Tech Could Mean the End of Capitalism. But What Comes Next?

Paul Mason, ardent critic of neoliberalism, sees a new epoch ahead

Peter C. Grosvenor January 21, 2016

Will information networks save us? (David Kasza/Shutterstock)

Eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sors like to demon­strate the inher­ent flaws of Sovi­et-style com­mand economies by ask­ing stu­dents to imag­ine what would have hap­pened if the Sovi­et Union had tried to cre­ate Star­bucks. Pre­sum­ably, a Sovi­et Star­bucks would have offered only two kinds of cof­fee — black or white — until it ran out of milk, or cof­fee, or both. In his new book, Post­cap­i­tal­ism: A Guide to Our Future, British eco­nom­ics jour­nal­ist Paul Mason invites us to re-run this thought exper­i­ment. This time, imag­ine Ama­zon, Toy­ota or Boe­ing try­ing to cre­ate Wikipedia. A suc­cess­ful out­come is equal­ly unthinkable.

Mason is advancing the radical thesis that information technologies are actually subverting the fundamentals of capitalist economics and pointing the way to a new postcapitalist system.

Obvi­ous­ly, cap­i­tal­ism is under­go­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary restruc­tur­ing in the dig­i­tal age. Mason is advanc­ing the rad­i­cal the­sis that infor­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies are actu­al­ly sub­vert­ing the fun­da­men­tals of cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ics and point­ing the way to a new post­cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem. A tran­si­tion to post­cap­i­tal­ism, Mason argues, offers an alter­na­tive to either the con­tin­u­a­tion of an increas­ing­ly ail­ing neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism or its cat­a­stroph­ic collapse.

Mason is a tren­chant crit­ic of neolib­er­al­ism, the pre­vail­ing eco­nom­ic phi­los­o­phy that jus­ti­fies aus­ter­i­ty and pri­va­ti­za­tion world­wide. He exco­ri­ates it for its cal­cu­lat­ed attacks on unions, its inten­si­fi­ca­tion of eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, its destruc­tion of the envi­ron­ment and its tear­ing of soci­eties’ social fab­ric. Glob­al­ly, he says, neolib­er­al finan­cial prac­tices are expos­ing major economies to increas­ing­ly fre­quent and severe finan­cial crises. Neolib­er­al­ism also offers no solu­tion to cli­mate change, because the free mar­ket favors drilling and frack­ing over invest­ment in alter­na­tive fuels. Nor can neolib­er­al­ism deliv­er on its post-Cold War promise of a sta­ble New World Order. Instead, it is con­front­ed with an increas­ing­ly frag­ment­ed and con­flict-rid­den inter­na­tion­al dis­or­der that is a far cry from the mar­ket-ori­ent­ed, lib­er­al-democ­rac­tic end of his­to­ry” sup­pos­ed­ly her­ald­ed by the fall of Communism.

Neolib­er­al elites could con­ceiv­ably hang on, but they will have to con­tin­ue shift­ing the costs of recur­rent crises onto work­ers, pen­sion­ers and the poor. And, to pro­tect them­selves from the back­lash, states will have to car­ry out more repression.

These extremes may trig­ger a whole­sale rejec­tion of neolib­er­al­ism. Pop­u­la­tions sick of aus­ter­i­ty may turn to par­ties of the old far Left that are still com­mit­ted to rein­sti­tut­ing some form of com­mand econ­o­my. At the same time, as more and more migrants and refugees flee inten­si­fied North-South eco­nom­ic polar­iza­tion, cli­mate change and region­al con­flicts, we could see the rise of anti-immi­grant par­ties of the far Right and a thick­en­ing of nation­al bor­ders rem­i­nis­cent of the 1930s.

For Mason, the grow­ing sense that the present is unsus­tain­able is reflect­ed in the bur­geon­ing pop cul­tur­al depic­tions of zom­bies, nat­ur­al dis­as­ters and civ­i­liza­tion­al dis­in­te­gra­tion. Still, he sees no rea­son to cede the ground to the pessimists.

Auda­cious­ly, Mason envi­sions a move­ment from cap­i­tal­ism to post­cap­i­tal­ism that is no less epochal than the tran­si­tion from medieval­ism to mod­ernism. A post­cap­i­tal­ist, infor­ma­tion­based, net­worked soci­ety will sub­vert exist­ing hier­ar­chies and resist neolib­er­al exploita­tion, he argues, mak­ing pos­si­ble increased pros­per­i­ty, greater equal­i­ty, green eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and an end to the cor­re­la­tion between work and income. These are vast claims, but Mason insists that core aspects of post­cap­i­tal­ism are already in place — put there by cap­i­tal­ism itself.

The infor­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion, Mason con­tends, sub­verts two core con­cepts of cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ics: scarci­ty and the price mech­a­nism. Infor­ma­tion is abun­dant and does not degrade with use, nor does its use by one con­sumer pre­clude its use by oth­ers. What is more, the mar­gin­al cost of repro­duc­ing infor­ma­tion is con­stant­ly falling. In such an envi­ron­ment, infor­ma­tion emerges as a pub­lic good — a resource or util­i­ty to which it is imprac­ti­cal to restrict access, much like street light­ing. Main­stream eco­nom­ics responds to these chal­lenges with intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rights, in order to make infor­ma­tion behave like a trad­able com­mod­i­ty. But such laws are full of incon­sis­ten­cies and imprac­ti­cal­i­ties — for exam­ple, we can copy a CD into iTunes, but not a DVD.

The infor­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion makes pos­si­ble what the legal schol­ar Yochai Ben­kler calls com­mons-based peer pro­duc­tion,” char­ac­ter­ized by coop­er­a­tive, hor­i­zon­tal work­ing rela­tion­ships. All of this is in marked con­trast to the top-down approach of firm pro­duc­tion,” which explains why Boe­ing could nev­er have cre­at­ed the open-sourced Wikipedia.

Like the soci­ol­o­gist Manuel Castells, Mason believes that the new infor­ma­tion-based net­worked soci­ety is as per­ma­nent as elec­tri­fi­ca­tion, and that it is forg­ing a new kind of human being: post-def­er­en­tial, peer-dri­ven and skep­ti­cal of tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal elites of both the Left and the Right. They will be the agents of social change, and Mason sees their flu­id net­works already at work in upris­ings like the Arab Spring and the urban devel­op­ment protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park.

But are these protests real­ly aspects of essen­tial­ly the same phe­nom­e­non? And what kind of world are these net­worked indi­vid­u­als try­ing to cre­ate? Do they even know?

Post­cap­i­tal­ism is an ambi­tious attempt to impose the­o­ret­i­cal coher­ence on our amor­phous times. Its argu­ment is sophis­ti­cat­ed and eru­dite, and vivid­ly illus­trat­ed by Mason’s long expe­ri­ence of report­ing from the front lines of eco­nom­ic con­flicts and crises, where he spends as much time talk­ing to riot­ers, strik­ers and squat­ters as to finance min­is­ters and cen­tral bankers. But his post­cap­i­tal­ism claim may not be sus­tain­able, either as eco­nom­ics or politics.

In eco­nom­ic terms, cap­i­tal­ist efforts to main­tain infor­ma­tion monop­o­lies have not been con­clu­sive­ly defeat­ed yet, and many peer-to-peer enter­pris­es (such as Uber or Airbnb) retain the essen­tial fea­tures of cap­i­tal­ism, as Mason him­self acknowledges.

The polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of Mason’s case are also unclear. His post­cap­i­tal­ist vision clear­ly sep­a­rates him from col­lec­tivist social­ists, who have been quick to protest his marked down­grad­ing of orga­nized work­ers as his­tor­i­cal agents. Mason’s ideas will appeal most­ly to lib­er­tar­i­an social­ists, left anar­chists and Greens, all of whom will share his enthu­si­asm for social media-enabled civ­il soci­ety ini­tia­tives. But his calls for the social­iza­tion of finance, action on cli­mate change and a uni­ver­sal basic income all imply an expand­ed role for the state, there­by cre­at­ing a famil­iar ten­sion on the Left between cen­tral­iza­tion and decentralization.

Nonethe­less, this high­ly provoca­tive and com­pelling­ly read­able book, which already made waves with its U.K. pub­li­ca­tion last sum­mer, is indis­pen­si­ble read­ing for any­one grap­pling with the prob­lems of con­tem­po­rary eco­nom­ic transition.

Peter C. Grosvenor is orig­i­nal­ly from Wales and holds a Ph.D. in Gov­ern­ment from the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics. For­mer­ly a trade union researcher and speech­writer, he is cur­rent­ly Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy & Glob­al Stud­ies at Pacif­ic Luther­an Uni­ver­si­ty in Taco­ma, Washington.
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