A review in Saturday’s Guardian by David Runciman of Paul Mason’s latest book Post-Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future has come out at the perfect time as far as this blog is concerned. I have begun a series of posts focusing on the current crisis, as Bahá’ís see it, and its shaping by the events of the 20th Century.
The posts are in the form of workshop materials I used recently so it seems a good idea, as a way of unpacking some of the implications, to interweave links that shed light on issues raised by these materials.
Tomorrow’s and next Monday’s materials seek to explore how dire our predicament is. Mason’s book, though it has its limitations as I am beginning to discover as I move into its fourth fascinating chapter, is a stimulating analysis of what he sees as the key problems and their possible solutions. I suspect, from what I have read so far, that he underestimates the value of organisation and totally discounts spirituality, let alone religion. Runciman has a list of reservations of his own.
None the less I am finding it an exciting read that raises exactly the sort of questions we all should be seeking to discover some kind of answer to. Some of the detailed economics is a bit above my head, but I am enjoying the basic flow of his argument. Below is a short extract: for the full review see link.
The digital revolution has made many things real that once seemed to belong to realms of science fiction. Self-driving cars are almost here, telepathic communication may not be far off, newspapers with pictures that move and talk are so commonplace as to pass without notice (in the Harry Potter books, the last of which was published just eight years ago, moving newsprint belonged to the world of witches and wizards). Now Paul Mason argues that the internet is bringing another quaint and fantastical idea within the scope of the achievable: socialism.
By socialism, he doesn’t mean the tame social democracy that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, with its emphasis on moderating inequality and championing workers’ rights. He doesn’t even mean the spikier version currently associated with Corbyn and Syriza. He means the real deal, going right back to the utopians of the early 19th century and their eventual successors, Marx, Luxemburg and Lenin. This is socialism as a root-and-branch challenge to capitalism, the market and the very idea of private ownership. Still, Mason is no orthodox Marxist. His is an eclectic take on the history of socialist thought. From the utopians, he gets the idea of unfettered choice and radical social experimentation, which the internet can deliver in spades. His Marx is not the author of Capital so much as the author of an obscure text called “The Fragment on Machines”, which argued that information overload would ultimately destroy capitalism by dispersing knowledge among the workers. Lenin and Luxemburg appear as the prophets of monopoly capitalism, now being reproduced in the era of Facebook and Google.
. . . . .
Like many opponents of capitalism, Mason appears unable to decide whether the system will have to get even worse so it can finally change or will have to change so as not to get even worse. At one point, he suggests that the Republican party in the US, with its ideological commitment to doubling down on neoliberal capitalism, could take the system past the point of no return if given a free hand. But a Republican administration would also undermine any progress on climate change, without which, Mason insists, none of us has a long-term future. The digital revolution has put extraordinary new powers in the hands of the workers but it has empowered bankers as well, not least by giving them the ability to create money almost out of thin air. New technology generates as many fresh illusions as it punctures old ones. We still need politics to sort out the resulting mess. . . . .
. . . . he has bitten off more than he can chew. But that is a big part of the appeal of this deeply engaging book. Mason doesn’t have the answers – he is not even close –, but he is asking the most interesting questions, unafraid of where they might lead. What’s more, he writes with freshness and insight on almost every page. PostCapitalism is full of memorable turns of phrase. To survive, 21st century capitalists “would have to treat people kissing each other for free the way they treated poachers in the 19th century”. Marginalist economics is a theory of society that is “bigger than accountancy but smaller than history”. Touché. I can’t remember the last book I read that managed to carve its way through the forest of political and economic ideas with such brio. A lot of the time Mason doesn’t seem to know where he is going, but that is part of the pleasure.