Alex Salmond, SNP MP and failed independence leader, took Channel 4 News’s economics editor Paul Mason’s new book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to the Future (Allen Lane, £16.99), on his summer holidays. Irvine Welsh, the cult novelist and author of Trainspotting, has written a 5,000-word rave review of the book — “the most important book about our economy and society to be published in my lifetime”. Penguin brought forward its publication to cash in on Mason’s reporting of this summer’s Greek crisis. The book was among the top 100 sellers on Amazon and many of Mason’s speaking events have sold out. Not bad for a 340-page treatise of revisionist Marxism.
Mason, 55, is an unusual creature for British news programmes, being both identifiably northern and passing for working- class. He joined BBC Two’s Newsnight in 2001, first as business correspondent, eventually becoming economics editor in 2008. In 2013 he moved to Channel 4 News, which, for all its claims of impartiality, is clearly the most left-wing British news programme, dominated as it is by its presenter Jon Snow. This move was partly so that he would be less constrained in expressing his opinions in other outlets — most notably the Guardian — than he was at the BBC.
His appointment is also unusual in that one would not expect a Marxist — albeit latterly a nuanced one — to be appointed as an economics or business reporter by an impartial public service broadcaster. Mason’s economic views are as far from the mainstream in that world as an avowed climate change sceptic would be in the world of mainstream climatology. It is impossible to imagine such a person being appointed by any broadcaster as a science reporter.
Mason wrote in the Guardian that to understand Syriza, the far-left coalition that brought Greece to the brink of exiting the euro before its leadership caved in to the EU’s demands, one must understand that “it is primarily Red . . . Its most influential activists are aged 50 and above: people who have read all three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, plus the Grundrisse, Theories of Surplus Value and Friedrich Engels’ Anti-Dühring.”
The same can be said of Mason himself. In a recent interview in the Independent he admitted: “In my youth I was a revolutionary, I was a hardline Marxist . . . I was a raging Leftie.” Mason was a member of the Trotskyist groupuscule Workers Power, the British section of the League for the Fifth International. He states that today he is “quite happy to call myself a Marxist at the level of method because historical materialism as a method is a great tool for understanding history”, but that his views have become more complex than orthodox Marxism.
He added: “I went into journalism at the age of 30, confident that because I could write polemical propaganda leaflets, news wouldn’t be a problem.” Some might say that this is precisely the problem with Mason’s reporting; he remains a cheerleader and propagandist at heart. He can be a very good, if very partial and engaged, journalist. His reporting on the Greek crisis has offered greater insight into the thinking of Syriza — perhaps because he agrees with so much of it — than could be found almost anywhere else. He is now making a crowd-funded documentary, Greece: Dreams Take Revenge, about Syriza and “how a radical government takes on the world”.
But too often clear reporting is replaced by wishful thinking, such as the relish with which he reported on the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent upheavals, or his 2012 book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. Its 2013 update is titled Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere. Presumably it will still be kicking off when the final whistle goes.
With Postcapitalism Mason has upgraded his publishers — from the niche, left-wing Verso to Penguin — and gives his explanation as to why the much-heralded crisis of capitalism is finally upon us. In Mason’s view, “Capitalism is a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.” He is a big fan of Nikolai Kondratieff, a Russian revisionist Marxist economist who was executed by Stalin. Kondratieff spent his time in the gulag working on his theory of long-run economic cycles or waves, lasting 50-60 years. In Mason’s view the fourth wave of capitalism came to an end with the 2008 financial crisis — and we have now entered the fifth and final wave.
As many have argued before him, workers are being impoverished and the system cannot hold. What is new in Mason’s eyes is that technology means co-operation on an unprecedented level is now possible. He sees Wikipedia — which is provided free and makes no profit thanks to its 27,000 volunteers, who are gainfully employed elsewhere, thanks to capitalism — as the model for the “sharing economy” he envisages.
He believes that this time it will all be different. But as the historian of economic thought, the late Mark Blaug, put it, “What a wonderful story is the history of Marxism, refuted again and again, and revised again and again — not by its enemies but by its friends.”