It is by now a truism that we live in an era of flux, with the number and frequency of pivotal years for global society (think 1989, 2007, 2011, 2015) increasing beyond our collective ability to make sense of them. It was therefore with great pleasure that we read an essay forwarded to us by a key associate that at least struggles to do exactly that: the former BBC economics correspondent Paul Mason’s The end of capitalism has begun (The Guardian, 17th July 2015).
Mason – who is regarded by some as the most iconic chronicler of the world’s continuing fiscal stupor – posits that capitalism is unravelling because of three interlinked factors: (i) the rise of information technology, which he claims is lessening the need for ‘work’ as conventionally understood; (ii) the subversion of scarce markets by abundant information; and (iii) the rise of collaborative production, a phenomenon which Mason claims is transcendent of managerial and market diktat.
All these elements are intriguing, but on closer inspection it is not at all clear if they are having the effects that Mason claims. Firstly, information technology has done more to demolish the barriers between work and leisure than pretty much anything else in the history of (post-)industrial civilisation: most members of the labour force in developed countries (and a great many beyond) are now permanently connected to electronic information networks. Information technology has also had the effect of opening up new markets and intensifying intra-labour competition – and both of these developments result in more work rather than less.
Secondly, the idea that markets are being undermined by information is deeply questionable; in fact, the exchange of information is creating global markets in practically everything on a scale that may be unprecedented. This is clear to anyone who is selling on the Internet: you never know where your next order is going to come from.
Finally, the rise of collaborative production is certainly a reality, and Mason is right to note that Wikipedia is an enormous and free information product. However, the size of the worldwide info-products market has seen extraordinary recent growth notwithstanding the existence of abundant information. The existence of one has not hampered the blossoming of the other.
So is there any truth to the assertion that capitalism is ending? It is in fact possible to argue that ‘pure’ capitalism in its various iterations (‘free market’, ‘social market’, ‘mixed economy’) ran its course a long time ago because the dominant economic systems prevalent throughout the world are not defined by ownership of the means of production (as most obviously in the nineteenth century) but by bureaucratic hierarchies and debt – office politics and red, red ink. This must be seen within the context of the eternal importance of material stuff: while the opportunity cost of oil is still north of US$5,000.00 per barrel, we cannot be said to have moved beyond relatively primitive means of organising societies.