A review of Paul Mason’s ‘Post Capitalism: a Guide to Our Future’ by Irvine Welsh. The most interesting thing about historical change is that as soon as a social and political movement hits its zenith, it is by definition in decline, with the next order invariably found incubating inside it. The post-war settlement of democratic socialism begat the era of privatization, when the rich decided they no longer wanted to pay for the welfare state, and set about dismantling it. But all that avarice couldn’t have flourished without a genuine ideology underpinning it. This was the notion of a property-owning democracy in a free market, where state assets, from shares in the nationalized industries, to council homes, could be made available to individual consumers (not citizens).

If this development of capitalism, perhaps the most adaptive system known to humanity, could have just stopped there, it probably would have ensured the permanent right-wing hegemony now so assumptive by the establishment classes. However, human history doesn’t operate that way, and PostCapitalism, (as the title suggests, hunting far bigger game than just neoliberalism), informs us why. Paul Mason not only looks at the inevitable descent of our current dominant economic and ideological paradigm, but also boldly sifts around its growing pockets and peripheries in order to hypothesize just what might replace it.

THE END OF CAPITALISM (AND IT’S ALL NEOLIBERALISM’S FAULT)

The essential proposition of the book is that “capitalism is a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.” Paul Mason convincingly argues that neoliberal capitalism is now lagging behind a force inherently more dynamic than itself: technological advance and the increasing public manifestation of sovereign intellectual thought.

He identifies fiat money, financialization, the global currency imbalances and vast debts and currency reserves of the major counties, but above all information technology as the key factors that first allowed neoliberalism to flourish, but which are now ripping it apart. Those factors initially created the persuasive fiction at the heart of neoliberalism; we can all enjoy the archetypal lifestyle of the western consumer, but without wages rising. People can borrow, but they can never go bust: if you take out a mortgage to buy a home, the value of that property will always rise. Inflation is ubiquitous, so securing a loan to buy a car means that by the time you need to replace the vehicle, the value of the remaining debt is abraded, leaving you plenty of room for maneuver to borrow more.

But everything changed with the 2008 crash, and –crucially- its aftermath: the insipid nature of the recovery and the gloomy long-term prospects of stagnation. The western powers saved the banks by burying their bad debts, at a cost of accruing government ones of close to 100% of GDP. Through austerity programmes, the hurt was transferred from the people who had stupidly invested this money, onto the citizens of those democracies, often the same ones whose cash they had squandered.

So we now have a global economic and political system where austerity is not a temporary policy tool aimed at redressing a one-off blip, but a long-term strategy for the rich to prolong privilege in face on the ongoing systemic failure of neoliberal capitalism. In the author’s words, the real austerity project is “to drive down wages and living standards in the West for decades, until they meet those of the middle class in China and India on the way up.”

So we now have a global economic and political system where austerity is not a temporary policy tool aimed at redressing a one-off blip, but a long-term strategy for the rich to prolong privilege in face on the ongoing systemic failure of neoliberal capitalism. In the author’s words, the real austerity project is “to drive down wages and living standards in the West for decades, until they meet those of the middle class in China and India on the way up.”

The Paris-based OECD think tank sees inequality rising by 40% with ‘weak’ growth of around 2.7% per annum up to 2050. Even this modest figure seems to sail beyond the realm of optimism into neoliberal propaganda. Most independent pundits scorn it and Paul Mason himself reckons that it will be closer to .75%. Yet for such paltry conditions to be met, Europe and the USA would need to absorb 50 million more immigrants between now and 2060. Without such incomers, the tax base of those Western states shrinks to unviability, due to our ageing population. With them, Los Angeles and London start to look Manila and Mumbai, with shantytowns spreading from the wall-and-gated centres snaking around declining sink valleys and satellite towns.

But in the absence of a model of a neoliberal economic crisis, the possibility that neoliberalism can collapse under its own contradictions remains unacceptable to most. Even those who reject all the intellectually spurious assumptions it comes bundled with – constant info-tech fuelled growth, friction-free capitalism, the end of ideology – roughly accept that the basic idea behind the system, namely that markets correct themselves, is vaguely tenable. Only in reality this wasn’t always the case, but it most emphatically isn’t with neoliberalism.

Under information capitalism, monopolies are more than a tactic to maximize profit; they are the only way an industry can run. Paul Mason observes: “The small number of companies that dominate each sector is striking. In traditional sectors you have usually four to six big players in every market: the big four accountancy firms; four or five big supermarket groups: four big turbofan makers. But the signature brands of info-tech need total dominance: Google needs to be the only search company; Facebook has to be the only place you construct your online identity; Twitter where you post your thoughts; iTunes the go-to online music store. In two key markets – online search and mobile operating systems – there is a two-firm death match, with Google currently winning both of them.”

In the globalized economic order, neoliberalism, with its great corporations of the information era, is the attempt to constrain and shape these forces. Like a lumbering, morbidly obese man breathlessly wobbling down an alley, using his girth to frantically keep back the speedier runners, it seeks to use the market and pricing mechanisms to control a force which is not only inherently more dynamic, but counter-intuitive to capitalism: the network.

Information technology’s ascendancy disrupted capitalism’s base components: price, ownership and wages. The post-2008 crisis is the product of flaws within the neoliberal economic model that prevents the exploitation of new technologies, and the takeoff of a fifth ‘long wave’. The third industrial revolution we should be going through right now has stalled. Blaming its failure on feeble policy, ropey investment strategy and arrogant, cavalier finance is only “mistaking the symptoms for the disease”. Trying to impose prohibitive oligarchic legal norms on top of market structures misses the point and, in the process, undermines freedom.

It’s important to remember that capitalism did not always exist – as either an economy or a value system. When we do this, we are moved to accept that it might not last forever. Paul Mason requests that we entertain the concept of transitions, asking: “what constitutes an economic system and how does one give way to another?” PostCapitalism’s exploration of the powerful diagnostic elements of Marxism, in terms of its critique of capitalism, and its limitations on the prediction of its crisis, should be read carefully by everybody on the left. What he eventually settles on is more than a renovation of Marxism, but a gut rehab based largely on the more obscure, but illuminating writings of Marx on machinery (essentially the technology of his era).

greekDEVELOPMENT OF POSTCAPITALISM

The technological path of the neoliberal revolution is in conflict with its social direction. Technologically, we are headed for zero-price goods, immeasurable work, an exponential takeoff in productivity and the extensive automation of physical processes. Socially, we are trapped in a world of monopolies, inefficiency, the ruins of the finance-dominated free market and a proliferation of what the anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’.

Or rather, we were. Paul Mason envisions the escape hatch: “An economy based on information, with its tendency to zero-cost products and weak property rights, cannot be a capitalist economy.” And this is developing now because the rise of neoliberalism disrupted the previous fifty-year patterns of capitalism, ensuring its 240-year lifecycle could be approaching the end. PostCapitalism argues that the movement from scarcity to abundance in knowledge, our greatest resource, makes us look to a theory of the disappearance of something hitherto considered ubiquitous and organic in public (capitalist-era) life: the price mechanism.

Mason postulates, in light of Wikipedia and Open Source software, that an economy based on information networks creates a new mode of production beyond capitalism. Wikipedia, if it were run as a commercial site, could generate $2.8 billion in annual revenue. As it stands, not only does it make no profit, its existence mitigates against the possibility of anybody else in the same sphere doing so. “Economists like to demonstrate the archaic nature of command planning with mind-games like ‘imagine the Soviet Union tried to create Starbucks’. Now, here’s a more intriguing game: imagine if Amazon, Toyota or Boeing tried to create Wikipedia.”

Paul Mason argues that change emphatically cannot happen through the old industrial proletariat, as society itself is now the factory. “The worker of the Keynesian era had a single character: at work, in the local bar, in the social club, on the football terraces, they were the same essential person. The networked individual creates a more complex reality: s/he lives parallel lives at work, in numerous fragmentary subcultures and online…it is this new kind of person, the networked individual, who is the bearer of the postcapitalist society that could now emerge.”

Those networked individuals have a lot of work to do, as postcapitalist society has to be designed rather than planned. Paul Mason sees the role of the state declining in postcapitalism, replaced in many of its functions by society itself, in the form of the network. Unlike Soviet-style planning, imagination and dissent is to be nurtured and indeed, is the cornerstone of the process. The network becomes the key forum; quicker and more immersive than a parliament, swifter and more democratic than the market. And it has to be, as immediate action needs to be taken to:

• Rapidly reduce carbon emissions so that the world has warmed by only two degrees Celsius by 2050, prevent an energy crisis and mitigate the chaos caused by climate events.

• Stabilize the finance system between now and 2050 by socializing it, so that ageing populations, climate change and the debt overhang do not combine to detonate a new boom-bust cycle and destroy the world economy.

• Deliver high levels of material prosperity and wellbeing to the majority of people, primarily by prioritizing information-rich technologies towards solving major social challenges, such as ill-health, welfare dependency, sexual exploitation and poor education.

• Gear technology towards the reduction of necessary work to promote the rapid transition towards an automated economy. Eventually, work becomes voluntary, basic commodities and public services are free, and economic management becomes primarily an issue of energy and resources, not capital and labour.

How are those ‘top level goals’ to be implemented? Principally, by making us more overtly aware of the processes that we are already indulging in, and working to maximize their potential. Mason observes: “Non-market forms of production and exchange exploit the basic human tendency to collaborate – to exchange gifts of intangible value – which has always existed but at the margins of economic life. This is more than simply a rebalancing between public goods and private goods: it is a whole new and revolutionary thing. The proliferation of these non-market economic activities is making it possible for a cooperative, socially just society to emerge… we lie at a moment of possibility: of a controlled transition beyond the free market, beyond carbon, beyond compulsory work.”

In more general terms the Mason model advocates that postcapitalism should and must:

1. Model first, act later.
2. Advance the ‘Wiki state’.
3. Expand collaborative work .
4. Socialize or suppress monopolies.
5. Let market forces disappear.
6. Socialize the finance system including nationalizing the central bank.
7. Pay everyone a basic income.
8. Unleash the network.
9. Liberate the 1%.

Mason sees the wealth of elite as fundamentally dysfunctional to them, separating them from all aspects of society. “The modern elite after the catastrophe of 2008: (are) a financial aristocracy determined to go on living as if the threats outlined are not real…what happens to the 1 per cent? They become poorer and therefore happier”, he optimistically contends, ending the book by telling the rich that the good news is: “the 99 per cent are coming to the rescue. Postcapitalism will set you free.”

CKoiwUQWgAA4Jn9SOME THOUGHTS ON A CRITIQUE

Postcapitalism is a groundbreaking book, both staggering in its ambition, and brilliantly executed. It will, of necessity, generate plenty of discussion. In that spirit, I’m expressing a few reservations, some big, others not so much.

The nature of neoliberalism. By putting technological change at the forefront of his thesis, Paul Mason perhaps downplays corporate strategic behaviour in the development of neoliberalism. During its first phase, in the 1980’s, profits often owed more to mergers and acquisitions than the capturing and developing of new markets. At first this was justified by ‘efficiency’, but it was clear that corporations were using economies of scale as barriers to entry in order to eliminate competition. When private corporations grew to the size where their strategic decisions affected society, as well as themselves, opportunistic self-perpetuation and survival became more manifest goals, sitting alongside the traditional ones of increasing profit or paying shareholders dividends. Once corporations strategized at this level, they became fundamentally risk-aversive entities, using monopoly power and governmental influence, through the lobby system, to undermine the idea of a free market. This might eventually boil down to semantics, but you are moved to wonder just how strictly ‘capitalist’ a risk-free ‘capitalism’ (neoliberalism) can actually be.

The limitations of the Wiki model. As an illustration of a postcapitalist mode of production, an online encyclopedia is as information-based as it gets. However, few products are (at present) so purely comprised of this quality. By marking out such a strong and dynamic schematic model for postcapitalism, Paul Mason might also have defined its structural limitations.

The profit motive and the ownership of the means of production. This is a tough one to address without moving into deeply speculative territory. To his credit Paul Mason suggests a just and equitable reward system in his model of postcapitalism, but this then leads us to postulate on ‘human nature’ and motivation, and how fixed or environmentally adaptive this is. Mason rightly resists the temptation to expand beyond the remit of the book, which is wide and ambitious enough as things stand. But a question we will be drawn to is: could capitalist and postcapitalist societies produce two different types of human being, as (at least psychologically) different to each other as Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were? Social media activists might be driven to conclude that this process is already well underway. But more prosaically, the farms, forests, factories, oil fields, mines and power plants that generate the essentials that we need are owned by people who will want paying for them. Is a postcapitalist society ultimately compatible with private property? How do we abolish this?

• Can post-scarcity ever be ubiquitous across all sectors of a postcapitalist society? Yes, we can produce goods that go on for decades without needing replaced. Granted, information is now the dominant force in our economy, and abundant, but will we ever be able to say the same about more staple items, given our demographic and environmental time bombs? Robots might be able to do our work while we sit back with a good book, but can they put food on the table?

• Something-for-nothing thinking. Stronger than both the values that underpin the market (profit) and the network (sharing), it lies within the base human nature of us all. It’s that supremely rational and substantively irrational notion (from a societal view) that you can get something for nothing, or for at least as little as possible. Tax avoidance by the rich and big corporations like Amazon and Google is seen in the neoliberal paradigm as sensible strategy to reduce business costs, while lower-level welfare benefit frauds are treated as heinous and revolting slights to humanity. But the sanction of the rich tax cheating by the neoliberal elite’s puppet governments sends the subliminal message to all this this is acceptable, however draconian the hypocritical witch-hunts against welfare manipulation are. After all, this thinking dovetails perfectly with the idea of postcapitalist zero cost. Thus the multi-millionaire rock band moving their base of operations to a tax haven to become more ‘tax-efficient’ is defacto sanctioning the student to (illegally) download their music on the basis of ‘savings efficiency.’ We probably have to pay for food, accommodation and transport, but really, in this day and age, why should we have to pay for pretty much anything else? People of wealth are already doing this; restaurant bills, home offices and air and rail travel are already tax deductibles for ‘business’ people. Neoliberalism certainly didn’t event this psychology, but its mechanisms hone personal greed and excess, in a manner ultimately self-defeating to itself. Like (1) above, this is not so much a critique of Paul Mason’s thesis, as a supplement to it.

postcapPOLITICAL RAMIFICATIONS

“Twenty-five years of neoliberalism have forced our thinking about change to become small. But if we are bold enough to imagine we can rescue the planet, we should also imagine rescuing ourselves from an economic system that doesn’t work. In fact, the imagination stage is critical.”

Allowing the license offered above, it’s interesting to address how those changes might affect the differing political sectors in western society.

The neoliberal right in our society currently enjoy hegemonic power across all co-opted institutions of government, business, and private media. However, with more people both aliened from and excluded by such institutions, the authorities become increasingly compelled into trying to control those they can offer nothing substantive to. So the problem Conservatives have always had, namely to convince everyone else that their interests are coterminous with the very wealthiest in our society, becomes more acute and relies on propaganda and physical coercion. This might be expected to intensify as capitalism becomes, at ground level, a threadbare scenario of desperate, scamming low-rent hucksterism for the masses, stuck right in middle of the golden age of information technology with it’s chrome-and-glass office blocks and walled-and-gated mansions.

As the system falls apart, the tendency of the right to precipitate this through desperate action will become tempting. Paul Mason contends, “All that would be needed to blow the whole thing apart is for one or more country to ‘head for the exit’, using protectionism, currency manipulation or debt default.” While the eyes of the European right wing are on countries like Greece, they might do well to look to other big debtor nations. In the USA, the Republican Party is at rhetorically committed to doing all of the above.

On a deeper level, where the oligarchic corporatism of neoliberalism renders the market increasingly unfree, and negates democracy, right-wing politics becomes less about abstractions of freedom, and more nakedly simply about the protection of privileged elites. Critical, thoughtful right-wingers must be existentially heading for the same crisis that those on the left experienced when the extent of Soviet authoritarianism became apparent. Was 2008 their 1956?

On a deeper level, where the oligarchic corporatism of neoliberalism renders the market increasingly unfree, and negates democracy, right-wing politics becomes less about abstractions of freedom, and more nakedly simply about the protection of privileged elites. Critical, thoughtful right-wingers must be existentially heading for the same crisis that those on the left experienced when the extent of Soviet authoritarianism became apparent. Was 2008 their 1956?

The more moderate right, say the Blairite Labour Party, would, pre-2008, and the development of a fully-fledged (and systemically flawed) neo-liberalism, perhaps have been its principal political benefactors. This was almost the New Labour creed: the idea of not confronting power, but persuading it to give up some of its resources for the common good.

bain-capital-corporate-raiderThe problem with the ‘crumbs of the rich man’s table’ approach is that since 2008 and the bail out of the banks, government spending is now largely being reconfigured from the financing of health, education, infrastructure and welfare systems, into a contingency fund for the next impending financial disaster. Having established the logic that private institutions, (the banks) are too big to fail, while public ones (countries, like Greece) are not, it’s easy by extension, to see public money used to bail out big corporations that fall into difficulties. In essence that’s what TTIP is. The ISDS (Investor Trade Dispute Settlement) component allows companies to sue local and national governments if they feel they are being ‘unfairly’ done out of business. In the USA McDonalds are currently taking the city of Seattle to court, claiming that the new minimum wage of $15 (£7) per hour is damaging their profits. When capitalism uses not just economic monopoly power, but state and legal statutes to eliminate risk (the supposed key area of the market) it becomes superfluous to all but the superrich. This negation of risk, and the consequences of failure for its main actors, means capitalism sheds the coat of democracy and universalism. Instead it promotes a corrupt, Soviet-style caste, beyond the laws everybody else is subject to.

So for the Labour right, in the polarization between austerity and non-austerity politics, it might simply be about running out of what the American’s call ‘political real estate’. In essence, they cannot offer what the parties of the right do without becoming one of them, and are subsequently demolished by their own left, with the Corbynite rise in England potentially shadowing that of the SNP’s eclipse of them in Scotland. It’s the lesson PASOK were recently given by Syriza in Greece.

For the left, the postcapitalist thesis seems to offer joy after three decades of defeat, but it carries a load of caveats. In particular, it means some of the old sacred cows need to be taken to the knacker’s yard. Simply going back to Keynesian post-war tax-and-spend economics is no longer tenable, as it essentially runs it into the same problem currently besetting luddite neoliberal capitalism: there is no longer enough paid work to go round. Therefore you have only a limited tax base, unless you are seriously talking about taxing wealth, rather than income. This is something the British left has always been shy about, principally because it’s physically difficult to do.

Here is something that many on the left will find an anathema, but it is essential to acknowledge: “Marxism got it wrong about the working class. The proletariat was the closest thing to an enlightened, collective historical subject that human society has ever produced. But 200 years of experience show it was preoccupied with ‘living despite capitalism’, not overthrowing it.” So while the network must replace the market as the dynamic economic force in postcapitalism, so too must the informed citizenry oust the proletariat as the principal agent of change. In short, the mission of the ‘left’ is probably to moderate its extremists and revolutionize its moderates.

IN SUMMARY – THE IMPORTANCE OF POSTCAPITALISM

Like all prescriptive works of its kind Post-Capitalism must in essence feel stronger on the analysis of the failings of the current system, than in predicting what lies ahead. Yet it’s to Paul Mason’s great credit and courage that he offers a model of how a postcapitalist future might operate. As with such frameworks, it’s first and foremost about opening up the discussion and debate on our futures, which have been circumscribed by a self-interested private media and a state one bullied into timid irrelevance. The great strength of Paul Mason’s speculations is that they are never flights of fancy, always logic extrapolations from grounded observations.

PostCapitalism is a beautifully written work, combining this hardheaded economic analysis with a strong narrative style, which benefits from Mason’s own anecdotal experiences investigating the battlegrounds of neoliberalism. This produces a literary blood that flows through its pages, elevating PostCapitalism above the dry, anodyne texts written by academics, or ‘economists’ (often in reality paid spokespersons for governments or banking interests).

It has the feel of experience well won, as Mason spices the text with anecdotes from the declining peripheries of capitalism, from the river Dniester on the Moldavian border, to Greggs bakers in Kirkcaldy High Street. And it’s probably the first time that any writer on economics has used the value of the last ecstasy tablet in a nightclub to explain the concept of marginal utility.

It has the feel of experience well won, as Mason spices the text with anecdotes from the declining peripheries of capitalism, from the river Dniester on the Moldavian border, to Greggs bakers in Kirkcaldy High Street. And it’s probably the first time that any writer on economics has used the value of the last ecstasy tablet in a nightclub to explain the concept of marginal utility.

The succinct elucidations Paul Mason offers as he traverses seamlessly from one idea to the next, renders the book highly accessible to the layperson. Although Kondratieff, Ricardo, Smith, Keynes, Marx, Drucker, crisis theory and wave theory are all expounded on, the salient rationale of their concepts pertinent to his thesis are explained as you journey through the text. (Surprisingly, Catalan sociologist Manuel Castells, whose ideas on network theory seem weaved into the book, is not referenced.)

The great achievement of PostCapitalism is that it dares to open up big, utopian thinking again, freeing us from the dreary dystopia’s of ‘nothing less than fully-fledged class war’ or ‘let’s just put up with it, as it’s the best we can do.’ After three decades of the nihilistic and stultifying ‘end of history’ thesis, the pervading message is that the human spirit is alive and kicking. And it has a good shot at getting our society into shape to face the enormous demographic, environmental and fiscal time bombs coming our way.

So Post Capitalism is more than a treatise on, or a description of, what’s happening to us right now. It stands as a fundamental intellectual and spiritual service to our common humanity and a GPS to the new world it sees unfolding before us. It’s both a visionary and landmark work, and the most important book about our economy and society to be published in my lifetime.

So Post Capitalism is more than a treatise on, or a description of, what’s happening to us right now. It stands as a fundamental intellectual and spiritual service to our common humanity and a GPS to the new world it sees unfolding before us. It’s both a visionary and landmark work, and the most important book about our economy and society to be published in my lifetime.