I said I would post something on Paul Mason’s thought-provoking book, Postcapitalism – a guide to our future, which has just come out in paperback. It makes a good read, and contains a wealth of ideas from economics, political economy, and futurism, all mixed together in the author’s aim to inspire a progressive transition beyond capitalism, but not to socialism, which he admits has been a huge failure for the left. Instead, he calls his utopian vision ‘postcapitalism’.
Mason starts by describing the current political economic paradigm, neo-liberalism, as having reached its limits with the crisis of 2008 and the subsequent tepid, or in many cases absent, recovery. There has been sluggish output and productivity growth, alongside wage rises for those at the very top of the income distribution but barely any change for the middle and bottom. In fact, these trends were only temporarily overcome by the excessive expansion of credit prior to the crisis which allowed consumption to grow in countries such as the US and UK despite stagnant wages.
He draws on Kondratieff’s theory of ‘Long Waves’, which claims that economic activity over the long run produces roughly 50 year cycles of productivity growth and other data, driven by clusters of innovations such as steam power, electricity and now information technology. We are apparently waiting for a new upswing, which neo-liberalism and financialization have temporarily postponed. This new upswing will apparently be driven by the fulfilment of the info-tech revolution, and will take us beyond capitalism.
The new paradigm will be a society of abundance, not least of information, but also of dramatically cheaper or even free goods and services produced not just by market forces in some cases, but for free, by individuals increasingly engaged in collaborative, non-hierarchical organizations. This abundance is in opposition to the scarcity on which mainstream economics is based and which underpins price formation by market forces. While the latter will still play a role in postcapitalism, it will be much reduced. There will be also be a hugely reduced need for labour in this new society, and a blurring of the distinction between work and leisure, which can already be seen (not always for the better, I would add).
Labour time is the source of value, according to the classical political economists’ Labour Theory of Value, and Mason spends part of the book describing this theory. He uses it to show that under postcapitalism, with rapidly falling necessary labour time, the value of goods and services will in many cases fall to zero. There will be a trend towards infinitely-lived, ‘free machines’ used in production. Having said all that he seems to forget that there is labour embodied in machinery, which is that used to produce it in the past, so even if production does away with necessary labour, and the value of goods continues to fall over time, as it does for many goods produced under capitalism, the value of labour time will still play a role. If it does, then the underlying conflict between capital and labour will still be there and capitalism may be sustained, contrary to the author’s vision.
Leaving the Labour Theory of Value aside, Mason outlines how the transition to postcapitalism might be achieved. To his credit, he admits that attempts by the left at a centrally planned socialism have failed and that postcapitalism will require different agents, including the state, but also what he calls networked individuals, which are a more recent social phenomenon. Political parties, corporations and temporary ‘swarms’ of individuals will also be important, while the traditional working class which was so vital to Marx’s vision is not, or at least has been superseded. The transition will require all these agents to be active and to play a role in overcoming the problems of contemporary capitalism. There will be no room for ‘five year plans’; instead, gradual, iterative forms of progress will be essential.
Problems such as an ageing population, environmental damage and inequality can be overcome in a society of abundance and exponentially rising productivity and innovative activity, according to Mason. The abundance of information can become what Marx, in a fragment contained in his Grundrisse, called the ‘general intellect’ or social knowledge. As the most important factor of production, as opposed to the land, labour and capital traditionally emphasised by economics, this can be seen in the increasing importance of the internet in modern society. Through the latter, there are fewer barriers to the accumulation of knowledge by networked individuals in society. The ‘internet of things’, in which technology makes goods, services and capital increasingly intelligent, will also be revolutionary.
Humans using information intelligently as a factor of production is not new. Every technology requires particular knowledge and intelligence to use it in a way that generates profitable output. Information misused will be less productive. The difference today is that information is more abundant than ever, as Mason argues, so he is at least half right. Perhaps our awareness of this phenomenon is also becoming more widely appreciated.
Important to the transition to postcapitalism is the role of the mixed economy. He argues for the socialization of the financial sector, in order to accelerate the adoption of green technologies, info-tech and automation, which should reduce necessary work and increase the abundance of cheap or free goods and services. He also calls for the a basic income, the suppression of monopoly power, and policies which remove the asymmetry of power between capital and labour that market forces conceal.
Mason’s book is certainly visionary. Up goes the cry for ‘revolutionary reformism’ and the need for us to be ‘unashamed utopians’. He is unapologetically of the left, and has recently styled himself as a revolutionary social democrat. Many of his ideas which underpin the transition to postcapitalism are certainly drawn from social democratic thinking rather than from ideas about socialism, and he is honest about the particular modern failures of the left, while remaining highly critical of a neo-liberalism that has generated huge inequality in society, benefiting the few at the expense of the many.
If we follow Mason’s lead and take up the challenge of transition as networked individuals with access to effectively unlimited information, will we create an equitable society as well as a rich one? Making such predictions is notoriously difficult, and as Marx showed, relying on one man’s vision is surely fraught with peril.
There is no doubt that networks are becoming increasingly important in modern society, and the rise of new forms of organization, some of them producing goods and service for free by temporary collaborations of individuals, are significant. But will they lead to the transcendence of the conflict between capital and labour, and the widespread reduction of hierarchy, at least where it takes more rigid forms? The latter would be reflected in much greater social mobility, meaning that the lifespan of hierarchies, where necessary for particular economic, political or social activities, would be increasingly short, even while productivity and output under the evolving economic system soar to new heights.
I am tempted to buy into much of Mason’s inspirational vision, with abundance for a flourishing, connected majority. But will this be merely another form of capitalism, or postcapitalism? Ultimately, that is down to us. Some of his ideas are open to criticism, which is inevitable for any kind of futurism. They are certainly utopian, but there is plenty that remains thought-provoking in the book. I can definitely recommend it as a stimulating read by a sometimes controversial economic journalist who is very much on the progressive left of the political spectrum.