Enter Paul Mason, economics editor of Channel 4 News and his new book Postcapitalism.
I have nothing against Paul. I think he is one of the finest journalists and columnists today. Besides, he has a sharp eye to predict epoch-changing events. His Monday dispatches in The Guardian have become regular reading for me. For instance, his incisive and - mostly – impartial and non-partisan analysis of the Greek economic crisis has been a soothing balm amongst the finger-pointing and mud-slinging that passes off for serious reporting sometimes.
However I do disagree with Mr Mason’s conclusions in his latest book. According to Paul we are entering a stage in which information technology and a new sharing economy will eventually take over, thus creating what he calls a “postcapitalist” society.
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One of the extracts from his book contains all-sweeping statements like this one: “Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours. I call this postcapitalism.” The use of the word “something” scares me to death. Using a pronoun whose connotation is an unspecified or unknown thing instead of giving me reassurance leaves me feeling worried. What is this “something” that is going to topple one of the strongest socioeconomic and political systems we have had for the last six-hundred years? As it happens this “something” is not a single entity but a combination of factors, namely, the nature of work, including the need for it and its relationship with free time. The second element is based on the way information is collected and shared. Current socioeconomic models are finding it hard to cope with a fast-moving world in which information travels much quicker. Finally the third component is – voluntary – collaboration. As an example Mr Mason cites Wikipedia, an ad-free, online encyclopaedia which is edited by volunteers.
Whilst it is a laudable effort for an economics expert to make the case for small and medium enterprises (to use the right terminology) it is less re-assuring to see that Paul’s theory is manufacturing-free.
In vain I searched Paul Mason’s extract for clues as to how food would be produced, clothes made or even computers (the devices on which, I am assuming, this information would be shared) built in this future, post-capitalist society. There was nothing there to indicate that the real problem we have faced for many years, not just since 2008 but before that, is that production has been broken down and outsourced. Therein lies the problem, or one of them. Capitalism began with someone owning a factory, for example, making something and working out the cost of production and the profit after. The system called to a very human need: our sense of enterprise and creativity. For centuries thereafter capitalism remained mainly local (yes, there was outsourcing in the 1800s but not of the same type we have now) with different countries specialising in a specific or specific sectors. The end of the 20th century put paid to this economic approach. We have now computer parts being made in various parts of the world and assembled in others. What that means is that the owner, or owners as it is more common these days, can very easily ignore or violate employment laws and extract the maximum out of their workers whilst paying extremely low wages. I’m sorry, Paul, but network technology will not solve that.
This is the first time I have seen Mr Mason on shaky ground. Normally he is quite sound and convincing. My impression of the extract I read (which you can read here) was that he was going down the same route as Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Pinker, two writers whose oeuvre, I hasten to add, I have not read yet, but with whose essays I am quite familiar. Gladwell and Pinker are the equivalent of a catchy pop tune, the kind you cannot get out of your head. Their write-ups, whether they appear in The New Yorker or The Observer, are usually peppered with zeitgeist-y theories and soundbites that would be considered vanilla if they came from someone else. In fact, that is the flavour I think of the most whenever their names pop into my head: vanilla. I know that I am not being fair and maybe if I read The Tipping Point (Gladwell) or The Stuff of Thought (Pinker) I would probably change my mind. At the same time there is too much faux-philosophy-posturing going around and operating in a sort of self-referential, members-only club that looks down on those who do not get “it”. To use a baking metaphor, there is a lot of icing on the cake, but when you plunge your knife to cut it, there is nothing or very little inside. All you have is a lot of meringue. I hate meringue.
When it comes to economics, I think that most of us get “it”, even if we are not equipped with the knowledge to offer an elaborate riposte to our current woes. Regardless of the nature of work in the 21st century and its relationship with free time, we all expect to be paid for our labour. Technological innovation of the type described by Paul in his article is still driven by profit. To me the challenge is to turn this technological development into an ally in order to rein in corporate excess, not to use it as a surrogate for means of production. By the way, for each modern robot-like machine brought into the 2015 workplace five or six people will lose their jobs. The start-ups that have put East London Shoreditch almost at the same level as Silicon Valley do not do it because they are interested in ushering in the next stage of capitalism. They do it because their businesses are profitable and because they do not fancy working at their local Tesco stacking shelves. This is still our world today.
I say, nice try, Paul, but next time see if you can give a little bit of substance. Please, leave the meringue for another occasion.
Next Post: “Dramatis Personae of a previous life in Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 16th September at 6pm (GMT)