Tuesday, May 10, 2016


The economics of industrial capitalism comes in waves of roughly fifty years, argues Paul Mason. Each period ends with advancement that leads to a step-change. He identifies these as:

1790-1848 Factory system, steam-powered machinery and canals.

1848-mid1890s Railways, the telegraph, ocean-going steamers, stable currencies and machine-produced machinery.

1890s-1945 Heavy industry, electrical engineering, the telephone, scientific management and mass production.

Late 1940s-2008 Long cycle transistors, synthetic materials, mass consumer goods, factory automation, nuclear power and automatic calculation.

Late 1990s-date (therefore overlapping) Network technology, mobile communications, a truly global marketplace and information goods.

Within the last phase he identifies the seeds that will (must?) lead to post-capitalism. From the freeware on which much computer work is undertaken to Wikipedia putting encyclopedia sales staff out of work, more and more stuff has no pecuniary value. But the last wave has had an extended shelf-life, due inter-alia to the opening of huge new markets in China and India with money to spend. It will end.

Alongside this he has an urgency about climate change. He tells us that we must get used to the idea of leaving 80% of the world's fossil fuel in the ground and untouched; yet the oil companies are valued on the basis that 80% will be accessed. If there is no future for the world in 2050 (a real possibility) then there is no need for a post-anything.

We need to plan for our own redundancies in the sense that fewer and fewer of us will in future need to be paid to work but the world needs us to contribute. 'Once information technology pervades the physical world, every innovation brings us closer to the world of zero necessary work.' How do we solve this?

Well given his Guardian columnist credentials it won't surprise many to learn that the right will pull up the drawbridge against any or all of his ideas. But the final chapter is strongly argued that pretty soon there will be no choice. Public ownership. Profit no longer the motive. The end of greed. Save the world. That sort of thing.

It was legislation that stopped the big corporations from child labour and slavery. Only legislation will get rid of McJobs and make multi-nationals care about the environment. What's the alternative?

Well-written and challenging by the economics editor of Channel 4 news.

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