Capitalism: dying, or presenting new opportunities?

Is capitalism dying? Paul Mason’s thesis, and the subject of his now well-publicised book, is that it is. But is this a theory or just a well, kinda idea? And in any case, does it have real weight? Or as one reviewer put it, is it ‘deeply misguided‘? It’s a question, in the end, of how you classify capitalism – as a dogma and political agenda, or a human instinct – and whether you are analysing from a utopian or dystopian worldview. 

Is capitalism dying?

Really this depends on how you define capitalism (with a small, or big, C). In one sense capitalism is merely a kind of viral wave form in its purest state – the manifestation of the need to own and control that is just human nature, evolved from a position of existence in environments of scarcity (real or perceived). This won’t go away unless we do (which we might).

I think the statements that we will simply ‘become’ different people is a tad naive and strays some distance from his expertise – by which I mean, light years beyond, as Mason is at heart an economist. In fact, one of the core aspects of criticism to his ‘thesis’ is that while he makes many swingeing claims, most of the digital and tech forces that he arrays in his discussion have a principally commercial application and implication. Countervaling this – what doesn’t?

Big C Capitalism is being forcibly evolved

In any case, capitalism as an idea of the human need to have ‘things’ and seek ‘ownership’ seems  – counter to Mason – to be pretty robust, no matter how irrational at some levels. But Capitalism with a big old C, the historical and political dogma that has grown up around the core of economic behaviour, and has forged and driven the Western Democratic political, economic, social – and military and industrial – ecumene of the 20th and at least the start of the 21st Centuries, both has to evolve and is being forcibly changed.

Size matters: it’s not change, but its nature and scale, that counts

But are we looking at an adjustment or change rather than a removal of the capitalist imperative…well for a start if anyone imagines that the system will go quietly that is ridiculous; but are we seeing here a quantitative or qualitative shift?

One hypothesis is that it’s effectively quantitative, that the system (not the near universal instinct) will just adapt. An increase or decrease of various factors will evolve it. But its nature won’t change.

The tipping point: when does quantitative become qualitative change?

Maybe, but at what point does that adaptation fundamentally alter the structure and nature of the system? I think there will be a tipping point beyond which the current way we do things will be unrecognizable from the standpoint of today’s Capitalist ‘system’. But that absolutely will not happen without major alterations in the way we govern and transmit power and not just within business, but across societies, organisations and global culture.

Failures – what lets down this argument?

A main failure here is that it’s seen as tech first and then inevitable follow through if economic model change. The real things that limit positive change are as he kinda sorta talks about, social and cultural, which are slower and messier. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge that this is the limiting factor enough.

Another key factor that marks this out as incomplete, at this level, is that while he talks through the idea that capitalist models are merely adapting, citing new economic interactions taking place in areas where substantial economic shockwaves have forced standard models of exchange to be set aside – using the example of how individuals and organisations in Greece are seeking new economic behaviours and new ways of transacting to sustain activity and make life viable (sharing schemes, cooperative activity).

New economic models, or old models in new clothes? Opportunity, or full stop?

A consideration here is that in a sense, these new economic models are already being developed in the wider economy and therefore are just being used in the way they are intended – for instance, barter economics + mobile phones = new business model. Another, perhaps more sophisticated analysis of this is that the failures/shortcomings of large-scale global commercial and economic planning, together with the increasingly flexible and personal technologies we can all use and more fine-grain and usable data, is driving not just consumer technology, but behaviouristic and economic models, closer to the human level.

In this context, a key avenue of exploration for today’s major organisations remains to explore personalised technologies – but another is to explore the personal economy – the ‘market of one’ or few in which we increasingly able to define ourself. It’s here, in the idea that economies can refocus on person-to-person economic activity, and on local economic markets rather than global ones, that Mason’s argument is undermined most seriously perhaps: in short, this is just evolution.

A flawed but important idea that business and organisational leaders need to think about

Whether or not you believe Mason’s view is brilliant or so flawed it can barely be called an idea seems to depend very much on your political or economic interests and position (naturally enough). It seems clear that there is much to be concerned about as our economies get ready for more shocks, hyper-acquisition pathways and an even more aggressive market. This may not invalidate ‘capitalism’ or break it beyond repair – but it could easily undermine the structure to a fundamental level. This is a potent review in my opinion, and not ‘incoherent’ as the Telegraph’s reviewer believes. It’s a strong argument, albeit one created at a journalistic level, of the economic and tech forces driving change. Whether that change will prove systemic or just evolutionary, we’ll see; whether the impact of the coming changes to the Capitalist model will play to humanity, society, and our economy’s utopian or dystopian instincts is very much up for grabs.