Saturday, 12 September 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Some of us want to change the way capitalism works. Some others want to get rid of it altogether. Some would rather it kept chugging along the same way it has so far (these are the ones who usually command six-figure salaries and above). The bottom line is that nobody knows what to do with this century-old socioeconomic political system that is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

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.


The new Che Guevara?

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.

© 2015

Next Post: “Dramatis Personae of a previous life in Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 16th September at 6pm (GMT)


36 comments:

  1. wow! Cubano, why don't you tell us what you REALLY think? :-) just kidding.
    i'm glad i stopped by, been missing my visits, though i like to hit you on Sundays.
    a Saturday is slightly different, its reassuring that you still do what you do (never vanilla).
    catch you on the rebound, stay well.

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  2. Hoy te dejo mis saludos y a la vez me alegro de verte de nuevo, espero que hayas podido disfrutar del verano con los tuyos y que el calor haya sido soportable.
    Un abrazo.

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  3. I know many people who think Socialism is a great evil, but I think unfettered Capitalism is worse. We need a balance. I'd hate for future generations to never see the ocean because ll the beaches were privately owned by people who just happened to be born when such purchases were available. National Parks, Social Security, government-backed loans---these are all Socialism at its best.

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  4. Nicely said. I don't see capitalism being replaced anytime soon. I've read and enjoyed Pinker's The Language Instinct and Gladwell's Outliers, which were earlier books with smaller claims. What I've heard of their later work sounds less appealing.

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    1. And welcome back from vacation! I love your new banner photo. It captures London.

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    2. And welcome back from vacation! I love your new banner photo. It captures London.

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  5. Hi-ya! Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed your break.

    Very well-written, as always. I don't think capitalism, in itself, is the problem. I think part of the problem here is how much the richest capitalists have gotten so entwined with our politicians, so those with money have entirely too much power in deciding policy. When the rich are favored over the rest of the population, the gap grows too wide between those at the top of society and those at the bottom, and the middle moves farther and farther down.

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  6. Welcome back! I'm afraid I have my doubts that tech will be our savior. I still remember the dot.com crash of the early 200s. There was talk of the new economy back then, until the whole thing collapsed.

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  7. Hey Cubano-- thanks for the well- written and thought out post! I see you have been busy in your vacation. One problem -- among many-- with capitalism is that it seems to depend in part on ever expanding markets while the world itself and people are having a problem with ever expanding population. It is hard to think that the something that changes it will not be violent-- of course I hope it will not be. Thanks as ever for sharing your ideas so articulately. K. Manicddaily-- Thnks too for your kindness. K.

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  8. The rich idiots are the problem, getting away with everything and bribing those so they do. Don't think capitalism will go anywhere any time soon

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  9. A very warm welcome back to you, my dear friend! So nice to see a post from you, and I absolutely love your header! :)

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  10. Welcome back to the sea of blogs, CiL. I miss your appearances when you run off on a holiday. I hope you had an enjoyable, relaxing time.

    It sounds to me like we have a man here (Paul Mason) feeling the need to revitalize his credentials, had an idea, began writing and, about six months into his work either forgot what he was trying to say or realized the brilliance of his thoughts had evaporated in the cruel light of sobriety. Hence, the word "something."

    Anyway, I am equally certain the capitalistic system of today will evolve or, perhaps, even will be completely replaced. Into what depends upon what happens first -- either of which I see as the two greatest threats to humankind: Over-population (which was the real-deal before the appearance of an actual money-making concept like global warming/climate change caught the attention of wheeler-dealer capitalists) or an authentic war to end all wars. I think it is a coin flip.

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  11. I found this post really interesting. You are so right about the upper echelon being invested in everything cranking along as usual, even though it is strangling everyone else along with the planet. An interesting read....thanks for your visit to my blog, always nice to see you.

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  12. Good to see you back in blogland,

    And such an interesting post - the aspect tif capitalism that troubles me most is it being predicated by greed. People need to want to buy stuff or do stuff that other people can Br paid to make it or provide it for them. If we settle for finding joy in what we haave, rather than striving for stuff we done have, the system goes into decline. But the impact of all that is the developed world becoming more and more acquisative while the developing world breaks it's back making stuff it will never be able to afford to buy for itself.

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  13. You're back - and I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis. I agree with you! It's pretty obvious that money still talks...

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  14. Thanks for your comments. By the way, it is my bike in the photo :-). I thought it was hightime it was introduced to Blogland.

    Greetings from London.

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  15. Welcome back. Hope you had a good summer break.

    I am in the fortunate position of not needing to worry about the future - for myself, that is. For others, I worry at length.

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  16. Thanks for the post ~ I am enjoying the fruits of capitalism but agree with you that the business world is evolving ~ I am going to read more into Post capitalism ~

    Have a good Sunday ~

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  17. Hi ACIL - love the bike ... I had a brief spell way back when of cycling around London - old days and old bike! I too like Paul Mason ... but his book has certainly had some querying reviews. We need capitalism ... but we need more philanthropy too .. and we need to set examples, so each and everyone of us can set examples to others ... then we might improve ... helping ourselves, others and others beyond our shores.

    So pleased you posted such a thoughtful note on the book ... cheers Hilary

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  18. i def. think that we humans need a motivation to do the work we do - may it be money or fame or fun or because it makes sense or just to get food for our families - no one ever does sth. "just so"
    and when i watch young people i realize that money or profit isn't the strongest reason to work anymore - maybe things will change - who knows

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  19. Very thoughtful and worthwhile reading








    ALOHA
    ComfortSpiral
    =^..^=

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  20. Thanks for posting this...very insightful.

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  21. Welcome back, a great Elton John song and what is it that you have against meringue? After production collapses and all the mixers have died, you'll not have to worry about such deserts. A thoughtful analysis. When anyone looks into the future, they are apt to make such unsubstantiated statements. Do you remember Huxley's "Brave New World"?

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  22. thanks for this excellent article. :)

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  23. I think actually we're going to be forced into post-capitalism, but it won't be about information sharing and whishy washy things like that, it will be a tooth and nail fight for survival after we've destroyed the environment.

    I really enjoy Pinker's writings on language and thought by the way

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  24. Welcome back, CiL...your insightful posts have been sorely missed!

    As always, you've definitely given me a lot of food for thought here.
    Yes...I, too, believe we will eventually find ourselves forced into some form of post-capitalism. Things just can't continue the way they have been for much longer. Something will have to give.
    There is a strong sense of everything beginning to break down...hopefully to make way for something better in the future.
    These are scary times indeed...:/

    Hope you had a wonderful break!

    Greetings from a rainy Hampshire...:)

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  25. Nice to see you again. This is avery interesting post that asks good questions. Another one that came to mind as I read the beginning of your post is why so many people are ready to vote for or keep in power those who want the status quo, or even worse would like to go back to long hours and no union times.
    Nice bike by the way!

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  26. it is an interesting thought. it is scary the absence of the basic necessities of life . but I could ser an economy where information becomes a commodity. a sharing economy I fear we are far from

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  27. Capitalism works for capitalists and the for the politicians in power. The vast majority of poor people suffer. Besides, in capitalism even the law is one sided. It favors the rich and punishes the poor. Capitalism makes the gap between the rich and poor increase at an alarming speed. It is time for capitalism to change and adapt to improve the living and working conditions of the poor.

    Best wishes

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  28. I cannot imagine that we are anywhere close to a sharing economy yet--you pose many good questions--ones I don't have answers to, but wish I did

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  29. I cannot imagine that we are anywhere close to a sharing economy yet--you pose many good questions--ones I don't have answers to, but wish I did

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  30. nice bike :) love the pic, enjoyed the song, don't know much about economy but I am for free enterprise, hola Cubano

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  31. Love that number by Elton John (and your new banner picture)

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  32. Obrigada por compartilhar.
    Abraços-Carmen Lúcia(Brasil).

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