Youth, technology and resistance: an interview with Paul Mason


At Take Back Our World, the relaunch conference of Global Justice Now, I was lucky enough to sit down with the journalist Paul Mason to discuss the place of young people in relation to politics in an era of globalisation and rapid technological development.

There are 7.4 million young people between the ages of 18-24 in the United Kingdom, yet below 50% of that number are actually likely to go out and vote. Should they vote and, if so, why should they vote?

Okay, so I would urge everybody to vote, but I’m not one of those people who say, you have to vote because you have to vote for a party. I understand why people think that parties are and can be corrupt, can be too hierarchical and untrustworthy. So if that is what is leading people to not vote, one thing they can do is vote for individual people, or another thing they can do is stand. We are seeing the fragmentation of the old two party system into a five or six party system. I’m not going to join that big thing that everybody just says ‘you must vote, it’s your civic duty’, because if there’s nothing there you believe in, it’s not your civic duty to vote for it.

I do believe that what people should do, above all, is register to vote because the absence of registering to vote is distorting the constituencies and it’s removing people, removing their rights, allowing services to be cut because the electoral system says you don’t exist. That’s different to voting for party you don’t believe in.

Left-wing anti-austerity parties with strong youth support are growing across Europe, most notably in Greece and Spain. Why is the UK lacking such a movement?

The first reason is that the UK had such a movement, but a lot of those students had no trust in the party system. That’s the first thing. Second thing, we haven’t really had a lot of austerity yet. We have had some, but a lot of austerity is backloaded, it won’t come in onto the next parliament. I think you might find this changing. The other thing is that British politics, or rather left politics, is still dominated by trade unions on the one hand, and then on the other hand, people who are more or less systematically disengaged from the structures and institutions. So they will occupy the top of a power station or they will take over a square for a day. But what they are not yet prepared to do is engage with official politics. The thing about these parties such as Syriza, Podemos and Die Linke in Germany, is that they are absolutely prepared to engage with the official institutions.

Globalisation has significantly reshaped the global economy, in a world of multinational corporations and global capital. Where is the place of the young person?

I might say an answer that disrupts you: I feel that young people are far more innovative and entrepreneurial than they were when I was 20, which was 25 years ago. Young people are far more educated, they can deploy far more personal skills and in fact even people with very small amounts of personal skills are still far more skilled compared to 25 years ago. The answer is to leverage those skills. I also think it would be brilliant if we could recruit a whole new workforce of engineers, designers, and the whole creativity aspect. A lot of people think the creative industry and creative activity is in some way a second best as we don’t have industries anymore, and I think that’s an illusion. I think write a play, put it on, write a novel, make a film… Even if you only end up working for an engineering company, you’ll learn the skills that are highly valuable and transferable for you, across all industries. I would say creativity is where any young people should focus, even those that aren’t normally creative.

Social media and digital technology as a whole have meant that the world is the most interconnected that it has ever been. What can be said about the possibilities of such technology, especially in regards to young people and activism?

For me, what’s been exhilarating is to watch it all emerge. I had internet before it was broadband, I remember what a modem sounded like, I lived in a world where there were no cell phones and no text. … But even more exhilarating is to watch my god-daughter, who’s 12, get a cell phone which has got it all there, and she thinks it’s always been there. And so that’s the difference with your generation. You begin with this technology and you’ll build on it – there’ll be more things, you could put that on a drone within two years’ time, your mobile phone, you’ll drone-fly it over a crowd.

Every technology is on an exponential rise, and therefore you’ve got to harness it. .. You’ve already harnessed it to have more personal freedom than any generation of human beings that has ever lived – but you still feel very oppressed. And therefore, the question is how you will harness the technology to blow away the oppression. That could be organising housing struggles – if there’s a landlord, whether it is a social landlord or private landlord, who is systematically rotating tenants so that people have to live two a room, they never get tenancy, they get evicted the moment they complain about rubbish conditions: do something using the technology that makes that impossible to do. I don’t know why people don’t innovate in that space, when they’re so innovative when it comes to music, dance, digital films and things like that. That’s what I think, that’s what you do.

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