Tear gas burns the eyes, nose and skin. Without access to first aid, there’s not much you can do but run for cover and try to wash it out with water – or cry it out. The air was thick with the acrid gas as the global financial crisis hit Greece in 2008, which set in motion a debt crisis the country is yet to recover from. In December, young Greeks faced off with riot police in Athens’ Syntagma Square and anger towards failed economic policies came to life in billowing plumes of yellowy smoke.
While tear gas may cause temporary sensory deprivation, it can also lead to moments of clarity. Or, so it was for writer Paul Mason. As Mason watched events unfold on the streets of Greece, he cast his mind back to September that year: wandering around with a TV news crew outside the headquarters of the collapsed investment bank Lehman Brothers, as newly redundant employees put their possessions in cardboard boxes and went home for the last time. He thought too about how he’d seen the internet reshaping society since his time as a tech journalist.
Mason began to connect the dots: this crisis isn’t going away. This train of thought led him to his provocative book Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future. Mason offers a terminal diagnosis of the current order and a glimpse of what a new world might look like – and its seeds are already visible all around us.
Through the clouds of tear gas in Greece, Mason saw young people challenging authority by using the technologies, networks and philosophies that he believes will form the building blocks of what comes next. “By creating millions of networked people, financially exploited but with the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away, info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being,” he writes.
You Are The Future
But, who will drive the movement for a brighter, post-capitalist world? It will be a young, tech-savvy and networked grassroots who will leverage their new tools to overturn the power of entrenched elites and rewrite the rules of the game. It’s the connected beings – savvy humans like you – who will use parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed online spaces to build a better future. “The people who make this work are your generation,” Mason tells Huck. “Your generation have the tools and nativity to digital communication. They’ll do this all much better. In many ways, my generation will be seen as a transitional set of people. Of whom some got it, like me. And probably a majority didn’t get it.”
As Channel 4 News economics editor, Mason has been reporting from the frontlines of the financial crisis. He’s seen young people leading the charge to dismantle the decaying, established order. But Greece is where Mason saw the future come into focus. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, people predicted depression and uprisings. “But there were none, except in this one place: Greece,” Mason explains. “The riots of 2008 were worse than any of the other riots we’ve seen since. We had this youth uprising of the precariat [economically insecure (usually) young people] – and academic studies have shown it was the precariat – who were on the streets for two weeks. The first S&P downgrade of Greece in 2009 [which lowered the country’s credit rating] was because of the riots of 2008. I realised then there would be acute social crisis in Greece.”
Mason argues that the 2008 financial crisis was just the tip of the iceberg: our economy is broken. The rise of information technology has pushed capitalism beyond its capacity to adapt by dissolving markets, destroying ownership and breaking down the relationship between work and wages. As stagnation leads to social crisis, armed conflict and the erosion of democracy, a more dynamic force will emerge to reshape the economy around new values. So, where do we begin?
Unplugging From The Matrix
Moving towards postcapitalism requires pulling your energy and time out of the mainstream economic and financial system, to put more of yourself into non-economic things you really care about, says Mason. Things that make the world a better place – positive projects whose benefits can’t be measured by economists in monetary terms or GDP figures. It means rejecting the prevailing neoliberal economic theory that says you are just a utility-maximising (e.g. selfish, money-driven) individual, to invest yourself in things that matter.
“Until postcapitalism appears, you’ll have to have a part of you inside the main system, and you have to work to the system’s values and play the game,” Mason explains. “There are a few idiots that do live the dream, but in most workplaces they’re despised. So you play the game, you do what’s necessary. You do the ten per cent extra that meets all the emotional labour requirements. You go to the Christmas party, you go to the away-day, you take part in the paintballing. But you take another percentage of yourself and you put it into the emerging post-capitalist world.”
The shape that world takes is up to you, he says. “It’s mundane as that, it’s things that have always existed which become quasi-economic,” Mason explains. “Surfing has been playing that function since the 1960s. It’s an incredible buzz, it’s an incredible lifestyle. And once you’re in it, it’s not capitalism. Well, unless you’re Kelly Slater… You can spend your money on it, but it creates a network and becomes life-fulfilling, wellbeing-enhancing and identity-creating. Surfing is a good example, but you could equally choose politics, activism or whatever. The point about postcapitalism is that the economic becomes non-economic.”
Across southern Europe, he’s seen a promising explosion of grassroots solutions to problems created by the financial crisis. “What the crisis did was it forced ordinary people to do things that up to then only hippies had done,” he explains. “So, squatting places, seed banks, time banks, car pools, basic things like that.” He mentions progressive academic Manuel Castells, who has documented the rise of the cooperative economy in Spain. Castells found one in three people have lent money to non-relatives without interest, building a peer-to-peer financial network free of centralised control. Together with the rise of community currencies like the Brixton Pound, it’s a sign that growing numbers are embracing solutions outside the marketplace.
Trade Skills, Not Cash
One of the most powerful forces unleashed by the internet has been the Open Source movement. Programmes like Linux have been built over decades by thousands of people contributing their skills to move the project forward – and the results are free for everyone to use. Upsetters Wikipedia have destroyed the old model of profiting from information by locking it away and charging people for access. Its open editing has allowed it to grow faster than a commercial operation ever could and its advertising-free setup is believed to deprive the ad industry of $3 billion per year.
The internet has weakened the link between work and wages which underpins the capitalist system, but Mason proposes severing the link entirely – moving to trading and sharing skills, rather than working for a paycheque. If you’re publishing an indie mag, making short films or putting on gigs with no budget – just by calling in favours from your mates and offering the same in return – you’re already sowing the seeds of the post-capitalist revolution. Citizen journalists like Brazil’s Mídia Ninja, who have built a horizontal, grassroots network of volunteer reporters across the country are another great example. They livestream whatever is happening on the streets without censorship and have overturned the official narrative more than once.
“People will start to create things without being paid for them, in the knowledge that some well-being will come back to them in society.”
It’s a model that works when there aren’t many jobs around, or in places like Greece where austerity has sucked cash out of the country. “Most of the valid journalistic activity in Greece right now is being done by young people who couldn’t get a job in the highly corrupt TV media, which doesn’t pay any tax, doesn’t have a licence to broadcast and is politically controlled by oligarchs,” he explains. “What’s really going on is the swapping of time for influence, for favours – you’re probably buying pictures and footage off each other, and so on. It’s on the edges between capitalism and cooperation. To me, this is actually more interesting in some ways than open-source projects or a co-op, it’s the way the non-economic is invading the world.”
This cultural shift leads to more meaningful jobs and happier people, which is what excites Mason most. “What is the standard activity that I find people doing in one of the offices of one of those small Greek publications?” he asks. “It’s sitting on the balcony smoking. Young boys, young girls, basically having a great time talking about the world. That’s one of their main activities. I find that good. They wouldn’t be doing that if they worked for a normal company.”
Like other cities in Europe and Latin America, Utrecht recently began experimenting with the basic income by offering all citizens an unconditional sum to help cover living costs. Mason is a strong supporter of using the basic income to “formalise the separation of work and wages and subsidise the transition to a shorter working week, or day, or life.” He sees it as a key part of the post-capitalist transition and gives people the chance to volunteer, set up co-ops, edit Wikipedia, learn new skills and build their place in the non-market economy. “It subsidises the de-linking of work with wages,” he explains. “Once you’ve done that, people will start to create things without being paid for them, in the knowledge that some well-being will come back to them in society.”
The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s heroin-fuelled, visionary frontman Anton Newcombe was an early poster boy for postcapitalism. In Ondi Timoner’s cult documentary Dig!, he declared war on the music industry “mafia” in the late ’90s and did everything he could to bring them down. “I’m not for sale,” he thundered. “I’m fucking Love, do you understand what I’m saying? Like, the Beatles were for sale. I give it away.” He recorded albums for peanuts and put out music free to sink their business model, before the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing nearly completed the job for him.
The industry saw off the challenge by belatedly embracing online music sales, but Mason argues their days are numbered. “iTunes is one of the clearest examples of how monopolies can suppress supply and demand,” he explains. “The supply of a digital song on iTunes is infinite, but 99p per track is simply there because Apple decrees it to be so.”
Newcombe now asserts his right to royalties, but his relationship with the music industry hasn’t improved. “Fuck these satanic corporations,” he raged on Twitter earlier this year. iTunes music store has evolved into the subscription-based Apple Music, but Mason remains confident that any company which stands in the way of the free flow of digital information won’t be able to survive. “The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial,” Mason writes. “Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy, between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigures what comes next.”
As more and more of our lives become freely and infinitely replicable ones and zeros, and the production costs of physical items fall to insignificant levels, it will destroy the market’s ability to set prices and alternative forms of exchange will rise to dominate. “You can see lots of people are already self-producing music tracks,” he explains. “The value isn’t zero, but it isn’t a lot. The extent to which producing sandwiches or coffee becomes like producing a selfie, that’s what postcapitalism is. We’ll know we’re in a post-capitalist world if people go on producing things when their value is zero.”
Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future is out now, published by Allen Lane.
This article originally appeared in Huck 53 – The Change Issue.