Review: Paul Mason on Postcapitalism

Paul Mason predicts the end of capitalism. Hardly directly mentioning his new book, Postcapitalism, Mason used his half-hour speaking at Oxford’s Blackwell’s bookshop to explain the ‘postcapitalist’ vision of the work. The argument rests on a fierce critique of neoliberalism, and the application of both neoclassical and Marxist economic theory to the sphere of information transfer in the 21st century. A reasonable level of economic understanding was needed to understand Mason’s views fully, but the gist would have been clear to anybody: capitalism is unsustainable.

The natural undoing of events such as this, talks by radical commentators and theorists attempting to persuade listeners of their views, is that almost the whole audience already agrees with said radical thinker. Most such academics are sufficiently obscure that no one without a leaning towards their standpoint is likely to attend. The Q&A that followed Mason’s talk confirmed that this was no exception. I felt nearly unique among the audience in having little foreknowledge of his ideas — and thus one of the only people present he actually had to convince. I left the bookshop an hour later at least partially persuaded.

Mason foretold the evolution of modern capitalism into a new structure facilitating sustainable growth. This is what he calls ‘postcapitalism’. He quoted the remarkable observation that the real value of wages in the USA is the same today as it was in the mid-1970s — meaning the modern neoliberal interpretation of capitalism has failed to create inclusive growth. He called the present system ‘a machine for generating boom and bust’ that uses excessively intricate financial markets to create an ‘asset-price-bubble-addicted economy’. He finally suggested that the two impending catastrophes of demographic imbalance (due to ageing populations) and climate change would rattle the advanced economies enough to elicit a restructuring of their systems.

Mason was sure to emphasise at the talk’s outset that his views are not only a challenge to the traditional right, but also the traditional left. He cited and agreed with liberal thinkers who dismiss the future of trade unions — Mason quoted both British and Indian unionists who lament the lack of enthusiasm among the younger generation of workers. He certainly isn’t a Marxist. Throughout the talk he hardly mentioned workers. The capitalist system was not portrayed as evil or sinister, merely outdated. The internet has allowed the injustices of the financial markets, but could allow the justice of online communal production. It need only be redirected. The advent of ‘postcapitalism’ sounds more like an evolution than a revolution.

The practicalities of that evolution were left to the imagination. Mason admitted he had no idea how the new order will arise, beyond the two oncoming global crises. The talk became less convincing at this point: the ‘postcapitalist’ vision suddenly sounded like a pipe-dream. I expect I speak for most of Mason’s readers in agreeing that ‘postcapitalism’ is plausible and maybe desirable — but in doubting the inevitability he attaches to it.

To its credit, the talk did persuade me to buy Mason’s book. To its greater credit, that didn’t seem to be his primary aim. He was trying to convince the Blackwell’s audience of his point of view, and he did as well as he could have done in such limited time. He convinced me, at least, that it would be worth reading more.

Benedict George

For future events at Blackwell’s, please visit their website.

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