by Joshua Tartakovsky
How should one view the economic crisis in Greece? Is it fair to view it not in isolation but as a harbinger to the end of capitalism along with the phenomenon of various collaborative efforts worldwide that include making information free and hosting soup kitchens?
According to Paul Mason in his triumphant article in the Guardian titled ‘The End of Capitalism has Begun’, the answer is clear. We are entering not a socialist era, but a post-capitalist one in which free information and free goods replace regular goods. This is evidenced by the fact that information is becoming more and more free, that people spend a significant amount of their time providing information freely to others, and that within the current market various collaborative practices are taking place by communities connected by networks worldwide rendering the traditional market obsolete or irrelevant.
In Mason’s view our entry to a post-capitalist utopia is inevitable and nearly predetermined. In the future, he believes, we will all be able to enjoy flexible working hours and greater freedom in all areas.
Such a free world may indeed sound tempting for some yet Mason avoids the obvious question of who will pay for it. Sharing information on Facebook may be free, but even that requires paying for an Internet connection and owning a lab top. How can “free money” be provided to all? What about free food, which is a basic human need and without which one cannot be connected to the technological hub for long?
Mason does not bother to go there and address these questions. Instead, he makes a leap of faith in predicting – or rather stating that we have arrived in – the post-capitalist world. His avoidance of practicalities as well as the growing human misery due to austerity which indicates that people are not living in his imagined utopia is less justified considering the fact that Mason spent a significant period of time in Athens and must have seen the effects of the crisis with his own eyes.
Mason makes several other statements with absolute confidence that make less sense upon close scrutiny. Automation will reduce the need to work and will “provide a decent life for all.” Where does his certainty come from? In fact, it is due to automation that more and more people are being fired and the unemployed and the underemployed are growing in numbers. Indeed, following every crisis, companies tend to become more efficient, rely on technology and hire less, therefore ensuing a “jobless recovery.”
In the post-capitalist world Mason envisions why must payment be provided to workers whose work can be done by machines? We are not given an answer. What would make those who hold massive amounts of capital provide a livelihood for all? How would a future society be able to sustain the livelihood of all its members?
If Mason would have been more acutely aware of the situation facing people today he would realize that currently wages are being frozen worldwide while people witness a rising cost of living, rendering basic goods, including food, more expensive rather than more cheap. It is true that technological goods are becoming cheaper, but that is not very helpful to those with an empty stomach.
For Mason, the new post-capitalist realities symptomized by collaborative efforts, will inevitably transform the system from within. While it is true that free pools of information, time banks, soup kitchens, and common gardens are emerging all over the place, they are not strong enough to replace the system yet. In fact, they are an alternative where the system had collapsed. Mason would like to see people forgo any attempt at a struggle to change the system, since his post-capitalist world is inevitable. Those whose lives have been affected by austerity, however, may not have that luxury. They may keep on waiting and waiting, only to see not a post-capitalist utopia emerging but ever deteriorating life conditions.
Mason claims that the alternative collaborative efforts in Greece operate on “free stuff”. Not true, to operate the soup kitchens, for example, donations are required. I spoke to a man who ran a soup kitchen in Monasteraki in Athens and he said that he barely had enough food for all those who wish to eat. Even locations where people trade goods such as used clothes, were once bought and paid for, and therefore are not “free.”
An economy based on full utilization of information cannot tolerate full intellectual rights or the free market, Mason claims. That may be true when it comes to buying a fake copy of a film or a CD, but not on a larger scale. Medical companies in India or China that copy medicine patents developed by Western companies risk getting sued and paying huge fines. The court system will tend to favor those who provided the patented medicines, regardless of human need
Mason’s vision of an inevitable post-capitalist utopia may appeal to middle-class hipsters who are unaware of the difficulties encountered by many worldwide but those who are aware of effects of austerity or of poverty may be less optimistic and certainly less deterministic. In Greece, collaborative efforts are not an intellectual experiment at “free stuff” but a response to very difficult economic needs and are developed by the sweat, tears and money of those who are responsible for running these. Mason, of all people, should know better if only since he reports from Athens on a regular basis.
All photos by Joshua Tartakovsky.