PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
Allen Lane, 2015
How do we imagine the end of capitalism—not an abstract, utopian vision of an alternate reality, but a historical process, the real movement that abolishes the present state of things? Marxist thinkers, as Paul Mason points out in the opening chapters of Postcapitalism, have been trying to do just that since the beginning of their movement in the nineteenth century. Again and again, those who predicted imminent collapse were proved wrong. There were always new ways for the system to adapt to its inherent contradictions and crises, always new markets to pry open and new forms of labour to exploit. So it has gone on. But, if Mason is right, not for too much longer. “Capitalism,” he says, “is a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.”
The problem for capitalism, in this view, is information. Because information is increasingly important to the way we make things and to how we live our daily lives, and because it does not act like any of the other commodities we buy and sell, information is a gaping contradiction in contemporary capitalism—and it’s only going to get worse. But in order to explain why this problem is different from all the others capitalism has faced and overcome, Mason must first introduce a central piece of economic theory, one that Marx adapted from earlier classical economists like Adam Smith: the labour theory of value.
To create anything, you need labour. Whether it’s the labour of building a house, or designing one, or digging the clay out of the ground to make the bricks, it’s all labour; and anything can hypothetically be analysed in terms of its constituent labour. In that sense, everything is made of labour. When the market puts a price on something, Mason suggests, what it’s really doing is trying to calculate the value of the labour that went into it. Under capitalism, businesses make profits when they pay their workers less than the full value of the labour they put in. In Marx’s terms, bosses expropriate the surplus value of their employees’ work. Things get complicated, though, when the employees start to fight back.
Bosses can avoid the problems of employees—struggles over wages and conditions, lack of uniformity in production—by replacing them with machinery. The trouble is, once they do that, there’s no longer any surplus value to expropriate. With no added labour, the cost of the machine is more or less (depending on the accuracy of the market’s calculation!) the same as the value of what it produces. So the more labour is replaced by machines, the less profit there is in the long run for the owner. Marx called it the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and history is absolutely full of ingenious ways capitalists got out of the problem. What Mason argues is that, this time, they won’t be able to. Information technology will reduce the need for labour to somewhere near zero, and that will change everything.
Consider a car factory, with production carried out almost exclusively by robots. The ongoing labour input is minimal. Of far greater value is the information being utilised: the complex scientific design of both the cars and the production process itself. The same is true of the factory that makes the robots. A lot of labour went into producing those designs; but once it’s done, the cost of reproducing them is almost nothing. So after the first one, the cost of building the next car, the next robot, the next factory need only be as much as the raw materials required. Forget Wikipedia. This is the future of abundance Mason promises—a zero marginal cost world, powered by the infinite reproducibility of information.
It matters that this information isn’t just reproducible, but networked. A few strokes of the keyboard are all it would take to make, say, the latest Tesla designs accessible to the world’s three billion internet users. That’s why Mason thinks that in the end it will be impossible for capitalists to keep such information to themselves. Millions already share copyrighted content online—1.5 million within 24 hours of broadcast for Game of Thrones‘ second episode, Mason tells us. Even the CIA can’t keep its data completely secure. If we can unleash abundant information, then we can come up with new relations of production in which profit plays no role, labour is all but eliminated, and costs are reduced to raw materials and energy. The route to postcapitalism runs through fibre-optic cable and wi-fi.
Is this path inevitable, then? Mason’s answer seems to be, well, yes and no. Clearly, capitalists aren’t just going to give up. As hypothetically possible as information abundance is, intellectual property is still incredibly valuable and closely guarded. Companies like Facebook and Google, whose entire business is collecting and selling information, have created vast wealth for their owners and creators. Apple, which has built an empire of interlocking proprietary information systems, is the world’s most highly-valued company. Such businesses have a major interest in strengthening legal regimes across the globe that protect their ownership of information. On the whole, governments are all too happy to oblige them. As ever, capital and the state rely upon each other. Neither will let the system fall apart.
We won’t build a postcapitalist world without a struggle. Mason isn’t mad enough to think we can. But it’s over who will carry out that struggle that Mason sets himself most dramatically apart from the Marxist tradition. “Marxism got it wrong about the working class,” he says. “Far from being the unconscious bearers of socialism, the working class were conscious about what they wanted, and expressed it through their actions. They wanted a more survivable form of capitalism.” If we’re looking for an agent of postcapitalism, Mason argues, we should not look to the global working class, but to the “networked individual”—the activists, hackers, occupiers, and organisers whose collective identity is formed more by their access to networked information than by their place in the labour system. These are the people who will bring the fight to capital in the twenty-first century.
It is, potentially, a powerful vision. If Mason’s book does anything, perhaps it will put the nail in the coffin of that tired old refrain, that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” The failure of imagination in Postcapitalism runs the other way. Mason gives far too little credit to the power and adaptability of capital. Crucially, he focuses too narrowly on capitalism as a dynamic economic system. In the process, he ignores its alter-ego as a system of political control. After rightly defining neoliberalism as the political strategy of entrenching inequality by destroying workers’ power to self-organise, Mason remains uncertain whether it is “dead” or still needs to be killed off. Here he gets things exactly upside down. Capitalism as a force for growth may well be dying (see the OECD forecasts in his introduction). As a force for inequality, though, it is very much alive.
First of all, despite what Mason suggests, work isn’t going away fast. The line between labour and leisure may be blurring for some people, but that’s not the same as increasing their free time. If work were really being steadily replaced by machines, we would see improving productivity rates as the proportion of labour needed in production dropped. But as Doug Henwood has pointed out , average productivity in the US has actually been falling for a decade. The reason for that is right on the tip of Mason’s tongue: what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs ,” the pointless and unproductive work that keeps the wage relation ticking over in the developed world, offsets the mechanisation happening elsewhere. An explosion in free time has been on the agenda for a century. What has prevented it isn’t technology, but politics.
There is no particular reason, either, to think that a generation or two of “networked individuals” will be more successful in the political struggle against capital than the working class of the past two centuries. Even if we manage to replace bullshit jobs with a universal basic income (one of Mason’s transitional demands), perhaps at the cost of yet more public services ceasing to be free at the point of use, where will the impetus come from to destroy the regime of information ownership on which capital increasingly relies? What if intellectual property turns out to be just leaky enough to keep us satisfied, downloading the next Game of Thrones even as we start work on that new app that might just catapult us into the 1%?
The American sociologist, Peter Frase, whose forthcoming book Four Futures is based on a 2011 essay , has already imagined what things might look like if the technology for abundance was achieved while the capitalist ruling class remained in power. He calls it Rentism. This possible future is indeed postcapitalist, in the sense that it is no longer defined by the reproduction of capital through dynamic competition and growth. What remains is property—specifically, intellectual property—and with it hierarchy and inequality. This is a world of state-enforced information monopolies, a majority of people trapped in artificial scarcity, and an elite that reaps the benefits of ownership not only in material wealth, but in status and power. It’s a world that looks a lot like the end-days of capitalism as described by Mason.
Rentism, wrote Frase in his original essay, “can persist only so long as most people accept the legitimacy of its governing hierarchy.” Perhaps, he went on, “people would start to ask why the wealth of knowledge and culture was being enclosed within restrictive laws.” Without the exponential growth generated by capitalism as an economic system, could people continue to put up with a society ruled by, and for, capitalists? Mason takes this question further. Could such a society survive the massive crises and dislocations that will come as a result of global warming and an ageing population? Like Naomi Klein, Mason sees climate change not only as an existential threat, but as an opportunity to finally break free from capitalist ideology. What better motivation for his army of networked individuals than literally saving the planet?
The problem with Postcapitalism is that Mason’s strategy doesn’t take into account the moves that capitalists themselves might make. True, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than the continuation of the capitalist ruling class—but those who currently preside over that system have strong reasons to try to preserve it, and we should assume that their collective powers of imagination are at least as strong as ours. It is all too plausible that as the crises of the twenty-first century start to bite even harder, the ideological structure of the capitalist state—along, perhaps, with its embedded racial hierarchies—will harden, not fall apart. The threat of environmental disaster will serve to justify rather than undermine increasing inequality. Mounting pressure on resources will provide cover for more repressive, retrogressive measures. There will be new ways to silence and buy off the opposition.
Karl Marx and his followers sought to abolish not just capitalism, but something much longer-lived and even more adaptive: class. Mason’s book offers a nuanced optimism, but it is an optimism based on the idea that ending capitalism as an economic system is enough. By taking class struggle out of his strategic picture, and putting his hope in the network itself as an agent of revolution, he has turned away from the only possible route to the society of freedom and abundance he envisions. If we follow him, we may find ourselves stranded in a postcapitalism every bit as unjust, unequal, and unfree as the capitalism we left behind.
Tom Cutterham  is the Sir Christopher Cox Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford. He is a contributing member of the early American history blog, The Junto.