Postcapitalism – Paul Mason: A Review

Ah, finally I get onto finishing another of the books that I started in 2015 but put down for reasons that weren’t the books fault! When I first tried to read it, Postcapitalism proved to be an incredibly dense book. Talk of Marxist crisis theory, Kondratrieff waves and Schumpeter’s proposals of long cycles were all very well, but I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. By about page 70 I was worn out and felt like I was severely lacking the economics degree required to make sense of this book. It’s unfortunate I stopped here, because, around page 72, it all starts to fall into place and make a bit more sense…

We live in times of austerity, unfettered free markets and rampant inequality. The economy has gone through three boom-and-busts since 2000, and there’s no guarantee that we’re out of the woods. We know there are problems that need to be addressed with regards to poverty, equality, climate change and pollution, corruption, and all manner of other grave troubles, yet most governments globally are keen to ignore these problems, and when a country makes a legitimate move to address these issues (as in Greece, imperfectly though it was), the attempt is quashed by more powerful organisations.

And yet, out of this ruinous system, something else has emerged in recent years: the internet. We live in an increasingly networked society, and out of this network new systems are emerging based not on money, but on information.

Information flies in the face of classical economics, and no one really knows what to do about it. Mason shows that we’re at an important juncture of politics and economics – the end of a downswing that should grow into a new upswing in classical economics, hasn’t happened as it should have. There has been a stagnation, and this situation has arisen out of a conflict between neoliberalism and information. The two cannot exist in harmony.

Mason’s solution to this problem is Postcapitalism, a new kind of economics that embraces this new networked resource, infinite, digital, intellectual and constantly-evolving:

The first part of the book is admittedly difficult. One would need an economics degree to wade through the various theories and patterns Mason applies to the current stagnation of capitalism, in order to explain what has gone wrong. He delves into a level of detail beyond the need or cognitive power of the layman. Get through these first 70 pages and the book becomes more and more lucid and interesting by degrees as disparate concepts and complex theories suddenly find themselves applied to past and present economics.

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The second part delves into the potential for a post-capitalist society. Specifically, Mason explores the way in which the digital revolution has resulted in an influx of information into all facets of our lives and every conceivable job. Information is hard to value and this is because information is abundant. Mainstream economics is based on supply and demand, and intrinsic to supply and demand is the idea of scarcity. In economics, all things are scarce – supply, demand and price depend on this scarcity. Information, however, is abundant – we can infinitely download Lukas Graham’s ‘7 Years’, no matter how inadvisable this is. If something is in abundance then its price is driven towards zero. Indeed, the reason it would cost you 0.99p to buy ‘7 Years’, which, again, I’d like to emphasise is a bad idea, is because iTunes artificially regulate that price. If they didn’t, it would naturally fall lower. Information is a problem to capitalism because it undercuts the theories of supply and demand (amongst others which Mason is better equipped to explain than I). Wikipedia, for example, is an open-source project in which anyone can edit it, but no money changes hands other than the odd donation and some central workers. Wikipedia’s theoretical value has been calculated to be as high as $2bn, but in reality it works outside ideas of money. People can input something into it and not be paid, or take knowledge from it and not have to pay. Wikipedia transcends economics.
It is within the hallowed halls of information that Mason believes the key to a post-capitalist society exists.

In the final part, Mason explores the transitional period between economic systems. Specifically, he looks at how Feudalism gave way to Capitalism – through external shocks and internal stagnation – and points out the similarities between this situation and our current economic crises.
He weaves in the current pressing global issues of climate change, population increase and rising life expectancy into the argument for a post-capitalist state and posits what measures and policies we would have to implement in order to enter the transition towards a post-capitalist economy.

Ultimately, Mason doesn’t know what Post-Capitalism will look like, and in a way that feels like a cop-out. At the same time, it would be dishonest of him to propose a possible model because we simply can’t predict what will happen. It will likely be based on information and abundance, and it should address the issues currently pressing on society most, but beyond that who’s to say? It may well be that we destroy the Earth in some way before we can reach a new economics.

Postcapitalism is what Dawkins would term a consciousness-raiser – a thought experiemnt which bestows new ways of thinking about the world challenging your idea of what is concrete. Specifically, and importantly, Postcapitalism challenges the idea that the system we have now is the system we have to work within and shows us that change is happening inexorably, despite the assertions to the contrary of those not prepared for a fundamental change in their reality. If we know that, we can embrace what we have – information and abundance – and attempt to utilise them in a way that addresses the economic and social problems we’re currently undergoing.

Postcapitalism isn’t the most accessible or engaging book, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Mason is a journalist with an MA in Music, trying to outline a serious economic proposal that will stand the criticism of economists. Get through the jargon and what remains is an important and influential text that will, hopefully, inspire others to work on the wisdom within, and go on to write some more accessible texts to bring the idea of post-capitalism to the masses.

6/10

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