I’m grateful to Andrew Curry for the recommendation for Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. My journey to understanding “what’s next” continues. To pause and recalibrate, what started out in 2012 with our “After Capitalism” meeting as an investigating into the emerging economy has shifted scope. It’s bigger than just the economy. For me, Postcapitalism may have tipped the scales. Interestingly, I first thought the title a bit grandiose, but after reading it, I agree. The economic uncertainty we’ve been exploring with our three dozen concepts is more than just economic. But I suspect we knew that all along. It’s never “just one thing.” When systems are involved, there are connection, interconnections, consequences, and consequences of consequences.
The author, Paul Mason, a “leftist” British Journalist suggests up front that capitalism is in crisis and there are two ways it can end:
- Global elite clings on
- Consensus breaks, and parties of the hard right and left come to power
He puts the challenge in systems terms. Capitalism is more than just an economic structure…it is the whole system – social, economic, demographic, cultural, ideological, etc. And the multiple challenges of climate change, aging, and population growth, inequality and a failing economic system will lead to chaos around 2050…if a sustainable economic order isn’t in place.
He frames the problem as neoliberalism, the capitalist doctrine of uncontrolled markets…best route to prosperity is individuals pursuing their own self-interest. It’s a clear and powerful idea. While he goes on to show how it’s breaking down, he notes that “the forces opposing it looked like they were defending something old, worse, and incoherent.” In other words, there isn’t a clear alternative, which certainly jibes with our exploration so far.
So, there’s a lot to the book, but let’s cut to the chase. What I found particularly provocative is his analysis of the effects of information technology on capitalism:
- Information technology has reduced the need for work
- information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly
- the spontaneous rise of collaborative product: goods services and organization that no longer respond to dictates of the market, e.g., Wikipedia
None of these three should be a surprise to us, but he puts together a compelling case for how these three factors really do, well, mess up capitalism. And he doesn’t see a fix that “saves” capitalism. Quickly, two things stand out: once the cost of developing infotech has been incurred, it can be used over and over again at no additional cost, i.e., zero marginal cost. Related to that, shareable information goods are shifting the basic laws of economics based on scarcity to abundance.
He suggests we – and by we he suggests that the new change agent in history is the well-educated and connected human being (not the proletariat) – need to design the transition to post-capitalism as a distributed project. I’ll leave it to you on whether to read his design principles and recommendations for the project. Nothing particularly revealing there, but I suppose we should not be expecting magic bullets for such a vexing challenge. Andy Hines