Interview: Paul Mason

1 May

Tom Hodgkinson talks to Paul Mason, the broadcaster-turned-Marxist firebrand, about his new book, Silicon Valley and the white working class 

Paul Mason’s new book Clear Bright Future – the title is a quote from Trotsky – is an argument for humanism. He reckons that what many call “neo-liberalism” – meaning the version of capitalism which has dominated the last 30 or 40 years in the UK and US – is past its sell-by date, and a different way of doing things is needed.

We started by discussing the role of Silicon Valley in the political upheavals of the last three years.

Tom Hodgkinson: I wanted to start on the attacks that you get. If you say in response to Brexit, “The voters were manipulated,” then you get someone saying, “Well you don’t respect the vote of the white working class, that’s patronising.”

“White working class” is like the word “coolie” – created by imperialists to impose an identity on the people they wanted to rule

Paul Mason: I come from that background myself and I can tell you that the “white working class” does not exist. It’s a construct created by the middle class to promote the reactionary and xenophobic ideas that exist in working class communities and deny the tremendous past and present of progressive working class self-organisation. To me, “white working class” is like the word “coolie” – created by imperialists to impose an identity on the people they wanted to rule. Michael Collins started using the term in the early 2000s with The Likes of Us and what he describes is real: the antipathy towards modernity and the white flight from the inner city to places like Essex. But it is driven by a disappointment and nostalgia for the many good parts of that world that has gone.

I represent a current within British politics, much wider than the Labour left, which says that we can take what was good about that world and bring it into the 21st century.

In the town I come from, there are Kosovans, Albanians, and a pub run by Zimbabwean refugees. There are also white old miners sitting in a pub calling migrants “cockroaches”, but that’s diversity. So when I say I oppose Brexit, I would be quite happy to do Brexit under a progressive government for progressive reasons. I would even now accept a soft Brexit if it were to assuage some people’s anger and racism, but it won’t. The idea that there is a monoculture is nonsense. Where people are working in a multi-ethnic corporate environment, like a major retail or advertising firm, the statements that UKIP make wouldn’t be tolerated. What I’m cynical about is that this principle doesn’t go into the boardroom. The big corporations in the 1990s and early 2000s had to clean up their act and stop using sweatshops – but only under intense pressure. I believe the class struggle under modern capitalism exists in various arenas, because it’s no longer just a factory. It’s what Mario Tronti, the Italian Marxist, called “the social factory”: society is a factory.

TH: So let’s not call it the “white working class”, but what about the people who voted for Brexit? Not every one of them could have been manipulated.

PM: No! What does the vote for Brexit and Trump show? We have to ask and we must keep insisting on this, because of the tendency to create caricatures. More better-off working class people voted for Trump than the truly poor. Partly because it’s so racialised, but partly because the biggest predictor for voting for Trump is fatalism – if you believe that going to college isn’t worth it. All evidence shows that if you get a degree, your pay on average will be a third more than someone without one. But there’s a folk religion in Western society that says that it doesn’t matter, your life chances are a mixture of luck and fatalism.

Neoliberal capitalism is based on anonymity. When my Dad went on strike in the 1970s, the factory owner would come down to the workshop, bring a crate of beers and talk to them. Most people now don’t even know who owns their workplace

Women in a capitalist society are closest to reality. Men think they live in a boardroom movie. Women live in the world of going to the shops and getting the purse out. Working class women are forced to get on with people at the school gate or the supermarket; this is still their role. In the end, you can’t eat racism. Of course poverty does drive racism, but the person who knows best that you can’t eat racism is the working class woman waiting for the cheap food to be put out in Tesco. Our movement is a line drawn through a working class community. We invite anyone who wants to be an arsehole to cross that line and everybody who wants to be decent to be on our side of it and understand that there’s a bigger enemy. A picket line isn’t put there to keep management out of the workplace; it’s there to keep workers from breaking a strike. So, we’re aware of divisions in the working class. Neither end of the movement believes that the entire working class would come over to their side. What you need to do is be calm and reason with angry, violent misogyny and racism. And where you can’t reason with it you have to go to the streets and defeat it.

TH: So does Facebook really sway people?

PM: There’s a huge amount of blame that should be attached to the social media giants for their complete failure in honouring their social license to operate, but in the end all it is neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberal capitalism is based on anonymity. When my dad went on strike in the 1970s, the factory owner would come down to the workshop, bring a crate of beers and talk to them. Most people now don’t even know who owns their workplace. Corporations have become anonymous. It is clear that Facebook did allow the spreading of fake information that did skew the result of the American election. Who takes responsibility? In normal business what would happen would be that the Chair, Sheryl Sandberg, would be told to sack the CEO. But they can’t, because these are kings now. It’s like saying to Tutankhamun: “Sack Nefertiti!” It’s not going to happen. It’s the kind of capitalism that creates manipulation and theft of public wealth through tax evasion. We need to widen the telescope from just Zuckerberg himself.

The full interview appears in Idler 66, May/June 2019.

Paul Mason is the author of Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defense of the Human Being (Penguin, £20). Order a copy here.