14 Aug 2015

Paul Mason : Postcapitalism - A Guide to Our Future

I've just finished reading a remarkable book by Paul Mason that came out on the 30th of July. It's called "Postcapitalism - A Guide to Our Future" and I believe that it could be a very significant contribution indeed.

Paul Mason is currently Economics Editor at Channel Four News in the UK, a post that he previously held on the BBC's Newsnight program. Given that his origins include being a member of the Trotskyist Workers' Power group, it is actually quite surprising to find him in such a high profile media position. It actually goes against my assumption that the media are controlled by financial interests. I will have to start watching Channel Four News!

The book gives a very radical and innovative view of history, and offers a vision of a postcapitalist society that really does seem to be within reach.

He argues that Neoliberalism is broken, and that
 "This is the real austerity project : to drive down wages and living standards in the West for decades, until they meet those of the middle class in China and India on the way up". 
He argues that :
"Postcapitalism is possible because of three impacts of the new technology in the past twenty-five years.
First, information technology and reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages.
Second, information goods are corroding the market's ability to form prices correctly. This is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system's defence mechanism is to form monopolies on a scale not seen in the past 200 years - yet this cannot last.
Third we are seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organizations are appearing that no longer respond to the dicates of the market and the managerial hierachy. The biggest information product in the world - Wikipedia - is made by 27,000  volunteers, for free, abolishing the encyclopaedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3 billion a year in revenue."
"By creating millions of networked people, financially exploited bu with the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away, info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being".
"The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial".
Mason's analysis includes a historical approach that includes a lot of discussion of the significance of thinkers such as Karl Marx. Much of this was very new for me, but I was literally gob-smacked to discover that Marx had foreseen the situation where the costs of production could drop to almost nothing - the "economics of free stuff".

Marx had written a whole collection of his personal notes known collectively as the Grundrisse that were not read in Western Europe until the 1960s, and not translated into English until 1973. In one part, written in Feburary 1858, which has become known as the Fragment on Machines, Marx had "imagined an economy in which the main role of machines was to produce, and the main role of people was to supervise them".  As Mason puts it:
"Marx drops a bombshell. In an economy where machines do most of the work, where human labour is really about supervising, mending and designing the machince, the nature of the knowledge locked inside the machine must, he writes, be "social".
 "In this model, scribbled on paper in 1858, but unknown to the left for more than 100 years, capitalism collapses because it cannot exist alongside shared knowledge".

Marx "imagined socially produced information becoming embodied in machined. He imagined this producing a new dynamic, which destroys the old mechanisms for creating prices and profits.... And he imaged information coming to be stored and shared in something called a 'general intellect' - which was the mind of everybody on earth connected by social knowledge, in which every upgrade benefits everyone. In short, he had imagined something close to the info-capitalism in which we live."
"Furthermore, he had imagined what the main objective of the working class would be if this world ever existed: freedom from work".
Later on in his book, Mason proposes a number of ways that we could, as a society, move towards this ultimate utopian goal. Amongst the proposals, one that he describes as "the biggest structural change required to make postcapitalism happen: a universal basic income guaranteed by the state". 

Mason notes that
"The basic income, as a policy, is not that radical. Various pilot projects and designs have been touted, often by the right, sometimes by the centre-left, as a replacement for the dole with cheaper administration costs. But in the postcapitalist project, the purpose of the baisc income is radical: it is (a) to formalize the separation of work and wages and (b) to subsidize the transition to a shorter working week, or day, or life."
"A basic income paid for out of taxes on the market economy  gives people the chance to build positions in the non-market economy. It allows them to volunteer, set up co-ops, edit Wikipedia, learn how to use 3D design software, or just exist. It allows them to space out periods of work; make a late entry or early exit from working life; switch more easily into and out of high-intensity, stressful jobs."
"Under this system, there would be no stigma attached to not working. the labour market would be stacked in favour of the high-paying job and the high-paying employer.
The universal income, then, is an antidote to what the anthropoligist David Graeber calls "bullshit jobs": the low-paid service jobs capitalism has managed to create over the past twenty-five years that pay little, demean the worker and probably don't need to exist."
It all makes perfect sense to me. And it's good to see that Mason is obviously also a clear supporter of putting money creation in the hands of the state:
"the state (via the central bank) would have to take on the task of creating money and providing credit, as advocated by supporters of so-called "positive money"
He has a whole pile of detailed arguments to back his vision, quite a few of which involve numbers that I too think are absolutely fundamental.

For example, when talking about the amount of money "printed" by Central Banks in an attempt to keep the current system from falling to pieces, he says that he calculated that "the combined amount of money printed globally, including that pledged by the ECB, at around $12 trillion - one sixth of global GDP"

And there is a graph that I would have liked to generate myself - a graph of how world money supply (measured by M0, M1, M2 and M3)  has swollen since Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard in 1971.

The good news is that this graph confirms my own number for the current size of the world money supply in 2014 - namely around $80 trillion.

He also uses one of my favourite facts - namely the fact that "the global debt of banks, households, companies and states has risen by $57 trillion since the crisis" (he quotes the figures from the Kinsey report that put global debt at nearly $200 trillion at the end of 2014.

There's also a beautiful graph showing how income for the vast majority of us has stagnated over this period since the early 1970s, while the revenue of the 1% has gone through the roof.

As Mason says, this cannot be sustainable.

I've only just skimmed the long list of subjects that Paul Mason discusses in his book. I learnt a huge amount. And I must say that I find his whole vision of a new utopia very attractive. Indeed, I think that many of my own proposals for IOU based cooperation with Owe'm or the introduction of parallel state-run currencies like the N-Euro fit beautifully with this. I wonder if he would be interested in presenting something on Channel Four News about them!

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