Paul Mason. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (Allen Lane, 2015).
Based on Mason’s preview of Postcapitalism in his article at The Guardian, I was predisposed to like it. And having read the book itself, I can’t say I’ve changed my mind much. Mason occupies a niche where there is plenty of room for more good analysis, along with similar thinkers like John Holloway, the German Marxist Oekonux group and the autonomists Negri and Hardt.
And there is indeed a great deal of good analysis in this book. There is also some not so good. Probably the weakest parts are his analysis of the crisis tendencies of late capitalism, and his political program for facilitating the transition to postcapitalism.
To start with his analysis of late capitalist crisis tendencies, in some ways he echoes Michel Bauwens, Director of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives — this is true, most notably, of his observations on the inability of capitalism to capture the value created by peer-production.
But his analysis comes off as weak, in my opinion, compared to that of Bauwens.
Let’s take a look at Bauwens’s treatment of the crisis tendencies of capitalism and the transition to a peer-to-peer society, which has a lot in common with Mason’s analysis but in my opinion is much clearer and more incisive.
According to Bauwens and Franco Iacomella, late capitalism is beset by the twin structural irrationalities of artificial abundance and artificial scarcity:
1. The current political economy is based on a false idea of material abundance. We call it pseudo-abundance. It is based on a commitment to permanent growth, the infinite accumulation of capital and debt-driven dynamics through compound interest. This is unsustainable, of course, because infinite growth is logically and physically impossible in any physically constrained, finite system.
2. The current political economy is based on a false idea of “immaterial scarcity.” It believes that an exaggerated set of intellectual property monopolies – for copyrights, trademarks and patents – should restrain the sharing of scientific, social and economic innovations. Hence the system discourages human cooperation, excludes many people from benefiting from innovation and slows the collective learning of humanity. In an age of grave global challenges, the political economy keeps many practical alternatives sequestered behind private firewalls or unfunded if they cannot generate adequate profits.
These structural contradictions have always made for reduced efficiency and irrationality. But in recent decades they have resulted in increasingly chronic crisis tendencies, which amount to a terminal crisis of capitalism as a system. Both artificial abundance and artificial scarcity have been integral to capitalism since its beginnings five centuries or so ago, and absolutely essential for the extraction of profit. But capitalism is becoming increasingly dependent on both artificial abundance and artificial scarcity for its survival at the very same time that the state’s ability to provide them is reaching its limits and going into decline. Hence a crisis of sustainability.
Capitalism has pursued a model of growth based on the extensive addition of artificially cheap inputs. This has been possible either because the colonial conquest of the world outside Europe has given the extractive industries privileged access to mineral deposits, fossil fuels and other natural resources, or because capitalist states have subsidized important material inputs to the corporate economy like transportation infrastructure and the reproduction of trained labor-power, at the expense of the general population.
The problem is that when a particular factor input is subsidized and artificially cheap, a business will consume increasing amounts of it as it substitutes it for other factors. And at the same time, capitalism has been beset by a long-term tendency, since the depressions of the late 19th century, towards crises of over-investment and excess capacity, demand shortfalls and declining organic rates of profit.
This means that an ever growing amount of state subsidies, and ever larger inputs of subsidized material inputs, are necessary just to keep the corporate economy running artificially in the black. In the words of James O’Connor in Fiscal Crisis of the State, the state must subsidize a perpetually increasing share of the operating costs of capital to keep the economy out of depression.
The result is two forms of input crisis. First (in the words of O’Connor’s title) the “fiscal crisis of the state,” as the state must run increasingly large deficits, and incur increasingly large debt, in order to meet the constantly increasing demands for subsidized education, transportation infrastructure, and foreign imperial wars. Of course the growing deficits are necessary in their own right, in order to stimulate aggregate demand and counter the chronic crisis of excess capacity. And the growing debt, which is sold to the rentier classes, soaks up trillions in surplus investment capital that would otherwise lack a profitable outlet. And second, crises of material resource shortages — most notably Peak Oil.
Capitalism has likewise, since the beginning, depended on artificial scarcities — and in particular on “intellectual property.” This dependence has only increased as the natural scarcity of physical means of production has been reduced by the rapid cheapening and ephemeralization of production technology (e.g. small-scale, open source CNC machine tools) in recent years — capitalism’s extraction of surplus value, increasingly, depends on ownership of the patents rather than ownership of the machines. But the rapid shrinking and dispersal of production tools, coupled with the easy replication of digital CAD/CAM files, is making “intellectual property” in the physical realm increasingly hard to enforce — as it already was in software and entertainment thanks to file-sharing.
The unenforceability of “intellectual property” and the crisis of peak material inputs, taken together, mean that capitalism is facing a crisis of limits. Bauwens and Iacomella point to previous transitions from the classical to the feudal political economy, and from feudalism to capitalism, as analogies for the transition to post-capitalism. Both Rome and the feudal economy reached a point at which further extensive addition of inputs became impossible, and a shift to a new model of more intensive production was necessary.
At some point in its evolution…, the Roman empire ceases to expand (the cost of of maintaining empire and expansion exceeds its benefits). No conquests means a drying up of the most important raw material of a slave economy, i.e. the slaves, which therefore become more ‘expensive’. At the same time, the tax base dries up, making it more and more difficult to maintain both internal coercion and external defenses…. This… set of difficulties…, set off a reorientation of some slave owners, who shift to the system of coloni, i.e. serfs. I.e. slaves are partially freed, can have families, can produce from themselves and have villages, giving the surplus to the new domain holders.
Hence, the phase transition goes something like this: 1) systemic crisis 2) exodus 3) mutual reconfiguration of the classes.
This whole process would of course take five centuries. In the First European Revolution, … the feudal system would only consolidate around 975, the date of the political revolution confirming the previous phase transition, and setting up a consolidated growth phase for the new system (doubling of the population between 10 and 13th century).
And elsewhere Bauwens writes:
…[T]he failure of extensive development is what brought down earlier civilizations and modes of production. For example, slavery was not only marked by low productivity, but could not extend this productivity as that would require making the slaves more autonomous, so slave-based empires had to grow in space, but at a certain point in that growth, the cost of expansion exceeded the benefits. This is why feudalism finally emerged, a system which refocused on the local, and allowed productivity growth as serfs had a self-interest in growing and ameliorating the tools of production.
The alternative to extensive development is intensive development, as happened in the transition from slavery to feudalism. But notice that to do this, the system had to change, the core logic was no longer the same.
Something very similar starts occurring as of the 16th century. The feudal system enters in crisis, and serfs start fleeing the countryside, installing themselves in the cities, where they are rejected by the feudal guild system, but embraced by a new type of proto-capitalist entrepreneurs. In other words, a section of the feudal class (as well as some upstarts from the lower classes) re-orient themselves by investing in the new mode of production (and those that don’t gradually impoverish themselves), while serfs become workers.
In short, we have the same scheme:
1) Systemic crisis
3) Mutual reconfiguration of classes
4) After a long period of re-orientation and phase transitions: the political revolutions that configure the new capitalist system as dominant
Again, the process of reconfiguration takes several centuries, and the political revolutions come at the end of it.
Hypothesis of a third transition: capitalism to peer to peer
Again, we have a system faced with a crisis of extensive globalization, where nature itself has become the ultimate limit. It’s way out, cognitive capitalism, shows itself to be a mirage.
What we have then is an exodus, which takes multiple forms: precarity and flight from the salaried conditions; disenchantement with the salaried condition and turn towards passionate production. The formation of communities and commons are shared knowledge, code and design which show themselves to be a superior mode of social and economic organization.
The exodus into peer production creates a mutual reconfiguration of the classes. A section of capital becomes netarchical and ‘empowers and enables peer production’, while attempting to extract value from it, but thereby also building the new infrastructures of cooperation.
Although capitalism is attempting to preserve itself by enclosing such a shift to more intensive production within its own framework — in the form of “cognitive capitalism” — the unenforceability of “intellectual property” makes this impossible (quoting Bauwens again):
The dream of our current economy is therefore one of intensive development, to grow in the immaterial field, and this is basically what the experience economy means. The hope that it expresses is that business can simply continue to grow in the immaterial field of experience.
But is that really so? I have a set of arguments and observations that argue against that hope. First of all, in the field of the immaterial, we are no longer dealing with scarce goods, but with marginal reproduction costs and non-rival goods. With such goods, sharing does not diminish the enjoyment of the good, since all parties retain their ability to use them. The emergence of peer production shows a new form of creating value, that is in fundamental aspects outside the market. Typically, in commons-based production we have a common pool, accessible to everyone (Linux, Wikipedia), around which an ecology of business can form to create and sell scarcities (usually services and experiences). In sharing-oriented production (YouTube, Google documents), we have proprietary platforms that enable and empower the sharing, but at the same time, sell the aggregated attention (a scarcity), to the advertising market. Finally, in the third crowdsourcing mode, companies try to integrate participation in their own value chain and framework.
So the good news is that indeed business is possible. But I would like the readers to entertain the following proposition, nl. That:
1) The creation of non-monetary value is exponential
2) The monetization of such value is linear
In other words, we have a growing discrepancy between the direct creation of use value through social relationships and collective intelligence (open platforms create near infinite value through the operations of the laws of Metcalfe and Reed), but only a fraction of that value can actually be captured by business and money. Innovation is becoming social and diffuse, an emergent property of the networks rather than an internal R & D affair within corporations; capital is becoming an a posteriori intervention in the realization of innovation, rather than a condition for its occurrence; more and more positive externalizations are created from the social field.
What this announces is a crisis of value, most such value is beyond measure, but also essentially a crisis of accumulation of capital. Furthermore, we lack a mechanism for the existing institutional world to re-fund what it receives from the social world. So on top of all of that, we have a crisis of social reproduction: peer production is collective sustainable, but not individually.
For all of this, we will need new policies, major reforms and restructurations in our economy and society.
But one thing is sure: we will have markets, but the core logic of the emerging experience economy, operating as it does in the world of non-rival exchange, is unlikely to have capitalism as its core logic.
It can no longer grow extensively, but it cannot replace it by intensive growth. The history of slave empires and their transition to feudal structures is about to repeat itself, but in a different form.
Now we return to Mason. As we already saw, Mason does deal extensively with the destabilizing effects of freely replicable information, and its inconsistency with capitalist logic. And while he devotes considerable space to the narrower problem of climate change in the latter part of his book, there’s not really much in the way of a systematic analysis of resource input shortages as a broader structural problem. So in this regard, he more or less touches on some of the same issues as Bauwens and Iacomella. He just doesn’t do so as well.
Another failing is his repudiation of some of the most effective neo-Marxist analysis of late capitalism. He is correct, as he argues in Chapter Two, that the current economic crisis is secular and structural rather than cyclical, because capitalism has failed to generate a new Kondratieff wave to renew itself for another epoch. But his argument suffers greatly because he rejects the most useful conceptual basis for explaining just why the Kondratieff wave is failing this time around: the over-accumulationist/under-consumptionist model of late capitalist crisis. Mason rejects all economic models based on the idea of a chronic mismatch between levels of investment and levels of consumption.
His analysis would have benefited greatly from incorporating the over-investment model of the Monthly Review group, going back to Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital. The reason new Kondratieff waves give capitalism a renewed life is that they periodically generate another large-scale burst of large-scale investment in fundamentally new infrastructures, and provide an outlet to soak up surplus investment capital for another generation and reset the crisis of over-accumulation.
As Mason points out, people like Carlota Perez argue for generating a new Kondratieff wave based on “info-tech, biotech and green energy.” But the reason such agendas are doomed to failure is that the nature of the new technology itself works directly counter to the need for a new “engine of accumulation” to provide a surplus capital sink and restore the rate of profit.
For the past generation or so, new production technology has been decreasingly capital-intensive (or increasingly ephemeral), starting in the ’70s and ’80s with new small-scale CNC machinery suited for the job-shops of Emilia-Romagna and Shenzhen, and running through the current generation of open-source tabletop CNC routers, cutting tables, 3D printers, and forth that can be built for under a thousand dollars. The result is that it takes much, much less capital for production and a great deal more superfluous capital is left sitting around without a profitable outlet for investment than in previous technological revolutions.
Douglas Rushkoff remarked on the same phenomenon, in the realm of immaterial production:
The fact is, most Internet businesses don’t require venture capital. The beauty of these technologies is that they decentralize value creation. Anyone with a PC and bandwidth can program the next Twitter or Facebook plug-in, the next iPhone app, or even the next social network. While a few thousand dollars might be nice, the hundreds of millions that venture capitalists want to—need to—invest, simply aren’t required….
The banking crisis began with the dot.com industry, because here was a business sector that did not require massive investments of capital in order to grow. (I spent an entire night on the phone with one young entrepreneur who secured $20 million of capital from a venture firm, trying to figure out how to possibly spend it. We could only come up with $2 million of possible expenditures.) What’s a bank to do when its money is no longer needed?…
[Decentralized value creation] is, quite simply, cheaper to do. There’s less money in it. Not necessarily less money for us, the people doing the exchanging, but less money for the institutions that have traditionally extracted value from our activity. If I can create an application or even a Web site like this one without borrowing a ton of cash from the bank, then I am also undermining America’s biggest industry—finance.
For Mason the new Kondratieff wave, rather than generating a new cycle of large-scale infrastructure development based on new technologies, to replace a decaying earlier generation’s infrastructure, results from capital’s technological innovation to the power of labor. And the last Kondratieff wave failed because of the unprecedented defeat of the forces of labor by neoliberalism.
So again, I find Mason’s analysis on the whole to be inferior both to that of Bauwens and that of the Monthly Review group, as a coherent statement of the structural crisis tendencies of late capitalism.
But even if Mason’s analysis of crisis tendencies is less than satisfactory, his general framing has a familiar Marxian ring to it: The technologies and institutions of post-capitalism are unleashing productive forces that cannot be contained within the productive relations of capitalism, and therefore must eventually “burst out of their capitalist integument” and become the basis for a fundamentally new system.
…[T]he technologies we’ve created are not compatible with capitalism — not in its present form and maybe not in any form. Once capitalism can no longer adapt to technological change, postcapitalism becomes necessary. When behaviours and organizations adapted to exploiting technological change appear spontaneously, postcapitalism becomes possible.
By far the best part of the book is Mason’s treatment of the building blocks of the successor society, and their relationship to the old system they are in the process of supplanting. His view of the nature of the technological changes within the capitalist system that doom it to extinction have a lot in common with both the autonomists and Bauwens.
First, information technology has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages.
Second, information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defense mechanism is to form monopolies on a scale not seen in the past 200 years — yet these cannot last.
Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organizations that are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy.
These new social forms amount to a new system arising “within the shell of the old,” that will build a new system within the interstices of capitalism, coalesce and finally supplant it.
Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swathes of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated, and often as a direct result of the shattering of old structures after the 2008 crisis.
New forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new legal contracts: a whole business subculture has emerged over the past ten years, which the media has dubbed the ‘sharing economy’. Buzz-terms such as the ‘commons’ and ‘peer-production’ are thrown around, but few have bothered to ask what this means for capitalism itself.
And the stigmergic, horizontal forms of organization facilitated by networked communications have drastically reduced the transaction costs of coordinating action outside of traditional institutional hierarchy. They have made the central planning of the large corporation as obsolete as the central planning of Gosplan.
Economists like to demonstrate the archaic nature of command planning with mind-games like ‘imagine the Soviet Union tried to create Starbucks’. Now, here’s a more intriguing game: imagine if Amazon, Toyota or Boeing tried to create Wikipedia.
But, much as Bauwens has argued, Mason sees capitalism attempting to prolong its own life by incorporating the new technologies and social relationships into a corporate institutional structure, and enclosing them as a source of rents.
Once you can copy/paste a paragraph, you can do it with a music track, a movie, the design of a turbofan engine and the digital mockup of the factory that will make it.
Once you can copy and paste something, it can be reproduced for free. It has, in economics-speak, a ‘zero marginal cost’.
Info-capitalists have a solution to this: make it legally impossible to copy certain kinds of information….
With info-capitalism, a monopoly is not just some clever tactic to maximize profit. It is the only way an industry can run….
…Only intellectual property law and a small piece of code in the iTunes track prevent everybody on earth from owning every piece of music ever made. Apple’s mission statement, properly expressed, is to prevent the abundance of music.
This applies just as much to control of the physical means of production. When small-scale CNC manufacturing tools fall in price by two orders of magnitude, so that craft production with high-tech, general-purpose tools once again comes within the economic means of individual artisans or small cooperative shops, capitalist ownership of the machinery for profit extraction is replaced by capitalist ownership of the patents.
Mason, in Marxist terms, stresses the contradiction between new productive forces and old social relations of production:
Today, the main contradiction in modern capitalism is between the possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information. That is, everything is pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy.
Like the autonomist Nick Dyer-Witheford (in Cyber Marx), Mason also appeals to Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” as anticipating the destruction of capitalism by “General Intellect.”
In an economy where machines do most of the work, where human labour is really about supervising, mending and designing the machines, the nature of the knowledge locked insie the machines must, he writes, be ‘social’….
In the Fragment on Machines, these two ideas — that the driving force of production is knowledge, and that knowledge stored in machines is social — led Marx to the following conclusions.
First, in a heavily mechanized capitalism, boosting productivity through better knowledge is a much more attractive source of profit than extending the working day, or speeding up labour…. [A] knowledge solution is cheap and limitless.
Second, Marx argued, knowledge-driven capitalism cannot support a price mechanism whereby the value of something is dictated by the value of the inputs needed to produce it. It is impossibly value inputs when they come in the form of social knowledge. Knowledge-driven production tends towards the unlimited creation of wealth, independent of the labour expended. But the normal capitalist system is based on prices determined by input costs, and assumes all inputs come in limited supply.
For Marx, knowledge-based capitalism creates a contradiction — between the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘social relations’. These form ‘the material conditions to blow [capitalism’s] foundation sky-high’. Furthermore, capitalism of this type is forced to develop the intellectual power of the worker. It will tend to reduce working hours…, leaving time for workers to develop artistic and scientific talents outside work, which become essential to the economic iteslf. Finally Marx throws in a new concept, which appears nowhere else — before or after — in his entire writings: ‘the general intellect’. When we measure the development of technology, he writes, we are measuring the extent to which ‘general social knowledge has become a force of production… under the control of the general intellect’….
He imagined socially produced information becoming embodied in machines. He imagined this producing a new dynamic, which destroys the old mechanisms for creating prices and profits. He imagined capitalism being forced to develop the intellectual capacities of the worker. And he imagined information coming to be stored and shared in something called a ‘general intellect’ — which was the mind of everybody on earth connected by social knowledge, in which every upgrade benefits everybody….
Furthermore, he had imagined what the main objective of the working class would be if this world ever existed: freedom from work…. ‘Free time has naturally transformed its possessor into a different subject, and he then enters into the direct production process as this different subject… in whose head exists the accumulated knowledge of society.’
This is possibly the most revolutionary idea Marx ever had: that the reduction of labour to a minimum could produce a kind of human being able to deploy the entire, accumulated knowledge of society; a person transformed by vast quantities of socially produced knowledge and for the first time in history more free time than work time.
And as the autonomists argue, in the contemporary setting this means that the primary form of capital becomes human relationships themselves, coextensive with society at large.
…[T]he knowledge it took to produce the code is still in the programmer’s brain. She can, if market conditions allow, move to a different workplace and execute the same solution, should it be required. With information, part of the product remains with the worker in a way it did not during the industrial era.
It is the same for the tool she’s using: the programming language. It has been developed by tens of thousands of people contributing their knowledge and experience. If she downloads the latest update, it is sure to contain changes based on lessons learned by everyone else using it.
The rapid change in technology is altering the nature of work, blurring the distinction between work and leisure and requiring us to participate in the creation of value across our whole lives, not just in the workplace.
This means that work “is losing its centrality both to exploitation and resistance.” The “sphere beyond work” has become “the primary battleground,” and “[a]ll utopias based on work are finished….” And the autonomist contention that society at large is becoming both the “social factory” and the sphere of struggle has been borne out by the rise of networked social movements like M15, Syntagma and Occupy, and the use of social media as a primary tool of organization by workers in places like China.
In the past twenty years, capitalism has mustered a new social force that will be its gravedigger, just as it assembled the factory proletariat in the nineteenth century. It is 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, pulled a million people on to the streets of Rio and Sao Paolo and now organized mass strikes across northern China.
Mason also eloquently describes the nature of the capitalist economy, in language reminiscent of Thomas Hodgskin, as one in which the capitalist interposes herself between producers and collects a toll on their mutual exchange of labor.
But why, if the real weekly value of my labour is thirty hours of other people’s work, would I ever work sixty hours? The answer is: the labour market is never free. It was created through coercion and is re-created every day by laws, regulations, prohibitions, fines and the fear of unemployment.
Like Bauwens and Holloway, he sees post-capitalism as something emerging primarily through an evolutionary process similar to the emergence of the feudal from the classical political economy and the capitalist from the feudal, rather than the revolutionary models of the twentieth century.
Capitalism… 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 breaks through, reshaping the economy around new values, behaviours and norms. As with feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s demise will be accelerated by external shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being. And it has started.
The socialists of the early twentieth century were absolutely convinced that nothing preliminary was possible within the old system. ‘The socialist system,’ Preobrazhensky once insisted categorically, ‘cannot be built up molecularly within the world of capitalism.’
The most courageous thing an adaptive left could do is to abandon that conviction. It is entirely possible to build the elements of the new system molecularly within the old. In the cooperatives, the credit unions, the peer-networks, the unmanaged enterprises and the parallel, subcultural economies, these elements already exist.
Nevertheless — and here lies the second major shortcoming of this book — Mason also sees the state playing a vital role in managing the transition, certainly to a greater degree than Holloway’s model, or Negri and Hardt’s horizontalist vision. All the individual elements — cooperatives, peer-networks, and the like — will only coalesce into post-capitalism if “we… promote them with regulation just as vigorous as that which capitalism used to drive the peasants off the land or destroy handicraft work in the eighteenth century.” Post-capitalism may offer an “escape route” —
but only if these micro-level projects are nurtured, promoted and protected by a massive change in what governments do.
…Collaborative production, using network technology to produce goods and services that work only when they are free, or shared, defines the route beyond the market system. It will need the state to create the framework….
Mason at least is closer to the autonomists and to Holloway in putting the primary basis on the spontaneous rise of new institutional forms like peer networks, and treating state action as simply a way to run interference for or help along these institutional forms, rather than (as with the Old Left) as an instrumentality for actually creating the new society.
In fact what Mason calls the “wiki-state” is a lot like the “Partner State” that Bauwens advocates. It’s in keeping with a long line of visions that fall under the general heading of (in Comte’s phrase) “replacing the domination of man over man with the administration of things.” The wiki-state, much like the Partner State, is more a support platform than an issuer of commands.
And to give him credit, he at least leaves some rhetorical wiggle room for cooperation with us anarchist types.
What happens to the state? It probably gets less powerful over time — and in the end its functions are assumed by society. I’ve tried to make this a project usable both by people who see states as useful and those who don’t; you could probably model an anarchist version and a statist version and try them out.
Nevertheless I think Mason’s idea of the state’s role, at least in his ideal transition model, has all the faults of Negri’s recent detente with verticalism and his attempt to incorporate at least a partial verticalist element into his thought.
We should ask ourselves what kind of “success” is likely to be achieved by leavening predominantly horizontal movements with a bit of verticalism in the form of electoral movements. Admittedly there’s some superficial plausibility to the idea of supplementing horizontalist movements based on prefigurative politics and counter-institution building, with auxiliary political parties aimed at capturing the state and running political interference for the primary effort of building the new society within the shell of the old, or perhaps helping the transition process along. The problem is that, in practice, such political parties wind up sucking the energy and life out of the counter-institution building effort in civil society, and diverting it instead into parliamentary politics. Or worse yet, when political parties formed out of horizontalist movements actually achieve state power, as with Syriza in Greece, they actually sabotage the efforts of those movements or give away their gains on the ground in order to cut a “realistic” deal with capitalist states.
And I think Mason grossly underestimates the extent to which non-state forces (like non-capitalist market competition, natural resource commons, and direct action in resistance to corporate power by networked activist movements, can weaken and defeat the corporate-state nexus.
Let’s look at some of his specifics. He quotes, with approval, the assessment of John Ashton (former British government special representative on climate change) that “The market left to itself will not reconfigure the energy system and transform the economy within a generation.” Now if by “the market” Ashton and Mason mean, as is usual in mainstream political rhetoric, the “Washington Consensus” or neoliberal capitalist model centered on the cash nexus, they may be right. At least the necessary incentives for reining in carbon emissions will work counter to the structural incentives of neoliberal capitalism.
If, on the other hand, “free market” is used in the libertarian sense of the sum total of voluntary interactions rather than the cash nexus as such, and of a system in which the state does not interfere with voluntary interactions, such a market would entail a vast reduction in the subsidies (both direct and indirect) for energy consumption.
Such a free market would mean the total elimination of all subsidies to long-distance shipping and transportation, the funding of all transportation infrastructure by fees on those who imposed the costs on the system, and an end to eminent domain for the construction or expansion of highways and airports. It would mean an end to neocolonial policies abroad and domestic land use policies aimed at guaranteeing privileged access to natural resources (including fossil fuels) by extractive industries, and replacing such regimes with commons-based resource management on Elinor Ostrom’s model. It would mean an end to all enclosure of vacant and unimproved land and to all absentee landlord rights over arable land traceable to such enclosures, and the restoration of customary peasant and/or indigenous land titles previously taken over for less energy-efficient industrialized cash crop production. It would mean an end to the trillions spent on the imperialist countries’ military and naval forces for keeping shipping choke-points open for container ships and oil tankers, and guaranteeing access to the Persian Gulf and Caspian oil basins.
It would mean an end to the subsidized car culture, subsidized urban freeway systems, cheap fuel from fracking and pipelines on stolen land, and to zoning and regulatory codes that enforce sprawl and monoculture.
It would also mean an end to the role of patents and trademarks in facilitating the outsourcing and offshoring of production to overseas factories, through the enforcement of corporate monopolies on the disposal of products actually manufactured by someone else. And it would mean an end to the role of patents in enforcing planned obsolescence by preventing modular design ecologies with generic, inter-operable spare parts and accessories for entire industries.
In short, a genuine free market would mean the near-total elimination of subsidized waste, a drastic shortening of industrial supply and distribution chains, a relocalization of industry, and a return to mixed-use communities built around walking, bicycling and public transit. In practical terms, that could well mean the reduction of energy use to a fraction of present levels.
Mason also ignores the fundamental facts of Peak Oil, arguing that high energy prices simply create incentives for more production, and that the high valuation of fossil fuel companies means “the market” believes high carbon emissions will continue indefinitely.
Clearly, somewhere, the market as a signalling mechanism has gone wrong.
…[E]ither the global oil and gas companies are really worth much less than their share prices indicate, or nobody believes we’re going to cut our carbon use….
The lesson is: a market-led strategy on climate change is utopian thinking.
Well, no. First of all, the value of global oil and gas companies reflects massive up-front subsidies to unsustainable levels of extraction. The unsustainability of the current energy output bubble is suggested by the rapid dropoff in output from fracking wells after the first year, and the drastic downgrading of previous wild overestimates of energy reserves in places like the Bakken shale formation. It’s also suggested by the fact that low petroleum prices are the result of unsustainable, politically driven increases in short-term output from the dwindling oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, intended to reduce the revenue-producing capabilities of oil reserves held by Venezuela, Russia and ISIS forces in Iraq. EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Investment), the key concept behind Peak Oil, is one of those “gods of the copybook headings” that can’t be overridden by oil company bluster.
Mason actually points to the drastic expansion in fracking and Saudi oil production, without noting the basic geological constraints (the rapid drop-off in fracking output, and the fact that aging Saudi reserves are going offline far faster than new reserves are being found) will only make the energy supply crash that much harder when the short-term rush evaporates.
And second, my long list above of the ways that the state currently intervenes to make consumption of energy either artificially cheap or artificially necessary suggests that existing state intervention in the market is central to carbon emissions and climate change. If anything it’s framing the issue as the existing “market” versus hypothetical state policies to disincentivize energy usage, rather than the real choice between continuing and stopping existing state interventions to encourage energy extraction and use, that really reflects a lack of contact with reality.
Mason proposes a state-guided “Project Zero” for coordinating the post-capitalist transition, with top level aims that include reducing carbon emissions, stabilizing and socializing the finance system, and
Gear technology towards the reduction of necessary work to promote the rapid transition twards an automated economy. Eventually, work becomes voluntarily, basic commodities and public services are free, and economic management becomes primarily an issue of energy and resources, not capital and labour.
We’ve already considered the issue of carbon emissions.
A genuine free market financial system (with the measure of genuineness of the free market being the extent to which it ceases to be capitalist) would mean an end to the role of capitalist banks in lending the circulating medium into existence at interest, and the creation of an abundance-based libertarian currency something like Thomas Greco’s local mutual credit-clearing networks. This is, incidentally, very close to the sort of village mutual credit systems described by David Graeber in Debt, that existed in pre-capitalist Europe.
As for the reduction of necessary work, the crisis of capitalism, combined with new technologies of small-scale local production, is already pointing in that direction. We reached Peak Employment, in terms of work hours per capita, around 2000. Since then the amount of labor necessary to produce a given standard of living has steadily declined, and an ever-growing share of the population is either not employed or works less than forty hours a week.
At the same time, as James O’Connor noted in Accumulation Crisis, the working class responds to cyclical crisis by meeting as many needs through direct production for use in the informal and household economies. And given that we’ve entered a stage of structural rather than cyclical crisis, this tendency is becoming permanent. Charles Sabel and Michel Piore also argued, in The Second Industrial Divide, that capitalist industry emerging from recessions will expand production by shifting as much output as possible from the mass-production center to the craft production periphery, rather than investing in new mass-production capacity. And again, we’re entering a period of systemic crisis in which these shifts become permanent.
The permanent crisis of under-consumption, taken together with permanent unemployment and under-employment and the new affordable technologies for micro-manufacturing in home workshops and garage factories, mean that the working class will increasingly shift to meeting its own needs through production for local use in the social economy. And the fiscal exhaustion, retreat and collap0se of the old state- and employer-based safety nets will create a necessity for self-organized mechanisms (like micro-villages, multi-family co-housing units, extended family compounds, large-scale squats, etc.) for pooling costs, risks and income. The process of Exodus and counter-institution building is apt to be reminiscent of the rise of the free towns and their horizontal institutions for self-governance in the High Middle Ages, as recounted by Kropotkin.
The reference to automation, by the way, sounds too much like Jeremy Rifkin’s vision in The Zero Marginal Cost Society. That vision, based on highly capitalized smart infrastructures like the Internet of Things, is functionally pretty close to cognitive capitalism even if the goals and ownership forms are different. Like Rifkin, Mason places a great deal of emphasis on the continued existence of large-scale production in assembly lines, but completely automated.
And in my opinion this is a sub-optimal approach to achieving a low-work, post-scarcity society. Capitalists typically pursue automation as a strategy of substituting capital for labor for the sake of labor discipline, not of reducing the total need for labor or resource inputs as such. Automation, typically, lends itself to large-scale, high-throughput models like mass production, in order to generate the volume required to pay for the investment in machinery.
Rather than automating production through capital substitution and centrally coordinating distributed production through smart infrastructure, from the standpoint of total labor and raw materials savings it would be far better to pursue a model of relocalized artisan production using high-tech, general-purpose craft machinery. The total reduction in necessary labor achieved by decentralizing production to the point of consumption, adopting a lean, demand-pull distribution model and eliminating subsidized waste and planned obsolescence will far outweigh any that could be achieved by capital-intensive automation.
Rather than an automated assembly line, the most efficient model of production in most cases will be highly sophisticated CNC machine tools in small, self-managed and worker-owned neighborhood shops, with a human being running the CAD/CAM files and putting in the feed stock. And most likely with the human beings in question working a few hours a day and a few days a week, taking frequent breaks or knocking off at a time of their own choosing, in order to putter around the garden or play with their kids, or go off fishing for a few days. In other words, a high-tech version of the life of pre-Enclosure cottagers.
And such a society, in which production was dissolved into the household and social economy, would be a lot closer to Kropotkin’s model of villages in which high-tech manufacturing shops coexisted with intensive horticulture, and the distinctions between town and country and between head and hand work disappeared. Or — if I may — a society in which it would be possible for me “to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening,criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”
Even so, I credit Mason for at least seeing that a post-capitalist society would dissolve many of the distinctions between work and play, and that “the transition to postcapitalism is likely to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks.” I just think a lot more of this process will be taking place at the level of households and neighborhood cooperative shops than in mass production factories linked by smart infrastructure.
A great deal of Mason’s vision of the kind of salutary market incentives that would be created by a wiki-state amount to what would actually be accomplished by a non-capitalist market in which the state simply stopped doing the bad stuff it’s doing right now. The wiki-state, he writes,
could… reshape markets to favour sustainable, collaborative and socially conscious outcomes. If you set the feed-in tariff on solar panels high, people will install them on their roofs. But if you don’t specify they have to come from a factory with high social standards, the panels will get made in China, generating fewer wider social benefits beyond the energy switch.
Mason neglects the extent to which actively promoting the exact opposite of his post-capitalist vision is the main thing the state does right now. Simply ceasing to promote energy consumption, waste, and exploitation — or better yet, ceasing to be able to do them — would have far more of an effect than he imagines.
If anything he goes too far at times in the direction of continuing neoliberal capitalism, as when his advocacy for “clear and progressive” government action on the debts of developing or peripheral countries stops short of simply writing them off. He sees this as untenable because of the likelihood of “deglobalization” when the countries and investors that owned the written-off debt cut off defaulting countries from new investment or locked them out of trading zones. In this regard he sees some structural features of neoliberal capitalism — in particular capitalist credit — as more natural or necessary than I do. As I see it, the vulnerability of developing countries to retaliation in the form of capital flight is the result in large part of their not going far enough in cutting themselves off from the capitalist credit system and the other structural features of neoliberalism.
While global corporations and investors can pull their fictitous money out of a country, the physical assets can’t be moved so easily. All the actual productive assets will remain right where they were before — ideally in the form of worker-occupied and self-managed factories, land reclaimed by peasants, and natural resource commons taken back from extractive industries by local communities. And the function of providing liquidity can be provided by self-organized alternatives without a class of global parasites extracting rent for it. Much or most of the need for capital investment will be overcome simply by abolishing artificial scarcities (i.e. ignoring all copyrights and patents) and encouraging low-cost production technologies.
Rather than a genuinely post-capitalist world with horizontally organized, cooperative or peer-to-peer currency and credit systems, Mason wants to leave all the basic structural features of global capitalist finance and its instruments in place with some nationalization of ownership and Rube Goldberg tinkering with incentive structures. He wants a decades-long process of social engineering, at the end of which “money and credit would have a much smaller role in the economy, but the accounting, clearing and resource mobilization functions currently provided by banks and financial markets would have to exist in a different institutional form.” These functions, even after the end of the transition, would include “complex, liquid markets in tradeable instruments….”
I think the rapid implosion of major portions of monetized production, the growing unenforceability of the artificial property rights by which the prices of naturally free goods are maintained, and the self-organized social economy by which working people themselves respond to the decline in paid employment and the collapse of corporate and state safety nets, will together reduce the role of money and credit in the economy a lot faster than Mason could ever imagine his reformist state doing it.
Likewise, rather than simply ceasing to enforce the “intellectual property” rights that could never exist in the first place without the state, Mason advocates redesigning patents and copyrights to “taper away quickly.”
Mason is keen on cooperatives, but absent intervention by the state to actively foster them by creating an encouraging environment he sees them as struggling and withering on the vine in a larger capitalist system that’s structurally hostile to them. He fails to follow the logic of structural collapse to its own conclusions. After repeatedly describing crisis tendencies that will bring neoliberal capitalism down, time and time again he returns to talking as though neoliberalism were inevitable absent positive state action to restrain it. But it’s the very building blocks of the future society that is emerging from within the interstices of neoliberalism, that are themselves destroying the power of the old society to suppress change.
I fully agree with Mason’s opposition to neoliberal “privatization” of natural resources, utilities and other infrastructures. And I fully agree that “[i]f true public provision of water, energy, housing, transport, healthcare, telecoms infrastructure and eduction was introduced into a neoliberal economy, it would feel like a revolution.”
But far from such “privatization” being some sort of inevitable effect of “the market,” it is in fact a central function of the corporate state. And the solution is for the state to stop doing these things, and for genuinely public (i.e. non-state, commons-based) governance to replace the unholy alliance between business and state. All infrastructures originally created with taxpayer money, or built up with money extracted from ratepayers via monopoly rents, all public hospitals, and all state-owned entities organizing services for the public, need to be mutualized as stakeholder cooperatives controlled by some combination of consumers and service staff. All mineral resources, grazing areas, etc., on government land need to be placed under commons-based management. All land from which peasants have been evicted by neo-feudal landed oligarchs or agribusiness corporations, with the help of the state, needs to be reclaimed by its rightful owners.
These things are not compatible with capitalism or with the cash nexus. But they are fully compatible with markets, broadly understood. In fact the only way they could ever have been replaced by the cash nexus and by corporate rule was by state intervention in the market.
In every case, Mason’s framing is backwards. Instead of intervening to break up monopolies or “forbidding” firms to “set monopoly prices,” the state needs to stop enforcing the subsidies, restraints on competition and fictitious property rights on which monopoly depends for its existence. Instead of intervening to limit energy consumption, it needs to stop subsidizing it. Instead of promoting the building blocks of post-capitalism, it needs to stop suppressing them on behalf of capital.
And to return to my earlier critique of verticalist agendas centering on a “progressive” state, the main problem is that using the state for progressive purposes is just so damned implausible given the nature of the state itself. The state is, by its very nature, an instrument for the rule of a privilege minority of rent extractors over a majority of producers. It has never been anything else, whether under the control of priest-kings, the owners of latifundia run on slave labor, feudal landlords, industrial capitalists or — as in the case of the Soviet bloc — the state bureaucracy itself as a ruling class.
Even when the state is theoretically responsible to the producing classes in society at large, and no matter how formally democratic the representative machinery, it will in fact be subject to what Robert Michels, in Political Parties, called the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Standing bodies and permanent staffs will always have an advantage, in terms of things like inside information, level of interest, and agenda control, over the larger group to which they are theoretically accountable. So long as the principle of representation exists, power will always flow from principal to agent, from elector to representative, from mandator to mandatee.
The only real solution is to structure social and production processes so that as much as possible can be done either in directly democratic nodes, or through stigmergic networks in which all actions are undertaken by interested parties and all decisions to do anything reflect the unanimous consent of everyone choosing to participate.
Conclusion. For all the shortcomings I’ve pointed to, I see Mason’s influence as overwhelmingly positive. First, despite his relative conservatism when it comes to the continuities between postcapitalism and existing models of corporate/financial organization and assembly-line production, he is by no means the neoliberal Trojan horse some critics on the Left make him out to be. He is, on the whole, clearly an anti-capitalist thinker and far closer to the socialistic vision of Negri and Hardt than to capitalist “information society” theorists like Daniel Bell, Alvin and Heidi Toffler and their ilk. And despite his unfortunate affinity for the state, he still sees it as playing a secondary or supportive role, ratifying changes already initiated from below rather than imposing them from above.
So we can safely classify Mason as both anti-capitalist and libertarian — in other words, the kind of thinker we need a lot more of.
Citations to this article:
- Kevin Carson, Artificial Abundance and Artificial Scarcity, P2P Foundation Blog, 2016-02-21