It’s my birthday this week. I’m too old to take birthdays too seriously these days, but there is a certain frisson added to the event by the memory of my new age taking so long to bed in, in 2012. Because of the brain attack suffered two weeks later, y’see?
I once had a work colleague who celebrated his “deathday” each year. On the anniversary of the day he was shot by a mugger, then died twice on the operating table. As the subsequent years passed, though, I believe that tradition fell by the wayside. Or was dialled back, at least.
Strokiversary will be marked no doubt, but right now, Beth and I are more focussed on enjoying this week. Long-suffering readers won’t be surprised by the sort of picture painted by my birthday wishes.
Aye, it’s all pop music and pseudism. We didn’t manage to track down that t-shirt in town, but the lovely folks at Word Power Books did put a nice, pristine copy of Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism aside for us to pick up. Mason, the economics editor at Channel 4 News, has been quietly haunting the blog for a few weeks now. The motley crew of artsy leftists who populate much of my twitter feed have been alluding to the book for a while.
Most notably, blog alum Pat Kane posted a link to a Guardian Tech Podcast in which Mason outlines the themes of Post-Capitalism in a panel discussion that includes the Hue & Cry frontman. Since apoplectic.me prides itself on skimming over the surface of complicated issues and I only got the book yesterday, I’d thoroughly recommend checking out the whole podcast. It’s nothing if not a thought-provoking discussion.
In the first twenty minutes or so, Mason sets out a persuasive narrative to the effect that capitalism as we understand it – while notably adaptive – is in a stalled state that points to an impending break stemming from the nature of new information tech.
Capitalism has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt, Mason suggests. He perceives a forthcoming break that echoes the scene in Wolf Hall in which Thomas Cromwell tells a nobleman that the world isn’t about jousting and knights and castles and feudalism, but banks. And he can turn the noble’s world off with a call to his friends in Amsterdam like that. And now we’re on the far side of that equation.
Pending that step change, Mason points to capitalism’s reaction to the Greek crisis as a symptom presaging a new break – If you want to elect a governemnt that chooses to break with neo-liberalism, it’s either regime change or we destroy you. The maintenance of the current system, Mason argues, is increasingly predicated on the display of naked economic power.
In the recent history of capitalism, he continues, wages in developed economies have stagnated and the share of labour in the global marketplace has decreased. Then the pairing of this phenomenon to financialism, such that there are two revenue streams to capital – one that comes through work, and one that comes from the provision of credit – creates a big problem. That is, financialisation requires increasing profits even in the absence of participants who have the income to support those profits. And that leads to an ongoing, necessary cycle of boom and bust.
Mason suggests that in a 50-year, long cycle, the problems of stagnating wages tend to lead not only to entrepreneurial innovation in technologies, but also in business models. The required rupture this time will involve information technology and its externalities, parallel, encrypted dimensions, and localism.
Pat Kane demurs, pointing out that modern, neo-leftist anarcho-syndicalists (yeah, I dunno either) aren’t minded to band together to engineer a paradigm change. Julia Powles, a lawyer working in technology and policy at the University of Cambridge, is similarly skeptical.
I’m coming to the end, and need to tie this up in a big stroke-y bow, so…. I’m looking forward to digging deeper into Post-Capitalism, but anticipate breaking with it at roughly the same point a Kane and Powles. That’s because, while the present-day scene Mason paints is convincing and compelling, I think it disregards just how successful contemporary capitalism has been in accumulating and concentrating money and power – while keeping the middle classes comfortable (to date) – and therefore how relatively unbreakable it is.
Back in the studio, Alex Hern chooses a different literary allusion to describe where we are. In the cyberpunk genre, as he describes it, we are confronted by a future in which we have solved all of our problems except capitalism.
We have robots to do the labour, we have the internet as a technological force that is of a magnitude bigger than it is today. yet we have people dying in the street from hunger, because capitalism….
In the cyberpunk world, once robots are so good that nobody has to work again, Hern summarises, you’d have to change the economic system so people don’t have to work to survive, otherwise everyone except the people who own the robots will die.
I don’t having any answers yet. But getting these different perspectives is interesting in itself. Much as having one’s perspective roughly rearranged by stroke has been, for this lucky guy, a valuable experience. Though the limp is getting old.
This is from a guy who’s sat in a room set in the financialized world with people trying to figure out how to continue to conjure money out of nothing but money in the same ways they once did in the aftermath of the regulations imposed after the credit crunch. And a guy who now aspires to using technology and localism as a… modern, neo-leftist anarcho-syndicalist? Like I say, perspectives change.
Meanwhile, this week Radio 4 will be spending a bunch of time looking into the continuing rise of the machines and what happens when they take over more and more of our jobs. So, more new perspectives next week….