Can technology on its own bring about a better society, as Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism suggests, or do we need revolutionary politics, asks Sean Ledwith
Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (Allen Lane 2015), xxi, 340pp.
Paul Mason has established himself as an isolated but influential voice for the anti-austerity movement within the British mainstream media. In his current post as Economics Editor on Channel 4 News he frequently reports insightfully from the faultlines of Europe’s rising resistance to the neoliberal consensus. He has also written a number of widely-read books that chart the slow-unravelling of that consensus since the great crash of 2008. In the year the crisis struck, he released Live Working or Die Fighting, which outlined how reports of the death of the global working class were greatly exaggerated, and that, in fact, its power was re-awakening. Four years later, the even more popular Why It's Kicking off Everywhere provided a thought-provoking analysis of the commonalities that underlay Britain’s student rebellion, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and other liberatory impulses around the world.
Post Capitalism represents his most ambitious work yet. Previous publications have set out to diagnose the ailments of contemporary capitalism, but this time he embarks on an exercise in futurology to map out the contours of a socio-economic system that might actually replace the dying beast:
'The aim of this book is to explain why replacing capitalism is no longer a utopian dream, how the basic forms of a postcapitalist economy can be found within the current system and how they could be expanded rapidly’ (p.ix).
Along the way, he examines an eclectic range of crucial debates for the twenty-first-century left, including the ambivalent impact of social media, climate change, the legacy of the Russian Revolution, and the relevance of autonomism. Inevitably, the treatment of such a diverse agenda is variable but Mason should be commended for the willingness to take on the task of delineating a credible outline of a world that has left capitalism behind.
Unlike most of his compliant peers in the mainstream, he is alert to the reality that the status quo is on borrowed time and is on course for some form of existential crisis:
'The OECD economists were too polite to say it, so lets spell it out: for the developed world the best of capitalism is behind us, and for the rest it will be over in our lifetime’ (p.x).
Ultimately, Mason bites off more than he can chew but at least he asks the right questions.
He does not share the optimism of most contemporary economists – including, no doubt, Chancellor George Osborne - who assume the recent recession was just a hiccup in the global economic system that is slowly rectifying itself, and which will, at some point in the near future, recover its equilibrium. He argues: ‘The 2008 crisis was just the tremor in advance of the earthquake’ (p.14). His opening chapter provides stark and sobering data on the scale and durability of the downturn. It knocked 13% off global production, 20% off global trade, and initiated a phase of depression longer than the seismic Wall Street Crash of 1929 (p.3). To salvage the fortresses of international capitalism, central bankers around the world pumped an incredible $12 trillion into the system, primarily through the form of quantitative easing (p.13).
Despite this emergency resuscitation, the structural failures of the global economy have not been addressed and the outlook for future generations remains grim. Mason predicts global growth rates will not exceed 3% for at least the next fifty years (p.28). He perceptively notes how, in the same time span, the ongoing grip of the elite jeopardises not only economic development but also the very existence of the planet. Failure to tackle climate change soon will mean we can be ‘fairly certain that extreme weather - hurricanes, floods, typhoons, droughts - will increase in the second half of the century’ (p.246).
Mason seeks to theorise the economic malaise of the system in the context of the ‘long waves’ of economic boom and contraction identified by the Russian economist, Nikolai Kondratiev, in the 1920s. As summarised by Mason, this theory postulates ‘each long cycle has an upswing of about twenty-five years, fuelled by the development of new technologies and high-capital investment; then a downswing of about the same length, usually ending with a depression’ (p.33). The author deploys this analytical device to identify five fifty-year long cycles in the history of capitalism since the age of the French Revolution. Mason contends that the 2008 crash represents the stalling of the fifth wave due to the ‘the move from production to finance … with a defeated and atomised workforce, and a super-rich elite living off the financial profits’ (p.106).
The theoretical foundations of the Kondratiev schema, however, are far from secure. The eponymous economist was a member of the Menshevik Party and shared its evolutionary view of historical development. Supporters of this perspective rejected Lenin’s Bolshevik tendency within the revolutionary movement, arguing that instead of the need for a violent disruption of the capitalist-tsarist state, a transition to socialism could be achieved through peaceful and piecemeal reforms. Kondratiev’s long-waves theory was posited on the notion that capitalism has a built-in tendency towards equilibrium around which its periodic booms and downturns oscillate. The assumption contained within his model was that capitalism would experience regular peaks and troughs but that there was no structural flaw that would necessitate its terminal crisis. In contrast, orthodox Marxist theories of crisis focus on the steadily mounting inability of the system to recover from the previous crisis.
Likewise, Mason suggests the epochal transition to postcapitalism can be effected with the minimum disruption to the status quo. He claims a number of irresistible social trends are pointing the way towards a process of transformation in our lifetime. One such trend that he argues is eroding the marketised underpinnings of contemporary society is a revolution in how we access information:
'There is a body of evidence that information technology far from creating a new and stable form of capitalism is dissolving it: corroding market mechanisms, eroding property rights and destroying the old relationship between wages, work and profit’ (p.112).
He refers to online phenomena such as Wikipedia and EBay as new models of information exchange that bypass corporate control and link citizens around the world in a new sharing economy. A further example cited by Mason, however, ironically has the retrospective effect of highlighting the limits of his misplaced optimism. He describes how in Greece, a grassroots NGO mapped the country’s food co-ops, alternative producers, parallel currencies and local exchange systems and found many substantive projects and hundreds of smaller initiatives (p.271). Since the book’s publication in the summer, of course, Europe’s neoliberal juggernaut collectively known as the Troika has trampled all over Greece’s fledging attempt to carve out a space for economic activity beyond the reach of the market, and savagely re-imposed a diet of austerity.
A second trend Mason claims is ushering us towards a new era is the tendency of new technology to subsume the boundaries between the professional and the personal:
'In some sectors, and not all of them high-value, there is increasingly a trade-off between meeting a project target and leeway for personal activity at work … especially with smart mobile devices, work and leisure time are substantially blurred’ (p.209).
That may look like a reasonable trade-off from the desk of a Channel 4 journalist, but to thousands of workers, particularly in the public sector, the deal is not one between equals. Increasingly, what used to be called the work-life balance has been flowing in one direction only. Employees are frequently pressurised to respond to emails at home, utilise electronic technology to monitor their own performance, and to construct elaborate statistical self-evaluations. These tasks do not represent a liberated mode of work, as Mason implies, but the opposite: an intensification of exploitation and significant loss of autonomy. Nor are they harbingers of a transition to postcapitalism but, in actuality, a re-assertion of the grinding logic of capital.
Mason seeks to use a much-discussed extract from Marx’s Grundrisse to re-enforce his claim that automation and information technology in the workplace are paving the way for enhanced quality of life. The author argues that in the section known as the ‘Fragment on Machines’, Marx suggested greater levels of automation would encourage capitalism ‘to develop the intellectual power of the worker. It tends to reduce working hours (or halt their extension) leaving time for workers to develop artistic and scientific talents outside work’ (p.136).
Marx’s vision of non-alienated labour in the future undoubtedly does include a widening of human potentiality and the increasing transfer of manual tasks to automation. However, Marx’s valid utopianism is tempered by the necessity to overthrow the capitalist system beforehand. The ‘Fragment’ can in no way be used to justify Mason’s notion that such a transformation in attitudes could occur without a confrontation with the vested power of the capitalist state. It is unlikely many workers today feel inclined to start work on a poem or scientific experiment as soon as they get home in the evening.
Mason shares the Menshevik assumptions, propagated by Kondratiev and others, that the transition to a new epoch is being driven primarily by technological forces and, therefore, the key task for the left today is to persuade enlightened elements among the elite not to stand in the way. In this sense, his perspective resembles that of Eduard Bernstein and others at the start of the last century that capitalism can be expected to evolve into a higher social system without the need for a violent disruption of the prevailing system. That notion was quashed by the catastrophe of the First World War, and it is plausible that a similar inter-state conflagration in our time will dispel Mason’s faith in the redemptive powers of technology.
The author has no time for Lenin, Luxemburg and the rest of the revolutionary left who denounced Bernstein at the time for diverting the international left down the dead end of reformism. Regrettably, for an author who has built his reputation on critiquing orthodoxies, Mason reproduces the tired clichés about Leninism representing an elitist conception of revolution that imposes change from above. His assessment of the leader of the Russian Revolution could easily have come from the pages of a Cold War historian writing in the US in the 1950s: ‘Lenin stated baldly that workers were incapable of understanding the role allocated to them in the Marxist project … needing the catalyst of the intellectual vanguard party to set off the historical process (pp.190-1). A recent wave of studies of Lenin by scholars such as Lars Lih and Tamas Krausz has torpedoed this hackneyed image of Lenin and restored the democratic dimension to the forefront of his thought and practice.
Along with Kondratiev, Mason seeks to rehabilitate another contemporary of Lenin’s in revolutionary Russia, as supposedly a better role model for the left. Alexander Bogdanov was one of Lenin’s Bolshevik comrades until 1909 when he was expelled from the group. Mason goes so far as to suggest, (p.220), that Russia would have been a better place had Lenin been run over by a tram on his way to the expulsion meeting! The author neglects to mention the reason Lenin wanted Bogdanov expelled was the latter was advocating a sectarian boycott of the Russian parliament. Lenin, in contrast, argued for utilising such institutions as a means of voicing opposition -presumably a tactic Mason would support for the modern British left.
The author’s preference for Bogdanov is based on a science-fiction novel written by the Russian in the same year called Red Star. The novel depicts an alternative Martian utopia based on ‘technological maturity as the precondition for revolution’ and ‘the peaceful overthrow of the capitalists by means of compromise and compensation’ (p.220). Once again, the vision is an uplifting one but anyone who thinks the parasitical 1% currently ruling the planet is going to concede its stranglehold without an almighty struggle has been reading too much science-fiction.
The fundamental weakness of Mason’s account is contained in the title. ‘Postcapitalism’ as an alternative to capitalism is far too ambiguous a concept. He conspicuously does not advocate socialism as the contender to replace the status quo, but his hybrid model contains too many unanswered questions.
He assumes postcapitalism can gestate and develop inside the current system until it is ready to shed its skin and assume the dominant role, in a similar fashion to the way feudalism gradually gave way to capitalism (p.238). However, that historical transition still required violent confrontations between groups representing rival classes in the form of revolutions such as the ones in North America and France in the eighteenth century. As capitalism’s grip on the global system is even more entrenched than its feudal predecessor and is protected by an infinitely more sophisticated level of technology, we can deduce its overthrow will not be achieved as calmly as Mason believes.
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