Some notes on Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism

The “lefty activist” Paul Mason on Twitter

In reply to a noteworthy article in the Guardian about the book “Postcapitalism” that is published on July 30.

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Mason interprets the transition from capitalism to postcapitalism as a parallel to the one from feudalism to capitalism. This serves to explain that such a societal transformation takes many decades and gives rise to ‘a new kind of people’, but it shifts the focus away from a more fundamental change: the one from the hierarchical to the networked. Early capitalism enabled craftsmen and entrepreneurs to rise to power by becoming part of the producing class; as such it operated within the paradigm of hierarchies.

Perhaps it is insightful to complement this parallel with another, pertaining to the end of empires, where hierarchies are dismantled and power is scattered opening a brief window of opportunity (those last admittedly often too short as the vacuum of power is occupied by a military coup). But perhaps, if what Mason says about “the old left”, that their hope for a top-down restructuring of power, has shattered, we could use another metaphor to instruct us. Rather than translating the language of hierarchical power-relations into something new (money, investment and debt) we juxtapose it with something so resilient that it even already thrives in the nooks and crannies of the very capitalist system it will eventually ‘blow sky high’.

I was in Cuba in 2008 and have the image in my head of formerly “working class” people residing in the villas of the once colonial masters, organizing local cooperatives for the necessities of life while sitting on a mahogany rocking chair in front of glass cases filled with the remnants of colonial richesse. Faith Morgan directed a film about the “community solution” which helped Cubans surviving peak oil, with peak-oil journalist Richard Heinberg)

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Mason hopes for a new sort of human being: “info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being.” I deem such visions a trifle too esoteric. Yes, social mobility will once more explode, but for the most part the world population remains concerned with their next meal. I don’t believe in the “economic agent” only seeking its own advantage of standard economic theory, but being networked doesn’t create a new human being. That human being needs to identify himself with the lot? of humanity, not with any national, religious or ethnic construct that derives hope from separation. That human being needs to feel care for the human family and the planet with the same direct emotional connection as someone defining his narrow biological family. To express such hope is pure ideology. It might be precisely the urgency of the all-or-nothing survival situation we are in [as the position of Guy McPherson illustrates] that allows for such ideology. The structural requirement of “we versus them” would be fulfilled by the real and continuously restated threat of our own extinction.

The new connected agent becomes an agent of postcapitalism if and only if she understands herself as an agent of our species, not of her own self-interest. The connected human being has to connect about something. And there is a world to win, because we will have to replace the mechanism of consumerist-brand-identification that feeds the insatiable self by hollowing it out with a psychology of fullness and inclusion.

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This is a central quote from the article: “The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next.”

I remain sceptical when it comes to “the possibility of free, abundant goods”. What goods? Certainly not the consumer electronics that ‘have to’ be replaced every 2 years. Certainly not the planned and perceived obsolescence of the consumerist era. Again, the word “less” is carefully avoided (for exceptions, see my Facebook group, Tim Jackson, author of “Prosperity without growth”) – perhaps the last remaining contradiction between the “old left” that is still fighting to give everybody an equal piece of the growing pie, and the “new left” that admits to the urgency of downsizing the pie.

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a network of networks, the contained ones small enough to allow for a local self-organization that respects our anthropological conditions and the containing ones large enough to seriously challenge the powers that be

Mason states that the solution of the “old left of the 20th century”, the overthrowing of pro-capitalist governments, the nationalisation of the banks and the formal seizure of power by the people – does no longer work. But he also decries as isolationist Syriza factions that pleaded for a grexit and likens them to other nationalist movements of no matter which political motivation. But isn’t precisely the will to slash large abstract dependencies the expression of the same desire that produces viable local co-operatives and bottom-up solutions? Mason correctly says that we need to get governments on board – we need to seduce them to the right side of history – but how big should these governments be?

It makes sense that they remain as small as possible and as large as necessary. It is the struggle in which local populations are pitch against each other by the seemingly inevitable powers of large corporations that overburdens our public morale and spreads a cancerous sense of cynicism.

In other words: Isn’t the network that Mason advocates here only conceivable as a network of networks, the contained ones small enough to allow for a local self-organization that respects our anthropological conditions and the containing ones large enough to seriously challenge the powers that be?

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The announcement after the article, that “Paul Mason will be asking whether capitalism has had its day at a sold-out Guardian Live event on 22 July.” (my boldface) indicates that the market pricing mechanism still works fairly well. It might not be applicable to information as such, but to “information-events” that are the logical solution of the system’s dynamics. With the cost of information going to zero, wouldn’t the system simply transform itself into something else? Isn’t the next round of “innovation” for example the pricing of clean water that has to be made scarce for the sake of being sellable? Capitalism has emerged in a world in which air and water, as elements of life, were free, but information the ultimate value. It has spurred technological innovation to a point where information is abundant and its marginal cost drops to zero; from a systemic perspective, the “solution” is to put a price tag onto the only thing more fundamental than information: water, air, land. In other words: to feed the insatiable mill stones of the market with life itself.

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