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3 July 2019

Life after capitalism

Can Marx help us find freedom in a world ruled by profit?

By Mark O’Connell

If there’s one thing to be said for our otherwise desolate historical juncture, it’s that the question of how we should organise society appears to be back in play. A climate catastrophe of unknowable dimensions is taking shape on the horizon. Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to obliterate vast sections of the employment economy. The internet, for all its benefits, has led to an epistemological crisis of unprecedented scale, facilitating the international rise of demagogues and reactionary populists. For a generation of Europeans and Americans, the constitutive elements of a decent life – stable employment, affordable rent, the prospect of one day owning a home – are receding as rapidly as the ice caps. Capitalism’s failures and iniquities, in other words, have rarely been so palpable, and it seems more reasonable than ever to ask how this social arrangement might be overcome, and with what it might be replaced.

Two new books that explore those questions in very different ways are Clear Bright Future, by the NS contributing writer and former Channel 4 News economics editor Paul Mason, and This Life by Martin Hägglund, a professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale. Both books proceed from an understanding of capitalism as an unjust system that limits rather than maximises human freedom, and both propose versions of democratic socialism – as distinct from social democracy – that arise from deep, critical and lively engagements with the writing of Karl Marx. In terms of style, pacing and basic intellectual approach, the similarities end more or less there.

Clear Bright Future begins as it means to continue – which is to say at speed, and with revolutionary intent. We join Mason in medias res, in Washington, DC about a minute into the presidency of Donald J Trump. He’s in the thick of a riot, a GoPro taped to his crash helmet, taking in the vista of smashed windows and flaming SUVs. The reader gets the impression of an author deep in his comfort zone. (Mason published a book in 2012 entitled Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere.) It’s an awkwardly self-dramatising note on which to begin, but it makes a kind of strategic sense. A riot, after all, is both a violent reaction to an oppressive political reality and an expression of volatile democratic energy. It’s this volatile energy that Mason wants to channel into the construction of a more humane world.

The book’s subtitle, “A Radical Defence of the Human Being”, gives a fair indication of where he’s coming from. Mason is concerned, among other things, with the ways in which contemporary capitalism dehumanises people, viewing them as “rational actors” in a market, or sources of data to be mined and surveilled, or labour to be exploited for profit. In a short but illuminating chapter on the creation of the “neoliberal self”, Mason outlines how the state over the past 40 years or so has become subordinate to the market, and how its purpose has devolved to one of sweeping away all aspects of life that remain non-commercial, from the supply of tap water to who we date. “If you invent a form of capitalism,” he writes, “where power surges suddenly towards an unaccountable and technologically armed elite, with a penchant for class confrontation, it becomes easy to destroy the liberal, democratic and universalist ethos most people in the West thought was permanent.”

As destructive as neoliberalism has been in its own right, one of its more threatening aspects, for Mason, is the extent to which its mechanistic logic – its insistence on total submission to the higher wisdom of “the market” – prepares the ground for a future in which we cede control of our affairs entirely to machines. Over the last three decades or so, he argues, free market capitalism has “produced a mass conversion to fatalism: the market knows best, all politicians have to be its servants, attempts to improve human society by design lead to gulags and concentration camps”. Submission to this logic, he insists, becomes a “gateway for submission to the logic of the machine”.

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Mason goes deep on some pretty alarming ideas about the dangers of future AI. He takes at face value claims from the AI safety experts Steve Omohundro and Elezier Yudkowsky about the need to program “socialising and humanising objectives” into these technologies, lest we risk being enslaved by a superhuman intelligence that would “come to resemble a sociopath”. He seems  here to be susceptible to a kind of magical thinking about AI that is common among Silicon Valley types, a quasi-religious conviction that this technology will either redeem or destroy us. If we program these algorithms with the right objectives and “human values”, he argues, AI could be “the tool that liberates humanity” by abolishing class divisions. Mason doesn’t go into much detail as to how this might come about, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the people who work closest with artificial intelligence tend to be wary of such grand claims about the technology’s transformative possibilities.

Despite the strain of techno-utopianism, one of the book’s central contentions is that there has been a wholesale relinquishing of humanist thinking on the left, making it difficult to defend against the encroachment of machine logic. For this he blames, predictably, academic postmodernist philosophy. “Postmodernism,” he writes, “turned relativism into a secular religion, whose first commandment is: nothing is true.”

It’s a frustrating line of argument, in which Mason makes huge claims for the perniciousness of postmodernism without engaging in any real depth with the complex critique of modernity in the work of thinkers such as Foucault and Baudrillard. He views postmodernism as an essentially prescriptive project, as opposed to a descriptive one that aimed to analyse the conditions of life under capitalism. (This is a bit like accusing Nietzsche of deicide for declaring the death of God: a straightforward case of shooting the messenger. Indeed, Nietzsche gets similarly short shrift here: Mason presents him as a kind of in-house aphorist of the alt-right, which seems at best drastically reductive.)

Mason spends a lot of time picking fights that don’t obviously further the book’s cause. There’s an entire chapter devoted to criticising progressives’ adoption of Hannah Arendt, in the wake of Trump’s election, as the great analyst of the dynamics of totalitarianism. (Arendt, he argues, was unable to see fascism as “the elite’s response to the possibility of working class power”, and was convinced that the United States’s origins in Enlightenment ideas guaranteed its immunity to totalitarian impulses.) There’s also a chapter breaking down the world-view of Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping.

Clear Bright Future covers a lot of territory in 300 pages, but its impressive range is often at the expense of real depth. A detour via, say, the neuroscience of decision making – outlining experiments showing how the brain initiates action hundreds of milliseconds before registering a conscious decision to do so – is interesting in itself, and goes some way toward illuminating a mood of fatalism in our culture, but leaves the reader wondering what it ultimately adds up to. Given the book’s frenetic pace and eclectic range, it’s also odd how little thought is devoted to what is surely the most pressing question in any consideration of the future: climate change. The subject is not entirely ignored; but to give you some idea of scale, Mason spends not much more time discussing it than he does Mark Ravenhill’s hit 1996 play Shopping and Fucking.

As the book progresses, the omission starts to seem increasingly odd, as though the prospect of ecological catastrophe was simply too dark and unknowable to be incorporated into its vision of a clear bright future. (Alternatively, it could be that Mason is quietly pinning his hopes on the problem being solved by the same AI algorithm that abolishes class divisions.)

Mason is at his best – his most passionate and persuasive – on the topic of Marx, whom he successfully portrays as a philosopher of human freedom, whose thought was distorted and weaponised by the totalitarian communist regimes of the 20th century. The populist right are still terrified of Marx’s thought, he writes, because “stripped of its authoritarian impulses, it can still be the most important source of a radical strategy of resistance”.


Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom similarly portrays Marx’s philosophy as a project of liberation, but takes a different approach. Though it’s lucidly written, and at times beautifully so, it is unmistakably a work of philosophy; where Mason proceeds at a brisk polemical clip, Hägglund moves through his argument with scholarly pace and purpose. Though his style is more careful and deliberate, Hägglund’s book is also more deeply radical in its aims. He wants to effect a revolutionary change in our understanding of value, in our economies and in our lives.

The first half of the book, entitled “Secular Faith”, is given over to a case against religion. This might at first seem counterintuitive, given the political nature of Hägglund’s project, but because he wants to argue for democratic socialism as the system that most honours our lives and our freedom, he intends to establish that it’s the finite nature of those lives that give them value in the first place. He’s not interested in the sort of rationalist “disproof” of religion that makes the New Atheists seem so intellectually unserious. His quarrel with the gods is, rather, an existential one.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the form it takes is something like this: if you believe in the eternal life of the soul, then you necessarily believe that death is not an absolute loss. Religious faith, he argues, devalues this life as an end in itself, by viewing it as a means to salvation, or as a staging post en route to the eternal. We only truly realise what we have – in our own lives, in those of our loved ones, in the fragile natural world in which we spend our limited time together – when we accept its loss as final.

If we care for our lives and those of others as ends in themselves, Hägglund argues, then regardless of how deep you consider your faith to be, you are acting on the basis of what he calls “secular faith”. The obvious argument against this is that religious people – constantly, everywhere – act in ways that show deep concern for the value of this life as an end in itself, and do so because of their religious faith. But no, counters Hägglund: if they’re acting in such a way, their actions have little to do with that faith. I’m not religious, but this seems to me a little too neat to do justice to the complexity and richness of the relationship between faith and morality.

It’s in the book’s second half (“Spiritual Freedom”) that Hägglund turns his attention to more directly political matters, arguing – via a detailed and at times demanding reading of Marx – for democratic socialism as the means of honouring that secular faith and pursuing the ideal of human freedom. If we accept that our time is finite, and that its finitude is what gives it value, then we need to take seriously the question of what to do with it, and how to maximise the amount of it we spend in free pursuit of our own ends.

Rather than the theorist of historical inevitability he is often seen as, Hägglund’s Marx is, like Mason’s, a thinker whose fundamental interest was freedom, and whose basic principles the totalitarian communist regimes of the last century failed to grasp.

Hägglund wants to use Marx to reclaim for the left the fundamental ideal of freedom. This task is all the more important, he writes, because the appeal to freedom in recent decades has been appropriated for agendas on the political right, where the idea of freedom serves to defend “the free market” and is largely reduced to a formal conception of individual liberty. In response, many thinkers on the political left have retreated from or even explicitly rejected the idea of freedom. This is a fatal mistake. Any emancipatory politics – as well as any critique of capitalism – requires a conception of freedom. Only in light of a commitment to freedom can we render anything intelligible as oppression, exploitation, or alienation.

Following Marx’s lead, Hägglund divides life into two competing realms: the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. The former is all the stuff we have to do to continue living – work, in one way or another – and the latter is what we do with the free time left over. Capitalism, for all its rhetorical association with individualism and freedom, operates by maximising the realm of necessity at the expense of the realm of freedom – which is to say by extracting as much labour as possible for as low a wage as possible.

The priority under capitalism is always profit, and so we must in one way or another prioritise doing what is profitable, even if it’s at the expense of other necessities, such as living a meaningful or spiritually fulfilling life. But if we take seriously the idea of life’s finitude, we have to redefine value from the ground up, locating it not in labour time, but in what we do within the realm of our freedom. “The first principle of democratic socialism,” as he puts it, “is that we measure our wealth – both individual and collective – in terms of socially available free time.”

As with Mason’s book – and as with the vast majority of critiques of capitalism – This Life is more lucid in its handling of what is wrong with the present system than in its delineation of what might replace it. But the book’s central contention is powerful, and remarkably simple: that what matters is our time, and our freedom to choose what to do with it, and that only by overcoming capitalism can we build a world with the true value of human life at its centre. “To make our emancipation actual,” as Hägglund says in the book’s stirring final lines, “will require both our political mobilisations and our rational reflections, our labour and our love, our anxiety and our passion. We only have a chance to achieve democratic socialism if we grasp that everything is at stake in what we do with our finite time together.” 

Mark O’Connell is the author of “To Be a Machine” (Granta)

Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being
Paul Mason
Allen Lane, 368pp, £20

This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free
Martin Hägglund
Pantheon Books, 464pp, $29.95

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