Reading

Books – Landmarks & Postcapitalism

With the third book’s first draft completed and no more deadlines at this point in time, I’ve begun recharging after years of frantic scribbling. The first book I chose to read after coming up for air is a book I wish I’d read before starting writing at all.

I’ve read one previous book by Robert Macfarlane, his wonderful The Old Ways’. ‘Landmarks’ is a celebration of language and how it shapes our sense of place. Each chapter takes an aspect of the natural world; mountains, heaths, water, woods. Through the people and the books that have shaped Macfarlane’s relationship with and love of the natural world, he begins to peel away the coma burying my senses and their ability to perceive it. These books have informed his life’s passions and this meditation on our connection with the land, the reciprocal relationship of both’s being. I’m motivated to read almost all the books that have shaped his life, for their writing is evidently wonderful, distinct and original as a result of each author’s love of and relationship with the natural world.

What’s wonderful about this book is not so much the very many wonderful phrases in the various regional dialects for aspects of nature -he calls this book a word-hoard – but the necessity of them in times past. When living with, working with and travelling through nature there was a great need to be able to delineate the landscape in a more granular way. A ballow is an East Anglian phrase for sandbank, while bentalls is the same region’s word for low-lying sandy flatlands. If we lack the words for the variety in our landscapes we cannot communicate what they are to anyone else. When I say that I cannot perceive the world as richly as Macfarlane can or our ancestors, I didn’t realise how much it had to do with language and how it shapes perception. I daresay philosophers would have a fine time with that statement, but Landmarks is compelling in making a case for how the world’s beauty and diversity are diminished in accordance with our changing language that has lost so many words and phrases to delineate it as we have lost the need to work the land and live with it and have its presence affect us.

Macfarlane gives a vivid example of a moor that was the subject of a bid to have it destroyed for a windfarm. The company behind the windfarm described the moorland as a ‘vast, dead place.’ But moorland is far, far from that. It is teeming with life, its variety is nuanced, it requires scrutiny to appreciate its beauty. To my eye I’m sure I would see a vast brown expanse, but it is because I simply lack the vocabulary to notice how wonderful it is and how much is going on in it. I cannot name the things I see so I cannot properly perceive them, I cannot give them their identity.

We once had vocabularies that could describe the entire topography of a place, both the things in themselves and also the phenomena as they are sensed. I told a friend about the word ‘petrichor’, which is the word for the smell after a rain shower that follows a long hot, dry period. He smiled instantly. We both instinctively knew the smell, but without the delineation in our consciousness we would not be able to call it out, to enjoy it as much.  Knowing its name means I can distinguish it but also seek it, I can engage more fully with the world and my sense of it. There is an interplay between language and reality and I wish I’d learned it before writing these last three books!

Of course, vernacular is always dangerous in a secondary world novel because the reader has so much else to process. But the incredible diversity of descriptive words and phrases multiplied by the many regions in even as small an island as the UK suggests that to model a secondary fantasy world with any meaningful fidelity, an author needs to be mindful of how much more sophisticated a character’s language would be as pertains to their environment. For all our modernity, we are encumbered and belittled in our sense and appreciation of the natural world to the extent we can no longer perceive what is before us as fully as our ancestors once could.

 

Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism I picked up because there’s a story idea I have that would trace, albeit indirectly, the future decades from the present day, covering the lifetime of two girls who are, at this moment, teenagers. I need a credible take on how the world might move along in a time of huge social, economic and environmental upheaval.

Mason’s book argues that information technology, and specifically the internet connecting most of the world in a realtime communications and market network, is changing capitalism and will finish it off, for it is already dying. To prove it he provides a brisk and thoroughly readable history of capitalism through the lense of economics, showing the patterns of its mutations and how its latest mutation, ‘finance capitalism’, cannot survive due to the shock of the global network and infotech. It sounds very much like Marxism, but be sure that he is as critical of traditional Marxism and state led hierarchies as he is of the neoliberal ideology driving ‘finance capitalism’ and its unsustainable levels of debt and rising inequality coupled with low growth. He sees, in technology, a way to reshape our society by looking at how the knowledge content of our products, e.g. the internet of things, the feedback loops in the devices and services we use and enjoy, can be harnessed to increase their efficiency to the point where the labour required to manage them and enhance them drops. It’s a world of under-employment, and such a world cannot sustain capitalism for there will be too few people with the means to be the consumers capitalist economies require. A universal basic income is required but also, Mason argues, wonderfully idealistically, and I mean that, a growing population with the time to devote to alternatives to the current capitalist model. He uses Wikipedia as an example, and I’m sure Linux also applies; open source, voluntary efforts to create tools for humanity’s benefit. I can envisage also an open source search engine that, like Google did once a long time ago, uses the ‘behavioural surplus’ of our searches to drive improvements only in searching, not selling it to advertisers. It’s a world wide web with no Adsense and no monopolistic behemoth doing everything it can to keep us under surveillance in order to better predict and direct our behaviour to its own ends. He argues that technological innovation in manufacturing is stalling because the workforce is now non-unionised and atomised into precarious low-status low-income jobs that use in-work tax benefits to keep profits high through lowering costs. The only real jobs left will be the creators and entrepreneurs and the highly empathetic jobs that require nuanced and sophisticated human interaction. Funnily enough, teachers and nurses are quite low paid because these skills are undervalued at this time. AI could well take all the other jobs.

The transition to this future is woolly, but Mason attempts it. I laud him for doing so because what he gives is a fertile soil for one’s own musings on the way a transition could happen. I’m not going to attempt a summary because it is a complex and detailed read and one that assumes a familiarity with disciplines I’m not well versed in.

He is persuasive when he argues that the hierarchies required to ‘state-run’ things in the past were always more inefficient than the market, but now, with machine learning, realtime information networks embedded in all parts of a system, whether it be a nationalised railway or an automated factory communicating with its suppliers, more and more things can be run not for profit but for utility, they can be run better by something like the state. Once such a thing begins to run, once automation and the feedback and supply networks are thoroughly knitted into its operations, the costs are so low as to make the product or service itself incredibly cheap and thus end the concept of a market looking to create the assymetry of information required to gain market advantage and ultimately monopolise, driving up profit and prices. To the notion that it is the market that drives innovation, so this mythical product wouldn’t evolve as tastes evolve, it’s not that there are no jobs, the creatives would still work, they can still get paid. Indeed, anyone capable of making an original contribution to society could be rewarded directly, they could own their labour more fully than ever before.

Work defines capitalism. AI and automation are reducing work and in reducing work, they are reducing purchasing power. This in turn means the capitalist system requires debt to sustain GDP and debt is at an all time high and rising beyond any credible means of reducing it, even inflationary measures. The system is broken but we can see no way out of it. There is a growing population of people with nothing to lose and externalities to capitalism in the form of the environmental crisis and overpopulation that spell our doom unless we can change it all.

However hard it is to conceive, we can start and should start. I see in my children a generation not yet encumbered by the dogmas of my own. They can still create new patterns of existence, they can crowdsource their own solutions and their own critical mass. My generation can do it too, it’s just harder. I fund, very modestly, Wikitribune and Mozilla, organisations looking to put truth and people at the heart of the world wide web, using networks and, with the latter, scholarships to find new ways of doing things. It’s a start.

Mason’s book has given me a lot of new information to add to my model of the world and my political views, it’s educated me and energised me and I’m most grateful for that.