Rich Belbin reviews Paul Masons recent book, PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future
Paul Mason has become a familiar figure on our TV screens, from his reports on the collapse of Lehman Brothers through to his ’embedded’ interviews with those at the frontline of struggles, from China through Scotland to Greece. His enthusiastic reporting has been a joy to watch amid the usual fare of bankers and financiers telling us how nothing other than neoliberalism is possible.
Mason’s latest book provides a more theoretical basis for his enthusiasm in those reports, detailing how he believes a new force for social change – the “networked individual” – can not only bring about an end to capitalism, but is already doing so.
His argument has three main components: on the nature of capitalist crises, on our relation to work and the “social factory”, and on how information as a commodity makes the normal running of capitalism impossible. He concludes with a section on how the “postcapitalist” society can and must be brought about.
The first section is likely to be the least controversial – for Marxists, at least. Here Mason builds on the theory of “long waves” of capitalist development put forward by the Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff, whereby a new development (usually technological) propels an era of capitalist expansion and increased profitability.
This stage tends to last around 25 years, before entering a long-term slump that is only ended by an external shock (war, oil price jumps). This shock forces the development of a new technology (railways, heavy engineering, mass production, information technology) which then allows a new expansion.
Marxists are often lambasted by the right for constantly predicting the “final crisis of capitalism”, but Mason shows that while crises are inevitable, they can be overcome – not simply through the “traditional” method of significantly lowering workers’ share of income, but also by expanding into new territories, or developing improved methods of extracting surplus value (such as the factory system).
But now, having reached the end of a fifth long wave, Mason argues that we are in a quite different situation. The latest technologies are fundamentally different to previous ones – and they disrupt the workings of the market to such an extent that the system cannot cope. Information is changing the way both we and the markets work.
Value is traditionally measured by Marxists in terms of the average labour time required to produce an item (and Mason makes an excellent defence of Marx’s labour theory of value, contrasting it compellingly with the marginal cost theory of pricing). But the value of information is incalculable.
The more information is embodied in an item, the less it effectively costs to reproduce. The information embodied in the item (whether that be an mp3 file or a rocket guidance system) is infinitely replicable, so its value falls to zero. We copy and paste and copy and paste with no loss of integrity. Suddenly everything (or at least a lot of things) becomes effectively free.
While this is all still some way off, it isn’t as far as we might think. A third of all jobs could be automated within the next 20 years, and primary production (farming, mining and so on) is being automated just as rapidly as technical and administrative roles. The remaining jobs will largely be based around providing essentially personal services and ones demanding creativity. The social implications of such a massive shift in the nature and amount of work are equally huge – and can’t help but raise the fundamental question of how that work should be organised.
Work and leisure
This leads into Mason’s third argument, and his most controversial. Following on from the Italian autonomist theorist Antonio Negri, he argues that the workplace is not the central arena in which the fight to replace capitalism will be fought. The automation that comes with the growth of the information society blurs the distinction between work and leisure to an extent never seen before.
Furthermore, socialised, collaborative, non-profit production is now taking place that pays no heed to the needs of the market, and is carried out simply because participants believe it to be worthwhile. Mason argues that today the whole of society is a factory. Workplaces are just one scene of the struggle, and not necessarily the most important one.
Networked individuals create a more complex reality: they live parallel lives at work, in numerous fragmentary subcultures and online. If in the 1970s Negri and the Italian left were premature in declaring the workplace “over” as a forum for class struggle and “the whole of society” the new venue, they are today correct.
It is true that work no longer plays such an absolutely central role in life, determining where we live and who is in our social group. Today our “community” is not just the place we live – it is the subgroups we hang out with (physically or online), and often we will “work” with them for free.
But while we can see that the “social factory” is spreading its scope, to say that it is now dominant is still way off the mark. Mason doesn’t go into detail about areas where the changes he notes are having most effect: music and journalism. Had he done so, he might see that while consumers might benefit, producers are getting an awful deal. Their work is devalued and the ability to enter these fields is increasingly restricted to those with the pre-existing wealth to support themselves.
Mason proposes a number of measures that he says can take us forward to the postcapitalist society – “revolutionary reformism” as he dubs them. Most of these proposals strike me as eminently reasonable: a citizen’s income, nationalised banks and transport, the market gradually being replaced in society as our technology allows it, an “an open source model of the whole economy”.
He shows how pressing the need for radical change is – what with energy depletion, climate change, ageing populations and migration shifts. These trends are bringing about a society that capitalism simply cannot cope with. We must act now, and act decisively if we are to avoid major catastrophes and complete social breakdown.
But how will these “networked individuals” bring about such a change? Mason points out how states in the past have forced through radical changes in the mode of production – for instance, the abolition of slavery. But he says nothing about how we could make states undertake such tasks – or about the massive battles, wars even, that were required to bring about those earlier changes.
Events in Greece in the last few months suggest that when faced with a serious challenge to the ruling class and the ruling ideology, the state is not disinterested. It will intervene to protect the interests of the ruling class, and cannot simply be seized or bent to our will.
Where collaborative production has taken off on a mass scale, it has largely been through the withdrawal of the state from providing services, as in Greece today or Argentina a decade ago. This is hardly something we can agitate for in the meanwhile.
Despite this serious weakness, Postcaptialism makes fro an interesting and provocative read – even if its conclusions remain ultimately utopian.
This review was originally published in the Autumn 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine.