A Guide To Our Future
by Paul Mason
293 pages, Allen Lane
Review by Pat Black
Out of my comfort zone with this one, but that’s a good thing. I might have to do some studying and make coherent notes. Maybe even learn new things. Never my strong point, as anyone who ever taught me will tell you.
Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future looks at our changing economic world with its rapid advances in technology, and the places it could lead us.
The book’s central theory: capitalism as we know it - scarcity of resources controlling prices, the financial markets dominating all, “competition” in business, private ownership of means of production and chasing profits for shareholders… ah god, and all the rest of it - is kaput. We have to look at different ways of living, different ways of producing, and different ways of working. If at all.
Paul Mason is the former economics editor of Channel 4 News. The son of a Lancashire miner, he is one of the very few working class people to attain such a senior, high-profile position on a national network – indeed I’m struggling to think of another. Possibly Andrew Neil.
Mason has the added rarity of being unashamedly left-wing, and again, I can’t think of many others of that political stripe in such a position in the broadcasting world. I’m happy to be corrected.
Mason’s premise is based on Nikolai Kondratieff’s wave theory of economics. This tells us that since the late 18th century, industrial economies have experienced cycles of growth and decline, roughly every 50 years – 25 up, 25 down.
In order to prevent the system collapsing completely during the troughs, capitalist economies have invested in rapid technological advances which have kick-started another upsurge in growth. New technology spearheads progress and prosperity, but also leads to labour crises as jobs are outmoded and replaced by machinery. On top of this, you get inevitable external shocks such as war or natural disaster, some of which may be directly or indirectly attributable to the effects of capitalism. One great example in the modern era is 9/11.
All of these factors contribute to the downward curve on the wave, necessitating new technologies and new ways of working, and thusly another 25 years of good times; and so it goes on.
It’s worth bearing in mind that poor old Kondratieff was executed by firing squad by Uncle Joe in 1938, right around another downer period for the world economy which brought us war. So he didn’t even have the satisfaction of seeing himself proven correct on that one.
Following this long wave pattern, right now, we’re heading for the bottom of the curve. The latest Kondratieffian down-turn began in the early 1990s – tying in with the absolute zenith of neoliberalism, you could argue. So, according to the theory, we’re not too far away from a surge. Great! Happy days, Rodders. This time next year…
Except this time, Mason argues, certain key elements of the current economic climate have produced anomalies in the wave which have never been seen before. As predicted, we have a new, rapidly expanding technology in the form of information and data networks, passed at high speed along wires and across space, straight onto our phones, tablets and laptops. But there is a mutative effect in place.
Information technology is changing our ideas of supply and demand, one of capitalism’s fundamentals. For the first time in history, goods and services in the form of knowledge, data and intellectual product can be reproduced at zero cost. The crudest manifestation and best example of this phenomenon is copy and paste.
If I send you a copy of my off-beat kaiju novel for a review on a free-to-read book reviews site (cough), then there’s nothing stopping you copying and pasting the entire text, sending it to everyone in your address book, and then those people sending it to everyone they know, in turn. Leaving aside your utility bill and the price of your device, no money whatsoever has changed hands. Nobody got rich, and yet under this model, something has been created which explodes the capitalist system: abundance without cost.
Knowledge, Mason states, wants to be free. If your economy is based on knowledge, in the form of data travelling along wires or through the airwaves or being bounced off a satellite, there’s a problem.
This has led to stagnation in the classic Kondratieff wave. We’ve got our technological innovation. But the concomitant growth isn’t happening. It should have done by now. Mason says we should be worried about this.
As more and more elements of our lives are subsumed into the digital world - even sex and dating, for crying out loud - with the employment-issue Godzilla of automation lumbering over the brow of the hill, then capitalism is going to have to look lively in order to live in the manner in which it has become accustomed. A tipping point will be reached in terms of the haves and have-nots of the world. I’d argue we’re on the brink as it stands.
To take one example: the inevitability of safe, reliable driverless vehicles and delivery services will completely destroy the livelihoods of millions of people on low-to-middle incomes. In the past week, how many things have you had delivered by parcel services? How many car, taxi, bus, plane and train journeys have you taken?
With the rise of the robots, Mason thinks that work, and the world of work, is going to have to shift aside to allow humanity to live its life for the living, rather than being enslaved to profiteers. But there are other pressing crises which have weighed in on the stagnation of the Kondratieff wave. Climate change is a big ‘un, of course. We might be chronically overdrawn on that score. I hope Mother Nature is amenable to an individual voluntary arrangement.
On top of that, there’s a rising, ageing population, and an impending financial crisis related to pension provision big enough to completely crash most major economies. Mason argues that there’s no avoiding this. The cynic in me says there’ll be some avoiding it, alright, if our masters decide to cull us.
Then there’s Mason’s contention that neoliberal policies have strangulated progress among 99% of the working population. By constraining the working population through austerity policies, our governments and captains of industry have ensured this current crisis.
However bad things could get, Paul Mason is an optimist. He lays out the groundworks for how a world without the capitalist system could work. Sort out the environment; have robots do most of the work, reducing the need for work; pay everyone a basic income; with an abundance of supply of food and water, people should basically be free to work at whatever they like, whether that’s writing blogs, building houses, taking your clothes off for the boys, volunteering for environmental research projects, or whatever you like. The global financial system, of course, should be tightly regulated and socially responsible, with a view towards humanity rather than the need for profits.
All of this, he says, should be underpinned by the use of the single most disruptive element in the world, which cuts through finance, art, politics, military engagements, consumption and production – information networks.
With all this freely available, easily collectible data in the world, Mason says it should be used to model and predict human behaviour and socio-economic trends as never before, the better to target human need with abundant resources. Effectively, this is the kind of network Marx fantasised about, but which is now a reality.
This is an extension of the modelling miracle Mason speaks about earlier in the book. To take his example, if you have a new component for a jet aircraft, in days gone by a lot of labour would have gone into testing that part and perfecting it, and that’s before the business of practical tests in the real world. But now, Mason says, everything can be modelled and even rigorously tested in a virtual environment, with every potential outcome mapped and mathematically watertight in a virtual landscape. Everything can be ship-shape by the time the component actually appears in the physical world. You don’t even have to use up basic resources like pen and pencil. This idea can be extended to any concept, any product, any population, any trend, or any economic system.
I think… ah bollocks to what I think. I’ve just deleted 2,000 words of polemic, and it felt good to do so. Trump, Brexit, big data, blah blah, off it goes, you don’t need to hear it. I’ve nothing to add. Paul Mason wants to find workable solutions to the world’s problems, based on the idea of the public good. I guess that’s as much as we can hope for. He seems like a decent man.
God knows what’s coming down the line. This was an interesting book. I’ve learned something. Best recommendation I can give.