Julian Gough reviews PostCapitalism: A Guide To Our Future, by Paul Mason
Channel 4’s economics editor argues that capitalism is at the heart of all the world’s woes
PostCapitalism: A Guide To Our Future
On page one of PostCapitalism, Paul Mason says, in an aside, “I knew, in addition to all this, that I didn’t like capitalism.” Mason, now the 55-year-old economics editor of Channel 4, is a former Catholic schoolboy who rejected Jesus, embraced Marx on the rebound, and became a teenage member of Workers’ Power, one of the more charming and earnest English Trotskyist outfits. (Current membership, after the last split, about 35.)
And, unfortunately, it shows. Like its ancestor texts – the Sermon on the Mount, the Communist Manifesto, and London Calling by The Clash – PostCapitalism is essentially an evangelical religious work, thunderously rejecting the world we live in, before painting a vague vision of paradise. As such, it is a success. Naomi Klein already loves it, providing a lengthy blurb. Irvine Welsh calls it “the most important book about our economy and society to be published in my lifetime”. Noam Chomsky, after reading it, is going to want to snort organic, co-operatively farmed, Fair Trade cocaine from Mason’s noble, non-corporate navel.
From page one, everything bad is capitalism’s fault. Russian invasion of the Ukraine? The rise of Islamic State? “These are the signs that the neoliberal order has failed.” Not signs that, say, totalitarian Russian rule might be in crisis; or that 1,000 years of brutal Sunni/Shia sectarian conflict might have caused some longterm problems in the region. Because in Mason’s world view, there are only two forces at work; capitalism (being unstoppably horrid), and everything else (being ineffectually nice). This becomes grimly comical at times. When women protest against misogyny in India, Mason interprets this as an anti-capitalist protest. This is ahistorical nonsense; the status of women in India has been terrible since at least the Islamic invasions of the 5th century. Women were burned alive on their husband’s funeral pyres until the arrival of the (capitalist) East India Company, which banned the practice.
Likewise, when secular Turks in Istanbul protest explicitly against their Islamist government’s religious crackdown on individual freedoms, Mason concludes: “Their grievances went to the heart of what is broken in modern capitalism.” Well, “a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest,” as Paul Simon once mused.
Basically, Paul Mason is not fascinated by the complexity, the subtlety, of capitalism; which means he consistently oversimplifies and misreads its deeply paradoxical nature and history. But he is fascinated by the complexity, the subtlety of Marxism: the majority of this book is dedicated to Marxist theory and history (wisely, this is not flagged on the cover). As a work of revisionist postmodern Marxism, though, it’s a very entertaining ride. There are several long, fascinating mini-essays on 19th-century working-class life, as well as succinct accounts of the rise of open source software, the intriguing economics of Wikipedia, and a passionate aside on his grandmother’s memories of the miners’ strike of 1926.
There are also, however, 70 pages on Kondratieff’s 1926 economics publication, The Long Waves in Economic Life. The language goes dead here, with lines such as “What follows is my ‘normative’ restatement of long-cycle theory, merged with what is rational about the Marxist understanding of crisis.”
A further long aside, on the Fragment on Machines (an almost illegible few pages of scribbles made in a notebook by Karl Marx in 1858), comes amusingly close to religious scholarship. The fragment (a relic!) was saved, but not read, by Engels; stored in Germany; bought by the USSR in the 1920s; finally appeared in Europe in the 1960s; and was published in English only in 1973. Mason worries away at these scribbled pages – interpreting, expanding – until he’s convinced himself that Marx predicted the internet: “In short, he had imagined something close to the info-capitalism in which we live.”
It is rather like watching a believer find the face of the Virgin Mary in an old biscuit found down the back of the sofa.
As for the main thrust of the book, Mason basically argues (following Kondratieff) that, in every previous 50-year cycle of capitalism, the resistance of the workers “forces the capitalists to adapt more radically, creating a new model based on higher productivity and higher real wages. After 1979, the workers’ failure to resist allows key capitalist countries to find a solution to the crisis through lower wages and low-value models of production. This is the fundamental fact, the key to understanding everything that happens next.”
It’s an interesting argument, though it only works by ignoring the fact that those years, post 1979, also lifted a billion non-western people out of subsistence-level poverty, and that, for instance, Chinese factory workers’ wages, even adjusted for inflation, have risen tenfold since 1979.
But let’s ignore that, as he does. So, why haven’t the workers resisted this time? Well, partly because they aren’t the same workers:
“For about 150 years, the word proletariat meant a predominantly white, male, manual labour force located in the developed world. Over the past 30 years it has become a multicoloured, majority-female workforce, centred in the global south.”
And, like all Marxists ever – including Marx – he is bitterly disappointed in the actual, non-theoretical working class. (Though, fair play to Mason, he does say Lenin was wrong to call them a labour aristocracy and try to kill them.) Mason despairs: “It has become impossible to imagine this working class – disorganised, in thrall to consumerism and individualism – overthrowing capitalism.”
So, where will the revolution come from, then? Historical forces, naturally. Mason argues, “The labour-theory, as outlined by Marx, predicts that automation can reduce necessary labour to amounts so small that work would become optional. Useful stuff that can be made with tiny amounts of human labour is probably going to end up being free, shared and commonly owned, says the theory. And it is right.”
“In short,” Mason goes on, “information technology is corroding the normal operation of the price mechanism. This has revolutionary implications for everything, as the rest of this book explores.”
And so, in part three, we burst out of the thicket of Marxist revision, and find ourselves in the present moment, staring, bug-eyed with horror, at the next 50 years. Climate change! Demographic timebombs! A jobs drought in the developing world! “The result,” says Mason, “is likely to place the whole global system under strain, and puts democracy itself in danger.”
This is the revolution’s big chance, as he concludes that “An economy based on information, with its tendency to zero-cost products and weak property rights, cannot be a capitalist economy”.
But he argues that the labour-theory allows us to design a transition from where we are now to the best possible future: to “a world of free machines, zero-priced basic goods and minimum necessary labour time.”
Very possibly true for music, say, and software of all kinds. But a house in Mayfair cannot be digitised or endlessly replicated at no cost: nor can a bar of gold. Even the humble bag of fish and chips resists digitisation. Without a price mechanism (without some form of free market capitalism), how do you decide, without violence, who lives in Mayfair, eating fish and chips? (Indeed, why would anyone bother to catch the fish?) And at a macro level, without a price mechanism, how do nations peacefully resolve conflict over limited, non-digitisable resources such as water, commodities and agricultural land?
His ultimate prescription is “revolutionary reformism”. “We” socialise the banking system; “we” abolish monopolies (his examples of monopolies are, bizarrely, Google and Apple); “we” bring in a universal wage (that will double the welfare budget); “we” massively raise the minimum wage . . .
Who is the “we” here, given that “we” consistently do not vote for the existing parties that propose these very things? (The Greens made a universal wage a main plank in their last election platform; there are more than a dozen socialist and communist parties, in the UK alone, proposing versions of all these things at every election.)
If he sounds vague, it’s because he has to be. When Mason tries to be more concrete, his arguments immediately fall apart.
How we can transition from carbon to renewables? He rather awkwardly mentions that Germany already has days where more than half of all energy demand is met by renewables (mostly sun and wind), because the government’s market-based Energiewende (energy transition) policy tilted the table to favour renewables. Yet, two pages later, he’s forgotten this, and claims “the market-led transition is too slow,” due to “the difficulty of forcing behaviour change using market forces” – exactly what Germany did so easily.
Some of the double-think here is worthy of 1984. Straight after admitting that China’s state-owned (and Communist Party directed) energy sector “distorted the global figures by building hundreds of coal-fired power plants in the 2000s” he concludes the solution to global warming is: “Governments – at state and regional level – will need to take control, and probably ownership, of all big carbon producers.”
He doesn’t mention that solar power (thanks to, er, relentless capitalist innovation) is now so cheap it’s beginning to put coal out of business. (Price per watt of solar power in 1977: $76. Price per watt of solar power today: 60 cents.) Two of the three biggest coal producers in the US went bankrupt this year. Solar already employs twice as many people as the coal industry in the US. Within a decade, it will be uneconomic to take US coal out of the ground. But market-driven good news doesn’t count.
And so, against all the evidence, Mason argues that governments must take public ownership of huge swathes of the economy to make the necessary changes. Really? Can we trust the state to take over, then allocate, all the nice things you can’t endlessly digitise? The Russian state? The Chinese state? The Saudis? (The Republicans? The Tories? Fine Gael?) “Say it to a social democrat in a suit and watch them wince; say it in an Occupy camp and watch the activists wince – for exactly the opposite reasons.” But they are right to wince. His faith (post-Hitler, post-Stalin, post-British Leyland) in government ownership as the way to fix things is both touching and quite mad.
Still, if you’re afraid of an all-powerful state, don’t worry. A few pages later he is saying “what happens to the state? It probably gets less powerful over time – and in the end its functions are assumed by society”. No mechanism for this is proposed. (And how a “society” with all these powers differs from a “state” with all these powers is not explained.)
So the state, having taken over the energy companies, the internet, all information, the banking system, distribution of resources, etc, will then mysteriously fade away, leaving billions of prosperous, ungoverned people doing no work? This is demented, utopian balls.
The tragedy is that he is right about many of the important things; we do live under zombie capitalism. Neoliberal elites have changed the rules to benefit and protect a grossly dysfunctional and unjust financial system. We are transitioning from an age of scarcity to an age of abundance. That transition is, indeed, causing all kinds of social and economic turmoil and will require a very different economic system.
But this book, as a guide to that transition, is crippled from page one.
Realistically, the near future will probably be a hybrid of capitalism and gift economy, with the gift economy expanding over time. But Mason’s capitalism/utopia binary is a false one. Some things work well under capitalism. Some things work better as gifts.
I enjoyed reading PostCapitalism: it is deeply (if narrowly) researched, and passionately argued. But in the end, it’s an extraordinarily frustrating book. Yes, Mason has done a lot of research. But if the information points towards a capitalist or market answer, he simply disregards it. If the final third feels incoherent, it is probably because of the massive and increasing cognitive dissonance he must have experienced writing it.
Towards the end of the book, Mason says “We need to be unashamed utopians.” No, we don’t. Utopianism has never led to anything other than catastrophe, because it isn’t anchored in reality. The trouble with Paul Mason’s prescription is not that it requires a new kind of financial system; it is that it requires a new kind of human being. As ever, we, the actual workers, are not good enough for the revolution.
Julian Gough’s novels include Jude: Level 1 and Juno & Juliet