“I find the academic literature on this so timid and so bound by caveats…it needs somebody to stick a big stick with a flag on it in the middle of the territory and to pose a thesis in a non-scholarly way.”
Paul Mason, Channel 4 Economics Editor, award-winning journalist and lifelong fan of Northern Soul, has a radical and controversial insight on the future of capitalism. He sets out his own take on the future in his new book PostCapitalism: A Guide To Our Future.
I met him in Mr Blackwell’s nineteenth century office on the top floor of Blackwell’s bookshop, shortly before he spoke in their Academic Book Week about the future of a world after capitalism. Mason sported a beard, jeans, and a leather biker jacket. His book boldly sketches out a vision of society in 2050.
I began by asking him whether he sees this as the beginning of the end for capitalism, or just for neoliberal capitalism.
“Neoliberal capitalism most clearly cannot go on. The endless expansion of the money supply because of fiat money – that is money not linked to metal or global output – is in conflict with a world where the bargaining power of labour is so low that it cannot maintain its share. You get the endless expansion of credit, financialisation of ordinary working lifestyles, and the stagnation of incomes. All this is going to create a situation in which the credit system has to be elastic – to constantly expand so that people can live – and still the incomes against which the credit is being expanded do not rise.
“Neoliberalism has now been through three boom-bust cycles: the Asian crisis, Dotcom, and the structured finance crisis that led to 2008. Neoliberalism cannot go on, but its strategic problem is that all credit is premised on the idea of return payments with interest out of growth from the market economy. My thesis is that there is a non-market economy growing alongside capitalism, based on information technology, that will compete with capitalism and the market for certain areas of economic life. It has already won the competition in the sphere of encyclopaedias and web hosting software, but lost in the sphere of platforms where taxi drivers can interact with each other.
“My hypothesis is that capitalism can be superseded by a post-capitalist, non-market form of society, but I also leave open the possibility of post-capitalist survival and what that would mean colonising. The only market that remains is one of human micro interactions – today we have sex work, tomorrow we may have to have friendship work: these are the last tier for economic rationality. I do not think there is enough value in them to sustain a third industrial revolution. Wonga and Uber are very impressive businesses in their time, but they are not the third industrial revolution.”
Mason sees information technology as being at the heart of this change, but I asked him if this is purely an illusion of freedom. Is this ever expanding digital age tying us down to giant digital corporate companies, allowing them to further chain us into a cycle of consumerism?
“These are chains, but let’s try and relativise it. The first thing is that what the tech giants are doing are farming and commercialising their externalities, the spill overs, the free stuff that we create. I interact with you or 200 or 1000 people on Facebook, a third thing is created out there in the cloud – a network effect. All the business models of the tech giants are dedicated to capturing the value in that network effect and selling it. It is a chain: information should be free and we should utilise our own information.
“I am not in the dystopian school that sees everything like The Matrix. I don’t think that they are surrounding us with information barriers and prisons that are unbreakable. On the contrary, I think that they are breakable through network action.”
We move away from discussing his book, and turn to Europe and the EU referendum. He tells me that he did not have a necessarily eurosceptic critique of the euro or EU, but that he does have a democratic problem with it.
“It is losing its democratic raison d’être because you cannot go on imposing austerity on states that cannot repay their debts. Right-wing populism has a logic to it if mainstream conservatism cannot answer the central question – that is, we signed up to an economic union that has become basically a currency union that does not work. It is not the ever closer union that is the problem, it is the currency union that does not work and the unwinding bureaucracy.
“The EU is transforming itself into a kind of non-rule of law situation. The Euro group is not a legal entity so it is a joke when things like the Euro group take decisions that look like economic warfare – what they are saying is that their might is right. In a way it seems strange to put it this way because I am very for the rights of migrants and refugees, but the people who have forced their way across the European frontier have destroyed several things: Schengen, Dublin. The free movement laws are all in tatters because some people could get in. It is great for them but it is not great now for all the people I met in Morocco, all the sub-Saharan migrants who are trapped in Tangiers. They cannot barge their way in; many of them will have an equal claim to asylum in Europe as the people who came from Syria. So what you are getting again is might is right, it is not the rule of law. That is my big fear; that the British electorate, through a combination of right-wing populism and quite logical left-wing outrage at what Europe is becoming, will make people ultimately look at it and think maybe we do not want to be in it.
“My fear is not that we leave the Euro but that a chaotic exit takes place because a combination of frustration and outrage cannot produce a logical outcome. If you think it is bad now, wait and see what we are going to have to do to make a bunch of bilateral trade deals if we are outside the EU. That is a danger that we will have to hawk ourselves around as a country to the highest bidder because we now have to do 200 trade deals with everybody who we formally traded with via the EU.”
After our interview he signed the Blackwell’s book, joining the likes of Muhammed Ali, and then led an engaging debate on the future of capitalism.