The first part of the book looks at Mason’s analysis of why capitalism is no longer sustainable, arguing that capitalism is in crisis because it is based on notions of price, ownership and wages that can’t be applied to digital technologies, information and zero-cost products. Things, and the knowledge to produce them, can no longer be valued in relation to the work hours needed to produce them. Neo-liberalism has fostered widespread financialisation (the whole business of packaging up and trading in financial ‘products’ from hedge funds to personal credit cards or student loans) and ‘fiat money’ (ie money created out of thin air).
Underpinning this analysis are some key concepts. One is that of a Kondratieff Wave, cycle-like phenomena lasting between 40 and 60 years consisting of alternating periods of high growth and relatively slow growth. Mason believes that we are now heading towards a fundamental shift away from capitalism, reminding us that capitalism itself developed as a transition from feudalism, created by the Black Death, the growth of banking, the conquest and pillage of the Americas which would include slavery and the development of the printing press. Thus, much that we take for granted about capitalism is neither essential nor everlasting, and he believes that the information revolution is the key shift that renders the mechanisms of capitalism no longer viable. He uses Marx’s labour theory of value and the concept of the margin where the price of any thing is determined by what someone will pay for the last item to support his view that the burgeoning of ‘free stuff’ and of a fundamentally new type of individual, the networked person, has changed the nature of the working class and broken the links between work, value and price. This he argues has created the climate for a fundamental change.
Whilst it could be just possible for capitalism to limp along, with bail-outs, some accommodation of non-market exchanges and open-source information alongside a market system Mason contends that it is not capable of tackling the shocks of climate change, ageing populations and state bankruptcy, which he describes as ‘the rational cause for panic’. The second part of the book looks at his solution for a postcapitalist world, using Project Zero aiming for zero carbon energy systems, production of machines, products and services with zero marginal costs and zero ‘necessary labour time’ with automation of many jobs. Project Zero would have 5 guiding principles:
The use of ‘foresight and guidance to effect change in human will power. Whilst he is very critical of Stalinist attempts at state planning he argues that IT capability now permits us to test all proposals on a small scale and model their macro-economic impact before scaling up
Ecological sustainability for all products and activities
The fostering of new identities not based primarily on work and money, using networks and new forms of democracy to negotiate competing claims on resources
Attack problems from all angles, e.g. change the banking system by setting up credit unions, outlawing forms of speculation and changing our own financial behaviour. Mason does not support the abolition of fractional reserve banking and describes those who promote this view as ‘money fundamentalists’.
Maximise the power of information by decentralising control and building collaborative networks to solve global problems of poverty, disease and climate change.
Whilst finding much of interest and an engaging view of a potential postcapitalist future, we were all left with some questions about the analysis and proposed solutions.
Much of the book is premised on his belief that digital technology has created, or has the capacity to create a new agent of change – the educated and connected human being. A bleaker view might suggest that whilst this may be true for some, it has also contributed to new forms of abuse, and the contention that a better humanity would emerge seems to be based on hope rather than evidence
Whilst climate change, population growth and state bankruptcy are highlighted, there are significant omissions most notably war, which are not addressed.
Whilst the book proposes new forms of democracy it is light on detail about how that can be achieved and how competing claims can be fairly resolved, particularly given the power of global capitalism.