The long wave goodbye: a review of Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism

Protest_against_ACTA_-_2012-01-28_-_Toulouse_-_L'information_veut_être_libre‘This book makes no claim to be a “theory of everything”’ wrote Paul Mason at the start of Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, his 2012 investigation of the many protest movements to have emerged in the wake of the global debt crisis. Written in the heat of the historical moment, that book was indeed more reportage than economic analysis, its author drawing on his wide experience as a journalist for the BBC and Channel 4; but one could sense the ambition at the heart of the project. ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near-collapse of free-market capitalism,’ its author declared on the very next page, ‘combined with an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in human consciousness about what freedom means.’

Mason’s new book, Postcapitalism, is an attempt to anatomise that ‘revolution’ in a sober, though never passionless, way. Massive in its scope and magnificent in its ambition, it suggests that we are in a stalled transition to a new and utterly different form of human organisation and political economy. As with the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it will not fall to any single movement, or even combination of movements, to bring this new world into being; progress towards it will be patchy and chaotic, punctuated by shocks but epochally slow. But we are now at the stage where its lineaments can be glimpsed. A new system is growing – palpably – in the belly of the one we have.

Mason’s central idea, elegant in its simplicity, is that abundant information technology presents capitalism with a major problem: the problem of how to make money out of it. Information wants to be free, as the techno-activists like to say, and our modern machines allow it to be so. Open-collaboration tools such as Linux, Mozilla and Wikipedia are only the most conspicuous signs of a more general trend towards reproducibility, whereby people can simply take and share. The problem for capitalism is that taking and sharing doesn’t butter any parsnips, let alone polish any Porches. ‘Once you can copy and paste something,’ writes Mason, ‘it can be reproduced for free. It has, in economics-speak, a “zero marginal cost”.’ So capitalism is driven back more and more onto rent-seeking models, attempting to capture ‘intellectual property’ in a way that restricts public access to it. That episode 2 of Game of Thrones was illegally downloaded 1.5 million times in the 24 hours after becoming available – to take one of Mason’s more trivial examples – would suggest that it has a rough road ahead of it.

For Mason, then, info-capitalism is unsustainable – a city built on sand, like Dubai. As he painstakingly demonstrates (like a good mathematician, he shows his working out) none of the old sums work any more. The labour theory of value, marginal utility, the interplay of supply and demand – none of these models will tell you why, say, The Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ is $2.19 on iTunes. What does explain it is that fact that Apple owns what we might call the means of transmission: a pretty brutal business model, but the only one available to it. ‘With info-capitalism,’ Mason writes, ‘a monopoly is not some clever tactic to maximise profit. It is the only way an industry can run.’ The info-capitalist has just one option: to grab the ‘externalities’ – the value implicit in the new technology – and bar them from universal use. But the externalities are, to repeat, proving very difficult to grab.

Mason is drawing partly here on Karl Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’, an under-utilised section of Grundrisse which suggests that once knowledge becomes a productive force in its own right – more important than the labour that goes into actually making a product – the question of who controls it has the potential to replace the struggle between profits and wages as the crucial driver of economic conflict. But his more general theoretical framework comes not from Marx but from Nikolai Kondratieff, an early twentieth-century economist and the founder of so-called long wave theory. Kondratieff’s main ideas are that capitalism moves through 40-60 year ‘cycles’ consisting of alternating periods of high and low growth; that it tries to solve its crises by pressing down on wages; and that this strategy invariably brings it into conflict with the people whose wages are being pressed down on, at which point it is more or less forced to adopt what Mason calls a ‘high-value synthesis’ combining higher value work, higher wages and higher cost consumer goods. Thus one form of capitalism succeeds another, and so on and so forth, through cycle after cycle …

Except this time it’s different, according to Mason. Why? Because neoliberalism – the kind of capitalism we have at the moment – has aggressively eroded working-class power through off-shoring, anti-union legislation, financialisation and all the rest of it. There is thus no pressure on it to reform itself, and nowhere for it to go to even if it wanted to. In the past, the capitalist would have looked to the colonies for new markets to exploit or consumers to sell to. More recently, he would have looked to ‘lifestyle’ activities, transforming non-market activities (such as leisure) into market ones, blurring the line between consumer and product. But now no such opportunity presents itself: hence the rent-seeking and the creation of new monopolies. Meanwhile, with no high-value synthesis in prospect, capitalism tries to solve its problems with austerity and brute economic force, as a range of powerful ‘outside shocks’ – energy depletion, climate change, an ageing population, mass migration – make all the old arguments for ‘market solutions’ sound utopian and delusional.

The good news is that because information is social the advances in it will be social too. Mason foresees a situation in which the new technology, combined with widespread automation, could bring a world of abundant wealth and minimal work within humankind’s reach. But such a world will have to be fought for, and the question arises of who, precisely, the historical agent in this process will be. Who is the equivalent of the knight in feudalism or the bourgeois in capitalism? And what will be the organising idea around which the new society is based? If feudalism was based around law and obligation and capitalism around the marketplace, what principle will define postcapitalism?

Mason’s answer, not entirely satisfactory, is that postcapitalism will be based on human liberation and that its agent will be the ‘universally educated person’, by which he means the intellectually liberated, connected, wised-up individual that will emerge, and is emerging already, from the new world of abundant information. However, this essentially utopian vision doesn’t quite meet the current challenge of stagnation, inequality, debt, climate change, migration etc. – all of which are extremely urgent: not on the horizon, but upon us, now. Mason has a range of recommendations as to how we might bring postcapitalism closer; but he is never, it seems, quite able to decide whether its realisation will be the work of activists nibbling away at the system from the inside or whether it will require a more ‘statist’ solution. On the one hand he urges us all to exploit ‘a granular, spontaneous micro-process’ and on the other ‘to use governmental power in a radically disruptive way’. But as long as those who can exploit ‘a granular, spontaneous micro-process’ (and who have the motivation to do so, as opposed to just getting bought up by Google) remain politically marginal, where does the pressure on government come from? The contradiction Mason has identified is certainly a real one. But capitalism still has a way to go yet, and my strong sense is that Mason has missed a stage – that a major crisis will intervene well before the ‘universally educated person’ and her peers have got their act together.

Mason’s subtitle, then, is overambitious. ‘Postcapitalism’ does not define the future; it is a place-holding term for an unknowable one. Description, not prediction, is Mason’s strength, and the principal value of this admirable book lies in the way it maps the terrain over which the future battles will be fought. It’s still not a ‘theory of everything’; but it’s as close as we’re going to get for now.

Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
Allen Lane; $50; 368pp

  • First published in The Weekend Australian.