Techno-Utopianism, Counterfeit and Real (With Special Regard to Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism)
Download a PDF copy of Kevin Carson’s full C4SS Study: Center for a Stateless Society Paper No. 20 (Spring 2016)
Too often state socialists and verticalists react dismissively to commons-based peer production and other networked, open-source visions of socialism, either failing to see any significant difference between them and the vulgar ’90s dotcom hucksterism of Newt Gingrich, or worse yet seeing them as a Trojan horse for the latter.
There is some superficial similarity in the rhetoric and symbols used by those respective movements. But in their essence they are very different indeed.
I. Capitalist Techno-Utopianism from Daniel Bell On
According to Nick Dyer-Witheford, capitalist techno-utopianism is “the immediate descendant of a concept of the late 1960s — postindustrial society.” And post-industrial society, in turn, was an outgrowth of Daniel Bell’s earlier “end of ideology” thesis.
Postwar affluence, the institutionalization of collective bargaining, and the welfare state had banished the class conflicts of an earlier era from the scene. [Western industrial] societies presented the successful socioeconomic model toward which other experiments, including those in the “underdeveloped” and “socialist” world, would gradually converge. This was the condition of the “end of ideology” — which meant, in general, an end of alternatives to liberal capitalism…. 
According to Bell, post-industrialism meant that knowledge would become “society’s central wealth-producing resource.” This change would bring with it a shift from heavy manufacturing to the tertiary economy of services and from “manual labor to the preeminence of professional and technical work,” meaning that the dominant figures would be
scientists, engineers, and administrators, a new “knowledge class” lodged primarily within government and academia, bearers of the rationalist skills and virtues required by increasing organizational and technological complexity. Bell argue that the endeavors of this new class could create an epoch of rationalized integration and prosperity, which… would finally escape from the material want, economic crisis, and class conflict of the industrial era. 
Knowledge would “replace both labor and capital as the main factor of production,” with the conflict between workers and capitalist being transcended by an emerging new class of professionals, “based on knowledge rather than property.”
Capital will be transformed by technical and administrative experts, abandoning fixation with profit, becoming more socially responsible, and giving “moral issues” equal priority with balance sheets. Labor too will be transfigured. Technological development will raise living standards, automate manual toil, and thereby liquidate Marx’s subject of history — the immiserated industrial proletariat. 
The primary enemy of this emerging technocratic utopia was radical politics.
Rational progress — embodied in the technocratic state and its knowledge elite — is under siege by the irrational protest by the New Left, student revolt, affirmative action groups, and an “adversary culture.” Only if the pilotage of society is entrusted to the cadres of technical experts, scientists, engineers, and administrators will chaos be avoided and the dawning era safely ushered in. 
But in fact all these beliefs could be attributed almost verbatim to the ideologists of the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century. Progressivism had its origins as the ideology of the managerial and professional stratum which ran the new, large institutions (corporations, regulatory agencies, universities, large municipal governments, public school systems and foundations) that sprang up to dominate society in the late 19th century.
The first corporate managers came from an industrial engineering background. They saw the corporation — as well as other large organizations — as something to be rationalized the same way engineers on the factory floor rationalized the production process. According to Rakesh Khurana they sought to apply the engineer’s approach of standardizing and rationalizing tools, processes and systems to rationalizing the organization. 
And as time passed and the kinds of organizations they headed came to be the hegemonic norm that characterized the larger society, they came to view outside society as a whole as something to be organized and managed by the same scientific principles that governed the large organization. Yehouda Shenhav described, in Manufacturing Rationality: The Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution, the transfer of mechanical and industrial engineers’ understanding of production processes to the management of organizations, and of the managers’ understanding of organizations to society as a whole. 
Since the difference between the physical, social, and human realms was blurred by acts of translation, society itself was conceptualized and treated as a technical system. As such, society and organizations could, and should, be engineered as machines that are constantly being perfected. Hence, the management of organizations (and society at large) was seen to fall within the province of engineers. Social, cultural, and political issues… could be framed and analyzed as “systems” and “subsystems” to be solved by technical means. 
Probably the most important feature of Progressivism, and its closest point of intersection with liberal post-industrialism, was its focus on the application of disinterested expertise as transcending politics and class conflict. Of course it’s no coincidence this was the heyday of Taylorist “scientific management,” whose purpose was to suppress labor conflict on the shop floor by substituting the manager’s and engineer’s expertise for the skilled worker’s direction of the work process. And according to Shenhav
[l]abor unrest and other political disagreements of the period were treated by mechanical engineers as simply a particular case of machine uncertainty to be dealt with in much the same manner as they had so successfully dealt with technical uncertainty. Whatever disrupted the smooth running of the organizational machine was viewed and constructed as a problem of uncertainty. 
Christopher Lasch argued that for the new managerial class
conflict itself, rather than injustice or inequality, was the evil to be eradicated. Accordingly, they proposed to reform society… by means of social engineering on the part of disinterested experts who could see the problem whole and who could see it essentially as a problem of resources… the proper application and conservation of which were the work of enlightened administration. 
Going back to Shenhav, “American management theory was presented as a scientific technique administered for the good of society as a whole without relation to politics.”  Taylor saw bureaucracy as “a solution to ideological cleavages, as an engineering remedy to the war between the classes.”  At the level of state policy, the Progressives’ professionalized approach to politics was “perceived to be objective and rational, above the give-and-take of political conflict.” It reflected “a pragmatic culture in which conflicts were diffused and ideological differences resolved.”  Both Progressives and industrial engineers “were horrified at the possibility of ‘class warfare'” and saw “efficiency” as a means to “social harmony, making each workman’s interest the same as that of his employers.” 
The end of ideology and post-industrialism exemplified all these earlier qualities of Progressivism in full measure. And so, equally, have all the various strands of capitalist techno-utopianism that have emerged from the 1990s on.
Bell’s post-industrialist thesis intersected, in the 1970s, with the rise of networked digital communications and the personal computer revolution. The result was a new wave of techno-utopian literature exemplified by Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and John Naisbett’s Megatrends.
Exponents of this model have used exuberantly optimistic, “revolutionary” or utopian rhetoric about the nature of the social transformations that can be expected.
The undesirable features of industrial society — meaningless work, huge impersonal organizations, rigid routines and hierarchies, anonymous and alienating urban existences — are seen dissolving. In their place the information age holds out the hope of diversification, localism, flexibility, creativity, and equality. Promises include the computer-aided recovery of craft skills and artisanal traditions…; the revivication of domestic life in an electronic cottage; the participatory democracy of electronic town halls; and a historically unprecedented diffusion of every sort of knowledge — “all information in all places at all times.” 
The liberal capitalist variant of information age utopianism is distinguished — like its Progressive and post-industrial antecedents — by its hand-waving away of class antagonism. The transition to Third Wave information capitalism will be peaceful. It will be positive-sum and benefit everybody, rendering the old class struggles irrelevant. 
But the class struggles remain very much real — only under post-industrialism they center on the ownership, not of land or physical capital, but of knowledge. Dyer-Witheford’s reference above to knowledge as a “wealth-creating resource” is central to the real nature of capitalist techno-utopianism.
“The generation of wealth increasingly depends on an ‘information economy’ in which the exchange and manipulation of symbolic data matches exceeds, or subsumes the importance of material processing.” 
As Manuel Castells summed up the post-industrial thesis:
- The source of productivity and growth lies in the generation of knowledge, extended to all realms of economic activity through information processing.
- Economic activity would shift from goods production to services delivery….
- The new economy would increase the importance of occupations with a high informational and knowledge content in their activity. Managerial, professional, and technical occupations would grow faster than any other occupational position and would constitute the core of the new social structure. 
Toffler described it as a “new system of accelerated wealth creation” based on “the exchange of data, information and knowledge.” Land and labor are less important than the knowledge that can find substitutes for them. 
The same principle resurfaces in one of the most recent iterations of post-industrialism, Paul Romer’s “New Growth Theory.” The main source of growth is not simply adding inputs of material resources or labor, which are finite, but developing better ideas — which can be imitated without limit — on how to use the same amount of resources and labor in more effective ways. 
The problem is that, absent coercion, the natural result of ephemeralization — the use of knowledge to reduce the material inputs required for production — is deflation. The only way to transform this improved efficiency into wealth — money wealth — is prevent competition from diffusing the benefits and making things cheaper for everybody.
Knowledge can only be a wealth-creating resource — or capital — if it is owned. It can function as a source of rents only if it is enclosed, if access to it is restricted, if tribute can be demanded for allowing such access.
It’s no coincidence that the most fervent enthusiasts of the “Information Superhighway” in the ’90s, were also strident advocates of draconian “intellectual property” laws and subsidies to the telecom industry. Newt Gingrich’s Progress and Freedom Foundation issued a pamphlet called “Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” whose agenda included proposals that sounded remarkably like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Telecommunications Act.
And it’s likewise no coincidence that Romer’s model of growth relies heavily on “intellectual property” for monetizing the increased productivity as rents to investors rather than allowing it to deflate prices for consumers.
Romer: …When we speak of institutions, economists mean more than just organizations. We mean conventions, even rules, about how things are done. The understanding which most sharply distinguishes science from the market has to do with property rights. In the market, the fundamental institution is the notion of private ownership, that an individual owns a piece of land or a body of water or a barrel of oil and that individual has almost unlimited scope to decide how that resource should be used.
In science we have a very different ethic. When somebody discovers something like the quadratic formula or the Pythagorean theorem, the convention in science is that he can’t control that idea. He has to give it away. He publishes it. What’s rewarded in science is dissemination of ideas. And the way we reward it is we give the most prestige and respect to those people who first publish an idea.
reason: Yet there is a mechanism in the market called patents and copyright, for quasi-property rights in ideas.
Romer: That’s central to the theory. To the extent that you’re using the market system to refine and bring ideas into practical application, we have to create some kind of control over the idea. That could be through patents. It could be through copyright. It might even be through secrecy…. 
Although Romer classifies “intellectual property” as an “institution of the market,” it is in fact no such thing (except perhaps insofar as it’s an institution that enables people to charge money for something on the “market,” in the sense of the cash nexus, that would otherwise be naturally free). The fact that he distinguishes IP, as an “institution of the market,” from “institutions of science” like free sharing of knowledge, is an admission that for him the “market” is not simply the realm of voluntary interaction but the cash nexus as such. “Intellectual property” is an artificial creation of the state. Romer — again — implicitly admits as much, arguing that the natural functioning of the market price-setting mechanism, under which price tends towards marginal production cost, is inadequate to pay back the original outlays for R&D.  In fact he explicitly argues for the superiority of monopoly pricing over market competition for some purposes.
There was an old, simplistic notion that monopoly was always bad. It was based on the realm of objects — if you only have objects and you see somebody whose cost is significantly lower than their price, it would be a good idea to break up the monopoly and get competition to reign freely. So in the realm of things, of physical objects, there is a theoretical justification for why you should never tolerate monopoly. But in the realm of ideas, you have to have some degree of monopoly power. There are some very important benefits from monopoly, and there are some potential costs as well. What you have to do is weigh the costs against the benefits. 
Romer’s model is essentially Schumpeterian, in the sense that Schumpeter regarded the market power of the monopoly corporation as “progressive” because it enabled it to charge a price above marginal cost in order to subsidize innovation. Hence Romer’s Schumpeterian schema precludes price-taking behavior in a competitive market; rather, it presupposes some form of market power (“monopolistic competition”) by which firms can set prices to cover average costs. Romer argues that his model of economic growth based on innovation is incompatible with price-taking behavior. A firm that invested significant sums in innovation, but sold only at marginal cost, could not survive as a price-taker. It is necessary, therefore, that the benefits of innovation — even though non-rival by their nature — be at least partially excludable through “intellectual property” law. 
And cognitive capitalism and Romer’s “new growth theory” are implicit in all the models of “progressive capitalism,” “green capitalism” and the like that we hear from Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Bono and their ilk. …
[Read the rest of Carson’s Study via PDF] Center for a Stateless Society Paper No. 20 (Spring 2016)
1. Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999). pp. 16-17.
2. Ibid., pp. 17-18.
3. Ibid., p. 19.
4. Ibid., p. 19.
5. Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 56.
6. Yehouda Shenhav, Manufacturing Rationality: The Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
7. Ibid., p. 74.
8. Ibid., p. 174.
9. Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America (1889-1963): The Intellectual as a Social Type (New York: Vintage Books, 1965 ), p. 162.
10. Shenhav, p. 5.
11. Ibid., p. 8.
12. Ibid., p. 35.
13. Ibid., p. 96.
14. Dyer-Witheford, p. 25.
15. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
16. Ibid., p. 24.
17. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Blackwell Publishers, 1996), pp. 203-204.
18. Dyer-Witheford, p. 24.
19. Ronald Bailey, “Post-Scarcity Prophet: Economist Paul Romer on growth, technological change, and an unlimited human future” Reason, December 2001 <http://reason.com/archives/2001/12/01/post-scarcity-prophet/>.
23. Paul M. Romer, “Endogenous Technological Change” (December 1989). NBER Working Paper No. W3210.
Citations to this article:
- Kevin Carson, Techno-Utopianism, Counterfeit and Real (With Special Regard to Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism), P2P Foundation Blog, 2015-03-04