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Is capitalism over?

Thu, 17th Sep 2015

To say that Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future is controversial is an understatement (see a selection of reviews here). Even in the same newspaper, while one reviewer admires the author as a worthy successor to Marx (in a limited sense, admittedly), another dismisses him as a Trot ‘shackled to the remnants of a hopelessly impractical ideology’ that even Jeremy Corbyn would be embarrassed to embrace.

But there is an intellectual energy to this fascinating, challenging, puzzling, absurdly ambitious and sometimes equally annoying book that makes it an enthralling read even when you want to throw it across the room or can’t get your head round what he is trying to say.

As economics editor of Channel 4 News, Mason has made his name with vivid close-to-the ground reporting from Greece, Tunisia and other trouble-spots that stands out precisely because it seeks to locate immediate events in a wider, global context – as conveyed in the title of his previous book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere. The TV reports are a microcosm, or perhaps a blueprint, for the wildy more grandiose project of PostCapitalism, which is to draw together things and events usually treated as discrete (Greece, the Arab Spring, austerity, migration, the long cycles of innovation and technological advance, successive corporate scandals culminating in the crash of 2008, the decline of the working class, automation and inequality, to name a few) into a single narrative thread describing the trajectory of capitalism. Not content with tracing the history and causes its internal crisis, greatly exacerbated by exogenous shocks like far-reaching climate and democratic change, Mason also seeks to project into the future a superior world beyond capitalism, where a lot of stuff is free and people are too, in the sense that they don’t work, or don’t work much, anyway.

As this suggests, one of the refreshing things about this book is its contrarian-ness – even its optimism, which is based not on resisting automation and the encroachment of computers into working life, as you might expect, but on embracing it, as fast and and far as possible. This is definitely not an old-fashioned Marxist scenario (at various points in the book Mason ticks off Marx, Engels, Lenin and a gallery of early Russian economists, and tips a hat to bogeymen of the left such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises). Nor indeed does he see it as inevitable. We have to want it and make it happen, too.

Briefly (it can only be briefly), Mason’s thesis is that ‘info-tech’, as he calls it, is different from anything that has gone before. It affects every actor in the economy, down to individuals. It is increasingly making work redundant – think of the Oxford Martin School prediction that almost 50 per cent of US jobs are vulnerable to automation in the coming decades, a figure which some now think an underestimate. But info-tech also does funny things to the price mechanism. In a world where the marginal cost of replicating algorithms, MP3s, MS Office or news stories is effectively zero, high prices and profits can only be maintained by monopolies (Apple’s walled garden, Microsoft’s lock-in, Google and Facebook’s appropriation of externalities in the shape of personal information involuntarily given away) – in other words by making artificially scarce what could economically perfectly well be abundant.

But if the inherent manufacturing cost is tending to zero, what happens, finally, when people deliberately decide to de-monopolise (sorry) products or services by collaborating in ways that ‘no longer correspond to the dictates of the market or the managerial hierarchy’ – for example, by jointly writing the free Open Source software that powers most of the internet, the most powerful computer in the world and the dominant mobile phone operating system (Android), or contributing to the largest information product, Wikipedia? The answer is that these non-market initiatives create something new – what might be called a brand-new ‘monopoly of free’. By removing whole chunks of enterprise from the market economy (as a commercial site Wikipedia could be taking in $3bn a year, by one reckoning), they effectively bar the terrain to the market. A new economy of abundance is in the process of being born.

Bring it on, says Mason. Capitalism as we know it, having spawned economic and technological forces that it can no longer contain, has run out of steam. It has always driven forward by opening up new markets, whether demographic, geographic or technological: but the monopoly of free makes the last frontier, the personal, harder to cross. Without it, capitalism is ‘an economic system in disequilibrium with its environment and insufficient to satisfy the needs of a rapidly changing humanity’.

So let’s move on, says Mason – not through the forced destruction of market mechanisms by the working class, as anticipated by the left (‘over the past 25 years it is the left’s project that has collapsed’), but rather through the spontaneous, creative, self-organising activities of the ‘networked individuals’ that the working class has morphed into under neoliberal capitalism’s economic and technological pressures. In this, he believes, they will need to be supported by institutional innovation, imaginative state intervention, including the provision of a universal basic income, and internationally-agreed action to deal with the threats of climate change and the overhang of global debt.  

Inevitably Mason’s ‘guide to the future’ is a lot sketchier and more speculative than his dense (sometimes over-dense, although vastly impressive in range and depth of reference) and rich analysis of the past – which has equally inevitably brought down a hail of criticism from sceptics. But two things are worth noting. First, in his closely documented The Rise of the Robots, Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Martin Ford strikingly arrives at the same end point from a completely departure: a basic guaranteed wage for all, he concludes, will be the only means of generating enough demand to keep the wheels of capitalism turning when work disappears into the machine. And second, the scoffers who ridicule Mason for being both apocalyptic and utopian are on no firmer ground themselves. It’s true that capitalism has shown a protean ability to adapt and transform up to now. But faith that it will do so again because it has done it before is just that – faith – and no more based on hard evidence than Mason’s scenario. Likewise the labour theory of value that underpins much of his economic thinking may be unfamiliar. But the assumptions that it rests on are actually no more outlandish than the perfect information, efficient markets and utility-maximisation of neoclassical theory, which has hardly proved itself a reliable guide to the real economy.

The truth is that Mason doesn’t know any more than anyone else what the world is going to throw at us in the next decades, and it is certain that at least half of what he proposes will be wrong – including, very possibly, the positive outcome (Evgeny Morozov, for example, takes a rather different view). Meanwhile, the range of possibilities that he presents is tantalising and invigorating, not least because he grants agency to individuals – if they (we) care, or have the willpower, to use it. You certainly won’t agree with everything here, and I lost count of the scribbled question and exclamation marks against the text. But Mason is asking the right questions, and in its heady interweaving of social, economic and political history, his book is a thriller. Even if you find yourself at an unfamiliar or even unwelcome destination, as is quite likely, you won’t have been bored on the ride.



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User comments

Charles :: 22nd Sep 15
Unusually, Simon, I have to disagree with you. The fact that a free or almost free economy runs alongside a more conventional market one, does not mean the end of capitalism. People still need to eat, buy or rent homes, clothe themselves or warm themselves and such things will always cost money and need the incentives of a market to produce them. Nor will a basic income provide the consumer base; at any proper level it is unaffordable without huge taxes on any income above the basic.
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