Paul Mason (2015) Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future.

Paul Mason is an optimist. I’m a pessimist.  He outlines the problems mankind faces in the future and suggests as a utopian solution of free money and us all working together in a non-working world. I tend more towards the four horseman of the apocalypse scenario.

Mason suggests there are a number of negative feedback loops that will work together to make the world a much poorer place for 99% of humanity, but if we reverse engineer this process we can all become richer and make a fairer and more prosperous world for all. ‘Neoliberalism is Broken’ is the title of his first chapter. We all know how this works. We’ve being doing it for the last thirty years and the process has accelerated since the financial meltdown of 2008. Work longer hours for less pay, or no pay. Sing hallelujah, and thanks boss, as money flows from the poor to the rich at an increasing rate.  Thomas Piketty, Capital, did the maths. Algorithms rule the world.  But Mason sees a chink of light in the information age. Technology that puts at least fifty percent of the workforce out of work, (timescale by 2050, or at cinema near you soon) will, as work itself become redundant, give us more leisure time. When the distinction between work and leisure becomes blurred creativity will flourish. Examples, oh dear, ‘people will blog, make movies, self-publish books’. Shit. I’m already doing all these things. I must be living in the future. It’s Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots, but with a happy ending. The robots won’t gain an awareness of themselves as a singular being, in the singularity, and mankind as being a species that has reduced the planet to a giant hamburger, and instead of keeping mankind as a pet, they’ll not do the logical thing and mine us for the energy in our hair and skin and meat and reduce the world to something like a boxset of hell played on an endless loop, but instead of that, our android friends will free us from work.

The merit in that argument is it is logical. William Shakespeare’s Brave New World  before Brave New World has Ariel working for the man, Prospero, in  The Tempest.  All utopias are a bit like that. Prospero might have stolen an island home, but it was from an evil witch, and give him his due, he did give gainful employment to the witch’s son, and became master of the monster, Caliban, who he used as another source of free labour. Prospero was free to do what he willed, as we will be in a prosperous new age based on exciting new technologies. Fritz Laing, Metropolis. As above, so below. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell both envisaged a time when work would be something that would be optional – for the elite. As it always has been, but Mason argues that the problems facing us are global problems and unless we face them together they will defeat us and the capitalist system will fall apart.

Global warming is an example of this. Mason doesn’t think the market can work well enough to allocate resource so everyone can meet their energy needs and keep enough fossil fuels out of the air and keep the temperature of the earth below an increase of around two-degree centigrade level. After that runaway global warning will take place. Being born in a particular location will be the equivalent of a life in poverty and death with millions of refugees on the move. I called this melodramatically, The Third World War, and suggested it’s already begun. I think it’s a war already lost. Human casualties, I’d guess, somewhere in the range of the Black Death, one in four. I can be bland about it because I’ll be dead by the time this is fully realised. But if you’ve children of grandchildren, be very afraid. Mason suggests that we leave all fossil fuels in the ground, turn to solar, wind, and sea, as Germany has done, with up to 50% of its needs being met in this way. So it is possible, but is it probable?

China and India playing catch up and building or having recently built hundreds of coal-fired stations.  But as Mason states ‘Between 2003 and 2010, climate change lobby groups received $558 million in the US. Exxon Mobil and the ultra-conservative Koch industries were major donors…’ What’s in it for them? Simple. Leave fossil fuels in the ground, or as Mason suggests in his chapter ‘Project Zero’ and Exxon Mobil will be worth zero on the stock market of any market. Far simpler to go out and buy a politician, or president.

One of interrelated problems Mason identified was workers in the Western world are getting older. Gee whiz, you may be saying, my hips killing me, I sure know about that. ‘Futureproofing’ on Radio 4 that around 50% of children born today will live until they’re 104. Great news for them. Around 4% of those born at the start of the last century lived long enough to collect their pension. So work hard and don’t collect your pension was the order of the day. Think about this. One in two hospital beds are filled by our fossil fools. Piketty suggests that rich countries growth will fall to around 1% to zero or negative growth. That’s where we are now. More must be done with less. That’s where we are now. Piketty also shows that the equation that you put into the system early and take it out in your later years, in health deficits, no longer works, or can be taken seriously. Mason shows that six of eight nations with populations under 30 are in Africa. Throw in India and US and the equation that one worker will be supporting one pensioner (around four workers fill those positions now) and you’ll be able to determine it doesn’t add up. Mason also shows that all that money invested in government bonds and shares and other financial assets are, in the longer term, worthless as the International Monetary Fund recognises. The bearer will not pay on demand.  When it unravels, as it will, then the provider of last resort is the government.

Here’s another of my favourites. The problem of supply is one of demand. Rosa Luxemburg, and all that. As Apple who make those nice phones and tablets and were the richest company in the world find to their cost, unless poor people have money in their pockets they can’t afford to buy those shiny new toys. One in eight workers in the US have at one time worked for McDonalds. Tens of millions wait for food stamps and flood into Walmart, who tell their staff to claim for food stamps. In our country we’re looking at the same solution: the race to the bottom. The solution, increased liquidity, give more money to the rich in the hope that it trickles –eventually- down to the poor, doesn’t work. It’s never worked, but is  neoliberal ideology in action.

Mason takes a hint from that well-known libertine, Friedrich Hayek, and suggests that citizens should be issued with an income to do with it what they liked by the government. Imagine if universal credit really was universal credit and how work would become an optional choice. But it’s another of Hayek’s truisms Mason challenges. Only the market can allocate resources. Computing power, argues Mason, can now do that just as effectively, or more effectively than any free market. Facebook and Google, for example, can anticipate our every need before we can even voice it. Their algorithms are getting better. What we think of choice is just a bit of camouflage as the servant serves us more of the same, but in a different colour. But imagine Mason suggests harnessing this power. Imagine the government building more houses. Imagine the government taking control of the money supply and instead of trying to sell banks we already own, lending money to rich people, lending it to fund social projects. Imagine the government running the energy industry for our benefit. I know, I know, it’s a bit much to take. Especially, the bit about taking money from the 1% who are rolling in it. There’s a loss of liberty there. Liberalism. Liberty. More equality.  Mason thinks that the threats that we face will allied with the technologies that we have developed will make it brave new world with everyone sharing in the fruits of non-labour. I’m more cynical. We’re at the Wright brother stages with the first aircraft. New technologies will enrich us, but not us all. The world is a more stratified place and will become even more stratified and uneven. Four horsemen on the horizon. Not even that far. I think I can hear the thunder of hoofs. But I hope Mason is right and I’m wrong, as I usually am.

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Iain Duncan Smith’s big gamble.

IDS.jpg

As a story teller, with Leicester City at the top of the Premier League it’s been the year of the underdog, and I’ve been following the Iain Duncan Smith, or the IDS narrative, with interest. He resigned from the Cabinet because ‘I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self-imposed restraints that are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national interest…[I] wonder at the balance of the cuts you have insisted upon and wonder if enough has been done to ensure “we are all in it together”’.

I wonder too if we are really in it together. I wonder too at the surprise and talk of salami slicing of the welfare budget. I thought as the former head of a think tank, IDS might have noticed that money was moving from the poor to the rich at increasing rate, and Osborne’s budget was following a familiar pattern. We can go back to Robin Hood stealing from the poor and keeping his loot because he worked damned hard for it. Or the debates in the House of Commons in the 1830s. The surprise and outrage some MPs gave themselves over to that children were being used in the workforce and forced, for example, to sweep chimneys and go down coal mines as a health cure for sloth. Up until then they thought it was simply small deformed adults of which there were too many for even Charles Dickens to enumerate, or black men kept in chains, which didn’t really count as human exploitation, because other people were doing it and fairs fair. In no time at all, with hymn singing and weeping and wailing and gnashing of pearly-white teeth children were provided for. By Parliamentary decree they should have at least two hours of education a day until they were thirteen. We were all in it together, now as then.

I do wonder what is going to happen to IDS’s flagship policy of universal credit. Cynical commentators would suggest that re-packing all benefits together such as housing, working tax credit, or jobseeker’s allowance et al, at a reduced rate, could be construed as a cost-saving device. Pulling a government lever and the poor are diminished and as we know they have no backbench peers. But IDS is not alone. Martin Ford (2015) in Rise of the Robots also suggested that as robots will be doing most of the jobs we do now, citizen should be given, as of right, a fixed income. As any Think-tank leader knows this idea does not come from Marx, but from the darling of Thatcherism, Friedrich Hayek. A basic fixed income was something we used to naively believe in. A social safety net. Remember that? When Pete Townsend’s Poverty in the UK  in the 1970s had politicians rushing to the barrier demanding that something should be done to help poor people. Poor people with an income of £40 000 per year. Of if you are a refugee around £35 000. Yes, us poor are all in it together.

Cynics might imaging that when IDS recovers from the shock that Conservative policies are ideologically and not economically driven then he might take stock and someone –quite soon- might propose him as leader of the Conservative Party. Certainly good old Boris Johnson is IDS’s rival. When David Cameron steps down, who has the Trump-card? Then, of course, there has to be the right market conditions. Britain must be out of Europe. The alternative, when there are no alternatives, is Osborne, or so he keeps telling us, which was a successful enough narrative to get the party re-elected with an increased majority. If he keeps salami slicing the poor, he would seem like a safe pair of hands – and favourite as the next Conservative Prime minister. With boundary changes and the continuing dissolution of the Labour Party he could be in power as long as Chairman Mao. I’m sure in ten or fifteen years we’ll still have a Conservative government, but it’s interesting watching the starters mocking for position.  IDS might turn out to be a Leicester City and take the big prize. The only losers will be poor people and we don’t count. It’s relegation for us and literally fighting for scraps.