December 2015 - January 2016

Arts & Letters

What comes next?

By Scott Ludlam
Paul Mason’s ‘PostCapitalism’ and the future of economics

Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism (Allen Lane; $49.99) is an almost absurdly ambitious work. Parallel histories of Western industrial development, economic theory, the labour movement and the evolution of technology serve as the foundation for Mason’s principal thesis: that capitalism itself is breaking upon the rocks of technological innovation, giving way to new political and economic movements. As he puts it, “capitalism is a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt”.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mason then goes on to sketch the outlines of what he sees growing in its place: a critical mass of non-market economic activity dissolving capitalism from within. This is premised in part on the inability of the market’s price-forming mechanism to cope with abundant and infinitely replicable information goods.

If you’re apprehensive about whether this is some giddy report from the frontiers of the Uber economy or the magical powers of Facebook to overthrow authoritarian regimes, you need not worry. PostCapitalism is carefully researched, sceptical of what Mason terms “bullshit jobs” (those that pay little and demean the worker), and unflinching in his illustration of history’s brutality. At times it feels deliberately confrontational.

PostCapitalism is also a remarkably dense piece of work. It veers between economic theory and the real-world consequences of starvation, innovation, bloodshed and revolution, and then back to the primary research of contemporary theorists struggling to make sense of the convulsing world around them. The overwhelming impression of the first seven chapters is of being strapped into a baroque rocket-sled and fired through a gaslit time machine. We drop in as the plague is laying waste to the feudal order, opening economic space for early capitalism to emerge from its larval form. We look over the shoulder of Karl Marx on a winter’s night in 1858 as he handwrites his ‘Fragment on Machines’, prefiguring a form of information-age postcapitalism that then lies virtually unknown for decades. We witness the ruination of European workers’ movements at the hands of mid-20th-century fascism, meet the architects of the postwar Bretton Woods institutions determined to prevent a repeat of the Great Depression, and then chart the calculated unmooring of global financial capital from any semblance of democratic control.

One unifying theme of PostCapitalism relates to the search for a stable theoretical explanation for the long cycles of economic innovation and collapse, which recur at roughly 50-year intervals:

They show the first long cycle, beginning with the emergence of the factory system in Britain in the 1780s and ending around 1849. Then, a much clearer second wave starts in 1849, coinciding with the global deployment of railways, steam ships and the telegraph, before entering its downswing phase, with the so-called ‘Long Depression’ after 1873, and ending sometime in the 1890s.

The third cycle, characterised by heavy industry, electrical engineering and long-distance telephony, gives way after the cataclysm of World War Two to the fourth cycle, of mass consumption, synthetic materials and microprocessors. In turn, this cycle cedes in the 1990s to the age of digital networks, mobile telephony and an increasingly borderless global economy. The Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff, whose name still serves as shorthand for these long-cycle “Kondratieff Waves”, paid for his work with his life. On the basis of years of careful statistical analysis he had effectively proven that industrial capitalism, rather than heading for inevitable collapse and overthrow at the hands of the proletariat, was just as likely to continue to mutate into new forms better adapted to exploit successive waves of technological and organisational innovation. After serving eight years in a prison outside Moscow for these dangerous ideas, Kondratieff was executed in 1938. In the early 21st century, Mason contends, the game is up: the fifth “long wave” has stalled and something immeasurably more interesting is being woven amid the spaces in between.

There’s something here to offend anyone who approaches the work from a fixed ideological standpoint. Mason fillets a century of Marxist trial and error as readily as he does the “post-ideological” delusions of neoliberals. He plays judge and jury to decades-old canonical arguments between the “labour theory” of value (a product’s worth is based on the work required to make it) and the “marginal utility” theory (the value of a product is based on market demand). Spoiler alert: he ends up playing executioner to the marginalists.

All of this is rich and occasionally bewildering stage-setting for the final chapters, in which Mason sketches the draft architectures of postcapitalism. It is here, where Mason places the final touches on the economic history he’s been painting and then begins gleefully innovating, that the book hits cruising altitude. At this point Mason warns, “If I could write the rest of this chapter as post-it notes on a whiteboard, it would better express the modularity and interdependence.”

It is as though, having assembled the theoretical nodes of a network-centric, non-market economics, the final stretch of the book itself resists a linear narrative. More tellingly, Mason is honest enough to admit that he doesn’t know exactly where this is going, and the latter chapters deliberately steer away from attempts to craft a postcapitalist manifesto. “What follows,” he writes, “is my best guess at what a project plan would look like … I will be more than happy to see it quickly torn apart and revised by the wisdom of angry crowds.”

Mason’s so-called project plan is based on a series of mutually reinforcing propositions that either set course directly against the present economic and political orthodoxy, or are designed to enhance and support economic undercurrents or niche trends that are already gathering pace within the faltering structures of the existing order. “I call it Project Zero – because its aims are a zero-carbon energy system; the production of machines, products and services with zero marginal costs; and the reduction of necessary labour time as close as possible to zero.”

Let that part about “reduction of necessary labour time as close as possible to zero” sink in. If technology, public policy and economic incentives are aligned to sharply reduce the essential costs of living, a postcapitalist world as Mason conceives it invites you to work in the market economy as much or as little as you’d like. The single neoliberal commandment to work longer hours to consume more stuff and pay off more debt, even as our jobs are being automated or casualised out of existence, is shown a big postcapitalist finger.

The strategic aim … would be to cheapen the cost of basic necessities, so that the total socially necessary labour time can fall and more stuff gets produced for free …

Providing these services at cost price, socially, would be a strategic act of redistribution, vastly more effective than raising real wages.

Mason deliberately withholds consideration of the global climate emergency until late in the book, partly in order to demonstrate that an irreversible economic transition would be under way “even if the ecosphere was in a steady state”. It is telling that, despite approaching the problem from opposite ends, he arrives at essentially the same conclusion as Naomi Klein does in her important 2014 work This Changes Everything. As Mason puts it, “They know that climate science destroys their authority, their power and their economic world. In a way, they have grasped that if climate change is real, capitalism is finished.”

There is plenty to critique here, plenty to disagree with, and a few passages where Mason’s wry scepticism lapses into deliberate provocation. The unpredictable breaks between recondite economic theory, carefully argued political propositions and a jumble of “post-it” notes make the book something of a montage – but then that may be a deliberate consequence of trying to jam what feels like at least five important books into one. The deep pre-existing care economy (child-raising, disability care, aged care) is given sparse recognition, and the broader crisis of exponential resource consumption, of which climate change is only one symptom, is barely glanced at. One additional post-it note might be to attempt to weld closed-loop or ecological economics into this emerging framework and see what that teaches us. These criticisms are beside the point, though, for Paul Mason has written a book designed to provoke these conversations.

Get hold of a copy, tear it apart and help revise it – a piece of work like PostCapitalism adds to the collective wisdom of an increasingly angry crowd. And above all, against the scale of the multiple waves breaking over our troubled global community, Mason advises we’d best cast aside timidity and be as absurdly ambitious as our age demands. “We need to be unashamed utopians. The most effective entrepreneurs of early capitalism were exactly that, and so were all the pioneers of human liberation.”

Scott Ludlam

Scott Ludlam is an ICAN ambassador and a former Australian Greens senator for Western Australia.

Supermarket in Oregon. Photograph by Lyza Danger | | CC BY-SA 2.0

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