Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Postcapitalist Imaginary

What is meant by "postcapitalism"? The trigger for this question was Paul Mason's recent puff-piece in the Guardian for his forthcoming book of that name. This isn't a critique of the book (a review copy has not turned up in the post) but a consideration of the concept and specifically what I take to be the determining philosophical frame. The idea of postcapitalism is implicit in the conceptualisation of capitalism as a historic force, so it's at least as old as the Communist Manifesto of 1848, but the term itself coincides with the popularisation of "postmodernism" after 1968. This is significant because postmodernism's scepticism about historicity and linear progress implies the coexistence of different stages of development, which is characteristic of the postcapitalist belief that the future is emergent and diffuse, rather than something that clicks into place come the day of revolution: "The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed", as William Gibson put it. What I'm interested in is this postmodern inflexion of postcapitalism, which I think Paul Mason (to judge by his other writings on the subject) is representative of.

The first point to note is that postcapitalism has the characteristics of speculative fiction, not just because it imagines what a future society might look like, but because it takes inspiration from literature and cinema as much as history and economics. It is concerned with ethics more than econometrics. The postmoden influence can be seen in a tendency towards stylistic mashups and paradox, such as the trope of advanced technology recreating antique social forms: microserfs and the broadband-enabled crofter (steampunk is the ironic mirror of this, in which antique tech is reimagined in modern social forms). This also explains the privileged role of technology in the postcapitalist imaginary, as both a metaphor for the ceaseless energy of capitalism and a paradigm for its potential supersession. According to Frederic Jameson, in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, "The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating not so much in its own right but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself".

The second point to note is that postcapitalism is an implied social critique of capitalist practices and institutional forms, such as marketisation, globalisation, the firm etc. Though history is littered with functioning economic systems that claimed (in so many words) to be postcapitalist, the term really gained currency as a response to the "actually existing capitalism" of the neoliberal era, particularly once it "finally triumphed" over those other systems in 1989 and the Washington Consensus became hegemonic. However, postcapitalism is always at risk of lapsing from a specific critique into an emotional rejection of modernity that culminates in the construction of a pre-capitalist idyll (but with WiFi); an antique society in which freedom from the market simply reproduces older forms of oppression. Some of this reactionary impetus is merely the employment of older templates for want of imagination, but some clearly appeals to a conservative yearning for order and certainty in the face of churning modernity, which is easily projected, like a Rousseau-inspired Instagram filter, onto indigenous peoples and nature.

Mason paints a picture of an emergent process: "Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm". He groups a number of phenomena together as evidence of immanent postcapitalism, including the sharing economy, the commons and peer-production. "I believe it offers an escape route – but only if these micro-level projects are nurtured, promoted and protected by a fundamental change in what governments do. And this must be driven by a change in our thinking – about technology, ownership and work. So that, when we create the elements of the new system, we can say to ourselves, and to others: 'This is no longer simply my survival mechanism, my bolt hole from the neoliberal world; this is a new way of living in the process of formation'".

The idea of immanence, like the phrase "survival mechanism" and the appeal to "a change in our thinking", points to the religious undercurrent of this analysis. The Gospels could be accurately summarised as "a new way of living in the process of formation" (that final word nods to Gramsci, the last Christian martyr). The use of terms such as "escape route" and "bolt-hole" also hints at the vestiges of hippy millenarianism that more broadly inform techno-utopianism, in both its libertarian and anticapitalist variants (if he ever writes a manifesto, Mason might employ as its rubric: "turn on, tune in and drop out"). The words "nurtured, promoted and protected by a fundamental change in what governments do" imply that the emergence of postcapitalism is dependent on the capture of the state, which is orthodox socialism. They also imply a political revolution ahead of a change in material circumstances, which is an odd proposition from anyone with a grasp of history, let alone a Marxist. Clearly, existing governments are in no hurry to "promote" an alternative to capitalism, and Syriza's experience suggests that even the mildly-sympathetic are likely to be ostracised and undermined by the rest.

The late 60s marked the end of the century-long era love-affair with technology as the driver of social progress (reliance on humankind itself having taken a knock at Auschwitz). This was partly driven by asymmetrical wars (notably Vietnam), the fear of nuclear catastrophe and the growing evidence of environmental degradation, but it also reflected the increasing anxiety of privileged groups in the face of social mobility and civil rights, both of which seemed to be enabled by technology, from new communication media such as TV to labour-saving devices that encouraged women into work. This ambivalence produced both varieties of rejection (from hippies to Christian Fundamentalism) and a conscious recasting of technology as the means both to achieve personal liberation and restrain state power, culminating in the famous Apple Mac "1984" advert.

The idea that technology might simultaneously save and destroy the world would give rise to a religiosity (the "technological sublime") that would lead to transhumanism and the singularity. More obliquely it would influence the Californian Ideology (aka "dotcom neoliberalism"), and in particular the idea of a networked society of the elect (the "digerati"), floating free of class relations and nation states. This took a predictable battering when the smoke of the dotcom bust lifted to reveal a landscape dominated by the new tech grandees, such as Apple and Google, but that just led to a doubling-down on the emancipatory potential of the technology, particularly as social media appeared to energise traditional autonomism and horizontalism. Much of postcapitalism respectfully nods back at the operaismo of Fiat workers and the work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, with little sense of irony.

Mason describes three aspects of the emergence of postcapitalism: the impact of technology on work (not just automation but the freelancing of the sharing economy); the abundance of information (i.e. zero-cost replicability and the vain - in his view - attempts to monopolise data); and collaborative production (which bypasses both the market and managerialism). The heart of this is an assumption that the replicability central to digital technology (though let''s not forget the pioneering work of the C60 mixtape) will progressively erode the value of capital goods, though paradoxically this assumes that the composition of capital will continue to shift towards the informational despite the declining returns. In other words, the tendential fall in the rate of profit is superseded by the tendential fall in the value of capital. Let's ask Taylor Swift what she thinks.

There is an echo here of a Marxist syllogism: technological determinism ("The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist") and the remorseless accumulation of capital ("the larger capitals beat the smaller") gives rise to the concentration and immiseration of labour ("What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers"), which leads to the supersession of capitalism. In Mason's version, technology both disperses and empowers labour, while simultaneously undermining the market value of information, which is taken to be the now-dominant form of capital. In combination, this produces a social movement that bypasses capitalist practices and institutional forms. This isn't persuasive. Mason is betting that the phenomena of the interstices ("co-ops, alternative producers, parallel currencies and local exchange systems") are harbingers of the future, rather than the limits of resistance. They haven't overtaken the economy to date, and there is no good reason to supect that high-speed broadband will make much difference.

Like the well brought up Marxist that he is, Mason does not neglect the dialectic: "Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours. I call this postcapitalism". This builds on the central Marxist idea of the inevitable gestation of first socialism and then communism from within capitalism, due to the system's own contradictions. This new variant of dialectical materialism sees technology take on the gravedigger role once reserved for the proletariat. Just as the concentration of labour was thought to herald the inevitable end of the bourgeoisie, so the diffusion of labour may do the same. Which is a neat irony, if true.

There are two obvious problems with this. First, the collaborative exchanges enabled by technology are as likely to reproduce social relations in which property dominates. This is clear from the early stages of the "sharing economy", in which "the larger capitals [continue to] beat the smaller". This might change, but I see few grounds for optimism at present. Mason insists that the new monopolies (Google, Facebook etc) "cannot last", but this is a profession of faith ("information wants to be free" - to be fair, he may provide more substance to this claim in his book). The evidence is that capital (with the state in tow) is doing a fine job monopolising data already. The decline in production costs for music may be driving prices towards zero, but profits are maintained because the same process is expanding the market. Let's not forget that per-track sales were introduced by Apple. When an Eskimo buys a 99-cent Elvis track off iTunes, that represents a slice of profit unattainable by the music industry in the 1960s. Ultimately this process must run out of steam; but not yet.

Second, huge areas of the economy are going to remain capital-intensive. While Mason redefines an airliner as an "information factory", it remains a damn expensive factory. The Internet has shown itself to be powerful in exploiting the collective knowledge of people (both data and programming), in a way that was hitherto impossible, but there is little evidence that it's about to democratise mining or car production. Says Mason, "We can predict, from this, that postcapitalism – whose precondition is abundance – will not simply be a modified form of a complex market society ... Information goods are freely replicable. Once a thing is made, it can be copied/pasted infinitely. A music track or the giant database you use to build an airliner has a production cost; but its cost of reproduction falls towards zero. Therefore, if the normal price mechanism of capitalism prevails over time, its price will fall towards zero, too". True, but the airliner itself will still cost millions, in the same way that Taylor Swift live will command a premium.

There has always been a strand of disappointment in modern Marxist theory with the the failure of the industrial proletariat to fulfil its historic role. This stretches from critiques of the soviet system to critiques of labourism. For some, the workers have been misled by state capitalists; for others, the fault lies in false consciousness and the resilience of capitalist ideology. This has led many theorists to transfer their hopes from the traditional vanguard to disadvantaged social groups, from Gramsci's subalterns through anticolonialism to identity politics. Come the hegemony of neoliberalism, this culminated in the binary opposition of the global "multitude" of Hardt & Negri and later the 99% of the Occupy movement. Even the modish "precariat" can be seen as an attempt to conjure into existence a contemporary class consciousness.

For many postcapitalist theorists, technology now replaces social relations as the defining characteristic of the progressive class, though this implies a degree of educational privilege that clearly marginalises the poor (you can't eat software or construct a dwelling out of it). Indeed, the transfer of our hopes onto technology looks like an admission of the redundancy of labour. As Mason puts it, "Today it is the network – like the workshop 200 years ago – that they 'cannot silence or disperse' ... By creating millions of networked people, financially exploited but with the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away, info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being". This is to confuse the accessibility of the network with the concentration of will (have you seen social media?). Technophile postcapitalism wants everyone to be connected (and thus mediated) in order to fulfil their role as the "agent of change in history". This is not a million miles away from the Leninist view that what the "backward" corners of the Earth required first and foremost was industrialisation in order to create a proletariat.

Mason is understandably more authoritative when he deals with contemporary economics: "Austerity ... means driving the wages, social wages and living standards in the west down for decades until they meet those of the middle class in China and India on the way up". This is spot-on, but he could also have noted that in the realm of ideology it entails harmonisation of political institutions and social mores as well. While this takes a progressive turn in the developing world (i.e. becoming more like the West, which obviously produces tensions), it means a return to more hierarchical and familial forms in the developed world (which produces other tensions). By this I don't mean cultural conservatism (e.g. anti-gay), but rather the redefinition of progress in liberal bourgeois terms (e.g. pro-gay marriage while suspicious of fecund single mothers). Where freedom once meant the ability of an abused wife to leave her husband and get a council flat, it now means the right of a council tenant to buy her property and leave an unencumbered inheritance.

Is this an ultimately vain attempt to resist the social transformations triggered by technology, or is it actually the product of those changes? Is the historic purpose of the Internet the creation of a truly global bourgeoisie? The message of globalisation may be that we can no longer develop independently (the eurozone crisis may be telling us the same thing). As the factors of production become more mobile (and we might consider information as a new factor that is perfectly mobile), wages are diffused, which is good for Bangalore but less good for Birmingham. In aggregate, this actually increases scarcity because it increases demand. There is then a race between the growth of a global population with disposable income (or debt) and the fall in production costs of commodities. I suspect there will be enough scarcity (real or engineered) to support capitalism for some time to come.

The problem with vulgar informationalism (e.g. the "knowledge economy") is that it focuses on pure forms that are often marginal in their economic impact (Wikipedia wiping out the encyclopedia business is a very small earthquake), though they may have a strong ideological role in culture. Thus we routinely elevate social media above database technology (I never thought I'd feel sorry for Larry Ellison). We forget that institutional forms of capital are just as likely to adopt new technologies as be undermined by them. Railways easily moved from steam to diesel to electric-power. There is a clear continuity between the first factories of the eighteenth century and modern "sheds", even if the latter are increasingly populated by robots. Selling books on social science or economics to a generalist audience requires bold claims, so Mason is obliged to predict a clean break despite conceding that the emergence of capitalism itself was not the product of any such sudden shift. Political revolutions, such as 1642 and 1789, marked the culmination of phases in a much longer revolution in technology and social relations. The idea that capitalism (and presumably the capitalist state) will soon wither as a result of a technology that was purely theoretical as recently as 50 years ago is nothing if not ambitious.

Postmodernism's scepticism about historicity, the idea that we can meaningfully understand historical events and divide them into chronologically unique periods, was both a response to the assumed acceleration of modernity and its simultaneous loss of focus/telos. As Francis Fukuyama's End of History meme would show, this attitude could easily serve an ideological purpose after 1989, insisting on the reality of progress but denying the possibility of dialectical historical change. In other words, denying the possibility of any future "post" state: neoliberalism as the eternal present. The response to this in the 90s was the growth of "anticapitalism" as a politics of resistance and rejection, or just bloody-mindedness (the anti-globalisation protests, the anarchist "black blocs", the slow movement etc). As the rediscovery of history in the Balkans, the Gulf and eventually downtown Manhattan proceeded apace, this gave rise to a renewed desire to describe what a better world might look like. Postcapitalism is the combined product of anticapitalism, the social implications of the Internet, and the paradoxical ahistoricity of late capitalism, which in denying any further linear progress opens up the possibility of departures in an unlimited number of other directions.

A final thought. Turning once more to William Gibson: "When you want to know how things really work, study them when they're coming apart". Postcapitalism isn't a species of utopianism, in the sense that a teleological critique like Marxism can be said to imply a utopia. Postcapitalism is a continuation of the twentieth century programme to deconstruct capitalism, to uncover the ethical, rather than scientific, basis of its inner workings, which is why it has enjoyed such a vogue since 2008. Postmodernism has served to exempt it from the obligation to explain how its normative strictures can come into being (why what should be will be), which in turn shields it from the charge of pessimism levelled at earlier critical theory (why what should be cannot be). Its embrace of technology is instrumental and usually couched in language indistinguishable from that employed by journalistic boosters and evangelical business consultants. For all its talk of the social and the collaborative commons it is primarily focused on the personal, imagining "escape" in the same way that trains and automobiles once offered a route out of rural idiocy, or imagining "salvation" in the manner of deracinated social mobility. Postcapitalism looks remarkably like emancipatory capitalism.


  1. Yes, given the almost complete lack of historical agency in Mason's 'postcapitalist revolution' it seems like technology has been placed in the void left by the 'feckless' proletariat's inability to overthrow the system. I think the productive-force determinism of the Mason piece was its biggest drawback. There are certainly many trends inherent in the development of technology and modern capitalism that create the potential for change, but without some kind of political project they will inevitably be used for the benefit of the current elites. If information was such an irresistible force for change then Gutenberg would have heralded a succesful social revolution centuries ago.

    Still, I'm glad that technology means I can read your 'book' for free in instalments on the internet ; )

    1. I wonder; does the fact that my informational products have already reached a zero price-point make them more historically advanced that Mason's £16.99 opus?

    2. Well, do you hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner and then write blog posts before bed?

  2. Herbie Causes Extinction27 July 2015 at 10:59

    Post capitalism is not something that Paul Mason invented and is among a number of writings that have appeared in recent years (include Rifkins zero marginal cost). The seeds of post capitalism go right back to the Utopian socialist ideas of the 19th century and to some extent logic grounded in Marxism or more precisely Hegel’s dialectic (quantitative changes result in qualitative changes). Even Keynes had his own brand of post capitalism. In some ways the argument that things will turn out alright in the end is the apologist’s view of capitalism, by its most reactionary elements. The right wing economists said that things will trickle down, just let the market do its thing and everyone will benefit eventually etc.

    Does this modern proliferation of post capitalist ideas represent a genuine reflection of society, a spontaneous response to current material conditions and a sign that something new is coming?

    The problem is that when the 19th century idealists were imaging their new worlds most of the world wasn’t capitalist. So Marx could imagine changes taking place within Western Europe and the USA. But today you can’t imagine changes in the USA and Europe without factoring in the rest of the world, as you indicate in the article. This is where I fear the post capitalists go wrong, they do not take enough account of the undeveloped world. So even if the developed West somehow managed to go to this post capitalist world it would be built on capitalist labour relations in the rest of the world, with many Western companies being involved in this exploitation. Though we should admit that 19th century capitalism was itself built on the slave trade.

    I certainly think the post capitalists are correct to say that quantitative changes have taken place that can only result in qualitative changes but the nature of this change may not be post capitalism but some form of authoritarian capitalism or even fascistic governments.

    Class struggle will determine how these qualitative changes manifest themselves. If you had asked me a year ago I would have been an absolute pessimist but today I think there are signs that these qualitative changes are beginning to impact on politics.

    Though in reality, as things stand, we are going in the opposite direction that post capitalism would say we should be going in, i.e. more austerity, less leisure time, more pressure and stress on the job.

    1. In terms of intellectual history, I think you can see a thread that connects Mason and other left-postcapitalists via the utopian socialists of the early nineteenth century, as you rightly note, all the way back to Medieval millenarianism.

      The inheritance from utopian socialism includes the idea that technology may be inherently emancipatory (Owen's reformed factory, Fourier's phalanstery), and that the new challenge to society is the efficient administration of increasingly abundant resources, which echoes the thinking of Saint-Simon and Comte.

      The inheritance from millenarianism is not just one of style (the language of escape and salvation), but the assumption that social hierarchies will dissolve (hence his belief that monopolies "cannot last") and that peace and goodwill must break out 'coz Twitter (see his earlier book, 'Why it's All Kicking off'), which echoes the hopes invested in the printing press all those years ago.

      Whether for reasons of career (i.e. selling zeitgeisty books), or due to journalistic 'deformation professionelle' (he always seemed peculiary contorted on Newsnight), Mason has invested a lot in the emancipatory power of technology, and particulary the construct of the social network. Unfortunately, this continues the neoliberal project of dissolving the concept of class, replacing solidarity with affinity and the exercise of individual choice.