Interview with Mark Mason

Washington, DC (TFC) – Mark Mason offers analyses of United States’ domestic and foreign policies for the international news media. He was trained as a biological anthropologist educated at the University of California, Berkeley, and recently engaged in the Occupy and bioregional green and peace social movements. Due to a commitment to direct dialogue on important international policy issues, Mark has appeared on Al-Etejah TV, Russia Today, Voice of Russia radio, as well as on Life News Russia, AcTVism Munich News, Nuestra Tele Noticias NTN24 Colombia, The Real News Network, and Radio 786 Capetown, South Africa, and KQED Forum in San Francisco, California.


Fifth Column: How do you find your studies specifically in the field of anthropology, have influenced your views on current events? What problems do we face that we can look to history for in terms of solutions? And what problems do you see that we will have to come up with all new solutions in order to alleviate?

Mark Mason: I was trained in the science of paleoanthropology, the study of the evidence for human and primate evolution. I conducted research on 30-million-year-old extinct primates. The message from the past is clear: we modern humans should take care to examine what it is we are doing to the planet because if we don’t, extinction is a possibility. With the current human population at more than seven billion, it’s hard to imagine the human population going to zero, but that’s precisely what could happen if we disturb the relationship we have with the other living organisms on spaceship Earth. The atmosphere is us; we are inseparable from the air, the water, and the rocks around us, as we are inseparable from nematodes and bees. We’re all in this together, and the “all” extends far beyond the nation-state to everything on the planet. Studying primates that once were around but are now long gone offers some perspective on how we alter the planet. What we do matters, so we should consider the possible unintended consequences of losing the Western Black Rhino to extinction. We lose a little chunk of ourselves when we lose Earth partners. As for solutions to the crucial problems we face—and these problems are unprecedented in the six-million-year history of the human evolutionary tree. Warfare against other humans is now at universally-recognized danger. Warfare against the planet in terms of attacking the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and attacking forests with chainsaws are equally dangerous as they are exponential increases in the scale at which we chop down trees. The differences among people, their cultures, their customs and their beliefs were until recently, a matter of local concern. We lived in relative isolation and in small groups such that conflicts between groups were relatively small-scale. Today, we recognize that we no longer have the luxury of accommodating the great variety of human cultural systems because of increased populations and increases in global trade and militarism. What the Mayans did affected the Mayans, but didn’t have an impact on life in Thailand. Today, what the US does affects almost everyone on the planet. The notion of live-and-let-live was based on cultural isolation and the relative limited scope of warfare. The fix for the two elements of warfare: against other peoples, and against the biosphere (actually, against the lithosphere, ecocide) cannot be fixed without restructuring to end the state system. Both forms of warfare are extensions of the state, the corporate-state capitalist socio-econo-political system. The historical record shows us that with the invention of agriculture, we shifted to living in very large, sedentary groups. Much of what is manifested as the warfare problem stems from our failure to adjust to living in large communities. The large-scale systems of cultural management are dysfunctional, deadly to humans and the planet. We know from history that our problems are systemic: can we find ways to relate and function in large groups without resorting to centralized state power? We don’t know the answer to this question. The answer may be no; living in large groups, attempting to manage our human affairs through centralized authorities has been a long history of brutal failures. That’s our core problem today. Can we experiment with various socio-economic-political systems in the quest to discover more humane and more sustainable lifeways? As it is now, we have elites with the power to stop us from experimenting on large scales. We could be experimenting in Detroit now, with radical Monday.


Fifth Column: What sorts of alternative models do you see as having potential?

Mark Mason: Many anarchoindigeounists reject civilization (I.e. the cultivation of cities) as inherently destructive, requiring the importation of resources. Some would even say some forms of agriculture are dominative. No one knows. We’re in serious trouble on multiple immediate problems, nuclear weapons and global warming being at the top of the list, and population explosion connected to both. Short of returning to low-tech, tribal, small-scale, indigenous-like societies, we’re in big trouble. Agriculture, the foundation of cities, is only about ten thousand years old, but it gave us the specialization of labor that bred industrialization, and the inseparable modern corporate-capitalist-state economic, political, and social system. What we do know for a scientific fact is that the way we live now is sending us towards a global collapse, from war, ecocide, or both. No one knows what or if any socioeconomic system other than tribalism would be sustainable. The only way to learn would be to experiment with a variety of different, non-capitalist systems among a wide variety of socialist-communist-anarchist proposals. The problem we face today is that elites are blocking the people from experimenting on a large scale. Take Detroit, for example. That city would be ideal for creating a new, experimental city-system of Lefty organization, but elites are attacking Detroit economically for the very reason that they are happy being in charge of the planet and do not want the people getting any ideas regarding some new and different economic systems. Many very small scale communal groups can be found around the world, and the Occupy movement attempted to build large scale from many local small-scale egalitarian, non-capitalist encampments. The question of the importation of resources and conflicts is a question of scale. Currently, the modern state system clearly must go. It’s a sharply dysfunctional political system, at the current scale. Whether we scale up to a single global system, or scale down to many “local” federated bioregions is a crucial question, but simply unknown. I am wary of scaling up to a single global polity. We seem to not do well in large groups, not manage human rights or ecological sustainability in large groups. There is no answer to your question. Agriculture and the consequent industrial-commercial-capitalist system is a disaster, both ecologically and in terms of human rights. Can we continue agriculture, can we continue any form of industrial production? I won’t say no, but we have no time to experiment. Frankly, the question is almost moot. We don’t have the luxury of expending the next hundred years testing various social and economic arrangements.


Fifth Column: In your studies, you’ve most definitely come across many elements of artistic expression which have since been classified, dogmatized, and dramatized etc. How important is art in radical politics of today, and what role has art played in revolutions throughout history? How has intent of the artist been propagandized for use by the powerful?

Mark Mason: It’s not the art product, per se, but the artist that scares the crap out of those clinging to the levers of socioeconomic and political power: the elites, the super-rich and their servants. Doesn’t matter what the products or the activities of the artist are. The autonomy, and indifference to social norms, indifference to money, indifference to social climbing and social capital is what poses a threat to systems of hierarchical power. That’s why the rich spend billions controlling artists and the venues, the media in which art is transmitted to the public. I should write a book about this very important question you raised. The entire commercial entertainment domain of western states is one means by which elites tightly own, profit from, and control what we are told is art. What they want to control is the artist, not the art. Since WWII this lesson was quickly learned as the Right condemned rock n roll music as dangerous to kids and destructive to moral education. Oligarchs learned quickly that the content of music, literature, or paintings (for example) was meaningless. Bob Marley could sing about revolution, but it was filtered through the corporate profit system. Doesn’t matter what they say or do, as long as it goes through the profit system. Artists, by contrast, when they’re not bought by the commercial art factories of profits. Take Banksy, his art wasn’t important, but his rejection of commercialization and his refusal to funnel his work through the acceptable commercial channels, TV, radio, magazines, art dealers and galleries is what posed a threat. Artists, by example as defying the money chase and the power chase, defy the foundations of the economic and social value system. They pose, as people, who are recognized as a “success” while rejecting the trappings of the official “success channels” differ from non-artists. Non-conformists can be dismissed, unless they are revered for their works of art, in which case they can slip past the value-system filters that deem poor people without power or social station as losers. The artist, not the art, is important to radical politics. In fact, we’re all artists, but only some people are pinned by society as creative and publicly noteworthy. Everyone who cares about a craft, about mastering any skill, and who pays attention to the practice of the art form, also dismisses the cultural rewards for obedience.


Fifth Column: What are some characteristics of a successful revolution?

Mark Mason: If you mean, what are the mechanics of a revolution, First, it’s the very hard work done to counter the vast indoctrination system: schools, mass media, dictates handed down from authorities, and popular culture. We humans are born into complex and fraudulent belief systems that function to maintain social stability. The way any culture works has some social stability and is self-replicating. Most of us do as we are told to do because not paying attention to the rules of the game can be deadly and dangerous. Go along to get along. I think we all know the answer to this one. The hard work of sharing information, ideas, facts, and nurturing the notion that things could be different and how would we have them. In the US, the very notion of writing a new Constitution is so foreign to Americans that it’s beyond the domain of thought. It’s not a yes or no question. It’s not a question. It doesn’t exist within the landscape of public consciousness. Now, that’s deep indoctrination. So, it’s about encouraging independent thinking and acting (why artists, not the art, is dangerous). From their the dangerous work of organizing for social change. Organizing for social change is extremely difficult because universally, humans are organized to maintain the entire cultural system. Specifically, we can examine recent revolutions with the understanding that every revolution is a failure, though some create more humane and just systems than what preceded. We should learn one lesson: all attempts to coerce people to “do the right thing” whatever that may be have failed miserably. Sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly every revolution predicated upon forcing people to do the right thing ends up in a ghastly police state. Good intentions do not a successful revolution make. People cannot be forced to do the right thing and any attempts to police them, to follow them around all day with tiny spy drones, for example, will fail. That much we should learn now. Anarchy is not chaos or the absence of rules, but rather it is the absence of a state to coerce, to kill, cage, or otherwise coerce compliance. Perhaps the measure of successful revolutions is simply to count the number of people in prison, under any circumstances or charges, the proportion of the population put in cages is a measure of success or failure. The US is now at the top of the incarceration rate list, thus indicating a failed revolution. A civil society, a successful revolution, is in the strength of shared values, not in the strength of the police force. It’s amazing, if one stops to think about it for two minutes. The people could simply stop participating in the global corporate-state system. The entire population of the Philippines, or Bangladesh, could simply walk out into the streets and say no. The Egyptians surprised themselves this year with an estimated 30 million people simply walking out into the streets, banging pots and pans, and saying GAME OVER. They surprised themselves so much, that they went back inside as if nothing happened. Same can be said about the several EDSA uprisings in the Philippines. The people go out, look around, can’t find new “leaders”, then the right wing counter-revolutionaries posing as reformers grab the mass media, and thereby grab the levers of power. The day the people take over the mass media is the day we will know that a new consciousness has appeared. The seat of power is not in the capitol building of government, but in the TV studios and radio studios; that’s where real power is. Of course, I’m discussing the power of the word as a means to struggle against the power of money, the corporatocracy.


Fifth Column: How has the Internet and social media helped and hurt potential resistance and revolt? Do you feel the TPP and NSA are doing greater harm in comparison to that of Wikileaks, Anonymous, Snowden, and Manning’s good?

Mark Mason: Communication technology is not important. People have been organizing to end oppression for ten thousand years, at least. People use whatever communication means are available to them. I will say that what the Internet does is to expand global organizing and educating efforts at a time crucial for addressing new knowledge that global capitalism is sending us toward ecological and political collapse. Let’s keep in mind that most people are not on the Internet, and those who are, are engaged in online shopping, sports, and porn. With, or without the Internet, a small fraction of the population is engaged in resistance to oppression. That’s standard. What we have not yet seen, but will soon in the US, is the shutdown of Internet-based communication. Growing dependence on Net communication will be experienced as a
problem when the government begins using the Net kill switch at their disposal. Here in nearby San Francisco, police authorities have shut down cell phone service in the commuter train subways during protest marches. This will become routine and expanded to the Net. Everything I have read that has been delivered to the public by Wikileaks, Snowden, and Manning should be a matter of public record. None of it should be secret. State secrets hide state crimes. NSA and secrecy (now blown) around the TPP so-called trade treaty, are prime examples of the state serving the interests of the few. What the NSA does doesn’t need to be secret, and the terms of any international trade treaty would be public information if the proposal were in the interest of the public.


Fifth Column: What would you tell someone who is still trusting in the two-party system to show them that the representative route is barren?

Mark Mason: I’d ask them what they think of the actions of the president and Congress. I’d ask them if they think the six billion dollars spent on the federal elections last year had any influence on government policies. I’d assert that we do have a representative form of government, and then ask, whose interests do politicians represent? I’d present a summary of some public opinion polls indicating that what the people want, the people do not get from Congress or the president. I’d ask if the political system were legitimate; does it function to act in the public interest.


Fifth Column: What would you encourage activists to do right now after reading this in order to help in a impactful way?

Mark Mason: I have nothing insightful to contribute to this important question. It’s been the same, universally: educate, organize, mobilize. The schools do not educate; they indoctrinate. A bank robbery is unorganized, unconscious rebellion against tyranny. Show me one newspaper or school to say so. I went through twenty years of education, from kindergarten to a doctoral degree at the famous university, but no one during those twenty years ever told me this one, simple truth. So, there we are. Schools and the mass media report on the most arcane scientific findings about the very small and the very large (nuclear physics and astrophysics), but do not speak truth about the mundane human living conditions. We must educate ourselves and educate others about how the world works. From knowledge to political organizing, from organizing to mobilizing to take action. No secret recipe for constructive social change. Here in the US, our primary task is to defeat the massive propaganda and distraction system comprised of the corporate mass media, the Hollywood entertainment distraction, and the schools. Americans are isolated by elite design. Elites spend billions on discouraging human tendencies toward community. I would add building community to the list of tasks, but that has been a goal since the sixties. it’s problematic because what we need now is not the isolation of the individual, nor the isolation of the local community.


Fifth Column: What sort of projects are you currently involved with that you think need to be presented to a wider audience?

Mark Mason: That’s a tough one. Answering briefly will result in my own failure to comprehensively reply, without misunderstanding. The most important project is to not ask other people, or to tell other people what they should be doing. That’s a Catch-22. I’ve had people online get very angry with me, hurling epithets at me when I describe political or economic conditions I consider to be wrong. The expectation was that I would describe the problem, then provide the fix. When I don’t even mention any fix, and pay no attention to advocating a fix, people get angry. We Americans are designer citizens. Ideally, we take orders, and thus it’s reasonable to expect people to get angry when they’re told a problem exists, but no solution is dictated to them. With that in mind, I say that I’m working on both short-term local, and long-term national projects. I meet with others concerned about the corporatization of the University of California and tuitions as an immediate concern. I am also engaged with a group concerned with the systemic power arrangement as set forth in our Constitution. We’re working on, and advocating, that the people assemble to write a new Constitution, the purpose being to restructure the power system, taking it away from the monied oligarchs. Goals as wide-ranging as the anti-war movement, global warming, and women’s rights will not be fixed without a unified approach founded upon an understanding that most injustices and damage to the ecosystem stem from our having given a tiny group of people great wealth and power, and that they exercise that power through the formal structures of government. Government protects private property, private wealth, and private power. That will not be achieved in a year or two. I think other people should join me in this effort, but far more important than following instructions from me, is to ask others if they would like the world to be different than it is, how so, and do they have a sense that they can join with others to further their own personal goals in a collective context.


Fifth Column: You’ve been on various media outlets who are your favorite and least favorite media outlets?

Mark Mason: The absolute worst is the US national public radio system. I would put it as far worse than the corporate media. I have appeared twice on public radio in the San Francisco Bay area, once to discuss campaign finance reform, and a second time to discuss the Occupy movement, of which I was involved. Public radio is stuck between serving the interests of Congress and the public interest. Public radio functions as a fake open forum for discussing government policies. They are driven to believe that they’re independent of money pressure, while taking in stacks of cash from the corporations. The corporate media is more comfortable with who they are and what they’re doing. CNN staff have openly acknowledged that they’re a business, in business, to make money. They make no effort to pretend otherwise, but they do try to sell us the false notion that they’re acting in the public interest, when they’re not. Public radio, sadly, tries desperately to convince the public that they’re different people, non-commercial, only interested in ideas. Thus, the public radio, and TV, discussion forums are moderated by smooth, affable, right-wing ideologues such as Charlie Rose. Here’s another Catch-22. The people cannot demand something they don’t carry as an idea in their skulls. Americans take what they are given, apples, because they’ve never heard of an orange. I put public television and radio as far more insidious as an indoctrination system than even Fox News.


Fifth Column: What particular artworks have had an impact in your life?

Mark Mason: For me, the artist is inseparable from their work. Art, and the artist, are crucial to humanizing the planet. We simply cannot live without them, whether they are formally recognized by the state or some formal cultural institution, or the people around us who do things well, and do them out of a wellspring of love and creativity. That takes us into the question of what is art, and should it be visible, should it be supported by the state or the community? Questions I won’t try to answer, important thought they are. Anyone taking pride in work done freely, absent coercion of any kind, manifesting love and creativity. You left the most important question to the end, and I’m glad to discover your question. I want to put woodworking at the top of the list, having watched artisans, carpenters, cabinetmakers, and derisively-labelled handymen/women at work. Such people are not state-sanctioned as artists. I’ll leave this important domain behind to offer a list of some recognizable celebrities branded as artists. Orson Welles, Hitchcock, Ansel Adams, Camus, Dylan, Hendrix, Bach, Henry Moore, Edward Steichen. The Great Stoneface was positively revolutionary, not in cinematic techniques, but in the ideology of gracefully dismissing formal society. Oh, we could talk about this for hours. Don’t get me started. I wax nostalgic, but for the dignity and revolutionary attitudes of artists. The work of an artist is a dead thing, unless it harkens back, directs the receiver of the artwork to connect the art-as-product of a particular human in a particular time and place. Frank Lloyd Wright. Art Deco, Langston Hughes— I can remember, stunned, shocked, at the first time I heard a Hughes poem. Many, many more and I sit here distraught because I know I have not done the question justice, but I will close with claiming that part of the reason, or the manifestation of thereof, that this country is in very big trouble is because we are missing the artists and storytellers. What passes for art in the mass media is painfully commercially corrupted garbage and we Americans are in very big trouble without the connections to each other, and to the natural world, that artists offer up as their loving gift to humanity. Without water, a person soon dies. Without art, a person soon dies inside.