Politics After the Crash

The annual conference in June of the journal Soundings, Politics after the Crash, provided a valuable and unostentatious forum for the left to discuss some of the key issues of our time. This short report by Barry Winter focuses on the contribution made by the opening speaker, Paul Mason, the economics editor of BBC Newsnight, supplemented with quotes from his recent book on the financial crisis.

Mason argued that after two years of economic meltdown, we are in a better position to develop a thesis about what has been taking place over the past 20 years. The fall of communism in 1989 seemed to promise a new capitalist era – the end of history and a pure and final form of capitalism. “Free markets and democracy would conquer the world”, writes Mason in his recent book, Meltdown: The end of the age of greed (2009: 171-2), but it proved transitory. We have come to the end of the period of neo-liberalism.

According to Mason, neo-liberalism leached into a new form of capitalism based on global networks and information technology, ‘info-capitalism’. Margaret Thatcher never anticipated the global rise of the banks: the dominance of finance and debt-fuelled growth emerged in the wake of the 1997 crisis.

He sees the present economic crisis as the end point of the ability to postpone the problems for capitalism, following the strategic defeat of the working class in the 1980s. On top of that there has been a ‘great doubling’ of the global working class, an extra 1.5 to 2 billion new workers unleashed onto the world. Capitalism now draws upon a globalised workforce stretching from a bus stop in Leigh, Lancashire, to a slum in Shenzhen, China. This means a massive change in the terms of exploitation.

The Chinese working class has also changed substantially in the last 20 years, from subservience to a willingness to strike – and they have been achieving some victories. With a workforce of 200 million, China has been providing the world with cheap goods which not only had a long-term deflationary impact globally but ensured cheap credit in the West. That period is now over.

Closer to home, Mason referred to the studies of the US political scientist, Robert Putnam on the way social cohesion has been destroyed in the West. We have seen the atomisation of the traditional working class. Migrant labour is more likely to retain collective identities. While in cities like Birmingham there is a greater social mixing, in towns like Burnley apartheid divides the working class. People in two hostile worlds lead completely separate lives

It took two centuries for the British working class to build a culture, to develop the social cohesion that led to their own brass bands, to rugby, and to miners’ galas. It was torn apart in 20 years. We cannot return to that time.

The new capitalism has taken the form of an “abrasive, selfish, unequal society” with repeated financial crises. Deregulated banking “brought the entire economy of the world to the brink of collapse”.

Mason concluded that the question for us is whether it will be possible to insert a new narrative of social justice into these developments, and this depends “on the willingness of ordinary people to impose limits, standards and sustainability on capital – and the willingness of the state to take control where market forces lead to disaster”.


• Mason, P. (2009) Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed, London: Verso.

• Mason, P. (2007) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, London: Harvill Secker.

• Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster.

For further information about Soundings go to: www.soundings.org.uk


  1. David Connolly
    29 August 2009

    I read Paul Mason’s book ‘Meltdown’ (Verso) on holiday and it’s very good. He’s explains how the financial crisis came about in an accessible way and at a certain points it reads like a thriller. Some of the details of the implosion are even more shocking than I imagined but the writer has a grasp of the big picture as well as the fine print.

    More than that, his approach is from a broad left / marxian / humanitarian perspective unusual for a high powered financial journalist I would have thought – he has not been captured by the self-serving ideology and endemic greed that surrounds him on a daily basis. No small achievement.

    He also has some interesting (inevitiably tentative) comments on the future which are well worth further discussion by the Left.

    You’re going to have to read it Graham!

  2. Graham
    26 August 2009

    A response !

    It’s Graham bye the way ! I was not trying to conceal my identity badly. My finger slipped. Have a look at your keyboard the next time you submit anything !

    I shall still pass on Mason. But I have looked up Harvey’s book. £5.85. Not cheap but the postage is free. So I shall give that a go. But I suspect that whatever I get from that book won’t have much to do with the usage of the term as it is sprinkled neoliberally throughout so many of the thinkpieces of the new self-styled democratic left.

  3. Barry Winter
    25 August 2009

    I find Braham’s response to my report of Paul Mason’s talk at the Soundings conference rather disappointing. To dismiss Mason’s account “showy nonsense’, simply because he is the economics editor of Newsnight, is unhelpful.

    It may be that my report of what Mason said is inadequate but I do think he has something useful to say.

    As well as – or instead of – dusting off his copy of Kautsky as Braham threatens, I suggest that he reads one or both of Mason’s books. At least then he might be able to argue his case with more credibility.

    As for Braham’s unexplained rejection of the concept of the concept of ‘neo-liberalism’, I would draw his attention to the work by the distinguished, Marxist, David Harvey. Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism argues the significance of neoliberalism for an understanding of recent decades.

  4. Braham
    15 August 2009

    All I know about Paul Mason is that he is the economics editor of Newsnight. You told me that ! And doesn’t that really say it all ? I bet you he is really cross that everyone’s heard of Robert Peston ! I haven’t read any of Paul’s books. So I am going to be very unfair to him. But on the other hand I would trust Barry’s summary of his presentation to the Soundings Conference.

    What a load of waffle ? This is not analysis ! Mason is simply painting a word picture spanning continents and decades hoping to impress the audience with his eclecticism. I for one am not taken in by this showy nonsense. The problem is Capitalism ! I have had enough about blame it on the Banks. And do please let’s all stop using “neo-liberalism” as though it meant anything.

    I have taken my copy of Kautsky’s “Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx” off the shelf. I shall be back !

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