If you hear the word “Wikipedia”, what springs to mind? For most of us, the answer is probably “useful information”. After all, in the decade since Wikipedia appeared, it has become such a mainstay of modern life that it is hard to imagine how anyone ever did their homework or research without it.
But for Paul Mason, a prominent British economics journalist, the online encyclopedia is not just a handy intellectual resource; it also symbolises a world on the verge of a revolution. For Mason believes that after two centuries in which capitalism has dominated the western world, this economic system has become desperately dysfunctional: inequality is growing, climate change is accelerating and nations are beset with bad demographics, debt burdens and angry voters.
But unlike many critics of capitalism, Mason — economics editor at Channel 4 News and a Guardian columnist — is not beset with despair; he thinks that if we could only harness some of the revolutionary ideas that Wikipedia embodies, we could overturn the capitalist system in a way that is as dramatic as anything proposed by Karl Marx, and perhaps more effective, too. Indeed, to him Wikipedia epitomises a potentially brave new postcapitalist world. “Capitalism is a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt,” he thunders. “Once capitalism can no longer adapt to technological change, postcapitalism becomes necessary.”
Some readers may scoff at this. Others may stifle a yawn. There is nothing new in such leftwing critiques, after all, and though Mason makes his case with passion — he does not hide his contempt for the global elite — the writing is sometimes infused with such anger that it feels irritatingly shrill.
But even if you love the current capitalist system, it would be a mistake to ignore the book. For Mason weaves together varied intellectual threads to produce a fascinating set of ideas. At times, the text is unnervingly dense; Mason has done extensive research. But the thesis about “postcapitalism” deserves a wide readership among right and left alike.
His starting point is an assertion that the current technological revolution has at least three big implications for modern economies. First, “information technology has reduced the need for work” — or, more accurately, for all humans to be workers. For automation is now replacing jobs at a startling speed; indeed, a 2013 report by the Oxford Martin school estimated that half the jobs in the US are at high risk of vanishing within a decade or two.
The second key point about the IT revolution, Mason argues, is that “information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly”. For the key point about cyber-information is that it can be replicated endlessly, for free; there is no constraint on how many times we can copy and paste a Wikipedia page. “Until we had shareable information goods, the basic law of economics was that everything is scarce. Supply and demand assumes scarcity. Now certain goods are not scarce, they are abundant.”
But third, “goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy”. More specifically, people are collaborating in a manner that does not always make sense to traditional economists, who are used to assuming that humans act in self-interest and price things according to supply and demand. “The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by 27,000 volunteers, for free,” he observes. “If it were run as a commercial site, Wikipedia’s revenue could be $2.8bn a year. Yet Wikipedia makes no profit. And in doing so it makes it almost impossible for anybody else to make a profit in the same space.”
This has radical consequences for anybody who dislikes the current western capitalist system, Mason says. Hitherto, revolutions have usually occurred when workers have united against elites. But Mason thinks this is outdated. “The old left’s aim was the forced destruction of market mechanisms . . . by the working class [and] the lever would be the state,” he observes. “[But] over the past twenty-five years, it is the left’s project that has collapsed.”
Instead, Mason thinks that it is time to recognise that technology has turned us all into individualists — but connected us by networks in unusually powerful ways. And he wants to use the power of millions of individuals to build a more equal and just world that is no longer dominated by a “neoliberalism [that] is the doctrine of uncontrolled markets”. More specifically, Mason thinks — or hopes — that a postcapitalist world is a place where only part of the population will work for cash, on a quasi-voluntary basis; the rest will be pursuing non-monetary goals. He wants governments to provide a guaranteed income for the entire population and free (or low-cost) basic services and public infrastructure. He also wants companies to automate as many processes as they can (rather than relying on cheap labour) and central bankers to conduct financial repression to reduce national debt.
Mason’s vision for the future, in other words, is a world where the government provides the framework to enable individuals to flourish but state functions are handed over to citizens. It is a place where people are secure — and equal — enough to use the efficiencies unleashed by automation to pursue worthy goals, such as volunteering to write Wikipedia pages.
It sounds utopian. And Mason does not attempt to describe in any detail exactly how western society might achieve this new postcapitalist world. Nor does he address the issue that tends to preoccupy many unions and leftwing groups today, namely the fact that technology is currently turning many workers into the equivalent of insecure digital sharecroppers, rather than collaborative creative spirits. Just look at the current fights around Uber, and the lack of security for workers there.
But while Mason’s ideas might seem crazily idealistic, they are thought-provoking. And it is worth remembering that the concept of Wikipedia would have once seemed crazy, too. So perhaps the key message from the book is this: in a world of rapid technological change, we need to rethink our old assumptions about “left” and “right”; cyberspace is ripping up many ideas about the government and class system. Politicians of all stripes should take note. And so should the people who vote for them.
Gillian Tett is the FT’s US managing editor and the author of ‘The Silo Effect’, to be published by Simon & Schuster next month
PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future, by Paul Mason, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99, 368 pages
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