Review of PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
by Robert Gordon
Posted: 22 Oct 2015
"I call it Project Zero - because its aims are a zero-carbon energy system; the production of machines, products and services with zero marginal costs; and the reduction of necessary labour time as close as possible to zero." - Paul Mason, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (p266)
There's a lot of anticipation in the air at the moment, much of it caused by a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety about the world and where it is headed. Coinciding with a general sense of unease and discontent, though, is a growing acknowledgement that alternative paths are beginning to emerge. Something greater and more inclusive (at least, the path to such) is seeking to break through the resistance of existing power structures and profit-driven decision making. Paul Mason's recent book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future seeks to capture this moment, providing a timely and deeply considered alternative vision of what it means for humanity to live in relationship with one another and the world that we inhabit. A future that will be built upon the fact that: "Work - the defining activity of capitalism - is losing its centrality both to exploitation and resistance." (p179)
The importance of the book is in great part due to its timing. It arrives at a moment where radical change is increasingly called for (see Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, the SNP, Syriza, Guatemala et al) but we're still collectively unsure of which direction to head. Thus the book gives a tour-de-force through the role of technology and a post-scarcity economy, automation and its impact on work, networked identities, lesser known Marxist theory, employment rights, and the true potential of creative collaboration to name but a few areas. Whilst developing a potential alternative to finance capitalism, it importantly reminds us that there are long intellectual, political and practical traditions from which to draw from. We don't need to reinvent the wheel - although we do need to place historical experience into a rather unique and unpredictable modern context, one in which currently "Neoliberalism can offer...only a world of stagnant growth and state-level bankruptcy: austerity until death, but with an upgraded version of the iPhone very few years." (p212)
A key message is that by taking a longer view on economic cycles (ala Kondratieff) we can begin to deconstruct more successfully the recent years of economic turmoil and uncertainty. There is a tendency in all walks of life to forget the past, and this seems to be particularly the case when it comes to many of the issues surrounding the socioeconomic status quo. This strong focus on the lessons of history is where the book straddles the line between accessible and technical. Although of great benefit to those seeking to deepen their knowledge, it's perhaps a bit too dense at times for mainstream audiences who will nonetheless benefit from digesting the forward-looking message at the core of the book.
For those who stick with it, the rewards are often great as historical case studies and theory are brought into conversation with current day observations on "cooperatives, the credit unions, the peer-networks, the unmanaged enterprises and the parallel, subcultural economies" (p244). Having said this, the book doesn't delve into the future as much as one might expect given the title. The ability for technological advancement to completely redefine the boundaries of the human condition is likely to accelerate exponentially, which deserves further consideration and would add an evocative transhumanist angle to the book's thesis of inevitable transformation. The absence of such doesn't weaken the argument, indeed including such speculation might have opened it up to criticism or a loss of focus, but it's an area that feels ripe for exploration using this book as a basis to build upon.
This is therefore more of a guide to the present through the lessons of the past than it is a prediction of the future. Yet, by looking back through the lens of our current situation, Paul Mason has managed to direct us to a new way of seeing the vast network of interconnections that combine into the amorphous and ambiguous matrix we call our economy. Not only this, but he has managed to do so in a way that encourages us to enthusiastically pursue a utopian vision of what we might be able to achieve. For those of us working diligently to define the meaning and practice of the common good, this book brings to our attention a potential mechanism by which it can manifest and through which a productive transition might be realised.
Importantly, this book provides a clear roadmap. We might question the methods and the means of implementation, but the depth of consideration that has been given is both clear and willingly open to scrutiny and debate. It gives a role for the state (or some form of self-organised version thereof), for private business, and for non-profit collaboration. It seeks to overcome the incoming perfect storm of climate change, global population increase and ageing demographics. It places each of us in communion at the centre of its vision, and attempts to free us from the often oppressive and self-serving power structures that our lives are currently formed by.
The potential for revolution regarding models of ownership, civic participation and creative expression is now accessible with a few keystrokes and can be carried in a jacket pocket. We can replicate information effortlessly and share it instantaneously to be surveyed, reused, adapted and critiqued. This fundamentally alters the nature of societal change and influence. It allows, for example, a single technician to subvert a trillion-dollar global surveillance industry and open it up to scrutiny (itself a consequence of the very same technology); it allows millions of people around the world to co-ordinate acts of protest against systemic injustice; it allows industry-defining subcultures of open source software, hardware and collaborative effort to come together and build the foundations of future society.
These changes develop a vast space of human potential for relationships and creative effort that exists outside of hierarchal structures based upon accumulation and domination. It is clear that a growing movement is striving for collective wellbeing and common good on a global scale, and this book adds an important note to the increasingly loud chorus of voices calling us to pay attention to this emerging future - to participate in it, explore its mechanisms, and embrace its vision for newfound freedom in the path to becoming co-creators of a shared universe.
For those who feel that such radical thinking is nothing but a pipe-dream, the book leaves us in closing with a powerful rallying call:
"It is absurd that we are capable of witnessing a 40,000-year-old system of gender oppression begin to dissolve before our eyes and yet still see the abolition of a 200-year-old economic system as an unrealistic utopia." (p290)
Want to hear more? You can view a full video of Paul Mason speaking at St Paul's Cathedral (November 2015) on our website here.
Stuart Palmer - Posted: 2 Nov 2015
John Courtneidge - Posted: 3 Nov 2015
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.