Steve Arnott reviews Paul Mason’s ‘Postcapitalism’ from a Marxist perspective, part 1.
Let’s cut to the chase: whatever its flaws, and whether or not it has all the answers (it doesn’t pretend to), Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism is a seminal work of Marxist theory for the 21st century.
One might paraphrase one of Tolkien’s early reviewers on The Lord of the Rings, ‘there are those who have read it and those who are going to read it’, but alas this is probably not true.
Already walls of resistance are being mounted by the multiple ‘vanguard’ parties of the far left who claim the one true Marxist lineage that must properly pass through Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and whose principle model of the overthrow of capitalism remains the Russian revolution of October 1917.
But then the first reaction of such organisms is always to circle the polemical wagons to defend that which matters to them most: their own existence.
Postcapitalism certainly doesn’t present or market itself as a work of Marxist theory – it aims at a wider audience. Mason is explicit is saying that doesn’t just want his ideas to become the property of the traditional left but of a new wider movement. As a stylist he is refreshingly entertaining as well as direct, and when complex ideas are introduced he attempts to explain both the concept and its intellectual origins in a way that the new or lay reader can follow. And any book that both defends and re-invigorates Marxist economic theory for the 21st century while referencing, along the way, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Carry on at Your Convenience, and Greggs in Kirkcaldy High street automatically gets a plus tick for accessibility in my view.
Prior to the Scottish independence referendum, I was probably aware of Paul Mason only as the admittedly capable and sometimes forthright economics editor of Channel 4 News. During the independence referendum and particularly in its latter stages I was encouraged by his forthright support for the YES campaign and his ability to see through the London media froth and understand the progressive nature of the campaign. I had no idea he was about to place a thought grenade under the collective butt of the complacent left.
The trouble for some will be that the book could easily have had another, admittedly less commercial subtitle: PostLeninism.
One can already hear the predictable cries, that it ‘downgrades struggle’, that it suggests ‘a peaceful evolution of capitalism’ is possible, that it is ‘gradualist’ etc etc.
In fact a careful reading of Mason’s work reveals such fears and allegations either to be groundless, or at best to be very unfair simplifications of what he actually argues.
And far from being a soothing pablum about how capitalism will peacefully grow over into something nicer, it is an urgent call to arms to bring about the necessary initial conditions from which a post-capitalist society might emerge. But more of that in part 2.
Mason draws on the work of a number of thinkers, but pre-eminently at the heart of Postcapitalism lie the ideas of one man. His name is Karl Marx.
In the first part of this review, I’ll concentrate on what might be the most surprising element of Mason’s book for some - his defence of Marxist economics and his attempt to build a viable and materially consistent ‘long’ view of capitalism that allows us to see why we may now have entered the ‘early days’ of its final stage as the dominant global economic system.
In the second I’ll look at Mason’s claim that it is the qualitative difference in some of the new technologies that capitalism has created – notably info-tech – that creates the incipient conditions for its demise, and how he looks back again to Marx for insight and theoretical support for his theory.
In Defence of Marxism
“(Marx) realised that the ultimate source of profit is work; specifically, the extra value coerced out of employees by the unequal power relationships in the workplace. But there is an inbuilt tendency to replace labour with machinery, driven by the need to increase productivity. Since labour is the ultimate source of profit this will tend, as mechanisation spreads across the whole economy, to erode the rate of profit…Marx called this ‘the fundamental law of capitalism'."
Thus Paul Mason introduces us to the fundamental Achilles’ Heel of capitalism and the underlying reason why capitalism operates in boom and bust cycles: what Marx called the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. This law and the labour theory of value in which it is embedded are defended throughout the book as the most scientific descriptor of the underlying laws of capitalism and its regular crises. Mason even submits it to Karl Popper’s test of falsifiabilty; what experiments or evidence would show the theory to be wrong? Mason replies that if boom and bust didn’t clearly exist as a capitalist cycle, or if we wait 500 years and capitalism is still a thriving system, that would certainly count. He clearly doesn’t expect that to happen.
There has been a debate amongst Marxist economists, sometimes reflected here and there within the movement itself, between advocates of the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall (LOTRPF) as the base law of crisis, and those who claim that crises occur because the working class (the majority in society) can never have enough money to buy back all the goods that are produced, usually referred to as ‘underconsumptionism’. Now is not the time and place to rehearse that debate, but Mason declares himself unequivocally for LOTRPF and is scathing towards theories of underconsumptionism, which if were true would see capitalism in permanent crisis, and which cannot explain the boom bust cycle.
Mason argues that Marx saw and understood capitalism as a whole system; a living and complex system with its own laws whose outcomes would often be the direct opposite of the intentions of individual capitalists themselves, even when acting in their own rational self-interest.
But he also argues – as Marx did - that capitalism is a highly adaptive system, constantly seeking new methods and markets to overcome the inherent tendency for the rate of profit to fall.
From that point of view, both Marx and his early followers living in the early stages of capitalism were unable to predict the extent to which capitalism could reinvent itself, recovering from destructive crisis through the development of new technologies and the opening up of new markets – not simply through imperialist or colonial means – but at home, domestically, through new technologies creating new hierarchies of needs and wants that didn’t previously exist.
For a complete and satisfactory historical material view of capitalism from its beginnings, through all of its stages up to the present, Mason argues that while Marx’s theory of crisis is absolutely correct, it is insufficient.
To fully understand capitalism, and how it may be superseded, Marx’s theory of crisis must be synthesised with something called Long Wave theory.
Kondratieff and the Long Waves
Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff was executed in his cell by a Stalinist firing squad in 1938. He had been accused of leading an ‘anti-soviet’ Peasant’s Labour Party – which didn’t really exist. As Mason explains:
“Kondratieff’s real crime…was to think the unthinkable about capitalism: that instead of collapsing under crisis, capitalism generally adapts and mutates. In two pioneering works of data-mining he showed that, beyond short term business cycles, there is evidence of a longer fifty year pattern whose turning points coincide with major structural changes within capitalism and major conflicts…Kondratieff was the first person to show the existence of long waves in economic history.”
Mason himself is an economist by trade, and his treatment of Kondratieff’s Long Wave Theory, its strengths and weaknesses, critiques from Marxist figures, misappropriations by capitalist managerialism are rigorous and in depth.
Most importantly, he sums up the key features of the theory thus.
“…each long cycle has an upswing lasting about twenty five years, fuelled by the deployment of new technologies and high capital investment; then a downswing of about the same length, usually ending with a depression. In the ‘up’ phase, recessions are rare; in the ‘down’ phase they are frequent. In the up phase, capital flows to the productive sectors, in the down phase it gets trapped in the finance system.”
The end of such long cycles are often characterised by wars and revolutionary waves, which can act as an impetus to new technologies which the capital that has taken refuge within the financial system can utilise to begin the next wave, where the fundamental mode of production is maintained but which has new and unique characteristics.
Mason has a problem with Kondratieff, however. As an adaptive model of capitalism, it lacks an underlying modus operandi to explain it, or more correctly how the shorter cycle operates within each long wave to bring about small evolutionary changes to capitalism and then the bigger ‘revolutionary’ changes that signal a new long-wave.
In a brilliant piece of dialectical logic, however, Mason argues that it is only Marx’s theory of crisis – the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall - that completes Kondratieff’s theory and makes it sensible and robust. Marx provides the underlying and fundamental law of capitalism which explains the shorter term cycle within the long wave that both pushes first the new wave of radical technologies and markets that characterise the long cycle’s upswing, and the limits of adaptivity within the new technological paradigm that brings the accompanying long downswing.
Thus having successfully synthesised the two theories, Marx’s theory of crisis and the long wave theory of Kondratieff, into a coherent whole, he is able to give a historical materialist account of capitalism that has a beginning, a middle and…an end.
And of course, that’s when it starts to get really interesting.
In part 2 of this review I’ll deal with the part of Postcapitalism that has been most widely trailed…the idea that in the niches and interstices of current capitalism – and particularly in the very nature of information technology - lie the potential forces to bring it to an end and establish a more harmonious and human social system of production, distribution and exchange. Surprisingly – or perhaps, unsurprisingly – we will find that it is Marx that Mason turns for the theoretical underpinnings of this view.
To close part one however, and to see how it builds a logical bridge to the second central thesis of his book, it is worth quoting Mason’s historical materialist summing up of capitalism as viewed through the lens of the Marx-Kondratieff synthesis, at length.
“1. 1790 - 1848: The first long cycle…the factory system, steam powered machinery and canals are the basis of the new paradigm. The turning point is the depression of the late 1820’s. The 1848-52 revolutionary crisis in Europe, mirrored by the Mexican War and Missouri compromise in the USA, forms a clear punctuation point.
3. 1890’s – 1945: In the third cycle heavy industry, electrical engineering, the telephone, scientific management and mass production are the key technologies. The break occurs at the end of the First World War; the 1930’s Depression, followed by the destruction of capital during the Second World War terminate the downswing.
4. Late 1940’s – 2008: In the fourth long cycle transistors, synthetic materials, mass consumer goods, factory automation, nuclear power and autonomous calculatiion creates the paradigm – producing the longest economic boom in history. The peak could not be clearer: the oil shock of October 1973, after which a long period of instability takes place but no major depression
5. In the late 1990’s, overlapping with the end of the previous wave, the basic elements of the fifth long cycle appear. It is driven by network technology, mobile communications, a truly global marketplace and information goods. But it has stalled. And the reason it has stalled is something to do with neo-liberalism and something to do with the technology itself.”
Alex Salmond interviews Paul Mason at the Edinburgh Book Festival
Part 2 of Steve Arnott’s review will appear later this week.