For futurists, this book is for you. The way out isn’t left or right, it’s upward. We’re not socialists. We’re postcapitalists.
Have you ever outgrown something, be it an old shirt or a software tool at work? How do you feel about those things? A little sad? A little reminiscent? And a lot of see-you-sucker! Right?
Think of capitalism like this: Capitalism is outmoded, outdated and doesn’t fit our modern culture. It’s on its deathbed, and we see it all around us. Capitalism assumes information disparity, which the internet and data science has all but healed. It relies on inequality, which is inhumane; we’re all starting to see that. The hard-core tenets of neoliberal capitalism are unnerving to the vast majority of us suffering under its regime.
“…Capitalism is a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.” The fissures in capitalism are everywhere around us. By its own yardstick, capitalism fails to provide for the majority of humanity. There is a huge economic and political gap, both in what we should do about things and how we live our lives. Foreboding foreshadowing shows up throughout this book, in an Orwellian manner, warning of extremism in politics, divisiveness around existential and global threats, as well as immigration policies being blamed for the problems of a nation. Does that sound familiar?
Paul Mason—a British economics editor for the UK’s Channel 4 News—has gifted us with a well-researched book that outlines the history of the modern capitalist movement. He brings to the fore relevant historical details in a manner that still feels more like storytelling than textbook study. This book is a must-read for anyone looking for a way forward in a system that seems downright impossible to navigate. Basically, this includes anyone in the developed, developing or considering-developing world.
Mason accurately outlines many of capitalism’s failings, objectively and without prejudice. He skillfully critiques the Left and the Right in a neutral fashion. At the heart of Postcapitalism is the recognition of how information technology is a major disruption to our current system.
While capitalism loves market disruption it depends on information disparity. And information is an item that is terrible at being capitalized: “the supply of [any track on iTunes] is infinite. And… the price doesn’t change as demand fluctuates either. Apple’s absolute legal right to charge 99p is what sets the price.”
This does not look like capitalism. Capitalism uses scarcity to inflate prices. Capitalism relies on scarcity. But, as with much of the natural – and now virtual – world, abundance is the status quo. Mason’s arguments and examples against the continuation of capitalism are many: open source programming; free operating systems; peer-to-peer networks. These are all the things that have been in the news the last 20 years by virtue of breaking our dominant, status quo paradigm. That paradigm is essentially the Wall Street movie slogan: “Greed is good.” In other words, pursue self-interest with the subtext of “even at the cost of others”.
Mason ominously looks forward to capitalism’s logical extension:
“Early capitalism, when it forced people into factories, had to turn large parts of the non-market lifestyle into serious crime… if you poached game as your ancestors had always done, it became a hanging offence [sic]. The equivalent today would be not just to push commercialism into the deep pores of everyday life, but to make resisting it a crime. You would have to treat people kissing each other for free the way they treated poachers in the nineteenth century.”
These legal distinctions seem as impossible to us now as to someone who considered poaching a valid means of obtaining food 300 years ago. They are overstepping, preposterous and unjust. The claustrophobic confines of future capitalism spell out the most egregious Orwellian dystopia.
But little-known economic philosophies discovered in Karl Marx’s unkempt, hand-written unpublished notes in the 1970s points to a way out… and it’s nothing like anything you’ve ever been fed before. Mason translates a certain flavor of Marx’s thought into a 21st century version of itself that observes our current reality. “All utopias based on work are finished… above all Marxism… Information technology expels labour [sic] from production, destroys pricing mechanisms and promotes non-market forms of exchange. Ultimately, it will erode the link between labour and value altogether.”
That erosion leads us to “Project Zero,” a recognition that information technology brings prices and marginal labor to zero. That a zero-carbon-based energy infrastructure is necessary and that much of the work should essentially be zero as we can automate so much. We see it in some of our industries (music, art, even some software). Piracy, a misapplied word, is simply recognizing that certain goods are infinitely replicated. Instead of clamping down and clinging to rules, we have to recognize that this is a foundational change in how we work, interact and contribute to society.
The observance of the sharing economy (hell, even parenting, which is anything but economically rational) and the counter-capitalist movements put forth by the internet culture of sharing and swapping – often for free – critical information also threatens capitalism. “According to standard economics, a person like [the founder of the open-source movement] Richard Stallman should not exist: he is not following his self-interest but suppressing it in favour [sic] of a collective interest that is not just collective but moral.” And that’s the heart of all of this: so many of us are uneasy with capitalism due to its destructive, amoral, greed-rewarding metrics.
Mason details the historic changes of economic system transitions, reminding us that we are so steeped in our current system that we have collectively forgotten capitalism hasn’t always been how we’ve approached economics. Feudalism was also an economic system and it too was disrupted by exogenous “shocks.” The transition from feudalism to mercantilism point to how our economic realities can, and likely will, change. It points at systemic failures in fundamental assumptions of an economic system. This rings so true: sustainability and global externalities are fundamental problems that capitalism fails to address. Inequality is another. These are the harbingers of capitalism’s eventual death (or, you know, human society’s death… whatever).
Mason is ruthless yet sensible in his critiques of market failures, pointing out markets will not solve many of these problems capitalism hands us. And even if they do, they won’t solve the problems in time. He pokes holes in the hullabaloo about how government should look to business for direction: privatize or be profitable. Government has never been profitable and that’s exactly its purpose.
Late in the book, Mason equates the living-wage, middle-class stagnation with the past business models that included or supposedly depended upon child labor and slavery. He calls on the state to outlaw practices bad for humanity, something we’ve historically done. That is how we can thrive: through a death of laissez-faire, neoliberal capitalism. Because that model is running out of time, one tenth of a degree Celsius at a time.
And this theory isn’t anti-market. “There is no reason to abolish markets by diktat, as long as you abolish the basic power imbalances that the term ‘feed market’ disguises.” If you’re a systems thinker, a market geek or have socialist leanings, this book is for you. For those who hate capitalism but don’t see a realistic path to socialism, this book is for you. For futurists, this book is for you. The way out isn’t left or right, it’s upward. We’re not socialists. We’re postcapitalists.