It’s a very interesting book, wide-ranging, insightful and yet still optimistic. Paul Mason [...] is a very thoughtful and well-travelled person; he is passionate in his defence of enlightened humanity against the current two-pronged onslaught from the politics of fear, hate and unreason (fascism, for short), and the tech-driven dream of the super-rich to free themselves from the rest of us while keeping our money. But if the product is good, the branding could do with a bit of a makeover... Mason has read widely in philosophy, and some of his glosses on the history of ideas, and their impact on our troubled present, are alone worth the price of the book: he explains, lucidly and persuasively, how the uncertainty principles of quantum mechanics – questionable in themselves – have bled, via post-modernist theory, into the climate of irrationalism and fatalism that fuels Brexit, Putin and Trump... Yet sometimes Mason’s need to frame his arguments in terms of what Marx wrote or thought becomes a drag, for me, on his overall message.
Isaiah Berlin liked to categorise thinkers according to an enigmatic line of Greek poetry: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Mason is a hedgehog who tries and fails to also be a fox. His big idea is a Marxist critique of neoliberalism that fans out into a vision of a technology-enabled post-work utopia. But he attempts to knit together too many disparate, zeitgeisty topics into his unifying theme: the culture wars, the neuroscience of decision-making, postmodernist critiques of scientific realism. Many seem totally irrelevant.
Clear Bright Future’s account of our political predicament is thrilling, but its link to his central argument is tenuous. The alt-right may derive inspiration from cyber-libertarians such as Peter Thiel, but they are also the product of deindustrialisation and disenfranchisement. Yes, racist nationalism dehumanises minorities and undermines human rights, but it has also, Mason suggests, replaced neoliberalism, which he has previously defined as quintessentially anti-humanist. Likewise, Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis and Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no alternative” are rightly blamed for foreclosing democratic choice; but what then should we make of the fact that history has returned?