Times have been hard of late for us leftists. Despite the fact that a good deal of our tradition’s criticisms of capitalism and modernity have proved accurate, the expected solutions haven’t really come – and when leftist governments have assumed power, they’ve often compounded the problems. New issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and resource squeezes, not to mention feminism, decolonisation and identity politics, have arisen and challenged old leftist certainties. Small wonder that there’s a cottage industry in the publishing world for new leftist books trying to make sense of all these emerging trends.
I’ve tried to keep up as best I can with a selection of these volumes. They vary from the gob-smackingly bad – like Leigh Phillips’ neo-Bolshevik Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts – to the serious and thought-provoking. To my mind, almost all of them suffer from an insufficiently analysed commitment to ‘progress’ and technological solutionism. It’s not that I’m arguing instead for regress and anti-technological, reactionary backwardness…here, you can already sense the narrow straitjacket that leftism (and not only leftism, but most mainstream political thought) throws around the debate over ‘progress’ and technology. We need to do a better job when we talk about these ideas and acknowledge their complexities. Not much chance of that with public intellectuals like Steven Pinker strutting their stuff – what’s this weird modernist obsession with proving how much better life is now than in the past all about?
Anyway, Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future (Penguin, 2015) is one of the better efforts I’ve read among this bad bunch. I still think it suffers from some of the characteristic weaknesses of mainstream leftist thought – and I think it would probably have been better titled Capitalism: A Guide To Our Past – but I’ve come away from it feeling enriched and informed. I’m not going to try to summarise it here, but I do want to review a few of Mason’s points that bear most directly on some of the concerns of this blog.
1. Capitalist crisis: Leftists, and Marxists in particular, have long argued that there are inherent tendencies to crisis within the capitalist economy, basically associated with the contradiction between finding consumers to buy its products and immiserating labour to cut its costs, and with replacing human labour with machinery. These tendencies are genuine, but the capitalist economy has proved much more resilient than the early Marxists supposed in overcoming its crises, essentially by finding ever new arenas (places, people, products) to commodify. It’s possible that the present impasse of the global capitalist economy will prove to be no more than another one of these temporary crises, but there are various signs that it’s more serious than that. In briefest outline, these include the unprecedented reliance on debt-fuelled growth by most of the major ‘developed’ countries, the scouring of value from these countries’ own increasingly immiserated populations, placing more wealth into the hands of an increasingly small global economic elite, the pressures of resource crisis and climate change, and the emergence within many of the major western economies of an impetus towards beggar-my-neighbour trade protectionism of the kind associated with the rhetoric, if not the deeds, of a figure like Donald Trump, with all the attendant 1930s-style dangers of global trade wars turning into global military conflict.
2. Working-class response: Marx himself had a rather naïve, intellectually-driven faith in the industrial working class as the universal historical class that would by itself right the wrongs of capitalism and of previous economic systems. But the more influential Marxist position, associated with someone who achieved actual political power, is Lenin’s critique of the ‘trade union consciousness’ of the industrial proletariat: without party cadres to push them into proper communism, according to Lenin all you get with industrial workers is demands for better pay and conditions. That’s pretty much the same viewpoint as legions of conservative thinkers, except what’s a negative for Lenin is a positive for them – witness, for example, John Michael Greer’s voluminous writings on the ‘wage class’ in the USA and its lack of interest in socialism. Mason, much more convincingly, shows how working class movements across the ‘developed’ world in the 19th and early 20th centuries actually did involve a strong leftist (though rarely Marxist) critique of capitalism, which emphasised education, self-improvement, the dignity of skilled manual work and the rich associational life of an engaged, disciplined, politicised workforce. As the contradictions of early 20th century capitalism began to mount, these movements faltered – destroyed by authoritarian populism and/or fascism, or bought off by social democracy, and ultimately snuffed out by neoliberalism with its destruction of organised labour in the west and its individualisation of economic action.
3. The rise of info-tech. The old leftist project is in ruins, then, but Mason sees new possibilities in the rise of networked information as the currency of 21st century human interaction. In his view, information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly, because markets are based on scarcity, whereas information is abundant. Meanwhile, info tech is lowering the marginal costs of production of numerous commodities – including basic physical commodities. The peer production of free stuff enabled by the info tech revolution is growing, enabling people to interact with each other as social beings outside the marketplace. Just as the old idea of the working class as the universal political class dies, a new idea of the well-educated and networked as the universal political class is born. At the same time, traditional forces of capitalist control are attempting to reassert themselves: vast tech monopolies like Google, repressive-authoritarian states and the constant reinvention of indebtedness to entrench exploitation. Hence are the contemporary battle lines between capitalism and post-capitalism drawn.
I think Mason has some brilliant insights into the story of capitalism and of the left’s somewhat-but-not-entirely futile attempts to understand and challenge it. I’m less convinced by the way he construes the coming conflict between monopoly capitalism and post-capitalist info-tech. I just don’t think he provides anything like a ‘thick’ enough description of future energy and resource prospects, the present structure of commodity manufacture and the nature of the open source or peer production movement to give his claims real weight. So it would be easy to dismiss his analysis as another example of starry-eyed, high tech, 3D-printer-fantasising flummery of the kind that disfigures so much ‘postcapitalist’ writing on the left these days. And indeed, in many ways his approach to the ‘zero marginal cost revolution’ isn’t that different to Kate Raworth’s, which I treated to a fairly peremptory dismissal on this site not so long ago.
But I don’t want to jettison his arguments quite so hastily. This is partly because he has a more nuanced view of info-tech as a contradiction within capitalist production, rather than simply as something that’s going to ride to the rescue of a grateful humanity. And it’s partly because I think his analysis can be reformulated in a more interesting way. So I’m going to conclude by trying to reformulate it.
I’ve long been sceptical of the idea of commons as a fundamentally superior form of economic organisation for the production of food and other key basic commodities (perhaps I’ll try to lay this argument out more systematically in another post). Given the opportunity, I think most people historically have preferred to provide for their household needs themselves as far as possible (which is not to say that commoning arrangements haven’t nevertheless been important in numerous ways). But it does seem to be the case that there’s a thriving ‘digital commons’ of peer-produced, open source free stuff out there in the world of information. I think Mason possibly overstates the significance of Wikipedia, Linux and Android compared to, say, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, but he undoubtedly has a point. So I wonder if there’s some key difference between the world of food production and the world of information production?
I’m not sure – if there is, I think it’s probably around such issues as the production of food demanding ongoing physical work over periods of time that are determined by the rhythms of the natural world and not by the choice of the worker, with rewards demanding that the marginal cost of production is quite low relative to the total cost of production. In the world of peer production of information – a new WordPress widget, for example – the work is more modular, determined by the choice of the worker, and with marginal costs of production quite high relative to the total cost of production. And the social kudos gained from producing the widget is much higher than the social kudos gained from producing, say, a carrot. So there’s that. But I think the main thing that’s going on here is that info-tech peer production is essentially an elite pursuit, only available to those in highly privileged positions within the global political economy, whose ability to produce stuff for free rests upon a lot of other people working hard to service their basic needs. The same might be said of a home veg grower who gives most of her produce away or volunteers at a community garden.
In that sense, the peer production of free stuff is made possible by hidden exploitation within the global political economy, and probably therefore stands in a somewhat less revolutionary position to that political economy than Mason supposes. But I think he’s still right that there’s a possibly terminal crisis afoot in that political economy, and that the networked, educated individual may have a role to play in ushering us towards something else. And this is where his critique may connect up with my conception of the supersedure state that I outlined recently.
Here’s how things may unfold. Conservative forces will try to maintain capitalism-as-usual – debt-fuelled growth, austerity and inequality, ever more draconian immigration control, authoritarian state power, connivance with multinational monopolies and so on. But, despite achieving short-term successes and creating a lot of misery, they won’t triumph everywhere, partly as a result of opposition from Mason’s networked, educated people (among others), partly because of exogenous pressures like energy prices and climate change, and partly because they won’t be able to deliver what capitalist political economies have always ultimately been able to deliver to enough people in previous eras to guarantee their survival – increasing wealth and consumer luxury. Generally, states will weaken, and civil society will have thrust upon it the responsibility of providing for basic needs.
This will turn out to be a lot harder than many people thought – including networked, educated individuals who discover that securing a steady supply of food, clothing, energy and shelter isn’t as easy as producing a WordPress widget. Nevertheless, their instincts towards open collaboration with strangers, lateral thinking, environmental care and shared space will stand them in good stead when it comes to rethinking community provisioning from the ground up. As per my analysis of the supersedure state, states will gradually retreat towards their core centres and populations, which will be increasingly remote from and inaccessible to the majority of people living within their de facto boundaries. Commercial, cash-crop oriented export farming will start to lose its economic rationale, and this is the point at which new, locality-oriented forms of ‘peer production’ of basic necessities may step into the breach. There will be numerous challenges, false steps and failures, but there may also be interesting models, social innovations and successes.
That, at any rate, seems something to aim at. I don’t think we’ll see the world that Mason would like to see – essentially one of free or nearly free basic necessities, universal basic income and a lot of volunteering, leisure and peer production of info-tech. But I think we might see, at least in some places, a world that’s better than that, based on local work, community self-provision and wider political networks of amity within the increasingly empty and moribund shell of a larger body politic left over from 20th century capitalism. In that sense, it’s a world that may have similarities with the one built by the organised, leftist working-classes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let’s just hope that history doesn’t then repeat itself too much.