Paul Mason’s “Post-Capitalism” is an interesting book. It often feels like a work in progress, and I often disagree with his ideas, but it is the kind of book that makes you think, so it’s definitely worth reading even if you don’t think you’re likely to agree with his conclusions.
The book at times reminded me of a course I had to take back in 1991 in the “theory of science of the humanities” as part of my linguistics degree at Aarhus University. My teacher was a young Marxist who was completely freaked out by the collapse of Communism and spent most of the time insisting that Marxism was right and that the collapse must be due to some specific errors made by later interpretations — Marx himself had to have been right.
Paul Mason seems to view Marxism in a similar fashion (but he is much more convincing that my teacher was back in 1991). His heroes are people like Ricardo, Marx, Kondratieff and Bogdanov, but he’s very critical of Lenin and especially Stalin and his acolytes. There’s nothing wrong with that per se (I don’t care where an idea comes from so long as it is good) but at times it’s like Paul Mason is willing them to be right — he seems to be hoping the financial crash of 2008 will be the event that triggers the advent of real Communism as envisaged by Marx.
Sometimes I agree with his hopes. As somebody who has been part of the Open Source movement for a very long time (I installed Linux for the first time in 1994, made my first Wikipedia edit ten years later and participated in the first Wikipedia conference, Wikimania, in 2005), I would dearly want the future to be a place where intellectual collaboration replaces suffocating uses of copyright and patents. However, I’m not entirely sure this is enough to make it happen.
The historical chapters are very good and explained several things to me that have been puzzling me. For instance, I never quite understood why the moderate social-democratic parties basically gave up the will to life after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, given that it was a very specific variant of Communism that had been discredited, not everything based on Marx’s ideas. However, Mason explains it well:
Both wings of the labour movement became wedded to the belief that socialism could be introduced by taking control of the state and the organized market. […] This was the idea that died after 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the rise of globalization and the creation of the fragmentary, marketized and privatized economy we see today. The progression Hilferding imagined, which had implicitly guided socialism for eighty years, has been broken and indeed reversed. [p.60]
His also points out that neoliberalism wasn’t just an accidental and natural extension of old-fashioned capitalism:
Neoliberalism was designed and implemented by visionary politicians: Pinochet in Chile; Thatcher and her ultra-conservative circle in Britain; Reagan and the Cold Warriors who brought him to power. They’d faced massive resistance from organized labour and they’d had enough. In response, these pioneers of neoliberalism drew a conclusion that has shaped our age: that a modern economy cannot coexist with an organized working class. Consequently, they resolved to smash labour’s collective bargaining power, traditions and social cohesion completely. [p.91]
One specific problem I have with this book is the length of the economic cycle.
In 2010, the Russian researchers Korotayev and Tsirel […] used a technique called ‘frequency-analysis’ to show convincingly that there are powerful fifty-year pulses in the GDP data. […] Cesare Marchetti, an Italian physicist, […] concluded in 1986 [that his data] reveals cyclic or pulsed behaviour in many areas of economic life, with cycles lasting roughly fifty-five years. [p.44]
However, Strauss and Howe argue rather convincingly in “Generations” that the normal cycle length in human societies is about 80 years (because this is the time it takes for everybody who remembers the errors made last time to have died (or at least have grown so old that nobody will listen to them). I find it much easier to find current parallels with 1935 than with 1960-65. This matters because one of Paul Mason’s main arguments is that the normal capitalistic cycle seems to have been broken because the economy doesn’t look at all like it did in the sixties — if the cycle length is different, that argument doesn’t hold.
Of course, there could actually be two overlapping cycles, an economic one lasting 50-55 years and a societal one lasting 80, but in that case we’ll have to go back a great many years to find a close parallel to the situation we’re finding ourselves in today (see the graph above).
Cycles are very interesting, but I think much more research is needed before we can conclude that the normal cycle has been interrupted.
After spending most of the book addressing the history of Marxism and neoliberalism, exploring different theories of value (which I’ll discuss in a separate blog post) and using this and cycle theory to argue that capitalism is dyring, in chapter 9 (“A Rational Case for Panic”) he points out that the current model is also collapsing in other ways, such as climate change and the demographic time bomb.
This was very convincing, and I was looking forward to getting a convincing answer to everything in the last chapter. However, it was somewhat underwhelming. His best proposal is a computer simulation:
We need an open, accurate and comprehensive computer simulation of current economic reality. […] It would start by attempting to construct an accurate simulation of economies as they exist today. Its work would be Open Source: anybody could use it, anybody could suggest improvements and the outputs would be available to all. It would most likely have to use a method caled ‘agent-based modelling’ — that is, using computers to create millions of virtual workers, households and firms, and letting them interact spontaneously, within realistic boundaries. […] The prize […] is an economic model that does not just simulate reality but actually represents it. […] Once we are able to capture economic reality in this manner, then planning major changes in an accountable way becomes possible. [p.271f]
He does make some other suggestions, but it does make sense to focus especially on this. If we had such a model, we could answer many questions much more convincingly. For instance, during the Scottish independence referendum, we would have been able to respond to Project Fear’s scaremongering in a much more authoritative fashion if such a model had been in place. We would also be able to show exactly why austerity is the wrong answer in the present situation and why benefit sanctions don’t increase employment, so this is definitely worth doing.
I disagree with many specific ideas in Post-Capitalism, but that’s not a problem. The purpose of this book is to make you think, and it achieves that extremely well. I would definitely recommend reading this book, even if your purpose is to fix capitalism so that it starts working in everybody’s best interest again.