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Postcapitalism: A belated review

Is capitalism coming to an end? Perhaps not its end, but it is facing a number of difficulties. These aren’t episodic issues that can simply be reformed away by enlightened politicians or ironed out by a spot of Keynesian demand management here and there. They are structural, fundamental, and would require a political struggle and defeat of whole sections of capital for them to be sorted out. This, however, is not a counsel for despair. The development of capitalism has brought forth new relationships and technologies that give a glimpse into a future beyond the market, beyond wage labour, beyond the despoliation of the environment. At least this is the image Paul Mason provides us in his well received book, Postcapitalism.

That capitalism allows for the possibility for a different, freer society is hardly a new or original observation. It’s the key premise of Marx’s analysis and critique of political economy. Individual capitals, or businesses in everyday language, are compelled to innovate and develop to survive. For one, it’s bound up with the class relationships underpinning the system. Capital employs labour power to make commodities, be they material, like the laptop I’m writing this blog post on, or immaterial, like knowledge or a service. The worker, or proletarian, receives a wage or salary for their time doing whatever their employer asks of them – an experience, ultimately, not without serious consequences. However, from the point of view of the worker a great deal of time spent in the workplace is completely unnecessary. Say in a five day week, our worker produces £2,500 worth of commodities and receives £500/week in wages, the value of their labour power has been generated on day one. Effectively, for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday they’re undertaking surplus labour. Labour, that is surplus to their requirements. When these commodities are sold, that extra value, surplus value, accrues to the employer. Some of it is advanced to cover the next round of wages. Other bits pay off loans, rent, etc. Some is put aside for reinvestment, and what is left is squirreled away as profit.

For Marxism the struggle over the disposal of this socially produced but privately appropriated wealth is the stuff of class struggle. Workers have a clear interest in receiving more of the value they generate but, more often than not, employers are the ones who succeed in drive down the workers’ share so they can have an even bigger slice of the surplus. This is not because of greed, though there are plenty of business owners who fit that archetype, but because a business ultimately is compelled to do so. Returns on investments depends on the selling of one’s wares. If there is a warehouse filled up with goods, then the capital is effectively frozen. The surplus value a business depends on is stuck and cannot be realised until they’re sold off, and that depends on the variables of the market a business sells to. It depends on the competition coming from other capitals. Unless a business is a monopoly and can corner a market, all it can do in response is to extract as much surplus as possible either by lengthening the working day or cutting wages and other liabilities (such as pensions). That route is potentially costly as it runs the risk of stoking a dispute with the workforce. Or by more intensive methods, such as the development and introduction of new production techniques and technologies. Instead of £2,500 worth being produced over five days, the application of new machinery sees the run double. Even if the workers are granted a modest pay rise, the amount of surplus value up for grabs increases. Which means when those goods reach the market they will return more if they are sold at their value, or, to compete, the price is lowered more quantities of surplus value can be realised at the expense of a firm’s competitors.

The relationship between production and consumption is the circuit of capital. There can be and are more complex permutations, but the basic outline here will do. It follows then for Marxists that capital constantly revolutionises the means of production, that class struggle and competition enforces an innovate or die imperative. And so capitalism taken as a global, self-expanding social system tends to develop the productive forces, which are the techniques, technologies, the social capacities and knowledges of human beings. This is where the key plank of Mason’s argument comes in. He argues this history comes in waves. Drawing on the work of Nikolai Kondratiev, a brilliant Soviet economist who fell victim to Stalin’s purges, he makes the case for capitalist development to be periodised. Each of these waves unleash a tide of innovation, and are comprised by the cumulative effects of new business models, new knowledge, new technology and, crucially, new markets. As Mason puts it,

… a long wave takes off because large amounts of cheap capital have been accumulated, centralised and mobilised in the financial system, usually accompanied by a rise in the supply of money, which is needed to fund the investment boom. Grandiose investments are begun – canals and factories in the late 18th century, railways and urban infrastructures in the mid-nineteenth century. New technology is deployed and new business models created, leading to a struggle for new markets – which stimulates the intensification of wars as rivalries over colonial settlements increase. New social groups associated with the rising industries and technologies clash with the old elites, producing social unrest. (2015, pp 37-8)

Following Kondratiev’s work, Mason suggests that, as a rule of thumb, each wave or cycle lasts for about 50 years. In the most dynamic upswing phase, recessions tend to be short and shallow as the most productive sectors of the economy attract the most capital. This doesn’t last forever, a saturation point is reach and the wave starts winding down. The new markets are saturated, the opportunities for profit are fewer, the quick returns offered by financial alchemy prove attractive, leading to short-lived credit booms, and recessions grow long and deep before a whole range of capital, physical and financial, is liquidated in a slump. Mason believes there have been four such waves since the advent of industrial capitalism. The most recent, the fourth, was uncharacteristically long, its durability preserved by state management of economies and its active intervention to create new markets. The upswing phase of the fourth wave began at the end of the Second World War and comprised Keynesian demand management, the foundation of the welfare state and, in most of the developed countries, some form of historic compromise in which the state, business, and organised labour collaborated. As the wave crested in the 1970s, so crisis set in followed by the downswing. This was still marked by the revolutionising of technique, knowledge, and technology, but ultimately the wave ate itself as capital increasingly parasited off the structures put in place by the post-war boom. For example, mass privatisations and the colonisation of public services by markets, driven through everywhere by states in the teeth of opposition, increasingly saw capital drain away from productive investment in favour of the short term gains of the money and property markets. That is, until, the stock markets crashed.

Mason’s key argument is that with the close of the fourth wave, we should be looking to a fifth wave to lift capitalism out of the doldrums and deliver another 50 year cycle of growth, development and crisis. But where is it? The first part has a great deal to do with the character of the late period of the last cycle. Neoliberalism regardless of variant is congenitally hostile to labour movements and does all it can to undermine the collective strength and potential resistance of workers. Where Labour and social democratic governments have dropped payloads of neoliberal policies, without exception they’re punished by electorates, sometimes severely. The result in too many key advanced countries is that workers are atomised, insecure, and not strong enough to force capital to innovate. Remember, the struggle for capital to accrue ever more of the social surplus is limited by the capacity of labour to resist. Where labour is strong, as per the post-war period with its huge union battalions of combative, at least on bread and butter issues, workers, militancy exerted its own pressure on the transformation of the productive forces. Capital had to innovate not just because of competition, but so it could exert more control over the labour process. And this meant displacing living labour by dead labour, the replacement of human toil by machines. With weak labour movements, that pressure is absent from the dynamics of development. And so we have the situation we have now where large chunks of British business prefer to employ record numbers of part-time, casualised workers. And because the market place is stock full of businesses doing the same, innovation has slowed.

The second and more controversial feature of Mason’s argument is the changed character of commodities. The central importance of the knowledge economy for capitalism has been generally acknowledged since the 1970s. The spread of information technology and computing power married to the internet and the complex of networks it has facilitated has reconfigured the economy. The production of knowledge and knowledge-related commodities (such as professional services) are increasingly the, for want of a better phrase, hegemonic commodity form. Consider software, music, film, all these these can be downloaded and filed away. They no longer require physical media beyond a device that can play them. These, like the masses of corporate and state documents regularly dumped on the internet, are no longer qualitatively different from one another. It’s all machine code. As such, it resists containment because each is infinitely reproducible with virtually no labour time required. And this presents capital with a problem. How can the circuit of capital be completed if, at the end, a good chunk of value stays unrealised because the resultant information commodity is copied and passed it on. If someone sends me a naughty pdf of a book I want to read, I’m not then going to go out and buy it. Hence the pay walls, the crackdowns on pirate sites, the rising cultural clamour of “support your favourite band/author/software house!”. And with the strides being made regarding 3D printing, it’s only a matter of time before producers of material goods are similarly affected.

The fifth wave of capitalism is stuck, but the first wave of a new system might be appearing. The mercurial ontology of information surges through the circuits the internet built. Innovation then is shifting away from capital and toward the commons, reversing a key feature of capitalist development: its tendency to concentrate knowledge in cadres of managers and other specialists. Once centralised, it’s becoming socially diffuse. Effectively our times are caught at the crossroads of two possible futures, between stagnant capitalism and the emerging power of peer-to-peer networks. And this itself is radically configuring the relationship between capital and labour. Drawing on the work of Moulier Boutang’s Cognitive Capitalism, which itself is heavily influenced by Hardt and Negri’s Empire (a bit more here), increasingly the capacities and skills of labour are self-generating thanks to the ceaseless circulation of social knowledge, and so capital active in the tech and professional service sectors have to go cap in hand to try and ponce off that expertise. Think firms utterly reliant on bedroom coders and hackers, for instance. Mason suggests that Boutang, Hardt and Negri overemphasise this point but does nevertheless point toward a coming irreversible tilt in the relation of capital to labour. Labour as a collective has always been a force of production, but the networks allow for the possibility of it becoming conscious and a potential for its rewiring the social. The only options available for capital to stave this off would be increasing monopolisation (Mason notes the social media and IT giants are only profitable because they have cornered their respective markets. There cannot be multiple Facebooks, YouTubes, Googles and the rest), and/or finding more markets, which would entail an even greater commercialisation of social life.

This would be difficult at the best of times, but centuries of capitalism have stored up a series of problems that are now starting to bite. How inopportune for us. The mass migration of peoples, ageing populations, climate change, and energy source depletion are building up to crisis levels that require concerted action and the overcoming of sectional interest, but the old apparatuses and parties are dimly aware of their urgency, or uninterested in doing what needs to be done. By not having answers to these crucial questions, a political opportunity is offered. Here, Mason offers a number of prescriptions for condensing the consciousness of the networks and encourage discussion (and experimentation) when it comes to the resolution of these problems. And there are a number of political struggles vis a vis the state that includes the defeat and reversal of neoliberal policies, the reshaping of markets around environmentally and socially just outcomes, the production of an economic plan (which owes a bit more to a digital Keynes than a cyber Stalin), and a plan to deal with the mountain of debt piling up against countries, banks, business, and individuals’ current accounts. Simple!

In his transition from mainstream to campaigning journalist, Mason has attracted exasperated comment from his peers ensconced in the established (and establishment) outlets. And unless one understands the theoretical infrastructure underpinning his politics, his positions can appear idiosyncratic and a bit strange. But this, ultimately, is because despite capitalism’s internal problems and the difficult, possibly existential crises lying in wait, his view has that rarest of qualities in contemporary radicalism: optimism. Reading the tendencies, he has produced a compelling Marxist, yes, Marxist, narrative that locates the current impasse in the long-run structures and contradictions of our social system. Whatever one thinks of Kondratiev’s waves, and there are decades of debate about them, his diagnosis of what is happening now is persuasive and fits the facts much better than the nonsense produced by mainstream economics. His explanation of capital’s ongoing investment strike fills in the gaps a view that relies on the dearth of profit-making opportunities cannot. His caveated appropriation of Negri et al also seems sensible, but underplaying it runs the risk of ignoring how the bulk of networked workers actually reproduce themselves and their families in jobs to which the network is tangential or not at all present, and how this is changing their cognitive apprehension and appreciation of the world. The warehouse worker is as likely to be on social media as the IT worker.

The big problem, however, is one of agency. Mason spent a great deal of his media career reporting from the front line of global capital, of where the system met its limits and was contested by a wide array of social movements. Power begets resistance, as Foucault often noted, and capitalism is doomed to struggle with the nightmare of its obsolete future as it breaks up labour movements, drives down wages, and vainly seeks to capture the value of peer-to-peer production. But Mason’s counterpower, if you like, the network itself is diffuse and incoherent. While on paper the balance is tilting from capital to labour, and in time the consciousness of labour will be conditioned by that social fact, the crises he identifies do not allow for the luxury of slow development. In the mean time, those networked workers have all kinds of views, and while individuated and atomised at the same time as they’re linked with others, their politics are all over the place. Opposing networked humanity to capital is all very well, but networked humanity doesn’t make for a coherent political project. But there is a potential vehicle. The labour movement with its strange rituals and out-of-time practices is an unlikely condenser, but its rootedness in the realities of work at the sharp end of the changes described in this book make it ideal as the focus. But the exploration of that relationship is going to have to wait for another time.

In sum, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism is an essential work that deserves to be widely read. To reverse a cliche, while the point is to change the world you cannot hope to succeed without understanding it.

33 Comments

  1. Lyn Eynon says:

    Thanks for an interesting review. But be careful on the “changed character of commodities”.

    You state “Consider software, music, film, all these can be downloaded and filed away. They no longer require physical media beyond a device that can play them.” This is true for the consumer but other physical media are needed in the form of data centres and communication networks. These are owned and controlled by vast IT, telecoms and media companies, and while the marginal cost of individual items is negligible the total value of the capital in these centres and networks is not.

    These are the commanding heights of the modern economy whose power is bolstered by intellectual property rights and ownership of huge quantities of personal data. New financial models (such as music streaming) are reinforcing their control and squeezing out peer-to-peer alternatives (which themselves depend on the intermediary capabilities of networks, platforms and apps). This is not post-capitalism.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Lyn,
      When you say “These are owned and controlled by vast IT, telecoms and media companies, and while the marginal cost of individual items is negligible the total value of the capital in these centres and networks is not”. What is your point? If you can make something at low cost and sell it on with a huge mark up. What is wrong with that? Its called good business.
      Also, you seem to think that intellectual property rights are something ‘modern’. They are not. When the first men/women realised iron ore can be made into steel by adding other elements they had massive intellectual property. Likewise the printing press, the steam engine or the contraceptive pill. How about those for major intellectual property?

      1. Lyn Eynon says:

        You are confusing “good business” with monopoly privilege. When marginal costs are very low and falling in an industry with high barriers to entry (such as large fixed capital requirements, network effects, tax advantages, IP or other legal protection, friends in government, etc.) the economic models for a competitive economy don’t work. It’s extremely difficult for competitors to break in short of radical transformations in technical or other environments. This is what is sometimes called “natural monopoly” or “winner takes all”. The IT industry is now maturing to that point and, in some markets, is better described as “post-competitive” than “post-capitalist”. Such an industry requires either some public ownership or a high degree of regulation if it is not to become grossly exploitative.

        On intellectual property, we should not exaggerate the role patents and the like have played in economic history. As an intriguing article from The Economist (8 Aug 2015) asked “If the Industrial Revolution didn’t need them, why have them at all?” Earlier than that patents and similar protection had been all about granting monopolies to court favourites. IP can help promote innovation but it is just as much about restricting it and many inventors never get the reward they are supposed to be entitled to. Plus of course many core technologies (such as pretty much everything that makes an iPhone work) would never have happened without state support. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that IP today has expanded beyond useful limits and is again as much about protecting monopolies as encouraging new ideas. It is due for serious reform. When tech companies devote as much to lawyers as to researchers, something has gone wrong.

        1. Richard MacKinnon says:

          Lyn,
          Your using words and phrases I don’t understand, ‘monopoly privilege’ , ‘network effects’, “natural monopoly”, “post-competitive” , “post-capitalist”.
          To be honest, I don’t want to know what they mean because I don’t want to get confused. Please don’t waste your time trying to explain.
          I think this is part of the problem with economics, some people want to make it more complicated than it really is.
          Charles Dickens understood economics, here is a quote from David Copperfield, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery”. That is how I understand the economy personal or global.
          Governments should run the countries finances the same way as we run our own family finances. Other countries India, China, their governments understand this. They will go without rather than borrow. They think we are crazy borrowing money that has to be paid back with interest. There happy to lend it but they think we are mad. Its called ‘usuary’ and there are examples of it in the old testament books of the bible. (That’s why I know that capitalism has been about for thousands of years and people like JonP and James Martin really don’t know what they are talking about when they argue it only began around the 18th century.)

          1. Lyn Eynon says:

            I won’t try to explain as you seem happy to wallow in ignorance.

        2. JohnP says:

          I know Lyn, its like trying to explain an elephant to a lazy, obsessive child who has lived his entire life solely amongst sheep. One keeps trying to explain that the four legs don’t make the elephant just a “big sheep with a long nose” – but he just won’t listen !

          Very good incisive posts by yourself though, Lyn.

          I suppose it’s too hard a task to explain to the idiot child, MacKinnon that the lending of money for interest, (ie “usury” to earlier Christian societies, and Islam still today) , though dating back , indeed thousands of years, and indeed a much mentioned sin in the Bible and Quran , was so marginal to the slave (eg, Rome, Greece) or Feudal modes of production that it was seen generally as immoral and “unnatural” (because it appeared to create something from nothing – the prerequisite of the gods – and in Christian and Islamic societies was seen as offending the religious edict to provide free “charity” to those in need ).That is why in Feudal Christian Europe the role of moneylender “usurer” was left to that perennial , despised, outsider group, the Jewish community – banned from most occupations, but allowed to practice the “sin” of “usury”. Of course ordinary people, peasants, seldom borrowed money. Moneylending for interest ,an absolutely core feature of capitalism, is only a major feature of this current mode of production, not pre-capitalist modes, like slavery and feudalism.

          There I go again – it’s so hard not to TRY to give the boy the facts. But its obviously “pearls before swine”.

          1. Richard MacKinnon says:

            In there, somewhere (one sentence has over 100 words) JohnP admits that I have been right all along and that capitalism has after all been around for thousands of years.
            I’m not the kind that would dwell on the warm glow of satisfaction a tutor feels when eventually the last pupil in the class understands a simple proposition but I have to say JohnP, I told you so.

      2. R B Stewart says:

        THEY WALKED INTO THE FACTORY
        BUT THE MACHINES THEY WERE DEAD
        THEN THE WORKERS TURNED THE BLOODY THINGS ON.
        AND THE OWNERS THEY WERE FED!

  2. Richard MacKinnon says:

    What a load of crap. The first sentence was enough for me “Is capitalism coming to an end?”
    Let me explain something very basic about capitalism; it will never die. Capitalism has been about since the stone age. Flints for arrows, the latest software for a computer, its all the same in the world of capitalism. The value of a product is measured by what others are prepared to pay for it.
    ‘Capitalism’ or ‘the market place’, whether that’s the monthly farmers market or the money markets, they self regulate. If a farmer has a good harvest and comes to market with his crop the other farmers will have to a ajust their prices accordingly.
    Likewise banks. If a bank takes too much of its customers savings and over invests (to increase its profits) in bad stocks and shares then that bank will go out of business as savers move their savings to the banks that can be trusted, the well run banks.
    That is how it should be, unfortunately markets cannot allow for the unwelcome intervention of mad politicians.
    A recent banking crisis brought about by bad investments by banks in over inflated property markets caused a crisis in the banking markets. This should have left to run its course and a number of banks should have been allowed to go burst, (as they did in other countries) but in the case of UK they were bailed out by the government. Massive amounts of money were borrowed (from the good banks) to prop up the bad banks. Money that will have to be paid back in taxation by future generations. The immorality of this is obvious, what is less obvious is the effect it has on The Banking Markets. Markets find this kind of intervention difficult to cope with. It skews the market or tilts it in favour of the bad banks. Boards of management of bad banks ask themselves ‘why not over stretch ourselves again? What is there to loose if the government will bail us out?’
    The lessons to be learnt from this is are two fold, politicians and governments should not interfere in the markets. Ever. And, governments should only spend the money they have raised in the taxes raised in the time they are in power.

    1. JohnP says:

      There goes the utter historical ignoramus Tory, MacKinnon yet again with his comedic “Fred Flintstone” parody view of history !

      No , Capitalism has NOT “been around since the stone age”. Useful objects and tools produced for personal or tribal group use, and sometimes bartered for other objects or animals are not “capitalist commodities”. And there was no use of MONEY (an essential though not defining feature of capitalism), and people did not work for WAGES, another essential(though again not on its own, definitive) feature of the quite distinct, and VERY modern capitalist mode of production.

      The only common feature of all but the most simple tribal or hunter gather society is that they all had at their top varieties of tiny oppressive ruling classes who stole the socially produced surplus of the majority of producers – in slave based societies or feudalism for instance.

      This is laughable , utterly ignorant stuff from our resident Tory Troll. Tragic. You are simply making a complete laughing stock of yourself with this saloon bar Tory version of world history !

      1. R B Stewart says:

        AFTER HE’D HUNTED AND FISHED
        AND THE WALLS WASHED HE OF HIS CAVE
        THE CALL OF THE STONE AGE FACTORY RANG
        AND TWO FINGERS HE DID WAVE!

    2. James Martin says:

      “Let me explain something very basic about capitalism; it will never die. Capitalism has been about since the stone age.” Richard, this is the sort of ill informed drivel that you constantly come out with here and the reason why no one takes you seriously. To confuse barter and trade with ‘capitalism’ is pitiful. An essential element of capitalism is wage labour, that is workers who only have their labour power to sell in exchange for a universal means of exchange (money), and that this form of labour then forms the majority of production in society (so classical slave societies such as Rome had a number of wage workers but the mode of production and wealth production was from slaves). Can you point out any evidence of wage labour being dominate in the stone age Richard? Or even existing?

      No. I’ll save you the bother. Modern capitalism evolved from merchant and guild capitalist forms of production in the towns and cities in the middle ages. It came up against the restrictions of feudalism (for your information Richard there were lots of markets in feudal times, and trade too, but not ‘capitalism’) and it took a number of political and social revolutions (e.g., in this country in the 1640s, and in France 150 years later) for the power of the new capitalist class to take the place of the old aristocracy and feudal lords.

      So capitalism has not been around ‘forever’, it has existed in a recognisable form for less than 400 years. Feudalism in Europe survived for around 200 years more than this before its contradictions led to collapse, while ancient slavery was around for thousands of years before feudalism replaced it. The capitalist mode of production is therefore very young, but also very full of problems that do not bode well for its long-term survival.

      Richard, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and guess that you are quite young (a sixth former Tory perhaps?) and so have some excuse for your poor level of historical and political knowledge, although equally if you are not so young you have no excuse at all have you?

    3. Imran Khan says:

      Basically you are correct Richard. However small it might have been there was always an element of Capitalism in all societies. It wasn’t of course until the nineteenth century that it became dominant.

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        Imran,
        I don’t like the word ‘capitalism’, myself, I prefer ‘trading’ or buying and selling and markets, The word ‘capitalism’ was a creation of Karl Marx, he needed a counter position to explain his theory of communism.
        But when I read nonsense such as “Is capitalism coming to an end?” I cant let it pass without pointing out the absurdity of the idea.

        1. JohnP says:

          You are impervious to historical fact or historical understanding, MacKinnon. You must surely be a 15 year old young Tory schoolboy Troll to so publicly humiliate yourself by regularly revealing you know nothing about either the different modes of production across human history , or what our current dominant “capitalist” mode actually is .

          Every reader with a smattering of historical knowledge reading this blog is simply laughing out loud at your crass young Tory “Fred Flintstone” view of history. You have utterly discredited any of your posts by your colossal ignorance.

      2. JohnP says:

        Utter historical rubbish ! There wasn’t in fact even “an element” of “capitalism” in any primitive, tribal, society (ie, that is for most of human history so far !) “Imran Khan”.

        The mere bartering/trading of goods is not “capitalism” in any shape or form. Support the idiotic, utterly ahistorical, nonsense from MacKinnon and you simply reveal yourself as not just a tiresome Right wing Troll (which you undoubtedly are) but also an ignorant fool.

  3. JohnP says:

    Good post by Lyn Eynon. Although Paul Mason often has interesting, liberal Left oriented things to say about economics , it is a peculiar fact, for an economics , that he is NOT an economist at all – but an ex music graduate and teacher !

    “Mason was educated at St Joseph’s RC Primary School in Leigh and Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton. He graduated from the University of Sheffield with a degree in music and politics in 1981 and trained to be a music teacher at London University Institute of Education, after which he undertook postgraduate research into the music of the Second Viennese School at the University of Sheffield until 1984”

    This might explain his actually very confused grasp of economics, both bourgeois and Marxist. His book has a lot of well known stuff collated together from other sources , including all the Kondratiev Long wave stuff I am very keen on myself (though I reject the idea there is a “standard periodicy” at play. How on earth could there be ? Each Long Wave of capitalist expansion is historically unique.)

    It is when Mason comes to the current era , of a over-mature and now rapidly declining post 1945 Long Wave of capitalism, that he goes completely off the rails. All Mason’s utter nonsense about the supposed “changed nature of commodities” today is an illusion – based on Mason’s failure to see the profit making activities within the “coupon clipping” metropolitan capitalist heartland states of global capitalist imperialism as just the “head office/back office functions” component of a completely integrated global system. Much of the supposed special “post capitalist” features of “software Rights” etc, are actually forms of super exploitative “economic rent” arising from the control of so many key gateways and systems in the global economy by western states and their companies.

    This is as true of the West’s banking system, which produces no new value, but via its control of money circulation (and corrupt control of the political classes of the West) just steals it from the rest global value production, to the cartel power superprofit “rents” derived by the by the likes of Microsoft and Apple in the commodity area of supposedly “intangible” software and patent/copyright privileges.

    Non tangible commodities are still commodities, and the global division of capitalist functions , which has given the illusion to middle class Leftie luvvies like Mason that something “post capitalist” is happening in their smug corner of Starbucks in London as they sit churning out well paid articles on their laptops for the Guardian, is just that – an illusion. Mason , so trapped in his privileged middle class media world view actually thinks the casualised “gig economy” is some sort of post capitalist development ! It looks that way for you , Paul, but for ordinary workers the zero hour contract “gig economy” is a return to the old “hiring fairs” so familiar on the docks and building sites – a return to hyper exploitation .

    Mason appears to be a Leftie, but is actually a deeply confused middle class liberal, currently apparently driven almost existentially insane in recent Guardian articles by the perceived threat to his privileged middle class lifestyle arising from “Hard Brexit” . Read his book with care – there’s profoundly neoliberal ideology hiding throughout.

  4. Robin Edwards says:

    Post-capitalism. What a stupid notion. What a deluded notion. The idea that capitalism would simply slip away and then we can simply sit down and rationally build a new world based on reason is an entirely reformist notion.

    Capitalism is however dead, decaying and dissolving. It is a system that can no longer reproduce itself let alone grow in any meaningful sense. We are in a period of super-monopolisation and that cannot endure. Pax Americana is over, capitalist globalization is unravelling fast, the epoch of war and revolution is back on the agenda having been put on ice for the years of the Cold War and there are no alternative political economic arrangement available that could give capitalism a new lease of life. No longer with a functioning economic system to underpin their rule all that is left for the global and national elites is violence. Civil wars and global war. Imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism and US-sponsored globalization was the highest stage of imperialism. We are heading for a New Dark Ages and only world proletarian revolution can transcend capitalist globalization and prevent that and launch humanity on the next stage of its journey. Let’s ditch the fantasies and get real.

  5. C MacMackin says:

    I thought this was an interesting read, but I nonetheless disagree in some ways with PBC and in many more with Paul Mason. In particular, I am unconvinced that intangible commodities are now the dominant form. I think you’ll find that people spend far more of their income on housing, clothing, food, electronics, energy, etc. than on digital media or software.

    As others have pointed out, while the marginal cost of reproducing digital media is negligible, considerable infrastructure is needed to produce and distribute it originally. You do get certain absurdities in terms of restrictions on using digital content (for example, libraries with ebook services are only allowed to have one person read an ebook at a time, despite the fact that there is no physical reason why many people can’t reat it at once) and in many ways this does restrict our freedom to use the content we have paid for. However, this is hardly a significant arena of struggle against capital. At most it poses some interesting questions about how media should be funded and artists remunerated in a socialist system.

    Phil is quite right to point out the issue of agency, which Paul Mason largely ignores. Networked workers are often quite fragmented and unlikely to pose much of a challenge to capital. When Mason points to projects like Wikipedia or Linux and other open source software, he also has a rather rosy-eyed view. Most developers of the Linux kernel work for big companies, such as Intel, and the Linux Foundation is essentially a trade organisation promoting the interests of big companies who use Linux (now even including Microsoft!).

    Speaking as someone who has some experience with the Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) world and has even written some of my own, it is important to see it for what it is. Even its most idealistic and anti-corporate proponents, such as Richard Stallman, treat it as essentially a matter of individual freedom to use software as you see fit, rather than as a challenge to corporate models of production. The license (the GNU General Public License, GPL) which they release software does nothing to (directly) restrict selling software or prevent it being used to make a profit. As such, you sometimes end up seeing the work of hobbyists being captured by companies who use their output for free. However, at least the GPL ensures that if companies wish distribute a modified version of the software, they must also do so under the GPL. In recent years we have increasingly seen movement away from the GPL towards so-called “permissive” licenses which do nothing to prevent companies from relicensing the software under a propriety license. Open source software has turned out to be not simply compatible with capitalism, but to be a very useful way for companies to use software without having to pay for its development.

    Contrary to Paul Mason’s view, open source work environments do not necessarily tilt the balance of power towards labour. There are many cases where open-source developers work on a series of short-term contracts. As Phil points out, the ideologies and motivations of these developers are also highly diverse. While you do get the odd leftist, you also get plenty of libertarians (who don’t like the idea of intellectual property as it would require a state to enforce). Probably most common worldview is a sort of American liberalism, where they think everything would be better if the world consisted of small companies and startups in a properly competitive market.

    That’s not to completely write off the open source software world. It does represents the idea of pooling effort for the betterment of all and contains the concept of the commons. The best projects, such as the Debian operating system, feature some internal democracy (although these are rare). There are things we can learn, but we need to keep it in perspective. Paul Mason’s view, on the other hand, seems to correspond to the starry-eyed one I had at 18 and quickly grew out of.

    Finally, the idea that 3D printing will soon bring this “post-capitalist” world into the domain of physical goods is absurd. First of all, these printers are not the easiest of things to use (there are rather amusing pictures of the messes they can make when things go wrong). They also can’t produce completely assembled versions of anything but the simplest products (perhaps eventually this will change, but we’re still quite a long way from it). Saying that they’ll allow us to make everything ourselves is the same as saying that a sowing machine will allow us to make all of our own clothes–true, but hardly anyone will want to invest the time. They’ll never be able to print microchips, which requires a specialised process called X-ray photolithography. I suspect that it would also be inefficient to have everyone using a 3D printer for everything, for much the same reason that it would be cheaper to buy a printed dictionary than to print dictionary.com with your inkjet printer. Most fundamental (and most obvious) of all, we would still need to purchase the raw materials which the printer uses, so you would still be dependent on heavy (capitalist) industry.

  6. Bazza says:

    Just some thoughts:
    Brilliant piece in the Latest New Left Review (NLR) by Goran Therborn and he points to 1945 and the post war settlement between capital and labour and strong unions and parties of labour (here and in Europe) and the military power of the then USSR was always in the background perhaps helped secure this.
    And of course capital did well too out of all these reforms (nationalised National Coal Board was initially more efficient than private mines but with same top down bosses in control and the workers had no say, free healthy workers for capital via the NHS and educated workers for free, and as others have said capital wants everything for free).
    So could it be argued for 20 years or so capital was relatively restrained.
    But meanwhile in the 1960’s Right wing Neo-Liberal Think Tanks were bubbling under and began to disseminate ideas as perhaps the late 60’s capital began to shift a lot of production to less developed countries in search of cheaper labour and more profit.
    In Europe we had had the beginning of the EC – to spread capitalism, counter the perceived threat of the USSR, and to give Europe a bigger voice in the World but with the entry of the UK which acted as a Trojan Horse for the US the dollar was soon to dominate (so perhaps eventually the desire from some for the Euro?)
    As it was originally run by the non-Right within capitalist parameters but there were some mild reforms.
    Meanwhile Neo-Liberalism after its pilot in I think Chile (1970’s) scored big with the beginning of the capture of the Tory Party in the UK with Thatcher (she had to be sat in a room by Keith Joseph and others and taught Neo-Liberalism) aligning with its capture of The Republicans in the US with Reaganism (and later the Democrats) and its bonus prize in the UK Blair’s New Labour and New Labour was to mesmerise Scottish Labour (and the SNP were glad for old Labour’s old clothes).
    The middle of the road Labour parties in the EC (and others) swallowed Blair’s smell of electoral success and the Neo-Liberals could shout “House!” as the EC was now in its pocket.
    The top down ‘bourgeois socialism’ of the USSR had collapsed and the ‘bourgeois socialists’ in China had turned to state capitalism and perhaps capitalism now had no restraining forces in the world and perhaps this may help to explain the current chaos in the world (unions had been deliberately weakened and moderate parties of Labour won to Neo-Liberalism) but now there is hope.
    And it could be a grassroots, bottom up, participatory, left wing democratic socialism and I am so glad at last we have a Labour Members Momentum.
    Neo-Liberalism had 20 years to buiild but JCs victory was unexpected and we have at times had to think on our feet (as we face our own Neo-Liberal Labour counter attack) but I think and hope that the democratic left is dreaming again.
    Labour Members Momentum I understand is shortly hosting a series of events around the country on ‘Take Back Control’ and perhaps we need to have more democratic public ownership to do so!
    Perhaps we also need to control labour supply and capital supply and share our ideas with the Left around Europe and the World – as Therborn’s mentions the collapse of the ex-soviet union sphere of influence countries brought “a shock supply of labour” and as I have mentioned before according to the NLR Bulgaria will have lost 50% of its population by 2020 and are the poorer EC countries (and their workers) there to serve the rich in the richer countries?
    But capital has a problem, there are all these TNCs in the UK from the US, Japan etc and it wants free access to 500m EC consumers and we are exiting.
    Believe me the Tories will fight for a Brexit for Big Business but as someone once said perhaps they will presen black as white – they will thunder that they have achieved the Best Brexit for Working People when the opposite will be true.
    We should genuinely try to do it but work with EC sister parties.
    JC is doing good building links with EC socialist parties and we need to get them to ditch Neo-Liberal ideas but with our anti-austerity policies, state -led public investment, windfall taxes big business, good pay rises – all of this could power the economy out of recession and our sister parties need to do the same to..
    Then rebuild unions (and unionise migrant workers – and we may need skilled and unskilled) and hopefully other socialist parties will grow too and if we win and it could be back to 1945 and could be – checkmate!
    Phew, nackered, need a beer!

  7. Imran Khan says:

    The current booming, at least in some areas principally within the M25, British economy is driven by some very tangible factors all related to construction. Bricks, mortar and concrete are about as tangible as you can get.

  8. David Pavett says:

    I agree with Lyn Eynon. Mason’s IT talk is generally wild and seems to be based on popular presentations and not on genuine understanding. His notion of infinitely reproducible machines and zero cost capital are fantasy. He thinks that software is a machine. It isn’t.

    I agree with the criticisms of John P and Chris M as well. Mason has interesting things to say but they are generally mixed in with wild stuff and reading him requires one to sort out the difference.

    Mason’s discussion of Marxist economics suffers from the same problem. The thing is though that serious criticism is not likely to emerge when one starts out from statements like

    However, from the point of view of the worker a great deal of time spent in the workplace is completely unnecessary. Say in a five day week, our worker produces £2,500 worth of commodities and receives £500/week in wages, the value of their labour power has been generated on day one. Effectively, for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday they’re undertaking surplus labour. Labour, that is surplus to their requirements.

    Nearly everything is wrong in this. Surplus Labour is not that over an above that needed to maintain the worker. Capital also needs to be reproduced. That is hardly to be regarded as “unnecessary”. Presenting things like this owes more to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists than it does to Das Capital.

    Mason tries to do far to much and spreads himself so thin that what he says is often reduced to the almost oracular. In one volume he deals with Konratieff long waves, the transformation problem, universal basic income, the impact of digital technology, the Labour theory of value (Marx said that he had a theory of the commodity not a theory of value), the limitations of will power (which he says we now understand well), tackling climate change, management structures, the role of parties and much, much else besides.

    Postcapitalism is full of assertions with no discernible justification (there are hundreds of them). For example

    The socialists of the early 20th cenury were absolutely convinced that nothing preliminary was possible within the old system.

    Who can he possibly have in mind this does apply to Marxists an it doesn’t apply to Fabians. It certainly doesn’t apply to Keir Hardie who argued that what he called “municipal socialism” could make great gains while the old order still remained.

    So, I would say read Postcapitalism, it contains a lot that is worth thinking about, but read with your critical faculties intact – and keep a pile of salt close by.

  9. Bazza says:

    Interesting stuff and I always thought the worker needed to work 2 to 2.5 days a week necessary labour time.
    Perhaps capital’s latest ruse is to get more labour out of people over more years – retirement at 66 from 2020, under 45’s to work until 68 and current 20 year olds to 70 – perhaps Labour needs to campaign for a 35 hour week to begin with and retirement for all at 65 (for those who want to) and 60 for manual workers.
    Interesting about how some of these new information workers seem to be part of the Corbyn surge.

  10. David Pavett says:

    In one of the many bizarre sections of Postcapitalism Paul Mason hails management theorist Peter Drucker as a “prophet of post-capitalism” a man who “asked the right questions”. This makes me wonder what Mason has actually read of Drucker. Drucker says

    “The new society – and it is already here – is a post-capitalist society … it will use the free market as the one proven mechanism of economic integration”.

    “Knowledge is the only meaningful resource today … labour an capital have not disappeared but they have become secondary”

    “Democratic government rests on the belief that the first job of elected representatives is to defend their constituents against rapacious government. The Pork-Barrel State” i.e. one that provides services “thus increasingly undermines the foundations of a free society”

    “The greatest need to outsource … is in government” (he recommends this for the NHS which he says cannot work as a state run service.

    All quotes from Drucker’s book Post-Capitalist Society. Mason uncritically adopt Drucker’s superficial analyses. He even claims following Drucker’s approach that the “universally educated person” will be the driver of post-capitalism and that to become universally educated all you need is a basic education and a smart phone.

    1. JohnP says:

      Yes, all too true, David. Mason is a strangely ideologically eclectic writer and thinker – with a seemingly unlimited tendancy to carelessly mix in what are seriously neoliberal policies and concepts with his “leftish labourism ” overall posture. He is a classic ,all over the ideological show, “Guardianista liberal”.

      But then how could he have been the rabidly Right of centre BBC Newsnight’s Economics Editor for so many years if he was any sort of a consistent socialist ? I think his “working class accent” gives him cover as a “down to earth bloke” for many people – who should be looking more critically at what he is saying.

      Sadly his confused liberal faux Leftism , with lots of toxic neoliberal concepts intermixed is pretty common on what passes for “the Left” today – even in Momentum (a look at the Momentum MxV site being depressingly solid proof of the ideological grip of neoliberalism, and “identity” rather than class politics of course ).

      1. David Pavett says:

        John, We share similar doubts about Mason but I think it is better to point out the specific problems of his approach rather than make strident multi-label denunciations. More than that he does sometimes raise important issues which are little discussed elsewhere and even when wrong he can state things in a way that opens discussion and helps to clarify the issues. Thus Lyn Elyon’s criticisms above help to clarify and issue on which there is a lot of confusion. Even his eclecticism may on occasion allow him to hit on a connection otherwise unnoticed. Even if his talk of free machines is wrong his discussion of the expansion of free services as a mode of social transformation (in the Project Zero chapter), merits some discussion. What I am saying is I wouldn’t be quite so sweepingly dismissive.

  11. Richard MacKinnon says:

    JoynP you are such a poor soul. Trying your best to make sense of a big complicated world is giving you a headache. My heart goes out to you.
    You think David Mason is a “strangely ideologically eclectic writer and thinker” . Who can “mix in ………… neoliberal policies and concepts with his “leftish labourism ” overall posture”. He is a classic ,all over the ideological show, “Guardianista liberal”.
    That is an impressive number of ‘isms’ for any man. I bet David Mason didn’t even realise that himself.
    JohnP, I come here to help not to aggravate your condition. I don’t know David Mason. I have never heard of him until this article which of course I haven’t read.
    My advice is to approach the David Masons from another angle (do the same with other writers such as Owen Jones). These multi media journalists, (that is a more accurate description for what these guys are). They will say anything to sell a book or get on the telly. They don’t write because they feel strongly one way or the other about anything. They might say they do but they are consummate liars. It goes with the job.
    These guys are driven by two things, money and fame. They see themselves as celebrities. They need the reaction they get from people like you JohnP to survive. You are one of their groupies.
    Your fixation with journalists and politicians that ply their trade in so called left wing politics is comparable with followers of the royal family, you know the sort, they stand for hours at the road side for a glimpse of the queen as she whizzes by in her car. Your comments are like their bunches of flowers. And there is another similarity, the contempt the royals have with their subjects, so it is with the David Masons and Owen Jones with their camp followers on social media.
    This is important, this next point, Mason and Jones will laugh with derision at all the attempts on sites like this to ‘understand’ their garbage but they need it. For just like the royals and their pathetic sycophants, Mason and Jones need you JohnP because as long as you are out there hammering on your keyboard your garbled comments they know are getting away with it, the illusion of serious political analysis. You make them rich, you give them authority. They are selling snake oil. There is nothing wrong with that, everyone has to make a living, but JohnP stop buying it.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Your willingness to discuss and pass judgement on someone you have never read and never heard of until you came across an article which you declined to read is impressive as an open and proud display of self-proclaimed ignorance.

      P.S. It’s “Paul Mason” not “David Mason”.

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        David,
        OK so you think I am ignorant for avoiding the books, reviews and articles of the self proclaimed experts who think they have invented a new way to run the economy from a ‘left of centre perspective’. They have not. Its an impossible task. Why? because none exist.
        Immediately I see new jargon such as post truth, post capitalism, or propositions such as, ‘Is capitalism dead?’ , I know, instinctively that the writer is a charlatan.
        Its exactly the same reaction, when I walk past a street preacher. I don’t stop to listen ‘to hear the word of god’, I keep walking because I know the man is a self deluded fool.
        So call me ignorant. I don’t care. I know I’m not. (By the way its JohnP and yourself that have a penchant for the adjective ‘ignorant’, something I have never said of others on this site). Carry on, yourself, JohnP and the rest of the intellectual middle class socialists on Leftfutures, massage each others egos. Analyse each others theories on ‘a socialist future’ until the cows come home.
        Be reassured however I will be with you all the way, to point out the flawed logic in your argument and that, ultimately, there is only way to run the economy properly.

        1. JohnP says:

          Oh dear, young MacKinnon, The “call me ignorant. I don’t care, I know I’m not ” strop, is just a tad revealing ! This Trolling isn’t quite the fun you first thought is it ?

          The core problem with all of your ludicrous Trolling, MacKinnon, is that to be effective with Right Trolling on a Left Wing site , you need to have a wealth of real historical FACTS and incisive argument to counterpose to all our “Left Wing Stuff” , and real theoretical understanding .

          Unfortunately your pathetically ignorant drivel, whilst fine for the 5th form Young Tory debating society surrounded by the similarly ignorant , is so laughably incorrect in all particulars that your nonsense merely reinforces the analysis that I, David, C.Mack, and so many other socialist posters are able to put forward in response.

          In other words , with your laughably tiny, entirely incorrect, knowledge base, and comic Daily Mail ideology you are merely a convenient Right Wing whipping boy for our socialist analysis. Sad, sad wee boy. Go away and do a lot of useful reading you silly little Tory.

  12. Richard MacKinnon says:

    JohnP,
    Try and follow this rationale that follows this statement:

    Socialism is dead.

    The evidence is, all 20th century socialist countries, across the world, no longer exist and have all reverted back to capitalist economies with the exception of a couple of mad dictatorships.
    Therefore, if socialism is dead, then yourself JohnP and the rest of the self proclaimed ‘socialists’ on Leftfutures are not analysing a relevent present day political force, you are analysing a short lived political phenomenon of the 20th century. By defintion that makes you a historian; a political historian. Your specialised subject is socialist politics in Europe and the period is the 20th century. You approach from a Marxist perspective (which from the point of view of objectiveness is not adviseable, but that is for another lesson).
    I think you are mixing up your tenses. You are thinking of the dead as if there were still with us. It is a natural reaction to grief but it is not healthy for the head and can lead to delusional thoughts. To avoid adding to your own confusion, try and take this on board JohnP, when your thoughts drift to things socialist, start thinking in the past tense. Start writing in the past tense, as in, ‘Once upon a time there was a vision that all the workers in the world would unite………….’
    I think this at the heart of your dilema. I think you are trying to speak in the present tense about a dead ‘ism’. JohnP, stand up, state your name and say the words ‘socialism is dead’. It will be a massive burden off your shoulders.

  13. Bazza says:

    “Bourgeois socialism is dead!”
    Well apart from China and North Korea etc. but Richard, oh Dear Richard machines, computers, buses and “Trains and boats and planes” are dead too, unless you add the magic ingredient – working people, to turn them on and ONLY then are the owners fed!
    And yes Dear Richard you will say but the workers are fed too but Richard, oh Dear Richard, “Some (the owners) are fed more than others!”
    But Richard I am magic, I can make working people disappear; so please explain to us how the few “self made millionaire” owners then make the millions of machines etc. work without workers and just how by magic the few answer million of phone calls in a day by themselves? “It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle I tell you!”
    Perhaps the capitalists, the rich and powerful are THE REAL DEPENDENCY CULTURE!
    But you interest me Dear Richard as a human being, unless you are a member of the Royal Family or a child of a millionaire/billionaire then why do you who perhaps has to also sell your labour to live too acts as a fighter fo the Masters and Mistresses?
    It could be argued that it is the labour of the working billions that really creates the wealth and makes societies work and as one of my heroes John Lennon sang in ‘Power to the People’ “You better give them what what they really own!”
    So I believe hope for the future globally is a a grassroots, bottom up, participatory, left wing democratic socialism (what perhaps socialism was always meant to be) unlike the bourgeois socialism of the past (top down, elite central committees, undemocratic, even secret police etc. where leaders took power for THEMSELVES and told people how to live their lives when we should decide for ourselves).
    So back to John: “Power to the People!”

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