By Simon Childs
Aug 26, 2015
Capitalism is on its last legs and is about to be destroyed by a generation so connected by technology that they have more loyalty to their phone than to their social class.
That's what I took from meeting Paul Mason, economics editor of Channel 4 News, VICE's one-time Northern Soul correspondent and the author of a new book that you should probably read:Postcapitalism – A Guide to Our Future.
The book is ambitious, but to boil it down: Paul Mason reckons capitalism as we know it can't really handle the pace of the technological change it has unleashed – specifically when it comes to information technology. It'll have to be replaced, and he calls this replacement postcapitalism.
I recently met Paul in a small meeting room of the offices of Penguin – of which his publishers Allen Lane are part – in London. As we sat down, his publicist stood a small wall of copies of his book behind his head – with its distinctive cover that Paul describes as "moody" – a bit like the company logos that every football manager must perform post-match interviews in front of. Presumably, then, Allen Lane would like you to buy the book after reading this article. They'd probably be annoyed if somebody ripped a pdf and put it on the internet for people to download for free. Which is a bit ironic, since a key theme of the book is how the unstoppable free flow of information facilitated by the internet is going to destroy capitalist trade as we know it.
Take, for instance, copyright law: a fundamental plank of the economy as we know it, hammered out since about the 18th Century and one that basically doesn't make sense in a world of Pirate Bay and album leaks. "I don't think the Beatles made their first album because they wanted to be charging 99p a track because they still own the copyright to it when they're all dead," said Paul. "They made it so they could shag beautiful women, take drugs and have a fantastic time while they were young. That's why they did it. And that's why anybody does everything, actually. That's not to be sexist about it – that's why men and women throughout the ages have done amazing creative things; because they want to be valued, have their voice heard, and I think it's mad to imagine that copyright can exist forever. It should be just tapered much more cleverly."
You may recognise Paul from his dispatches on Channel 4 News, reporting from Greece as it gets pushed into a financial abyss, Scotland as it nearly lurched away from the UK and wherever else the tectonic plates of the world economy and politics are shifting. When we met, his experience as a communicator came into play, talking not just with his hands but, at times, seemingly with each limb and facial feature pointing in a different direction. Beneath the relatively traditional delivery style of a public service news-caster lies a radical political mind with its roots in the traditional left – young Mason was a supporter of Workers' Power, a Trotskyite sect – that is perhaps given a little more room to breathe when he writes op-eds for the Guardian or writes books such as his 2012 hit, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions.
McCartney's quibbling over the rights to Sgt. Pepper illustrated just one of the ways that technology undermines capitalism. How can supply and demand make sense when the supply of an mp3 is infinite? It can't, really, and this leads to what Mason calls the "zero-price vortex". Tangible things also get dragged into this zero-price vortex – the value of trainers is "dependent more on socially created ideas (the brand) rather than the physical cost of production". Add to that the destruction of the relationship between how much stuff costs and how much people get paid to make it and capitalism has a pickle on its hands. Can the system survive stuff being free?
Paul Mason argues it can't, and that the harbingers of a change to postcapitalism are what Mason calls networked individuals – the young, digitally connected people who, much like John, Paul, George and Ringo before them, just want to get laid. But they could use technology for so much more than Tinder and Happn, if only they could recognise it.
"If they began to understand the power of cooperation and networking in their lives, in the same way they understand its personal power – the ability to have three girlfriends at once – you can harness that power, in a much more interesting way, actually."
When he says this, I can't shake the thought of the stereotyped internet generation of cutesters intagramming from the Cereal Killer Café as the leaders of some nauseating, twee revolution in potentia.
Paul gives instead the example of Chinese factory workers, who in the West we mainly think of as the suicidal producers of smartphones, rather than avid users of the devices: "They're banned from even touching their mobile phone during the actual work day, they march to work, they carry their tin plate with them and they eat together, so they look like utterly regimented individuals. But when they're in their own space – say, they go up to the toilet – first thing they do [is get on their phones], 'How much are you getting [paid]? My mate from village X in back-of-beyond shanty town Y [is getting paid this], you're getting this, I'm getting this – this is not right.'"
But it's about more than Twitter revolutions led by angry people who have some shiny new tool for airing their grievances – it's about how we define ourselves. "It's like, who do they want to be? When sociologists interview them there is this thing that they say, which is, 'Look, once I'm out of the factory and into the internet café, I'm living. I'm there, I'm in the world, the factory is just a nothingness.'" Being connected has given us a new identity, says Paul – one which is more important than traditional class identity.
"It's the working class sublated, which is a Marxist term and it's a good term, it means destroyed and reborn – a bit like Khaleesi with her dragons, you know what I mean?" he says making a Game of Thrones reference that goes totally over my head and I have to later google.
Not that he relishes this shift. "That's particularly poignant for somebody like me who comes from a factory town, where in my radical culture, my dad's and granddad's radical culture, you were who you were because of who you were at work. These Chinese workers are who they are the moment they can get to the toilet and open their smartphone."
The identity change is true closer to home as well as in the developing world, with traditional workplace identities evaporating.
"Most workers don't think purely as workers any more. They don't have that collectivity and 'work is number one and everything else is outside it'; in fact, their lives tend to be lived in the opposite direction. As a union organiser at the BBC, you'd hit a certain age group below 35 and [employees] go 'Why should I join?' says Paul. "And then, over 35 they go, [knocks on table] 'Hi, I've just joined, how do I join the union?' There's a total break.
"Go to India – you see all the communist flags, and you see all the people coming out of cotton factories, looking like utter, Lenin-era proletariat, and then you go to the union organisers. They're all 50 years old and you go, 'What's your main problem?' and they go, 'People under 35 won't join the union, because they can't afford it, because they don't think this way any more.' Once you've been through that you realise it's not just people in the square mile of Soho and Shoreditch who don't join unions. It's a generational thing."
This is heretical to your average far-leftist infiltrating the Labour Party to vote Jeremy Corbyn for leader, who would say that it is the working class who are going to change everything by overthrowing the Donald Trumps and Philip Greens of this world. Instead, Paul thinks that a new, sharing economy will grow under the surface of capitalism and supersede it. The question of how this change is going to happen takes more cues from how the state created capitalism than from its putative destroyers.
"The state has to be rethought as a transition motor," he says – meaning it needs to be reimagined as a vehicle for change rather than a defender of the status quo. "And transition's a long period – we're not talking about two years, we're talking about 50," says Paul.
"Forget defending random bits of the old system. Think about where society could be going in 50 years. Both what its massive problems are, like climate, ageing, and also what the potential of the technology is. If you think that way, what you've then got to do, is do exactly what the British state did in the Waterloo era. They said, 'Look, the whole purpose of this state is to clear a path for these new things' – factories, railways, whatever. I mean literally. The state went, 'We need a railway from there to there, fuck you if you live in between.'"
And now, the same must be done again, with the state promoting a move away from capitalism that he calls "Project Zero", because, he writes, "its aims are a zero-carbon energy system; the production of machines, products and services with zero marginal costs; and the reduction of labour time as close as possible to zero".
At this point I'm a little confused. Hasn't all this technology so far created a new type of capitalism rather than destroying it? "One, it's less money based," he says. "Two, there's an overt spirit of sharing – that things can't be monetised," says Paul. "And it's like the gift economy. A small scale entrepreneur in the 1930s is a bloke with his thumb in the till in a shop; they'll do everything possible to screw over everybody they can: their supplier, their customer, the butcher, the baker. And now what the network has done is it's made it obvious that if you exude good then good comes back to you.
Greeks protesting against the new Greek bailout. Paul Mason traditional left-wing parties like Syriza would need to evolve to be successful (Photo by Panagiotis Maidis)
"In places like Barcelona and Athens, you get lots of self-organised spaces, lots of people doing things that are not official, and then you ask them what is official, and they say, 'Oh, I wait tables, that's my job but I don't give a shit about waiting tables, it's this – it's the theatre group or Bazouki class I go to.'" The key lies in no longer seeing these spaces as refuges from capitalism, but instead as replacements for it.
But for all the Bazouki classes in Athens squats, there's Twitter, which is now trying to enforce copyrighting on stolen jokes – "It's ridiculous really isn't it?" says Paul. "I mean fair enough, it's mad" – and a Facebook trying to sell your data to advertisers. For every Wikipedia, destroying the market for advertising space on online encyclopaedias, there's also an Ello – the ad-free social network that was supposed to kill Facebook but didn't.
When a corporation makes a networked, user-friendly version of a service, isn't that curtains for the Open Source alternatives? How much less pirating goes on since Spotify and Netflix?
"I think that probably is it, but I think the problem is that they can't go on monetising the ownership... I wouldn't be surprised if you could talk to Facebook and say, 'Which bit could you do without most?' they'd say, 'All this fucking friend stuff where everybody's exchanging their own stuff.' They'd say, 'What we really want to do is the adverts and the video.'"
At some point, says Paul, the Wikipedias of this world will be as big as the Facebooks. "I think the choke point for the transition to postcapitalism comes when the market sector and non-market sector become round about the same size."
As we wrap up, I'm feeling more aware of what I don't know than what I do know about how postcapitalism might pan out. Whether or not Paul's predictions are accurate, I'm not totally convinced his suggestions are desirable. In its role as a "transition motor" in the early industrial revolution, admits Paul, "the state relentlessly cleared this path for factories, for wage labour, for child labour, unfortunately". How do we know the transition to postcapitalism won't have similar costs? If the state moved heaven and earth to create capitalism, what will stop it doing the same to ensure its survival and creating some kind of techno-fascism – less a transition motor and more a whack-a-mole game, bashing non-capitalist initiatives on the head as they emerge? And what is it about the "sharing economy" of Uber and Airbnb – currently creating a desperate servant underclass – that should give us hope that, as Paul writes, "because its precondition is abundance, postcapitalism will deliver some form of social justice spontaneously"? Abundance is already here – we have enough stuff but don't share it properly. Loads of people are already in bullshit jobs that don't need to happen – and technology hasn't changed that until now.
There are plenty of what-ifs and what-abouts – you try and predict the future without raising thousands of awkward questions. Nevertheless, it's a book worth engaging with and forming some awkward questions of your own, unless you want to spend your life wondering why things are changing. It's a convincing forecast of the macro-sized economic forces that will shape our lives, and way more important than the guff from the government about "fixing the roof while the sun is shining". So go and buy it, and definitely don't wait until some anarchist somewhere rips it and makes it free to download.
All photos by Jake Lewis