Paul Mason: PostCapitalism - A Guide to Our Future.
Reviewed by Barry Faulkner, Unite National Political Education Co-ordinator
Paul Mason is a personal favourite of mine and I have always enjoyed his work as BBC and Channel 4’s Economics Editor as well as his frequent Guardian articles. I liked his book, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, so much, I bought two copies of the original, both of which I gave away as well as a copy of the updated version, Why It's STILL Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions.
I thought these books were interesting and insightful works and like Owen Jones’, Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class, they seemed to resonate well with my life experience. You can therefore appreciate my elation at Mason’s latest work, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future.
As a young socialist I was told on numerous occasions that capitalism was about to collapse and we were on the brink of socialist revolution. As a young socialist I believed this wholeheartedly, but when I then began to read extensively I discovered that young socialists had been hearing this for over a century.
What was evident to me as I got older, was that Capitalism was constantly evolving. It was many years before I learnt of the Nikolia Kondratiev long wave ‘boom and bust’ economic cycle theory, but I understood it perfectly when I heard it. Not because I was an economist, but because it fitted with my personal experience and matched the reading I had done on the matter. Mason writes about the world as he sees it in relation to the position of capitalism and how fragile the current neoliberal form of capitalism is following the 2008 international economic crash.
Mason does not just sound the death knell of the free market, but of capitalism itself, suggesting that the ‘boom and bust’ model is about to bust for the last time. Mason in this book, argues that a new form of society will emerge that is based on far different relationships, socially, economically and therefore inevitably, politically. He argues that the existing power balances will be irrevocably shifted away from the elite towards the masses. Mason sees this shift occurring, not as a result of bloody struggle, riot or traditional revolution, but by means of the nature of the open technological advances which are beginning to permeate every strand of our lives.
Mason considers the free and openly accessible nature of the Internet and how that has also opened up many other technologies beyond the traditional concepts of private or corporate ownership. Work without the worker is now quite commonplace and growing in many service and manufacturing areas. This book argues that far from being a direct threat to workers, the Information Age will become a glorious opportunity for new found freedoms.
Before I read this book, I had also been reading a great deal about the nature of technology and its relationship to modern work practices. This started with an article in the Economist magazine on 3D printing a few years ago. I thought long and hard about how the development of such technologies could further emasculate manufacturing in the way automation was impacting on servicing and retail industries.
Masons book covers all these areas which is why I was so excited to pick a copy up. His thoughts on the long waves of boom and bust were meshed with his ideas around the development of the information and automation era and his conclusion appears to be that we have entered since 2008 the final long wave of capitalism. In 1989, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama told us the battle between capital and labour was over and capitalism had won. However, when the worlds markets collapsed then all bets were off.
Many economists have analysed the crash, few have provided new thoughts on a way forward. Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, provided a clear understanding of the demise of neoliberalism, Owen Jones’, the Establishment, identified much of what we already knew regarding the role of powerful wealthy elites, but neither suggested with any clarity what might come next and both left me wanting that extra illuminating chapter, that final jigsaw piece.
This is where Mason differs from the others, though I personally can't agree with the full extent of his conclusions as I feel his hypothesis lacks a strong evidential base. I am no economist (apparently neither is he in academic terms), so my conclusions are based on my experience as a trade unionist and political activist for the past 37 years. I only ever base theory on practical experience, if theory contradicts practical experience then I feel it may well be flawed.
For myself I feel that if there is a shift towards Mason's utopian paradise, where work itself will merely be an optional extra, then it will be a bloody transition. Vested interests are too great to suggest anything but. Mason though almost suggests an electronic revolution, whereas revolution I believe is impossible without the stench of death as those without power struggle to wrestle it from the clenched fists of those who hold it so firmly in their grasp.
As a child I recall watching a programme called Tomorrow's World on the TV. The episode which stuck firmly in my mind was one which considered the role of work and the worker in the future. This was shown at a time when the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ of scientific technology was, rather than leading to a more prosperous Britain that he had predicted, already beginning to bite down hard on traditional working environments such as print and motor manufacture.
Tomorrow’s World seemed to suggest that technology would be our friend and that the major difficulty of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century worker would be how to spend the enormous amount of leisure time available to them. Yet the reality I have witnessed, from my earliest days in the trade union movement at the time of Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, was the shift from a campaign to reduce the working week to 35 hours with no loss of pay, to the current scenario where workers are routinely expected to waiver their right to an average 48 hour week.
This is why I am not certain I agree with Mason's analysis that this current escalation in workplace and wider technological advances will inevitably lead to the fall of the dysfunctional system which describes itself as free market capitalism or neoliberalism. Mason spends a good deal of time considering the ever widening inequalities of wealth in capitalism and the social dysfunction which goes hand in hand with this, but that inequality in my mind is the stumbling block to any major shift. Those who hold the wealth have too much to lose and, just as their feudal ancestors before them, they have the wealth to exploit others to do their bidding in protecting their social status, position and wealth.
It may be clear to Mason, having spent a good deal of time in Greece of late, that the masses are rising, however even that revolutionary fervour was swiftly silenced by the Troika. We only have to see Angela Merkel's reaction during the Greek crisis when she threatened the people of another sovereign nation and instructed them which way to vote in their own elections.
Mason talks of the growing anger of those who feel themselves disaffected or disregarded by the elites. This may well be evident in Greece or Spain and rising discontent in Ireland over water charges has also led to workers hitting the streets. The French and Belgians are never far from putting boots on the ground against the establishment but then consider the British.
Living in Britain as a left activist it can often seem that we are not that far away from mobilising the class, in the same way that my days as a young socialist were gilded in thoughts of imminent revolution. Outside of our left bubble the picture is however less clear.
A Tory minority government followed a Tory Lib Dem coalition, both of which have imposed hugely damaging cuts to public services, demonised and punished the most vulnerable whilst dividing society into atomised entities at war with each other, fighting over the crumbs from the table whilst the elite sweep up the biggest slice of the cake. As they do this, they distract us with their media encouraging us to care more about how our vote is cast in the Voice or Celebrity get me out of here, than in real elections. Demonisation, division and distraction is the real 3D revolution of our time.
So the thing that disturbs me most about Mason's book is his blatant optimism and idealism about the inevitability of a shift to a new free-based Information Age, created and developed for the benefit of all. It seems as if Mason believes that information, automation and technology itself will simply replace the current system of wage slavery.
Certainly the Internet has altered a great deal in relation to free sharing of content, yet even that is regulated by copyright and intellectual property laws. It may seem almost impossible to control. However, in a world where huge global corporations like Google, Apple and Microsoft merely acquire the smaller fish, the Internet itself becomes a tool of those and other corporations to act as predators and suck in our information in order to fully exploit us as consumers.
Advances in automation are explored by Mason and he rightly identifies the ability of machines to swiftly replace human beings, culling jobs whilst claiming to enhance the customer experience. As he points out, people can often prove subservient, taking these changes in their stride with a degree of inevitability, unless it's their own jobs at risk. There is however a dark murmuring of discontent as we all become free labour for Tesco or Barclays.
The development of innovations such as 3D printing could certainly revolutionise manufacturing. However, how many people will be able to afford such technology, it may create initial small business opportunities for 3D print shops, but in my view Mason overplays these developments in terms of their impact on the relation of capital to labour.
Finally what about the dispossessed in this Information Age? Those who do not access these technologies, share this information, or utilise these services. A huge body of folk who remain outside with seemingly little chance to engage in this brave new world. I would then turn to the question of the global south as the speed of progress is less evident than in the global north.
Trotsky talked of the need for revolutions to be worldwide. I fail to see Mason's revolution spreading much beyond Watford but I am prepared to be shocked.
This review may sound like the rantings of a pessimistic socialist, but I am actually an optimist at heart. I do believe we will reach a tipping point, though that point is more likely to come about as anger builds at the lonely death of the pensioner down the road when contrasted to the tax dodging corporate sleaze-bag MP caught with his hands in the public purse.
In conclusion, this book is worth reading and poses some very poignant questions which reach to the heart of our economic system. The book is very readable, not at all dry and provides serious challenges for modern political thinkers. We may not all agree that Mason has the answers, but he certainly asks the right questions.
Want to comment on this book? Email Mark Metcalfe at firstname.lastname@example.org