Journalist Paul Mason tells Kevin Gopal why he believes the YouTube generation is our best hope for a post-capitalist future
Journalist Paul Mason tells Kevin Gopal why he believes the YouTube generation is our best hope for a post-capitalist future
In 1938 Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff was executed by firing squad for his unorthodox views. Paul Mason lives in less revolutionary times – but he still felt the need to leave the BBC to write his unorthodox new book PostCapitalism.
Kondratieff plays a key role in the book. Mason says the Marxist view that capitalism’s inherent contradictions had brought it to imminent collapse simply didn’t hold. Capitalism faced crises – but clearly got over them. Kondratieff’s theory that capitalism instead moved in 40-60 year waves, each consisting of upswing followed by downswing and then depression, was more accurate, says Mason. It would then successfully mutate and give rise to the next wave. But Kondratieff’s waves didn’t chime with the urgent revolutionary zeal of the 1930s Soviet Union – so Stalin had him shot.
PostCapitalism is already a bestseller, despite its heavyweight economics. It took Mason three years to research and write, beginning while he was BBC Newsnight’s economics editor. In August 2013 he left to join Channel 4 News and the book was substantially finished by early 2014.
“Austerity until death but with an upgraded version of the iPhone every years.”
“I left the BBC in part, but not wholly, because the BBC simply could not offer to take their hands off the book,” says Leigh-born Mason. BBC bosses insist on seeing books by employees before publication and that they are written to the same impartial standards as if to be broadcast on Newsnight, he explains. “I couldn’t meet that in this book.” Channel 4 managers were more relaxed. “When I left the BBC, a whole feeling of a secret policeman switching off in your brain took place. I suddenly felt able to think through some of the conclusions in the book, because there’d been something subconscious in my mind telling me they’d never let you write that. So don’t think it.
“That’s what it does to you, working for a state broadcasting organisation. In the end it does get to your thinking patterns, even if you’re determined to resist it.”
And the conclusions he has thought through are far-reaching. Kondratieff’s first wave began with the emergence of factories in the 1780s and ended in 1849, says Mason. The second wave swept in with the growth of railways, steamships and the telegraph and ended in the 1890s. The third covered the period up to the Second World War, with the downswing beginning after the First World War, and the fourth began in the late 1940s, peaking in the oil price shock of 1973 and ending with 2008’s financial crash. But the fifth wave has stalled, he says, suggesting capitalism has finally exhausted itself and lost its ability to adapt.
That’s largely because of information technology, says Mason, familiar to many viewers because of his reporting on everything from the Eurozone crisis to the Arab Spring and the Scottish referendum (he won a new generation of fans with a righteous off-the-cuff rant against the banks that went viral on YouTube last year). Uniquely, information technology has reduced the need for work – making it hard to create well paid jobs. It has reduced the value of many goods to little or zero because products like MP3s are not governed by scarcity – they can be endlessly reproduced for nothing. And it has made possible non-profit collaborations like Wikipedia, made by 27,000 volunteers, which has become the world’s go-to reference point, destroyed the encyclopaedia business, and deprived the advertising industry of an estimated £2 billion in revenue. Wikipedia sets the template for a future of co-operative innovation and production.
“Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques,” he writes. “It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which breaks through, reshaping the economy around new values, behaviours and norms.”
Capitalism can resist this process for a while, he believes, by creating monopolies such as Apple’s iTunes, by persuading consumers to take on ever more debt, and by making markets out of human behaviour that once used to be free, like commercial dog walking. It can lay claim to ownership of our selfies and work out how to make money out of them. But unless it can start to absurdly commercialise everything we do – like turn sexual relationships into paid work so we can buy more stuff – that can’t last forever, he says. And don’t even hold out much hope for really advanced technologies such as DNA sequencing and manufacturing.
“We can imagine new industries. Hopefully within 10-15 years we will have a really big bio-genetic industry, manufacturing DNA for all kinds of things – health, anti-ageing. I’d love to go back 10,15 years. So would everyone else,” says the 55 year old. “But information is involved and information causes a disappearing act of value. It’s not possible to imagine high-value businesses growing out of these high productivity things.”
So we appear to be stuck. Speaking to Big Issue North the day after China’s stock market crash sent tremors around the world, Mason says it’s not as big an event as the Lehman Brothers downfall that sparked the 2008 crash.
“In the north we’re incredibly stunted in our ability to grasp our own future.”
“But it’s certainly part of the dismantling of the illusion that Chinese state intervention can keep this brand of Chinese state capitalism going forever. I think that they can still intervene and they can still have benign positive effects on the economy in ways that western countries have given up doing. So it’s by no means the end of the Chinese growth story. Seven per cent growth is not ideal for China because of its demographics but it’s OK. The problem is if it becomes an outright deglobalisation crisis. But again, I don’t think we’re there yet.”
The greater problem, he says, is that we have had a period of chaotic, unbalanced growth throughout the world – “and China is the unbalanced growth specialist par excellence” – followed by perennial low growth in the west.
“So I’m not saying: ‘Here’s the book PostCapitalism, it came out just in time for capitalism to collapse.’ We’ve got a way to go yet. But all the one-offs are running out – one-off industrialisation of the global south is over, the creation of a global south middle class has happened, the creation of a mass graduate workforce has happened. And then the demographics turn bad – in the latest part of the century the demographics turn towards fewer people in work supporting more older people. You can only support that through migration to the north of the planet on a scale that isn’t acceptable to most people.”
Mason advocates “rationally panicking” at the state of the world but still retains hope. He has made such a speciality of following resistance, protest and social movements around the world his previous book was called Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere. And now it’s kicking off close to home with the Labour leadership contest.
“Corbynmania is just the latest iteration of what’s been happening in Spain, Greece and Scotland. Whenever, almost accidentally, a vehicle pops up that says we reject totally neoliberalism and we have a plausible solution or plausible alternative, large numbers of people – not everybody – large numbers of people go to it because what they don’t want is pie in the sky. The average Black Bloc anarchist goes around saying we don’t want neoliberalism but they don’t get any traction. This is when a pre-existing institution opens up and says there is a realistic possibility that if you do X you can achieve a major change. People flock to it. That’s what the Yes campaign was. ‘We could have a non-neoliberal Scotland, for free, without a revolution.’”
But Mason says Corbynmania has gone off the boil among some people who’ve begun to recognise how much a product of the old Labour left he is, “with all its obsessions and powerlessness”. For Corbynomics to have a chance of working he would have to create an alliance around him of the old Labour left, the horizontalist left and the centre of the Labour Party – and it would need a growth plan, not just opposition to austerity. “For Corbynomics to be anything more than a good idea it would have to say realistically what a Labour government would do. And in recent weeks you’ve started to see him address that.”
Mason appears to place more faith in the young as agents of political change. He says neoliberalism has finished off organised labour as a force for resistance and instead says “networked humanity” – young, bright and tech-savvy – can help bring about “revolutionary reformism”. These could be highly skilled types who edit Wikipedia pages in their spare time, write open source software and come together on a campaign close to their hearts but don’t necessarily think of themselves as political. Or they could be in poorly paid jobs but still have smartphones, like the 30,000 shoe workers at a factory in Shenzen who last year staged China’s first major strike organised by group messaging.
It’s networked humanity, he writes, who performed punk rock in Russian cathedrals, opened cans of beer in the face of Islam in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and brought a million people on to the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo. “Neoliberalism can offer them only a world of stagnant growth and state-level bankruptcy: austerity until death but with an upgraded version of the iPhone every few years.”
Many of these young people are in jobs where the employer feels no loyalty to them and are expected to learn and forget skills quickly – their “apparent subservience concealing violent resentment”. That’s fertile soil for resistance and campaigning.
“I think that’s true of most workforces,” he says. “Pret A Manger workers get sacked if they don’t look happy – the remuneration structure encourages that. Does everybody sign up to the smiley-smiley, touchy-touchy stuff? No, they don’t. They do it because they have to, the same way our grandfathers signed up to the cloth-cap touching in the factory – but they resent it.
“This is what you learn to do now at the age of 25. You come out of college. You’re not going to do the same thing forever. You’re not going to work for the same company unless you’re really, really lucky. You can do anything as long as you play the game, the game of subservience – ‘I believe in this ridiculous product I’m supposed to be selling’ – but then behind it you can be doing anything.”
Mason, perhaps because of his journalistic experience, is more comfortable with the notion of uncertainty than other commentators, and doesn’t go into great detail about his post-capitalist world. Networked humanity will continue to play a role in it, more and more products and services will be produced collaboratively and co-operatively, work will be reduced to a minimum and everyone will earn a citizen’s income. The state will have a role to play in encouraging and legislating for all this, ensuring global finance doesn’t rise once more and tackling climate change. And humanity itself will have to change, in ways we can’t imagine. After all, he says, even a genius like pre-capitalist Shakespeare couldn’t imagine the sort of character that capitalist era Dickens would routinely describe.
And in a post-capitalist world with less work needed, what does Paul Mason do? “He writes novels, he writes music, he sits on a beach, he probably gets more tattoos, and he learns that the wellbeing in life comes from non-work as well as work. People will tell you that I work very hard and I do that because I was lucky enough to have a second life – I only started as a journalist at the age of 32, and then at the age of 40 became a TV journalist. So I’ve thought I’m not going to hang around – I’m going to do as much as I can. But the post-capitalism Paul Mason would say chill out now and not when you’re a wrinkly-haired old man who can’t do anything.”
… devolution for the north
“The magic that happened in Scotland – and I use this in a non-value laden way – happened when people started to conceive the future for a place, alongside a cultural renaissance, alongside an identity that was very inclusive. As soon as they could define Scottishness they could have all the migrants they wanted. They could say we need migrants because they’ve got this thing called Scottishness that would absorb them.
“You go to the north of England – I’m from Leigh – and you could work your way through from Leigh, Bolton, Blackburn, Middleton, all the way to Bradford, Keighley, Castleford and you won’t find that. That’s our problem in the north. We’ve got a very divided culture – a culture that doesn’t even seem to be able to allow these very ethnically divided towns to cohere around a single story.
“That’s the number one problem. Our second is that our cities are competing against each other when they should not be. As the north, we’ve got to do collaborative competition. Osborne’s done us a service, in other words, by raising the question what would a Northern Powerhouse look like. I don’t think it looks like what they think it looks like. To them it looks like devolving that which can be privatised – it’s very clever. You set the Manchester NHS against the Manchester MPs, all fighting each other, it keeps them occupied for five years. Do we get a single extra airport, do we get a single extra high speed rail line from Manchester to Leeds?
“To me, the problem for the north is – is it a polity? If it’s a political entity then a lot of extra things can happen. But for that to happen, there’s got to be a mindset change and I don’t know whether that mindset change is coming. The legacy of industrialisation isn’t just a load of graveyards where the guys like my dad died aged 56. You walk through these cemeteries – that’s one legacy. Another legacy is that we’re incredibly stunted in our ability to grasp our own future. We had it taken away from us – it was taken away to the financial centre.
“The further you get into the sixties and seventies the harder it is to find examples of big thinking northern industrialists. We need big thinking northern strategists but the first thing they’ve got to do is create the polity. Of course what you’ve got is an incredible workforce. Even the north’s great hater, the south of England, says we’ve got this incredibly well educated and talented workforce that is very commercial.
“We are almost like the Dutch of the world. We were out there trading – unfortunately including the Liverpool slave trade – for centuries. We were incredibly good at that. There are workplaces I could take you to in Salford that are world class. Then you ask a local politician when was the last time you went to that workplace? ‘Oh, well, what we do is we go to these work schemes.’ The level of political dead headedness is high, I’m afraid.”
… his video outside the Royal Bank of Scotland going viral
“As always when you film outside a bank some poor security guard comes out and tries to stop you filming. Often in the City they will say you can’t film our building. So why did you build it then in a public place? But on this occasion I was even madder because the thought came into my head: ‘Why don’t you turn round, go in and find some criminals?’ If only we could have pointed our cameras inside the building at what was happening. I was so mad and there’d been this thing at work saying you’ve got to do more off-the-cuff things, so I said to the cameraman just switch the camera on and yeah, it went viral.
“I do really care, and I don’t just care about stuff like homelessness and foodbanks. I really care about shareholders and clients of banks being ripped off by banks, by people who can work with impunity. It’s not the old boys network, it’s not the Mansion House speech, the Lord Mayor’s Parade. No, it’s all in the paintball away days, five-a-side matches – young guys in their thirties. I think it’s outrageous that not only have you got these rent seeking banks and the law firms that designed the structures for them, but a workforce that thinks you can just commit crime. When you’ve got teachers, who if their school inspection is less than excellent then their lives are made a misery, these guys take home tens, hundreds of thousands for committing crime with impunity. It does make me angry.”
… whether he’s surprised there haven’t been more riots in the UK since 2011
“Underclass riots, I would call them. There was very little progressive in those protests. They were the cry of a very criminalised and oppressed set of people and, whatever did drive them to the streets, almost nothing good came out of it. If you create a hopeless society in which the only hope and social solidarity is the gang then the gang feels its moment has come to have its say.
“That’s not resistance. To me resistance is what’s gone on in Greece, the creation of alternative networks, the creation of positivity, energy, the ability to hold neighbourhoods together through overt self-organisation. So no, I’m not surprised because in Britain we had a particular model of resistance through trade unions and working class communities and they were smashed, and we’re now in the third generation of smashed communities. It’s going to take a long while. We’re not southern Europeans, so we don’t have family. We don’t have religion, apart from Islam, which is a connecting religion in some communities but doesn’t, I think, play a particularly progressive role, so it doesn’t really resist anything. So no, I’m not surprised.”
… the teaching of modern economics
“It’s been reduced to a two-dimensional mathematical discipline where the models are inadequate and the abstract levels of modern economics get in the way of understanding reality. They actually make reality worse because people believe things like markets self-correct. It’s like people building houses out of bales of straw and living in them with a sign on the outside saying straw buildings never catch fire. So they go on building them. The economist Steve Keen makes this point: they made an already unstable system more unstable.”
Postcapitalism is published by Allen Lane (£16.99). Paul Mason is speaking at Ilkley Literature Festival (ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk) on 11 October and Manchester Literature Festival (manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk) on 22 October. We’re media partner to both festivals