Paul Mason’s cornucopianism

The commentator Paul Mason has many fans but perhaps he is overrated. His book on ‘Postcapitalism’, for instance, argues that we are in the throes of an upswing to a society of free, abundant goods and information and a world of leisure. Capitalism, he argues, is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions in the context of the ‘digital’ revolution and an emergent ‘information economy’. He recognises the need for political agency. So he argues that ‘digital activism’ can be the gravedigger of the old system.
In his books and a flood of articles, not least in the Guardian, he evidences little understanding of limits-to-growth, the realities of ecological overshoot and the need for a general ‘downsizing in the total human economy as an era of temporary abundance comes to a close
Instead he sees only ‘post-scarcity’. He adheres to a crude model of historical stages and to a modelling of society in terms of watertight ‘systems’ (eg feudalism to capitalism). He also recycles that old reductionism in which the ‘economic base’ determines all else (the ‘superstructure’).
Elsewhere, he has put on similarly rose-tinted spectacles when writing about the various rebellions against the system that he claimed have been/will be “kicking off everywhere”. A complex mosaic of actions and reactions, many far from united or compatible with the long-term common good, are reduced by Mason to a simplistic model of the downtrodden masses rising up for progressive change. The fate of the Arab Spring, the collapse of the Syriza project in Greece or the popularity of the Putins and the Trumps amongst the said masses might give cause for more cautious reflection on who is fighting for what and whether it is really for the better.
In yesterday’s Guardian, Mason returned to another of his themes. In light with his other arguments as above, he see a few big bad guys as the villains of the piece. In the article, he makes the point by the device of suggesting that the James Bond franchise might refresh itself by making 007 target the “global oligarchy” and “greed-inspired madmen”… “the real enemy”
But the real enemy is not just ‘them’ (and Mason has a real point about assorted corporate elites and their cronies) but also “us”. In other words, there is a deep crisis of culture and character, of values, personal priorities and lifestyle preferences, in which most people, not just elites, are complicit.
Often no ill is intended. Bad outcomes are the cumulative consequence of too many people making the same choices. They do so for all sorts of reasons, some reasonable, some less so: physical safety, economic security, convenience, comfort, speed, variety, pleasure, friendship, envy, laziness, ignorance, vanity, myopia, prejudice, crookedness, tunnel vision, group think, wishful thinking, utter fantasy… Whatever the reason, the bottom line is overcrowding, resource depletion, pollution, loss of community cohesion, social fragmentation, discrimination, and many other ills,
Evidence that large numbers of people play an active and sometimes wilful part in the aggravation of such unsustainable trends abounds in the same issue of the Guardian in which Mason’s article is published.
There is, for example, a giant advert for Heathrow expansion which plays on the fact that lots of people want to fly (74 million passengers at Heathrow terminal per annum at present)
There is a news report that 33% of European children are obese or overweight. Some people are indeed ignorant about good nutrition but perhaps many actually enjoy eating junk food and not just because it is ‘cheap’. The masses who throng burger chains are not just gullible dupes of clever advertising but actively prefer to go there for many reasons, not least speed and lack of fuss.
There is also a report on child abuse in Rotherham, a problem that has deep cultural roots and cannot be blamed on economics of any sort. It could well continue ‘postcapitalism’. According to another report, a boom in tourists visiting Iceland is causing housing problems. Presumably those tourists include more than Mason’s ‘global oligarchy’. Elsewhere, it is reported that the Turkish president thinks “family planning is not for Muslims”. On another page, a report documents a boom in sales of Jaguar Land Rovers, “overtaking that half-million mark”. That number suggests plenty of buyers outside the “global oligarchy”,
In short, Mason is painting a seductive picture, the world’s ills put down to a few rotten apples and their cure just around the corner. Sadly, life is a more complicated. Furthermore, there is plenty of hard evidence from writers such as Evgeny Morozov and Geert Lovinck that Mason’s faith in digital activism and the power of political networking is similarly misplaced.


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