Interview: Paul Mason's guide to a post-capitalist future

"The point is to be contrary for a bit. There’s too much groupthink."

July 24, 2015
Paul Mason is the Channel 4 News Economcs Editor. He is the author of several books.
Paul Mason is the Channel 4 News Economcs Editor. He is the author of several books.
Reporting for Channel 4 News on the most recent phase of the crisis in Greece, Paul Mason achieved near-ubiquity: Mason talking to Alexis Tsipras and other members of Syriza; Mason in his shirtsleeves doing a piece to camera in front of the Greek central bank; Mason dodging missiles in yet another confrontation between anarchists and the police—these form part of the iconography of the Greek crisis for many of us.

Now, as Greece (and the rest of Europe) catches its breath, Mason has returned to Britain to promote his new book, "PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future". It's not a work of reportage, but of wide-ranging historical and economic analysis that is inspired by Marx's analysis of capitalist social relations, but also goes some way beyond it (in ways, he acknowledges, that might not find favour with some of his friends on the far left). The book is both an analysis of the crisis of what Mason calls "neoliberalism"—his shorthand for the version of highly financialised capitalism that has operated in most of the developed world for the past 30 years—and an attempt to imagine what might replace it. 

Capitalism, Mason writes, is a highly adaptive system: "At major turning points, it morphs and mutates in response to danger." Its most basic survival instinct, he argues, "is to drive technological change." But he believes that the information technologies that capitalism has developed in the past 20 years or so are not, despite apparently ample evidence to the contrary,"compatible with capitalism—not in its present form and maybe not in any form. Once capitalism can on longer adapt to technological change, postcapitalism becomes necessary."

Mason is not alone in believing that humanity is on the cusp of a profound technological revolution, of course. We've heard a lot from other quarters, for instance, about the "Second Machine Age" and the promise (as well as the threat) of intelligent machines and the "internet of things". What makes his analysis distinctive, however, is the way he fuses an account of the technological mutations of what used to be called "late capitalism" with an attempt to identify, as Engels put it in the late 19th century, the "midwife of the old society pregnant with a new one." This won't be the industrial working class, as Marx and Engels thought, but what Mason calls the "network." By creating millions of networked people, Mason writes, "info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being."

I met Mason in London yesterday and began by asking him to describe the "neoliberal" model that he thinks has reached breaking point.

PM: Neoliberalism is both an ideology and a model of an economy. One has to understand capitalism as a whole system at any one time in its existence. What we are living in [at the moment] is what we can call neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberal capitalism is a system which works [with] a core which operates according to neoliberal values and a periphery that doesn’t. Neoliberalism as a functional system, I argue, is broken, because the central spring of it—highly financialised consumption combined with low wage growth—is a machine for producing booms and busts.

We’ve had the proposition coming from the OECD and people like Larry Summers or Robert Gordon that this is going to lead to a 30- or 40-year stagnation. The 30- or 40-year stagnation thesis is not mine. [But] I can see its plausibility. The other thesis, as I say in the book, is that you could, under certain circumstances, get a successful info-capitalism—I just don’t think it’s likely.

JD: Alongside what you identify as the negative features of neoliberalism (excessive and destabilising financialisation and so on) is the tech revolution.

Neoliberalism has been the economic form in which the most dramatic advance of human technique over nature has taken place. Second, it’s been the form in which a substantial and yet to be fully [understood] advance in actual development has taken place—in China, in India. What I’m arguing is that it’s a form that is no longer able to contain the levels of technological dynamism it’s managed to unleash. I don’t think neoliberalism on its own, neoliberal values on their own, are the drivers of technological change. [The economist] Mariana Mazzicato makes this point: it’s not simply Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship and hedge fund money that produces the iPhone—it’s Nasa, it’s huge universities like Stanford.

What we’re seeing [today] is rapidity of innovation not being matched by roll-out or business model evolution. Which begs the question: at what point does the potential automotive power of this technology actually get deployed in a third industrial revolution? I can’t see it happening in the neoliberal paradigm.

But, as you yourself point out, the new technology has also been an enabler of neoliberalism—in the way it has enhanced people’s ability to exploit what is sometimes called their “human capital”.

The Keynesian era produced the last generation of hierarchised, collectivised selves. I was produced by it and I know that that world has gone. One of the virtues of being 55 is to have seen the new world born. [Today], as Foucault put it, we are entrepreneurs of the self. The internet [has] allowed the masses to be part of the social laboratory of the self. It allows us to do it in a way we haven’t begun to understand. It’s created a new human subject.

The argument between me and supporters of neoliberalism is whether that human subject is one that will transcend the current system and break it apart and reform human society. All visions of social justice have from now on to begin with [what I call] the “networked individual”. I believe that the revolts that I chronicled in my earlier book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, are revolts of such people. If they are a new historical subject that replaces the old working class of Marxism, that’s a big thing. It’s a big thing to get your head around.

Do you mourn the world we have lost? The Keynesian world of collectivities and solidarities. You rarely strike an elegiac tone in this book. The dominant note is more one of excitement at the economic and political possibilities that new technologies and new modes of human subjectivity offer.

I do mourn it. What I wrote in my first book, Live Working or Die Fighting, is that what we’re mourning and what we left behind was an anomaly in the history of the labour movement. It was a socially stable labour movement that had worked its way to peaceful coexistence with capital. What I did was dig back into history and find that the rambunctious history of labour was the history of people who’d themselves been, in their own way, entrepreneurs of the self. And had a level of almost total opposition to the world they lived in that my dad’s generation, the Keynesian generation, didn’t.

Which traditions are you talking about, specifically?

Anarchism in the Paris commune. Anarcho-syndicalism in America—the Wobblies. What communism made these histories be about was the collectivity. But forget the official Marxist histories of the Commune or the Wobblies and you find that it’s the story of rebellious individuals. When I started to delve into [that history], I realised that the Keynesian era, although we mourn it, was an anomaly.

It was also an anomaly in the history of capitalism wasn’t it? Isn’t that one of the messages of Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century?

It’s an anomaly in the history of capitalism. It’s also an anomaly in the history of the working class.

Let's turn to the economic aspect of your argument in this book. Your claim is that capitalism cannot “capture the ‘value’ generated by the new technology.” Can you unpack that a bit?

As soon as we knew we were in an information economy, it was obvious that the category of things called [by economists] “externalities” were going to be important. The cognitive capital theorist Yann Moulier-Boutang puts it this way (and I agree): the entire question of 21st-century capitalism is who captures the externalities. Shall it be the corporation, who’ll own them and utilise them, as Google does? The positive externality for Google is that it can see what we are searching for but we can’t see what each other are searching for. So it can now construct a monopolised business model on the basis of the secrets [revealed by] its data-mining.

Are you saying that the only way, under the current arrangements, that capitalism can capture the value generated by the new technology is through monopoly? Google, Apple and others are making a pretty good fist of making money out of it.

They’re making money. They’ve created an information monopoly. And, especially in regard to information goods, they’ve been able to suppress the price mechanism, because the price mechanism would, naturally, reduce the price of the information they’re selling towards zero. I say in the book that Apple’s mission statement should really be: We exist to prevent the abundance of music! Or Google’s should be: We exist to prevent the abundance of people’s self-knowledge about what they do on the internet.

There are two problems with this. One is that it is logical to suggest that none of these monopolies can survive. Certainly, none of their share valuations reflect their ability to go on monopolising this stuff. Two, therefore you can’t have the full utilisation of information. The next question is: Is there a compromise? Is there a space between monopoly and freedom that we could explore? I actually think there is. I’m not saying that everything must become free. I’m saying there must be multiple business models between monopoly and freedom.

So you’re not saying, then, that markets will disappear in a post-capitalist future? After all, markets and capitalism are not the same thing. Markets are just mechanisms for allocating resources.

It is natural, and it’s happening, that the social nature of information is leading to non-market forms of activity. Wikipedia is a non-market form of activity—it’s a $3bn hole in the advertising world.

You write at one point that the “more far-sighted” members of the global elite have displayed exceptional lucidity in addressing some of the questions you deal with in the book; issues such as inequality and the impact that it has on growth, “secular stagnation” and the role that collective bargaining plays in pushing up wages. Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, for instance, has written extensively on all three of these issues, offering diagnoses not at all dissimilar to yours.

There are people in the global elite who’ve given themselves permission to understand what we’re going through. One of the things they get is that inequality is going to be dysfunctional. Not only do they not want to be lynched in their beds, they also understand that the dynamism [of capitalist economies] [will] come back from a rise in the wage share. Another thing they’ve understood is the zero-bound issue—the idea that in an economy where you’re constantly bumping against zero, you’re constantly having to use unorthodox monetary policy. Unorthodox monetary policy is lumpy. Anybody who has understood Keynes’s critique of the 1920 and early '30s will understand the problem of “stickiness”. In the Thirties, it was wages that were sticky—they wouldn’t fall far enough. Now it’s monetary policy that’s sticky. The problem is: where’s the dynamism going to come from? Larry gets that. And people in the bond markets get that.

The final bit is that they look at the exogenous shocks and it terrifies them. It terrifies me, too. People in power, in state treasuries, won’t allow themselves to quantify the levels of shock that are on the way. If 60 per cent of sovereigns become insolvent because of ageing costs, which S&P says is likely, if migration happens at the scale that it’s likely to, and we get nine billion people clamouring to get into the developed world… If neoliberalism were a functioning system, as it was around 2001, and it hadn’t moved on from there, you could probably say: “Shit, this is going to be really difficult but we can probably do it.” But with the sclerotic, stagnant, defibrillating capitalism we’ve had post-2008, there’s not a chance on earth that it’ll survive the shocks. Even if I’m wrong about the transition I both see and desire, they have to come forward and say what a dynamic info-capitalism, what the third industrial revolution could be.

But it seems to me that Summers or someone like the economist Robert Gordon would have to accept the diagnostic part of your analysis…

Right. But the reason I haven’t gone all the way into Robert Gordon territory is that the potential productivity is there. His view of the potential productivity inherent in info-tech spilling over into the real world… I think it’s bigger than he accepts.

Why do you think he underestimates it?

It’s because people [like Gordon] are not prepared to enter this nether world between use-value and exchange-value that the externalities represent. I don’t think most people reading my book will accept that the transition, potentially, is towards a non-market, information-centred, low-labour, post-capitalist world. But if they think we’re headed towards a form of info-capitalism with a third industrial revolution, they need to tell us what the high-value synthesis is. What is the Edwardian era of this third industrial revolution going to look like?

Do we see intimations of such a future in the so-called sharing economy? In ventures like Airbnb and Uber?

My hunch is that they are the AltaVista of the sharing economy. The French social theorist Andé Gorz explored this. He said it’s entirely possible to imagine capitalism colonising inter-personal relationships. Uber is that—it’s not about taxi drivers, it’s about people giving each other lifts. Gorz envisaged that we would become mutual providers of micro-services. But he said: “That can’t be a high-value economy.” That’s the problem. You can’t build a business out of mining the spare bits out of everybody’s car capacity, their capacity to do Reiki massage, every electrician’s spare half hour. You can do it, and the sharing economy is the perfect way to do it, but it just doesn’t give the Edwardian era, the Belle Epoque. The Belle Epoque is going to be gene sequencing and spending half your day playing squash.

Most Marxists will hate this. It’s saying, contra Marx, that humanity can liberate itself, that people can find, within capitalism, the mental means to imagine a new future and go straight for it in a way that, from 1844 onwards, Marx thought was impossible.

You borrow the idea of the “long cycle” from the Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff. He argued that the history of capitalism can be understood as a succession of cycles, each of which has an upswing fuelled by technological innovation lasting abut 25 years, followed by a downswing of about the same length that usually ends in a depression. These long cycles are much longer than the business cycles identified by mainstream economics. Why do you find Kondratieff’s approach helpful?

I think we need theories that are bigger than business cycles and smaller than the doom of the entire system. When you apply Kondratieff’s theory to the post-1945 period, you see the system working perfectly until 1973. And then it falls apart. Neoliberalism comes along and solves the problem by destroying the bargaining power of labour. Looking at things through Kondratieff’s spectacles forces you to ask the question: is neoliberalism the successful form of the new capitalism or a dead-end which has prolonged the old cycle for too long? I answer the latter.

Where are we now in the cycle?

We are at the very end of an incredibly prolonged fourth long cycle. We are in the depression phase of the fourth long cycle which has coincided with the technological upswing of the fifth. So I believe that long cycles can overlap. I think we’re in an unusual position historically. Clearly, the information revolution is there and that the basis of completely new type of capitalism might be [emerging]. What’s happened is that the old social relations of the back half of the [previous] wave won’t go away. Whatever it is that’s going to happen, there’s one to represent it. There’s no Keynes, only the remnants of the old. If you look at [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg [the founder of Facebook]—these are people who are agnostic about the future of the whole system. They only have a view about the future of their own corporation.

My use of Kondratieff is to try to answer a question about where we are. The other periodicities—the ten-year business cycle and the 500-year epoch—are not enough. But this is a provisional explanation of what’s going on. And I offer it as such. There’s no chair of Post-Capitalist Studies at the University of Wolverhampton! It’s in its infancy.

You mentioned André Gorz earlier. In the book, you quote him saying in 1980 that the working class is dead. If he was right, who is the agent of social change going to be?

The appalling and challenging fact may be that if capitalism has a beginning, a middle and an end, then does the labour movement. In other words, the decline of organised labour based on white, skilled, manual, male work, seems to me, as someone who lived through it and came from that background, to be a lawful part of what is happening to capitalism. I argue that the historical subject who will bring post-capitalism exists and is the networked individual. Antonio Negri’s notion of the “social factory” was bollocks in the 1970s, because it was too early. But it seems to me to be accurate now—we all participate in the creation of brands, in the creation of consumption choices, we are fuelling financial capitalism through our use of finance. So I buy the idea that there is a social factory. If you want to switch it off, you do it like William Benbow suggested in the 1820s by stopping—the “grand holiday”. Now, I doubt that’s going to happen. Therefore, the less utopian way of doing it is that you pursue the interests of those networked individuals, which is for their information not to be stolen from them, their information not to be arbitrarily accessed by the state, their lifestyles to be allowed to flourish, for them to have choices.

So many of the upsurges I’ve covered—Turkey, Brazil are good examples. These are networked salariats who cannot stand the levels of meddling and corruption in their lives—Islamism in Turkey, corruption in Brazil. What kind of revolution is it? There is a discussion that those who’ve so far engaged with my book have piled into: if this is the agent, is it “for itself” or “in itself” as Marx would say. Are these people capable of achieving a level of spontaneous understanding of the situation that leads them to grasp some of the policy measures hinted at in this book as a way forward for them? At the moment, clearly they are not there. What they are is very adept at constructing the personal space. We may scoff at it—it’s small scale. But with the carving out of space that is both economic and personal, I think this generation is doing something very significant.

Do I imbue them with the same inevitability, teleology that Marxism imbued the working class? No. In the book, I spend a long time disassembling Marxism’s understanding of the working class. I’ve always felt, as a person who came from that background, that the kit of parts Marxism had to describe the working class was one of its least convincing—above all, to working-class people.

You write at one point that Marxism is a great “theory of history” but as “crisis theory” it’s flawed. What do you mean by that?

What I mean is that it’s a great theory for analysing class society. For example, during the Egyptian revolution in 2011, having read Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, I could say to Egyptian radicals that what will happen is that a level of chaos will be created whereby the very people who are on your side now will come forward and welcome a dictatorship. It’s likely that capitalism will call forth a new thing that imposes order. The thing that imposed disorder was the Muslim Brotherhood. And then to see the same people who’d supported the revolution calling for Sisi to overthrow the Brotherhood made sense if you’d read The 18th Brumaire.

I said to Alexis Tsipras before Syriza was elected: “What would be the threats to a left government if you gained power?” I said to him: “You do remember that [Salvador] Allende appointed [Augusto] Pinochet [in Chile]?” Allende appointed Pinochet to stop a military coup. We laughed. The point is that that government in Greece, you could argue, is being colonised by the very forces it thought it was there to fight. Right now, the business elite is thinking: “Only Tsipras can govern Greece.” They would prefer that he governed Greece without the far left of his own party. I meet Greek capitalists all the time who say to me: “If only Tsipras would listen to us, Greece would be a great country.”

Marxism forces you to ask [questions] that mainstream journalists don’t ask. The most important question for the Greeks right now is: what is happening to the masses? The masses are not defeated. They don’t believe that Tsipras is Louis Napoleon. Many of them object to what he has done, but they don’t believe he’s a force of reaction. They believe what he’s telling them—that he’s doing something unwillingly and that he will compensate for it with an attack on the oligarchy. They expect that attack on the oligarchy to come. My observation is that there has been a big radicalisation of people in Greece. Once the summer’s over we’ll see a real renewal both of struggles below and of the radicalism of the government.

The focus on what people are saying in pubs is something that two sets of people are very interested in: secret police forces and Marxists! I spend as much time as I can listening to people.

What’s the journalistic challenge in giving those kinds of questions an airing? Working for a broadcaster like Channel Four, there are obviously certain constraints on how you operate.

A good social affairs journalist, which is what I think I am, will, in Greece for example, talk to prime ministers, secretaries states, but they’ll also talk to the dockers, the anarchists.  You’ve still only got two minutes and thirty seconds. That’s why I’ve spent the last six months making and funding a big documentary that will come, I hope, by the end of this year, which tells the story of Syriza from below, from the streets. I wanted to do that because in my day I’d never tell that story. It’s just not possible.

What about the charge, that is often levelled at you (and has been made frequently during the last few months in Greece) that in operating in this way you overstep the bounds of journalistic propriety or disinterestedness?

I think everyone else is wrong! The reality is that the world is run by an elite that is dedicated to reinforcing, in some ways utterly overtly, inequality and everything that goes with that. In Greece, austerity is a form of coercion. And I’m happy to say that because that’s my analysis of reality. Now, lots of people on the FT or the Wall Street Journal don’t share that view of reality. But I’m quite happy, and my bosses are perennially happy, with the way I do journalism. People who don’t like it just have to get used to it.

With ideas like [the ones in this book], the point of putting a radical idea out there is that you’re not expecting Andy Burnham or Tim Farron to ring you up and say, “I like this, Paul. Let’s make it into party policy.” The point is to be contrary for a bit. There’s too much groupthink. My aim with this [book], it’s like a drama workshop—my aim is to get people into an out-of-body experience, huddled on the floor in a pool of their own tears. Then, when they come back to the safety of the group, maybe they can do something more honest.

Paul Mason's "PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future" is published by Allen Lane (£16.99)