Sunday, September 18, 2016

a guide to our future?...

Essentially, this is an extended review of Paul Mason’s book “Postcapitalism”. Reading it was a bit like reading a PhD thesis (actually, I’ve never read one… but this is how I imagine the experience might feel!). He paints a picture of capitalism today (as well as charting its chequered history over the past 200 years or so) and reckons that its long-term prospects are extremely bleak.
He contends that the series impacts of climate change, demographic ageing and population growth kick in around the year 2050… and that “if we can’t create a sustainable global order and restore economic dynamism, the decades after 2050 will be chaos”.

Mason, born in Leigh, Lancashire in 1960, is an articulate, intelligent and fascinating bloke. He graduated from the University of Sheffield with a degree in music and politics in 1981 and went on to work as a music teacher and lecturer in music at Loughborough University. He became a freelance journalist in 1991 and went on to join BBC2’s Newsnight as Business Editor in 2001. In 2013, he became Channel 4 News’s culture and digital editor and later became the programme’s Economics Editor. He left Channel 4 in February 2016 in order to be able to engage more fully in debates on the political left without the constraints of impartiality placed on UK broadcasters. He’s a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and describes himself as “radical social democrat”.

I found the book absolutely absorbing… and decided that I should jot my thoughts on it in a little more length than my usual one paragraph book review summary. In the book, Mason describes capitalism as a “complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt”. He looks back on the growth of capitalism over the past 200 years or so… and refers to a whole host of key players who he sees as being influential in the development and understanding of the subject – the likes of Piketty, Kondratieff, Nachimson, Slutsky, Schumpeter, Luxemburg, Hilferding, Bukharin and Varga (no, I’d never heard of them either!).
Even though I struggled to understand some of the financial complexities, it was all fascinating stuff!

I stopped scribbling in my books a very long time ago(!), but I KEPT on coming across interesting/depressing/startling/powerful/frightening extracts and, so, my copy has become absolutely covered in pencil underlining and notes! These are just a few “tasters” to give you a (somewhat random) flavour – look, I know this makes it a pretty lengthy blog post(!)… but I think he makes several important points:

“Neoliberalism is the doctrine of uncontrolled markets: it says that the best route to prosperity is individuals pursuing their own self-interest, and the market is the only way to express that self-interest. It says the state should be small…; that financial speculation is good; that the natural state of humankind is to be a bunch of ruthless individuals, competing with each other”.

“…The long-term prospects for capitalism are bleak. According to the OECD, growth in the developed world will be ‘weak’ for the next fifty years. Inequality will rise by 40%. Even in developing countries, the current dynamism will be exhausted by 2060”.  

“The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy, between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next”.

“The elite and their supporters are lined up to defend the same core principles: high finance, low wages, secrecy, militarism, intellectual property and energy based on carbon. The bad news is that they control nearly every government in the world. The good news is that in most countries they enjoy very little consent or popularity among ordinary people”.

“…Then, through austerity programmes, they transferred the pain away from people who’d invested money stupidly, punishing instead welfare recipients, public sector workers, pensioners and, above all, future generations. In the worst-hit countries, the pension system has been destroyed, the retirement age is being hiked so that those currently leaving university will retire at seventy, and education is being privatized so that graduates will face a lifetime of high debt. Services are being dismantled and infrastructure projects put on hold”.

Mason frequently refers to the 2008 financial crisis (note: according to the New York Times, only ONE top banker has ever been imprisoned in connection with the financial crisis!). The following quote refers to a Lehman executive running the ‘infamous Repo 105’ tactic in an email:
“The tactic involved hiding debts away from Lehman’s balance sheet by temporarily ‘selling’ them and then buying them back once the bank’s quarterly report had been submitted. Another Lehman exec is asked: is the tactic legal, do other banks do it, and is it disguising holes in our balance sheet? He emails back: ‘Yes, no and yes’ :)”.

“We have to try to learn what’s urgent, and what’s important, and that sometimes they do not coincide. If it were not for the external shocks facing us over the next fifty years, we could afford to take things slowly: the state, in a benign transition, would act as the main facilitator of change through regulation. But the enormity of the external shocks means some of the actions we take will have to be immediate, centralized and drastic”.

“In this book, I’ve avoided ‘building in’ the climate change crisis until now… Industrial capitalism has, in the space of 200 years, made the climate 0.8 degrees Celsius hotter, and is certain to push it two degrees higher than the pre-industrial average by 2050… Either we react in time and confront it in a relatively orderly way, or we don’t – and disaster follows”.

“The lesson is: a market-led strategy on climate change is utopian thinking. What are the obstacles to a non-market-led strategy? … Between 2003-2010, climate-denial lobby groups received $558million from donors in the USA. ExxonMobil and the ultra-conservative Koch Industries were major donors until 2007, when there was a tangible shift to funds channelled through anonymous third parties, under pressure of journalistic scrutiny. The outcome? The world spends an estimated $544billion on subsidizing the fossil fuel industry”.

“There is, in short, a rational case for panic about climate change – and it is compounded when you consider the interrelatedness of climate and the other great uncontrolled variant: population… demographic ageing is set to make state finances unsustainable all across the developed world… analysts predict that by 2050, even with a pension cuts, 60% of all countries in the world will have credit ratings below investment grade: it will be suicidal for anybody who does not want to risk losing their money to lend to them”.

“We have not yet considered the impact of migration… By 2050, there will be 1.2billion more people of working age in the world than today… the population of Niger will have grown from its current 18million to 69million. Chad… will see its population treble to 33million. Afghanistan… will rise from 30 to 56million”.

I could go on… and on!
I think Mason is very good in his analysis of what’s “gone before” and in his assessment of the future alarming dangers we face. Looking into the future and pointing the way forward represents a truly massive challenge and he’s brave in his assertions. But, trying to outline these in a mere 30 pages (out of a book some 300 pages long) is perhaps a little over-ambitious. Having said that, he does at least TRY and, although I don’t pretend to understand all the intricacies of his arguments(!), he has thought things through in impressive detail.
To give you just a flavour, these are the sub-headings of his concluding chapter, entitled “Project Zero” (each of these really needs a few lines of explanation… but you’ve probably already lost the will to live!): Five Principles of Transition; Top-Level Goals; Model First, Act Later; The Wiki-State; Expand Collaborative Work; Suppress or Socialize Monopolies; Let Market Forces Disappear; Socialize the Finance System; Pay Everyone a Basic Income; The Network Unleashed; Is This For Real?; and Liberate the One Per Cent.

Whatever your thoughts about Mason’s left-leaning political stance, this is a powerful, thought-provoking book. I’m sure a right-wing political thinker could provide an altogether different view, but I think Gillian Tett (from the Financial Times) sums things up perfectly:
“Even if you love the current capitalist system, it would be a mistake to ignore this book… Politicians of all stripes should take note. And so should the people who vote for them”.
A brilliant, brave book in my view.

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