Paul Mason – Post-capitalism: A Guide to the Future

Contemporary capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis.  The devastating effects of the 2008 financial catastrophe and subsequent recession are still with us, but as I write global stock markets are volatile and the next recession looks all too near.  Even when capitalism delivers sustained economic growth this tends to erode ecosystems and increase inequality.  Yet so often those of us who criticise current economic priorities are backward looking and defensive, opposing austerity but failing to suggest how our economic system could be moved in a new direction.  It is not enough to return to a supposed social democratic golden age of Keynesian economic management, state control of major industries and welfare payments.

Mason’s book is important because it shows how our economy can be transformed in a positive direction rather than restored to previous historical memory.

Mason argues that our present socio-economic system is on the cusp of dramatic change.  In the same way that a feudal society was replaced with a market based society, we are now moving towards post-capitalism.  The expansion of the World Wide Web has allowed innovative forms of information sharing to occur and has already transformed the way we produce and consume knowledge and culture. Accelerating technological change, especially with the advent of 3D printers, is creating similar changes in physical production. The marginal cost of production is fast moving towards zero because it is increasingly easy to copy not just information including codes and culture but physical items. This means it is more and more difficult for companies to produce and realise financial value from the products they make.  Companies find it increasingly cheap to make goods, which paradoxically, by massively decreasing prices, may threaten profits. New production techniques also mean that we can also often by-pass markets and directly make the goods we want. Prosperity challenges growth by pushing eroding profit margins and the era of simply downloading items rather than buying them is fast approaching.

As Mason acknowledges, there are a number of criticisms that can be made of this thesis.  Capitalism, as both Marxists and lovers of the market suggest, tends to replace human labour with capital, so Mason’s essential idea is far from new. Marx, as Mason notes, did not see declining profits as automatically translating into system collapse.  Marx was aware that there are a number of counters to following profits, firms can move, for example, into new areas where profits are high. Equally, falling profit margins can be balanced by selling more. Falling costs obviously make it cheaper to produce, even while they depress prices of final goods, so falling profit margins may be mythical. Technological unemployment too has tended not to occur because new areas of the economy are opened up.

Austerity allows firms to move into sectors which have been abandoned by the state; typically, education and healthcare are being opened up for profit.  Nonetheless one wonders how long such movement into new areas with higher potential profit can be sustained.  Mason argues that markets are moving into human emotion, social care and self-care but is sceptical that enough of our personal life can be monetized to sustain capitalism.

His argument that corporations will erect market barriers to make profit is, perhaps, a more secure way to sustain neoliberal capitalism. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is one of a series of international agreements being used to strengthen patents and copyright to sustain what are essentially monopoly profits. The kind of capitalism being designed is increasingly monopolistic and is taking advantage of austerity to lower wages for workers and avoid any need to pay taxes.

Mason argues that rather than simply rolling the state over corporations by increasing taxation, regulation and traditional forms of welfare, post-capitalism will move beyond the simplistic choice of more market and less state or vice versa. Economics is usually seen as a choice between markets and states, and Mason confidently rejects this. Post-capitalism is the commons, with Mason reflecting the insight of the Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom that economics is, ‘beyond the market and the state’. Fab labs, containing a host of 3D printers and other technologies will allow communities to produce directly what they need. Economic activity will become increasingly decommodified, with production directly for need replacing markets. The model of Wikipedia, where we crowd source information, will increasingly rival state and market based economic activity. This may sound utopian but the effects of the web would appear utopian from the perspective of the 1980s.

Mason does not place ecological issues at the centre of his book. His section on climate change is brief and covers proposals that are already well known to greens. He fails to draw out the ecological implications of progressive post-capitalism but these need outlining too. In any economy where we can easily repair or make our own products the need for infinite economic growth, so vital to capitalism, is no longer vital to the system. Central to his vision is the motion of social sharing and commons. Social sharing directly increases our access to resources that we need, but by cutting duplication reduces waste.

A wider ecological economics of the commons has been advocated by both Elinor Ostrom and a number of green thinkers and organisations.

There are a number of more fundamental criticisms that can be made.  Post-capitalism draws clearly on Marx and most obviously from the autonomist Marxism of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri. Much of what Mason takes from all three thinkers is fascinating and convincing. Mason too is very happy to criticise them where he sees weakness in their ideas. For example, he provides a highly critical review of Marx’s approach to social class. However, the idea that society moves through, perhaps, pre ordered economic stages haunts Marx, Hardt and Negri (particularly in their book Empire) and Mason.  There is still considerable debate as to why society moved from feudalism to a market based system.  Indeed this was a mainly European phenomenon, and the terms ‘feudalism’ and ‘capitalism’ are subject to some critical debate.  Rather than moving into a post-capitalist society or a monopolistic, information based capitalism, perhaps there are other unexplored alternatives.

Neither is the kind of crowd sourced sharing economy identified by Paul Mason necessarily a form of liberation. Increasingly, web based platforms are a source of corporate profit: Facebook, Google and Uber make profits for the few and have many negative features, from invasion of privacy to the destruction of livelihoods for taxi drivers. States, markets and commons can all be used by the rich and powerful to gain more power and wealth for established elites. I have discussed in some detail how commons can be exploited to cement concentrations of power and wealth. Commons can liberate and are generally a form of economic democracy but this is not automatic.

While there is an enormous amount of varied and interesting material in Post-capitalism, I think two particular areas of weakness stand out. Technological change may make a sharing economy easier but there is a political dimension too. Paul Mason talks of revolutionary reforms to make a sharing economy possible, from a basic income, to free movements of population, to copyright reform and opposing corporate monopoly: these policies stand out. Yet given the enormous power of elites to make change, how do those who advocate a sharing economy gain influence? Paul Mason has written elsewhere about the Arab Spring, Occupy and similar movements. The Arab Spring was followed by a restoration of authoritarian regimes and war. Occupy, too, was short lived. The political change necessary to promote a democratic economy perhaps requires another book. But without a detailed and critical consideration of the politics of transition, post-capitalism will be unachievable.

The institutions and practices to sustain a sharing economy also demand analysis. Elinor Ostrom in Governing the Commons showed that rather than being an aspect of a future society, communal management of land, fisheries, forests and other resources already existed. In decades of forensic work, she found that commons sometimes succeed but on other occasions fail. As an institutional economist she looked at how commons were governed to strength democratic management. This is a literature of which Paul Mason is unaware. Sweeping social change at a macro level may obscure the importance of actual practical management – in short, a microeconomics of commons is necessary to achieve a sharing economy.

In conclusion, we need to challenge the power of neoliberalism or it will transform the economy in a yet more oppressive direction. We also need to develop a practical politics of managing the commons. Paul Mason inspires us to imagine a society that is different, but to reach this society and to sustain it are questions that he fails to explore. In short, if post-capitalism is to become real, it needs to be politicised.


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