Understanding This Political Moment

Book review


Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2015)

 This valuable book has already become one of a handful to mark my view of the world with a “before” and “after,” helping me connect some puzzling dots into a coherent cognitive map.

Paul Mason, whose writing has impressed me in the past with its insight, has done a terrific job pulling together various strands of information and ideas to make sense of our present historical moment. But I’ll warn you it is not a quick and breezy read. Some familiarity with history and economic philosophy (both classical and socialist) is almost a prerequisite.

I say “almost” because Mason is such a good writer that a lay reader should be able to follow the argument with a little effort. His real achievement is not in coming up with an original idea, but in putting lots of old ideas together in an original way.

A central question of the book is how to make sense of the economic crisis of 2008. Clearly the political world has been shaken off its axis by this question, in part by the unexpected rebirth of socialism as a live topic. Suddenly, a mere twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, people began re-reading Karl Marx in earnest.

The answer to the question implicates the main argument between old-line socialists and practically everyone else across the political spectrum: does capitalism tend toward crisis and eventual collapse, or does it tend toward equilibrium? Or to put it another way, is capitalism the end result of humanity’s economic development or is there a further stage?

The long wave theory

Mason’s best move is his upgrade of the ideas of the socialist economist Nikolai Kondratieff, who was executed under Stalin in 1938. Kondratieff’s theory of “long waves,” describing roughly 50-year cycles of adaptive ups and downs in capitalism that encompass the short-term boom and bust cycles, was deemed incompatible with the Marxist-Leninist dogma that periodic crises were escalating into an imminent world-wide revolution.

Kondratieff’s theory sparked the interest of Western economists in the 1930s, then lapsed into relative obscurity until the economic boom of the 1950s-60s began to wane in the 1970s. Much has been written about why this waning happened, as the political repercussions have been enormous.

Wages and profits both stopped rising. In the U.S., disillusionment among workers weakened ties to the liberal Democratic program, and the business class fought back against taxes, regulations, unions and social welfare programs. The attack hit full force under President Ronald Reagan, as Democrats moved to the center to compete. We have been in a see-sawing stalemate between the two parties since then.

But as Mason points out, the post-war boom followed by a turning point in the 1970s also happens fits Kondratieff’s long wave theory. The last wave Kondratieff identified started in the 1890s and would have ended in the 1940s. This means a whole new economic configuration would arise in the 1940s and reach a turning point in the mid-’70s, leading to a new crisis and adaptation roughly twenty-five years later—sometime around the turn of the millennium.

Thus the spectacular crash 2008, followed by economic confusion and growing public anger.

This political moment

The current crop of Presidential contenders can be arrayed along a spectrum of responses to the present situation. (This is my analysis, not Mason’s, who wrote his book before the race got started.) Most Republicans still dispense the Reagan prescription, while Hillary Clinton follows the Carter-Clinton track of a centrist accommodation with corporate America.

But hordes of voters are fed up with more of the same, and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the outsider candidates drawing on this frustration. Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist, wants to return to an FDR-style social democracy. Trump’s economic ideas are incoherent (to me, anyway), but he too articulates the desire to break free of the current stalemate for a whole different direction.

Mason, however, contends that we are exiting the last long wave and entering a new one, one in which the world economy is adapting into an entirely new shape. Only this one, he writes, is “postcapitalist,” as different from capitalism as capitalism was from feudalism.

The emerging new economy

The emerging economy is one of zero marginal cost products (costing next to nothing to produce), networked information technology, fully automated production, and a truly global marketplace. Mason reviews previous authors who have seen this emerging, the most recent of them being Jeremy Rifkin. (See my review of Rifkin’s book here.)

Mason adds much more to Rifkin’s description. He argues that class conflict is moving from the capitalist vs. proletariat division to a division between corporate-government hierarchies trying to stifle and exploit the new economy vs. a “precariat” of networked individuals with tenuous connections to a work identity.

The transition to this new stage can be expected to be as tumultuous and confusing as the transition from feudalism to capitalism, as old ways of living and thinking dissolve and new ways assert themselves. It will be facilitated by “external shocks,” which Mason expects to be some combination of climate change, aging populations, unsustainable public debt or mass migration.

Not content to explain and predict, he also offers the outlines of a political program for moving forward. These are based on dismantling the neo-liberalist project (privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, and government collaboration with big corporations) to work for “sustainable, collaborative, socially just outcomes.” Some key policies would be socializing finance, implementing a basic income for all, suppressing or socializing monopolies, and expanding collaborative work.

How exactly to gain power and achieve all this is not spelled out, but the book is so jam-packed with thought provoking ideas and information that this becomes a minor quibble. I find Mason’s analysis the best I’ve yet seen that fits the data and offers a path forward.

It’s up to all of us to carve that path.

–Alan F. Zundel

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  1. You’ve pretty much nailed it. I just finished reading it. A compelling read, it built and built and built. Totally enjoyable. Smoothly written, cogently argued, and buttressed with voluminous great scholarship. How do you see this fitting with the Jacobin “Four Futures” postcapitalism alternative scenarios?

  2. I am not aware of the Four Futures. Point me to a good source.

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