Paul Mason: A Postcapitalist Future?

By | March 15, 2017

While working on my book – Health Inequalities in a Fractured Society: a Critical Realist Account (Routledge, Forthcoming) – I found it helpful to refer to Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, published in 2015. He offers an account of how his analysis might be translated into a ‘project’ for a postcapitalist society, and it is this project that this blog addresses. It offers a summary rather than a critical response (wait for the book, later this year I hope). Mason refers to five principles of transition:

  1. Understand the limitations of human will-power

Confronted by a complex, fragile system, there are limits to people’s capacity to see and act clearly and with intent and stamina. The moral, Mason suggests, is to pilot and test policy change before laying it out on a national scale. He cites the murdered Soviet economist Preobrazhensky, who called for ‘an extremely complex and ramified nervous system of social foresight and planned guidance’. While all the Soviet’s had was command, control and a bureaucratic hierarchy, Mason continues, we have networks. Networks carry greater potential for change, but only if the complexity and fragiligy of our highly differentiated contemporary societies are respected.

  1. Ecological sustainability

We can expect to be ‘hit’ by the likes of short-term localised energy shortages over the next decade; ageing and migration challenges over the next 30 years; amd the catastrophic outcomes of climate change not long after that.

  1. The transition is not just about economics

The transition to postcapitalism must be seen as human rather than (merely) economic: ‘the new kinds of people being created by networked economies come with new insecurities and new priorities’. New forms of democracy will be needed to arbitrate between competing models and alternative possibilties.

  1. Attack the problem from all angles

The networked society is not as constrained as its predecessors. Swarms of individuals can be effective agents of change as they cross the boundaries of states, corporations and political parties. The focus at present tends to be on experimental, small-scale projects, for example credit unions. This focus must be broadened ‘so that solutions can be found through a mixture of small-scale experiment, proven models that can be scaled up and top-down action by states … So if the solution in finance is to create a diverse, socialized banking system, then setting up a credit union attacks the problem from one direction, outlawing ceratin forms of speculation attacks it from another, while changing our own financial behaviour attacks it from still another angle’.

  1. Maximize the power of information

The aggregated data comprising much of our lives will in the immanent future capture citizen-cum-consumers’ weekly diet, body mass and heart rate, and will constitute an influential ‘social technology’ in and of itself. It will be a new ‘social machine’. It will have the capacity to optimize resources but also, by ‘socializing knowledge’, to amplfy the results of collective action: it holds the prospect of going beyond a decentralisation of control towards ‘collaborative control’:

‘for example, in epidemiology the focus is now on breaking the feedback loops that create poverty, anger, stress, atomised families and ill-health. Efforts to map these problems and mitigate them constitute the cutting edge of social medicine. How much more powerful would that medicine be if the poverty and disease that blight poor communities could be mapped, understood and collaboratively dismantled in realtime – with the micro-level participation of those affected?

Laying out basic principles and formulating policy are different things. Mason is circumspect and bold. He sets out four ‘top level aims’ for a postcapitalist regimen:

  • rapidly reduce carbon emissions so that the world warms by two degrees Celsius by 2050, which might prevent an energy crisis and mitigate the chaos promised by climate events;
  • stabilize the financial system before 2050 by socialising it, so that ageing populations, climate change and debt do not combine to detonate a new boom-bust cycle and destroy the world economy;
  • deliver high levels of material prosperity and wellbeing to the majority of the 99%, primarily by prioritising information-rich technologies to solve major social challenges, such as ill health, welfare dependency, sexual exploitation and deficient education;
  • gear technology towards the reduction of ‘necessary work’ to promote a rapid transition to an automated economy (so that work becomes ‘voluntary, basic commodified and public services are free, and economic management becomes first and foremost an issue of energy and resources, not capital and labour.

But he offers more. We must, he advises, create a global network to actively, openly and ‘accessibly’ simulate the long-term transition beyond capitalism. We must also ‘switch off the neoliberal privatisation machine’. The state’s neutrality re-capitalism is a myth: ‘it typically deregulates finance, forces government to outsource services and allows public healthcare, education and transport to become shoddy, driving people to privatise services’. The state must reshape markets in favour of sustainable, collaborative and socially just outcomes. It must plan and ‘own’ the agenda for change, most urgently in relation to debt. It would be sensible, he claims, ‘to combine controlled debt write-offs with a ten- to fifteen-year global policy of ‘financial repression’: that is, to stimulate inflation, hold intetest rates lower than the inflation rate, remove people’s ability to move money into non-financial investments or offshore, and thus inflate away the debts, writing off the part that remained’. This would, he admits, impact negatively on the assets of the ‘middle classes and the old’, but …

Collaborative businesses have the potential to pave the way for positive change, that is, if they go beyond existing co-op models to give rise to a legal framework allowing for ‘a real, collaborative form of production or consumption, with clear social outcomes’. There is no need to fetishize non-profit making, but the tax system should be rejigged: (a) to reward the creation of non-profits and collaborative production, and (b) to make it hard to form low-wage businesses but easy to form living-wage ones. Large corporations would need to be constrained by law and regulation:

‘if we legally empowered the workforces of global corporations with strong employment rights, their owners would be forced to promote high-wage, high-growth, high-technology economic models, instead of the opposite. The low-wage, low-skill and low-quality corporations that have flourished since the 1990s exist onky because the space for them was ruthlessly carved out by the state’ .

Models no less radical emerged in the past in the teeth of opposition from plantation owners and factory bosses. Postcapitalism must be ‘regularized’.  

The creation of monopolies to resist falling prices is a vital device or ‘defence reflex’ against postcapitalism. Mason argues that monoplies should be outlawed whenever possible and price fixing regulated. Public ownership should be the default option when it is impractical to forego monopolies. The underlying goal would be to cheapen the cost of basic necessities. True public provision of water, energy, housing, transport, health care, telecoms infrastructure and education would be a compelling strategic act of redistribution. ‘The state, the corporate sector and public corporations could be made to pursue radically different ends with relatively low-cost changes to regulation, underpinned by a radiucal commitment to shrink debt’.

The postcapitalist society Mason envisages is not based on command planning. There would be no need for the abolition of markets by diktat. Instead, he commends a position in which profit derives from entrepreneurship, not rent. Patents and intellectual property should taper away quickly (drug licences already expire after 20 years). Governments might insist that the results of state-funded research should be effectively free at the point of use, shifting everything delivered via public funding into a Habermasian public sphere, and thereby nudging the balance of intellectual property from private into common usage. In the field of energy in particular, Mason argues, it is imperative to swiftly suppress market forces because of climate change: the state should assume ownership and control of the energy distribution grid, plus all big carbon-based suppliers of energy. Renewable technologies should be subsidized, when possible in private companies. Household use of energy should be eased into efficient usage. Space, as ever, must be left for innovation. ‘Once information technology pervades the physical world, every innovation brings us closer to the world of zero necessary work’.

Mason also advocates the ‘socialization’ of the financial system. Moreover if the risks associated with financial capitalism are to be socialized, the rewards should be too. The triad of measures he proposes can be summarized as follows:

  • Nationalise the central bank, setting it a target for sustainable growth and an inflation target designed to facilitate: (a) ‘a socially just form of financial repression’, and (b) ‘a controlled write-down of the massive debt overhang’. The inevitable antagonism might be dissipated ‘if a systemic economy did this’. A sustainability target, modelled against climatic, demographic and social impact, would be critical. The monetary policy of the central bank should become explicit, transparent and under political control.
  • Restructure the banking system to yield a mix of utilities earning capped profit rates; non-profit local and regional banks; credit unions and peer-to peer lenders; and a comprehensive state-owned provider of financial services. The state would be lender of last resort to these banks.
  • Leave a regulated space for ‘complex’ financial activities, which would allow for the sector’s return to an historical role of efficiently allocating resources between firms, savers, lenders and so on. This role would be butressed by strict criminal enforcement as well as professional codes in banking, accountancy and law. The overriding principle would be to reward innovation whilst discouraging and penalising rent-seeking behaviour. It would be a breach of professional ethics for example for a chartered accountant or qualified lawyer to propose a tax avoidance scheme, or for a hedge fund to store uranium in a warehouse to drive its spot price higher. In countries like Britain governments should offer a deal whereby, in return for ‘coming clearly and transparently onshore’, some limited lender of last resort facilities shoud be made available to remaining high-risk, profit-oriented finance firms. Those declining to come onshore ‘would be treated as the financial equivalent of Al-Qaeda’.

He admits that these are short-term measures that fall short of a recipe for a postcapitalist financial system. Also required is credit creation and an expanded money supply to mediate the debt pile that is strangling growth. But credit creation only works if it prompts the market sector to grow (so the borrower can repay the loan with interest). The state, via the central bank, would have to step in to underwrite this process. The overriding aim, however, would not be to achieve some kind of ‘steady state capitalism’ but to ease the way to postcapitalism.

Mason goes on to advocate a universal basic income guaranteed by the state (a project since being piloted outside of Britain). He sees its purpose as radical: (a) to make formal the separation of work and wages, and (b) to subsidize the transiton to ‘a shorter working week, or day, or life’. It would in effect socialize the costs of automation:

‘the idea is simple: everybody of working age gets an unconditional basic income from the state, funded from taxation, and this replaces unemployment benefit. Other forms of needs-based welfare – such as family, disability or child payments – would continue to exist, but would be smaller top-ups to the basic income’.

Automation under neoliberalism would entail an expansion of ‘precarity’. But a basic income would allow for time-outs and rethinks. In isolation from ‘an overall transition project’ it would be overly costly and would fail; but it has a strong potential. Its promotion recognises that there are, and will increasingly be, too few work hours to go round, so there is a need to inject ‘liquidity’ into the mechanisms that allocate them. A basic income would remove the stigma, and the compounding deviance, of not working, and would stack the labour market in favour of the higher-paying job and the higher-paying employer. A basic income would be an antidote to exploitative, ‘flexible’, zero hours ‘bullshit jobs’; it would be ‘the first benefit in history whose success measure is that it shrinks to zero’.

There is no reason, other than exploitation, why the latest techniques of automation cannot be applied ubiquitously. We await a third managerial revolution, in the wake of which managers, trade unions and industrial system designers set their sights on networked, modular, non-linear team work. Work ‘interspersed with play’ could become less alienating. Networks also disrupt, which can be positive. ‘We need to be unashamed utopians’ (as were the pioneer capitalists). Significantly, Mason asks: ‘what is the end state?’; his response: ‘that is the wrong question’. We inhabit an open system and detailed blueprints constrain and call to mind ideologies with more than a hint of totalitarianism. ‘So instead of looking for an end state, it’s more important to ask how we might deal with reverses – or escape a dead end’.

It is easy to succumb to the numbness and passivity of TINA; yet surely ‘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 unrealist utopia’. If, as many now argue, financial capitalism is imploding, fracturing the societies it permeates and colonises, then alternatives of the kind Mason hints at surely wait in the wings? Mason: ‘the 99% are coming to the rescue. Postcapitalism will set you free’.

I refer here to Mason’s diagnosis, prognosis and aspirations for a number of reasons. It is not because I am willing to underwite or sign up to his programme of reforms in its entirely (and I recognise the limitations of my scholarship). But I do: (a) admire him for delving into ‘absences’ that others overlook; (b) think it a vital and pressing requirement that sociologists follow his lead; (c) applaud his focus on capitalism, warts and all; and (d) share his conviction that alternate futures in general are important, critical and urgent objects of study for transformatory – and emancipatory – change.






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