Paul Mason's wild ride to a socialist future

Sunday, April 3, 2016

PostCapitalism: A Guide To Our Future
By Paul Mason
Allen Lane, 2015, 340 pp., $49.99 (hb)

Paul Mason is a well-known British economics journalist, who made a name for himself with commentary on the BBC and more lately on Channel 4. PostCapitalism has created a big splash in Britain, where it has been widely reviewed and debated.

The book is Mason's attempt to discern a possible future where humanity can survive the economic and ecological crises of capitalism and create an equitable society. He has a profound belief in the possibilities of digital technology and its offshoots like Bitcoin and Creative Commons.

In an earlier life, he was a member of a Trotskyist group and from that he retains a seriousness about economic theory and a respect for Marxism — especially rather obscure bits of Marxist theory, such as the so-called “Fragment on Machines” in The Grundrisse.

There are good, plain English explanations of Marxism to be found here. As a youth, he clearly picked up a good grounding. As an older man, he is now eclectic rather than Marxist and PostCapitalism, while fascinating, has the feel of a mash-up.

However, it is saved from being an intellectual mess by Mason's storytelling abilities — this is a very easy book to read. Rather than just reeling off theory, from the very first page he situates everything within real life, well-narrated examples.

For example, to dramatise the effects of neoliberalism, he describes first-hand the Moldova/Russia border, along the Dniestr River: “It is so quiet that you can hear little pieces of concrete falling off the road bridge above, as it slowly crumbles through neglect.”

The book is divided into three parts. The first uses Marxist economic theory to prove that neoliberalism is dead.

However, this is Marxist theory refracted through Mason's particular glass and may stretch others' conceptions. Swept together alongside Karl Marx and Rosa Luxembourg are, among many others, the early theorist of imperialism Rudolf Hilferding and the liberal bourgeois economist Joseph Schumpeter.

Mason is much taken with the “long wave” theories of Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff. Marx and Engels observed in their time that there appeared to be 10-year long capitalist boom/bust business cycles. Kondratieff theorised that capitalism is characterised by longer, 50-year long waves of expansion and contraction.

Stalin had Kondratieff murdered for his thinking. Ernest Mandel, among other anti-Stalinist Marxists, rehabilitated him.

Mason links Kondratieff's long waves with other thinkers and draws the conclusion that the world has entered a new cycle of economic and technological change — the digital age — but that its inherent possibilities have been stalled by neoliberalism.

Section 2 builds on The Grundrisse, which was Marx's early attempt to get to grips with capitalist economics. It was the background material for Capital. It has many useful insights, but there are vigorous debates over some aspects, including “The Fragment on Machines”.

“The Fragment”, which is not a fully developed theory — without even a heading in The Grundrisse — explains the alienation experienced by a worker when confronted by the machinery that capitalism deploys. Workers experience the machinery as sucking their vitality out of them.

The enormity of capitalist machinery makes the worker feel like an “automaton” — a robot. In fact, society-wide the whole apparatus takes on the dimensions of “an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages”.

Machinery allows for mass production that forever reduces the cost of items. At the same time the growth of machinery, Marx believed, opens up the possibility of shortening the work week so that workers can experience more freedom.

All the talk about automatons obviously resonates with today's growth of digital technology, which excites Mason. Digital production has the possibility of reducing the cost of production essentially to nothing.

Mason even refers to futurist thinker Jeremy Rifkin's musings about the Internet of Things, which Rifkin speculates might end up effectively wiring human beings together!

Certainly, aspects of free production have appeared in the world via such things as Wikipedia, Linux and Firefox. Mason believes that the emerging network economy “has started to corrode the traditional property relations of capitalism”.

Along with Rifkin, Mason believes that the digital age will massively reduce the need to work.

PostCapitalism's third section is Mason's transitional program to his revolutionary future. And it certainly demonstrates that he is a wide reader.

He uses Alexander Bogdanov's 1909 science fiction novel Red Star as a launch pad. Bogdanov was a sometime member of the Bolsheviks.

The narrator in Red Star goes to Mars and discovers a socialist society in which real time information about factory production and labour shortages allows for immediate reallocation of resources. The cost of production has been reduced to nothing, creating a society of plenty.

Mason counterpoises Bogdanov to Lenin. In fact, he muses in passing on what would have happened if Bogdanov had come to lead the Bolsheviks rather than being expelled in 1909.

He mentions that Bogdanov died in 1928 after conducting an experimental blood transfusion on himself. Bogdanov was actually attempting to find the key to immortality.

After, among other things, giving an account of the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union, Mason outlines his action program.

It includes closing down offshore banking and holding interest rates below inflation rates. This is to deal with public debt, while avoiding austerity.

He wants the elimination of capitalist monopolies through government regulation and the support of co-operatives based upon collaborative and non-profit forms of work such as creative commons production. If monopolies cannot be broken up, Mason wants them socialised along with the finance system.

After such a wild intellectual journey, Mason's revolutionary program is a bit of a disappointment, to say the least, but no matter. This book, full of points of contention, is to be welcomed — Mason is on the progressive side of the barricades.

He reflects the striving of a generation to find a way out of the dead end that capitalism has created. This book will inspire many to go back to the sources of his thinking and rediscover Marxism for themselves and creatively apply it.

Whatever the shape of a non-capitalist future, it is the collective, imaginative action of the great mass of humanity that will construct a better world. Paul Mason is part of that reimagining.

[More discussion on the latest thinking on socialist alternatives to capitalism can be found at the “Socialism for the 21st Century” conference in Sydney on May 13-15.]

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