PostCapitalism by Paul Mason review – a worthy successor to Marx?
It may not, as promised, predict the future. But this fresh and insightful book illuminates the present in unexpected, revelatory ways
An eclectic take on the history of socialist thought … Paul Mason. Photograph: Emma Lynch
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.
This pick’n’mix approach has plenty to recommend it. The emerging character of the digital age can’t be made to fit any previous socialist blueprint, but it does have uncanny echoes of earlier glimpses of an alternative future. Critics of monopoly capitalism traditionally argued that the only way the system could survive was to keep finding new markets to conquer. In the early 20th century, that meant imperial wars of conquest. In the early 21st century, Mason suggests, it means “the mass commercialisation of ordinary human life”, pushing the market mechanism into the private world of our unspoken hopes and desires. What is Facebook’s advertising model if not that? The pressure a knowledge economy puts on the price mechanism drives the relentless search for new things to sell. For Mason, capitalism can’t survive if its primary resources are available at little cost and with an almost limitless shelf life. Abundant information is currently both too valuable and too cheap for an economic model based on private property to endure. This tension between knowledge (which is limitless) and ownership (which is limited) represents the basic contradiction of capitalism. Earlier thinkers caught sight of it from various different angles. Now the digital revolution has laid it bare.The problem is that any contradictions at the heart of capitalism have always generated contradictory political responses from its opponents. Should a fatally flawed system be allowed to destroy itself or should it be overthrown by force? Can its failings be corrected by taking it over or should socialists opt out altogether and create their own alternative communities? You will get very different answers depending on whether you start with Fourier or Marx, Chartism or Leninism. By touching base with all these approaches and more, Mason seems to indicate that anything goes. He wants more cooperative schemes of free exchange – a “sharing” economy to replace a predatory one – and more collective ownership as well. He wants the state to do more to tame private finance and individuals to do more to bypass it. The eclecticism of Mason’s approach to economics only produces confusion when it comes to politics.
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.
The unifying idea with which Mason attempts to tie together his various schemes is “networks v hierarchies”. He rightly thinks that earlier theories of class struggle and revolutionary politics are too narrow to encompass the range of political possibilities now available (especially as he thinks that the move towards gender equality is the fundamental social shift of the modern age). But “networks v hierarchies” is too broad as a slogan to explain anything. Mason never tells us how or why networks can be expected to overcome hierarchies. After all, hierarchies still have the advantage that they are hierarchical, which means they are much easier to control. Mason himself is not averse to embracing some aspects of hierarchical politics when the occasion demands. His own solution to the challenge of climate change is to push for action that is “centralised, strategic and fast … it will require more state ownership than anybody expects or wants”. Adaptable states will have to make use of networks – including “smart grids” for regulating energy supply – but it is impossible to believe that these states will themselves be nothing more than networks. The central challenge of contemporary politics is to discover new ways to reconcile networks with hierarchies through the institutions of representative democracy. You won’t find the answers in this book.
However, a short review can barely do justice to the range of sources Mason enlists in his search for a solution. We get Shakespeare as well as Marx, Rudolf Hilferding along with Richard Hoggart. On top of everything else, he overlays his account with Kondratiev’s long-wave theory, which says that capitalism goes through generational cycles of stagnation and innovation. Mason believes the current wave is different from the ones that have gone before, because we are now essentially stuck. New technology has given capitalists the ability to adapt without innovating, by providing them with the tools to seek out new forms of value. At the same time, it has given the rest of us the ability to innovate without adapting, by allowing us to explore new lifestyles without having to think about the political implications. Something has got to give. Mason builds a wholly plausible case that the present situation is unsustainable. But what will give, and how, is not something he can tell us.
In this respect, 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”. Touche. 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.
Already critics have tried to pigeonhole the book by locating it within the divides of contemporary politics (you are either with Mason or against him). Mason hasn’t helped with some of his shorter spin-offs and summaries, making the connection with the crisis in Greece or the latest digital disruption. But PostCapitalism is a lot more interesting than any short summary can convey, because so much of the interest is in the incidental asides. Its reach takes it well beyond Corbyn and Syriza, Uber and Occupy. The subtitle says it offers a guide to our future. It doesn’t do that, since Mason is as clueless about what might be coming next as everyone else. What it does do is illuminate the present in unexpected and occasionally revelatory ways. As a slice of futurology this book is no better than its many, equally speculative rivals. But as a spark to the imagination, with frequent x-ray flashes of insight into the way we live now, it is hard to beat. In that sense, Mason is a worthy successor to Marx.
• David Runciman’s books include The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, published by Princeton. To order PostCapitalism for £12.99 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.