When Mr Mason is not busy demonstrating to his readers just how clever he is, he provides us with a highly readable, highly thought-provoking discussion on post-capitalist scenarios. In actual fact Mr Mason is a very clever chap but he could do with adding a touch of humility whilst laying out his theories. Mason just can't wait to tell us where Marx and Engels and Lenin got it right and where they got it wrong. As an accomplished journalist well-grounded in economics, he has every right to make such criticisms, but such criticisms might profitably be couched in more temperate language. I recall Mr Mason dismissing the entire Marxist/Leninist Labour Aristocracy theory as rubbish. Hardly the sort of approach to give his later arguments the gravity they might otherwise deserve. But notwithstanding this little criticism, I found Mr Mason's latest offering both inspiring and unsettling in equal measure. Not only does he paint a picture of a gathering storm; environmental, economic, political and technological, he turns this perfect storm on its head and creates a future scenario of unimaginable possibilities. In short, he grasps perfectly the dialectic between scarcity and abundance thereby reawakening the entire Marxist understanding of a humane, rational, communist future. Not a future that is set in stone but a future of infinite permutations. The end of pre-history, as Marx once mused, and the real beginning of the human story. 

 

It would be very easy to dismiss 'Postcapitalism' for failing to create a viable model of transition from a world dominated by near omniscient corporations and compliant hierarchical states to that of a democratic, inclusive, networked global community. But that would be to miss the point of the book. No one is in a position to lay out a detailed blueprint for such a transition even if such a transition is in the offing. Not Marx, not Mason, not even Jeremy Corbyn MP. But to pose the possibility, to create a future vision, and thereby weaken the narrative that capitalism is for ever; now that is the task of every progressive thinker. You have to take off your hat to the proponents of neoliberal, free-market capitalism. They have done a first rate job in propagating the notion that there is no alternative. The real achievement of Paul Mason's 'Postcapitalism' is to undermine that carefully constructed propaganda and to help sow the seeds of something entirely different. A world where work itself begins to lose its centrality in the face of a new wave of automation; a world increasingly free of waged labour itself.

The essence of this brave new world is, as Marx always envisaged, a world free of scarcity replaced by a world of reasonable material abundance. And if automation really can break the nexus between labour, price, wages, ownership and profit, then we truly would be moving into a whole new ball game. Mason repeatedly cites the Wikipedia phenomenon as an example of a non-hierarchical, post capitalist creation where labour is largely freely given, profit is not sought and the product information - is universally free. Of course it is a huge leap of the imagination to go from free information for all to free housing for all. But if you follow the logic through, if the component parts of housing units become virtually free of cost, the land is communally owned, and the labour required to assemble those component parts are volunteered, then it is just possible to envisage a world where all ten billion of us have ready access to free modern housing. This is the importance and value of Mason's work. He invites his readers to imagine beyond what is deemed normal and immutable.  

Pursuing Marx's idea that machines could eventually free mankind from the drudgery of work leaving us in a position to perform work voluntarily and participate in life fully conscious of all mankind's accumulated knowledge and achievements. Mason picks up on this essential theme with great enthusiasm.

'This is probably the most revolutionary idea Marx ever had: that the reduction of labour to a minimum could produce a kind of human being able to deploy the entire, accumulated knowledge of society: a person transformed by vast quantities of socially produced knowledge and for the first time in history more free time than work time.' P138

Put in this way, Mason makes the supposedly all powerful, all omniscient market seem quite antiquated; an anachronism from the dark days of human scarcity. If a technologically advanced society can produce more than is needed, and at the press of a button, then the market that is currently hailed as the most efficient method of distributing goods and services, become quaintly redundant. Mason believes this process of transcending the capitalist market has already begun. Quoting the Yale law professor, Yochai Benkler in his book  'The Wealth of Networks'

 'the rise of cheap physical computing power and communications networks had put the means of production of intellectual goods into the hands of many people. People can blog, they can make movies and distribute them, they can self-publish e-books in some cases creating a million strong audience before the traditional publishers even knows the authors exist: The result is that a good deal more that human beings value can now be done by individuals who interact with each other socially, as human beings and as social beings, rather than as market actors through the price system.' P 127

Given the current sickening levels of material inequality and dire impoverishment across our global society, the reader is going to find it excruciatingly difficult to envisage a world where the distribution and common ownership of tangible things could ever follow the trajectory of information but that is precisely what Mason is inviting us to imagine. It's a big ask. But Mason is not deterred.

'In the end, all we're trying to do is move as much of human activity as possible into a phase where the labour that's necessary to support very rich and complex human life on the planet falls, and the amount of free time grows. And in the process, the division between the two gets even more blurred. P289

A thoroughly provocative read and one that drags Karl Marx right back into contention.

End Copyright JPK 10/8/15

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