Paul Mason at Bristol Festival of Ideas

This post was written 4 years ago.
Sat, 11 Jun 2016
When I saw that Paul Mason was coming to Bristol, I knew straight away I wanted to go to the talk. After following his coverage of the Greek Euro crisis last year, I had read 'Postcapitalism' and it had touched a nerve. Here was the story of how we had ended up there, and the reasons why global finance in its current form had become unsustainable. The book is about much more than that, of course. But economic theory and the history of capitalism form a big part of it, and Mason explains them really well.

It was a warm summer night, when people streamed into St George's off Park Street to hear him speak. I noticed that many in the audience were older than me, in their 60ies or 70ies, though there were also quite a few people my age or under. I wondered if all the audience were lefties -- My husband Matin once joked that what I really want to do is dig potatoes on a Russian farm (actually, no I don't). In fact, Mason's main point should be of interest to everyone, although arguably he doesn't show much love for the conservatives.

The talk was billed as "Paul Mason in conversation with Andrew Kelly", but it was effectively mostly Paul Mason talking, with Andrew Kelly giving cues. Perhaps it was done that way to make sure every planned topic was covered. And Mason did get through a lot. From the ills of neoliberalism to the question if things would have happened differently "if Thatcher had ended under a bus", from Kondratieff waves to the development of the labour market, the massive and game-changing impact of technological progress, and the impossibility to foresee social structures of the future ("Shakespeare could not talk of Dickens's London"). And more besides.

Mason started, as the book does, with neoliberalism and its consequences. Interestingly, if I understood that right, Mason sees the digital revolution as an outcome of neoliberalism. Propping up the economy by simply printing more money (fancy name: "quantitative easing") has enabled technology to progress in the way it has. Although there was a recession, the iPhone and all that came next still occured.

At the same time this technological progress enables a different economy to grow besides the capitalist model, one where people give their time freely and create products of great value (open source, Wikipedia etc.)

Festival of ideas with Paul Mason and Andrew Kelly
 
Something that came up a few times was what neoliberalism has done to people, especially workers. There was also discussion about low-paid service jobs. Many of the new celebrated business models (Uber for example) rely on exactly that. People doing service work for really low wages. A different example: "As kids we went through these big car washes and it was all exciting. Now we have five men do this work by hand". I remembered the first time we had been to one of those manual car washes and I had thought this was very unusual. But in fact, now you get almost only those. We talk about automation, but in this case the machine has been replaced by humans!

What shone through for me was that Mason really cares about people. But he also says "I'm angry". What some people celebrate as disruptive technology, to him is disrupting the fabric of our community. What was also interesting in this respect, were the different views that people have of a basic income. The idea has recently been embraced by Silicon valley, but in that version it means that social welfare is withdrawn and then needs to be bought from the money that's handed out. This really defeats the original idea of it.

Then there are the external factors that provide a 'rational case for panic': climate change, migration and an aging population. How can necessary change happen? And what changes are already happening? Besides the panic, this is also an incredibly exciting time. Mason says he wants to "liberate the 1%" which I find a brilliant phrase. About a week before the talk, this thought suddenly popped into my head: "Perhaps this is also true: Women need to liberate men from patriarchy". I wondered if I should ask a question about that - was this the case? was it still the case? - , and I thought about it on the day, but it turned out there were lots of questions already, and I was not sure of how to best phrase it anyway, not sure of my English.

There was one moment, when Mason replied to a question with "Let me explain", then corrected himself and said "No. My opinion is this.." And I could not help but think whether this was a consequence of men being accused of "mansplaining". (It actually once happened to me that a man said "and I am not explaining this" before he went on to explain something to me.) I am sure Mason gets feminism as much as he gets digital and I seem to remember there was a passage in the book about the role of women where this became clear.

One thing I found moving then, was also to do with gender. I think it was in a reply to a question. "There might be kids at your daughter's school who are 12 and transgender. When I grew up this was unheard of. I think it is a good thing that it is happening now - children being able to come out in this way. And don't you think this is a personal hobby." (he did not use exactly these words, but I hope I did not change the meaning to much)

There were very good questions at the end, and a lot of it was in fact about how change can happen. Mason was pointing to Podemos in Spain (something I still need to read up on) and that that could be a model for cities in the UK, too. - Cities are where it's all happening. "Young people love the cities, because it's like an analogue version of Tinder." - One question was about Mason's career, moving from BBC newsnight to Channel 4 and then becoming completely independent. He enjoyed it all, but had some reservations about the BBC. "When Channel 4 wants something covered it's: How many cameras do we need? With the BBC it's: How many cameras do we need and what is our line on it?"

I believe in the end, what Mason wants to achieve is to empower people, to give people agency. This is something I think about a lot, which is probably why all these topics seem personal to me.

After the talk I had my book signed. There was a woman in the queue who spontaneously said to me "There was no talk of Brexit. I think he is in favour of leaving?" I said that I thought that too, but that he'd still vote for staying because of the possible consequences at this moment (too much power to the Tories). "That's a relief", the woman said. I still decided to ask him and at the end of a brief chat I said "You will still vote 'In'?" He looked at me and paused, then replied, "Yes. Remain". And I suddenly wondered if my language had been highjacked by the leavers' take on the vote, who want to pitch it as an 'In' versus 'Out' when the 'In' has actually happened a long time ago.