Talkin’ ‘Bout Capitalism

Now and then, at the end of the day, my partner and I sometimes end up talking about capitalism — what it is, what it does, what it encourages, what it does and/or does not allow.  We observe that it seems to foster creativity and innovation, but we wonder whether it’s part of its nature to then squash any truly status-quo-challenging pursuits.  We don’t know whether or not it contains within itself the capacity for facing and solving the problems it has caused. These are sincere questions.


Not long after one of these late-night conversations, I randomly came across this lecture by Paul Mason, recipient of the Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize, published in the New Statesman on June 12, and it attracted my interest. Keynes, Mason says, believed that capitalism (barring unforeseen circumstances) would have to end up providing for the well-being of all. But Mason disagrees, or rather points out that the circumstances that followed Keynes’ prediction were indeed unforeseen, and as a result of these circumstances, most recently the rise of information technology, capitalism has evolved into a system that can’t support itself indefinitely. (In my words, I would say that the system is unsustainable).

Mason describes the economic impact of a situation “where large amounts of information are produced and exchanged at negligible real prices, if not for free.”  He argues,

Consider the social implications: if the cost of information goods tends towards zero, and the ability to standardise and virtualise the manufacture of real things also rapidly reduces their cost, the real price of labour will also fall because a) supply exceeds demand and b) the input costs fall.

That is what I think underpins the surprise outcome of the neoliberal revolution: the impoverishment of the developed-world working class. It looks like the outcome of class struggle and defeat, but it may also be the product of a one-time technology event.

Mason goes on to point out specific ways in which the phenomenon of the concentration of wealth constrains people’s movement, speech, choice, and wellness.  The examples he gives, like the protester being kicked by the official, resonate with his analysis; really, they are just a very few of the many possible events, public and private, that could be cited.

Yet Mason also notes that the new information technology and culture have led to a flourishing of “non-managed, peer-produced, non-market activity based around information” — all the content and all the software that people are creating and giving away for free.  “Non-market activity”!  Those are good words, to me.  Activity that exists outside of the market?  Really?  It can exist?  What an important site of production.  Mason thinks that it has the potential, if not the destiny, to unravel capitalism itself.

What most stood out to me in this lecture, however, might have been nothing more than a quirk of phraseology.  Toward the end of the essay, he writes:

If we avoid this dire outcome, it will because the forces for good, for understanding and knowledge and restraint are also being strengthened by technology. I think we should imagine new technology creating the world of abundance Keynes longed for, but it is likely to be decoupled from the question of pure GDP growth and compound interest.

It won’t happen by 2030. It will not be the transition Marxists imagined, led by the state suppressing market forces, but a transition based on the controlled dissolution of market forces by abundant information and a delinking of work from income. I call this – following economists as diverse as Peter Drucker and David Harvey – post-capitalism. In making it happen, the main issue is not economics but power, and it revolves around who can envisage and create the better life.

It’s this language of imagination that compels me.  “Creating the world of abundance … decoupled from the question of …” What he’s calling for, or maybe just observing the need for, is a paradigm shift.  Can we imagine a world of abundance?  One that’s based on something other than the working models of the current economic system?  Can we imagine that?  I think we NEED to devote a lot of our attention to imagining that, and imagining the tools that we would need to get there.

I love the last line of this passage.  It points to the idea that power, as it is currently aligned, stands in the way of any type of paradigm change.  It states that “the better life,” hopefully the sustainable life, is something that needs to be envisaged, visualized, envisioned (or held as a vision), and created, emerging from our creativity, imagined and brought into being.  My interpretation: that the practice of envisioning a better world, of a different order entirely, must be nurtured and spread, until so many people are doing it that it begins to have power of its own.


Mason ends the lecture by claiming that “the true Keynesian thing to do is to imagine a humanist future based on abundance and freedom, and explore what tools we have that might make it come about. There is no better time to imagine it.”

Social change needs imagination right now.  Ok, it needs a lot of things.  And one of those things is imagination.  From school to business to personal relationships.  From science and technology to human services to politics.  Everybody has imagination.  It is a truly vast, undertapped resource (here in America in the present day).

If imagination were truly valued in America, would we stand for companies buying out promising innovators with planet-saving solutions simply to shut them down? Or companies like Monsanto buying the research firms that test their products for safety?

Would we cut every imagination-developing class from our public schools?

Why does anyone wonder why we haven’t yet imagined, on a mass scale, a sustainable society?

And who does the status quo serve?

It is said that every system does exactly what it is designed to do.

What is our system doing?

Is that really the best we can imagine?

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