British journalist Paul Mason has famously declared that capitalism is dying, and he is in no sniffling state of mourning about it. In advance promotion for the publication of his forthcoming book, Postcapitalism, he was penned a nearly 5,000-word article for the Guardian that covers quite a bit of anti-capitalist/leftist/techno-utopian theory. There’s a lot to respond to in this piece (not to mention the full 368 pages of his book), but one assumption in particular strikes me as misplaced.
Mason charmingly begins by lamenting that the free market system wasn’t overthrown by violent revolution during the course of the 20th Century (“Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques”), but then goes on to point out the many ways in which information technology has changed economic life in the past few decades. Indeed, the “main contradiction” in Mason’s modern world is between a tech-enabled economy where goods are “free” and “abundant” and one where they are “scarce and commercial.”
There’s an interesting discussion to be had about the way in which copyright and other intellectual property laws create an artificial scarcity of the kind of information goods that Mason thinks are key. But for now I’m interested in his dichotomy between economic goods, which are assumed to be “free” just because they are non-commercial, and the idea that widespread non-commercial provision of certain goods and services is somehow antithetical to capitalism.
Of course, we already live in a “mixed economy” that encompasses government, for-profit, and non-profit provision of goods and services. Traditionally, the most obvious “free” services were provided on a charitable basis to those who could not afford them. The United Way, Red Cross, Catholic Charities, and a host of others have given away lots of products and services without charge, and still do. The last time I checked, no one was predicting that the existence of St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores was the death-knell of capitalism.
But there’s more than just charity. There are countless private, voluntary organizations that provide services to their own members without cruelly extracting a profit from them. Your neighborhood’s homeowners association, despite its stubborn refusal to allow you to paint your front door in zebra stripes, manages to keep the block looking tidy without building up a private fortune for the officers in charge. Every fraternal association that operates its own facilities, every bird-watching club that loans binoculars to its dues-paying members, and every political organization that supplies lobbying clout in return for voluntary donations is, by Mason’s calculus, part of the anti-capitalist vanguard, undermining the nefarious bankers and plutocrats of the neoliberal oligarchy.
The truth is that capitalism doesn’t mean that maximizing profit is always everyone’s top priority. It means that private parties are allowed to own everything from a toothbrush to a global business enterprise, and are not forbidden from selling a product for more than it cost to produce. Charitable and voluntary provision of goods are no threat to capitalism, and, as Mason predicts, may well become increasingly prominent in the future. Just because a new technology causes the market clearing price of something to fall by 99 percent doesn’t mean it’s no longer an economic good. It just means that everyone participating in the market economy has to re-evaluate what they’re willing to pay for everything else.