It is hard to escape the feeling that, for better or for worse, we are living in a transitional age. Capitalism remains on its feet, but is looking ever more unsteady as neoliberalism proves incapable of providing durable economic growth and good jobs. A particularly lethal cocktail of imperialism and religious fanaticism has set the Middle East aflame. In Europe, the far-right is on the march as nationalist politics threatens to tear apart the European Union. The rapid development of information and communication technologies is challenging extant economic structures and human relationships. Standing over everything is the spectre of profound, irreversible climate change. Making sense of this turbulent reality, and charting a progressive course forward, is the task Paul Mason takes upon himself in PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. More specifically, he seeks to understand why neoliberalism has stalled economically and politically, and elucidates how information technologies offer a path beyond not only neoliberalism but, in the long-term, the capitalist mode of production itself.
Mason begins by stating clearly the central issue; neoliberalism is broken. The 2008 global crash marked a watershed in the history of neoliberalism. Fiat money, financialisation, global imbalances and burgeoning information technologies, hitherto the planks of neoliberal stability, have become corrosive agents. Their combination ensures that even an enlightened ‘info-capitalism’ could produce only long-term stagnation, rising inequality and environmental destruction. Moreover, it would be premised on a fundamental shift in the global political and economic order, a shift that is more likely to be manifested as a ‘de-globalisation crisis originating in diplomatic and military conflicts’.
Using a modified form of Kondratieff wave theory, Mason locates this problem historically. He forwards a fairly orthodox account of capitalism moving in more-or-less regular fifty-year cycles. A period of upswing, characterised by clusters of technological innovation, new business models, the development of new markets and increases in the quantity and availability of money, is typically followed by a downward phase of falling wages, prices and investment. He departs from Kondratieff and other wave theorists, such as Joseph Schumpeter and Carlota Perez, in tying fifty-year cycles to Marx’s observation of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF). Upswings, on his score, are to be understood as periods where the TRPF is held in check by a combination of counter-tendencies, including mobilisation on the part of organised labour and the state to prevent cost-cutting and force capital to adopt a higher-wage mode of growth; downswings, by contrast, occur when these specific bundles of counter-tendencies become exhausted.
What does this theoretical schema have to tell us about neoliberalism? According to Mason, in the late-1990s, the elements of a fifth long wave came into being. ‘Network technology, mobile communications, a truly global marketplace and information goods’ should, in long-wave terms, have led to a vigorous economic upswing. However, this boom has failed to materialise, and Mason lays the blame squarely at the feet of neoliberalism.
The reason? The very same information technologies that could have proved the basis for an upturn are, on Mason’s score, qualitatively different from the technological surges that founded other long-cycles. The advent of sophisticated computer technologies has fundamentally altered the relationship between physical work and information. Using a variety of useful vignettes, such as the revolution effected in jet engine design, Mason demonstrates how information technology has transformed the design, production and lifecycles of commodities. The result is that, ‘[t]he great technological advance of the early twenty-first century consists not of new objects but of old ones made intelligent. The knowledge content of products is becoming more valuable than the physical elements used to produce them’.
The problem for capitalism, however, is that knowledge, unlike physical goods and services, is abundant and can be reproduced for free. Using Marx’s labour theory of value, Mason demonstrates how this reality tends to corrode the price mechanism, based as it is on scarcity and competition. As the knowledge content of physical goods rises, this price-effacing effect spills over into the production of physical goods as well. Mason explores most incisively the defences thrown up by capitalism; gigantic tech monopolies like Apple and Google, the encouragement of what he dubs ‘bullshit jobs’ in the service sector, and the mining of the positive externalities thrown up for free by the interactions of networked consumers.
Even more troubling for capital, Mason suggests, is the rise of a new revolutionary class, the ‘networked individuals.’ Influenced by the autonomist Marxist tradition, he argues that the social basis of the old Western proletariat has disintegrated, as capitalist production has escaped the walls of the factory and workers experience debt as a specific form of financial exploitation. In any event, he makes the audacious claim that Marx and Engels were wrong about the proletariat, to which he ascribes an inherent conservatism. Whereas this proletariat was never equal to its historical task, Mason holds greater hope for the networked individual, a ‘beautiful troublemaker’ whose fundamental interest is in post-capitalism.
On the basis of these seemingly radical premises, Mason draws surprisingly prosaic prescriptions. The path to post-capitalism will be constituted by deep, non-market action on climate change, the socialisation of the finance system, the delivery of a high level of wealth and prosperity to the majority of people, and harnessing technology towards profound automation and the reduction of work to its physical minimum. In the unfolding of these processes, Mason believes the state will have a critical role to play.
There is much to like about the account Mason has developed. He knits a diverse range of economic, political and social phenomenon into a cohesive and lucid post-capitalist vision, all premised on a fundamentally sound understanding of capitalism as an inherently contradictory system. To this general vision is allied a detailed and trenchant criticism of neoliberalism as a particularly rabid capitalist form. Indeed, he is at his best in his cutting accounts of the criminality of Lehmann Brothers traders, the defensive responses of tech giants, and hopeful exploration of the rebellion of the networked individual. As would be expected from a journalist of his standing, the book is written in a lively and persuasive style.
His eclectic theoretical framework is impressive in its breadth, but it is here that the chief shortcomings of the book are to be found. Two flaws in particular stand out. First, he tries to ‘have his cake and eat it too’ regarding the labour theory of value and the proletariat. He proceeds on the assumption that the labour theory of value is fundamentally correct and describes the essence of capitalist society, yet then tries to deny that the ‘old’ proletariat had a fundamentally revolutionary potential. In reality, the two constitute a unity. If we accept that the foundation of capitalism is the extraction of profit on the basis of unpaid labour time, it follows that the political-economy of the working-class will always, à la Michael Lebowitz in Beyond Capital, have latent within it anti-capitalist potential. The desire to paint the new ‘networked individual’ as something structurally different from the old proletarian causes him to overstate the distinction between the two, somewhat unsurprisingly given his affinity for autonomist Marxism. Strikes in China, for example, are painted as the uprising of the networked individual, rather than classic labour struggles. Similarly, the extraction of wealth from workers in the form of debt is taken as a new form of exploitation when it remains, as Marx identified in Capital Volume III, a levy upon surplus value realised in the production process.
Second, Mason assumes that the state can, in a neutral and technical fashion, realise the policies he prescribes. Considering the effort he has gone to in theorising the economic and technical basis of capitalism, the lack of a proper theorisation of the state is sorely felt. There is no notion of the state as a form of capitalist social relations, a form that must be broken if Mason’s post-capitalism is to come to fruition. This rendering of the state in class-neutral terms is also the basis of Mason’s hope for a gradual, peaceful transition to post-capitalism, and also informs his hostility to those currents of socialism, such as Bolshevism, which advocate forcible seizure of the state apparatus.
For all that, however, Mason has produced a theoretically engaging yet accessible book that goes a long way towards making sense of the tempestuous times in which we live. In identifying the tension between abundant, free and potentially liberating information technologies and neoliberalism, Mason foregrounds an orthodox Marxist concern renovated for the current era; the state of productive forces is increasingly grating against the fetters of capitalist production relations. Given how easy it can be to get discouraged as a leftist in the neoliberal era, this contention, together with his account of the rebellious character of the networked individual, is a much appreciated dose of hope for a post-capitalist future.
This review first appeared in Capital & Class.