August 2015        

Painless “postcapitalism”—a utopian dream

Nick Wright

“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.”—Paul Mason
Paul Mason has conjured up a very 21st-century formula for the replacement of capitalism. It combines all the elements of a problem-free route to “postcapitalism,” rather than the old techniques of revolt, revolution, and working-class power, and relies—it seems—on the facility of the internet to permit the free transfer of information combined with the ability of human beings to devise forms of exchange that evade the capitalist market.
     His latest book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, energetically puffed by the Guardian, was published on 30 July. It sets out “a project, the aim of which should be to expand those technologies, business models and behaviours that dissolve market forces, socialise knowledge, eradicate the need for work and push the economy towards abundance.”
     He calls it Project Zero, “because its aims are a zero-carbon-energy system; the production of machines, products and services with zero marginal costs; and the reduction of necessary work time as close as possible to zero.”
     His aim is “to build alternatives within the system; to use governmental power in a radical and disruptive way; and to direct all actions towards the transition—not the defence of random elements of the old system.”
     For this contemporary model of painless revolutionary change Paul Mason has drawn from the Marxist method of historical materialism the conception that capitalism arose within the existing framework of feudal society.
     Thus, within present-day capitalism something like all the conjunctural factors that in an earlier epoch dissolved the bonds of feudal obligation—labour shortages arising from the Black Death, the subsequent raising of wages, the increased tempo of merchant activity, the plunder of the Americas, the growth of banking and credit, market-driven modes of thinking—are to be replicated by a new corrosive factor, that of information.
     So far so distinctly utopian. Having abandoned the cumbersome Marxist notion that the bearers of the new ideas that arise with social systems—emerging and distinct classes—are obliged to overthrow the political and state power of their historically redundant class enemies, Paul Mason has cast around for a new agent of historical change. In his schema, information will sweep all opposition before it.
     How much easier Oliver Cromwell would have found his task of destroying the feudal power of the King if he had a Google account! Would not our Catholic King and aristocracy have feared a Twitter storm more than Cromwell’s Ironsides? And in turn, would not Cromwell himself be easily defeated by a tsunami of Leveller Facebook likes?
     Postcapitalism is possible, he argues, “because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. 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, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed—not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.”
     To suggest that further automation is stalled because our social structure cannot bear the consequences is true enough. Capitalism makes a mockery of the uncounted millions whose boundaries between work and free time—eroded by zero-hour contracts and unemployment—are already bearing the costs of a capitalism that cannot match human resources to productive labour.
     The reserve army of labour—whose aged parents cannot obtain affordable care and whose children cannot find affordable housing, and who themselves are forced often into emigration—will be surprised to find there is a reduced need for work and even more surprised to find, in the absence of wages without work, that the relationship between the two is loosened. To them, and the millions whose security is guaranteed for no more than a week or a month, it seems rather tight.
     Where Paul Mason is on firmer ground is on the role he ascribes—in the manner of the factors that destabilised feudal social and class relations—to external shocks to the system. These he identifies as energy depletion, climate change, ageing populations, and migration.
     The point, however, is that it is the inbuilt tendencies of contemporary capitalism itself that mean that these seismic movements cannot be managed. Thus their nominally external character is a function of the system itself.
     For a journalist whose latest tasks entail on-the-spot reportage of the ways in which governmental office alone is an insufficient condition for the overcoming of class power, Paul Mason’s revisionist project is original in finding new ways to imagine out of existence the very concrete factors that might impede the natural working through of his utopia.
     In the case of Greece, the will of the people means nothing in the face of capitalist class power organised at the national, continental and international levels.
     His notion that “collaborative production, using network technology to produce goods and services that only work when they are free, or shared, defines the route beyond the market system” has a charm of its own, but—valuable though the long existence of co-operative forms of production, distribution and exchange is within actually existing capitalism—there is no example of them transcending the logic of the market, evading the determinants of the banking system, or escaping the regulatory framework of the state (or transnational institutions like the EU).
     Although I can still remember my mum’s co-op divi number from nearly five decades ago (39887), I cannot imagine Britain’s worthy but ailing co-operative sector as the decisive factor that might corrode the sinews of capitalism.
     Paul Mason speaks to the hopes and aspirations of a whole new generation of people whose entry into struggle—forced on them by the failures and contradictions of capitalism—has transformed the political life of Britain and other developed capitalist countries.
     He is right in arguing that “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 in referring to the changes in political consciousness that factory production brought about among workers he alludes to Marx’s notion of the working class as the agency of revolutionary change and even to Lenin’s attention to the revolutionary potential of Bolshevik factory organisation—but only to replace these dynamic elements in a real revolution with “a project based on reason, evidence and testable designs.”
     The unwillingness of our masters to countenance even a mildly Keynesian economic strategy to stabilise the Greek economy rather undermines the quaint notion that reason alone will cause Madame Merkel to smile on Comrade Tsípras or Gideon Osborne to operate the levers of the economy in favour of British workers, no matter how educated and connected they may be.
     Almost absent within Paul Mason’s mise-en-scène is the key agency of class rule. The state is the silent and invisible actor, save for a brief and benign walk-on part as enabling the transition to postcapitalism.
     Postcapitalism, he argues, “will need the state to create the framework—just as it created the framework for factory labour, sound currencies and free trade in the early 19th century.”
     Left unexplained is how the actually existing state might be compelled to do his thing; and equally unexplained—with his new revolutionary class of information workers chained to their keyboards—is how the coercive power of the capitalist state—which is not limited to its mercenaries but rests also on ideas that have as much currency in the media and the sphere of information as any other—might be overcome.

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