Postcapitalism: is it what we Greens have always been arguing for?

The UK's Green MP reviews Paul Mason's new book on the end of capitalism and what should replace it.

Caroline Lucas head shot
Caroline Lucas
25 September 2015

Paul Mason has seen first-hand the limits of capitalism. From desperate poverty in Georgia, to environmental collapse in China - he’s reported from around the world as neoliberalism hits the buffers.

His latest offering, PostCapitalismgoes beyond the page-turning reportage and analysis of Why it’s kicking off everywhere and delves deep into the history of what he sees as the latest, and last, stage of modern capitalism. One doesn’t have to travel the world to see the limits of our economic system. In Britain – one of the world’s wealthiest nations – 3.7 million children live in poverty. Many of the things upon which we rely – our health service and social security for example – are being privatised or cut entirely as our welfare state is hollowed out. Private debt in this country is at record levels and people are being forced to take out payday loans to put food on the table.

It’s within this context that Mason argues that capitalism has reached its limits – and he is right. His analysis is thorough – indeed some chapters are extremely dense. He charts the long cycles of capitalism – seen through the lens of Kondratieff’s wave theory – and comes to the conclusion that we’re at the beginning of the end of the fifth, and final wave. His central argument is that neoliberalism has sown the seeds of its own destruction, and that the rise of the ‘network’ is replacing existing hierarchy. The wiki-state – one where information is no longer held by the few but instead distributed among the many – undermines one of the fundamentals of capitalism; the need for scarcity. 

It’s striking how much of Mason’s book seems relevant to the events of recent weeks. The Tories’ assault on organised labour, through the vicious Trade Union Bill, is at the very centre of the neoliberal project according to Mason’s thesis. Seen in this light the attempted assassination of our unions makes some sense – the Tories know it won’t help our society or our economy– but destroying the labour movement is such a central tenet of their ideology that they plough ahead with it anyway.  

Similarly the Tories reckless and relentless backwards steps on key support for renewables can be looked at in a new light: hierarchy attacking the network. Solar panels on roofs across the UK, and locally owned renewable projects, limit the neoliberal state’s ability to control communities.

We Greens have always argued that both political and economic power must be distributed across a networked society, and the arguments in Postcapitalism add a welcome voice to that demand.

As I read Postcapitalism – learning much about long wave theory, the shortcomings of Marxist revolutionary thought and the impacts of Fordism as I went – I was struck by a huge, but purposeful, omission by Mason. He hardly mentions climate change until the penultimate chapter, but justifies its omission by claiming it illustrates the fact that economic change is happening anyway and that climate change is going to necessarily speed up the process.

Read alongside Naomi Klein’s powerful This Changes Everything Mason’s analysis is all the more powerful. Both make clear the inherent contradiction of capitalism when it comes to delivering ecological sustainability. The real ‘absurdists’, says Mason, are ‘not the climate change deniers but the politicians and economists who believe that existing market mechanisms can stop climate change.’ You only have to look at the latest IPCC findings to see that postcapitalism is needed immediately.

The question hanging over the book is simple: is postcapitalism possible? Like Mason I take a huge amount of inspiration from the liberation movements that have won so many battles in the past. As he put it so well: “It is absurd that we are capable of witnessing a 40,000 year old system of gender oppression begin to dissolve before our eyes yet still see the abolition of a 200 year old economic system as an unrealistic utopia.

The good news is that Mason’s theory does not sit alone. Many of his conclusions – indeed the main thrust of this book – sit neatly with the aims of Green politics.

Post-capitalism is a liberating vision of a low-carbon, less work intensive future where people are provided with what they need locally. His proposals – like a Government ‘Office of the Non-market Economy’ are compelling. And his call for the longstanding Green policy of a ‘basic income’ as the first stage towards ‘reducing to a minimum the hours it takes to produce what humanity needs’ is welcome. These ideas shouldn’t be radical – and for us Greens they may not seem so – but it’s refreshing to see them being aired by someone in Mason’s position.

Greens have always believed that politics is as much about what we do, as what’s done to us. Mason uses finance as an example – we can attack the system by setting up and joining credit unions, creating new local currencies in our communities and by urging politicians to implement regulation in parliament. That combination, of acting locally where we can whilst keeping pressure on lawmakers, is crucial to any future social change.

I share Mason’s optimistic vision of our potential to build an entirely different type of economy. In the very short term, if we’re serious about taking up this challenge, progressives have to urgently find ways to work together. In Britain the Conservative government is busy embedding neoliberalism – revelling in the fragmentation of those of us who oppose them. For those of us who want something resembling postcapitalism, even if that’s not what we’d call it, this book should be a wake up call: the future we want isn’t inevitable. It’s only by working together – whether it be in parliament or in our local communities - than we can bring about the changes we so desperately need.

Paul Mason's "Postcapitalism: a guide to our future" is available from Wordpower Books.

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