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Is capitalism “mutating” into an infotech utopia?

9781846147388I was privileged to be invited by the St. Paul’s Institute to discuss (on the 3 November) the thesis in Paul Mason’s recent book Post Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future with a keynote speech from the author.

Mason’s book is both a riveting and intellectually exhilarating read. It challenged me at a range of levels, and has added considerably to my list of must-read books. However, I have strong disagreements with Mason, and these are outlined in my review, published as a PRIME e-publication.

I disagree primarily with his assumption that capitalism is subject to Kondratieff waves or “mutations”. The implication is that these waves are “natural” and unavoidable – beyond human agency. I strongly disagree. We have subordinated capitalism to the interests of society before – during the Golden Age of Economics from 1945 – 1971 – and can do so again.

Second, Mason is preoccupied by profits. I consider profits to be an out-of-date account of the rise in capitalist wealth, which is now accumulated as capital gains by the new, expanded and more ruthless rentier capitalism.

Third, Mason is optimistic about technology’s ability to eliminate pricing, to free up knowledge and to empower society to act collaboratively and with a “general intellect”. While I share some of that optimism, I see new technology as intensifying exploitation – by barring access to society’s collective public goods, and by transferring all risk on to today’s increasingly insecure working class – the precariat. Above all Mason’s optimism about technology’s role in our future means that he never fully grasps the nettle of ecological limits.

To download the review in full, click here


  1. Bazza says:

    Yes I believe in human agency and perhaps we beat capitalism by democratic socialist imagination and I have just had a Eureka moment to address climate change, road noise and traffic C02 pollution.
    Why don’t we have solar cars with solar panels on the roofs making cars electric.
    No more profits for petrol companies etc. but we could have a global public social enterprise leading on this and giving surpluses back to local communities (by country – we need to think big) before big business nicks the idea for profit.
    As left wing academics have said the state often puts in the heavy living of research and development then the private sector comes in to suck up the profits.
    The capitalists know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
    We also need to get public control of new technology to benefit, serve, and LIBERATE humanity (20 hour working weeks) instead of benefitting the rich and powerful globally!

  2. David Pavett says:

    This is a strange piece by Ann Pettifor.

    I don’t know what to make of sentences like ” I consider profits to be an out-of-date account of the rise in capitalist wealth, which is now accumulated as capital gains by the new, expanded and more ruthless rentier capitalism.”

    I don’t even understand the English of the sentence. How can profits be “an account” (out-of-date or otherwise)?

    I turned to the full review and became no clearer. What I found was “But profits are a very old-fashioned notion for today’s capitalists. Profits from production involve engagement with the Land (in the broadest sense of the word) and Labour. Engagement with the Land implies limits – the ecosystem’s limits.”

    But quite apart from that there is something about this article that merits attention w.r.t. debating economic strategy in the Labour Party.

    It is clear from this article and other writings of AP that she thinks that there is no essential conflict between workers and capitalists (except the finance variety) and that economics is a technical matter of understanding how government can best facilitate markets. On this view if people with the right understanding are in charge then capitalism can be made to serve everyone’s interest.

    On this account socialism is a dead duck, what we need is managed capitalism. It is, of course, an old argument but it is now back with a vengeance. It is the view of the majority of the members of John McDonnell’s advisory panel of economists. Joseph Stiglitz, for example argued in his book Whither Socialism? that socialism has been a complete failure and has no economic credibility.

    They have a right to that view of course but it surely raises a question (or several) about the medium to long-term aims of Labour’s economic and political policy. Is socialism back on the agenda – even as a distant objective? If it is then it has to be said that it does not appear to be reflected in John McDonnell’s advisory panel.

    Ann Pettifor says in her book Just Money

    I have always believed that an alliance between Labour and Industry is important if Finance is to be effectively challenged. … We do not need a social revolution. We simply have to reclaim knowledge and understanding of money and finance; knowledge that has been available for many centuries”.

    Stiglitz says in his Whither Socialism?

    Where he [Marx] erred was in his ability to forecast how technology would evolve. But how could he! No one, even a hundred years ago, could have forcasted the twists and turns that modern technology has taken, from computer-driven manufacturing to genetic engineering. It is these changes, in the end, that doomed socialism”.

    These economists have a right to their views but don’t the rest of us also have the right to ask whether economists who think that there are purely technical solutions to capitalism’s problems and that socialism was buried with the collapse of the Soviet Union are best placed to give advice to Labour’s leaders that will take our economy in a fundamentally different and non-capitalist direction?

  3. David Ellis says:

    Having ditched their belief in the historic mission of the working class these pundits are reduced to this wishful thinking garbage. Is there anybody who really thinks capitalism is mutating into `an info tech’ utopia? Even those who write about it? To ask the question is to answer it.

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