This is part 2 of my extended review of Paul Mason's PostCapitalism book, first published on Bella Caledonia, 5th August, 2015 (FYI, an excellent intro to his work/interview with Paul can be found here). Part 1 is here.
Scottish Independence and “PostCapitalism”
By Pat Kane
As you’d expect from a professional reporter, working for a respected global news organisation, Paul Mason’s vision of a “PostCapitalism” – the title of his new book– doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable facts.
The penultimate chapter, which is entitled “The Case For Rational Panic”, is uncompromising and clear. Disruptive global warming, the demographic and pensions crisis, and the forces of migration responding to both of those, will deliver even more convulsive shocks and shudders to every country and region in the world – Scotland included.
As to the solution to these crisis, Mason is again refreshingly direct: a market-led approach to any of this – the default method recommended by the neo-liberal consensus for the last 30 years – is a busted flush. To a very large extent, his postcapitalist vision is an attempt to provide a comprehensive, structural solution to these deep challenges.
In this blog (a long one, but he’s full of ideas) I’m going to go through Paul’s strategies for dealing with these real-world challenges. And I hope to show how the pursuit (and realisation) of Scottish independence could be an ideal test-bed for his vision.
Yesterday I described how Mason is trying to make us all understand how transforming info-technology could be of our current socio-economic order. But it’s worth thumbnailing his basic challenge once more.
Code + Copy = Revolution
A purely digital good, once made, can be reproduced and shared forever, at no extra cost. This is a direct challenge to the classic capitalist idea that goods and services can only be accessed through money and prices.
The more that other goods are shaped by digital processes – designs for manufacture of transport or houses, bio-formulas for drugs or food, machines that are ever more adaptive and even self-directing – the more the price-system for those goods begins to dissolve.
The baroque, often ludicrous structures of copyright and control which snake through our info-lives – suppressing a genuine potential for abundant services and products – could be halted and reversed. That is, if the “left” exerted enough “willpower, confidence and design” (in Mason’s words) to create “projects” that proposed alternatives.
Who does Mason think could take these projects (of which more later) forward? In my previous blog, I charted Paul’s attempt to cast the “universal educated person”, or “networked individualist”, as part of a longer history of the culture of the working-class. A culture which always surpassed, in its dreams and aspirations, any degrading or exploitative relation it had with the managers and bosses of capitalism.
Surely it’s easy for Yessers to understand exactly what Mason is referring to, if they recall the everyday community flourishing unleashed by the Yes campaign during the indyref.
And in Scotland, that flourishing was amplified by the contagious, irrepressible use of network technologies – to organise and archive meetings, to distribute alternative news and counter-factual graphics, to raise cash for activist projects at cost price.
So Indy supporters should know, intuitively, what Mason means by the communicational and liberating power of digital computers and networks.
Networked activists used and built the web in order to prototype their future, “as if” it was already happening (or even “as if you were in the early days of a better nation”). But they aren’t the only agents of change, for Mason, that could bring about a post-capitalism.
Mason spends a lot of his book berating old-style lefties for their lazy, managerialist assumptions – that all you do is take control of the state, by elections or other means, and the socialist dream is achievable.
So it’s comforting to realise that, at the end, Paul does see the state – one with confidence in its regulatory and policy powers – as an essential player in the “transition phase” to post-capitalism. For Yessers, who directed their networked activism to the achievement of a Scottish nation-state, this part of Mason’s vision should be of great interest.
How could the policy programme of a future Scottish Parliament respond to the already “post-capitalist” dimensions of the indy movement? Using whatever powers it can muster, short of and including full nation-statehood?
Helpfully, Mason closes his book with prescriptions – which he will be happy to see “torn apart and revised by the wisdom of angry crowds” – under the title of “Project Zero”. This refers to three overall objectives:
- a zero-carbon energy system
- the production of machines, products and services with “zero marginal costs” (ie, too cheap and plentiful to price)
- and the reduction of necessary labour time as close as possible to zero
Mason then outlines eight tasks in a project plan that might get us to this postcapitalist state.
A “Project Zero” for Scotland
The most pertinent thing to do, for Scottish readers, may be to briefly introduce each one, and then see where that fits into the Scottish policy landscape, whether historic, actual, prospective or hoped-for.
“Model first, act later.” This is an intriguing suggestion from Mason, based on his investigation into how massively powerful computers can now model and simulate designs for reality.
His signature example is the aircraft jet engine, which in the old days was tested a couple of hundred times in real life, but has been tested a hundred million times by a computer simulation, before being actually constructed.
Simulations of climate change, or epidemics, or populations, or traffic flows take in thousands of different inputs, algorithmically calculated. But, Mason complains, when we model our economies, our inputs are pitiful: the European Central Bank uses only households, firms and the central bank.
Why can’t we establish “a global institute or network for simulating the long-term transition beyond capitalism” – starting with “attempting to construct an accurate simulation of economies as they exist today”?
All the “big data” that surrounds us could feed into such a simulation, and allow us to eventually test out our post-capitalist notions to see what ones worked, or didn’t, or needed tweaking.
There’s a few obvious resonances with Scottish policy here. We already have a “Scotland Performs” website, which has scores of “national performance indicators” with arrows pointing up, down or both ways – yet it’s hardly the Wikipedia-like interactive simulation that I think Mason anticipates.
We also have something of a legitimation-crisis when it comes to statistics that measure the performance of the Scottish economy, with claim and counter-claim coming from ScotGov, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Office of Budget Responsibility, and various other bodies.
Could a partnership of Scottish universities, government and the business sector take up Mason’s suggestion – not just to use petaflop computers to model in real-time the Scottish economy, but to begin this process with global partners, and with a view to exporting and benchmarking this process? Why not do it here – the land of Clerk-Maxwell, Adam Smith and Red Clydeside?
“The Wiki-State.” If a state is like Wikipedia, it doesn’t provide command-and-control from on high – but it does build a structure that enables much free and creative activity, often of great usefuless and relevance, and produced through diligent and respectful collaboration.
What stiffens Mason’s spine is that such a state should be proactive in extending the zone of postcapitalist collaboration and free services. Which means both “switching off the neoliberal privatisation machine” (ie, don’t cave in to the privatisation of public services (“the EU made me do it”)), and actively using the power of procurement to “favour sustainable, collaborative and socially just outcome”.
Do existing Scottish Governments accredit themselves well here? Not very – though there are enough flurries of protest (recently around the idea that the public service of CalMac Ferries could be passed over to Serco) to show that the Scottish public sphere understands how its state should act to benefit the commonweal.
But in recent legislation around community empowerment, and land reform, there is at least obesiance paid to the principle of pushing back against corporate imperatives in the name of the popular will.
However, it’s not quite “clearing a space in the capitalist jungle”, in Mason’s words, to allow the “fragile new plants… of peer-to-peer projects, collaborative business models and non-profit activities” to grow. A left-green electoral bloc in the May 2016 Holyrood elections seems like more and more a necessary component of a radical “independence” majority – at least to keep the possibilities open for something more than the SNP’s boilerplate “fairness-and-prosperity” approach.
And in terms of what’s coming, even a safety-first Scottish Parliament could be knocked off-course. Mason also ventures into how a “wiki-state” might stave off a deeper financial collapse, due to accumulating debts not just from botched austerity programmes, but also the looming pension payments crisis. At the very least, his projections should focus Yessers’ minds on what form of Scottish national economic sovereignty could navigate through what looks like some very stormy waters to come – no matter what we do.
"Expand collaborative work.” Again, here Mason takes a strong-minded view of the state’s responsibility to exercise “law and regulation”, in order to limit traditional enterprises’ ability to “contribute to social injustice”. These include start-ups incentivized by tax law to pay low-wages from the get-go, or large cheap-labour corporations that benefited from the space “ruthlessly carved out for them since the 90s” by the state.
What a state should also promote are businesses which produce free stuff in a collaborative way: he wants someone to set up an “Office of the Non-Market Economy” to nurture them all.
As I know from my board membership of the think-and-do-tank Common Weal, Scotland already has a deep historical tradition of co-ops, collectives, mutuals and credit unions. It’s now being added to by cafes and bars, creative spaces, and most vibrantly news-and-views media platforms.
The latter – this blog, Wings, CommonSpace, Newsnet, The Ferret, The National and several others – are probably the best example of the kind of spontaneous networked organisations that can be generated from the combination of info-tech and social movement.
Though interestingly, online subscription and net-based crowdfunding – the latter of which doesn’t even merit a mention in Mason’s book – has been a vital, and even reliable way of ensuring sustainability (sometimes even sanity) for those who run these platforms. Yet these are literally gifts to valued figures, granted money by the community in a similar way to the elite employees of high-performance info-capitalist enterprise – who as Mason says, “are basically paid to exist” (or more likely, for the cybernats, post more than a few times a day).
But the idea of an “Office of the Non-Market Economy” sounds like a slam-dunk offer, if the Scottish Government was vaguely interested in Mason’s analysis.
“Suppress or socialise monopolies.” Faced with the tendency to abundance and freedom of informational and information-shaped goods, info-capitalism’s primary response is to try and establish a monopoly (the posterboys being Google and Apple). Mason is bracingly militant about the state’s response: break ‘em up. And if you can’t break ‘em up, take them into public ownership.
Paul is also very clear about the impact of public provision of items like water, energy, housing, transport, healthcare, telecom infrastructure and education. If they were delivered at close to cost price, the price of basic necessities would cheapen, labour time could be reduced, and the free production zone increase. It would be a “strategic act of redistribution, vastly more effective than raising real wages”.
In Scotland – and I would love to know how this phrase made it into the First Ministerial vocabulary – we actually have a policy beachhead for all this. The concept of the “social wage” has been part of SNP policy for several years now.
It is usually represented by the eight year freeze in council tax; free prescriptions; elderly personal care; free school meals; a commitment to the Living Wage for all public sector workers under Scottish Government pay policy; the roll out of 600 hours of free childcare for all 3, 4 and vulnerable two year olds; the Scots students saving up to £9,000 per year with fee-free tuition.
As Salmond wrote in the Guardian in 2012: “We have made a conscious decision to provide certain core universal services, rights and benefits, some of which are no longer prioritised by political leaders elsewhere in the UK… We do this because we believe such services benefit the common weal. They provide a sense of security, wellbeing and equity within communities. Such a sense of security is vital to a sense of confidence – and as we have seen over the last three years, confidence is essential to economic growth.”
The last line slides into orthodoxy. But the overall principle is clear – however tough it may prove to use Scottish sovereign power to defend its application (from EU regulators and the like). There is an overall Scots consensus for using public services to counter the atomizing and fear-inducing impact of neoliberal marketisation on everyday communities.
What Mason can add to this defensive argument is a positive opportunity. A “social wage” (along with a citizen’s basic income – see below) can support a steady growth of non-market mutual provision, driven by the sharing, copying and modelling digital technologies he champions.
Even short of full independence, wouldn’t it be possible for a Scottish government to open up and support these possibilities? Does this not go with the very grain of the “commonweal” so often invoked by ScotGov ministers?
“Let market forces disappear.” This is a slightly misleading header, as Mason concedes that “networked individuals” have a strong consumer identity, and that markets – as a way that producers and makers can respond to complex desires – should still have their place. But if the private sector seeks profit, it must do so from “entrepreneurship, rather than rent”.
What that means for information goods is that you don’t just keep extending copyright and controlled-usage for ever – which provides you with rent, forever – but you deliberately make those copyrights “taper away quickly”, after the short-term gains from innovation (new clothing style, hit record) fade away. The way to make more money is to then come up with something new again!
Thus a “commons” of intellectual property grows and grows, providing a necessary resource for non-profit/free labours and enterprises. This would be further enriched by ensuring that state-funded research results, generated by from universities and other institutions, were “free at the point of use”.
Again, in the context of the Yes campaign, Scots have recently had the experience of playing fast and loose with copyright – of people getting themselves together around projects and worrying (or forgetting) about who “owns” it afterwards.
I’ve often thought there could be a much bigger infrastructural responsibility invested in something like “Creative Scotland”. Because if creativity and innovation is “becoming exponential”, as Mason phrases it, shouldn’t the macro-institutions which sustain that be of an appropriate scale?
And again, what is to stop a Scottish Government experimenting with support systems for postcapitalist artists, creatives and enterpreneurs – involving not just open cultural rights, but different forms of communal living, different kinds of community contribution?
Interestingly (for so-called “statist” independistas like myself) Mason isn’t afraid to bat for the state interest when he perceives it to be urgent. Around energy, he’s forceful about the need to take the grid and its carbon-based suppliers into public ownership. (As they can’t burn their reserves without burning the planet, he quips, “these corporations are toast anyway”).
So far, each of Mason’s project goals has consequences for how Yessers think of Scottish sovereign state power – and this is just one of the more acute. If a future Scottish government were to conduct these nationalisations – and it’s certainly not on the SNP-majority ticket at the moment – could this happen within the framework of EU competition law, in its current, neo-liberally punitive form?
The more that Mason specifies the state policies that will help the transition to a postcapitalist society, the more militant it looks like the next Scottish assertion of sovereign independence will need to be, to get anywhere near this state of affairs. The SNP’s indy-lite policy prospectus for 2014 (“independence in the UK”, as Iain Macwhirter once waspishly called it) seems like a proper dead-end, as a model for the next heave (whenever it happens).
“Socialise the finance system.” This is a complex section, and it’s perhaps easier to begin by quoting Paul’s ambition:
“In the short-term, the intention is not to reduce complexity – as the money fundamentalists want – nor simply to stabilize banking, but to promote the most complex form of capitalist finance compatible with progressing the economy towards high automation, low work, and abundant cheap or free goods and services”.
His range of measures to ensure this are pretty familiar to those who have engaged deeply with the Scottish policy debate over the last ten years. Firstly, a nationalised central bank, targeted at sustainability (see notions like a Green or a People’s Quantitative Easing, flagged up in the Corbyn campaign in the last weeks).
Secondly, a much more regionalised and regulated banking sector, with credit unions, peer-to-peer lenders and the like given greater status. And thirdly, a re-regulation of complex global financial activities, emphasizing investment for production, and hunting down tax havens.
But let me keep coming back to the Scottish indy context. To take these measures forward would require a general popular confidence in the ability of one’s state to conduct sovereign reforms of its macro-financial systems.
We just didn’t have enough of that on September 18th, due in part to the terrifying psychological bombardments of the media-establishment complex (though it was touch and go for them). And the spectacle of the Greek Syriza government being pummelled this way and that by their Euro “partners” might have boosted the resolve of the already-engaged, but perhaps has worried even more those older, pensioned, tremulous Nos.
Yet again, Mason’s challenge to any potential postcapitalist state, and its confidence in its agency and sovereignty, is considerable. Are we up to it, and up for it?
“Pay everyone a basic income.” This relates to a pillar of Mason’s overall historic argument. The organised working classes and their militant demands for better terms and conditions, as a wave of capitalist expansion crests, actually helps the whole system thrive in the long run.
The new social measures they force (from public housing to universal education) improve the capabilities of the worker; and the expensiveness of the labour compel companies to develop more efficient and innovative production technologies.
But neo-liberalism smashed the power of labour over the last 30 years – which meant that, even as the startling powers of info-tech have bedded in, stagnation has been the result. This is because neo-liberalism’s control freakery is essentially happy with the majority of its populations working in low-skill, low-wage,“bullshit” jobs. A basic income is an attempt to kickstart the “workers” end of systemic development again – by removing the opportunity to make a business from bullshit jobs.
Basic income is also a future-oriented response to the prospect of postcapitalist enterprise being much more about non-market behaviours and relations. We will have to start valuing this kind of activity, because the necessary hours of labour in society are due to start rapidly declining, due to automation – which threatens to remove 40% of existing jobs by 2040.
In Mason’s vision, basic income (his levels are £6000 for the BI, with a minimum wage at £18,000) provides a basis on which the techno-mutual society can flourish. It gives people a high economic floor, from which they can strike a new mix – between their jobs (which are now tending towards high-wage, high-skill occupations, employers pushed their by the basic income), and their lives (and loves).
The Scottish pathway towards this is, actually, pretty clear. The late feminist economist Ailsa McKay is perhaps best known in the country for persuading Alex Salmond that a massive investment in childcare would serve a number of positive outcomes – both supporting women’s autonomy, and paying for itself by bringing more women into the labour market.
But it’s not as well known that Ailsa’s next policy horizon was the introduction of a “citizen’s basic income” (CBI) in Scotland (see her Royal Society of Edinburgh policy paper). She’s worth quoting in full:
“In contrast to current social security measures, a CBI does not explicitly link income provision with work. In this sense it can be regarded as an emancipatory measure in that it serves to free individuals from the economic necessity of toil and provides the basis to support a range of welfare enhancing activity undertaken outwith the confines of market based exchanges. A CBI is not merely an alternative to existing social security provision but rather a philosophy aimed at enhancing individual freedom and promoting social justice. In essence providing the basis for securing ‘real freedom for all’.”
Certainly, welfare powers are coming piecemeal to Scotland under devolution, and we can’t get the integrating powers required short of independence. But the Utrecht experiment in basic income seems to be happening at the level of a city or municipality. Are there “Yes” towns, with the required cohesion, patience and municipal vision, that would be willing to take on an experiment – Coatbridge? Dundee? Inverness?
“The network unleashed.” You gotta love Paul Mason for paragraphs like this:
“There is no reason other than exploitation why world-class techniques of automation cannot be applied, for example, to the labour of the sandwich factory or the meat-packing plant. In fact, it is only the availability of cheap, unorganised labour, supported by in-work benefits, that permits these business models to exist. In many industries old disciplines of work – time, obedience, attendance, hierarchy – are enforced only because neoliberalism is suppressing innovation. But they are technologically unnecessary”.
Mason performs a crucial service in the PostCapitalism book – in that he continually smacks you upside your head, and jolts you from the consensus view about how our modern, producing-and-consuming lives should be.
But as I wrote in my first piece on the book in The National a few weeks ago, I think Paul underestimates just how brilliantly seductive those info-capitalists are. The Zuckerberg’s, the Ive’s and Jobs’s, Larry and Sergey and Jeff Bezos and all devote billions designing ways to corral us back into a passive, orderly space with our daily techno-structures.
How we keep mentally and imaginatively escaping from those comfort zones into more dynamic, active visions of our coming society – think the closing credits of Wall-E, where the blobby humans work with their robots to rebuild their world – is a question perhaps for artists most of all. (Pause to mourn the passing of National Collective, now probably more needed than ever).
Luckily, Scotland is not short of what Disney called “imagineering” or “imagineers”. From conceptual artists to science-fiction writers, from games-makers to hard-core researchers, from SF blockbuster scripters to open-source coder communities, we have an embarassment of future-oriented riches.
I facilitated an encouraging conference on Scottish innovation a month ago in Edinburgh – and by far the most exciting contribution came from Glasgow School of Art’s head of design, Irene McAra-McWilliams.
Irene actually suggested a new verb to us all – “to studio”. Meaning that the vibrancy of creative practitioners in Scotland was suggesting new organisational forms that we could begin to scale up across Scotland. A studio (as opposed to a a lab) is about a collective display of work, a space of explicit mutual inspiration and soft prototyping.
From everything that Paul has suggested in his extraordinary, mobilising book, what would a “postcapitalist studio” scene look like in Scotland? Who can build them? From what elements? What would they do?
And BTW, dear Yesser: Do you remember what it felt like, to have the energy to ask all these questions, and find the people around you who might help you answer them – or ask better ones?
You do? OK. So there’s one idea – “modular, self-managed, granular”, as Paul might approvingly say – for the Scottish future. Get his book, read carefully (and with pleasure), and come with a fistful of your own.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer, and an innovation editor for Bella Caledonia (www.patkane.today)