely and hugely absorbing new book, Fifty Years On: The Troubles And The Struggle For Change In Northern Ireland.
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.
Last year, a poll by the research company Gallup revealed that 51 per cent of millennials in America had a “positive” view of socialism, while less than half—45 per cent, to be exact—viewed capitalism favourably. A slew of additional data suggests that American voters at large are ready to embrace far-reaching political change.
70 per cent support universal healthcare. 60 per cent back free college tuition. 46 per cent think the government should offer a job to unemployed citizens. And a majority want the minimum wage to be raised to at least $15 per hour.
In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crash, an influential section of the American political class became convinced that a major economic crisis was on its way.
Serious Washington players like Robert Rubin, who served as head of Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council from 1993 to 1995, Peter Orszag, another heavyweight Clintonite economist, and Larry Summers, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary between 1999 and 2001, all raised the alarm.
Gordon Brown’s first act after he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997 was to grant the Bank of England operational independence.
The move was meant to signal a newfound pragmatism in Labour’s approach to the economy – no more reckless spending, no more excessive borrowing, no more outlandish leftwing demands for full employment. Instead, in stark contrast to the behaviour of previous Labour governments, the Blair-Brown administration would be a responsible steward of Britain’s national finances.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Western leaders made a series of lofty claims regarding the benefits of globalisation.
“The global economy is giving billions around the world the chance to work and live and raise their families with dignity,” Bill Clinton remarked during the final months of his presidency. “The problem is not [that] there’s too much of it,” Tony Blair told the Labour party conference in 2001. “On the contrary, there’s too little.” “I want globalisation’s children, the coming generation, to enjoy the vastly increased opportunities it brings,” Gordon Brown evangelised a few years later.
The night before last year’s US presidential election, on 7 November 2016, Bruce Springsteen performed at a rally for Hillary Clinton in downtown Philadelphia. He played three songs: ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Long Walk Home’, and ‘Dancing In The Dark’. But he broke-up his acoustic set by speaking, briefly, from what looks in the YouTube video like a teleprompter. “The choice tomorrow couldn’t be any clearer,” he said. “Hillary’s candidacy is based on intelligence, experience, preparation, and a vision of an America where everyone counts … This is a country where we will indeed be stronger together.”
I remember watching a live stream of that performance and feeling, for the first time since Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination in June, that the former Secretary of State might not actually win. You don’t have to credit Springsteen – as I do – with any kind of special prophetic insight into America’s national character to see that his muted enthusiasm for Clinton reflected a broader public unease. Polls showed that Clinton was the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern American history – except for Donald Trump. And, one way or the other, that grim dynamic cost her the race. In Philadelphia, Springsteen’s reluctant surrogacy for the Democratic nominee seemed, somehow, to foreshadow the result.