I’ve been reading Paul Mason’s latest pretty thoroughly over several days. Already blogged several positive comments, relating his thesis to my own agenda here; [Appropriate Marxist Theory] [Atomisation of Markets & Labour] [Postcapitalist Preview]. So no secret he covers lots of material I’ve already absorbed over the years, and it’s therefore been intriguing to finally get to his conclusions and recommendations.
Anticipating disappointment, the kind of philosopher’s conclusion I’m used to these days, that there is no silver bullet or even a right answer, we simply have to keep the dialogue going, accept the messy reality of our imperfect democratic freedoms and institutions, and allow evolution to take its course. Well, nothing could be further from the actual experience. Mason pulls no punches, and states his clear recipe for a brighter future. Obviously there are detailed holes to be picked and disagreed with, and Mason invites us to tear his thesis apart if we can do better, but the point here is to plan the shape of the world we want to inhabit, to focus on priorities that can be managed appropriately by state rules and incentives, and to do it wholeheartedly and coherently. The devil will of course be in the details, and the details will need to take care of themselves, so no point “centrally planning” economic activity a la Stalin. Even with supercomputers, perfect real-time information and automation approaching AI, we couldn’t ever get that right. We could nevertheless use such resources as part of our simulation and decision-making. How dumb would we have to be not to do so?
In order to do any of that there needs to be a we, or a coherent set of we’s, sets we identify with. Nation states, unions, associations, federations, regional assemblies, you name it. It can’t simply be business organisations with state institutions whose role is to get out of the way and leave the market as free and level a playing field as possible. Fetishising “the free market” is the problem, especially as we approach a state where valued info-tech products in the market are either positive externalities or at near-free marginal labour cost. We need economic processes that accept cost-free and collaborative arrangements, high automation and low employment.
Of course, some have called Mason’s recipe Utopian, but really it’s not. There is no opposing fetish, to ban competition and markets, to fail to reward innovation and entrepreneurship. Again, how dumb would we have to be? No, this is about accepting reality and taking actions we can, whilst we can. (We, again, notice.) Actions that recognise economic arrangements in transition, not some idealised end-state. Mason quite rightly doesn’t attempt to define that, rather simply those processes and arrangements that would move us in the right direction, reflecting and accommodating the reality we find.
And, not without cause, some will accuse Mason’s “Project Zero” plan of being Marxist. Imagine getting a hearing in the corridors of power of the developed world with that tag? Well, damn it, look at the actual content of the particular ideas of Marx being proposed. We’re not talking Das Kapital or the Communist Manifesto here. We’re talking about state interventions only in as far as they represent the socialised “we”. In fact it in doing so “the state probably gets less powerful” as the population continues to get ever more networked.
Mason is also at pains to ensure his economic theory and evidence are not pre-loaded with the critical non-economic drivers we currently face. Eventually – after properly addressing capital, debt, technology, markets, resources and goods, he does of course bring in those other issues. Population, and demographies and movements within the whole. The inexorably rising multiplier of all other issues. Global warming and energy consumption & dependencies the main issue being multiplied by the former.
Can he be serious? Well, the penultimate page of his final chapter asks “Is this for real?” He is. It is. Not only can we engineer our way out of this mess:
We lie at a moment of possibility:
of a controlled transition
beyond the free market,
beyond compulsory work.
There may be elements of romance in the vision, the belief that we really can do better, but I’d say Mason’s thesis is pretty thoroughly grounded. Far from Utopian, what’s wrong with a little vision, a large dose of vision in this case. An engineer myself, as Mason correctly predicts, I’m still focussing on addressing “root causes”. In my case that remains our flawed model of what we know about our world, the politically correct fetish of objectivism. And sure, there are points of interpretation of existing realities I actually disagree with. But hey, I’m in. Where do I sign-up for Project Zero?
I can already see specific chapters of Postcapitalism addressing specific ongoing debates with colleagues out there. Standby to have Paul Mason added to your recommended reading list. Consider it done.
[Post Note – fascinated to find the published Greek translation of Post Capitalism is Meta-Capitalism. Meta is the word., The Greeks have it. It’s about the way of the thing, not the thing.]
[Post Note : Also some criticism that Mason’s Project Zero plan is not only Utopian but basically impractical. Impractical in the sense that several of the proposals are counter-intuitive and anathema to anyone wearing a traditional business hat. That’s the point, it goes without saying – the proposals are radical, “try selling that” I suggested above given the inevitable “Marxist” and interventionist tags – but nothing proposed is impractical in any practical sense. Nothing that couldn’t be tried, given the will to do so, and nothing here is all or nothing. Inaction is simply denial. Also, as well as recognising value in conceptual vision, despite its unclear details, there is also recognition of the distinction between urgent and important. One is tactical, the other is strategic.]
[Post Note : And Finland moves to basic income not linked to productive labour.]
[Post Note : WEF / Davos reference. Completely misses Mason’s point. He’s not predicting what is likely to happen given existing forces and players, he is recommending what we should to to make the best of things happen. There will always be capital based aspects of the economy, just no reason why it should all be so, why all life depends on labour-based income.]
[Post Note : Rusty Rockets reference.]
[Post Note : a counter review, although same conclusion “Realistically, the future will be hybrid … with the gift economy expanding over time.” The point being that agreeing the expanding “gift” economy isn’t capitalism is not a matter of Marxist opinion. But I did say, as Mason himself more than hints, the Marxist tag will give the project a hard time amongst “conservatives” in authority.]