ReviewsMike Phipps

In defence of humanism

ReviewsMike Phipps
In defence of humanism

Things are looking bleak. “Trump flies to Moscow to side with Putin against the FBI. Austria’s respectable conservative party switches overnight from an alliance with socialists to an alliance with neo-fascists. In China, Xi Jin Ping breaks with thirty years of consensus government and seizes total power. Private intelligence agencies we never knew existed turn out to be manipulating elections on behalf of the highest bidder.”

For Paul Mason, the crises we face are rooted in the erosion of what it means to be human. “Since the 1980s, free-market ideology has attacked our right to possess a self that is more than a collection of economic needs.” But this attack on humanism has been accompanied by technological and scientific developments that strengthen the belief that our behaviour is inevitably pre-determined. Add to this a new demographic reality: “the majority of the earth’s population now lives in countries where the cultural concepts underpinning humanism are weak.”

Trump is a key figure in all this, bringing together the different strands of corporate money and shadowy organisation that have largely rejected democracy, seeing it as incompatible with their vision of a market society. If chaos and destruction seem to be part of this vision, well, neoliberalism has some history on this. Its original aim was the destruction of organised labour, “the main humanizing force within capitalism, far exceeding philanthropy and religion in its material achievements.”

But it also sought to change how people thought, strengthening individualism and legitimising selfishness. A such, it was - is - an assault on humanism.

The central thesis of neoliberalism - that free market capitalism is self-regulating and self-repairing - was destroyed ten years ago. By late 2009, the US, Britain and the eurozone had injected about $8 trillion into their banks. But the recession’s shrinking opportunities for profit-taking have also spawned economic nationalism and a growing movement of the authoritarian right that rejects democracy. A burgeoning wing of that movement goes further, denying, on racial grounds, among others, that whole sections of the human race are human at all.

So what does it mean to be human? Mason’s exploration journeys through science and philosophy, alighting on the early Marx, whose ideas would later be distorted into a crude official determinism. For Marx, the struggle to be fully human was the struggle to overcome all forms of alienation or self-estrangement - including private property - and all forms of fetishism - including religion and money. This means communism, which is not the ultimate end, merely “the end of the prehistory of humanity.”

These are important ideas. But to be fair to Marx, it’s not just his early writings that search out the essence of human nature. Cyril Smith has argued: “Marx was concerned with the nature of humanity, and of how in class society its way of living denied its human essence. Bourgeois society, dominated by money and its development into capital, was a form of life ‘not appropriate to and worthy of our human nature’ (Capital, Volume 3). In the grip of capital and the state, humans treated each other and themselves as things, while inanimate forms like money and the state were treated as subjects. A human social form would be a ‘free association of producers’.”

So as money and capital are exalted, human beings become mere objects in their power. Smith elaborates these key ideas elsewhere. Marx’s subject, he argues, was capital, “which stands over us all as an omnipotent, inhuman social power, but which is the falsified form of truly human social relations. It determines the way that humans treat each other, and themselves, not as free ends in themselves, but as mere means, as things. Conversely, things - for example money or machines - take on the character of subjects, dominating individual human lives. The life-activities of individuals, their human creative potentials, are subsumed under these inhuman powers, and are turned into enemies of their own humanity. In Chapter 1 of Capital, Marx describes this as ‘insane’.”

These central tenets of Marx - and of his most important work - are important to emphasise, because the attack on humanism comes not just from capitalism and the right. It is mounted also from a section of the left, that has travelled from orthodox Marxism, through postmodernism, to challenge the very ideas of objective reality and scientific truth. Anyone grappling with these theories may have found much of the material impenetrable. But what in the hands of these arcane theorists was a largely academic debate has been weaponised by the right. Denying objective reality is central, for example, to the denial of climate change.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) poses new challenges to what it means to be human. The ability of an AI machine to quickly defeat a world expert at a game like chess or Go - in part, by learning from its opponent and by playing against itself - is the entertaining tip of a significant ethical iceberg. “Once you create artificial neural networks which can learn without human intervention,” argues Mason, “ you are creating a black hole of knowledge. Even if the thought process could be reverse engineered and studied by humans, you face a resource problem: not enough humans with the skill to do so and not enough time.”

And what’s to stop a machine rationally strengthening itself in ways the original designer may neither envisage nor want? To prevent this, some ethical goals need to be programmed in. But which ones? Liberal humanist values would be a good starting point. The problem is, contends Mason, that “two out of three global superpowers are developing AI to reinforce the objectives of an authoritarian state.”

This is alarming, As I write this, Vladimir Putin has just proclaimed liberal values “obsolete”. His singling out specifically of multiculturalism and immigration demonstrate that he is attacking the core liberal beliefs of freedom, toleration and foundational equality, rather than the outworn dogmas of neoliberal economics that helped propel him to power.

But this drive towards authoritarianism is not confined to state actors - it’s inherent in capitalist monopolies. “To counteract the democratisation of knowledge,” suggests Mason, “corporations adopted the strategy of massive asymmetry, intellectual property capture and algorithmic control.” Facebook is a prime example, very happy to subvert liberal democracy when the price is right. During the 2016 US presidential election, “of 112 campaign groups who bought Facebook advertising on controversial issues in swing states, six were traceable to a covert Russian state propaganda agency.”

In China too, anti-humanism has been unleashed under the banner of official Marxism. “By 2013, out of 500 articles about ‘universal values’ 84 per cent were negative. The same Orwellian reversal had happened with the term ‘constitutionalism’, which was attacked in no fewer than 1,000 headlines that year.” This is far removed from the more free-thinking spirit in the decade before the Tiananmen Square massacre, when the deputy editor of the People’s Daily published an article entitled “Human beings are the starting point of Marxism”, which argued that alienation still existed even in communist China. Yet it was not hard-line Maoism that killed off these ideas, but the pro-market faction around Deng Xiao Ping.

How to find a way out of all this? Mason’s solutions include socialising digital infrastructure, de-linking work from wages, via a citizens’ basic income, making data a public good, giving individuals control of their data and outlawing business models based on asymmetric access to information. If these ideas seem modest, they have the merit of being in sync with the demands of existing campaigns and movements - including strikes among workers opposing algorithmic control.

Paul Mason has written extensively elsewhere about how networked individuals can turn the media meant to control and exploit them to their own advantage. Despite the scale of the problems, this book exudes a similar optimism and is leavened by astutte references to popular culture to help explain some of the more complex ideas. I recommend it.