Rip-roaring markets and massive inequality - an interview with Paul Mason

Rip-roaring markets and massive inequality - an interview with Paul Mason

Newsnight's engaged economics editor and author of Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, talks to Mute's Peter Carty about global revolution, Chinese female biker gangs and ghosts

Paul Mason is an unusual BBC journalist. He has an intellectual approach to his work which goes far beyond soundbites and rehashes from other mainstream media outlets. While he doesn’t identify himself with any particular political line, his professional interest in the current crisis of capitalism extends to a variety of theoretical perspectives from the left.

Mason’s latest book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, scrutinises the riots and revolutions of 2011, some of which – of course – remain ongoing. Much of the book is informed by Mason’s on the spot reporting for Newsnight, the current affairs programme where he works as economics editor. His account manages to pull off the considerable feat of being dramatic and involving, while also offering incisive and accessible commentary which often concerns itself with radical thinking. Mason examines events against the key contexts of globalisation, class struggle and online social networking. Along the way his discussions encompass anarcho-syndicalism, situationism, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, as well as several other Marxian perspectives. Perhaps against the odds, the result is an immensely readable whole.

Moreover, Mason’s writing has now kicked off into a game of two halves. He has also published a novel, Rare Earth (OR Books, 2011). This is a surprising departure for someone whose career to date has been based upon the immutable world of economic fact. Rare Earth is a satire which concerns a television crew filming an environmental news item in China. The trip goes horribly wrong, bringing them up against corruption and repression of all kinds. At the novel’s core are shenanigans relating to rare earth, the scarce group of metallic elements which are essential for numerous high-tech applications. China controls much of the world’s supplies, and illegal mining and smuggling are rife. The narrative also features a certain amount of raunchy sex, some of it involving a biker gang of Chinese women. And then there are the guest appearances by ghosts. The result is a pacey and entertaining satirical thriller, delivered in prose which comfortably exceeds the demands of the genre. Mason is at pains to point out that his novel is not autobiographical.

In person Mason is accommodating and affable, responding readily to all the questions, some of which were prompted by the Mute editorial board.

Peter Carty: You said at the 2010 Anarchist Bookfair that if capital didn’t get it together, and the left didn’t come up with and manage to impose some ‘alternative’ less austere austerity, we would be in a 1930s-style depression within a few years. Do you think we have now arrived at this point?

Paul Mason: We’re not in a 1930s-style depression but we are in something that is looking increasingly like a stagnation, more resembling what Japan went through in the 1990s, and this is because, as I have consistently said, we have taken half measures on the stimulus and structural reform that should produce some kind of growth and jobs. As long as we go on taking half measures, with huge amounts of debt overhanging the system and the banks and a number of countries on life support, it means: life support is what it says on the tin, you stay alive, but you don’t prosper.

PC: Do you still believe some better socialist alternative is an option?

PM: No, I’ve never said that. I think what we’re looking at is a different form of capitalism emerging. That’s what I’m trying to write about, to try and spot and understand what that is. Within that there is a debate about how much social justice it can deliver.

PC: Some preamble from Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere is necessary to pose this one: most of Marx’s writings support a thesis that he didn’t believe full human emancipation was possible under capitalism. However, he did produce one visionary text that perhaps implies otherwise. In the notebook known as the ‘Fragment on Machines’ (written in 1858) he explores the possibility of the rise of intelligent machines which could sideline labour as a key factor of production. As you say, this opens up the possibility of a new dynamic of social change based upon the clash between free information and marketised economic systems. It follows that the real clashes in society could now revolve around free knowledge versus intellectual property rights, rather than traditional Marxist class struggle. That’s the line Franco Berardi and other autonomists have been taking in the current struggles, notably the Occupy Wall Street struggle. But it’s obvious that this information battle exists alongside traditional class struggle, notably in Greece and, to a significant degree, in the Middle East. Do you think both kinds of struggle will exist side by side indefinitely, or will one supersede the other?

PM: One of the things we’re describing here is a class struggle and the other is what you might call the tectonic plate which is shifting between classes and economics and people. I don’t put them on the same plane. What people who have been critical of capitalism have often asked is, ‘Where does the system come from to replace it?’ And what I describe in the book – and it’s nothing new, in academia they’ve been debating this for 50 years – is the difference between a narrative that says, ‘Well it’s the clash of class forces, whatever they may be, against the way society is organised’ and what we have to credit those theorists of autonomy with, in acknowledging that there is a potential alternative explanation, that once knowledge is collective it becomes very hard to commodify and value. Therefore one theory concerning this period, not any other period, is about a clash between, as you say, free information versus attempts to store and commercialise and own information. It’s no accident that mainstream economics has discovered this as a problem as well, through a completely different route, which is through the work of Paul Romer who has shaken up some of the debates inside economics exactly along these lines.

PC: You cite parallels between recent revolts and the revolutions of 1848, which were largely stifled by middle class conservatism. In a similar way to then, middle class activists are key this time round too, notably disenfranchised students who organise themselves efficiently through online networks. If online social networking is key to the current uprisings, as you argue, and this is mainly a tool of the middle classes, in certain countries this might be putting them in a very strong position which doesn’t necessarily auger well for the revolutionary potential of those struggles, in terms of radical working class demands. So in terms of radical demands being met, perhaps we’re looking at a deflating reprise of 1848?

PM: Yeah, here’s another way of putting it: I don’t say that online organising is key to say, for example, Libya or Syria. What is important coming out of Syria is the key element of using technology to subvert Assad’s regime, but within this, most important of all, is the leverage of people using social media to get into the real media – the mainstream media.

But on the issue of who’s organising things, whether it has been in North Africa, whether it is in Greece, or wherever, the catalyst has often come from the educated youth, the youth without a future. Whether you’re a poor bank worker or an unemployed non-graduate or a student or whatever, the lifestyles and the music and the expectations are all very similar now; they’re all quite flattened. The job you can get coming out of college is not that far off the job you get while you’re at college. So does that auger well or badly?

All I’m trying to point out by saying there’s a parallel with 1848 is that the 1848 revolutions very quickly ran into the class-against-class thing. The two revolutionary classes, the revolutionary democratic middle class and the workers – they fought each other within months. So far the tensions within current revolutionary movements have tended to be, within Africa, about Islam versus secularism and, in Europe, it’s the workers' movement versus a sort of lumpenised middle class that’s probably poorer than the workers and has lower life expectations. They have different ways of struggling but the point is – apart from in Greece and Syntagma Square, with the communists fighting the anarchists – they’re not really fighting each other. And what that is in part to do with is that at the moment the workers don’t have very radical demands – in many senses they don’t go beyond what democratic revolutions can deliver to them. In 1848 they did: they wanted their idea of socialism and the middle classes wanted liberal democracy.

PC: Following on from this, would you say social networking lends itself more to taking us in a syndicalist direction? In other words, as a tool for making us happier under the prevailing social system?

PM: I’m not saying it’s a tool for making us happier under the prevailing system: one aspect of this is that the way it makes us happy is difficult for existing market models to capture. So you could argue it’s a challenge. So, for example, Twitter – how is it going to make money in the long term? How is it going to be valued in the long term? It’s having terrible problems valuing itself right now. But on the other hand I would say the prevalence of networking and the beginning of people conceiving of themselves as a bit less hermetically sealed and a bit more as shared among other people could be the beginning of people – and this is quite a revolutionary thought in itself – rejecting the very basis of bourgeois liberalism: ‘I am myself. You keep away from me. I have my rights; you have yours and together we make a civil society.’ That’s what the pop psychologists of the internet are noticing in behavioural changes. We don’t know where it ends but we can spot the beginnings here.

PC: Given that the cutting edge of breaking news is now Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks, do you see the role of conventional news journalism continuing to dwindle, albeit it might continue to have a back-up role in terms of in-depth analysis and comment?

PM: No, I think in a strange way the opposite is the case. The classic thing that social media wants to do is to get a message into the mainstream media that was not possible to get in before. Let’s be frank, the mainstream media is full of people who, by and large, accept the world as it is; they’ve chosen to be journalists and not protesters. Some are sympathetic to protesters; a lot are hostile. But in the past the world view of the ruling elite would be very clearly mirrored in the way that the media was structured. Now, with social media, it breaks down the barriers; obviously the mainstream media can still filter out stuff they don’t like, but insofar as they don’t mirror reality people just abandon them. And, you know, we’re lucky enough to have quite a diversity of media. For example in North Africa, you’ve got Al-Jazeera, which didn’t exist before. For whatever reason Al-Jazeera was set up, the happy accident is that it has amplified the democratic secular messages coming out of the Arab street at a particular point. Actually, we might even find a much broader blurring between professional journalism, activism and amateur journalism. There’s a revolutionary socialist blogger in Egypt, Hossam el-Hamalawy and he says on his website that in a time of revolution, objective reporting is revolutionary, and that’s quite a profound thought.

Now, the thing you do point to, the decline story for mainstream media, concerns sources of revenue, whether anybody can live on it. Often you find people doing their best journalistic work not in terms of what they’re actually paid to do, but off the side of their desk. The question remains for mainstream outlets: how do they make money? And we don’t know what the answer to that is.

PC: And do you think it’s a problem that the radical left is losing its role as supplier of critical narratives about capitalism?

PM: No I don’t. I use the example in the book of The Black Jacobins by CLR James, and all I’ve pointed out there is that while anybody could have written a book about Toussaint L’Overture, the only guy who actually wanted to was a Marxist in the 1930s, and that shaped a black narrative which was drawn upon, for example, by activists in Brixton in the 1980s. Now, you cut out the middleman, you go to the facts. You see, for a previous generation of radicals, it was a radicalising moment to realise this shit had happened: ‘What do you mean, that the Brits slaughtered people in India?’; ‘What do you mean, that there was a black revolution in Haiti – I never knew that, why did nobody tell me?’ Now knowledge is much more democratically shared and that means that a whole bunch of ideologies based on ignorance are hard to keep going.

PC: You say in Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere that we’ve seen the human archetypes that will shape the 21st century: ‘they effortlessly multi-task, they are ironic, androgynous sometimes, seemingly engrossed in their bubble of music – but they are sometimes prepared to sacrifice their lives and freedoms for the future.’ You point to open source technologies and collaborative production as what might be the starting point to a more equal and just society. One problem with the latter is that open source technologies aren’t necessarily horizontal networks, given that they operate as rigorous hierarchies which implement new standards very slowly with a lot of industry consultation – doesn’t this point to simply a new kind of rigid social control in the future i.e. new massed labour networks subject to tight constraints?

PM: Yes, it’s a good problem to point out. The economists who’ve studied the impact of info-capitalism say that scale and standardisation is absolutely the key. Now, of course, you can have high-scale standardised stuff that is monopolised and high-scale standardised stuff that is not monopolised; I think that is the struggle at the moment, that is true. But what I think Clay Shirky points out in his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008), is that a lot of work done in the open source environment is quite management-free. It might have rigorously enforced standards, but the standards, plus, in some ways, peer review, can replace hierarchy. One can argue that standards and hierarchies are different.

Look – this is leaving aside open source, but I think people are very prepared to change lifestyles in a way that 100 years ago they weren’t. Back then it was assumed that everybody simply consumed everything they could possibly consume and the only thing that was in the way of it was money; people didn’t have any money. Now I think people, certainly in the West, are becoming very careful consumers. Obviously the 16 year-old youth who is mobbing Primark is not included in that, or people who just chomp their way through hamburgers. But it’s not rocket science to work out that your consumption patterns affect the world around you and I think that people are increasingly prepared to change behaviour. What’s essentially gone from a middle class fad – you know, The Good Life in the 1970s – is more or less an accepted form of behaviour now. That’s a progress trajectory that can only continue.1 Peer driven behaviour change is quite powerful and it’s happening in a lot of different spheres.

PC: Another problem regarding social networks is that they can be used by the authorities to monitor dissent, and identify and target activists – there are plenty of examples of this. So they’re double-edged in this way, aren’t they? And they might actually help the state to impose more control over the populace in certain situations.

PM: This is the big debate and people like Evgeny Morozov have been very keen to say these networks will become networks of repression. In fact so does Noam Chomsky who thinks, ‘well nothing is going to come of this, it’s because the capitalists will control it’. What we may see, if there is a combination of intellectual property rights battles and the imposition of censorship on social network sites, is a series of convulsive desertions of these platforms. For any one of these listed platforms, Facebook, Google – the MySpace experience was a great example. The MySpace mass desertion was very interesting.

And to say ‘Oh, they can shut the internet down, they can use it to monitor you’ – yes they can, but they can create a North Korea-style society if they want. It’s just that you can’t have dynamic capitalism alongside it. You can’t even have what’s left of dynamic capitalism – and there’s not much left at the moment, in terms of dynamism, but you can have a lot of stagnation and you can have a very boring country if you want to, where nobody wants to live and which doesn’t play in the global market place, if you want to clamp down on the internet. I still think that the general momentum is on the side of opening up rather than clamping down.

PC: You are almost unique in mainstream media in paying serious attention to the working class component of the education struggles here. What possibilities do you see for working class people – young or not so young – revivifying or driving further struggles in the UK?

PM: It was a very specific layer of working class people and that was young people on EMA, what you could call the poorest people. This is really a big unknown to me, because 20 years ago if you used the words ‘working class’ or ‘protest’ it was always in the context of that male dominated, manual trade, union consciousness. The opposite end of that is criminal gang related anti-social atomised consciousness. One cannot glamorise that. One cannot give an inch towards glamorising that. But when you study the individual people, young lads from estates on the EMA protests, even some of – I stress this, some of – the people in the summer riots, what you find are people combining a very atomised lifestyle with a very high political consciousness. And there’s no mystery to that, because, for example, you find this in the third world slum, so in Nairobi or Manila you find very self-organised people, who nevertheless rub shoulders with very criminal people, and I think that’s probably just the new reality. But it’s not the whole reality: remember that vast swathes, most of the trade union movement in Britain now, is white collar or non-manual. They exist, they go on strike, they change policy; it’s all very civilised compared to the miners' strike, but it’s not like they’ve disappeared.

PC: Do you think the Occupy movement in the US is having a bigger impact than its UK counterpart, given factors such as: the large contingent of military vets involved in the US, the larger numbers of people generally involved in Occupy over there, and the bigger social problems with homelessness and poverty in the US?

PM: I wouldn’t know whether the legitimising factor of having veterans on board is the key thing. What I would say is it’s had a bigger impact, because there the distributional inequality is so much greater. The 99 percent thing is really stark: the 99 percent translated into the British situation would probably be something like the 75 percent, or whatever, or even less, and in America because you have a much smaller welfare state the distribution of wealth means a lot more, whereas the distribution of wealth in Britain, even if it’s getting more and more unequal, it’s still the fact that I can walk into an NHS hospital bleeding and get treated, no matter who I am, whereas that’s not true in the US. That’s why I think Occupy had a bigger impact over there. Also I have to say the extreme carefulness of a non-jargonistic approach and the extreme carefulness to negotiate what that movement was about with the people in it is what kept some quite non-radical people in it. I think the London one, in some ways, has failed on some counts, not because of anything they’ve necessarily done, but because they were in a different situation.

PC: Your novel Rare Earth – which I enjoyed enormously – satirises endemic corruption in China while being a very entertaining and, in places raunchy, read. What was the inspiration behind it?

PM: I do report from China and although the book is not based on me I have been in situations like the one which the book starts from, albeit not in as many ways as extreme in terms of craziness, psychosis and violence. I was there and I was thinking ... it’s impossible to report on this country because there’s no access to the key information. Sometimes you’re let into the right places but most often you’re kept away from them. What people don’t realise the difference is, is that if you have 60 years worth of government when nobody ever reports what the decisions of the government were, where you just find out about them from later pronouncements, when we don’t know what the arguments were between leader A and leader B, and that once people die off who did know that, what you’ve actually got is a huge, big hole in human knowledge. And people get used to it and they get used to not knowing, and so there are 1.3 billion people who are in every other way part of the modern world who are missing what I would call historical memory. And my thought was, what would it be like if the penalty for not having established historical memory was that you have ghosts and that’s where I started from really.

PC: It presents a shocking picture of corruption in China. How close to the truth is it?

PM: Obviously, as a satire, it picks the worst kind of events and magnifies them, but when I was there the big story, that was reported but everybody had to be very careful how they discussed it, was about a bureaucrat who’d hit a waitress on the head with a wad of cash for refusing to give him a blow job. She picked up a knife and stabbed him and the whole thing became a cause célèbre. It’s this low-level wanton disregard for the rule of law, for people’s rights, that causes many of the problems that then become ‘mass incidents’ in China. But I will always say – there’s huge corruption in the West; and we maintain a social silence about it. The funny money flowing into London to buy property from Greece, Russia, the Middle East. The organised crime in Britain that needs a massive police unit to cope with it, but which never seems to go away. The MPs' expenses. The thing about China is because there’s no transparency in the press the corruption and disregard for law becomes casual, and then every so often the Party cracks down on it.

PC: Do you think communism still has any meaning in China?

PM: Clearly the generation that made 1949 happen thought they were fighting for communism. They were part of a generation that wanted to make China modern: so if you look at Mao, he used to say ‘criticise Confucius’. Now the CCP is setting up ‘Confucius Centres’ all over the world to celebrate this patriarchal, stagnant religion; I think they would like to turn ‘communism’ into a set of beliefs akin to a modern Confucianism. One of my old Chinese characters in the book says: ‘they turned communism into a set of unchallengeable dogmas – by fact or argument.’ Some party members, perhaps a majority, would say in private they are trying to build a Swedish social democratic style country, but it will take 100 years. Other ‘communists’ are overt that for them it means rip-roaring markets and massive inequality. It’s touching, despite this, to meet older people who were dragged out of a level of poverty that’s hard to imagine: starvation, dead bodies left in the streets, malnutrition... And hear them say 'We eat and drink the Communist Party

Peter Carty is a writer and journalist. He contributes to the Independent and the Guardian, as well as Mute

Republished from Mute magazine