Books: Convincing but gloomy take on future of capitalism intech age
Non-fiction: Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Paul Mason, Allen Lane, hbk, 272 pages, €27.65
Paul Mason, economics editor of Channel Four News, has had a good recession. His reports, especially those from Greece, have been insightful, and alive to people's woes. His recent description of Greece as a country where people "suddenly burst into tears", tells us as much about life there as an entire article might.
In his latest book, he asks whether capitalism has a future, and how that future might look. He shows that, throughout its history, capitalism has proved highly adaptive, quick to exploit new technologies, inventions, territorial acquisitions. Spanish plunder of the Americas and the invention of the printing press hastened the development of capitalism from feudalism some 500 years ago; the inventions of the steamship and the telegraph reinvigorated the system in the mid-19th century, as did the telephone 50 years later, and the transistor and the jet engine after World War II.
Will information technology produce another upswing? Mason concedes that IT has already created millions of jobs, and enriched many entrepreneurs, but argues that it does not lend itself to capitalist exploitation, or at least not as readily as other technologies in the past. After all, this is the age of 'free stuff': many idealistic, socially-minded digital innovators prefer to give away their programmes and expertise for free rather than charge people for them.
Wikipedia's 27,000 volunteers have created a corpus of knowledge that would be worth billions, were it commercially, rather than freely, available. The online encyclopedia is one of many examples Mason adduces to support his argument that information technology and capitalism are in many respects incompatible. While capitalism stagnates, the world faces a problem that requires a re-organised, re-energised economic system for its solution. The year 2050 is our deadline for bringing global warming under control. Whatever its state of health, an economic system that puts the individual before the collective will not help us face this challenge. Mason makes a strong case for public control of energy generation as a means of hastening the transition away from fossil fuels.
2050 has added significance. By then, going on current demographic trends, there will not be enough young working people in the West to support an ageing population. Mason asks Europeans to accept that immigration could help us deal with the labour shortages that will develop across the continent in the future.
It's baggy, and occasionally repetitive, but the book is also thoroughly-sourced and convincingly argued.
Mason's more mainstream colleagues will doubtless blench at his ideas. Let them come up with alternatives; and quickly.