* Paul Mason and postcapitalism: utopian or scientific?

Michael Roberts

Leftist journalist and broadcaster, Paul Mason, has a new book out at the end of this month. It's called ‘Postcapitalism’.  I don’t have a copy but Mason has written a long article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, outlining his main arguments, http://gu.com/p/4ay9c

Mason has been a doughty publiciser of labour struggles in his journalism and also offered on occasions a more theoretical and strategic analysis of where capitalism and labour is going.  I think this book is an attempt to sum up his views.  As Mason has some influence among labour activists in Britain and internationally, it’s worth considering what he has to say.

Mason argues that capitalism is set to be replaced by 'postcapitalism' (not 'socialism', it seems). And this is for three reasons. First, there is an information revolution which is creating a society of abundance in information, making a virtually costless and labour saving economy. Second, this information revolution cannot be captured by the capitalist market and the big monopolies. And third, already the ‘post-capitalist’ mode of production, based on free ownership and cooperation in information, is emerging from within capitalism, just as capitalism emerged from within feudalism.  Is Mason right? Does he make sense?

Well, I have a lot of issues with what Mason argues and concludes.  He starts his article of explanation pessimistically by suggesting that neoliberalism has more or less triumphed in its aims for capitalism leaving ‘old labour’ methods and ideas in disarray: “over the past 25 years it has been the left’s project that has collapsed. The market destroyed the plan; individualism replaced collectivism and solidarity; the hugely expanded workforce of the world looks like a “proletariat”, but no longer thinks or behaves as it once did.”

The first question that springs to mind here is: does Mason think there is still a ‘proletariat’ or not?  Because he is right: far from the working class, even the industrial working class, declining or disappearing, it is growing globally.  See my post,

The proletariat may be getting larger globally but, according to Mason, it “no longer thinks or behaves as it once did.”  What does Mason mean?  Does he mean that the working class is no longer the force for change that Marx and Engels saw it as back in 1848 and has been looked to by generations of socialists since?  It’s true that strikes and disputes have dropped away in countries like the US and the UK.  But let us balance that with the huge rise in the number of strikes and other actions in emerging economies like China, Asia and Latin America, where the industrial proletariat is increasingly now to be found.  Is the working class impotent as a force for revolutionary change?

Let’s leave that argument for the moment, because Mason does offer what he considers is an optimistic alternative to the class struggle.  The forces of labour may have been defeated but within capitalism are new progressive trends that capitalism cannot suppress or control which could achieve a better, freer, more equal society without the need for class struggle, at least as we have known it up to now.  “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.”

This is not apparently the socialism or communism that the old methods of class struggle and revolution aimed for, because Mason wants to use the word ‘postcapitalism’ as a clear distinction from those old-fashioned terms for a new society.

So what is this ‘unseen’ postcapitalism that (only) Mason sees; what are its distinctive features?  “First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences [my emphasis], will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all."

Ah!  So the information revolution means that less work will be necessary in order to deliver a ‘decent life’, a world without toil.  But is that true given that the world is still in the grip of a capitalist, not a post-capitalist mode of production?  It would seem to me that people are spending more time at home or travelling working for capital on their computers.  The edges between work and free time are especially ‘blurred’ in knowledge-producing sectors.  People are made to work (solve problems) in their free time more than ever before. See G Carchedi’s groundbreaking paper on how that has panned out - Old wine, new bottles and the internet, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.13169/workorgalaboglob.8.1.0069?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Will the information revolution reduce working time under capitalism and thus lead progressively to post-capitalism?  Well, previous technological changes have not done so.  John Maynard Keynes had a similar idea to Mason back in the 1930s (see my post, https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/keynes-being-gay-and-caring-for-the-future-of-our-grandchildren/).

Keynes argued that “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” Keynes predicted superabundance and a three-hour day within 60 years – Mason’s postcapitalist dream.

Well, the average working week in the US in 1930 – if you had a job – was about 50 hours.  It is still above 40 hours (including overtime) now for full-time permanent employment.  In 1980, the average hours worked in a year was about 1800 in the advanced economies.  Currently, it is about 1800 hours.  So, since the great information revolution began under the ‘neoliberal period’ of capitalism, the average working year for an American has not changed.

Mason’s next argument for the move to postcapitalism is that “information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant.”

Really?  For a start, market prices are not determined by the degree of scarcity of a commodity or service.  That is the essence of the unreality of mainstream neoclassical economics.  The great classical economists, Smith and Ricardo, and above all, Marx, showed that prices of commodities and services are fundamentally determined by the socially necessary labour time taken to produce them.  The great contradiction of capitalism is that, as the necessary labour time falls due to technical progress, it lowers the value of commodities and thus puts downward pressure on the profitability of production.  And under capitalism, it is profit (surplus value) that matters, not more output (use value).

It is fine for Mason to notice that technical advances increase the productivity of labour (although we are not seeing much of that at the moment – but that’s another story).  But that is only one side of the equation.  The other side is the squeeze on profitability, the intensification of the class struggle and the resolution of that contradiction (temporarily and periodically) through slumps and contraction.

Mason ignores the two sides of technical advance under capitalism.  Yes, one side suggests the potential for a super abundant, low labour time world.  But the other suggests inequality, class struggle and regular and recurrent crises.  Mason reckons that automation etc is “currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences”.  Yes, that is the point, 'postcapitalism' cannot emerge without resolving the contradictions of capitalism.

But Mason remains utopian in his hopes that the elements of ‘postcapitalism’ are mushrooming.  “Almost unnoticed, 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, barely noticed by the economics profession, and often as a direct result of the shattering of the old structures in the post-2008 crisis."

Mason cites Greece as an example.  “In Greece, when a grassroots NGO mapped the country’s food co-ops, alternative producers, parallel currencies and local exchange systems they found more than 70 substantive projects and hundreds of smaller initiatives ranging from squats to carpools to free kindergartens.”  The trouble with these examples of the new world is that they are more like a desperate reaction to the crisis of capitalist production, as in Greece.  They will remain marginal, or be turned into profit-led operations competing in the market, as has happened to so many cooperatives and localist efforts over the last 150 years.

Mason admits that these ‘micro projects’ can only succeed in changing our world if they “are nurtured, promoted and protected by a fundamental change in what governments do.”  Given that most governments in the world are pro-capitalist and driven by big business and big capital, this makes that outcome pretty unlikely.  Do we not remember what the modern state is really an instrument for nurturing, promoting and protecting capital and the ruling class?  “The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit.”  Engels, Socialism, utopian and scientific.

Mason then raises what many utopians have advocated before him: that if only we can change the way we think, we can change the structure of economic and social relations.  And this must be driven by a change in our thinking [my emphasis] – about technology, ownership and work. So that, when we create the elements of the new system, we can say to ourselves, and to others: “This is no longer simply my survival mechanism, my bolt hole from the neoliberal world; this is a new way of living in the process of formation.”

So first we must change our mentality and then the state can nurture these micro-level projects.  Cart before horse?  As we are locked within the confines of the capitalist production relations (both private and state), it is these relations that must be changed so that new ways of thinking can bloom.

Mason recognises that his ‘alternative model’ is not yet with us. Instead he forecasts a new capitalist crisis ahead – although this prediction is based purely on a Keynesian analysis of low real wages keeping demand low and a new credit bubble threatening another financial crash.

Mason reckons that neoliberalism “has morphed into a system programmed to inflict recurrent catastrophic failures.”  Well, I thought that it was capitalism that was subject to ‘recurrent catastrophic failures’.  But like other modern revisions of Marxist economics, apparently it is only neoliberalism, a special form of capitalism.  In my view, neoliberalism, a ruling class policy and strategy to drive up profitability by raising the rate of exploitation, is actually the norm for capitalism. It is only in rare and short periods that capitalism looks to invest in new technology to raise profitability, as in the immediate postwar period.

Mason makes much of Marx’s discussion of the role of technology in his Fragment on Machines from the Grundrisse written in 1857 (http://thenewobjectivity.com/pdf/marx.pdf).  Mason suggests that Marx makes the same point as he does: that capitalism expands technology and scientific knowledge to the point that a world of abundance and free time for all becomes reality.

As Mason puts it: “In an economy where machines do most of the work, the nature of the knowledge locked inside the machines must, he writes, be “social”. …“It suggests that, once knowledge becomes a productive force in its own right, outweighing the actual labour spent creating a machine, the big question becomes not one of “wages versus profits” but who controls what Marx called the “power of knowledge”.

But again, this is a one-sided and utopian view of technological progress.  If you read the Fragment carefully, you can see that Marx is not posing some steady and harmonious development of a world of abundance through scientific knowledge embodied in an ‘ideal machine’.  Yes, use values will multiply through technological advance, but this creates a contradiction within capitalism that will not disappear gradually.  Under capitalism, increased knowledge from science and human labour is incorporated into machines.  But machines are owned by capital not society in common.  The class struggle does not disappear under the ‘power of knowledge’.  On the contrary, it can intensify.  For more on this, see G Carchedi’s Behind the Crisis, pp 225-232 (http://digamo.free.fr/carched11.pdf).

So it is not true that as Mason argues that “Something is broken in the logic we use to value the most important thing in the modern world.” And that “the knowledge content of products is becoming more valuable than the physical things that are used to produce them. But it is a value measured as usefulness, not exchange or asset value.”  Use values are expanding dramatically in the information revolution, but the law of value still operates.  Information is not free under capitalism.  Indeed, every day, capitalism is trying and succeeding in measuring, capturing and owning information for profit.

But Mason continues to pursue his utopian view of the knowledge revolution.  He pleads “If I could summon one thing into existence for free it would be a global institution that modelled capitalism correctly: an open source model of the whole economy; official, grey and black. Every experiment run through it would enrich it; it would be open source and with as many datapoints as the most complex climate models."  If only capitalism would operate in such a way as to create our superabundant postcapitalist world!  But it won’t.

Mason returns to reality: “The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next.”

But he sees the contradiction, not between capital and labour, but between monopolies and free networking.  This fragments the class struggle (which he seems to deny exists any more) into a battle of individual free minds and the knowledge-controlling forces of hierarchies.  For Mason, the battle is between millions of people on their computers on the worldwide web (possibly in their pyjamas like me now) trying to change the world through the exchange of information against the forces of big business and their controlling structures.  This replaces the old labour versus capital struggles.

Is such a prospect realistic or possible?  The old-fashioned industrial proletariat is still out there and getting larger as more millions are urbanised and brought into factories to make the servers, fibre cables, robots, processors, software and other commodities necessary to create the ‘knowledge revolution’ for those of us in our pyjamas.

If Mason is telling us that the development of the productive forces have now created the pre-conditions for a society of abundance and an end of class exploitation, then that is right but it is nothing new.  It what Marx said 160 years ago.  It is what Engels said in 1880 when he summed up the state of capitalism and Marxism as scientific socialism as opposed to utopian socialism. “The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day-by-day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties — this possibility is now, for the first time, here, but it is here.” (Socialism: utopian and scientific).

But Mason also seems to be saying that this new information/knowledge revolution is by-passing the contradictions of capitalism, the law of value and the exploitation of labour by capital.  If so, then he is wrong.  The contradiction between socialised production and capitalist appropriation remains.  There is nothing new in the knowledge revolution that can change that.  It requires the conscious action of labour to reconfigure “the social infrastructure”, as Mason calls it, to “make a fundamental change in what governments do”.  Without that, ‘postcapitalism’ will remain a utopian dream.

Postcapitalism is published by Allen Lane on 30 July.