British journalist and left-wing activist Paul Mason became famous with his book PostCapitalism two years ago. He set up a vision of a high-tech society where work is scarce and the state is strong. He guesses the European economy should be redesigned in a way that would motivate people to create high-value businesses with low numbers of workers and low amount of work – says Paul Mason in an interview with Martin Ehl.
Martin Ehl: My children are eleven and eight years old. What would you recommend for them to study as preparation for future jobs?
Paul Mason: Artificial intelligence, since, before robots and AI take over, they have to be designed first and that will take at least a century. I would also recommend human-to-human services, such as social work or psychotherapy or playing the cello, because it is going to be a long time until robots can compete with us as cellists. You asked the right question, because work is going to disappear faster than we think. We will no longer define ourselves through work.
You write about the Western world, but in Eastern Europe companies have trouble finding employees. Is there any difference?
A lot of writers exploring the issue of automation assume this will happen just because the technology is there. In Britain, we have millions of people doing what the anthropologist David Graeber calls bullshit jobs, jobs that do not need to exist. Twenty years ago, we had four thousand machines to wash cars. Now we have one thousand machines, but twenty thousand people washing cars, mainly illegal migrants from outside Europe. This is a scandal! We are reversing the technological progress. It is an extreme example, but it illustrates where the problem lies.
In countries like Britain we need to be proactively pursuing higher productivity through automation. The reason we don’t is we don’t know what to do with the people who would lose their jobs.
In countries like Britain we need to be proactively pursuing higher productivity through automation. The reason we don’t is we don’t know what to do with the people who would lose their jobs. What you see in the Czech Republic, Poland, or Lithuania is the flip side of that. Lots of talented people are leaving for countries with better pay. Their arrival allows businesspeople in Britain to take the easy route. This is why we don’t have a Silicon Valley in Britain: it’s so easy to make money exploiting people from Eastern Europe.I would like to redesign the European economy in a way that would motivate people to create high-value businesses with low numbers of workers and low amount of work.
In your book you criticized the liberal elites for undermining social liberalism. Does this contribute to the rise of populism in Europe?
I think the rise of right-wing xenophobic populism in Europe was avoidable. Part of it is driven by hostility to Islam. Another factor is the idea that elites do not care about us, they only serve the banks and undermine our living standards. I am afraid that this is true. And the elites should listen to it, because there is a perfectly logical and feasible response to that: forget about neoliberalism, break away from it. We need to make a sharp turn away from the market economy towards a new and reinvented form of Keynesian interventionism.
We see interventionists governing in Poland and Hungary now…
Yes, but they are reactionaries. This is what you get when the left is not doing its job. We are facing the same problem in Britain. About ten percent of people have gone far-right, they are not fascists but xenophobic conservatives. We cannot abandon them. We cannot give them one inch on racism, gay rights, or abortion, but we can give them massive amounts of money. We can say we are coming to them like a big spaceship with lots of money for schools, hospital beds, training for their kids.
Where is the money to come from?
Social democracy needs to find a new way to tax wealth. It’s outrageous to me that the guy who used to run a tax haven is now President of the European Commission. What kind of signal do we send by having Juncker as head of the EU?
Social democracy needs to find a new way to tax wealth. It’s outrageous to me that the guy who used to run a tax haven is now President of the European Commission. What kind of signal does that send by having Juncker?
Luxembourg, Monaco should be closed down as tax havens. Where does your package come from when you order from Amazon? Mine comes from Luxembourg.
We cannot order directly from Amazon – only from Germany or Britain.
Ok, you have bigger problems than we have in that respect. We need to close down the offshore tax system, treat it as Al-Kaida. We need to announce it and then do what Putin did to tax evaders: send guys in balaclavas. That’s what I would do.
Do you support taxing automation or robots, as the French left-wing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon proposed recently?
This is crazy. There are two things destroying jobs. One is offshoring. The other one is automation. But robots and automated processes do jobs that never existed. Of course, there are limits to tax revenues, even if I do not believe in the Laffer curve. I am a Labour-supporting journalist in Britain, I support Corbyn, the leader of Labour, and we are going to push those limits to deliver the services to working-class people who need it, who say we’ve had enough of flat wages, of austerity, of declining living standards, and having no future.
Is there anything you would change in your book, published two years ago?
I wrote it while working as journalist in a state-owned media company, so I stayed away from politics. Now I am out of that, so I would add a chapter on politics, on reviving social democracy, shifting it to the left, creating new political formations.
The model you proposed is based on basic income. How to finance it?
Here is how I would do it in Britain. In Brit-ain we have a welfare system that is quite generous but very selective. Elderly people get the basic income called a state pension. It is seven thousand pounds or eight thousand euros, more than many people earn. In my model everybody would be entitled to it. We would need to double the welfare spending, but not more. Poor countries can’t afford it, of course. But salaries are not all. People in precarious jobs say, “I am not interested in a five-percent pay rise, because my pay is so low. I would prefer cheap transport.” To make transport cheap, we have to renationalize the railways system, which is the most expensive in the world.
So shared economy is not an answer?
Uber and Airbnb are known as the AltaVista of shared economy – they are the wrong model. And Uber already faces legal challenges, Barcelona kicked them out…
The same happened here in Brno.
Good! Because it is corrosive. In Britain, taxi companies used to have a very bad reputation. By regulating them and bringing them into the digital economy now I can order a minicab on my phone, but Uber does not pay its drivers well…
But without Uber it would not have happened…
It is true that Uber did some good things to learn from.
Women find Uber safer to use, because you know the driver by name and if the driver gives you any trouble he gets a negative review. Uber and Airbnb are ultimately rent seekers. Most of those platforms could be either cooperative or state-owned. Cities must innovate. You cannot ban Uber and then let a bunch of mafiosi run the taxi system. A responsible government must learn from that.
In this part of Europe we have quite a bad experience with state-owned anything…
Of course, but you have had an exciting period of catching up, which is nearly over, and then you are going to have the same problems as major capitalist countries. I have been in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries and I have no illusions about that.
Salaries are not all. People in precarious jobs say, “I am not interested in a five-percent pay rise, because my pay is so low. I would prefer cheap transport.”
As a youth I was a Trockyist, I wanted to overthrow the Stalinist regime and I totally understand the pride of the Czech people for having actually done that. But state intervention is just a tool.
I would go back to your model where you suggest decoupling work and wages. But man’s nature is to work for some reward, either in form of satisfaction or money. And money is much easier to count.
That is an existential problem for humanity, making it difficult to move to a no-work society. And this is also why Marxism and the Protestant work ethic were utopian. The problem for the left now is that if we shrink the amount of work due to high-productivity technologies, a large number of things will become cheaper or free. If I take this sachet of sugar with me, the guard of the ministry (our interview was at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs – author’s note) will not chase me down the street. And more stuff will feel like this. It just is there.
We knew that under socialism. It was called theft.
Exactly, but we will come to value scarcest things more. The job of a designer or carpenter will be valued more. I am talking about the long-term perspective, not about the next decade. We will value work more, because it will be less available. Somebody asks a carpenter to cut down a tree and make a table. That act will have more value for them. That’s a big psychological change and I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime. But the alternative is to carry on suppressing technological progress.
Where is the place of a manager in your model, which you describe as nonlinear, cooperative, and non-hierarchical teams?
Managers already know about it, they use what is called flat hierarchy or non-managed teams, because modern individuals are more empowered. In my view the commercial sector is going to shrink, the state is going to grow and then shrink again. More of what we do will be like Wikipedia, more will be done collaboratively.
The problem for the left now is that if we shrink the amount of work due to high-productivity technologies, a large number of things will become cheaper or free.
Example: How many of our team transact with Wikipedia every day? Answer: Everybody. But it never shows upon your profit. So what is it? Public service? No. Would it be possible to reinvent it using a commercial model? No. You would need huge amounts of money for salaries. How will our business model evolve as more Wikipedias arrive? In my model the market sector will be present for a long time. My model is not Joseph Stalin’s five-year plan. If you want a parallel, my model is Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy from 1921, promoting a market but also a transition to a just society.
Where is the place of an average worker in that?
There are no more average workers, come on! An average worker in Europe is facing two processes, both of which make them poorer. One is globalization, the other is technological progress. All they want their government to do is to limit the damage and reorganize the world so we can all survive that. The result is that they elect Law and Justice in Poland, Orbán in Hungary, or Trump in America. The first phase of the PostCapitalism project is to reinvent a form of capitalism capable of surviving. An individual manager is too busy to do that. It’s the politicians, the thinkers, the strategists who need to take it seriously.
But then they go to voters who are afraid and vote for Le Pen, for example.
True. You can see some of this in Britain. Many Czech workers work in these really, really poor towns in East Anglia. I am surprised that even more people don’t vote for right-wing parties. If they understood how disastrous their prospects are, they probably would. So leftist politics needs to come with the solution quickly and we must be honest with each other. The idea of the left as a kind of a technocratic administrator for the system that basically works—the old system—has to go.
There is a dream that our region will catch up with the Western standard of living. Your book and our conversation seem to suggest that we will never get there…
No, I don’t accept that. First of all, the standard of living or economic model in my book is not about wages. It’s about wellbeing, making our future collaboratively, looking after each other’s children or planting each other’s gardens for free. But in terms of catching up with wages it’s a question of choice. Juncker issued this document in March, the five options for Europe. I propose a sixth option: social justice. And the first act would equalize minimum wages and minimum welfare standards across Europe.
That would kill Central European economies…
No, a transition would need to be organized. Your entrepreneurs have to innovate to create high-value businesses. Unless you do it, Europe becomes a series of arbitrages. Germans like this arbitraging, for its outcome is four percent unemployment in Germany and twenty-five percent in Greece.
An average worker in Europe is facing two processes, both of which make them poorer. One is globalization, the other is technological progress.
For Britain the arbitraging means relatively flexible labor law, so agencies in Britain bring workers from the Czech Republic who work for very low wages and send their money back. That’s arbitrage. It’s not working. I am not an anti-capitalist, I am a post-capitalist, I want to move beyond that. We need a capitalism which gives people hope and prospects.
is a writer and broadcaster on economics and social justice. He was Culture and Digital Editor of Channel 4 News, becoming the programme‘s Economics Editor on 1 June 2014, a post he formerly held on BBC Two‘s Newsnight programme. He is also a visiting professor at the University of Wolverhampton. In the past, Mason was a member of the Workers‘ Power group. In 2016, he distanced himself from his former involvement in far-left Trotskyist politics, by saying that he no longer holds such views and identifies with a „radical social democracy.“ His books include PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future (2015) and Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (2012). Mason won the Wincott Prize for Business Journalism in 2003, the Workworld Broadcaster of the Year in 2004, and the Diageo African Business Reporting Award in 2007. His report on the social movements behind Bolivian president Evo Morales was cited when Newsnight was awarded the Orwell Prize (2007).
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