Postcapitalism: An interview with Paul Mason

Green Agenda Editors Clare Ozich and Simon Copland spoke to Paul Mason, journalist and author of Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future.

With his bold thesis on how technological development is leading to the end of capitalism and the exciting prospect of what a postcapitalism could look like, we had a lot to discuss with Paul. As Paul puts it in the introduction to the book “The current crisis not only spells the end of the neoliberal model, it is a symptom of the longer-term mismatch between market systems and an economy based on information. The aim of the book is to explain why replacing capitalism is no longer a utopian dream, how the basic forms of a postcapitalist economy can be found within the current system, and how they could be expanded rapidly.”

Edited transcript

Simon Copland: Thank you for agreeing to chat with us, Paul. You are in Australia to give a talk at the University of Sydney to give a talk entitled “Can Robots Kill Capitalism?”. Can you give us a brief rundown about what you’ll be talking about, and basically can and how do robots kill capitalism?

PostcapitalismPaul Mason: Without giving too much away, robots are not going to kill capitalism, but I think information technology could. That’s the thesis of my book. I think we should be both excited about, as human beings, and also worried about as economic- there’s this famous phrase, homo economicus – the economic man. It’s not so much robots, but artificial intelligence, the sheer scale and pace of the development of computer power right now, is doing something to capitalism that no other technology has ever done. The essential thesis of the book is, in a single sentence, “Information technology makes utopian socialism possible.” That is something very different from Soviet communism. It is a form of socialism based on abundance. It is based on the idea that we will gradually grow our society over into sharing things rather than producing things for the market, and the kind of futurology in the book is really quite well-grounded in what’s going on right now.

If this wasn’t an audio interview and we had PowerPoint, I would basically show you curves that are simply prices falling off a cliff. We could say the price of silicone chips, processing power, has fallen exponentially. The price of Wi-Fi bandwidth, exponentially, the price of storage, exponentially. These things are not digital things. These are physical products. Then you look at the spillover of that into something like DNA processing. If you thought your kids were going to have jobs as DNA processors, great. It sounds like a great high-tech job, doesn’t it? They’re not because the cost of processing a single genome of DNA has fallen in the last 15 years from one hundred thousand dollars to one thousand dollars, and this carried on forward. If you see the exponential price fall like that, normally, in capitalism, we’ve seen this before, we’ve seen amazing implementations of technology before, you need a new form of technology that creates expensive stuff, stuff people can’t afford, stuff people need manual and mental skills to create. Then, that revives the idea of scarcity.

My argument is, once information technology exists, everything else is information technology. You could say, “Let’s invent biotech. Let’s do space travel. Let’s do 3D printing.” It’s all information technology. The price of it all will fall. The essential argument of the futurology of the book – we could talk about presentology as well, which is highly scary. But the futurology is that capitalism is just a system. It’s not a mystical thing. It’s a system the same as all economic systems in the world that we ever saw. It is being eroded by a mixture of impact from within it, which is technological, and impact from outside it, which I would argue, and I think would be very interesting to your listeners as Greens, is the climate and demographic shocks that the world is going through.

Clare Ozich: I found PostCapitalism a very hopeful book. You talked about this future that you imagine as being very exciting. I think one of the reasons that I found it hopeful was your preparedness to imagine a postcapitalism, to imagine a place that reconfigures how we currently operate as a society. I read the speech you gave in Barcelona to the P2P crew, where you said we had to stop fantasising about a third Industrial Revolution. We have to promote the transition to a non-capitalist form of economy. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you respond to the critiques of your thesis and your thinking from people who really do find it difficult to grapple with the imagination and the hope of shifting out of capitalism. I find that as a pull-down on a lot of progressive or left thinking, that we can’t escape this thing; we just have to make it better.

Paul Mason: One of the motivations for writing the book was seeing the incredibly inspiring networked forms of protest, I would argue, fail, because they never posited an overall goal. In fact, they had two famous slogans that mitigate against doing that. One is the famous, “One no and many yeses.” You’ve heard of that. “One no and many yeses,” is actually containable in the post-capitalist thesis, because I believe in “One no and many yeses.” Once you get abundance, you can have the transgender community living on an island where you can have something that looks like downtown Sydney, only with no market. You know what I mean? You can choose. The other one was, “refusal to win.” I don’t know if you came across this, but the “refusal to win,” ideology was actually quite powerful because, if you’ve seen Soviet communism collapse, and people my age, I was there, I experienced it as it collapsed, having fought against the Soviet bureaucracy as a political in the 1970s and 1980s, I was quite glad to see it collapse.

The problem is that if that, combined with that globalisation says you can’t do anything on a national scale, you can’t nationalise a steelworks that’s going to be closed as what’s happening, partly, with part nationalised steelworks in Britain this year. You can’t do these things, therefore, nothing can be done. I think, in other words, the Left internalised the Thatcherite doctrine that there is no alternative to capitalism.

You may have heard of, Fredric Jameson, the philosopher’s, pronouncement that “It’s easier to image the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”. I wanted to say, “No, look. Actually, there is a route out of capitalism that is not based on scarcity.” Because all Soviet planning was, was a response to scarcity. If you could sit there and imagine, in 1917, let every Russian person have a laptop. Well, you couldn’t imagine, but you might be able to, in a science fiction way, get it into your head. Let everybody have a typewriter, even. That would have been a good thing, wouldn’t it? “What do we need? Electricity. What have we got? No electricity. What do we need to do? Build a dam. How do we do it? Slave labour.” You can see their utopian logic at work, even in the utterly unjust things that they did.

It’s good, that a generation grew up after 1989 and said, “We’re not going to do that. If the price of defeating capitalism is to create another horrible thing, let’s not do it.” But I was searching for many years for a way to overcome that – the kind of Spinoza’s law that what is, is logical. It took me a few years to work out. It took me several years as an information technology journalist to look at this sort of thing. You always have, in the back of your mind, maybe they will invent a new ultra-scarce thing that revives capitalism. It’s now really clear to me that information technology is not that thing. In fact, information technology is only expensive because of monopolies. And monopolies are utterly transient. That’s where the optimism comes.

we must go into the street with something in our minds and in our hearts that is an alternative

I think the optimism coincides with the crisis of left movements, especially new left movers, ones like Greens, ones like horizontal networked activists. Almost every single conversation I’ve had in the last two to three years with those people is where to go next. Could there be a fusion between what we believe and what the old 20th century Marxists believed into hierarchy and order? Because what we’re doing isn’t winning. A great example of that is this weekend’s Women’s March. I was in Washington DC this week. What a superb and amazing thing, but will it stop him building the wall? No, because he has power. What I’m trying to do, to say to the people who are going out on the streets against people like people like Trump, Le Pen, and all the rest of it, is we must go into the street with something in our minds and in our hearts that is an alternative.

Simon Copland: I was really interested in you saying, a little bit back, that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. I think that’s a mentality that’s quite common right now, particularly with Trump and with Brexit and things like that. But, also, with the automation of the workforce or the automation of work. In your book, you talk quite a bit about embracing automation as a thing that is good for humanity. Can you expand on that a little bit and what you’re arguing around that?

car_washPaul Mason: Let’s look at the symptoms of what’s happening, because we haven’t embraced automation. In Britain, the number of car washes that are machines has fallen from four thousand to one thousand, roughly. Meanwhile, the number of car washes staffed by totally exploited, and often trafficked, migrants has grown from nothing, because they never existed, to twenty thousand. Why is that? Why can a human being undercut a machine? What kind of capitalism do we have where human beings working on minimum wage are better than machines? It’s totally the opposite of the dream we were sold. The entirety of our modern developed world, capitalism, is more and more people doing services for other people. That’s the way it goes. Again, that’s good. That’s already happened because it’s easy to automate making things.

The problem is, we employ people – the employment model we have is to employ people – on almost, really close to minimum wages to serve other people in a way that doesn’t feed technological dynamism. You end up with, number one, most western societies have stagnating productivity because for every job that a machine takes, two more jobs are created for ultra low paid people. The result is low productivity. The one thing mid-20th century capitalism had in common with Soviet communism is that they were both in pursuit of high productivity. Indeed, mid-20th century capitalism won because it was highly efficient. Leave aside the economic arguments for efficiency and productivity are superb. They’re clear; everybody wants it. But think about the Green arguments for it. These car washes are driving me crazy. Not only do they exploit people without rights and without money, they pour the goddamn chemicals into the drainage system in a way no registered car wash can. They destroy the environment as well.

The question was about automation and why am I so pro it. I think a) because it’s good for humanity, and b) because it’ll challenge capitalism. Because, to put really simply what my argument is, capitalism has reached the stage where the mechanism that normally drove it forward is holding it back. High productivity and mechanisation and automation and AI and machine learning, I would argue, are going to cheapen things so much that the market system doesn’t need to exist. I also believe that the crises we’re living through are kind of the system objectively sending us that message back through whatever transmitters it can.

Clare Ozich: One of the fundamental things in the book you mention in relation to the current wave of capitalism and why it is longer and not ending, is the fact that the challenges to it, particularly in the form of organised labour, have been smashed. In fact, you say that it was destruction of labour’s bargaining power that was the essence of the neoliberal project. And that was one of the fundamental ways that we exercised collective power in our societies in the industrial age. Given that is now weakened, how do we collectively grasp the potential of this transition that you’re talking about? Do unions or workers collectively have a role to play? Or are there other groupings that we need to look at to reinvigorate a sense of collective purpose?

Paul Mason: If you are prepared to envisage that capitalism has a beginning, a middle, and an end, you also have to be prepared to accept that the labour movement has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If the end of capitalism is something better, then the end, not so much of the labour movement, but of the working class as I knew it, could also be something better. I think that the defeats that we suffered in the 1980s posed this question very starkly for everyone that experienced it. As a British leftist who comes from a mining family, I experienced it both politically and viscerally. I believe that the agents – I’m not looking for a new Hegelian model of history wherein a certain group of people is the surefire agent of change destined to always win. That’s just what Hegelian philosophy inherited from Christianity, the saviour who will die in the process of redeeming you. But I am interested in what are the material interests of British society and who do they throw themselves against.

If you are prepared to envisage that capitalism has a beginning, a middle, and an end, you also have to be prepared to accept that the labour movement has a beginning, a middle, and an end

Who would think, even now, that Native Americans are fighting Donald Trump? They’ve been on the front line of fighting injustice for 200 years, and they cannot escape that front line, even now. How many casinos have they opened? Those casinos are utterly exploitative of them and of other people. I’ve been in these places, and the first complaint you get from poor Native Americans is rich Native Americans forming casinos, gambling joints, Mafiosi. Yet, they’re all on the front lines. They’re all victims. Now, this leads me to use the following analogy. I think the networked individual is the new agent of history, in so far as we need to identify one. The networked individual, the generally educated person, as Peter Drukker, the right wing business thinker said in the 1990s, is the closest we have to people who walk into a space and recognise each other. The thing about workers was they could walk into a society and, you know what I mean. One docker, one firefighter recognises another. In fact, even now, all over the world, a firefighter can walk into any fire station and say, “I’m a firefighter. I’m from X, can you help me?”

What neoliberalism did was it created an atomized society where we’re all meant to be purely individuals; nobody can have that glint of recognition. But you know that glint of recognition the young women in hijabs sitting in the Egyptian equivalent of Starbucks, which is called Cilantro, look and sound exactly like the young women in New York Starbucks doing Occupy Wall Street. They just do the same things; there’s a recognition thing. However, here’s something that isn’t in the book, but a good analogy, the struggle against falling neoliberalism, we can talk about Trump and the rest of it in a minute, but neoliberalism in decline and crisis as it’s been since 2008, is probably going to look a little bit like the ultimate, the final series of Game of Thrones is going to look like. It’s no longer one tribe defeats the enemy. We’ve got to have an alliance of a lot of tribes. Or you could look and see Lord of the Rings, that battle of five armies in the land of Lord of the Rings. In other words, the working class will bring the things that it always brings to those battles.

The working class doesn’t disappear. In Britain, we have one union, the RMT, the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Union, that more or less act exactly as it always has because it’s been able to survive in the London Underground, on the railways, and in some of the shipping industry, on the merchants fleet as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. They’ve got militant people; they don’t give a shit about anything. In fact, one guy at my local train station told me that they have a rule that management said everybody has to wear a name badge. So the union fought for the question of, “Does it have to be your actual name?” They won the question, “No.” This guy has the word Lenin. Every passenger sees this guy called Lenin. So these people still exist, but they bring that amazing militancy to the story. But also the people who put banners up on fracking sites, the women I saw in Washington DC, over the weekend, bringing, essentially, their professional selves to these things.

That’s a long answer to a short question, but the issue is tribality is no good, because what happens is that the tribes bring demands and strategies and ways of fighting that can complement each other. We, who were Marxists in the mid-20th century, always did have a critique of trade unionism, that it was as Lenin used to call it, Nur-Gewerkschaftler, pure trade unionism said in German. Now, pure trade unionism isn’t so strong. If you’re faced with fracking, which is the most ridiculous, illogical thing to do in a country like Britain, which has incredibly fragile geology, which has more wind power than it needs, why would you frack? The tragic thing is to see the bloody trade unions in the oil industry see this as a job creation opportunity and back it. That’s kind of trade unionism we don’t need.

Simon Copland: That’s a good way to move onto the next question, talking about fracking. We wanted to talk about climate change as well. It doesn’t feature particularly heavily in your book, but you mentioned before, external shocks to the system of capitalism. What role does climate change, such a big external shock, play in this transition that we’re talking about? More importantly, what are the short and long ways we should also be looking to solve the crisis in this process of transition?

Paul Mason: The reason I didn’t put climate change front and centre in the book is, I think our thought at the time, the central thesis had been accepted. Manmade climate change exists, and you need the carbon targets that have now been agreed at Paris and beyond to achieve mitigation. That’s something even quite bourgeois millionaires and billionaires can accept that. They don’t need me to tell them. The climate change chapter in the book is short, but I think, important because the first thing it says is something that even people in Greenpeace are loathe to accept. Greenpeace will tell you this, but then their activism belies it. The market cannot solve the climate issue.

Flickr, Stephen Melkisethian, CC BY-NC-ND

So, no. We looked to the 4 billion year old issue and we decided that a 25 year old economic system was the ideal form to solve it. This planet can be saved by a doctrine that was invented 25-30 years ago; it’s ridiculous. The tragedy may be that none of the economic systems we have can save it, but my hunch is the best economic system we have is going to be a mixture of very heavy state intervention, on a scale that I don’t advocate in any other section, because I’m not into state intervention. It think postcapitalism will evolve and grow from granular and small-scale cooperative-type activity. I just don’t think that can happen fast enough in the energy sector to mitigate climate change. We may need some very Stalinist things to happen. We might need to take over, at zero cost, the entire anti-carbon industry and decommission it.

The second thing I’d say about climate change is that I like and appreciate the modelling that has been done, whether it’s NASA, whether it’s the International Energy Agency, whether it’s Greenpeace. Is it called Blue Planet? No, it’s the IEA that has Blue Planet, and Greenpeace has a different thing. But they’re all basically rooted to a zero carbon energy system. None of them model the economy you need to do it. It’s as if they can model the climate to a billion data points and they model the economy as if it was a train set, a model railway. Energy import, guiding hand on the control, and then energy output. We need a more complex model than that. We need a political economy of climate transition. By thinking about it, I think the kind of decisions society is going to have to take are, how important is the climate issue? Decide it’s important, and it is. We’ll look at the other exigent shock in a minute. Then, you have to do certain things that rebel against your old … even against social justice.

[sound drops out briefly]

…….demographics. Because ageing is going to bankrupt developed world society, and migration needs to happen. The OECD says 120 to 130 million people have to move from the poor world to the rich world by 2050. Well, we’ve got mass revolts going on against very, very small amounts, like         330 000 a year moving to Britain, that’s more or else broken the British economic and political system. In your lifetime, not mine, your lifetime, by 2050-2060, the combination of climate-related pressures on global south countries, and this political fragility of the global north, I think is more … Let’s include Australia in that. The Australians with their pushbacks and their horrific … It’s going to be the thing that scars humanity, probably much more than the direct economic impact of climate change, which according to the IPCCC, kicks in after 2050. Sea levels rise, that takes away some cities, that doesn’t happen until after 2050.

Practically speaking, the issues we have now are so acute that I think, what I would say to the Green movement and the climate movement, is that it’s great. We have been inspired by people’s ability and determination to put the Earth at the centre of politics. That is something that I’ve learned as somebody who was brought up as a traditional industrialist Marxist, but getting to where we need to be involves taking the populations with us. Obviously, we fight Trump; we fight the pipeline. That is a no-brainer. We fight the Dakota pipeline. In Britain, we have this issue around the only last remaining heavy steel foundry in Britain, were we going to let it close? We kept it open, I think rightly, despite the fact that it’s a horrible drain on energy. We forced the owners, Tata Steel, to start thinking along climate lines. But, ultimately, we also have to say to working class communities that are heavily dependent on these steel industries, “There’ll come a time, maybe in your children’s lifetime, when it’s just not sustainable to have this.”

I’ve seen steel melted, remelted. The most ridiculous thing in the world is a bar of remelted steel. It’s a bar of steel, you remelt it, its atomic structure changes and becomes better. Fine. We know why. You use the electricity of an entire town to do it. It takes 15 hours. Why? Could we not invent a material that doesn’t need to be cast, forged, and remelted? I’m rambling too long. Fire away.

Clare Ozich: Our last question touches on something you just talked about. In the book, you write of revolutionary reformism. In that speech I mentioned that you gave in Barcelona, you talked about how the agenda that you talk about can’t be the sole ownership of the radical left. It has to involve social democrats, potentially liberal capitalists. Can you talk a little bit more about how you envisage the different parts of the left and broader progressive politics working together, or at least not working against each other, in harnessing the potential of what’s coming?

Paul Mason: I think one weakness of my thinking, until this year, was like everybody else in the progressive networked movement, I assumed that neoliberal capitalism needed democracy. Neoliberal capitalism needs democracy and the rule of law so that one company can take another over another. Let’s say in China, you set up a startup. The communist bureaucracy goes, “I’ll have that. You’re now in gaol for tax dodging. I own your company.” That doesn’t exist in the west. It’s not very common, even in the kleptocratic mafioso-infested west. We assume there will be democracy in the rule of law. The front end of the book is the most controversial because it caused the Financial Times to have a hissy fit saying it was too shrill. The technology bits said it was fine, but the critique of modern capitalism was too shrill.

Anti_Racism_HI wish I had been a lot shriller because I now realise that the scale of the crisis, as I predict in like page one, chapter one, is such that globalisation is going to fragment. I think that your listeners and your readers have to get used to the distinct possibility that, because they couldn’t just ditch neoliberal capitalism, the neoliberals, to solve the problem, are going to ditch globalisation. That’s what Trump is, that’s what Le Pen is, that’s what Brexit is. We could go on. There’s whole other countries in Europe. It won’t be long before you see it in Australia because the way I think it would come from in Australia is not Pauline Hanson and the racist side of things, which is utterly worrying and despicable, but not mass yet. It’s the issue of what happens if China and Japan declare trade war on each other, and if America joins in. Then, all kinds of stuff comes out of the woodwork in white Australia.

I started off by saying I am self-critical and I am in a moment of reflection about what the conclusions of this should be. But I think the revolutionary reformism idea was designed to say if we have a city like Barcelona that wants to be a smart city and is led by the left, what should it do. It seems revolutionary because Ada Colau, was a housing activist, a young woman, gaoled and arrested many times, is now running Barcelona. She runs it by having face-to-face assemblies at a tiny scale, four streets can get 200 people into a room and they talk to her. At the same time they have participatory democracy online, so anybody can propose something. What do they propose? Trees are a big thing in Barcelona. About a third of the proposals that get the recognised number of votes to be voted on are about trees. The other is – an amazing thing – an Alzheimer’s centre in the centre of town. Now that is not trees. People said why are old peoples home in shitty places. Why don’t we have a really cool place right in the centre of town like a Starbucks but it is for people with Alzheimers. That is the kind of things that revolutionary reformism can achieve.

we still need a form of revolutionary reformism but I think it is going to have to have to involve progressive alliances of people who won’t agree with each other on a lot of things

I now think that the danger for us is – there are three cities in Spain that have this kind of government, numerous places in North America like Portland, Oregon have progressive governments, Maine and Vermont, the State that Bernie Sanders is a Senator for, progressive governments. The problem is we are up against these, they are not fascists, but they are quasi-fascists. They do not need fascism because they do not have a strong working class. But what Trump is doing is exactly what fascism did. It begins by usurping the rule of law.

So I think we still need a form of revolutionary reformism but I think it is going to have to have to involve progressive alliances of people who won’t agree with each other on a lot of things. The big mind-set change has to come from the liberal bourgeoisie. Because right here in Australia the conservative wing of Australia is a combination of liberalism and nationalism as we remember and I think those who are in the centre of it – the Cameron style conservative – have to understand that their day is rapidly waning. In Britain, we are saying now to liberal conservatives on gay rights, on rights for migrants are you with us or are you against us. But on the left, it is about saying the labour movement has to kick Blairism. Unfortunately in Australia the Labor party is still quite Blairite and I think the lessons of what we did in Britain are quite brutal. We are still essentially at war with them inside the Labour party. They will throw elections, they will screw up everything to avoid it. But my argument to them is – come on – it is 1932 to 34 – lets get real. Do you want to see Trump, Le Pen, Viktor Orban in Hungry, Pauline Hanson in Australia or do you want a capitalism that delivers for people.

And if you do you have to do two things you don’t want to do: one is the one you know, the state has to intervene – you have nationalise some steel works, you have to nationalise a few things, you have to hike the minimum wage; and the other thing you don’t know about is this thing, let me introduce you to Mr Postcapitalism. The idea that co-ops are good. The idea that alternative currencies are good. All of that is the thing I want to push into the debate. The traditional left is quite capable of pushing its own agenda. That is my part of it.

Simon Copland: Paul, thank you so for much for agreeing to be interviewed.

Paul’s speech in Barcelona referred to above can be found here.

Scott Ludlam reviewed Postcapitalism in The Monthly.

For more on creating economies outside the capitalist market, read our interview with Amanda Cahill.