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Postcapitalism – Will the system die a natural death?

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Issue 2465
Anonymous protesters. Will new networked groups replace the working class as a force for change
Anonymous protesters. Will new “networked” groups replace the working class as a force for change (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Channel 4’s Paul Mason is one of the few corporate journalists reporting from Greece who sounds like he’s on the side of its ordinary people.

His new book PostCapitalism explains his alternative. It’s Mason’s version of the search for a new force for change to replace a supposedly defeated working class.

It argues, “The main faultline in the modern world is between networks and hierarchies”—not workers and bosses.

Mason believes theorists who declared the working class obsolete in the 1970s and 80s—such as Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt and Andre Gorz—were ahead of their time.

But now “capitalism has mustered a new social force that will be its gravedigger”. These are “networked individuals”.

Mason urges the “youth of tomorrow” not to repeat the “failed experiment” of revolution. Instead, “The most courageous thing an adaptive left could do is abandon that conviction. It is entirely possible to build the elements of the new society within the old.”

Mason buys into the bosses’ hype about a new internet-driven “knowledge economy” (see below).

However, much of the book is a polemic against 19th century communist Karl Marx, who argued that only a workers’ revolution could free humanity from capitalism.

Mason argues that working class cultures, traditions and communities were the foundation for class identity and solidarity. But apparently Margaret Thatcher, neoliberalism, sexual liberation and social media threw it all up in the air.

Yet social change was a feature of capitalism long before the pit villages lost their brass bands.

Marx and his co-writer Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “All fixed, fast-frozen relations … are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

These changes don’t get rid of class relationships.

Postcapitalism book cover

Postcapitalism book cover

In his discussion of crisis theory, Mason lumps together the Bolsheviks, who led the Russian Revolution of 1917, with the Stalinist counter-revolution that slaughtered them.

He says the Bolsheviks insisted that the crisis they lived through would destroy capitalism.

In the unprecedented horror of the First World War socialists had good reason to think the system might be in its death throes.

But Bolshevik leader Lenin explicitly warned, “There is no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for the capitalists.

Mason is one of the last fans of Nikolai Kondratieff—a Menshevik minister in the government the Bolsheviks overthrew—and his theory of long cycles. Kondratieff used arbitrary statistics to force the history of capitalism into “waves” of 25 good years followed by 25 bad ones.

Mason rejects Kondratieff’s explanation for what drives these waves, claiming that any complex system forms itself into a wave pattern.

And while Kondratieff aimed to show capitalism was stable in the long run, Mason thinks the waves spontaneously decay into “regime change”.

Both take history out of human hands to fix it into a rigid pattern of dodgy maths.

And this determinism sees Mason let our rulers off the hook for the oppression and division they sow.

The rise of the racist right is just a sign that “the populations of the developed world will not accept” refugees.

But women’s liberation—that is, “the one-time and irreversible cancellation of male biological power”—is now almost complete.

This will be news to many women in our sexist society.

Mason accuses revolutionaries of wanting to use the state to impose socialism from above, while he lets “post-capitalism” flourish from below.

He says this is already taking shape, from online peer-to-peer networks and “grassroots” food banks to traditional cooperatives and credit unions.

But these keep being crushed or co-opted. So “we have to promote them with regulation just as vigorous as that which capitalism used to drive the peasants off the land”.

Coercive state power is to be the midwife of Mason’s fluffy new world. Profit won’t disappear either—and with the right laws, “large corporations could also be very useful for driving change”.

Mason’s faith in gradual change rests on his claim that “every innovation takes us closer to the world of zero necessary work”.

He argues that Marx said something very similar in a “Fragment on Machines” in his notebook the Grundrisse.

It describes a future where a system of machines runs production almost autonomously, and “the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.”

Mason follows Hardt and Negri in saying this contradicts Marx’s other works. For him it shows that capitalism’s end could come through technology, not workers. This misses the point.

The machine comes to rule over the living workers. But it “can be effective only with masses of workers” and even “forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools.”

Marx wrote that capitalism “replaces labour by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back to a barbarous type of labour, and it turns the other section into a machine.

“It produces intelligence—but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.”

Capitalist production brings about the means to create a society of freedom and plenty—then stifles that potential.

A “post-capitalist” society can only emerge over capitalism’s dead body.

Do high-tech industries mean bosses don’t need workers?

Do social media companies defy the concept of value?

Do social media companies defy the concept of value? (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Paul Mason’s enthusiasm about high-tech work sounds like he’s just seen an advert for a job at Google.

“The atmosphere in the modern video game design workshop shows that play and work can alternate quite freely and produce results,” he trills.

Laptops, tablets and smartphones are supposedly eroding the line between work and leisure.

But reading work emails at home is about as exciting for 21st century workers as doing “piece work” in the cottage was for 19th century ones.

The more serious argument is that the economy is increasingly built on abundant information while capitalism needs scarce commodities.

So for Mason the internet is incompatible with capitalism and is already forcing a transition to something new.

For example, the rise of monopolies such as Facebook and Google supposedly shows that markets don’t work on the internet.

But capitalist competition always tends towards monopolies as stronger firms swallow up weaker ones.

Mason argues that the value of social media firms doesn’t come from what their workers produce, but from the participation of their users.

More fundamentally, software that can be freely copied is becoming more central to production than machines that need maintaining and replacing.

This should bring production close to “zero marginal cost”—with little to spend on labour or capital.

But software only works on hardware built in factories. And it needs electricity from a power station, workers to utilise it and IT staff to support it.

In a world of free information, Mason thinks capitalists won’t be able to find or create the new markets they’ll need to recover from crisis.

But capitalists seem oblivious to this as they eye up the possibilities.

Advances in genetics could turn life-forms into commodities. Nestle chair Peter Brabeck-Letmathe wants to privatise water.

It’s right that there are important things capitalism doesn’t value, and this makes it incompatible with our needs. But that’s always been the problem.

It’s not the solution.

Read more

Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
by Karl Marx
Online at Marxists Internet Archive

PostCapitalism—a guide to our future
by Paul Mason

The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx
by Alex Callinicos

Available at Boomarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848
or go to

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