[Marxism] Postcapitalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jun 25 07:56:29 MDT 2016


LRB, Vol. 38 No. 13 · 30 June 2016

Owen Hatherley
PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason
Allen Lane, 368 pp, £8.99, June, ISBN 978 0 14 197529 0

Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work by Nick 
Srnicek and Alex Williams
Verso, 256 pp, £12.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 78478 096 8

Both Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future and Nick Srnicek 
and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World 
without Work advocate things that seemed to have disappeared from 
thinking on the left sometime in the late 1960s: technological optimism, 
futurism, the making of programmes and the issuing of demands as opposed 
to bearing witness through protest. Both use the curiously neutral 
coinage ‘postcapitalism’ for their alternative, rather than socialism, 
social democracy, communism or anarchism, each of these tainted for the 
authors in one way or another.

Srnicek and Williams reject practically everything that the 
Euro-American left has thought and done since 1968, bar a somewhat 
tokenistic acknowledgment of the importance of sexual and racial 
‘intersectionality’. Their problem isn’t with ‘identity politics’ – the 
common bugbear of everything-went-wrong-in-the-1960s leftists – but with 
the abandonment of the belief that a society beyond capitalism is both 
possible and necessary. ‘From predictions of new worlds of leisure, to 
Soviet-era cosmic communism, to Afro-futurist celebrations of the 
synthetic and diasporic nature of black culture, to post-gender dreams 
of radical feminism,’ they write, ‘the popular imagination of the left 
envisaged societies vastly superior to anything we dream of today.’ It’s 
especially frustrating because ‘today, on one level, these dreams appear 
closer than ever,’ through the ever greater expansion of automation, the 
communal production and distribution of open-source software and 
‘copyleft’ systems of repudiated ownership, and the possibilities opened 
up by 3-D printing. Srnicek and Williams came to notoriety in 2013 when 
they issued a ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’, affirming 
‘mastery’, technology and the liberatory possibilities of capitalism if 
pushed beyond its limits. It was a heady and largely unconvincing 
theoretical melange, fuelled by a rather Weimar Republic sense of 
apocalyptic excitement (‘After Hitler, us!’). Inventing the Future is 
more sober; the manifesto was wilfully offensive, but here the authors 
are keen to make converts.

Mason, who arrives at postcapitalism from a background in technology and 
economic journalism, and a sometime involvement in Trotskyist politics, 
begins his ‘guide to our future’ at the border between Moldova and the 
Russian-backed statelet of Transnistria: a place, he tells us, where 
people would rather the stability of dictatorship than the chaos of 
neoliberalism. The river Dniester is ‘the geographic border between 
free-market capitalism and whatever you want to call the system Vladimir 
Putin runs’ (it remains unclear why that system shouldn’t also be called 
‘free-market capitalism’). To cross into Putinland is to realise that 
‘the best of capitalism is over for us’: around 2050 it will all start 
to collapse, through climate change, ageing, migration and economic 
dysfunction. Both Mason and Srnicek/Williams are sceptical that the 
Keynesian anti-austerity programmes of Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos or 
pre-capitulation Syriza – to ‘suppress high finance, reverse austerity, 
invest in green energy and promote high-waged work’, as Mason puts it – 
are nearly enough to stop the rot. But the lack of a viable systemic 
alternative is ‘logical, if you think the only alternative is what the 
20th-century left called “socialism”’, which Mason defines sweepingly as 
‘state control and economic nationalism’ along with a ‘brutal 
hierarchy’. For the much younger Srnicek and Williams, the problem is 
reversing the errors of post-1968 left-libertarians; for Mason, they 
didn’t go nearly far enough.

Mason especially displays the sort of belief in historical necessity and 
progress that most Marxists have learned to be deeply embarrassed by. 
Postcapitalism is both necessary and possible because ‘capitalism can no 
longer adapt to technological change.’ In language that recalls Marx’s 
preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ‘it will 
be abolished’ because it has exhausted its productive resources, and 
harbours ‘something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen 
within the old system’. The two books share an excitement about the 
possibility of a ‘new kind of human being’, but mean different things by 
it. Srnicek and Williams envisage ‘an interventionist approach to the 
human’, an embrace of ‘individual bodily experimentation’ set ‘against 
restricted images of the human’ – a rather startling image, a new human 
with a new body. Mason’s prosthesis is more familiar: the internet, 
which has created ‘the educated and connected human being’ and whose 
vanguard is the ‘networked generation’ he credits with the wave of 
protests in recent years, encompassing everything from Occupy to the 
Arab Spring to Maidan. His analysis now seems over-optimistic, to put it 
mildly, but he expresses no second thoughts about the ‘networked 
revolutions’ he hailed in his last book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere 
(2012). Wisely, Srnicek and Williams do not find a new historical 
subject in graduates using Twitter.

In both books the critical fronts are a total opposition to austerity 
and neoliberalism, and a focus on the possible consequences of increased 
automation, including the creation of a ‘surplus population’. The ‘real 
austerity project’, Mason argues, is ‘to drive down wages and living 
standards in the West for decades, until they meet those of the middle 
class in China and India on the way up’. As a result, ‘the next 
generation will be poorer than this one; the old economic model is 
broken and cannot revive growth.’ Those places which, in their different 
ways, have managed to insulate themselves – authoritarian China, Russia 
or Iran, residually social democratic northern Europe – will not be 
exempt: ‘By 2060, countries such as Sweden will have the levels of 
inequality currently seen in the USA.’ In thinking about how we got 
here, Srnicek and Williams – like so many recent writers, from Owen 
Jones to Mark Fisher to Philip Mirowski – lay great stress on the 
think-tanks (the Mont Pelerin Society and the like) that had their 
solutions ready when Keynesianism faltered in the mid-1970s. The ‘folk 
politics’ of Climate Camps, single-issue campaigns and localism have 
proved inadequate as a response to the neoliberal conquest of state, 
academia and ‘common sense’. Mason is braver, and more ambitious. There 
are structural reasons, he says, why capitalism as it currently exists 
is a brake on technological change and human improvement, but changes in 
labour and distribution have created a new historical agent capable of 
transcending it.

The central problem, as Mason sees it, is that ‘an information economy 
may not be compatible with a market economy.’ He gives a good potted 
account of the various theories of capitalist adaptation since the turn 
of the 20th century, focusing particularly on the Russian Socialist 
Revolutionary economist Nikolai Kondratiev’s ‘waves’ of capitalist 
change – a rejection of the collapse and catastrophe scenarios of the 
Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. A wave involves the ‘rollout of new 
technologies, the rise of new business models, new countries dragged 
into the global market, a rise in the quantity and availability of 
money’: the ‘third wave’ of capitalist expansion around the Belle 
Epoque, for example. Mason tracks the attempts by Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, 
Rudolf Hilferding and Eugen Varga to explain this apparent thriving of 
what they considered a moribund system. For Luxemburg, the collapse 
would finally come once everywhere on the globe was pulled into the 
system. However, she ‘had ignored the fact that new markets … can be 
created not only in colonies but within national economies, local 
sectors, people’s homes and indeed inside their brains’.

Another wave appeared to have come after 1989, when capitalism 
‘experienced a sugar rush: labour, markets, entrepreneurial freedom and 
new economies of scale’ as a result of the assimilation of China, 
Eastern Europe and the former USSR. But by the end of the 1990s, it was 
obvious that something had gone awry. The dotcom crash made clear that 
the new industrial revolution wasn’t nearly as profitable as we had been 
led to expect. In the new ‘infocapitalism’, prices ceased to be dictated 
by labour, degradation of materials, production costs and so forth, but 
were set arbitrarily as a response to the new accessibility of ‘free 
stuff’. How much can iTunes charge for an mp3 when digital files can be 
copied limitlessly, and new music is accessible on dozens of semi-legal 
channels within seconds of its release? Another problem was the free 
software movement: the ready availability of collectively produced, free 
software such as Linux meant that ‘new forms of property ownership and 
management become imperative,’ presaging a ‘new mode of production 
beyond capitalism’. ‘Hard-assed capitalists’ like Google are reliant on 
free software: Android, for instance, which Google uses for its phone 
operating system. There will, Mason concludes, be no new ‘wave’ emerging 
out of current forms of info-capitalism. (Srnicek and Williams agree: 
the ‘new industries’ – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – ‘only employ 
0.5 per cent of the American workforce’, and ‘the average new business 
creates 40 per cent fewer jobs than it did twenty years ago.’)

Mason’s great exemplar of a postcapitalist institution is Wikipedia, a 
hugely successful and non-profit-making enterprise which relies on the 
enthusiasm and voluntary labour of countless thousands of editors, a 
self-regulating network which pays no one and cannot be bought or sold. 
It is a better choice than Uber, the rampantly exploitative taxi network 
Mason has cited elsewhere, but his account of Wikipedia suggests he 
hasn’t done much editing on there himself. Wikipedia is reliant to the 
point of parasitism on research not done by a network, but by academics 
– that’s why ‘citation needed’ is the thing most likely to be inserted 
into your text should you write a shoddy entry, shortly before it is 
slated for deletion. (Though Wikipedia can be highly undiscriminating as 
long as the source looks official enough. All ‘real’ research is 
citable, however dodgy, as a look at some of the historical edit wars 
over, say, Russia and Ukraine will tell you: Stalinist historians and 
the Ukrainian security services are regularly cited as reliable 
authorities.) The sin of ‘original research?’ – a solecism nearly as 
grave as ‘citation needed’ – is another reminder that the 
non-postcapitalist labour of academics is the basis of nearly the entire 
operation. Wikipedia is less a new form of knowledge than a novel 
packaging of an old one.

PostCapitalism, like Srnicek and Williams’s ‘Accelerationist Manifesto’, 
sets itself up on the rock of Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’ in the 
Grundrisse, a thought experiment in which ‘capitalism collapses because 
it cannot exist alongside shared knowledge.’ This is now coming, Mason 
believes, courtesy of peer-to-peer networks and the like, which promise 
‘an economy where machines can be built for free and last for ever’. 
‘Though a machine shop smells and sounds much as it did thirty years 
ago,’ he writes, drawing on his own youthful experience, ‘it is as 
different from the one I worked in as an iTunes track is from a vinyl 
record.’ Nearly half of all jobs will soon be automated, he claims, and 
the resulting unemployed ‘can’t all become postmodern servants for the 1 
per cent’. With the shrinking of waged labour, and the incapacity of new 
technologies to get the system going again owing to their in-built 
preference for the free and collective, capital is reduced to consuming 
the remains of the welfare state while frantically trying to find a way 
to ‘monetise’ social networks. ‘To capture the externalities in an 
information-heavy economy,’ Mason writes, ‘capital has to extend its 
ownership rights into new areas; it has to own our selves, our 
playlists, not just our publicised academic papers but the research we 
did to write them. Yet the technology itself gives us a means to resist 
this, and makes it long-term impossible.’ Like Marx or Luxemburg, he 
believes that capitalism has limits: it’s just that they were premature 
in hailing them.

*

The wager of neoliberalism, for Mason, is that ‘the exhilarating rush of 
new technology was taken as justifying all the pain we’d gone through to 
get free markets. The miners had to be smashed so that we could have 
Facebook; telecoms had to be privatised so we could have 3G mobile 
phones.’ In fact, ‘the destruction of labour’s bargaining power … was 
the essence of the entire project, the means to all the other ends.’ As 
a result, however, the working class has not disappeared, but a ‘three 
billion strong proletariat’ has come into being. Mason is extremely 
sceptical that this proletariat is capable of political consciousness – 
‘on the subsoil of precarious work, extreme poverty, migrant labour and 
slum conditions it has been impossible for anything that matches the 
collectivity and consciousness of the western labour movement at its 
height to grow in the global south’ – though since he goes on to argue 
at some length that the Western labour movement was never revolutionary, 
he might have reflected on the fact that the quasi-rural ‘subsoil’ of 
China or Latin America has been much more inclined to insurrection in 
the last seventy years than the organised workforces of Birmingham or 
Pittsburgh have. But anyway none of this matters, because the ‘agent of 
change has become, potentially, everyone on earth’, and ‘as a historical 
subject’ the proletariat ‘is being replaced by a diverse, global 
population whose battlefield is all aspects of society – not just work’.

What makes this part of PostCapitalism so frustrating is the gap between 
Mason’s exceptionally subtle handling of the familiar shibboleths of 
far-left history, and his awed invocation of the new networked human. He 
makes a sophisticated case that ‘the proletariat was the closest thing 
to an enlightened, collective historical subject that human society has 
ever produced,’ though he was never fully convinced it needed to 
overthrow capitalism, just temper it, with the help of unions, 
co-operatives and self-education, to ensure that the lives workers were 
carving out for themselves within the system were safe and viable. 
Against Marx’s idea of the proletariat as an ‘absence’ without its own 
culture or baggage, Mason points out that the new Lancashire industrial 
workforce created a distinctive autonomous culture while Marx was still 
at university. Where Lenin considered the ‘labour aristocracy’ a 
reactionary force within the working class, Mason knows that in reality 
skilled workers tended to be the left vanguard, as in Glasgow and Berlin 
in 1919, or Birmingham and Turin during the 1970s.

Mason excels when he is describing the effects of financialisation on 
Leigh, his hometown in the north-west of England, or the history of 
workers’ militancy in the 20th century. But he is much less convincing 
when he branches into the territory of the ‘networked movements’ of 
recent years. The organised factory proletariat in the US, Europe and 
Japan never carved out a path to postcapitalism – or socialism as it was 
then known – but Occupy, Maidan, Tahrir Square, and even the protests 
against the Workers’ Party government in Brazil, ‘are evidence that a 
new historical subject exists. It is not just the working class in a 
different guise; it is networked humanity.’ The ‘new gravedigger’ 
produced by capitalism consists of ‘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’ etc. This is kitsch, but 
more significant is Mason’s failure to analyse the political content of 
the movements of the young. Not a lot of people in any of them 
considered ‘capitalism’ their main enemy, probably less so than the 
average striker in the 1930s or 1970s. They are a disparate bunch, from 
all manner of class backgrounds, advocating various positions across the 
political spectrum, but all united apparently by their use of Twitter 
and their distrust of ‘old elites’ and hierarchies. Since they carry no 
baggage, it isn’t worth investigating why, say, the protests in Brazil 
so easily passed over into racism, why some in Tahrir Square preferred a 
new general to an elected Islamist, why both sides in Ukraine’s unrest 
had a crucial far-right element, or why the descendants of Occupy in 
London and New York now find themselves campaigning for ageing, 
old-school leftist social democrats. Mason sweeps all this away on a 
tide of goofy utopianism.

The point Mason reiterates again and again is that in the struggle 
between postcapitalism and its alleged neoliberal enemies, ‘everything 
is pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy.’ This is perhaps 
the issue on which he differs most from Srnicek and Williams. The first 
part of Inventing the Future mounts a critique of local, self-organised, 
non-hierarchical politics. Srnicek and Williams prefer to call it ‘folk 
politics’, though it seems as deeply enmeshed in the internet and its 
social networks as the futurism they advocate; more so, in fact. The 
participants in folk politics, like Mason’s young networked individuals, 
prefer ‘the everyday over the structural … feeling over thinking’. Their 
exponents can be found in Occupy, 15M in Spain, the Zapatistas and most 
forms of politics predicated on direct action: immediacy is all. In folk 
politics, ‘the importance of tactics and process is placed above 
strategic objectives,’ so that the mode of communication – whether the 
face-to-face deliberations in a protest camp or the use of social media 
to organise – becomes a fetish, and political content secondary. So far 
as Srnicek and Williams are concerned, the idea of being the change you 
want to see in the world practically guarantees that change won’t take 
place.

Why does folk politics apparently thrive in the networked world of 
contemporary protest? Because, they claim, it creates a warm glow, a 
sense that you are indeed ‘doing something’, reinforced when a minor 
battle is actually won: ‘Small successes – useful, no doubt, for 
instilling a sense of hope – nevertheless wither in the face of 
overwhelming losses.’ The ‘key challenge facing the left today,’ they 
write, ‘is to reckon with the disappointments and failures of the most 
recent cycle of struggles.’ These include ‘the recent history of 
revolutions – from the Iranian Revolution to the Arab Spring’ (a big 
sweep there), which has ‘simply led to some combination of theocratic 
authoritarianism, military dictatorship and civil war.’ They have more 
time for movements that have tried to approach state power via the more 
familiar route of winning elections: the attempt, for instance, to 
create ‘dual power’ between the state and collectives in Venezuela – 
something which now seems abortive, but was at least an attempt to build 
something genuinely ‘counter-hegemonic’ and ‘structural’.

What the historical labour movement did, in Srnicek and Williams’s eyes, 
was set itself goals and demands – for pensions, social security, fewer 
working hours – and fight for them inside and outside the workplace. 
What they are really proposing, when their critique of folk politics is 
put aside (it already seems overtaken by events, now that the young 
post-crash left is organising not in affinity groups but in political 
parties), is that a new set of demands be agreed and doggedly insisted 
on, in the manner of the old left. Two of these – Full Automation and 
Universal Basic Income – are concrete; the other, The Future, is 
naturally somewhat vaguer. Srnicek and Williams remind us of the 
once-ubiquitous belief that by the 21st century, we’d all be working a 
three-day week, yet ‘the average full-time US worker in fact logs closer 
to 47 hours a week,’ not counting travel. This is all the more absurd, 
they argue, given how much work is automated already, let alone what’s 
to come in the future. Their imagined non-labour movement will demand 
full automation as something that isn’t just possible but necessary. Yet 
while a great deal of work could be automated without serious problems, 
there remains much that it is difficult to imagine being automated even 
in the long run, care work in particular – an issue that Srnicek and 
Williams gloss over.

*

As for what will sustain the population after full automation is 
achieved, that’s where the Universal Basic Income comes in. Mason also 
supports UBI, and proposes that it should be ‘paid for out of taxes on 
the market economy’, so that its recipients can put their time into the 
postcapitalist part of the economy. Google will be ruthlessly taxed so 
that former call centre workers and Poundland shop assistants can do 
shifts on Wikipedia. Here, as elsewhere, Mason goes further than Srnicek 
and Williams in articulating an alternative and putting forward a means 
of achieving it. Where Srnicek and Williams show some affection for 
aspects of Soviet socialism (particularly its space programme and its 
‘interventionist’ approach to nature, human and non-human), Mason has 
contempt for the ‘forced march’ approach of the USSR and its satellites. 
The Soviet system, he argues, provided a ‘way out’ of capitalism that 
ended up creating ‘something worse than capitalism’. (This isn’t 
terribly fair: the real question, you might think, should be whether it 
was better than Russian capitalism, as it existed at the turn of the 
20th century or has in the last 25 years, which is a more difficult matter.)

Mason doesn’t share the opinion of ‘cyber-Stalinists’ that computing 
power gives new life to the fantasy of a completely planned economy: 
‘Even with the best supercomputer and the biggest data farm, planning is 
not the primary route beyond capitalism.’ Such a system, he argues, has 
no role for ‘e-commerce, network structures, peer-to-peer free stuff’ – 
that is, forms of noncapitalist life that actually exist. Mason remains 
a peculiar kind of Marxist. He opposes blueprints for computerised 
socialist economies for much the same reason that Marx and Engels 
attacked contemporary ‘utopian socialists’: that their plans ignored the 
‘real movement that abolishes the present state of things’ – that is, 
the organised working class. Mason’s version of this is his networked 
kids, busy abolishing capitalism one click at a time.

And yet, suddenly, near the end of PostCapitalism, planning comes back. 
For the first time, Mason brings up climate change. He rejects the 
notion that ‘the market’ could help, via carbon trading or the like, and 
then, as if speaking from another book entirely, advocates ‘state 
control and planning’ as the means to move to a zero-carbon economy in 
which the ‘low wage, low skill and low quality corporations’ that thrive 
under neoliberalism will be ‘ruthlessly’ suppressed, as the labour 
movement was in the 1980s. The incredible non-hierarchical network turns 
out to be completely irrelevant to what is obviously going to be the 
major problem of the next hundred years. Srnicek and Williams, 
meanwhile, do little more than note that climate change is one of the 
vast structural issues that ‘folk politics’ couldn’t possibly solve: 
after full automation, they claim, a more relaxed population would 
consume less, hence putting less pressure on resources. That’s as may 
be, but it would be nice if either Mason or Srnicek and Williams had 
told us a little more about our new robot servants: where they will be 
made, what they will be made of, where the materials to make them will 
be mined – that sort of thing.

The optimism of both these books, the belief that big problems can be 
solved, is infectious, but in the end postcapitalism, like 
postmodernism, is the name of an absence, not a positive programme. Like 
the anticapitalism of the early 2000s, it tells you what it’s not: in 
this case, the old left, folk politics, social democracy or Stalinism, 
with their hierarchies and lack of cool free stuff. Postcapitalism, like 
precapitalism, could be feudalism or slavery or some Threads-like 
nightmare of devastated cities and radioactive nomads. Or it could 
merely be the non-free-market statism that so horrifies Mason. 
Socialism, however much its meaning may have been clouded by overuse, 
still means something social, communism something communal, anarchism 
something anarchic. Each is something you might want to fight for 
because you believe in it. Postcapitalism tells you that the forces of 
production make something possible, then suggests either that you demand 
it, or that you’re already doing it.



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