Why Paul Mason’s postcapitalism won’t work
By Iain Martin
- Why Paul Mason's postcapitalism won't work
- Capitalism is not an ideology
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Paul Mason is not your average journalist. For a start, the economics editor of Channel 4 in the UK, and the author of a must-read book published this summer, is a Marxist. This drives some of his conservative critics to fury, although I must say that you know where you are with a proper Marxist, as opposed to some of those on the soft-left who have biases they think count as neutrality. I have always found Mason thoughtful, interested in reporting and open to ideas outside the standard frame of reference.
Last year, we shared a platform as part of a panel on capitalism at a conference and from opposite positions ended up agreeing on quite a bit when it came to diagnosis. The question was whether capitalism, post-2008, is in crisis and if it is what might be done about it. The practising capitalists on the panel – successful business types – were, as entrepreneurs tend to be, essentially optimistic. Yes, there had been some problems in the financial crisis but we are reforming and moving on. The future is bright.
I agree that the curve is upward, and the spread of open markets and technology has brought many hundreds of millions of the world’s citizens out of poverty. It will do yet more. The possibilities are exciting.
Still, you would have to be panglossian to think there are no downsides to globalisation and recent technological change. In Europe, which faces a migration crisis on its southern shores, there is a tension between the benefits of open markets and borders and the erosion of the modern national state, which is corroding notions of common-feeling, security and community. In Britain, this was always the tension at the heart of Thatcherism. Her two defining tenets – openness to the world for trade, and belief in the integrity of the nation state – were always at odds, although it did not become apparent to her that this was the case until rather late in the day.
It is in this discombobulating context that the financial crisis of 2007-2008 should be seen. In the run up to disaster, excessively large financial institutions – spurred on by government that relished the tax revenues – floated free across international borders as the lauded archetypes of financial globalisation. Yet, when it came crashing down it turned out that the bill for repairs fell on the old-fashioned nation state and taxpayers in individual countries such as Britain.
No wonder taxpayers were – and still are – pretty annoyed post-bailout and sceptical about the claims of those of us who are pro-market. If capitalism either operates as a racket or is perceived by large numbers of Western voters to be a racket in which the capitalists get bailed out, then it – and those of us who want prosperity increased and spread widely – are in trouble.
When we shared a platform at that conference, Mason agreed that the crisis was serious, although he disagreed with the prescription of capitalists like me. I favour more competition, lower and flatter taxation and free trade underpinned by a smaller and more effective state. I’m a capitalist who gets annoyed that quite a lot of what is blamed on capitalism is actually the result of corporatism and excessive closeness between the state and big business. I want capitalism and markets and Mason thinks that capitalism as we know it has had it.
Back then, Mason was already developing his latest theory, which has duly become the subject of his new book. Postcapitalism is published by Allen Lane.
Although his tract has not had as much attention as Thomas Piketty’s fashionable tome of last year, it is surely a much better and more readable book.
Whereas statistics from Kindle last year suggested that most readers did not get beyond page 26 of Piketty’s 685-page questionable take down of capitalism, in contrast Mason’s Postcapitalism fizzes with energy that spurs the reader on. But even so, the central premise of Mason’s argument – that capitalism is being or will be replaced – is inherently faulty.
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