Sudhir Raikar, IIFL | Mumbai | October 19, 2015 09:10 IST
Paul Mason’s seminal work is a rich reference book on the premise, progression and precincts of capitalism. But in valiantly raising legitimate doubts on its seeming permanence, he falls prey to the lure of zeroing in on definitive solutions. Despite the invaluable scholastic value of the treasure trove, it’s hardly a guide to our future.
This is easily one of the most poetic accounts of an economic concept, packed with charming anecdotes of flowing prose and fitting poise, a remarkable blend of the clinical and the lyrical, befitting his twin degrees in politics and music. Had author Paul Mason, Economics Editor, Channel 4 news, stopped short of extrapolating his neat analysis into ‘a guide to our future’, the sanctity of his seminal work would have remained inviolate. But in a humdrum utopian leap, from fabulous literature to fantastic conjecture, he sketches a hazy way out, which unabashedly seeks to employ the machinery of the very regime he wants uprooted, for effecting key resolutions of his version of Postcapitalism. This maladroit prognosis has diluted, if not damaged, the enduring value of Mason’s painstaking research and scathing observations on a host of pertinent issues.
The breathtaking expanse spans 368 pages divided in three distinct parts. The first unfolds the crisis of our times and enumerates how it evolved over time, the second elaborates the moot point – Mason’s theory of Postcapitalism - and the third visualizes the supposed transition to the new order. Mason aptly lists four factors – consistent injection of Fiat money, cacophonic spread of Financialization, curse of global imbalances and the colossal impact of Information technologies – that initially lent momentum to neo-liberalist forces but are now turning counterproductive for its cause. Not that Mason is the only one to warn us, but the perils of an artificially puffed up economy are beyond doubt real – debt has become precariously more fashionable than equity, value trades ridiculously weigh more than value creation, shareholder interests have been blindly allowed to take precedence over tax payer concerns and the Golem-like demon of consumerism has left modern-day lifestyles with less life and more style.
Mason convincingly highlights the constraints and contradictions of Capitalism which hitherto was highly adaptable to the ups and downs across eras as the ruling class employed technology to keep the working class gainfully engaged through suitable enhancements in the production methods and modes. But the digital age, he observes, has empowered grassroots architects to innovate and explore newer ways of work and life defying the usual diktats of markets and governments that stifled them in a vicious work-wage padlock all this while. Though information is hardly a stand-alone asset, invariably a bundled component of a tangible product sale, there’s enough merit in Mason’s inference that the sheer abundance of information, as also its easy replication and extraordinary endurance in a network-rich knowledge economy, will soon make the hierarchy-driven capitalism unsustainable as growing automation will render jobs negligible and drive prices to near-zero. The ‘cut and paste’ feature of the information economy undeniably spells massive consequences for the conventional market.
Mason touches upon a vast universe of wide-ranging allusions to support his views as also to disprove conflicting points. Nikolai Kondratiev’s incisive long wave theory, martyr Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘The Accumulation of Capital’, Marx’s visionary ‘Fragment on Machines’, Lenin’s pivotal ‘What is to be Done?’, Peter Drucker’s far-reaching ‘Post Capitalist society’, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ruthlessly innovative ‘pick up a pig and walk’ time and motion study aimed at enforcing stringent management control of factories, Rudolf Hilferding’s ‘Das Finanzkapital’, Jeremy Rifkin’s ‘The Zero Marginal Cost Society’, Ludwig Von Mises’s ‘Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth’, David Ricardo’s Labour-theory, Paul Romer’s path-breaking ‘Endogenous Technological Change’, Yann Moulier-Boutang’s ‘Cognitive Capitalism’, Yochai Benkler’s ‘The Wealth of Networks’, Alexander Bogdanov and Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novels: ‘Red Star’ and ‘Dune’ respectively, Richard Hoggart’s highly perceptive ‘The Uses of Literacy’, Connie Field’s documentary ‘The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter’, Kevin Kelly’s ‘New Rules for the New Economy’, the maverick RMS’s GNU and Free Software Movement, Andre Gorz’s insights on the changing face of work…The constellation boasts of the best of thinkers, philosophers, economists, consultants, software architects, filmmakers, journalists, and even legendary writers (Shakespeare, Dickens and Orwell) making Mason’s book a rich reference manual for students of economics – whether academic or amateur.
Mason is beyond doubt a competent story-teller. Whether the poignancy of Kondratiev’s life or his own stint as a press operator, he makes each account handsomely vivid. At times, the narration sounds too indulgent for comfort – for instance an elongated report of a London Underground carriage, seemingly to highlight a demographic divide, ornately informs us of Mason’s penchant for in-transit work and well-shined shoes among other things – but overall it’s a precise and passionate description of where we stand today and how we got there. Rather than unfairly link his stretched out tribute to Russian thought leaders with his Trotskyite roots, we should profusely thank Mason for having put the intractable political, economic and social problems of our times into perspective which should ideally set off fruitful debates rooted in honest introspection. Some of his insights are first-rate. Consider these:
“In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the ‘imagineering’ session of a startup company.”
“The elite and their supporters are lined up to defend the same core principles: high finance, low wages, secrecy, militarism, intellectual property and energy based on carbon. The bad news is that they control nearly every government in the world. The good news is that in most countries they enjoy very little consent or popularity among ordinary people.”
“The debate on Postcapitalism has come a long way since Peter Drucker, yet in another sense it has gone nowhere. It has been marked by speculative thinking, technobabble and a tendency to declare the existence of new systems rather than to explore their relationship to old realities.”
“All simple forms of finance now generate a market in complex finance higher up the chain: every house buyer or car driver is generating a knowable financial return somewhere in the system. Your mobile phone contract, gym membership, household energy – all your regular payments – are packaged into financial instruments, generating steady interest for an investor, long before you decide to buy them. And then somebody you have never met places a bet on whether you will make the payments.”
“Kondratieff’s real crime, in the eyes of his persecutors, was to think the unthinkable about capitalism: that instead of collapsing under crisis, capitalism generally adapts and mutates.”
“The problem is, mainstream economics does not understand its own limitations. The more complete it became as an academic discipline describing an abstract, static and immutable reality, the less it understood change.”
“Now though, we have a new problem: demographic ageing. There are no activists to drop banners from buildings to protest against ageing, there are no ministries for ageing, no prestigious scientific panel or global negotiations. Yet it is potentially as big an external shock as climate change – and its impact will be much more immediately economic.”
“The successful crooks and dictators of the emerging world have already bought influence and respectability: you can feel their power as you walk through the door of certain law firms, PR consultancies and even corporations.”
However Mason’s bet on the impending doom of capitalism, rather on its dead end in its present form, is based on a wobbly compendium - the trigger of 2008 meltdown, Mason’s first-hand reportage of ‘edge places of the world’, selective statistics borrowed from Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the staggeringly disruptive power of the Wikipedia model among others. Without bothering to tell us exactly how capitalism will go to wrack and ruin, he puts forth a case for Postcapitalism, ostensibly beyond ‘the incoherence of conventional protest movements’, as a definitive Masonic solution ‘for a substantially better future that what capitalism would offer by the mid-twenty-first century.’
He calls his book a guide, but spells out his aim as ‘not to provide an economic strategy or a guide to organization.’ He’s here only to map the new contradictions of capitalism to serve as credible co-ordinates for ‘people, movements and parties’ for the ‘journey they’re trying to make.’ The proposed plan is titled ‘Project Zero’ after the significance of zero in each of the targets: zero-carbon energy, production at zero marginal cost and near-zero labour time. Project Zero proposals, should account for, Mason cautions, five key principles to avoid past failures –small scale tests and repeated modeling of macro-economic impact, design for ecological sustainability, human perceptions along with values of economic and social justice, ubiquity of change agents across all strata and making the most of the power of information.
Who are these people and parties that would embark on the said journeys to steer the said movements? Should they enroll as volunteers on the Project Zero website? Should they go for the kill in ‘do or die’ fashion? Would states somehow do the unthinkable - come to terms with the new reality in one abrupt blaze of spiritual enlightenment? How will the tech innovators, who reap the rewards of the old order in draped forms, push capitalism towards a dead end? Will the Internet of Things make Mason’s agenda its top priority before grappling with its own set of challenges - the mammoth task of connecting things and the need for large-scale data discovery, archival and analytical mechanisms notwithstanding the proposed upgrade from Ipv4 to Ipv6 standard? Most important, which authority will assume responsibility for the law and order in the new economy, considering that it has a hell of a lot to do – fix guaranteed incomes for all, provide cost-efficient services and infrastructure, regulate the IT industry in the larger interest of the community, mitigate debt to the extent possible and measure the happiness quotient of the people from time to time? (The last bit is obligatory we think even though Mason doesn’t call for it. Maybe Bhutan can share priceless insights with the world on this point)
Mason offers no clues on ways to get there save for some generic instruction like rapidly reducing carbon emissions (already happening in some form), stabilizing the finance system between now and 2050, delivering high levels of material prosperity and well being to the majority of people and gearing technology towards reduction of necessary work in an automated economy (again, underway right now). He has an action plan for each of these top goals but the weak post script – that his role is that of a cartographer - waters down the potency of the recommendation. No point in examining the substance of his Abracadabra therapy – get rid of market forces, socialize the finance system, suppress and socialize monopolies – when the architects of the transcendental transformation have not been identified.
Mason’s faith in information technology is laced with fairy-tale beliefs. No one can dispute the internet’s democratizing power, nor the first-rate collaboration and co-creation of the open source movement, but the dark side of software development, factory of a different mould, can’t be disregarded either. On the face of it, many IT organizations, start-ups in particular, are flat organizations with radical morals but peep inside their code labs and you’ll find the same old hierarchies of power distances, ruthless ambition and narcissism at play, where a handful of smart and wily operators merrily rule over a veritable but vulnerable majority. Many ‘genius’ founders are keen to trade their innovation, rather than nurture it, at the first given opportunity and a host of globe-trotting tech professionals are faking work, day in and day out, on their cell phones, tablets, excel sheets and word documents even as the bulk of the inarticulate programming tribe goes through the grind, inevitably falling prey to Machiavellian tactics and the bell curve nonsense at the workplace. Who’s going to reduce the besmirching carbon footprints of the IT industry that pollute the social fabric in elusive ways – where hyped on-site-off-site-offshore models don’t necessarily mean better working conditions, where key performance appraisals are invariably unscientific, where egos are sky-high and tempers fly high, thanks to the variety and vanity of designations: the perfunctory coder is keen to call himself a developer, the developer genuinely believes he’s an architect and the architect is thoroughly convinced he’s God’s gift to mankind. Talking of the positively disruptive open source movement, it attracts as many opportunistic users with profit motives, thriving on an erroneous reading of the ‘free’ tag, as selfless contributors committed to the larger cause of the faction.
If Mason has pinned his hopes on the gender-neutral, sexually liberated IT tribe to fight for his post capitalist wonderland may be his Second Life avatar has a better chance to steer the dream towards fruition. Emancipation in terms of sexual choices and denouncement of gender bias, in real life at least, are no guarantee of equity and equanimity in public affairs in spite of their invaluable contribution towards a more secure, stable and inclusive social and cultural environment.
Will humanity rid itself of its deep-rooted possessive tendencies – inborn greed, lust for power, distaste towards responsibility and desire to withhold – in one decisive catapult, just because it would have moved from scarcity to abundance? This is not to doubt Mason’s intentions but his guide to our future seems no more than wishful thinking. It’s more of a plea to the powers-that-be of the current economic regime to mend their ways than a prophetic utilitarian prescription for a new order. Mason’s appeal is passionate no doubt but only states the obvious: “Millions of people are beginning to realize they have been sold a dream they can never live. In its place, we need more than just a bunch of different dreams. We need a project based on reason, evidence and testable designs, one that cuts with the grain of economic history and is sustainable in terms of our planet.”
Ask the millions of people and at least a few of them will retort: Yes, we are angry, we know what we need, and also that it calls for a fool-proof actionable project. Not a wishful Grundrisse which, for all its literary value, runs the risk of appearing wistful.