I’ve just finished reading the book Postcapitalism by Paul Mason, and some
recent global events have got me thinking about the book’s arguments.
As America becomes more polarised, We’ve also just had two pretty seismic events unfold: the slaughter in Nice and the coup attempt in Turkey.
Paul Mason commentates regularly on the knock-on economic impacts of such happenings as the economics editor for Britain’s Channel 4 News. His journalistic written style perhaps explains why a book which discusses sometimes arcane economic theory is such a compelling read.
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING
His basic argument is that the pace of infotech development over recent years has changed everything. Knowledge is increasingly free, and readily available at our fingertips. For example, the first I heard of the terror attack in Nice was while pootering about on Twitter: the news of the attack was not originally verifiable, but as it shot to the top trending topic it was clear that something very big and very bloody was unfolding in that city.
Mason sees the free diffusion of knowledge (not just via social media but in the free exchange of ideas and science more broadly) as such a challenge to the privatise-at-all-costs mantra of neoliberalism that it could topple capitalism as we know it. He goes back to Marx’s Grundrisse and the great German philosopher’s meditation on how, if there were ever a machine invented that would never wear out, capitalism would crumble. He then points to the revolutionary potential of zero cost products in an economy based on information.
Mason did not have to convince me of the apocalyptic possibilities of capitalism if it continues as it does presently. Irreversible climate change, environmental destruction, the mass unavailability of lifesaving drugs, a new chasm between the ultra wealthy 1% and the rest of us: capitalism has to be altered, otherwise we, and the succeeding generations, are all heading to hell in a handcart.
But it does not necessarily follow that the revolution in infotech will deliver Postcapitalism, or even a better capitalism. The Apple corporation, for example, constructs a walled garden around free music, literature, ideas and art by forcing people to buy a variety of its products in order to harness them at all. Mason, to give him his due, notes this; more importantly, though, he notes the prospect of governments clamping down on this unprivatised brave new world.
Here lies the danger. The spot on the Promenade des Anglais on which the Nice killer fell is now littered with detritus and people assemble to spit on it. The killer’s actions, in the popular mindset, are not now human but monstrous. With the perpetrators of terrorist events commonly dehumanised and dubbed monstrous, the possibility of state crackdown is surely more alive than ever.
When senior politicians like French President Francois Hollande are booed at commemorations, as happened in Nice last week, the tempting solution for the political establishment is to clamp down harder. Ever harder. Harder on the terrorists, yes, but also harder on the freedoms Mason lauds, and all in the name of security. Think of the Chinese government’s regular, outrageous censorship of the Internet. Think of Turkey’s President Erdogan and his tendency to do the same, only enhanced by the coup attempt in his country at the weekend. Think, too, of British prime minister Theresa May’s support for the UK’s proposed ‘snooper’s charter’. Ironically, Erdogan denounced the coup via FaceTime, the sort of free info / person-to-person platform Mason lauds and the Turkish president loathes.
Coming back to Mason, he has been dismissed by some as an unreconstructed Trot, but he does attack many of the old leftist shibboleths. The early twentieth century socialists – Trotsky, Luxembourg, Lenin – were wrong to perceive the imminent collapse of capitalism, he claims. He also doubts the ability of centralised state planning to effect the desired-for transition to Postcapitalism. The people, individuals, and not the omnicompetent state, will deliver Postcapitalism, says Mason. He wants a ‘Wikistate’, run like Wikipedia with just a couple of hundred administrators overseeing a wealth of freedom.
However, and more broadly, we are actually witnessing the rise of politicians promising more state intervention, not less – Donald Trump is a good example, a cowboy pinup of the aggressive business world like Reagan, but hardly a neoliberal in the classic sense. With Brexit, with the resurgence of the European right, anxiety over uncontrolled immigration etc it seems people are demanding more intervention, not less. The price of greater security, then, may well be the jettisoning of the free anticapitalist ethos that Mason celebrates.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
There are other flaws, to my mind, with Mason’s thesis. But his cry for a different world borne of different thinking – one in which individuals all receive a flat wage and so do not have to perform ‘bullshit work’, in which banks are held to account and responsible and sustainable business practice rewarded – is one which should be embraced and not dismissed haughtily.
And yet. And yet. At times this book, for all its historical sweep, seems trapped in an intellectual cul de sac. Mason’s Postcapitalism, when he gets around to defining it, seems to be a mixture of the free market, the interventionist state, and – lording it above all equals – the techno geek. It all feels a bit faddish, a feeling I first got with Mason last year when reading a Guardian piece by him on how the hipster brewing company ‘Brewdog’ is an example ofPostcapitalism in making its recipes freely available and offering easily accessible share options. Oh please.
As the events in Turkey show, in this fast paced ever changing world, change is often effected in quite traditional ways: helicopters, television pronouncements, angry mobs. Great change in the world is certainly greatly desirable, but it may just arrive via more established means.