Debating the strategic insights of Paul Mason on a phase transition towards the commons society

Henry Tam and Pat Conaty, both eminent cooperativist thinkers in the UK, square it out on the value of Paul Mason’s prescriptions in his book on PostCapitalism:

I. The questions by Henry Tam:

“I listened to the interview with Paul Mason, and it prompted a few thoughts. His book may deal with some of the points I raise below. I have for some time been sceptical about the logic and the helpfulness in conjoining predictions of the end of capitalism as we know it; over-optimistic celebration of the age of zero-marginal-cost abundance; and the core task of building a cooperative commons economy.

1. Is the age of abundance coming?

Mason, like Rifkin, propounds this uber-utopian vision of the zero-marginal-cost society with an abundance of goods and services. He likes to see wages de-linked from work. So what will become the basis for generating purchasing power? He talks about basic income for all, but how will the government secure the revenue to pay it out if it can no longer tax wages/salaries or profits. I strongly support basic income, but only in the context of it as a mechanism of redistributing revenue earned by individuals and organisations. I believe there are good reasons for championing the cooperative-commons agenda, but ‘the age of abundance’ argument is both flawed and potentially counter-productive where it gives the misleading impression that the case for our preferred alternative is based on a highly unlikely scenario (the technology may well make it possible to ‘print a car’ and all the other things people need and want, but who will design and mass produce [and hand out for free] these 3-D replicators? Who will coordinate the production of steel, medicine, food, robots, etc so the promised abundance does not turn into frequent shortage?

2. Is the neoliberal form of capitalism about to be superseded?

If Marx is right that capitalist economies will have periodic crises; but he is not so accurate as to how such crises will transition to something else. Late nineteenth century capitalist systems hit the crises of the 1920s/1930s and gave way to social democratic forms of capitalism; but the crisis of the 1970s opened the door to the rise of Thatcherite/Reagnite neoliberal capitalism that is now corroding even the Scandinavian economies. And what comes next could be variants of oligarchic capitalism, or some areas may collapse into anarchic chaos until a powerful few rise up and dictate terms to create quasi-robber baron capitalism. The instability of the capitalist system is not a sign that a more cooperative socio-economic order is on its way. The post-2008 experience of the UK that has ushered in two successive right-wing administrations is a painful enough reminder of that.

3. Are cooperative-commons enterprises on an upward trajectory?

There are lots of encouraging examples, but scaling up has always been a key problem. When the accumulation of capital is fuelled by the profit motive, it routinely produces a pool of resources for investment. Cooperativist development agencies are needed to generate sufficient support for cooperative/commons initiatives. And knowing that something can be done is a long way from doing it. I was the previous Labour Government’s lead for supporting a range of social and community innovations, and while that has given me the confidence that new approaches can take root, I’m also acutely aware that it takes a lot of sustained promotion and investment to get different practices adopted. And getting small cooperative groups to cooperate is often difficult, and where they have joined forces to become big organisations, remoteness can set in and those at ‘the top’ then forget about their original mission – the temptation of demutualisation etc then comes knocking on the door.

4. Why ignore the real problem of power inequality?

Neoliberal ideology is pernicious ultimately because of its inclination to reinforce a vastly unequal power structure so a few (in their case, those who know how to brigade natural, human and mechanised resources into a process that will generate rewards predominantly for themselves) can dictate terms to others in society. The challenge is not so much how to redesign work (many cooperative commons pioneers know how to do that), but how to redesign decision-making at work. Organisations – commercial and state-run – must be radically democratised so that all stakeholders can have a meaningful say in setting priorities, allocating responsibilities, and dividing up the proceeds from their joint efforts.

5. What will enable people to embrace a more open and inclusive form of life?

I doubt the visioning of the imminent displacement of the prevailing economic system by a sharing-caring age of abundance is really that helpful. What would be?

[1] the promotion of awareness and understanding of how cooperative commons approaches can work, and work better (something colleagues on this email list do brilliantly);

[2] the creation of opportunities for people to join or set up such enterprises (at present, there is a big gap between hearing about the inspiring examples and getting to set one up one or just joining one); and

[3] we need government legislation to redistribute power in companies, between companies, and across society, so workers-producers are not so insecure that they would not dare to try some different form of working lest they lose their jobs, or if they fail in their new enterprise, they would have no safety net to land on.”

II. The response from Pat Conaty:

“1. Is the age of abidance coming?

Mason’s analysis is not rosy. It is balanced. Not to take action radically though he shows as socially and ecologically suicidal. He does address all the questions you are raising so pertinently Henry. This is why his book is so key. Both Rifkin and Naomi Klein in their latest books leave you concerned about how precisely we can make the transition practically. Both stresses that a commons model of production is emerging potentially to provide us hope that is practical. Mason agrees and he uses Kondratiev and Marx and Benkler and Bauwens to argue and show the transition needs to be over a long cycle of a 50 year or so K-wave but the key thing about Kondratiev’s analysis as he shows so well is that the crucial part of the K-wave is the breakthrough required with new systems in the first 25 years.

But Mason shows this is no ordinary K-wave historically because we are talking about a new mode of production, not another late phase of capitalism. Why because as both JS Mill, Marx and Keynes forecast, falling rate of profit of the crisis of a stationary state will herald a new entirely different mode of production. Mill as Heilbroner showed was the last of the utopian socialists and forecast a co-operative commonwealth. However for such a new mode to emerge that Mason sees is a co-operative commons mode, we must open up the possibilities. Here he shows that capitalism will have to be re-regulated for the common good. He draws upon Keynes and post Keynesians like Steve Keen to show how we will need to use the state to bring finance and capital under control. He uses the wonderful term ‘financial repression’ to describe this so well in the last few chapters of the book.

So the Mason analysis here is similar to Gar Alperovitz’s work on America after capitalism that shows ways and means to tackle usury and rentier capitalism. Not sure if Mason is familiar with Alperovitz and his arguments for a pluralist commonwealth as he does not cite him. Mason though similarly argues for a pluralist approach with a new set of enlightened politicians (hopeful here for a new left) supporting proactively the new mode of production while at the same time using regulation and planning to radically reform capitalism. But as he stresses, we are not starting from a blank page given the existing large share of the state in the GDP – 40% plus (60% in Denmark) in developed and many developing countries.

Therefore it is crucial that with active civil society organisations the state needs to becomes a hand in glove partner for the new co-operative commons mode of production. So essentially he is arguing for a public-social partnership approach as the answer to neoliberalist austerity that is leading us fast to rack and ruin. But he sees the struggle for operationalising this collaborative working in this vein as being crucial to get into serious gear over the next decade some how and some way. Moreover to underpin the urgency Mason powerfully sets out sobering facts to highlight that unless we do so, the global pension industry will implode, bullshit jobs and precarious work will escalate and the climate change will fry us. Another global banking crisis will lead not to a bailout but a bail in of depositor funds as governments cannot borrow like they have already now done.

2. Is the liberal form of capitalism about to be superseded?

Mason makes all these points and shows that this pessimistic scenario you paint and the rise of the oligarchic right and fascism in many places is a present and growing danger. His argument is for a new approach of revolutionary reformism with as I indicate above a presentation of the new mode of production as indeed Keynes did with his monetary and fiscal reforms in the 1930s and the huge role for planning then as an approach we need to remake the case for. Here his analysis is fresh and realistic as it does build on the best of the welfare state achievements and recovers these but uses the scope to advance automation, tackle the tech and de facto banking monopolies to put an end to bullshit jobs. But a Keynesian social democracy approach is not sufficient as he shows. Hence the need for the new commons and co-operative mode aligning with a radical state to collaboratively co-develop postcapitalism with the commons being the focal point for where we need to evolve to over the next 50 years. Mason is sound, very strategic and clear this is a long march but one that needs to begin now like with the efforts to address climate change and to tackle austerity with new practical policies needed for implementation as soon as entry places can be found.

3. Are co-operative commons enterprises on an upward trajectory?

Here is where Mason is weak as he is not so aware of the detail you set out so well from your former position Henry as a senior civll servant in the Department of Communities and Local Government under Blair and then Brown. But Mason shows very clearly that unless the small and good commons and co-operative projects become more aware of the repressive neoliberal forces and how to overcome these positively and practically with an alliance with the state, they will be contained, held back and remain what Paul Hawken points to as the Blessed Unrest. But I think as a former civil servant you will see that the macro-level policies Mason sets out and his new approach to planning could indeed enable the co-operative commons to emerge. What I love about Mason’s book is that his analysis provides a wonderful higher level complement to your work and books Henry, to John Restakis book on Co-operatives in the Age of Capital and for example the recent book by Co-operatives UK, The Co-operative Advantage, that studies in detail 15 parts of the co-operative economy in the UK. In my view all these perspectives can benefit from an analysis that has been missing and that Mason supplies and Klein, Rifkin and Piketty leave us a deep hunger for. He goes way beyond the lack of radical politics and in depth analysis of capitalism that Rifkin is silent about and that though I love her book, Klein does not know the detail to talk about in the way Mason does.

4. Why ignore the real problem of power inequality?

Mason is very good on the problem of course of the perverse and growing inequality and the 1%. He even makes a good case for persuading some of them to support the new commons mode. His previous book on the 2008 crisis, Melt Down, is one of the best out there. But I agree with you that Mason’s book does not delve into this area and he may not be so aware of new forms of economic democracy and how these are needed to restructure and eradicate hierarchy. However he is well aware of the great new work on manager less corporations that worker co-operatives and commons co-ops could and should embrace. But this great practical work exists is emergent as Mason does point to and can be fitted in. Most co-ops have a binary system of governance and the multi-stakeholder democracy models for co-ops are still at the margins. But interest is growing and but also many commons projects lack effective multi-lateral co-operative governance and can and should learn from the best co-operatives where these exist. On the other hand as Michel, Silke and David show, some commons though are leading the way here and can and should cross pollinate co-ops and help us work out new forms of horizontal democracy and indeed vis. local governments.

5. What will enable people to embrace a more open and inclusive form of life?

These are great suggestions you make. But the new technology that Uber and AirBnB are using to extract rent/profit, raise house prices in the case of AirBnb and destroy jobs in the case of Uber can if turned on their head provide open platforms for enabling co-operative solutions to take off in ways you describe. Mason shows this so well. Like Evgeny Morozov shows so well, we need to socialise and democratise the platforms. One interesting story that you will love Henry is the references here and there by Mason to sci-fi book written by the Russian socialist Alexander Bogandov a century ago about Mars and a peaceful transition to co-operative commonwealth. Bogandov was the founder of systems theory and complexity science and a bitter opponent of Lenin. This tale is captivating as Boganov wanted to connect democracy, co-operative control of work and science and social technology with the ability of states to plan. I have been captivated by Bogdanov since the 1970s. The juggling act here is not easy but Mason provides confidence and facts to show it can and must be done to secure as the late Raymond Williams argued, a compelling case For Hope to be made more concrete and Despair less convincing.”

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