Would you consider Ron Paul to be neoliberal
"The synergy of artificial intelligence and neoliberal ideology is extremely threatening"
He was a music teacher, editor of a computer magazine, television journalist, university teacher and is a well-received book author. Paul Mason is one of the most influential British intellectuals. Four years ago he published «Post Capitalism. Outlines of a Coming Economy ”and received the highest praise even from the“ Financial Times ”for his analysis of how the network economy would lead to a radical transformation of the economic system.
Now Mason has published "Clear, Bright Future - A Radical Defense of Humanism". The book unfolds a political analysis of the present and outlines scenarios for future developments. Mason is a Marxist. But he defends a radical humanism: the right to act and self-determination.
It's not as if Mason's belief in the future is based on a naive image of the present. "As in the USA, the majority of Tory MPs will now submit to the government of a clown," he recently commented on the election of Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister. And added: "Failed authoritarian figures and hidden racists know at this moment about the chance of their lives." Nevertheless, in the conversation with the Republic, he explained why the dialectic of history would turn out in favor of the forces of progress.
Paul Mason, you have written a political essay that has the character of a manifesto: you want to encourage people to act. But your present diagnosis is pitch black - and starts with Trump.
Trump's election to the presidency was a major historic event, not a mere incident as many American and English commentators believed. The same people were also convinced that the political system would easily withstand Trump, that the wounds he tears could easily be healed. Something completely different happened: Trump has become the center of an international, ultra-right movement. In my book I try to understand what the causes for this development are.
But you also call Trump a random front man.
The supporters who helped him win initially did not bet on him, but on other Republican candidates. Trump represents the breaking of a fundamental split within the American elite. For the past thirty or forty years the United States has been ruled by what I call "capitalist communism": all sectors of the American economy and all branches of the economic elite lived in relative harmony because the financial system kept everyone getting satisfactory returns on capital came. With Trump, part of this elite has terminated the pact and seized power. This elite is no longer satisfied with the status quo.
She wants the right to open corruption, she wants state protection for markets that are isolated and distorted in their favor. She wants increased state guarantees for the financial system, and she wants the already modest welfare state to be smashed.
Can you be more specific?
Take the Koch brothers, among the richest Americans who made their living in the oil industry. You originally did not support Trump, but the Republican Party. Their program is: As little state as possible. The interests of the Mercer family, which controls the Renaissance Technologies hedge fund, are slightly different. You want turbulence because it is good for financial speculation. Steve Bannon and the shareholders of “Breitbart” also want chaos. Trump is the wrecking ball they let loose on the international order. The will to create chaos unites all powerful Trump supporters. In the book "The Fourth Turning" by Neil Howe and William Strauss, which is very important for these people, a theory of the necessary apocalyptic decline and subsequent rebirth is provided. These are just ideological fantasies, but they represent a real project.
What is the use of chaos supposed to be?
It's about pressing a big reset button and restarting the world - without a welfare state, without protection of fundamental rights, without human rights. The whole world order that has been in place since 1945 is to be abolished. In terms of foreign policy, Trump is pursuing the project of destroying multilateralism and returning to naked great power politics. Domestically, he prepares the ground for a renaissance of misogyny, racism and increased social hardship.
And all of this, you say, stems from the collapse of "capitalist communism"?
It has its roots in the financial crisis in 2008. Up until the financial crisis, the economic system in several leading countries was characterized by a high degree of “financialization”, and that primarily meant that consumption was only based on credit, no longer on wage growth.
Why did this become a problem for "capitalist communism"?
Financialized capitalism has gone through increasingly violent boom-bust cycles and has become more and more unstable. Politically and ideologically, this became all the more problematic when the dominant view was that crises would no longer occur because, according to theory, the markets should have corrected themselves and financialization should have ensured an optimal allocation of funds. The general Doxa, the unquestioned basic conviction, said: Everything is in the best order, the state just has to stay out of everything, regardless of whether there were systemic crises in 1997, 2000 and then in 2008. However, this position has become increasingly untenable.
Especially with the financial crisis of 2008.
In 2008, we will have come to the point where someone like Peter Thiel - the venture capitalist who founded Paypal, among other things - comes to the conclusion that state interventions are necessary to stabilize the financial and economic system and keep it alive received, have become so massive that the approval of the masses for this system will disappear. In an essay from 2009, he concluded that democracy and freedom - meaning economic, entrepreneurial freedom - are no longer compatible.
For part of the American elite, has anti-democracy become the last option in the market economy?
With the start of the crisis in 2008 it became clear that part of the elite is no longer content with defending its privileges, but that it would attack democracy itself - simply because democracy gives people the opportunity to create a dysfunctional one Rejecting the economic system and saying: We don't want that anymore. To prevent this, the only remaining strategy was to revive aggressive right-wing populism.
So in your analysis, Trump and right-wing populism are ultimately the answer to the crisis in the financial system?
The answer to the crisis of neoliberalism. Let's call the child by name. The apologists of today's system reflexively reject this term and do not even accept that there should be such a thing as “neoliberalism” at all. You will always claim that neoliberalism does not exist, that it is not at all clear what you are talking about, that it is a mere left-wing fighting term and that the brutalization of economic conditions that has taken place over the last forty years is simply about happened itself, as a result of a natural development.
How do you define neoliberalism?
It is the progressive enforcement of market-compliant norms of behavior in all areas of economic and social life. It is the development that began in 1979 with the turnaround in interest rates in America and the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions that followed. But neoliberalism is not a mere ideology, it is an economic system. It was most efficient. In the eighties with the gains in deregulation, in the nineties with globalization and the opening up of post-communist countries. After 2001, neoliberalism began to oversteer and play crazy, and in 2008 it collapsed. It's a normal development - the life cycle of an economic model.
And is this cycle now complete?
After the collapse of 2008 you had to look for something new, that much is clear. In the United States there has always been a very radical wing within the Republican Party. He realized that it was his hour.
Ideologically, libertarian anarchism and anti-statism - the belief that the welfare state must be abolished and that taxes are an attack on property rights - are traditionally much stronger than in Europe. But it is also important in which circles Trump found concrete support. Only the plutocrats who are on the fringes of the establishment opted for Trump, not the traditional business elites. Incidentally, exactly the same applies to the supporters of Nigel Farage and Brexit.
What connects these circles?
As I said, it is primarily business interests that benefit from chaos. This is true of the oil industry, which wants everything except well-functioning political bodies that can enforce environmental regulations, and it is true of private equity firms, which have greater opportunities for profit in volatile markets. What they are aiming at is a nationalization of neoliberalism.
Is not that a contradiction? So far, neoliberalism and globalization have gone hand in hand.
Yes, so far we have believed that neoliberalism and globalization are necessarily linked - which has been the case for a long time. The massive bursts of liberalization in Europe, for example, would not have been possible without the WTO and China's entry into the world market. In 2009 at the G20 crisis summit in London it was said: Free trade will be maintained, we do not want any market distortions by states. The opposite happened. Trade policy became protectionist again, tariff barriers were raised by the bailouts the markets were intervened in accordance with national interests. But the definitive change of era came with Trump. His message is: I will keep American neoliberalism alive, even if that means declaring economic war on other countries. Trump preaches a great power version of neoliberalism.
These are economic strategies. But what, in your opinion, is the ideological core of Trump's politics?
Hannah Arendt's description of the essence of fascism - the temporary alliance of the elite and the mob - is accurate. And one has to admit that Trump has shown extraordinary abilities here. He was the figure who managed to found this alliance. The term “mob” has to be understood metaphorically, it does not mean violent, marauding groups, but resentment-laden masses from the lower fringes of society. Trump's political genius is that he can attract both the religious and the secular mob. If you drive the highway in Texas, where the religious constituency is very strong, you can travel hundreds of miles and all the billboards along the streets are only ads for porn. The cultural division in American society is underestimated. Ted Cruz, Trump's main competitor among the Republican candidates, had managed to rally many religious fundamentalists behind him. Trump, however, managed the feat of winning over both the porn mob and the religious mob.
What do these two groups of voters have in common?
They both want to go back in time. The evangelicals want one thing above all: an absolute abortion ban, a reversal of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Since Trump took office, significant steps have been taken to prevent Roe v. Wade, to reverse the fundamental decision on the time limit solution of the Supreme Court. The secular find common ground with the Christian fundamentalists in misogyny. In general, it is becoming a core element for the new right international. These are affects that also have a certain resonance in broader society. The second big issue that Trump supporters federated is racism. There is a relatively broad segment of the white population that has never accepted the multicultural reality.
How do you explain that these affects suddenly become politically virulent?
It has something to do with the culture of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is only interested in performance, not in people's true beliefs. Perhaps a Trump supporter works in a human resources department and exactly meets the requirements: no discrimination against blacks, gays, transsexuals. But at the bottom of his soul, he never accepted any of these minorities. And now comes a politician who suddenly makes the attitude socially acceptable again that abortions, that gender equality policy, that migrants are despicable. When Trump publicly says that gang members from South America are animals, the subtext is crystal clear. He actually says: South Americans, people with brown skin are animals. Trump's alliance of mob and elite authorizes the official return of racism.
How does this return express itself in concrete terms?
There are many areas in American society in which - according to the formulation of the sociologist W. E. Du Bois - a "reward of wisdom" still exists. Trump defends this “wage”.
In which areas?
Take the very important issue of police violence. The chances of a black citizen being shot during a routine police check are high. In return, white gunmen who killed numerous people are often not shot, but arrested alive if they surrender. With the “Black Lives Matter” movement, however, a great deal of political pressure arose in this field. This initiative is supported by often well-trained, often female activists who know exactly what they are doing and who manage to put great legal pressure on them. The racist forces in the USA must have understood: If we don't fight back now, the “reward of wisdom” will be over. We have to turn back the wheel of history. This is how the alliance of mob and elite comes about.
In your opinion, what is necessary to break this alliance?
The left needs a utopia again. That is the most important thing. The postmodern left has said for thirty years: utopias lead to fascism. That may be correct in certain contexts, but today we are confronted with the concrete threat of a fascist utopia, and if the left does not present an alternative, it has a problem. Of course, the absolutization of political ideologies - be it on the left or on the right - is a danger, of course both fascism and Stalinism were nourished by totalitarian, utopian concepts. But the weakened basic neoliberal consensus of our time simply does not provide the tools to combat the reactionary movements. Mr Schäuble and Mr Macron may mean well in their own way. But they don't have the resources to defend the status quo.
That is a point that is also important in your book. They say: today's economic elites have surprisingly little to counter the emerging right-wing populism.
The worldview that dominated the business elite said that politics was over, that all questions could only be answered according to economic criteria. It is believed that everything is economical. The economic elites therefore no longer have any political plan, they only know the technocratic management.
But there is the type of combative liberal.
Without a doubt, there are politicians like Guy Verhofstadt in the European Parliament who seems to have flipped a switch and is very aggressively preaching moral resistance to the new right. But if you observe what is happening in the British business world, for example, you can only be amazed: You suddenly have a part of the business elite - a relatively opaque milieu, often with good connections to Russia - who breaks all the rules, the prevailing consensus has given up completely. And on the other hand, there is a traditional establishment that remains amazingly passive. The mainstream of the corporate world and the classic bourgeoisie are simply overwhelmed. They hate Brexit, which is a disaster for their interests. But they have no idea how to deal with the new division.
But at least in parts of Europe the liberal counter-mobilization is taking place. Emmanuel Macron based his whole strategy on building a progressive front against the reactionary Marine Le Pen.
That's true. Macron's problem lies more in the fact that the resistance to neoliberalism in France is not only right-wing populist, but also has a strong left-wing tendency. Both gilets jaunes there are anti-Semites and right-wing extremists, but also trade unionists and leftists. Macron's strategy towards the gilets jaunes is to treat them as a whole as if they were all fascists. That is dangerous: he risks pushing the entire lower class into the right-hand corner. Macron's real main problem, however, is much more fundamental: He has no explanation for how the world should become a better place. What offer can he make to the French lower class? The neoliberal Doxa has nothing more to offer.
And does that not only apply to French politics?
Take Merkel, for example. What is your political proposal? The black zero. German society is in the midst of a serious political crisis, the AfD is massively gaining ground, and the German government has nothing to offer except budget discipline. The rail infrastructure is inadequate in the land of engineers, people are angry. In large parts of eastern Germany, there is an urgent need for public investment. But nothing happens. Politically, Trump is much more intelligent. He is helping to finance his re-election deficit spending on a grand scale. At some point the bourgeois and left-wing forces in Europe will have to understand that they can only maintain relatively liberalized and open markets if they stimulate the economy and create jobs with appropriate monetary, fiscal and industrial policies. Otherwise everything will fly around our ears.
That sounds like you are calling for a social democratic renaissance.
In any case, it means that the social democrats must also reform themselves radically. Take the SPD, for example: the party is simply dying. The grand coalition is a textbook example of what not to do when you are under political pressure. But you are right: more urgently than anything else, we need a social democracy that is up to date.
You yourself are a post-Marxist. Aren't you on the left of the Social Democrats?
No. It always surprises certain people, but I see myself as a radical social democrat. We need the state. It does not have to be radically transformed, but it has to be organized in such a way that it can bring about economic changes and create a reasonable overall social balance. If we fail to do that, the radical right will conquer the white lower and middle classes in western democracies. As is happening in East Germany right now.
In your book you talk a lot about Trump and neoliberalism. Then build a bridge artificial intelligence. How do you bring the two phenomena together?
There are three main threats to political order today: the fact that the economic system is no longer satisfactory for a majority of the people; the dwindling support for democracy, the rule of law and human rights and the threat of algorithmic control. All three developments have one thing in common: the destruction of the human capacity to act. The neoliberal ideology has conditioned us to view everything as the result of market-based incentive structures. We have placed our lives in the hands of a machine called the "market". Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party and the western tech giants - Facebook, Amazon, Google - have built gigantic control machines for their part. The human ability to act is threatened from all sides. And the crazy thing is, a lot of people have accepted that. A kind of fatalistic mass religion has taken hold. Whatever I do, I cannot escape my destiny.
And do you call for resistance to this “mass religion”?
We are heading towards a new dystopia: Everything is determined by economic forces - and controlled by intelligent algorithms. The synergy of artificial intelligence and neoliberal ideology is extremely threatening. She is the reason why I wrote my book. Neoliberalism is like the gateway drug for the loss of agency and freedom that artificial intelligence could accomplish. Today we observe the collapse of faith in democracy and freedom, and tomorrow we will face huge knowledge and power asymmetries. What is ultimately at stake is people's ability to act freely. It is so evident that most people can no longer see it.
But you also write that new forms of protest are emerging.
The most glaring example are the “Fridays for Future”. At least in Great Britain, however, the left is reacting relatively helplessly to these new phenomena. In the end, she still regards areas of conflict such as ecology as sidelines to economic disputes, just as she has also regarded gay rights or equality, which have been fought for step by step since the 1960s, as a sideline. Today, for example, gays are very widely accepted and, above all, integrated into the economy as a consumer group. The crucial question is always: What cannot be integrated into the existing system so easily?
Is that different with “Fridays for Future”?
I guess so. First of all, the movement simply demands the power structures of the CO2-Economy out. But in a more fundamental sense, this ecological movement also poses the question of virtue: What should I do? How do I want to live as a citizen of a good and CO2-free society to exist? Ultimately, it is about a grassroots movement of self-determination. And these are precisely the forms of protest that challenge the system and that it cannot integrate. Classic politics believes these are just kids taking a day off, and now you just have to change a few laws. But it's not about changing a few laws. It's about changing society.
So are you optimistic?
I have given my book a formulation by Trotsky for the title: clear bright future. At least I believe that we can have a consistent theory about how we are moving towards such a future, towards a humanity that is capable of acting and self-determined. We are a tech-savvy species, and it is very likely that we will continue to use these skills to improve our standard of living. The only question is whether the associated economic transformations will generate class structures that will create new hierarchies and even more massive forms of oppression. It is the eternal dialectic of history: will the impulse for progress be stronger than the impulse for social repression and self-destruction?
I believe that there is a logical derivation for the scenario that the human species will increasingly be freed from material hardship, from social repression and from existential fears. I believe in the “clear, bright future”. We should believe in it. But of course there is no guarantee that this is not an illusion.
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