PostCapitalism dreams big – but its theories tend towards the vague

As a woolly centrist rather than a techno-Marxist, the future seems far more contingent than Paul Mason's vision suggests.

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Should the Syriza government in Greece ever throw off the shackles of Troika imperialism and achieve its anti-austerity revolution, Paul Mason will surely be one of the first supporters it will honour. One of the admirable characteristics of Channel 4’s economics editor is his passionate engagement with his subject. He seethes with indignation about the injustice he has seen.

His book is equally passionate, and meant as a manifesto for a new world of post-­capitalism. It’s a mixture of interesting reflection on how digital technologies are creating the opportunity for various forms of economic organisation and extremely irritating rhetoric: irritating because, from the first page of the introduction, it divides the world into goodies and baddies – sorry, radicals and neoliberals. Mason writes:

Neoliberalism is the doctrine of uncontrolled markets: the best route to prosperity is individuals pursuing their own self-interest. It says the state should be small (except for its riot squad and secret police); that financial speculation is good; that inequality is good; that the natural state of humankind is to be a bunch of ruthless individuals competing with each other.

Needless to say, almost no real people – not even Conservatives or central bankers – believe this. Perhaps a few sinister ­hedge-fund managers in Zurich bunkers, stroking their white cats, do. It is not even a caricature, but a make-believe monster. Yet anyone who expresses any reservations about the “radical” or “progressive” agenda is labelled “neoliberal”. (I suspect this includes all economists, no matter how progressive they consider themselves.)

More interesting than this us-and-them-ism, which is about cultural identity as much as anything, is the book’s subsequent discussion of new technologies. Mason argues that these are changing the social and economic superstructure in ways that will lead to post-capitalism. “We’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy.” He cites Wikipedia, and also a “proliferation” of time banks, parallel currencies, co-operatives. There are certainly some signs of growth in entities of this sort, such as the relative success of the Bristol Pound compared to previous local currencies. On the other hand, the rise of grass-roots organisations thanks to technology has been optimistically predicted since the dawn of the online era in the 1990s (including by me, in The Weightless World), so some more systematic evidence here would have been welcome.

The first step in Mason’s argument about the changing structure of the economy is a lengthy explanation of Kondratieff ­cycles, the very long-term trends in economic growth due to the diffusion of new technologies. We are due the fifth of these long waves. Karl Marx foresaw the potential of the information technology revolution to oust capitalism in his “Fragment on Machines”, in which he says the application of science (not just labour) to production is the critical driving force in society. Mason goes on to predict that with this new long wave, capitalism is close to exhausting its potential for constantly pushing into new markets. For, just as in the 18th century enclosure turned harmless hunting for rabbits for the pot into illegal poaching, the creation of “intellectual property” is marketising ever more human activities. Kissing someone for free will become a crime, he predicts – and because people will not stand for such incursions, post-capitalism will replace capitalism.

He continues: “Technology is today eroding the price mechanism without the parallel rise of a planned economy.” Instead, networks can be the basis of an Information Age, post-capitalist system. However, ­Mason misunderstands the role of information in a market economy.

He argues that “Information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant.” But markets are, on the contrary, dependent on information. It is the absence of information that corrodes “correct” price setting. This passage goes on to talk about the digital monopolies, but monopolies are not markets, they are the opposite of markets. If the point here is that there is a tendency to monopoly where there are big economies of scale, which includes digital businesses, then, yes, that’s true. And it’s exactly why the EU’s competition authority is starting to challenge Google and Amazon, just as it did Microsoft before them.

The final third of the book moves on to how to get to post-capitalism. Mason sees the challenge as a grass-roots “set of linked, modular, non-linear tasks” based on some central and surely widely shared principles: reduce carbon emissions rapidly, stabilise the financial system, ensure the majority of people have a high level of material prosperity, and reduce work as the economy automates.

He offers a few specific suggestions: pay people for electricity that their solar panels feed into the grid, as long as their panels are made in a factory with high social standards. Introduce a basic income. Monopolies should be suppressed or “socialised”. (Nationalise Google? No, he doesn’t call for it – though that would be radical.)

It’s a worthy list, though reasonable people could disagree; and, of course, bottom-up movements, by definition, cannot be specified in detail. But after the rhetoric and grand theorising of the earlier parts of the book, you close it asking: is that it? Socially responsible solar panels will overturn neoliberalism? Still, those who think neoliberalism is a coherent concept, and believe history progresses in clear stages, will delight in the hope offered by PostCapitalism and its argument suggesting that there is something inexorable about progressing beyond market capitalism.

To me, as a woolly centrist rather than a techno-Marxist, the future seems far more contingent. The digital technologies will certainly bring about deep social and economic changes but I suspect we are far more likely to see capitalism reinvent itself in messy, incremental ways, as it has before.

Diane Coyle is a professor of economics at the University of Manchester. Her most recent book is “GDP: a Brief But Affectionate History” (Princeton University Press)

This article appears in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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