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POSTCAPITALISM by Paul Mason

An interesting and well-researched book by TV journalist and economist, Paul Mason.


His thesis, in a nutshell, is that with the advance of technology especially computers and the
internet more and more work will be done by machines and less and less by people. This
process is already happening, but Mason believes it is accelerating at such a pace that the
consequence will soon be that in many cases prices will fall to zero and almost everything
will be free and abundant. This abolition of the need to buy or to sell will, in effect, mark
the end of capitalism, and mankind will enter an era of postcapitalism.
Even money (which has existed since antiquity to facilitate transactions) may not be
needed and, with machines big brother style monitoring all aspects of human behaviour,
supply can in near real-time be matched with demand with impressive efficiency.
Masons thesis isnt devoid of merit, but I am not entirely persuaded. I will explain.
The history of mankind brilliantly outlined in Yuval Noah Hararis Sapiens: A Brief
History of Humankind consists of a series of revolutionary milestones: the Cognitive
Revolution of 70,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution of 12,000 years ago, the
Scientific Revolution of 500 years ago and the Industrial Revolution of some 200 years ago.
Masons focus, however, is on the period starting from just before the Industrial
Revolution up to some point in the near future the shift from feudalism to capitalism and
then on to whatever will follow it. This is an attempt at futurology always difficult.
In my view he is overly keen on the existence of regular 50-year economic cycles as
characterised by Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff. Wars, revolutions, inventions and
disasters, both natural and man-made, all shape the course of history, but there is no evidence
that such pivotal events come along on anything other than a random basis. Even so, the
validity or otherwise of this cycle theory doesnt harm per se Masons case. It is enough to
say that every now and then something big happens and shakes things up, and certainly the
invention and proliferation of computers is the most significant event in all of human history.
This unnecessary fixation on 50-year post-Industrial Revolution cycles aside (we are
currently, supposedly, entering the fifth) Mason discusses at some length how value is
derived he believes, like Karl Marx, it is from human labour. In short, machines making
human labour less needed means less value is created, and as a result prices and profits will
inevitably fall.
This theory of value fails to convince. Once one moves away from subsistence (i.e. the
bare minimum to survive) it is impossible to really pin down what value is because what
people want, and what they are prepared pay for it, is so subjective, capricious and
inconsistent. If anyone is any doubt about this just read Dan Arielys Predictably Irrational.
No wonder economics is known as the dismal science. In all honesty, its not a science (in
the sense that physics or chemistry is) at all.
Nonetheless, the elusiveness of finding a definition for value is again not all that
important to Masons argument: it remains true that as machines get smarter the supply of
goods and many services will increase and their costs fall.
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So, if one disposes with a belief in historical periodicity and a definitive theory of value,
and yet Masons thesis still stands, are there any other pitfalls?
I would say yes. Because, whereas the thesiss general direction of travel is indisputable
things are changing there are several question marks about what is the final destination.
If humans create machines capable of doing more or less all tasks i.e. real Artificial
Intelligence equal to, and indeed exceeding, human intelligence then these machines,
inevitably, will decide they no longer need humans. The only defences against such are a
proposition are: a) for some nebulous reason this cant be done, or b) failsafe safeguards can
be built into (all) these machines. Both these defences are nonsense there is no question that
eventually (if we create them, and the temptation not to is too great to resist) the machines
will take over.
Naturally while, step-by-step, machines get more and more advanced, but not yet good
enough to implement a coup, there will be a honeymoon period in which the machines do
all the work and humans, freed from having to earn a living, will be able to do as they please.
But this honeymoon period wont last long. With computer power continuing to grow
exponentially, the interlude will be at best a few decades. After that its goodbye humans!
On top of which, there are other factors to take into account regarding this envisioned
Brave New World - a phrase Huxley borrowed from The Tempest. For example, how long
does the required spirit of altruism prevail? Idealists need to remind themselves that human
nature is ultimately selfish. Happy-clappy hippy communes always collapse (often amidst
tales of exploitation and sexual abuse) and the phenomenon of compassion fatigue never
takes long to rear its head even in the aftermath of the greatest tragedies. Sorry to be cynical.
By the same token, its all very well to cite wikipaedia as a triumph, but how many
wikipaedias do we need? Only one. Moreover, the motivation of most contributors to it is not
heroic, merely a chance to show off what they know (a very Freudian, atavistic sentiment).
And the same goes for Open Source operating system software pioneering challenges
always have a certain romance, but once they are achieved enthusiasm tends to dissipate.
And, similarly, operating systems, like wikipaedia, are not something that it makes sense to
develop in quantity.
So, in summary, in writing PostCapitalism Paul Mason has sketched in a very possible
short-lived scenario en route to a machine-dominated world. In a sense his vision is one of a
Nirvana with an (initially) unseen sting in its tail. And, in passing, since he mentions it, I
wouldnt worry too much about climate change finishing us off - the machines will do it first!
That said, Mason writes clearly and well even though sometimes the text reads like a
transcript of a piece-to-camera and despite his self-confessed somewhat leftist leanings he
comes over as pretty much objective. He is correct to say that we live in an unfair, elitecontrolled world hardly a revelation in itself.
Yet, all reservations aside, his book is thought-provoking and very much worth reading.

Rating: 7.0 / 10 Edward Rayne March, 2016


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