- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Allen Lane (30 July 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1846147387
- ISBN-13: 978-1846147388
- Product Dimensions: 15.9 x 3.4 x 24.1 cm
- Average Customer Review: 199 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 143,111 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future Hardcover – 30 Jul 2015
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Ecological crisis signals the death knell for an economic system that was already profoundly failing us, as Paul Mason mercilessly illustrates in these pages. Building on a remarkable career's worth of reporting on the frontlines of global capitalism and worker resistance, this book is an original, engaging, and bracingly-articulated vision of real alternatives. It is sure to many spark vigorous debates, and they are precisely the ones we should be having. (Naomi Klein)
Mason weaves together varied intellectual threads to produce a fascinating set of ideas... the thesis about "postcapitalism" deserves a wide readership among right and left alike... Politicians of all stripes should take note. And so should the people who vote for them. (Gillian Tett Financial Times)
Deeply engaging... Mason is asking the most interesting questions, unafraid of where they might lead. What's more, he writes with freshness and insight on almost every page... I can't remember the last book I read that managed to carve its way through the forest of political and economic ideas with such brio... as a spark to the imagination, with frequent x-ray flashes of insight into the way we live now, it is hard to beat. In that sense, Mason is a worthy successor to Marx. (David Runciman Guardian)
After postmodernism and all other fashionable post-trends, Mason fearlessly confronts the only true post-, postcapitalism. While we can see all around us ominous signs of the impasses of global capitalism, it is perhaps more than ever difficult to imagine a feasible alternative to it. How are we to deal with this frustrating situation? Although Mason's book is irresistibly readable, this clarity should not deceive us: it is a book which compels us to think! (Slavoj Žižek)
Postcapitalism is a groundbreaking book, both staggering in its ambition, and brilliantly executed... It's both a visionary and landmark work, and the most important book about our economy and society to be published in my lifetime (Irvine Welsh Bella Caledonia)
About the Author
Paul Mason is an award-winning writer, broadcaster, and film-maker. Previously economics editor of Channel 4 News, his books include Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: the New Global Revolutions; Live Working Die Fighting; and Rare Earth: A Novel.
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Before summarising and commenting on some of the main ideas it is important to point out that the book offers an optimistic vision of a post capitalist future but one which is based on a gloomy, even apocalyptic analysis of the current state of the capitalist economy. Without this analysis the subsequent discussion of transition to post capitalism makes little sense and so it is necessarily the starting point of this summary.
Capitalism has, since its beginnings, followed 50 year cycles of growth and decline, each cycle of decline being associated with a systemic crisis which has threatened to fulfil the Marxist prophecy of a new and more enlightened system delivering fairness to all.
Contrary, however, to the Marxist view, capitalism has proven protean in its ability, following one of its recurrent crises, to reinvent itself with a plausible offer of prosperity that can reach all parts of society. Neoliberal economists have increasingly come to believe in their ability to manage the system and to bring it out of recession by the application of monetary policies. The fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin wall, from this perspective, signalled an apparently decisive blow to the Marxist view of historical change; as the Berlin Wall fell, the capitalist economies were demonstrating an astonishing capacity for productivity and innovation.
Paul Mason associates each 50 year cycle of capitalism with the emergence of a new technological paradigm. So, from 1798 to 1848 we see “The first long cycle….The factory system, steam powered machinery and canals; from 1848 to the mid 1890s is the second long cycle with “Railways, the telegraph, ocean-going steamers, stable currencies and machine produced machinery.” The third long cycle is from 1890s to 1945 and is driven by “heavy industry, electrical engineering, the telephone, scientific management and mass production.” The fourth cycle runs from the 1940s to 2008 and is driven by the development of transistors, synthetic materials, mass consumer goods, factory automation, nuclear power and automatic calculation.” Overlapping the conclusion of this fourth cycle of capitalism “the basic elements of the fifth long cycle appear…..network technology, mobile communications, a truly global marketplace and information goods.” Mason concludes however that this cycle has stalled and attributes this stalling to “neoliberalism and something to do with the technology itself.”
In the first part of each cycle, wages have typically been relatively high and the employment offer good. However as the development of the technology matures, so competition increases, and for businesses to survive they are obliged to increase pressures on their workforce, demanding increased productivity, squeezing wages, introducing more mechanised production, or outsourcing production to places where employment costs are lower. The result: lower wages and higher unemployment.
So what of our current situation? Why is the emergence of “network technology, mobile communications, a truly global marketplace and information goods” unable to supercharge the 5th cycle of capitalism. Paul Mason argues that the impact of these technologies has been exactly opposite; information has become the most important commodity and to a large extent this is being exchanged and shared free of charge. This information has released an enormous productive potential but one which capitalism is struggling to exploit in that it tends towards goods which are free of charge or can be produced very cheaply and with very little labour. The consequence is a production process which shows no potential to develop and sustain large numbers of well paid jobs even at the dawn of this fifth cycle, the very stage at which previous experience suggests this should be happening. The world economy consequently is failing to grow its way out of the financial crisis of 2008 and we are faced with enormous and developing challenges on a number of fronts, without the evident willingness in many cases to even accept that these challenges exist or are imminent.
Apart from the challenges presented by a stagnating economy Paul Mason also addresses the challenge of climate change, accepted by many as a future threat, though not always understood as an important current factor behind the migration with which the developed world is currently struggling to come to terms.
Similarly Mason identifies a “demographic time bomb” as a factor which will inevitably lead to further movements of people on a massive scale unless there is constructive political and economic change within those parts of the world where the population is growing most rapidly.
Mason’s further predictions in relation to our own financial system are equally apocalyptic. Anyone who has savings will be aware that zero interest rates, and quantitative easing are eroding the value of such assets. Pension funds are, for those nearing retirement, in a particularly concerning state. Mason writes: “In the aftermath of the crash, the typical big pension fund .... lends more than 55% of it money to governments in the form of bonds, which under quantitative easing pay zero or negative interest….Though the picture varies from one country to the next - with some smaller developed countries such as Norway extremely well provided for - the global situation is bleak; either the retired elderly must live on much less, or the financial system must deliver spectacular returns.”
According to this extremely persuasive analysis, capitalism is on borrowed time. This is not a denial of the enormous achievement of the capitalist system in creating the phenomenal productive resources which are now available to humankind; however if capitalism needs to grow economically in order to survive and shows no capacity to do so, then it can no longer sustain the illusion that it will be able to provide for the needs of an entire society.
As someone said on the radio only this morning: “every crisis is also an opportunity”, and Paul Mason offers us the opportunity of transitioning to a post-capitalist society which is better and fairer than capitalism. There is no seizure of power required for this transition; rather, the instruments created by the capitalist system are already beginning to develop the structures which will form the basis of this new society. The prime examples offered by Paul Mason are Wikipedia and Linux. These are indeed extraordinary collaborative achievements; but can this model of internet based cooperation successfully be the basis of an entire new society?
Marx, in a well known paragraph from his preface to the Critique of Political Economy says something which resonates with this possibility:
“No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.”
Internet based collaboration, however, serves the interests of those who wish to sustain the capitalist system as well as those who may wish to supersede capitalism, or indeed those, such as Isis, who may wish to destroy it; the benign post capitalist future envisioned by Paul Mason is by no means a forgone conclusion and dis-topic outcomes seem every bit as possible, perhaps indeed more possible. And yet I think it reasonable to suggest that all this collaborative activity, whether for good or ill, by its very nature, bends towards a fairer and more inclusive society. In small ways millions of us are experiencing the manner in which the Internet frees our productive capacity. Whatever fix we may have got into there is almost certainly a you-tube video, created by an enthusiastic amateur, showing the way to solve the problem. E-bay offers an economic model of which even those in depressed circumstances may take advantage. These may be small examples, but if we multiply them many times, and if they continue to develop, then they are significant.
Paul Mason acknowledges that the process of change will be complex and impossible to predict in every detail. “What happens to the state?” he asks, for example. His answer is wide open with possibility:
“It probably gets less powerful over time - and in the end its functions are assumed by society. I’ve tried to make this a project usable both by people who see states as useful and those who don’t; you could model an anarchist version and a statist version and try them out. There is probably even a conservative version of post-capitalism, and good luck to it.”
Questions flood in at this point. What about law and order? How is justice to be dispensed? What will be the status of the armed forces? The anarchist notion of a fundamentally benign and spontaneous polity might just develop from an ordered and stable society; but the post capitalist project must be carried forward amidst war and competition for scarce resources and within this context states would appear to offer a necessary framework for stability.
For people to move forward with the optimism necessary for success, they surely need some sense of how such systems as education and healthcare will be made available; it is very hard to imagine that in this post capitalist future, the current state sponsored models of delivery can survive. Ivan Illich developed striking critiques of these institutions, which were a fashionable accessory of the left during the 1970’s, but then fell out of favour; they may be worth revisiting in this new context. Illich also had some interesting things to say about transportation. Ivan Illich
But this is a diversion from the main event. Irvine Welsh has said Paul Mason has written: “the most important book about our economy and society to be published in my lifetime.” My literary diet to date has not included a great deal of economics so I am unable to comment with authority on this, but what I can say is that the ideas in Post Capitalism - a Guide to our Future, are more important than Brexit; more important than keeping the Union together or fighting for Independence for your own corner of it; whatever your great political passion may be, the themes of this book are almost certainly more important.
There are three reasons for this. His sometimes mystifying logical leaps of faith, his oversimplification of technology and his reliance on state-based solutions.
Over and over again in this book, Mason would build an interesting argument only to make a leap to a conclusion that isn't entirely supported by his argument. Examples are his arguments around the changes in technology, characterising almost everything that results in jobs as the 'gig' economy and coming to the conclusions that for this to be tenable we'd eventually have to make kissing illegal. Yes, that conclusion was tongue-in-cheek, but also show some of the very twisted and unconvincing logic that Mason often resorts to.
As is probably clear from the above, Mason's view of technology is often oversimplified. To be fair, his view of technology is balanced, he see both pros and cons. But the pros are as worrying as the cons. A great example of this is his section on models. He seems to expect a nearly perfect model and advises "model first, then act". And while this is good advice, there is no evidence of feedback. There is no understanding that, to quote George Box, "all models are wrong but some are useful." It is worrying and it is a thread that pervades the entire book. The economic models he describes as being right 100% of time. Marx's "labour theory of value", for instance, is presented this way. It's problematic, though, since this doesn't seem to account for some of the challenges the modern world faces, such as the gap between women's wages and mens..
Finally, I was taken aback by Mason's statement, again without any real support, that the solution to climate must be a state-based solution. If the last few years have taught me anything, it is that state-based solutions cannot be relied upon, that governments do not last forever and that democracy is a challenge. Towards the end of the book, Mason does caveat this by saying that his state-based enthusiasm is only one of many possible solutions, but those are only covered in a few hasty sentences.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this book. While I wasn't entirely convinced, it challenged may of my preconceptions. And challenging the world I've come to believe in is something that I appreciate from any book.
My main criticism of this book is that it is far too "dense" for the man-in-the-street. I had to Google many terms and make extensive notes to get the best out of this book.
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