* Book: PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. By Paul Mason. Penguin, 2015
- 1 Description
- 2 Interview
- 3 Excerpts
- 4 Review
- 5 Discussion 1
- 6 Discussion 2
1. Jonathan Derbyshire:
" It’s not a work of reportage, but of wide-ranging historical and economic analysis that is inspired by Marx’s analysis of capitalist social relations, but also goes some way beyond it (in ways, he acknowledges, that might not find favour with some of his friends on the far left). The book is both an analysis of the crisis of what Mason calls “neoliberalism”—his shorthand for the version of highly financialised capitalism that has operated in most of the developed world for the past 30 years—and an attempt to imagine what might replace it.
Capitalism, Mason writes, is a highly adaptive system: “At major turning points, it morphs and mutates in response to danger.” Its most basic survival instinct, he argues, “is to drive technological change.” But he believes that the information technologies that capitalism has developed in the past 20 years or so are not, despite apparently ample evidence to the contrary,”compatible with capitalism—not in its present form and maybe not in any form. Once capitalism can on longer adapt to technological change, postcapitalism becomes necessary.”
Mason is not alone in believing that humanity is on the cusp of a profound technological revolution, of course. We’ve heard a lot from other quarters, for instance, about the “Second Machine Age” and the promise (as well as the threat) of intelligent machines and the “internet of things”. What makes his analysis distinctive, however, is the way he fuses an account of the technological mutations of what used to be called “late capitalism” with an attempt to identify, as Engels put it in the late 19th century, the “midwife of the old society pregnant with a new one.” This won’t be the industrial working class, as Marx and Engels thought, but what Mason calls the “network.” By creating millions of networked people, Mason writes, “info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being.” (http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/blogs/jonathan-derbyshire/interview-paul-masons-guide-to-a-post-capitalist-future)
2. From the publisher:
"Over the past two centuries or so, capitalism has undergone continual change - economic cycles that lurch from boom to bust - and has always emerged transformed and strengthened. Surveying this turbulent history, Paul Mason wonders whether today we are on the brink of a change so big, so profound, that this time capitalism itself, the immensely complex system by which entire societies function, has reached its limits and is changing into something wholly new.
At the heart of this change is information technology: a revolution that, as Mason shows, has the potential to reshape utterly our familiar notions of work, production and value; and to destroy an economy based on markets and private ownership - in fact, he contends, it is already doing so. Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swathes of economic life are changing.. Goods and services that no longer respond to the dictates of neoliberalism are appearing, from parallel currencies and time banks, to cooperatives and self-managed online spaces. Vast numbers of people are changing their behaviour, discovering new forms of ownership, lending and doing business that are distinct from, and contrary to, the current system of state-backed corporate capitalism.
In this groundbreaking book Mason shows how, from the ashes of the recent financial crisis, we have the chance to create a more socially just and sustainable global economy. Moving beyond capitalism, he shows, is no longer a utopian dream. This is the first time in human history in which, equipped with an understanding of what is happening around us, we can predict and shape, rather than simply react to, seismic change." (http://www.penguin.co.uk/books/postcapitalism/9781846147388/)
Summary of Paul Mason's Argumentation
"Four Key Strands to the Argument
First, the new economy has seen the emergence of goods and services that have zero or very low marginal costs. Information can be readily copied and shared. For example, Apple provides most of the world's digital music (more than 70 per cent) and could in principle provide almost all existing recorded music to everybody in the world at near zero marginal cost. Pricing power only exists by virtue of low prices applied to a monopoly share of the market and fragile and contestable intellectual property rights.
The major digital economy companies which have disrupted major economic sectors survive by creating inherently unstable and vulnerable monopolies such as Google (search engines), Apple (music and other digital media within a corporate walled garden), and Facebook (social media). They may be profitable today, but the economic logic they are based upon tends toward zero prices and zero profits (hence, one can add, as the author does not, the stress of corporate interests on securing intellectual property rights in new investment agreements such as the TPP.)
Second, the new economy has seen the autonomous, non commercial rise of free and almost free goods and services. A mobile phone with an internet connection provides near zero price access to knowledge (farewell to many commercial media) and access to non commercial products such as Wikipedia and open source software which are produced to be shared rather than as a source of profit. The network economy enables individuals to produce and widely circulate blogs, music, works of art, movies, e-books and to generally share free knowledge largely outside the commercial sphere and the price system. Wikipedia is a key example of gift exchange and peer to peer production growing relative to market exchange.
Third, less and less labour is needed to produce goods and services in the age of the intelligent machine and robots. This ultimately undermines profitability since direct labour input is (on Marxist grounds) the ultimate source of value. In any case, automation and the displacement of workers by machines polarizes a shrinking workforce between knowledge workers and low paid workers in “bullshit jobs” (a useful new technical term.) Changes in production relations undermine effective demand, and emerging info- capitalism cannot resolve the increasingly chronic labour displacement/underconsumption problem.
Fourth, production is increasingly driven by knowledge, and knowledge is free and shared through networks. This stands in fundamental contradiction to the hierarchical control of knowledge within the capitalist corporation. “The main contradiction of modern capitalism is between the possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods and a system of monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information. That is, everything is pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy.” (http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/1317.php#continue)
Excerpted from an interview by Paul Mason conducted by Jonathan Derbyshire:
* Let’s turn to the economic aspect of your argument in this book. Your claim is that capitalism cannot “capture the ‘value’ generated by the new technology.” Can you unpack that a bit?
As soon as we knew we were in an information economy, it was obvious that the category of things called [by economists] “externalities” were going to be important. The cognitive capital theorist Yann Moulier-Boutang puts it this way (and I agree): the entire question of 21st-century capitalism is who captures the externalities. Shall it be the corporation, who’ll own them and utilise them, as Google does? The positive externality for Google is that it can see what we are searching for but we can’t see what each other are searching for. So it can now construct a monopolised business model on the basis of the secrets [revealed by] its data-mining.
* Are you saying that the only way, under the current arrangements, that capitalism can capture the value generated by the new technology is through monopoly? Google, Apple and others are making a pretty good fist of making money out of it.
They’re making money. They’ve created an information monopoly. And, especially in regard to information goods, they’ve been able to suppress the price mechanism, because the price mechanism would, naturally, reduce the price of the information they’re selling towards zero. I say in the book that Apple’s mission statement should really be: We exist to prevent the abundance of music! Or Google’s should be: We exist to prevent the abundance of people’s self-knowledge about what they do on the internet.
There are two problems with this. One is that it is logical to suggest that none of these monopolies can survive. Certainly, none of their share valuations reflect their ability to go on monopolising this stuff. Two, therefore you can’t have the full utilisation of information. The next question is: Is there a compromise? Is there a space between monopoly and freedom that we could explore? I actually think there is. I’m not saying that everything must become free. I’m saying there must be multiple business models between monopoly and freedom.
* So you’re not saying, then, that markets will disappear in a post-capitalist future? After all, markets and capitalism are not the same thing. Markets are just mechanisms for allocating resources.
It is natural, and it’s happening, that the social nature of information is leading to non-market forms of activity. Wikipedia is a non-market form of activity—it’s a $3bn hole in the advertising world.
You write at one point that the “more far-sighted” members of the global elite have displayed exceptional lucidity in addressing some of the questions you deal with in the book; issues such as inequality and the impact that it has on growth, “secular stagnation” and the role that collective bargaining plays in pushing up wages. Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, for instance, has written extensively on all three of these issues, offering diagnoses not at all dissimilar to yours.
There are people in the global elite who’ve given themselves permission to understand what we’re going through. One of the things they get is that inequality is going to be dysfunctional. Not only do they not want to be lynched in their beds, they also understand that the dynamism [of capitalist economies] [will] come back from a rise in the wage share. Another thing they’ve understood is the zero-bound issue—the idea that in an economy where you’re constantly bumping against zero, you’re constantly having to use unorthodox monetary policy. Unorthodox monetary policy is lumpy. Anybody who has understood Keynes’s critique of the 1920 and early ‘30s will understand the problem of “stickiness”. In the Thirties, it was wages that were sticky—they wouldn’t fall far enough. Now it’s monetary policy that’s sticky. The problem is: where’s the dynamism going to come from? Larry gets that. And people in the bond markets get that.
The final bit is that they look at the exogenous shocks and it terrifies them. It terrifies me, too. People in power, in state treasuries, won’t allow themselves to quantify the levels of shock that are on the way. If 60 per cent of sovereigns become insolvent because of ageing costs, which S&P says is likely, if migration happens at the scale that it’s likely to, and we get nine billion people clamouring to get into the developed world… If neoliberalism were a functioning system, as it was around 2001, and it hadn’t moved on from there, you could probably say: “Shit, this is going to be really difficult but we can probably do it.” But with the sclerotic, stagnant, defibrillating capitalism we’ve had post-2008, there’s not a chance on earth that it’ll survive the shocks. Even if I’m wrong about the transition I both see and desire, they have to come forward and say what a dynamic info-capitalism, what the third industrial revolution could be.
* But it seems to me that Summers or someone like the economist Robert Gordon would have to accept the diagnostic part of your analysis…
Right. But the reason I haven’t gone all the way into Robert Gordon territory is that the potential productivity is there. His view of the potential productivity inherent in info-tech spilling over into the real world… I think it’s bigger than he accepts.
* Why do you think he underestimates it?
It’s because people [like Gordon] are not prepared to enter this nether world between use-value and exchange-value that the externalities represent. I don’t think most people reading my book will accept that the transition, potentially, is towards a non-market, information-centred, low-labour, post-capitalist world. But if they think we’re headed towards a form of info-capitalism with a third industrial revolution, they need to tell us what the high-value synthesis is. What is the Edwardian era of this third industrial revolution going to look like?
* Do we see intimations of such a future in the so-called sharing economy? In ventures like Airbnb and Uber?
My hunch is that they are the AltaVista of the sharing economy. The French social theorist Andé Gorz explored this. He said it’s entirely possible to imagine capitalism colonising inter-personal relationships. Uber is that—it’s not about taxi drivers, it’s about people giving each other lifts. Gorz envisaged that we would become mutual providers of micro-services. But he said: “That can’t be a high-value economy.” That’s the problem. You can’t build a business out of mining the spare bits out of everybody’s car capacity, their capacity to do Reiki massage, every electrician’s spare half hour. You can do it, and the sharing economy is the perfect way to do it, but it just doesn’t give the Edwardian era, the Belle Epoque. The Belle Epoque is going to be gene sequencing and spending half your day playing squash.
Most Marxists will hate this. It’s saying, contra Marx, that humanity can liberate itself, that people can find, within capitalism, the mental means to imagine a new future and go straight for it in a way that, from 1844 onwards, Marx thought was impossible.
You borrow the idea of the “long cycle” from the Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff. He argued that the history of capitalism can be understood as a succession of cycles, each of which has an upswing fuelled by technological innovation lasting abut 25 years, followed by a downswing of about the same length that usually ends in a depression. These long cycles are much longer than the business cycles identified by mainstream economics. Why do you find Kondratieff’s approach helpful?
I think we need theories that are bigger than business cycles and smaller than the doom of the entire system. When you apply Kondratieff’s theory to the post-1945 period, you see the system working perfectly until 1973. And then it falls apart. Neoliberalism comes along and solves the problem by destroying the bargaining power of labour. Looking at things through Kondratieff’s spectacles forces you to ask the question: is neoliberalism the successful form of the new capitalism or a dead-end which has prolonged the old cycle for too long? I answer the latter.
* Where are we now in the cycle?
We are at the very end of an incredibly prolonged fourth long cycle. We are in the depression phase of the fourth long cycle which has coincided with the technological upswing of the fifth. So I believe that long cycles can overlap. I think we’re in an unusual position historically. Clearly, the information revolution is there and that the basis of completely new type of capitalism might be [emerging]. What’s happened is that the old social relations of the back half of the [previous] wave won’t go away. Whatever it is that’s going to happen, there’s one to represent it. There’s no Keynes, only the remnants of the old. If you look at [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg [the founder of Facebook]—these are people who are agnostic about the future of the whole system. They only have a view about the future of their own corporation.
My use of Kondratieff is to try to answer a question about where we are. The other periodicities—the ten-year business cycle and the 500-year epoch—are not enough. But this is a provisional explanation of what’s going on. And I offer it as such. There’s no chair of Post-Capitalist Studies at the University of Wolverhampton! It’s in its infancy.
* You mentioned André Gorz earlier. In the book, you quote him saying in 1980 that the working class is dead. If he was right, who is the agent of social change going to be?
The appalling and challenging fact may be that if capitalism has a beginning, a middle and an end, then does the labour movement. In other words, the decline of organised labour based on white, skilled, manual, male work, seems to me, as someone who lived through it and came from that background, to be a lawful part of what is happening to capitalism. I argue that the historical subject who will bring post-capitalism exists and is the networked individual. Antonio Negri’s notion of the “social factory” was bollocks in the 1970s, because it was too early. But it seems to me to be accurate now—we all participate in the creation of brands, in the creation of consumption choices, we are fuelling financial capitalism through our use of finance. So I buy the idea that there is a social factory. If you want to switch it off, you do it like William Benbow suggested in the 1820s by stopping—the “grand holiday”. Now, I doubt that’s going to happen. Therefore, the less utopian way of doing it is that you pursue the interests of those networked individuals, which is for their information not to be stolen from them, their information not to be arbitrarily accessed by the state, their lifestyles to be allowed to flourish, for them to have choices.
So many of the upsurges I’ve covered—Turkey, Brazil are good examples. These are networked salariats who cannot stand the levels of meddling and corruption in their lives—Islamism in Turkey, corruption in Brazil. What kind of revolution is it? There is a discussion that those who’ve so far engaged with my book have piled into: if this is the agent, is it “for itself” or “in itself” as Marx would say. Are these people capable of achieving a level of spontaneous understanding of the situation that leads them to grasp some of the policy measures hinted at in this book as a way forward for them? At the moment, clearly they are not there. What they are is very adept at constructing the personal space. We may scoff at it—it’s small scale. But with the carving out of space that is both economic and personal, I think this generation is doing something very significant.
Do I imbue them with the same inevitability, teleology that Marxism imbued the working class? No. In the book, I spend a long time disassembling Marxism’s understanding of the working class. I’ve always felt, as a person who came from that background, that the kit of parts Marxism had to describe the working class was one of its least convincing—above all, to working-class people.
* You write at one point that Marxism is a great “theory of history” but as “crisis theory” it’s flawed. What do you mean by that?
What I mean is that it’s a great theory for analysing class society. For example, during the Egyptian revolution in 2011, having read Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, I could say to Egyptian radicals that what will happen is that a level of chaos will be created whereby the very people who are on your side now will come forward and welcome a dictatorship. It’s likely that capitalism will call forth a new thing that imposes order. The thing that imposed disorder was the Muslim Brotherhood. And then to see the same people who’d supported the revolution calling for Sisi to overthrow the Brotherhood made sense if you’d read The 18th Brumaire.
I said to Alexis Tsipras before Syriza was elected: “What would be the threats to a left government if you gained power?” I said to him: “You do remember that [Salvador] Allende appointed [Augusto] Pinochet [in Chile]?” Allende appointed Pinochet to stop a military coup. We laughed. The point is that that government in Greece, you could argue, is being colonised by the very forces it thought it was there to fight. Right now, the business elite is thinking: “Only Tsipras can govern Greece.” They would prefer that he governed Greece without the far left of his own party. I meet Greek capitalists all the time who say to me: “If only Tsipras would listen to us, Greece would be a great country.”
Marxism forces you to ask [questions] that mainstream journalists don’t ask. The most important question for the Greeks right now is: what is happening to the masses? The masses are not defeated. They don’t believe that Tsipras is Louis Napoleon. Many of them object to what he has done, but they don’t believe he’s a force of reaction. They believe what he’s telling them—that he’s doing something unwillingly and that he will compensate for it with an attack on the oligarchy. They expect that attack on the oligarchy to come. My observation is that there has been a big radicalisation of people in Greece. Once the summer’s over we’ll see a real renewal both of struggles below and of the radicalism of the government.
The focus on what people are saying in pubs is something that two sets of people are very interested in: secret police forces and Marxists! I spend as much time as I can listening to people." (http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/blogs/jonathan-derbyshire/interview-paul-masons-guide-to-a-post-capitalist-future)
Provided by Nathan Cravens:
The P2P Movement has paid insufficient attention to the state
"At present, the community of thinkers and activists around the peer-to-peer movement are heavily focused on experimental, small-scale projects – credit unions or co-ops, for example. When they think about the state, it is at the level of laws to protect and extend the peer-to-peer sector. With the exception of thinkers such as Michel Bauwens4 and McKenzie Wark5, few have bothered to ask what a whole new system of governance and regulation might look like in this new mode of production.
In response, we should broaden our thinking so that solutions can be found through a mixture of small-scale experiment, proven models that can be scaled up and top-down action by states.
So if the solution in finance is to create a diverse, socialized banking system, then setting up a credit union attacks the problem from one direction, outlawing certain forms of speculation attacks it from another, while changing our own financial behaviour attacks it from still another angle.
In postcapitalism, the state has to act more like the staff of Wikipedia: to nurture the new economic forms to the point where they take off and operate organically.
For twenty-five years, the public sector has been forced to outsource and break itself into pieces; now would come the turn of monopolies such as Apple and Google. Where it’s dysfunctional to break up a monopoly – as for example with an aircraft manufacturer or a water company – the solution advocated by Rudolf Hilferding 100 years ago would suffice: public ownership."
On the Need for Modelling Complexity
"Given that we are decades into the info-tech era, it is startling that – as Oxford maths professor J. Doyne Farmer points out – there are no models that capture economic complexity in the way computers are used to simulate weather, population, epidemics or traffic flows.7
In addition, capitalist planning and modelling are typically unaccountable: by the time a major infrastructure project starts delivering results, ten or twenty years after its impact was first predicted, there is no person or organization still around to draw conclusions. Thus, most economic modelling under market capitalism is actually close to speculation.
So one of the most radical – and necessary – measures we could take is to create a global institute or network for simulating the long-term transition beyond capitalism.
It would start by attempting to construct an accurate simulation of economies as they exist today. Its work would be Open Source: anybody could use it, anybody could suggest improvements and the outputs would be available to all. It would most likely have to use a method called ‘agent-based modelling’ – that is, using computers to create millions of virtual workers, households and firms, and letting them interact spontaneously, within realistic boundaries. Even today such a model would be able to draw on realtime data. Weather sensors, city transport monitors, energy grids, postcode demographic data and the supply chain management tools of global supermarket groups are all giving off relevant macro-economic data in realtime. But the prize – once every object on earth is addressable, smart and feeding back information – is an economic model that does not just simulate reality but actually represents it. The agents modelled virtually are eventually substituted by granular data from reality, just as happens with weather computers.
Once we are able to capture economic reality in this manner, then planning major changes in an accountable way becomes possible. Just as aircraft engineers model millions of different stress loads on the tail-fin of a jet, it would be possible to model millions of variations of what happens if you reduce the price of Nike trainers to a point between their present $190 and their production price, which is likely to be lower than $20.
One specific problem is how to record the experience of failure into persistent data that allows us to retrace our steps, amend them and roll out the lessons across the whole economy. Networks are bad at memory; they are designed so that memory and activity sit in two different parts of the machine. Hierarchies were good at remembering – so working out how to retain and process lessons will be critical. The solution may be as simple as adding a recording and storing function to all activities, from the coffee shop to the state. Neoliberalism, with its love of creative destruction, was happy to dispense with the memory function – from Tony Blair’s ‘sofa’ decision-making to the tearing up of old corporate structures, nobody wanted to leave a paper trail."
0. Hilary Wainwright:
"This is an important book whose ambitious scope stimulates thoughts on the big issues: through what means of adaption is capitalism surviving? What are their limits? Are signs of these limits appearing? Paul Mason connects his answers with proposals for new strategic thinking on the left. He suggests tendencies that produce a dynamic beyond capitalism. He attempts to sketch out how we might build on these tendencies to achieve an alternative to capitalism. It is a captivating but not wholly convincing read.
Mason combines outrageously bold assertions with detailed empirical analyses of actually existing capitalism that undermine his own broad-brush assertions on how it could be. My central doubt concerns the agency or causal power he ascribes to information technology (IT). In his introductory chapter he asserts: ‘Information is different from every previous technology. As I will show, its spontaneous tendency is to dissolve markets, destroy ownership and break down the relationship between work and wages.’
In his conclusion, he compares the impact of IT with that of contraception. We are ‘witnessing a 40,000-year-old system of male power begin to dissolve before our eyes as a result of change triggered by a different kind of technology: the contraceptive pill’. Indeed, it is his excited optimism about the trends associated with new IT towards sharing, the creation of non-monetary value and new forms of production that drives the book. His anticipation of his conclusion – ‘Information technology is leading us towards a post-capitalist economy’ – sums it up.
Mason is right to stress the insufficiently understood importance of these developments, which he situates in a wider political economy. Yet when he goes on to analyse the forces at work in the capitalist world as it is, he describes forms of power that will not easily ‘dissolve’. He outlines, for example, ‘the creation of monopolies on information and the vigorous defence of intellectual property’. Drawing on his brilliant TV coverage of Greece, he identifies the determination and power of political elites to ensure that any transitional tendencies are definitively blocked. The power of IT and the collaboration it facilitates has been necessary to recent movements of rebellion but is not proving sufficient to bring down authoritarian regimes and transform society.
While Mason is unconvincing in demonstrating a transition to a post-capitalist order, what does emerge from his book is that we are now on a contested terrain over what the changes he describes are moving towards. It is full of ambivalences and risks as well as opportunities for transformative politics. It is a terrain of strategic struggle that the left ignores at its peril and for which left organisations need to radically change.
On the one hand are the distributed, peer-to-peer forms of production made possible by new information and communication technologies and especially commons-based peer-to-peer production in which value is created by ‘produsers’ in shared innovation commons. On the other hand, as we’ve seen with Microsoft, Facebook and Google, is capital’s economic power and will to monetise and appropriate the value created through this expanded connectivity.
The notion of a contested terrain raises the question of agency. Mason addresses this, first negatively to insist that it is not the working class as we have known it, and then sociologically – describing the lifestyles of the young generation of precarious, highly connected, highly educated graduates. But he does not discuss their sources of power and possible strategies and organisational form in depth, beyond celebrating the idea of the network. For this political dimension we need a critical history of networked, movement ways of organising.
Non-hierarchical, collaborative ways of organising pre-date information technology, though their recent growth has undoubtedly been facilitated by the newly available techno-political tools. In particular, the women’s liberation movement and other rebellions of the 1960s and 70s placed much emphasis on gathering and exchanging information and breaking open the secrecy of the dominant order. Their political concern was to identify the fundamental causes of why things were as the information revealed – and then to change them. This involved the collaborative production and dissemination of explanatory knowledge.
The production of knowledge is a significant step beyond the exchange of information and requires more complex forms of organistion – for sustained debate, experiment, investigation and decision-making – than simply connectivity. Mason’s omission of the historical dimension of today’s networked culture leads him to confuse and conflate information with knowledge, and to use the two concepts interchangably. This means that he tends towards an almost technological conception of organisation. But once the production of knowledge becomes an issue, explaining what the information tells us and guiding our strategies for change, all kinds of difficult issues arise of building political organisations adequate to the kinds of power we face. These problems are not dissolved by IT any more than is capitalism – or, for that matter, is male power dissolved by the contraceptive pill.
Paul Mason has certainly written a guide to our future but it is a guide with which we will want to critically discuss at every turn – exactly the preparation needed for the contested terrain in which we find ourselves."
1. Ann Pettifor:
"This book is an intellectually exhilarating read. While I have reservations about Mason’s thesis, I would recommend Post Capitalism to anyone interested in history, political thought, the past, present and future of info-tech, and above all, the future of capitalism. Mason draws on thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse and the management guru, Peter Drucker. In searching for an understanding of how capitalism may progress from here, his book draws on, and spans, a range of disciplines – history, physics (the wave form) engineering (of aircraft turbofans), computer science, economics, and political and social theory.
All this, added to his skill as a writer and his knack of drawing on his own (and his grandmother’s) lived experience in northern working class Britain, results in a book that is passionate, rigorous and challenging. Regrettably he has not included a bibliography. That would have taken up many pages, as the breadth of his sources is remarkable. As a result he has added many volumes to my reading list.
Finally Mason outlines a vision that is not entirely improbable, but could also be defined as utopian. In this unequal and divided world, we need more utopians. So despite my own pessimism about his thesis, I do recommend that you read Mason’s book. " (http://static1.squarespace.com/static/541ff5f5e4b02b7c37f31ed6/t/56388c1fe4b07bcac2c7eb0e/1446546463276/Ann+Pettifor+-+Paul+Mason+Review.pdf)
2. NIKI SETH-SMITH:
"This gets to the heart of my objection to Mason’s book. His economic analysis is sound. His projections for the future, were the world not to undergo a radical system change, are disturbingly plausible. My query is with his new political subject. In other words: who is our Furiosa?
Let’s look at the economics first. By applying Marx to Kondratieff’s long wave theory, Mason gives an answer to the ‘end of history’ question far more believable than the now ludicrous faith in the triumph of neoliberalism. We feel stuck, he says, because we are. In Kondratieff’s theory, capitalism has a rhythm: there are waves of upswings and downswings that should last approximately 50 years. In Mason’s theory, we are today stuck in the fourth wave, which should have ended with the economical upheaval and power struggles of the late ‘70s. Organised labour should have successfully resisted the lowering of wages, so forcing capitalists to innovate themselves out of the crisis: “working-class resistance can be technologically progressive… it forces the new paradigm to emerge on a higher plane of productivity and consumption”. But class struggle failed to fulfill that role. Instead, in the ‘80s, capitalists were able to slash wages in the centres of global capitalism like the UK and the US, go for low-value production, and mask the unsustainability of an undead economic model with a huge wave of financialisation. The long-wave pattern was disrupted. That’s because, Mason believes, we are now at the end of the capitalist era.
Whether or not we accept Mason’s interpretation of Kondratieff, the idea that we are in the midst of capitalism’s long goodbye, living under an incoherent system on constant life support, has understandably gained traction since the 2008 crash. Mason’s theory also makes sense of the peculiar feeling that ‘nothing feels new’ when it comes to anti-capitalist imaginaries. “Reappropriate free time!” “Never Work!” “Luxury is not a luxury!” “What do we want? Everything!” The slogans of the ‘70s – these are from the Situationist International and Italy’s Autonomia movement – still sound urgent and fresh today. Perhaps that’s because their vision of the future was left hanging, unfulfilled. Postcapitalism suggests that now, thirty years on, their time has finally come. Mason credits Aaron Bastani who, as co-founder of the left platform Novara media, has helped to popularize and theorize the idea of FALC, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. But the basic premise is not new and can be traced back, as Mason shows, to Marx and his obscure pamphlet, “Fragment on Machines”. By candlelight, in 1858, Marx imagined an economy where the main productive force is information, where this information is ‘social’, and that this would tend towards the unlimited creation of wealth.
Marx also predicted that the big question would change from ‘wages versus profits’ to the ‘power of knowledge.’ With the Internet of Things due to increase the informational component of even our remaining ‘concrete’ objects, we are living increasingly in this vision of a knowledge economy. And, as we all know, information wants to be free. Or does it? In his book “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free”, Cory Doctorow argues that technology doesn’t want anything: it is people who are heading towards their own liberation. Mason, like Doctorow, is not a techno-determinist. His faith is not in technology. It is in people. Or more accurately, in ‘a new kind of person’.
So who is this new subjectivity? Talking about Fragment on Machines, Mason says: “This is possibly the most revolutionary idea he [Marx] ever had: that the reduction of labour to a minimum could produce a new kind of human being able to deploy the entire, accumulated knowledge of society…” This is not a claim about ‘access’. It seems obvious to us now that the internet is fast becoming a machine through which we can access the entire, accumulated knowledge of society. Mason, channeling Marx, uses the word ‘deploy’. ‘Deploy’ is about human capability.
The driver of change is no longer the working class. There is a new political agent on the scene, one with ‘multiple economic selves’. Surely this is a description of the modern, precarious worker, the freelancer or struggling creative, juggling side projects with low-wage work? In “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class”, Guy Standing describes this new class as wanting “control over life, a revival of social solidarity and a sustainable autonomy, while rejecting old labourist forms of security and state paternalism”. Surely we can place Jessica Riches and ‘Eleni Haifa’ in this group? Yet Mason suggests this as a more fundamental shift than that described by Standing. Even Standing’s ‘salariat’ can be ‘the new kind of person’. In fact, the final pages of ‘Postcapitalism’ suggest that it is only the uber-rich who are “excluded from this great experiment in social communication”. Don’t be distracted by the scathing descriptions of the anxious, body-guarded, lipo-suctioned rich, sporting their identikit Ivy League sweatshirts. Mason genuinely pities American CEOs, because they don’t have real Twitter accounts. Locked in the model of the tired old subjectivity, the 1 per cent lose their human right to be part of the future.
Mason may be onto something. But it should be acknowledged that his theory is predicated on a premise that is just as philosophical, psychological and bio-political as it is economic. These categories, as we’ve seen, have collapsed in on themselves. Yet that’s not how Postcapitalism, or the rest of Mason’s work, is framed. When you’re on this territory, it is not enough to point to what happened with the London riots, the Arab Spring, or the indignados. As Mason says himself, in the late ‘70s there was a problem of agency: organized labour wasn’t able to push us out of the fourth long cycle and into an adaptation phase. What’s to say the agency is there now? It’s true that the gap between humanity’s technological capabilities, and their fruits, is widening. It’s becoming ever harder to ignore that the ‘success stories’ of late capitalism, like Apple and Google, exist predominantly to restrict, not enable, the flow of goods. Google, through its carefully managed relationship to Open Source, is better at understanding the power dynamics of this gatekeeper role, but essentially it too is an Immortan Joe, profiting from control over a potentially abundant resource. Mason points out that the scale of the shifts due to hit in a matter of decades – ageing demographics and climate change being the most seismic and potentially catastrophic – will bring about, all too literally, a ‘do or die’ scenario for moving beyond capitalism. But we have seen humanity’s peculiar talent for failing to act in its own interests.
Perhaps it is not enough for ‘the new kind of person’ to be adaptable, creative, social, and possess multiple economic selves, in order for them to deploy “the entire accumulated knowledge of society” and thus act in the collective interest of humankind. It’s not enough to own two iPhones. When Marx imagined greater liberation due to more free time, he could not have conceived of the everyday reality of a zero contract barista, or a contracted PR rep, ready to slip on the work mask every hour of every day. It’s decades since Antonio Negri started writing about ‘cognitive capitalism’ and its means of control within the ‘social factory’. With Michael Hardt in their Empire series, Negri has carried on to develop the idea of the ‘multitude’ as the agency that will move us beyond capitalism. The idea has been critiqued for its vagueness. Alain Badiou called it “a dreamy hallucination”. Yet don’t their ideas map onto Mason’s when they say in Commonwealth: “‘Today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living” and that “there is a breach in the social relation of capital opening the possibility for biopolitical labour to claim its autonomy; the foundations of its exodus are given in the existence and constant creation of the common…”?
What Mason proposes in his Project Zero makes sense as steps towards a post-capitalist economy. Suppress monopolies and socialize the finance system, he says. Reward innovation not rent-seeking behaviour, and institute a basic income scheme. Do this by pressure from below, including the setting up of more collaborative business models, as well as an expansion of non-market networks of sharing and collaboration. At the same time, seize control of the state apparatus, and reshape it to nurture these new economic forms (eventually the state would make itself redundant). Use the immense amounts of data now available to do what the Soviet Union’s State Planning Committee could never do: reliably simulate the present and guide the future of a complex economy. There is not one answer, but many: use new forms of democracy to channel the wisdom of crowds, our ‘collective genius’.
Yet Mason accepts that the pathway to post-capitalism is not (only) an economic transition. It is a “human transition”. His first principle is telling, and not sufficiently thought through: “to recognize the limitations of human will-power in the face of a complex and fragile system”. Will. Motivation. Why did Furiosa go rogue? To chase a childhood memory, a “dreamy hallucination”. My objection then, is not to Mason’s propositions, but to Postcapitalism’s implicit claim to be based on economic theory, when it rests on something more like a leap of faith. Read the very beginning and very end of Postcapitalism and you’ll see what I mean. Chapter 1 begins as a classic analysis of contemporary political economy, “When Lehman Brothers collapsed, on 15 September 2008….” Yet it ends with a sentence that reveals that the book, at heart, is not analytical, nor even only propositional. It is something more like a spiritual call, less factual statement than prophetic utterance: “postcapitalism will set you free.”" (http://www.precariouseurope.com/power/postcapitalism-precariat)
A 'Green' review by Caroline Lucas
"We Greens have always argued that both political and economic power must be distributed across a networked society, and the arguments in Postcapitalism add a welcome voice to that demand.
As I read Postcapitalism – learning much about long wave theory, the shortcomings of Marxist revolutionary thought and the impacts of Fordism as I went – I was struck by a huge, but purposeful, omission by Mason. He hardly mentions climate change until the penultimate chapter, but justifies its omission by claiming it illustrates the fact that economic change is happening anyway and that climate change is going to necessarily speed up the process.
Read alongside Naomi Klein’s powerful This Changes Everything Mason’s analysis is all the more powerful. Both make clear the inherent contradiction of capitalism when it comes to delivering ecological sustainability. The real ‘absurdists’, says Mason, are ‘not the climate change deniers but the politicians and economists who believe that existing market mechanisms can stop climate change.’ You only have to look at the latest IPCC findings to see that postcapitalism is needed immediately.
The question hanging over the book is simple: is postcapitalism possible? Like Mason I take a huge amount of inspiration from the liberation movements that have won so many battles in the past. As he put it so well: “It is absurd that we are capable of witnessing a 40,000 year old system of gender oppression begin to dissolve before our eyes yet still see the abolition of a 200 year old economic system as an unrealistic utopia.
The good news is that Mason’s theory does not sit alone. Many of his conclusions – indeed the main thrust of this book – sit neatly with the aims of Green politics.
Post-capitalism is a liberating vision of a low-carbon, less work intensive future where people are provided with what they need locally. His proposals – like a Government ‘Office of the Non-market Economy’ are compelling. And his call for the longstanding Green policy of a ‘basic income’ as the first stage towards ‘reducing to a minimum the hours it takes to produce what humanity needs’ is welcome. These ideas shouldn’t be radical – and for us Greens they may not seem so – but it’s refreshing to see them being aired by someone in Mason’s position.
Greens have always believed that politics is as much about what we do, as what’s done to us. Mason uses finance as an example – we can attack the system by setting up and joining credit unions, creating new local currencies in our communities and by urging politicians to implement regulation in parliament. That combination, of acting locally where we can whilst keeping pressure on lawmakers, is crucial to any future social change.
I share Mason’s optimistic vision of our potential to build an entirely different type of economy. In the very short term, if we’re serious about taking up this challenge, progressives have to urgently find ways to work together. In Britain the Conservative government is busy embedding neoliberalism – revelling in the fragmentation of those of us who oppose them. For those of us who want something resembling postcapitalism, even if that’s not what we’d call it, this book should be a wake up call: the future we want isn’t inevitable. It’s only by working together – whether it be in parliament or in our local communities - than we can bring about the changes we so desperately need." (https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/caroline-lucas/postcapitalism-is-it-what-we-greens-have-always-been-arguing-for)
The central thesis of the book is the inevitable decline of capitalism
(real-world economics review, issue no. 73)
"The central thesis of the book is that because of new technologies (the internet and associated developments), capitalism is in decline and is likely to be replaced within a few decades by an entirely new socio-economic system – PostCapitalism. As Paul Mason himself says (p. xiii):
“…the technologies we’ve created are not compatible with capitalism … Once capitalism can no longer adapt to technological change, PostCapitalism becomes necessary... That, in short, is the argument of this book: that capitalism is a complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.”
Now this thesis is a very surprising one. Most people have an exactly opposite view, namely that capitalism is triumphant and irresistible. According to this more usual opinion, capitalism in the last few decades has overcome its traditional enemies. Communism has collapsed in Russia and Eastern Europe, and in China has been transformed into a kind of capitalism. Even in Western Europe, traditional social democracy has been undermined, and replaced by a more unbridled form of capitalism. It would seem then that capitalism is here to stay, and indeed is “the only game in town”. To think anything else seems to be mere wish fulfilment on the part of the old left. Indeed Paul Mason himself says that, for some people, (p. 250): “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a non-market … economy.”
Still, strange and surprising views sometimes turn out to be correct, as Copernicus showed. Could it be that the successes of capitalism in the last few decades are a last flowering rather than a final triumph? In fact it is the opinion of the present reviewer that the central thesis of Paul Mason’s book is indeed correct. The main argument for his view can be made explicit by stating what I will call: The Principle underlying the Decline of Capitalism. Once this principle is formulated it will be seen to be plausible and indeed compelling. Before coming to this, however, it is worth saying something about the current crisis of capitalism.
Big capitalist organisations are bureaucratic and authoritarian. A hierarchy of managers, leading up to the CEO, plan what is to be done, and assign tasks to the workers. Interestingly, hitherto existing forms of socialism have also had this bureaucratic, authoritarian and hierarchical character. This is obviously true of communism, but also holds of the productive organisations of social democracy. For example, a nationalized industry, such as the former coal industry in Britain, was run by a bureaucratic hierarchy of managers. The appearance of these bureaucratic forms in both capitalism and socialism shows that they were indeed suited to production, given the then development of the productive forces and the type of good being produced. However, Paul Mason’s thought experiment shows that these bureaucratic forms are not suitable for the production of digital goods in the era of the internet. For the production of such goods, as the example of Wikipedia shows, we need a networked, collaborative group of workers who agree among themselves what is to be done and by whom, without the intervention of any managerial hierarchy or bureaucracy. The same message comes out clearly from other examples such as the free software movement.
Here then we have in embryo the PostCapitalist mode of production. However, there is one feature of the Wikipedia and free software examples, which must be removed if this type of production is to become general. Those who contribute to Wikipedia and free software projects are not paid, and so have to do this work in their spare time, while earning their livings in some other activity. It is remarkable that such numbers of skilled people are willing to do this, but the lack of pay sets a limit on the extent to which this mode of production can become general, since obviously most people have to earn their living in some way. The question then arises: if groups of workers are going to be paid to produce digital goods, who is going to pay them? Clearly no one in the private sector is going to pay them, because of the difficulty of producing digital goods under capitalism. It follows therefore that they must be paid by the state.
This leads me to a conclusion, with which Paul Mason might not perhaps agree, namely that the PostCapitalist mode of production will turn out to be a form of socialism, but one which differs from the earlier forms of bureaucratic socialism by being more egalitarian and libertarian. This type of socialism I think could be called networked socialism. Paul Mason writes (p. xvii): “info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being.” Of course the overwhelming majority of educated and connected human beings are white-collar workers. So networked socialism is based on whitecollar workers in contrast to earlier forms of socialism, which were based on manual (bluecollar) workers.
Another feature of networked socialism is that it is international. In the networks, which produce Wikipedia, free software etc., there are members from all over the world. What is important is whether someone is good at doing the job. Where they happen to live is an irrelevance. Capitalism too has gone international with the rise of the multi-national (or transnational) corporations. All this shows that the economic foundations of nationalism are being eroded.
But can the state simply take over the production of digital goods, paying the researchers, journalists, film directors, actors, artists, musicians, etc. who are needed to produce these goods? Of course it can, and the simplest proof that this is possible is that the state already pays for the production of many digital goods. In fact almost all scientific research is carried out already by workers in universities and research institutes who are paid by the state. This system has simply to be extended to other areas. The fact that the products of these workers are given away free is no problem. They are being produced for the benefit of society. So it is right that they should be freely available to anyone in society. While attempts to preserve capitalist production of digital goods involve trying to strengthen copyright laws, the socialist production of these goods involves the total abolition of these laws. Musicians, writers etc. may no longer receive royalties, but they will instead be paid salaries by the state for what they produce, just as most researchers are at present.
Altogether then the difficulties associated with trying to produce digital goods under capitalism disappear once these goods are produced under socialism. Only one problem remains. The type of socialism needed is networked socialism. However, governments, if they tolerate socialism at all, much prefer bureaucratic socialism. This is for obvious reasons. Bureaucratic socialism gives governments much more control. They appoint the top managers of the bureaucratic hierarchy and through them can have a say in what goes on in the organisation. With networked socialism things are different. The government has to pay a group of workers, assign them a task, and then leave them to get on with it without interference. Such a handsoff, libertarian approach is not very appealing to governments, as is clearly shown by the case of scientific (and other) research, which is already financed by the state. Governments have tried to re-organise research on a more managerial model using such devices as research assessment systems. The results have been very unsatisfactory. The costs of research have been increased while the results have got worse with the stifling of new ideas and other undesirable consequences.
The promised principle underlying the decline of capitalism can now be formulated. It runs as follows. It is very difficult, if not almost impossible, to produce digital goods under capitalism, but very easy to do so under socialism.
whether the production of digital goods will become the dominant sector of the economy.
Let us look at this from a historical point of view.
With the invention of settled agriculture, humans were able to develop cities and civilisation. The economies of these states were, for thousands of years, based on agriculture. Food production was the dominant branch of the economy and usually as much as 90% of the population worked in this sector. Since food is so necessary for humans, it is doubtful whether anyone living in these agrarian states could have imagined that things might one day be different. Yet with the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution, things did change, and it was not long before industrial manufacturing rose to become the dominant branch of the economy. The reason for this was that the industrial sector provided inputs for agriculture, such as machinery, fertilizers, etc. which increased agricultural output, while diminishing the number of people needed to produce that output. Once a nation started industrialising, it was not long before the industrial workforce greatly exceeded the agricultural workforce. It is also worth noting that capitalist relations, which had first established themselves in the manufacturing sector, quickly spread to the agricultural sector, so that capitalist farming replaced the various forms of pre-capitalist agriculture.
If now we look at the rise of the digital economy in relation to traditional capitalist industry, the parallel with the rise of capitalist industry in relation to traditional agriculture becomes immediately apparent. The digital economy produces inputs to industry such as new scientific and technological knowledge, software in general, and artificial intelligence programs in particular, and so on. These inputs increase industrial output, while diminishing the number of people needed to produce that output. Probably already in the advanced economies the percentage of workers in the digital economy exceeds the percentage in traditional industrial manufacturing. Moreover the digital sector plays the dominant and controlling role in relation to industrial manufacture. If therefore networked socialism becomes the standard mode of production in the digital sector, it will probably spread to the industrial sector as well, just as capitalist farming replaced earlier pre-capitalist modes of agricultural production." (http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue73/Gillies73.pdf)
Paul Mason's misleading digital marxism
"Paul Mason fails to make a profound and significant contribution to digital Marxism. His analysis is a one-dimensional, techno-deterministic breakdown theory that ignores digital labour analysis, the international division of digital labour, and the contradiction between digital labour and digital capital.
What Paul Mason is good at is identifying and describing political demands that can help to advance conditions for the creation of a post-capitalist society (see chapter 10). Such demands include the reduction of standard working hours; advancing support for co-ops, the solidarity and commons-based peer production economy; the reduction of carbon emissions, the strengthening of the welfare state and gratis public services, the reduction of inequalities, the socialisation of the finance system, fostering human-centred automation, ending privatisation, starting state-led infrastructure projects (housing, transport, healthcare, education, etc.), debt write-off, the closure of tax havens, a clampdown on tax avoidance, the introduction of a universal basic income funded from taxation, etc. (292).
At least two ideas should be added and stressed: 1) There are different forms of taxfunded universal basic income – neoliberal and progressive basic income. In neoliberal basic income, the tax system is changed in such a way that the poor have a minimum income, but overall there is a redistribution from lower to upper income and wealth groups by measures such as flat taxation and the partial abolishment of the welfare state, which puts the first at a social disadvantage. It is no wonder that Milton Freedman embraced the idea of such a basic income. One version of neoliberal basic income is to abolish all taxes, except for VAT that is massively increased. Progressive basic income in contrast is a measure that combines universal economic rights with increasing the taxation of capital and the rich. Some years ago, I helped designing models of how progressive basic income could be implemented in the German-speaking world’s basic income movement. The contradiction between neoliberal and progressive basic income became very evident in this movement. My political point has in this context always been that I do not care about basic income as such, but only about a socialist and redistributive basic income.
2) Paul Mason sees the necessity to combine civil society and state politics in progressive politics. The problem of alternative projects has to do with the radical Left’s traditional scepticism of the state. Such projects often lack resources, remain an alternative ghetto for the enlightened left-wing few, are based on voluntary, highly self-exploitative labour, and as a result of all of this cannot challenge the power of capitalism. We need mechanisms that combine progressive state and civil society action. One of them is what I term the participatory media fee (Fuchs 2015b): Additional state revenues generated by capital taxation, for example by taxing advertising, are in this model redistributed via participatory budgeting to citizens, who receive a citizens cheque. They are required to donate the annual sum they receive to non-commercial media or cultural project that help advancing the public sphere.
When discussing political change potentials, the question arises who the potential subjects of this change are. For Paul Mason, contemporary protestors constitute this political subject. So he sees the need for active, conscious political praxis. But given his technodeterministic framework, it seems like such praxis is not relatively autonomous, but the automatic result of the blind necessity forced by information technology on society and human subjects. Protest appears in Mason’s account to be an automatic and necessary force of history. Such an analysis underestimates the role of ideologies that can forestall political change and political movements. Crises do not determine, but only condition political struggles.
Crises as capitalism’s objective dialectical factor condition the possibilities for and limits of subjective contradictions, in which humans intervene collectively into society and try to change it. “Not the slightest natural necessity or automatic inevitability guarantees the transition from capitalism to socialism. […] The revolution requires the maturity of many forces, but the greatest among them is the subjective force, namely, the revolutionary class itself. The realization of freedom and reason requires the free rationality of those who achieve it. Marxian theory is, then, incompatible with fatalistic determinism (Marcuse 1941, 318-319; for a detailed discussion of Herbert Marcuse’s critical theory in the age of digital and social media, see Fuchs 2016b, chapter 4).
Who exactly is the progressive political subject for Paul Mason? He speaks of “a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being” (xvii). “In the past twenty years, capitalism has mustered a new social force that will be its gravedigger, just as it assembled the factory proletariat in the nineteenth century. It is the networked individuals who have camped in the city squares, blockaded the fracking sites, performed punk rock on the roofs of Russian cathedrals, raised defiant cans of beer in the face of Islamism on the grass of Gezi Park, pulled a million people on to the streets of Rio and São Paulo and now organized mass strikes across southern China. They are the working class ‘sublated’ – improved upon and replaced” (212).
Almost all managers, CEOs, and other members of the class of the 1% are “educated and connected”. They are the globalised, networked, educated, influential – and wealthy. Are the educated, connected and networked hedge fund manager and the educated, connected and networked entrepreneur, who parks and hides his wealth in tax havens, part of this subject?
Definitely not! Education, networking and connectedness are not automatically politically progressive. When we assume that educated, connected, networked individuals are the progressive subject, then this means that the 1% must be the avant-garde of the Left, which is an absurd assumption. Also fascist leaders and activists can be educated and are mostly not just populists, but also highly connected and networked. We must see that a significant share of contemporary political action is fascist, racist or right-wing extremist in character. Not only is it relatively open if in a situation of crisis, protest emerges or is forestalled by ideologies and repression, also the dominant political direction of such politics is not determined. Paul Mason’s take on political change is naïve. This became also evident in his 2012 book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Mason 2012), in which he fostered the myth of contemporary protests being Facebook and Twitter revolutions. If one bases books on journalistic observations and not on systematic, critical empirical studies, then such short-circuited, one-dimensional analyses are the outcome. What Paul Mason observes as a journalist on some squares of the world and in his interviews can at best be a partial truth, half-truth or untruth. It is not based on a social science methodology. Empirical research has in contrast shown that online media neither cause contemporary protests and revolutions nor are they unimportant (see for example: Aouragh 2016, Fuchs 2014b, Gerbaudo 2012, Salem 2015, Wilson and Dunn 2011, Wolfson 2014). Protests are shaped by dialectics of mediation and the streets, the Internet and the squares, online and offline, face-to-face and mediated communication, traditional and new media (Fuchs 2014b). Sometimes it would be better that journalists go (back) to university and do PhDs in order to learn some social science and conduct systematic empirical research before they write books.
Not the educated, connected, and networked form a political subject today. The potentially progressive political subject-in-itself is rather formed by all those whose labour produces the commons, but does not control, expropriate and dispossess the commons of nature, the social, knowledge, culture, technology, care, and education. The 1% are not part of this political subject, but rather form its dialectical opposite.
2. Paul Mason’s book Post-Capitalism fetishises information technology:
"Paul Mason’s book Post-Capitalism fetishises information technology. It ignores the role of digital labour and the contradiction between digital labour and digital capital in the international division of digital labour. It is based on a one-dimensional, functionalist reading of Marx and misses to understand digital capitalism’s imperialistic character (Fuchs 2016c).
It sees human praxis as a blind necessity emanating from information technology and is based on a linear, techno-deterministic, functionalist logic:
- Information technology => Zero-marginal costs of information => Tendency of the Rate of
Profit to Fall => Breakdown of capitalism => Post-capitalism
“We need to be unashamed utopians” (288): Paul Mason is a utopian socialist 2.0, who sees the utopia of socialist post-capitalism not as the outcome of socialist praxis’ active hope, but as the result of information technology. The book stands in the tradition of other breakdown theories of capitalism.
Although theoretically much less sophisticated, it is not unrelated to the German Marxist Robert Kurz’s approach. In books such as Der Kollaps der Modernisierung (Kurz 1991), Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus (1999), or Geld ohne Wert: Grundrisse zu einer Transformation der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Kurz 2012), Kurz argues that the microelectronic revolution destroys the substance of value and results in an inevitable decrease of the rate of profit that leads to capitalism’s collapse and the emergence of a post-capitalist society:
“Briefly, one can say that with the microelectronic revolution starting in the early 1980s, whose potential is far from being exhausted, not only the Fordist Expansion but the expansion of productive labor and therefore real value creation also stagnated; productive labor has since been in retreat on a global scale. This means that the historical compensation mechanism, which sustained the parallel expansion of capitalistically unproductive labor, no longer exists. The basis of capitalist reproduction has truly reached its absolute limit, although its collapse (in the fullest sense of the word) has not yet taken place on the formal phenomenological plane. But such an event would no longer merely take the form of an accelerated decrease in the rate of profit” (Kurz 1995).
The analysis in Mason’s book also resembles the parent of all economic breakdown theories, Henryk Grossman’s 1929 book Das Akkumulations- und Zusammenbruchsgesetz des kapitalistischen Systems (The Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System). Grossman gives a mathematical example, in which capitalism breaks down after 35 years. He argues that the example shows that Marx’s theorem of the tendency of the profit rate to fall brings about the automatic breakdown of capitalism.
“If the capitalist system inevitably breaks down due to the relative decline in the mass of profit we can understand why Marx ascribed such enormous importance to the tendential fall in the rate of profit, which is simply the expression of this breakdown” (Grossman 1992, 119).
“The capitalist mechanism falls sick not because it contains too much surplus value but because it contains too little. The valorisation of capital is its basic function and the system dies because this function cannot be fulfilled” (Grossman 1992, 126). “Marx roots the breakdown in the social form of production; in the fact that the capitalist mechanism is regulated by profit and at a certain level of capitalist accumulation there is not enough profit to ensure valorisation of the accumulated capital” (Grossman 1992, 127).
Also Lenin (1964, 154) overlooked the negative aspects of technology when he idealised the Taylor system’s inhumanity and thought it was ready made for application in a socialist society: “The Taylor system – without its initiators knowing or wishing it – is preparing the time when the proletariat will take over all social production and appoint its own workers’ committees for the purpose of properly distributing and rationalising all social labour. Large-scale production, machinery, railways, telephone – all provide thousands of opportunities to cut by three-fourths the working time of the organised workers and make them four times better off than they are today”.
The point is that capitalism and domination inherently shape the character of technologies. It is therefore unlikely that a technology in capitalism only has positive and emancipatory roles and potentials. Modern technology has contradictory tendencies that can support emancipation and repression. The point is that it is a political task to reshape both society and technology in an integrated manner so that democratic socialism can be advanced.
The rate of profit depends on the organic composition of capital and the rate of surplusvalue. It is directly proportional to the rate of surplus-value and indirectly proportional to the organic composition (Fuchs 2016d, 248-256, 347-351). Technological development can bring about an increase of both, so that an actual rise or fall of the rate of profit and the economic expression of the tendency depend on the results of class struggle and the degree of countervailing tendencies (Fuchs 2016d, 248-256, 347-351). There is no necessary breakdown of capitalism. Information technology only conditions, but does not determine capitalism’s objective and subjective contradictions and their development.
The collective worker of the world has to politically unite in order bring about the humanisation of society and technology. Paul Mason is digital Marxism’s Grossman 2.0. Such an assessment is the opposite of praise for a book. PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future is successful in market terms (in capitalist ideological terms this means that it is a “bestseller”) not because of the superiority of its analysis, but because its author due to his journalistic activity has more than 200,000 Twitter followers and has become widely known by appearances on BBC and Channel 4’s news broadcasts. The stratification of media attention in the capitalist society of the spectacle results in a divergence of attention so that high levels of sales, revenues and attention can very well accompany low academic, theoretical and analytical quality. The poverty of theory sells if it blinks and screams glaringly and loud enough in the attention economy, even if it just imitates, copies and disguises itself as digital Marxism." (tripleC 14(1): 232-242, 2016 241)
On the illusory naturalism of Kondratieff cycles
"My main beef with Mason’s book is that rather than define this period as one that was man-made – designed largely by the genius John Maynard Keynes and his Cambridge colleagues – Mason defines this period as a “Kondratieff upswing on steroids”.
Once again the implication is that this period of full employment, of science-led innovation, high productivity…high wages, consumption keeping pace with production, benign inflation and marginal speculative finance (p 86-7) is described as something beyond human agency – akin to the cycles of the moon.
Neoliberals too like to dismiss this age as beyond our present-day ken. Neoliberals too would like us to feel impotent in the face of day’s rapacious financial capitalism. But as the Golden Age proved, we are not impotent. And we are not the subjects of periodic, abstract cycles. The Golden Age was constructed, designed and implemented by a group of economists who congregated at Bretton Woods in 1944 and that were led by John Maynard Keynes and his American competitor, Harry Dexter White. (The striking thing about the conference was that only one banker was allowed to attend – and only because President Roosevelt regarded him as tame enough not to present a threat to the proceedings.)
Keynes and colleagues were confronted by a form of capitalism that had wrought massive destruction of lives, livelihoods and nations. They were surrounded by the wreckage of war, but were not intimidated by the scale of the challenge they faced in confronting, subordinating and managing global finance capitalism.
Nor should we be. We are not, as Mason suggests, the passive subjects of inexorable and inevitable cycles or Kondratieff waves of capitalism. We are masters of our own destiny – if only we (and professional economists) had the courage to identify, name, subordinate and manage the global finance sector – as Keynes and others have shown we can. " (http://static1.squarespace.com/static/541ff5f5e4b02b7c37f31ed6/t/56388c1fe4b07bcac2c7eb0e/1446546463276/Ann+Pettifor+-+Paul+Mason+Review.pdf)
Mason is over-emphasizing infotech and underestimating the role of finance
"While Mason does of course discuss the finance sector, he makes infotech the main driver of the changes we are witnessing today.
I beg to disagree. Far from ‘mutating’ in cycles of 50 to 500 years, the finance sector is today growing exponentially before our very eyes, with only the occasional financial crisis to arrest that growth. This is partly thanks to the rise of infotech, but infotech in the service of finance, not as its driver.
The last financial crisis (2007-9) turbo-blasted the sector into a new fantastic growth phase. Not only was Haute Finance bailed out, it also insidiously attached itself more fully to states – and wrested guarantees and protection from these governments, their taxpayers and their central banks.
And while this particular group of capitalists may worship at the shrine of Adam Smith and Ayn Rand, they nevertheless demand and expect taxpayer-funded guarantees and protection from the discipline and losses imposed by market forces.
Despite its detachment from the “real” economy of production, the global finance sector has succeeded in capturing, effectively looting and then subordinating governments and their taxpayers to the interests of financiers. Bankers and financiers now effectively control the public utility that is our monetary system. They can gamble and speculate on global markets without fear of losses or the fear of being disciplined by ‘the invisible hand’. They know their institutions are Too Systemic, or Too Big To Fail.
They are today’s Masters of the Universe – and they do not feature largely in this book.
Like so many others Mason takes the structure of the internet as a model for the evolution of capitalism and speculates that capitalism will evolve into a system in which hierarchies are flattened, machines are free and we’re all far more collaborative.
But Mason’s techno-utopianism is fundamentally about the production side of the economy. Yet, as he well knows, there is more to the economy than production. There is consumption – and Mason’s view of today’s sharing, networked and connected world may just as well be defined as collaborative consumption.
And then there’s the rentier sector of the economy – earning rent from assets (particularly financial assets like debt) effortlessly.
The last two sectors are not fully addressed in the wide sweep of this book." (http://static1.squarespace.com/static/541ff5f5e4b02b7c37f31ed6/t/56388c1fe4b07bcac2c7eb0e/1446546463276/Ann+Pettifor+-+Paul+Mason+Review.pdf)
Mason is overemphasizing the positivity of networks
"I think there are some good reasons for us to hesitate before placing networks at the epicentre of any postcapitalist future.
One potential problem we might have is with Mason’s attempts to differentiate between networks and hierarchies. This is something he does frequently in his book. As a result, networks’ disruptive capacities take on an important and functional role in Mason’s vision. In many ways, networks, as a central part of a range of technological shifts, become the key mechanism for the transformations central to postcapitalism. What is crucial here is that networks are seen as providing an alternative to hierarchies.
Mason (212) suggests, for example, that ‘the main faultline in the modern world is between networks and hierarchies’. He adds that ‘everything is pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy’ (144) and that ‘everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy’ (xix). This somehow suggests that either networks can exist in a form that is not hierarchical or, perhaps, that they are by their very nature non-hierarchical. The question is whether either of these is actually the case.
Despite their appearance, networks often contain hierarchies. Despite their appearance, networks often contain hierarchies. Much of what we know about contemporary decentralised networks would suggest that they are not free from hierarchies. Just to pick one quite superficial example, if we look at something obvious like social media then Klout scores and other means of measuring influence and amplification are designed to reveal those very hierarchies. Networks are not flat, they are 3 dimensional, they have a z axis. Decentralization, then, is not necessarily equivalent to empowerment or democratisation. It may not even give people the voice that it appears to give them. Instead we are all left howling into the wind, with a few select voices getting heard above the din. We should instantly wonder why it is that those few voices get heard, is it something about what is being said or is it potentially a product of the particular hierarchies afforded by these media infrastructures and their apparently equally distributed chances of communication.
Jodi Dean is even more negative in her understanding of these decentralised networks. Her argument is that the there is a lot of noise and very little listening going on within social media. She calls this ‘communicative capitalism’. Her point is that the communications we engage with in these networks are all part of the capitalist system of which those networks are a key component. Even where we appear to be resisting, questioning or, as Mason suggests, ‘rebelling’, Dean’s point is that we are merely contributing to the maintenance of communicative capitalism. What we say has little value other than to the system to which we are contributing content. Here the network is not seen to offer any alternatives, it merely serves to reinforce neoliberal capitalism. And then we can add to this David Hill’s recent observation that such communicative capitalism promotes precarity, fragility and exacerbates individualism.
The question this poses is that if networks are indeed both hierarchical and central to contemporary capitalism, then how do they fit into a vision of postcapitalism? What if, rather than offering opportunities for alternatives to be fostered, these networks are in fact cementing existing social hierarchies? If we are to engage in imagining the future of postcapitalism, as Mason suggests we should, then we will need to reassess the role of networks within that future. Seeing networks as somehow offering a space outside of existing power dynamics rather than as a central part of them is something that needs to be questioned. If we look at it in this way, then perhaps capitalism has not, as Mason (xiii) claims, ‘reached the limits of its capacity to adapt’. If capitalism is embedded so deeply within the structure of these networks, then I wonder how easy it will be to rely upon them to engineer or enact postcapitalism.
What if, rather than offering opportunities for alternatives to be fostered, these networks are in fact cementing existing social hierarchies?To add a further dimension to these arguments, we might also reflect on the power of the infrastructures of these networks. We need to think about the way that these infrastructures shape the circulation of data and information, we need to consider the politics of circulation that is at play. Algorithms – the decision making parts of software code – now play an important role in the formation of networks and in the flow of information around those networks. Algorithms order, rank and recommend. They decide what is visible to us amongst the unfathomable masses of information. Think here about how Twitter’s recommendations of who to follow might shape the network itself. We are more likely to encounter and perhaps connect with those who are recommended to us, simply because they are more visible to us. Then last year’s stories about the manipulation of Facebook news feeds also revealed how algorithms are responsible for the things we discover or know about. So we need to think of how the networks and the flows of information around them might be products of the infrastructures that afford and intervene in those flows.
Mason sees the openness of information as being important in a postcapitalist world. Which makes good sense. But what we have said already would suggest that contemporary networks might well be the source of what he calls the ‘asymmetry of information’ – with companies using what they know about us to pursue value. Mason understandably suggests that postcapitalism would require us to stand against such asymmetry in information access, but we have to wonder if the networks that are now in place are more likely to preserve and even exacerbate this problem. Social media networks, for instance, are designed to extract information about us for commercial ends. This would suggest that decentralised networks don’t necessarily provide an alternative to this asymmetry of information, in fact they may frequently be the very means by which this asymmetry is achieved. This would make them an unlikely antidote to the protectionism that surrounds information and data.
We can extend this politics of circulation to Mason’s (269) suggestion that in planning for a postcapitalist future ‘we should use the new breed of simulation tools to model every proposal virtually before we enact it for real’. Here we can imagine how certain types of accumulated data will be drawn into certain types of software based systems and the algorithms will then enact certain types of models in simulating the future of the social world. In other words, the very act of modelling the future is itself performative – it will bring about the futures that are modelled into the coding of the software, which will in turn be informed by the type of data that has been selected from the archive. There is the potential for powerful and obdurate social norms and inequalities to be modelled into these simulations.
So not only will this politics of data circulation shape the interactions and communications within networks, it may also then come to determine our imagined futures. This is what Louise Amoore calls the ‘politics of possibility’. Amoore’s work in this area is concerned with understanding the way that data and algorithmic processes are used to imagine futures. These imagined possible scenarios are then used to determine current decision making. Walter Benjamin once wrote of the way that history is filled with ‘the presence of the now’, in this case our futures will be imagined through our understanding of the present. Simulations are not neutral imaginings of outcomes.
All of this is not to suggest that Mason’s vision of postcapitalism is somehow faulty, rather it is to argue that we need to reflect further on the role of networks within that vision. Rather than providing answers, networks present something of a foreboding obstacle for postcapitalism. Some tricky navigation is required. Without this, a focus on networks might lead us towards something that looks like postcapitalism but which actually conceals the same old power dynamics, hierarchies and inequalities. I just wonder if this focus on the promise of decentralized networks will actually mean that we are unable to escape the logic of capitalism, particularly as the very processes of power distribution, information asymmetry and hierarchy are frequently realised and maintained through these networks. As we are at the point that Mason calls the ‘design stage’ of postcapitalism, it may be a good moment to revisit the potential role of the network." (https://opendemocracy.net/uk/david-beer/masons-postcapitalism-are-networks-actually-part-of-problem)
Mason is over-emphasizing organic change
"Matt Taibbi wrote in 2010, banks are a “highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.” Technology is just another hurdle they can ably jump over. Even against the information age’s more egalitarian impulses, tech remains firmly in the hands of the one percent — albeit a nerdier, tanner and more socially progressive one.
Conversely, Mason is exactly right to point out the incredible promise these emergent innovations hold to serve downright radical ends. But what’s going to take them there? “No doubt, the Internet opens up new avenues and opportunities for resistance,” Taylor and Hunt-Hendrix concluded. “But new technologies will not solve the problems at hand: People acting collectively will.” Tech is contested political ground. Even in the transition from feudalism to capitalism Mason references, it took a plague and, importantly, a widespread peasant revolt to lurch Europe out of stagnant feudalism. As in other historical epochs, disruptive power is necessary to drive society’s agenda away from the interests of those already in charge.
Mason’s call to “direct all actions towards the transition — not the defense of random elements of the old system,” to focus solely on building alternatives, is a false dichotomy. If Syriza’s project in Greece has shown anything, it’s that combining a broad-based solidarity economy with political power is deeply threatening to neo-liberalism, the top brass of which will risk self-implosion to stamp it out. Acting alone, Solidarity for All didn’t provoke a sadistic backlash from Greece’s creditors. Syriza’s victory at the polls, its leadership’s presence at the negotiating table in Brussels, and the egalitarian populist parties grasping at state power across the Mediterranean did — but neither the challenge nor the solution could exist without the other.
Millennial-led movements from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street have already put the social technologies Mason describes into practice, and are writing new rules for how popular uprisings work in the 21st century. Podemos, Spain’s ascendant populist party, uses a sub-Reddit to make decisions among members at the national level. Thankfully, technology is changing organizing at least as much as it is the economy. Capitalism isn’t going anywhere without a fight, no matter how inventive the alternatives.
If the early 20th century labor heroine Lucy Parsons were alive now, she might add an addendum on to the statement she’s best remembered by: “Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to innovate away their wealth.” Today’s movements will need to be at least as creative as the forces they’re taking on, and be building solutions that are even more so. Post-capitalism is coming, but a new and even more disruptive tradition of organizing will have to clear the way first." (https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/kate-aronoff/have-reports-of-death-of-capitalism-been-greatly-exaggerated)
Paul Mason overstates the new political subjects
"Who exactly is the progressive political subject for Paul Mason? He speaks of “a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being” (xvii). “In the past twenty years, capitalism has mustered a new social force that will be its gravedigger, just as it assembled the factory proletariat in the nineteenth century. It is the networked individuals who have camped in the city squares, blockaded the fracking sites, performed punk rock on the roofs of Russian cathedrals, raised defiant cans of beer in the face of Islamism on the grass of Gezi Park, pulled a million people on to the streets of Rio and São Paulo and now organized mass strikes across southern China. They are the working class ‘sublated’ – improved upon and replaced” (212).
Almost all managers, CEOs, and other members of the class of the 1% are “educated and connected”. They are the globalised, networked, educated, influential – and wealthy. Are the educated, connected and networked hedge fund manager and the educated, connected and networked entrepreneur, who parks and hides his wealth in tax havens, part of this subject? Definitely not! Education, networking and connectedness are not automatically politically progressive. When we assume that educated, connected, networked individuals are the progressive subject, then this means that the 1% must be the avant-garde of the Left, which is an absurd assumption. Also fascist leaders and activists can be educated and are mostly not just populists, but also highly connected and networked. We must see that a significant share of contemporary political action is fascist, racist or right-wing extremist in character. Not only is it relatively open if in a situation of crisis, protest emerges or is forestalled by ideologies and repression, also the dominant political direction of such politics is not determined. Paul Mason’s take on political change is naïve. This became also evident in his 2012 book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Mason 2012), in which he fostered the myth of contemporary protests being Facebook and Twitter revolutions. If one bases books on journalistic observations and not on systematic, critical empirical studies, then such short-circuited, one-dimensional analyses are the outcome. What Paul Mason observes as a journalist on some squares of the world and in his interviews can at best be a partial truth, half-truth or untruth. It is not based on a social science methodology. Empirical research has in contrast shown that online media neither cause contemporary protests and revolutions nor are they unimportant (see for example: Aouragh 2016, Fuchs 2014b, Gerbaudo 2012, Salem 2015, Wilson and Dunn 2011, Wolfson 2014). Protests are shaped by dialectics of mediation and the streets, the Internet and the squares, online and offline, face-to-face and mediated communication, traditional and new media (Fuchs 2014b). Sometimes it would be better that journalists go (back) to university and do PhDs in order to learn some social science and conduct systematic empirical research before they write books. Not the educated, connected, and networked form a political subject today. The potentially progressive political subject-in-itself is rather formed by all those whose labour produces the commons, but does not control, expropriate and dispossess the commons of nature, the social, knowledge, culture, technology, care, and education. The 1% are not part of this political subject, but rather form its dialectical opposite." (tripleC 14(1): 232-242, 2016)
Paul Mason ignores the 'river of fire' that the transition will require
Nick Dyer-Witheford, in an interview conducted by Gavin Mueller:
- GM: It has become somewhat common for rising precarity and technological unemployment to be viewed in a somewhat positive light. Most recently British journalist Paul Mason wrote a long essay in The Guardian predicting that a post-work, post-capitalist future is being created before our eyes. In a different vein, accelerationist theory embraces advancing subsumption of social relations to capitalism and its technologies. How does your work respond to these kinds of arguments?
NDW: They point to a reality which many other radical thinkers have pointed to: it’s clear that capitalism is creating potentials – not just technological, but organizational potentials – which could be adapted in a transformed manner to create a very different type of society. The evident example is the huge possibilities for freeing up time by automation of certain types of work. For me, the problem both with Paul’s work, which I respect, and with the accelerationists, is there is a failure to acknowledge that the passage from the potential to the actualization of such communist possibilities involves crossing what William Morris describes as a “river of fire.” I don’t find in their work a great deal about that river of fire. I think it would be reasonable to assume there would be a period of massive and protracted social crisis that would attend the emergence of these new forms. And as we know from historical attempts in the 20th Century to cross that river of fire, a lot depends on what happens during that passage. So there is, if one could put it that way, a certain automatism about the prediction of the realization of a new order in both these schools, which we should be very careful about." (https://viewpointmag.com/2015/09/08/cyber-proletariat-an-interview-with-nick-dyer-witheford/)
The strategic insights of Paul Mason on a phase transition towards the commons society
1. The questions by Henry Tam:
"I listened to the interview with Paul Mason, and it prompted a few thoughts. His book may deal with some of the points I raise below. I have for some time been sceptical about the logic and the helpfulness in conjoining predictions of the end of capitalism as we know it; over-optimistic celebration of the age of zero-marginal-cost abundance; and the core task of building a cooperative commons economy.
1. Is the age of abundance coming?
Mason, like Rifkin, propounds this uber-utopian vision of the zero-marginal-cost society with an abundance of goods and services. He likes to see wages de-linked from work. So what will become the basis for generating purchasing power? He talks about basic income for all, but how will the government secure the revenue to pay it out if it can no longer tax wages/salaries or profits. I strongly support basic income, but only in the context of it as a mechanism of redistributing revenue earned by individuals and organisations. I believe there are good reasons for championing the cooperative-commons agenda, but ‘the age of abundance’ argument is both flawed and potentially counter-productive where it gives the misleading impression that the case for our preferred alternative is based on a highly unlikely scenario (the technology may well make it possible to ‘print a car’ and all the other things people need and want, but who will design and mass produce [and hand out for free] these 3-D replicators? Who will coordinate the production of steel, medicine, food, robots, etc so the promised abundance does not turn into frequent shortage?
2. Is the neoliberal form of capitalism about to be superseded?
If Marx is right that capitalist economies will have periodic crises; but he is not so accurate as to how such crises will transition to something else. Late nineteenth century capitalist systems hit the crises of the 1920s/1930s and gave way to social democratic forms of capitalism; but the crisis of the 1970s opened the door to the rise of Thatcherite/Reagnite neoliberal capitalism that is now corroding even the Scandinavian economies. And what comes next could be variants of oligarchic capitalism, or some areas may collapse into anarchic chaos until a powerful few rise up and dictate terms to create quasi-robber baron capitalism. The instability of the capitalist system is not a sign that a more cooperative socio-economic order is on its way. The post-2008 experience of the UK that has ushered in two successive right-wing administrations is a painful enough reminder of that.
3. Are cooperative-commons enterprises on an upward trajectory?
There are lots of encouraging examples, but scaling up has always been a key problem. When the accumulation of capital is fuelled by the profit motive, it routinely produces a pool of resources for investment. Cooperativist development agencies are needed to generate sufficient support for cooperative/commons initiatives. And knowing that something can be done is a long way from doing it. I was the previous Labour Government’s lead for supporting a range of social and community innovations, and while that has given me the confidence that new approaches can take root, I’m also acutely aware that it takes a lot of sustained promotion and investment to get different practices adopted. And getting small cooperative groups to cooperate is often difficult, and where they have joined forces to become big organisations, remoteness can set in and those at ‘the top’ then forget about their original mission – the temptation of demutualisation etc then comes knocking on the door.
4. Why ignore the real problem of power inequality?
Neoliberal ideology is pernicious ultimately because of its inclination to reinforce a vastly unequal power structure so a few (in their case, those who know how to brigade natural, human and mechanised resources into a process that will generate rewards predominantly for themselves) can dictate terms to others in society. The challenge is not so much how to redesign work (many cooperative commons pioneers know how to do that), but how to redesign decision-making at work. Organisations – commercial and state-run – must be radically democratised so that all stakeholders can have a meaningful say in setting priorities, allocating responsibilities, and dividing up the proceeds from their joint efforts.
5. What will enable people to embrace a more open and inclusive form of life?
I doubt the visioning of the imminent displacement of the prevailing economic system by a sharing-caring age of abundance is really that helpful. What would be?
 the promotion of awareness and understanding of how cooperative commons approaches can work, and work better (something colleagues on this email list do brilliantly);
 the creation of opportunities for people to join or set up such enterprises (at present, there is a big gap between hearing about the inspiring examples and getting to set one up one or just joining one); and
 we need government legislation to redistribute power in companies, between companies, and across society, so workers-producers are not so insecure that they would not dare to try some different form of working lest they lose their jobs, or if they fail in their new enterprise, they would have no safety net to land on." (private email conversation, December 2015)
2. The response from Pat Conaty:
"1. Is the age of abidance coming?
Mason’s analysis is not rosy. It is balanced. Not to take action radically though he shows as socially and ecologically suicidal. He does address all the questions you are raising so pertinently Henry. This is why his book is so key. Both Rifkin and Naomi Klein in their latest books leave you concerned about how precisely we can make the transition practically. Both stresses that a commons model of production is emerging potentially to provide us hope that is practical. Mason agrees and he uses Kondratiev and Marx and Benkler and Bauwens to argue and show the transition needs to be over a long cycle of a 50 year or so K-wave but the key thing about Kondratiev’s analysis as he shows so well is that the crucial part of the K-wave is the breakthrough required with new systems in the first 25 years.
But Mason shows this is no ordinary K-wave historically because we are talking about a new mode of production, not another late phase of capitalism. Why because as both JS Mill, Marx and Keynes forecast, falling rate of profit of the crisis of a stationary state will herald a new entirely different mode of production. Mill as Heilbroner showed was the last of the utopian socialists and forecast a co-operative commonwealth. However for such a new mode to emerge that Mason sees is a co-operative commons mode, we must open up the possibilities. Here he shows that capitalism will have to be re-regulated for the common good. He draws upon Keynes and post Keynesians like Steve Keen to show how we will need to use the state to bring finance and capital under control. He uses the wonderful term ‘financial repression’ to describe this so well in the last few chapters of the book.
So the Mason analysis here is similar to Gar Alperovitz’s work on America after capitalism that shows ways and means to tackle usury and rentier capitalism. Not sure if Mason is familiar with Alperovitz and his arguments for a pluralist commonwealth as he does not cite him. Mason though similarly argues for a pluralist approach with a new set of enlightened politicians (hopeful here for a new left) supporting proactively the new mode of production while at the same time using regulation and planning to radically reform capitalism. But as he stresses, we are not starting from a blank page given the existing large share of the state in the GDP - 40% plus (60% in Denmark) in developed and many developing countries.
Therefore it is crucial that with active civil society organisations the state needs to becomes a hand in glove partner for the new co-operative commons mode of production. So essentially he is arguing for a public-social partnership approach as the answer to neoliberalist austerity that is leading us fast to rack and ruin. But he sees the struggle for operationalising this collaborative working in this vein as being crucial to get into serious gear over the next decade some how and some way. Moreover to underpin the urgency Mason powerfully sets out sobering facts to highlight that unless we do so, the global pension industry will implode, bullshit jobs and precarious work will escalate and the climate change will fry us. Another global banking crisis will lead not to a bailout but a bail in of depositor funds as governments cannot borrow like they have already now done.
2. Is the liberal form of capitalism about to be superseded?
Mason makes all these points and shows that this pessimistic scenario you paint and the rise of the oligarchic right and fascism in many places is a present and growing danger. His argument is for a new approach of revolutionary reformism with as I indicate above a presentation of the new mode of production as indeed Keynes did with his monetary and fiscal reforms in the 1930s and the huge role for planning then as an approach we need to remake the case for. Here his analysis is fresh and realistic as it does build on the best of the welfare state achievements and recovers these but uses the scope to advance automation, tackle the tech and de facto banking monopolies to put an end to bullshit jobs. But a Keynesian social democracy approach is not sufficient as he shows. Hence the need for the new commons and co-operative mode aligning with a radical state to collaboratively co-develop postcapitalism with the commons being the focal point for where we need to evolve to over the next 50 years. Mason is sound, very strategic and clear this is a long march but one that needs to begin now like with the efforts to address climate change and to tackle austerity with new practical policies needed for implementation as soon as entry places can be found.
3. Are co-operative commons enterprises on an upward trajectory?
Here is where Mason is weak as he is not so aware of the detail you set out so well from your former position Henry as a senior civll servant in the Department of Communities and Local Government under Blair and then Brown. But Mason shows very clearly that unless the small and good commons and co-operative projects become more aware of the repressive neoliberal forces and how to overcome these positively and practically with an alliance with the state, they will be contained, held back and remain what Paul Hawken points to as the Blessed Unrest. But I think as a former civil servant you will see that the macro-level policies Mason sets out and his new approach to planning could indeed enable the co-operative commons to emerge. What I love about Mason’s book is that his analysis provides a wonderful higher level complement to your work and books Henry, to John Restakis book on Co-operatives in the Age of Capital and for example the recent book by Co-operatives UK, The Co-operative Advantage, that studies in detail 15 parts of the co-operative economy in the UK. In my view all these perspectives can benefit from an analysis that has been missing and that Mason supplies and Klein, Rifkin and Piketty leave us a deep hunger for. He goes way beyond the lack of radical politics and in depth analysis of capitalism that Rifkin is silent about and that though I love her book, Klein does not know the detail to talk about in the way Mason does.
4. Why ignore the real problem of power inequality?
Mason is very good on the problem of course of the perverse and growing inequality and the 1%. He even makes a good case for persuading some of them to support the new commons mode. His previous book on the 2008 crisis, Melt Down, is one of the best out there. But I agree with you that Mason's book does not delve into this area and he may not be so aware of new forms of economic democracy and how these are needed to restructure and eradicate hierarchy. However he is well aware of the great new work on manager less corporations that worker co-operatives and commons co-ops could and should embrace. But this great practical work exists is emergent as Mason does point to and can be fitted in. Most co-ops have a binary system of governance and the multi-stakeholder democracy models for co-ops are still at the margins. But interest is growing and but also many commons projects lack effective multi-lateral co-operative governance and can and should learn from the best co-operatives where these exist. On the other hand as Michel, Silke and David show, some commons though are leading the way here and can and should cross pollinate co-ops and help us work out new forms of horizontal democracy and indeed vis. local governments.
5. What will enable people to embrace a more open and inclusive form of life?
These are great suggestions you make. But the new technology that Uber and AirBnB are using to extract rent/profit, raise house prices in the case of AirBnb and destroy jobs in the case of Uber can if turned on their head provide open platforms for enabling co-operative solutions to take off in ways you describe. Mason shows this so well. Like Evgeny Morozov shows so well, we need to socialise and democratise the platforms. One interesting story that you will love Henry is the references here and there by Mason to sci-fi book written by the Russian socialist Alexander Bogandov a century ago about Mars and a peaceful transition to co-operative commonwealth. Bogandov was the founder of systems theory and complexity science and a bitter opponent of Lenin. This tale is captivating as Boganov wanted to connect democracy, co-operative control of work and science and social technology with the ability of states to plan. I have been captivated by Bogdanov since the 1970s. The juggling act here is not easy but Mason provides confidence and facts to show it can and must be done to secure as the late Raymond Williams argued, a compelling case For Hope to be made more concrete and Despair less convincing." (private email conversation, December 2015)