The literary emissions of the left are hardly ever enjoyable, but they can be instructive. Last year Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century became one of the biggest-selling political books of the year. Like a thousand-page Soviet report on tractor production, it hardly seemed intended to be read. The point of its success was that it could be said to ‘prove’ the left’s argument. They could then hit their opponents over the head with it and move to the next stage. Last year they questioned some premises of capitalism and now Paul Mason, the economics editor of Channel 4 News (and Spectator diarist), is here to say that capitalism is in fact over.
The central argument of his new book Postcapitalism is that ‘neoliberalism’ — which he characterises as an entity designed to destroy the working class and the welfare state — has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt. In gathering evidence for his argument, the reporter travels from Moldova to America by way of Greece. And if anybody feels concern about his central claim, then they can take comfort in his certainty that whatever comes next will be fairer and more just. If anybody thinks they have read all that before, it is because they have. For decades.
At least since the 19th century, whole libraries have grown up making the claim that capitalism has had its day. Most of these works have been written in a spirit of hopefulness that has come to nothing. And not just because they are so grudging about the fact that capitalism has raised more people out of poverty than any other financial system in history. Nor just because they remain deaf to the beautiful irony that capitalism remains the only financial system in history so benevolent that it makes even its most feverish critics rich.
The unspoken source of the problems — and the cause of the prolific book production — is that if capitalism is such a dreadful system, why has it kept trumping all their alternatives? A whole left-wing literature of consolation and self-reassurance has tried to speak to this conundrum. And always, but always, there is the hope that if we dive back into the prophet’s work we might find the missing clue. Which is why there is always a chapter, as there is in Mason’s book, asking ‘Was Marx right?’
Yet from Marx to Mason, the most striking thing about this seam of literature is that it always underestimates its opponents while overestimating its own increasingly byzantine theories. It is perhaps forgivable that Mason’s road map for what happens next is vaguer than his ‘how we got here’ portion. But it is illustrative that this puts so much emphasis on what has fuzzily become known as ‘the sharing economy’. This is the idea that entities like Airbnb — a website on which you can rent out rooms or whole homes — will change the way in which we make transactions, making things more personable and peer-to-peer. The left are putting a lot of hope in it. They shouldn’t.
I have a friend who lets her spare room on Airbnb. Every week she checks the price of hotels in her area and offers her spare room for a few pounds less. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not ‘sharing’: it is simply undercutting existing service providers. Entities that are successful at this will eventually float on the stock market and make their inventors rich. In the meantime, some of us will get cheaper accommodation as hotels and Airbnb compete, while some of us will remain loyal to places we just like. But all this is not a demonstration that capitalism has lost its capacity to adapt, rather that it is still adapting — as it always has done — in new and innovative ways.
However, Mason and his readers — whom I met at a Guardian discussion we did together last week — do not want to hear much of this. They prefer apocalypse to boom, so long as the apocalypse proves them right. And there are very few concessions to reality along the way. So whereas only a maniac from the right would pretend that the behaviour of certain banks did not contribute to the present global downturn, a diminishing number of figures on the left seem willing to concede that excessive personal or national debt (with very little to show for its accumulation) were another cause of the same. Bad banks driven by bad capitalism are the only causes of our calamity.
Then there is Greece. Mason’s reputation has deservedly grown in recent months through his interesting and animated reports from the epicentre. But his diagnosis is all wrong. He blames the Greek crisis on neoliberalism and capitalism as a whole, while seeming oddly unbothered by Greek corruption or the faulty construction of the EU and eurozone as causal factors. This is much like reporting a drink-driving accident but blaming the crash on the invention of automobiles.
Elsewhere, we stumble on the now traditional left-wing bogeymen. So we read of places where labour can be got for free, ‘as in the American prison system or Nazi death camps’. And later Mason writes, ‘In Gaza, in August 2014, I spent ten days in a community being systematically destroyed by drone strikes, shelling and sniper fire.’ Nothing about Hamas rocket-fire or any context about a long-running war. Instead he describes this apparently naked aggression as an example of ‘how ruthlessly the elite will react’ to defend modern capitalism. But why would anyone bomb Gaza to do that? As well as holding many of the other worst views in the world, are Hamas also in possession of a particularly devastating critique of late capitalism?
Oddly enough, the recent batch of left-wing doom and conspiracy books, from those of Russell Brand and Owen Jones to the more serious and informed Mason, point to a unified worldview. This sees human beings in democracies not as people with free will and unimaginable potential, but as inanimate beings to whom things are done. If you have over-borrowed, then some mean lender made you borrow. If you are an individual, a loan company will have been to blame; if you are a nation, then the fault is Germany’s.
After digesting all these tomes which keep getting ahead of their own arguments, it seems very much to be the politics of the left, rather than capitalism, which are coming to the end of their ability to adapt.