Book Review: Postcapitalism by Paul Mason

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In his famous book of the 1950s, The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith presented a Utopian view of the future in which the need to work would be reduced to four hours a day and wealth would be much more equally shared between those who chose to work and those who opted for a life of leisure. Now Paul Mason has produced an outline of the process by which this might be realised. Extrapolating from current trends, notably the growing abundance of ‘free stuff’ on the internet, and taking full account of the approaching crises of climate change, population growth and increasing longevity, he explains how capitalism, like the proverbial old soldier, will not die but merely fade away.

Galbraith drew upon the work of anthropologists who estimated that primitive man, living as a hunter gatherer, needed to spend about four hours a day in search of food. In the modern age, with increasing use of automation, Galbraith foresaw a future in which man would once again expend only four hours in search of his daily bread. Now, after the explosive growth in personal computing and the internet, Paul Mason can see more clearly how this transformation might come about. The first step in the process is the universal availability of free knowledge through websites such as Wikipedia. Knowledge which has cost much to produce can now be obtained by all who need it at zero additional cost.

Mason sees a trend by which more and more information, services and products become abundant to the point where their end cost reduces to zero. This is described as a non-market economy that grows alongside a diminishing market economy. Large enterprises that are based on cheap labour would be forced by legislation to become ‘high-wage, high growth, high technology economic models.’ And if this sounds too radical, Mason points to business models which have been outlawed in the past such as those based upon slavery and child labour.

Mason warns against the danger of capitalists creating monopolies as a defence mechanism against postcapitalism. The creation of monopolies must be resisted and rules against price fixing strictly enforced. Where a monopoly may be essential, such as in a service industry, it should be taken into public ownership. He argues that providing services such as water, energy, housing, transport, healthcare, telecoms infrastructure and education, at cost price, socially, would be a strategic act of redistribution vastly more effective than raising real wages.

Mason follows Galbraith in advocating that everyone should be paid a basic income, although he is relatively less generous to the unemployed. Galbraith proposed that those who choose to remain unemployed should receive about 90 percent of the income of those working, while Mason advocates a universal basic income of only one-third of the minimum wage. So, although Mason plots a useful course towards Utopia, Galbraith might feel that there was still some way to go.