Channel 4’s economics editor Paul Mason speculates on an alternative to capitalism in his new book. Here two of our reviewers give their verdicts
ANY book Paul Mason writes deserves to be taken seriously. Sadly, though, his latest work Postcapitalism fails in its objective of charting a path towards a sustainable alternative to the status quo.
The weakness of the book might be better understood by a simple amendment of the title from Postcapitalism to Postideology. For in truth this is what Mason is arguing. He deploys in the process a mish-mash of both Marxist and anti-Marxist arguments, along with counter-historical and non-materialist idealism, to justify abandoning the importance of class as the fulcrum of capitalism and the crucial role it has and must continue to play in the struggle to replace it.
The author takes pains to stress the need to “learn the negative lessons of failed transition [to postcapitalism] in the USSR,” moving on to claim that it “produced something worse than capitalism.”
Ascribing failure to the USSR as a postcapitalist society is the product of a skewed historical lens through which the world exists on a blank sheet of paper, wherein the creation of new societies from the wreckage of the old is a mere matter of moral purpose and design rather than a struggle against existing material, cultural, and economic conditions.
To paraphrase Marx, people make their own history but not in circumstances of their choosing. Indeed, Mason takes Marx to task for his faith in capitalism’s inevitable and imminent collapse. But what he fails to recognise, along with others who accuse Marx of determinism, is the dual purpose that drove Marx’s work. It was both analytical and agitational, designed not only to explore and reveal the inner workings of capitalism and its attendant contradictions but also as a call to arms to its victims to unite, organise and overthrow it.
Mason places much emphasis in his analysis of capitalism’s ability to survive for so long on the veracity of the “long wave theory” formulated by Russian economist Nicolai Kondratieff.
This holds that capitalism runs according to an upswing of around 25 years in duration, driven by the rolling out of new technologies and high levels of capital investment. It is followed by a downswing of another 25 years, during which the new markets created during the upswing become satiated and technological advance fails to keep pace with the level of capital accumulated.
This spare capital is diverted into the financial system, leading to periodic crises and depression, but the system crashes when the bubble of fictitious capital created by the glut of capital it tries to absorb bursts asunder.
Yet “capitalism’s tendency is not to collapse,” Mason writes, “but rather to mutate.”It is tempting here to accuse the author of lapsing into the kind of determinism he deploys too in his criticism of the attachment to crisis theory that underpins Marxism.
But later he does accept that there are such events in history as “trend breaks,” where the normal cycle is broken to produce qualitative change. These trend breaks, it should be noted, do not occur by themselves. They occur as the product of struggle.
Wikipedia and open source software are cited as harbingers of the trend towards peer-produced free-to-use products and services that exist beyond the workings of the market, involving mass collaboration to produce and sustain them. This for the author constitutes the seeds of a new mode of production.
These new peer-to-peer and free to use products and services are, Mason points out, a result of the growth and spread of information technology, which is also creating the new potential agent of social transformation in the shape of the “networked individual.”
An example of how this new class of networked individuals has manifested in struggle, Mason asserts, is the Arab spring, stressing the role played by social media in organising against and subverting the status quo. Given the ease with which the Arab Spring dissipated in the face of the counter-revolutionary wave that followed it, now entrenched across the Middle East in the form of chaos and primeval barbarism, I’m not sure there are many positives to be taken from this particular event.
Indeed, if anything, the Arab Spring only confirms the truism that if you don’t have your own strategy you become part of someone else’s.
IN THIS beautifully written book Paul Mason argues that capitalism is falling apart and will be replaced either by some kind of hyper-unequal neofeudalism or a democratic ecological economy based on sharing.
He writes with great clarity and economy, providing effective sketches of dozens of difficult but important ideas.
His basic thesis, that the rapid evolution of social media and three-dimensional printing is challenging conventional economic activity, is fairly straightforward.
Increasingly costs are falling, jobs are disappearing and technological progress by creating over-supply is threatening profits.
To survive, capitalism will have to monetise more and more areas of human life and create monopolies to inflate profit.
From TTIP — which protects corporations — to the rapid privatisation of the NHS, this route for capitalism is being advanced.
But Mason argues that it will be difficult for capitalism to survive without increasing repression and interference in human life. The alternative is to utilise new technology and forms of social sharing to create an economy which is democratic and prosperous.
While capitalism has long replaced human labour with technology and avoided collapsing profits by moving into new areas, Paul Mason’s account is convincing.
Yet the huge number of areas covered in the book means that there will be something for everyone to disagree with.
His examination of climate change in my opinion is thin and I guess that many readers will find his often critical remarks about Marx, especially his conception of class, problematic.
Even so, while particular arguments might be challenged, Postcapitalism taken as a whole is both convincing and intellectually stimulating. While aspects of Marx’s approach are criticised by Mason many of his most important insights, including his understanding of the labour theory of value, are at the centre of the analysis.
Irrespective of that central argument Postcapitalism has virtues in that it moves beyond simply looking for a “nicer” greener capitalism. The Jeremy Corbyn campaign has shown that thousands of people want to challenge the austerity narrative and the neoliberal consensus is under sustained attack.
Mason reminds us that reforms such as increased tax for the rich, defence of the welfare state and Keynesianism are inadequate.
He points the way to a different kind of economy where human beings work less, share more and have more fulfilling lives.
There is much to criticise in the detail but I hope that Corbyn, Caroline Lucas and those who want a better future read Postcapitalism.
Economics beyond capitalism is possible but we will have to fight for it and Postcapitalism provides some useful ammunition for doing so.
Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future is published by Penguin Books, price £16.99