Comments on an
article by Paul Mason, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/17/postcapitalism-end-of-capitalism-begun
- which is based on his forthcoming book: Postcapitalism by Paul Mason (
Quotes from the article are in italics.
Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours. I call this postcapitalism.
- but this has been happening for some time, if you consider (as Mason does later in the article – or as Naomi Klein does in ‘This Changes Everything’) that worker controlled co-ops, and alternative structures are the way forward.
- and do these new forms of organisation really need a new kind of human being?
Information technology has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages.
- this sounds very much like what was said when computers and automation were first introduced: endless leisure was promised, was it not? (See more on this below!)
The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences,
- this gives the game away surely: our social infrastructure (or perhaps the superstructure??) cannot deal with such changes
Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly.
- I would maintain that the market has never formed prices correctly: this opens up a huge set of ideas, but primarily my view is that ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ are socially constructed (only in the [good old?!] ‘middle ages’ were there ‘just prices’ i.e. correct in the eyes of God). Secondly, the whole ‘market economy’ is underpinned by speculation in stocks and shares, and surely the pricing of these and other ‘instruments’ – the whole system - is subjective and vulnerable to bubbles and crashes... However, surely there are those (traders and brokers especially) who do have lots of information about prices? I really do not understand his point here. Hayek would argue that the market doesn’t need a lot of information, but just enough for each of the parties in an exchange.
The system’s defence is to build giant tech companies, that are monopolies, based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.
- ever since the end of the 19th century the system has set out to create large monopolistic or oligopolistic companies. I’m not convinced that Google et al are doing what he says – and how do they stop people using ideas freely (like I am at this moment, using the technology created by Microsoft)? Incidentally, Google are currently re-organising their business model, to strengthen it (it’s called Alphabet I understand!).
Wikipedia is an example of how the pooling of free labour and information creates a new kind of company, and in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated,
- again, these ‘alternatives’, as I call them, have been around since at least the ‘70s, and in my view grew up because people were fed up with the traditional capitalist economy. I don’t see the connection between these structures and the changes brought about by ‘free information’ that Mason has described in the first two points.
they trade, however haltingly and inefficiently, in the currency of postcapitalism: free time, networked activity and free stuff.
- but there is a vast difference between free information and free time, let alone free stuff!! This is where Mason seems to ‘duck’ the whole question (highlighted in the Guardian letter I posted) of ownership. Companies, the media, resources, and time are all still owned by the most rich and powerful. What baffles me here, is that Mason is very well versed in Marxism, but only touches on this point in the next paragraph:
New forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new legal contracts: a whole business subculture has emerged over the past 10 years, which the media has dubbed the “sharing economy”. Buzzwords such as the “commons” and “peer-production” are thrown around, but few have bothered to ask what this development means for capitalism itself.
- this is fine, but surely to extend these to any significant degree would require fundamental changes to the law, social structure, political power etc. The next section, on the economic crisis and austerity is (to anyone on the left) uncontroversial. But then:
Neoliberalism, then, has morphed into a system programmed to inflict recurrent catastrophic failures. [But that’s what many people say always happens in capitalism]. Worse than that, it has broken the 200-year pattern of industrial capitalism wherein an economic crisis spurs new forms of technological innovation that benefit everybody.
- what puzzles me here is that I thought he was arguing that the new ‘free information’ has changed the economy!
Today there is no pressure from the workforce [true!], and the technology at the centre of this innovation wave does not demand the creation of higher-consumer spending [but someone is demanding this!?], or the re‑employment of the old workforce in new jobs. Information is a machine for grinding the price of things lower and slashing the work time needed to support life on the planet.
- I simply don’t understand the last sentence. I hope it’s not me, but the Guardian letter seemed to say the same thing. How can information be a machine? [I can’t sprinkle information on my cornflakes!] It doesn’t get any clearer to me with the account of the airliner which is now both an intelligent machine and a node on a network, and its passengers, where the passenger cabin is best understood as an information factory.
The business models of all our modern digital giants are designed to prevent the abundance of information.
Yet information is abundant. Information goods are freely replicable. Once a thing is made, it can be copied/pasted infinitely. A music track or the giant database you use to build an airliner has a production cost; but its cost of reproduction falls towards zero. Therefore, if the normal price mechanism of capitalism prevails over time, its price will fall towards zero, too.
- but I thought he said that the system no longer knows how to put a price on information, now he is saying it becomes priced at zero?
[There is] a different dynamic growing up around information: information as a social good, free at the point of use, incapable of being owned or exploited or priced.
- yes I can see this happening, but I do not see it spreading to affect the whole economy. For there still are and will be machines, and new machines, and these are owned by [forgive the antiquated terminology!] the ‘ruling class’ – just as they own most land, buildings, etc The airliner is owned, and the passengers own their laptops... This is what I meant by Mason becoming ‘utopian’ – in the Marxist sense, of dealing in ideas that are not sufficiently embedded in the concrete reality.
With the terrain changed, the old path beyond capitalism imagined by the left of the 20th century is lost.
- the problem with this account is that there have been quite a few people on the left who have already abandoned the idea that the working class as an organised body will change capitalism by taking over the state. Perhaps that’s why I found this piece infuriating...
By creating millions of networked people, financially exploited but with the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away, info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being.
And I think this sentence is also revealing: all these people are still financially exploited (which to me means that they do not own their labour, so what needs to change is this pattern of ownership) – but they have the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away? Can any one person access all this intelligence (?information??) – how does being able to do this lead the individual to realise the need to change society?
In other words, to try to give an overview of my reaction – as I’ve gone on too long already! – Marx had (i) a theory of history :crises in the economy because of (a) internal contradictions and class conflict, and (b) new technology that demands new social relations; and (ii) a theory of an agent: the organised working class; together with (iii) a mechanism that would create the necessary revolutionary consciousness: the increasing impoverishment of the working class. [I do agree with Mason that the theory has been proven wrong, by the way!] Paul Mason is trying to build a similar wholistic model, but I am not convinced by it - sadly, because I would love to see these alternative ways of organising become the basis of postcapitalism.
The theory is seems remarkably similar as a model: (i) a new kind of ‘info-technology’ is undermining the existing production relations - but it is less powerful as a theory because there is no crisis coming – if I understand him rightly; the ‘external threats’ he mentions are not the same kind of thing as Marx’s crisis in the economy, (ii) the agent is ‘the educated and connected human being’ – again, much less powerful as an argument, because he doesn’t show how such people will all think the same way, and all see the need to change the whole society. In other words (iii) is lacking.
Interestingly, later in this piece he talks of our needing to have more automation: ‘I sense our fear of what happens in a world where ‘necessary labour time’ (© Karl Marx) is minimal is stopping us from pursuing automation aggressively.’ Not Marxist? And has he not read any of the work debunking the idea that automation (of itself, without changing the pattern of ownership) will bring leisure etc?