socialist sunday school song bookI can’t give a higher accolade to a book than to say it deserves reading three or four times – and that after that you should have it on hand for keyword reference, via whatever devices you possess.

Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism (buy here) connects our contemporary challenges – technological, socio-economic and planetary – to a very persuasive history, whose waves of change are explained by a powerful collection of theories. I expect that we’ll be coming back to drink from this river again and again on the Scottish indy-left.

Yet the reader would do well to pay close attention to the subtlety of Paul’s arguments about what might come after capitalism. He says explicitly that he is a “revolutionary reformist”, and delights that this self-description annoys both the boss-class and the Occupy protestor alike.

One of his most useful moves is to urge radical leftists to abandon the idea that capitalism can only be “overthrown” from the “outside” with an “entirely new plan” – and that instead, a postcapitalism can be “incubated” from within it. There’s a number of reasons Mason gives for this. One of which is that Marx and Engels, for all their analytic power, got the collective mentality and experience of the worker (as a “proletariat”) under capitalism quite wrong.

Marx pronounced that the proles were entirely alienated in their consciousness, brutalised cogs in the factory system – and thus would be desperate for enlightened vanguards to lead them to liberation.

However, over successive waves of capitalist development, the working-class found a way to “live alongside capitalism”, as Mason puts it, by generating their own positive culture of liberation. They didn’t just grimly press for better working conditions (which, by restoring demand to economies and improving workers’ capabilities, enabled capitalism to renew itself).

They also created clubs, recreations, libraries, self-educations, entertainments – often themselves infused with utopian, humanistic visions, reaching way beyond the achievement of decent working conditions. (I once bought a “Socialist Sunday School Song Book” from a shop in Glasgow’s Trongate: all those sentiments are in there, hymn by hymn).

The point Mason wants to make is that, historically, there has always been a zone of what you could call “complex liberty” in working-class lives. People have always had intense, lively reasons for wanting to push back the frontiers (and the hours) of societally-required labour, one way or another.

This was desired in order that rich and meaningful choices could be freely and consciously made – about the direction of one’s life, or the relations with one’s relatives, friends and neighbours, or one’s attitude towards knowledge or skill.

In short, left politics should not always be just about defending the right to “labour”, “jobs”, “employment”. It should also be about creating conditions where the maximum possible number of citizens can exert the greatest possible degree of autonomy and self-determination.

In short, left politics should not always be just about defending the right to “labour”, “jobs”, “employment”. It should also be about creating conditions where the maximum possible number of citizens can exert the greatest possible degree of autonomy and self-determination.

In pushing for as much free time as possible, as a benefit from increased productivity through technology, a modern left honours some of the best traditions of working-class life. The Multitude itself has always contained multitudes.

So when Paul comes to tell us that digitalisation, enabled by computers and communication networks, opens up a realm of free products and services that threaten the very property rights and social arrangements of capitalism itself, he wants to be seen as drenched in workers’ history, not some Wired-magazine neophile. (Though to be fair, the “New Digital Socialism” essay that founding Wired editor Kevin Kelly wrote in 2009 is fascinating to compare with Mason’s work).

Friendly and mutual societies were the precursors of the achievements of the welfare state, public housing and mass education – all those wrested from the furious upheavals of capitalist development by the organised working-class.

In the same manner, suggests Mason, contemporary radicals and progressives should be even more ambitious for what current practices like open source software, digital sharing practices and computer simulations could become, at the level of an entire society. What would be the postcapitalist equivalents of those great collective achievements?

My sense is that Mason wants these ambitions to be guided by this irrepressible historical desire – that is, to seek the resources to shape your life according to your sensibilities, in cooperation with others who have a similar openness and ambition.

Paul doesn’t go exactly where I went in The Play Ethic in 2004, in trying to locate the source of this desire. I found it in the biological and evolved necessity of play and creativity to the development of the human animal.

The lives of most humans in history have been conducted under conditions of economic scarcity. Digitality and networks brought the spirit and practice of abundance into the socio-economic mainstream. For me, the digital revolution has felt like the platform that the creative principle in human beings has been long awaiting, over many millennia.

Ever since the first artwork on a cave wall, or the first consciously-formed social group, adult humans – themselves always forged through early childhood play – have sought to express their creative urges. Human imagination irrepressibly bubbles up through the cracks of brute survival. The current tumult of digital culture only hints at the kind of world we could forge if those exigencies of survival were radically reduced.

I know it’s fun to tear strips off the “hipsters” and the “creatives” – and it’s right to do so when they are just expressing their accumulated cultural capital, as a class privilege. But what is so valuable about Mason’s PostCapitalism is that he makes us realise how propitious the general conditions are, in which we can make very significant redefinitions of the priorities of our lives.

Paul asks us to build the confidence that we can answer our complex needs with free, open and information-driven systems and practices – and to experiment like crazy in doing so. If we can do this, we might well be able to displace “work” from the centre of our societies, and replace it with “meaning” or “culture” or “purpose” or “creativity” or “care”. Or any permutation of those.

Of course, who exactly the “we” is in those last few paragraphs – how big, how self-conscious, how clearly motivated to progress change – is the crucial question. In my Guardian Live discussion with Paul and others a fortnight ago, and in my recent column in The National, I flagged up a few potential problems.

Paul’s chosen agent of change is the “universal educated person” that’s coming to consciousness throughout the capitalist world system. These types are not just to be found in the developed world, but are also reacting to illiberalisms in China, the Middle-East, South America, the major African cities. All of them are empowered to dream bigger, and build or promote alternatives, by means of their networked devices.

Back in 2004, using an admittedly awkward neologism, I called them the “soulitariat” (the proletariat sold their physical power to the authorities; the soulitariat sell their mental and emotional power – but can never sell it entirely).

Back then, like Paul, I too hoped then that these digitally-empowered “players” would become a majority class. And not just (to use the old Marxist language) a class “in” themselves, but a class “for” themselves – acutely aware of their own interests and agenda. They’ve also been called “hackers”, and then “makers” and “creatives”, over these last ten or fifteen years.

But however many times we’ve described them, I’m not sure they’ve fully turned up yet – ready and willing to build the new society that their communication-driven lifestyles imply.

There may be deeper reasons why they haven’t arrived. Paul and I both have quite a faith in the intrinsic, evolutionarily-rooted capacity for human creativity. He talks of an “adaptive left”, ready to bring about “new kinds of human beings”, whose eventual character traits cannot be predicted. “How will humans have to change in order for postcapitalism to emerge?”

But I wonder how strong the counter-tendency is: a desire for less change, for the conservation of things, for stability and security first?

…I wonder how strong the counter-tendency is: a desire for less change, for the conservation of things, for stability and security first?

We’ve no shortage of science-fiction in popular culture, imagining “new kinds of human beings” every week. The problem is, when it does, it usually reveals deep and enduring fears, rather than thrilling new possibilities.

I’m thinking about Channel Four’s Humans, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. The first is about humanoid robots, the second about bio-modification, both becoming an accepted fact of our coming lives. But both are predominantly cautionary – telling stories to prevent a future happening, rather than showing a pathway to it.

“What [we postcapitalists] are trying to build”, says Mason, “should be even more complex, more autonomous and more unstable” than the flexible organism (or “adaptive system”) that is capitalism. A capitalism whose ability to shift and mutate to changing conditions proved ultimately superior to the most meticulous Soviet planning.

But are there limits to how much “complexity, autonomy and instability” humans can cope with? For example, isn’t one of the biggest forces in the contemporary world the kickback against the kind of incessant, transformative modernity that Paul celebrates? Whether that be militant religious identities, or hard-core environmental resistance, or more locally the four million odd votes on this island for UKIP, asking to “stop the world and get off”?

Mason has a tin ear for this philosophically conservative tendency (with a small “c”). At one point he writes about the travails of labour organisers in the global South, and the “social and ideological cobwebs” in the minds of locals that “they fail to overcome”. Those cobwebs Mason defines as “ethnic rivalries, the village network, religious fundamentalism, organised crime”.

For Paul to call these “cobwebs”, presumably to be swept away by a confident ultramodern hand, isn’t reckoning seriously with their shaping power. Take a young African-Muslim man’s militant ethno-religious identity, fuelled by the meretricious quality (not to mention the lethal drone strikes) of Western civilisation. Would his head and heart be so easily “sublated” by the influence of his compatriots becoming “universal educated individuals” on their ever smarter phones?

Mason and I hugely admire the Catalan social thinker Manuel Castells, only glancingly referenced in this book. But I wonder whether a deeper engagement with his work might have helped here. In his trilogy on network society, Castells talked about the tension between “the Net” and “the Self” (I commissioned Castells on this topic for my E2 page in the Herald in 1997, and recently referenced this in an essay on Alasdair Gray’s “settlers and colonists” controversy in 2012).

On one side, Castells posits the fluid experience of network society – the world at your digital fingertips, and the “multiple identities” you need to function properly in it. And on the other side, Castells concedes an equally strong impulse to have your feet planted somewhere, to lay down a collective anchor of identity in the global storm.

So yes yes yes, Paul, let’s push forward new practices that both demand and forge “new humans”. But shouldn’t those interested in a good society also be trying to find a healthy balance between cosmopolitan complexity and traditional stability – or even more elemental, between risk and security?

One way to balance these poles is through a civic nationalism or constitutional patriotism – a vibrant national polity seeking to make its progressive, constructive mark on the affairs of the planet. This was summed up classically by the SNP pioneer Winnie Ewing’s old 60s phrase, “stop the world, we want to get on”.

Mason wrote a Guardian column recently which resisted mightily the idea of any kind of English identity, even while accepting that constitutional reform is coming to England. He wants Englishness itself to be like its language – a sprawling force for plurality, hybridity and worldliness. Something that could only be crudified by association with a flag or nation.

But couldn’t that be expressed as a unity-in-diversity, an e pluribus unum, a national home whose framing of diversity and difference you could be proud of? That “green and pleasant land” implied by the recent invocations of William Blake’s Jersusalem – whether they be Jez Butterworth’s, or Danny Boyle’s?

“Don’t try to burden me with yet another layer of bogus identity politics”, says Paul in the Guardian article – and it’s OK, Paul, I won’t! But the national dimension brings me to the question of how Paul’s PostCapitalism might inform the policy agenda of pro-independence parties and movements in Scotland – which I’ll explore in my next Bella blog.


Pat Kane is a writer and musician, and one of Bella Caledonia’s innovation editors (