“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. 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 prefigure what comes next.” The Guardian‘s Bookmarks sends us this lengthy discussion of the new world a-birthing, a brave new world of postcapitalist wonder. This is based on Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism published by Allen Lane in UK on 30 July. You can hear him harangue us in a video clip at the Bookmarks link above.
Well it could happen. Free goods might I guess be made by clever robots, which also take care of food production while we all lie around on the beach bestirring ourselves only to collect our weekly remittances from central government. Keynes expected us to be enjoying abundant leisure by this time, as did Dan Dare in The Eagle, a comic from my childhood. It just seems that wicked old capitalism won’t give up its constant drive for profit. Of course that’s the very problem. “Capitalism” unfortunately is a non-sentient, brainless thing which is incapable of recognizing that its days are numbered. Capitalists on the other hand are all-too aware, and are damned if they’ll give up just because the logic of history suggests that they should. I dare say Mr Mason is reluctantly accepting a royalty for his missionary tract, and Penguin Books are certainly not about to distribute it free of charge. So who’ll be the first to do this? If manufacturing costs really do fall to zero or thereabouts — which sounds utterly unlikely — what reason is there to imagine that the savings won’t end up (as they always have) mostly in the pockets of the providers of the capital? Henry Ford allegedly saw that he needed to pay his workers enough so that they could aspire to buy his product. Are we really approaching a point where there are so few jobs that our government will have to take over that role?
A little while back I asked why it might be that it appeared that a company either had to grow or die. I still await the results of the Cato Institute’s brains trust’s investigation of the issue! In the meantime I have decided I actually do know the answer. It all lies in a manager’s need to maximize shareholder value. This is usually referred to as a “fiduciary responsibility” which makes it sound rather legally binding — which maybe it is. But if shareholder value has to be increased in a world where costs inevitably increase, obviously growing the company is the easiest way to achieve the goal. If this need to grow is a consequence of being a public company, then I would claim that publishing “wants” to be private.* What we need to get back to are companies whose motivation is not “increasing shareholder value” but publishing good books as well as possible. There are investors out there who would go for that, just as there always were. They might prefer not to lose their capital, but would regard the publication of a bunch of good books as an adequate dividend. All it will take to get there is an awakening by investors to recognize that higher returns on capital are available in industries other than book publishing. If I’m right that’s inevitable. If I’m wrong, and margins on book publishing can be kept up around 10% to 15%, then post capitalism will remain a gleam in the eye of dreamers.
* Despite my banging on about how publishing need to be getting smaller, here is news of Bertelsmann’s considering increasing their stake in Penguin Books. Clearly Mr Mason’s publishers are not going along with his program. For myself, I’m going to keep on saying it’s just the dark before the dawn.