Technology / Book review: Capitalism is dead – but don’t panic

Book review: Capitalism is dead – but don’t panic

How technology is destroying the world order and building a new economy.

What comes to mind when you read the title of Paul Mason’s bestseller, PostCapitalism: A Guide To Our Future? Survivalist literature, perhaps, preparing its readers for the coming Armageddon and whatever comes after. Or maybe an insurgent cookbook training them to become the chefs of the new revolution.

Whatever your immediate reaction to its provocative title, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you ignored the nuggets of powerful business pragmatism hidden within. He cites the likes of Marx and Kondratieff in the context of the love-hate relationship between capitalism and technology. But perhaps the old spectres of left-wing economics have a new relevance in the disruption of today’s marketplaces, and maybe we can learn something from them?

One of the more interesting ideas Mason postulates is that of capitalist wave theory, whereby the history of capitalism repeats itself in waves of four to six decades, with fresh technologies that increase productivity and reduce production costs also resulting in the exploitation and disruption of workforces. But, says Mason, if capitalism is capable of reacting proactively to these changes, such crises will be reduced to little more than bumps in the road. But can it always adapt? And can it adapt now?

Some critics praise Mason’s insight, such as Gillian Tett from the Financial Times.Others rebuke him, like Chris Mullen in The Guardian. But in many ways they are both missing the point. Mason is asking a fundamental question:

"how can you quantify the value of information used for the perfection of your products and services?"

Whether it is the development of virtual aircraft testing, data gathered by marketers on customer behaviour in all sorts of sectors, or the data and knowledge that goes into improving, say, a cross-trainer, Mason has one question: where is this knowledge incorporated into the cost? If Wikipedia, says Mason, was a profit-oriented enterprise, it would earn $2.8billion every year. But it doesn’t – 27,000 volunteers have been, are, and will be building it for free.

These examples and others lie behind what Mason believes to be the fundaments of the post-capitalist market and social relationships: as the marginal costs of increasing productivity and coming up with more and better services and products reduce to zero, how do we quantify what something is actually worth? In terms of knowledge at least, scarcity – the engine of of market supply and demand and pricing mechanisms – is over, since copy-pasting codes and running new wind tunnel tests hardly have any additional costs. And while automation and data-driven businesses make lots of human employees redundant, educated and skilled people can offer their free contributions to fresh projects.

You can sell your products and buy your Tesla – nothing will change that. But, says Mason, keep thinking – once you have introduced all these cutting-edge technologies to your production, what is the share of data and product development in the price of your products?

Mason, Paul (2015). PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future. Allen Lane. ISBN 9781846147388.