Is There Life After Capitalism?
By Chris NealonJuly 5, 2016
Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason
In the wake of 2008, the possibility that capitalism may be in a permanent decline has started to become acceptable in mainstream economics. But the solutions proposed to address this situation amount to a kind of miserable, eternal life support: Thomas Piketty, for instance, imagines a global tax on wealth as a stay against the stagnation caused by otherwise unsustainable wealth inequality. Larry Summers, meanwhile, advocates engineering increased consumer demand as a way to prolong capital’s old age.
The English journalist Paul Mason’s recent book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, by contrast, dares to imagine where we might go from here. Postcapitalism is built around two basic propositions about how capitalism works. First, Mason suggests, the history of capitalism is best understood as a history of adaptive mutations in which capitalist classes, faced with falling rates of profit, keep finding ways to buoy them back up, if only for a while. “There is,” he claims, “no final crisis of capitalism”:
There can be chaos, panic and revolution, but […] capitalism’s tendency is not to collapse, but rather, to mutate. Huge swaths of capital can be destroyed, business models can be scrapped, empires can be liquidated in global wars, but the system survives — albeit in a different form.
While this emphasis on capital’s adaptiveness may sound pessimistic, Mason’s second proposition is what gives him reason to think we can imagine an imminent end to capital after all. In short, he thinks that we may have arrived at a point where the invention of counterforces to declining profitability can no longer succeed, because information technology and robotization are making it possible to imagine a world without the need for waged labor. “In practice,” he writes,
capitalism escapes the tendency of innovation to shrink the labour content of the economy, and thus shrink the ultimate source of profit, because it creates new needs, new markets and new industries where labour costs are high […]
But information injects a new dynamic. Because with info-tech you can have machines that cost nothing, last forever, and do not break down.
For Mason, in other words, capitalism’s own dynamism — its drive to require less labor — is its Achilles heel, since machines, unlike laborers, are impossible to exploit. They can be worn down, but never underpaid. Mason is aware of the material support required by an information infrastructure — he notes the “acres of air-conditioned server farm space” needed to keep it running — but he is insistent that this is secondary to the rise of information, which he views almost as if it were an evolutionary leap: “The real wonder of information is […] that it eradicates the need for labour on an incalculable scale.”
This wonderstruck observation does raise the question of who will fix the air conditioners in the future. And that question, of course, is a way of asking about the role of class conflict in the transition to a post-capitalist society. Mason’s way of addressing this is to suggest, first, that the neoliberalism designed to revive the stagnated capitalism of the 1970s has run out of geopolitical maneuvering room; second, that information technology taps into far more human creative potential than capital could possibly exploit; and third, that a new generation knows this: “the most highly educated generation in the history of the human race,” he writes, “will not accept a future of high inequality and stagnant growth.”
This is where things get interesting. On the one hand, Mason is quite explicit that he does not imagine a simple, automatic, or necessarily peaceful transition to something beyond capital. He believes in taking crisis and class struggle seriously. On the other hand, he wants to distance himself from a leftist tradition of imagining each new crisis of capitalism as necessarily terminal. He is neither a techno-futurist nor an apocalypticist. Instead, he tries to tell a better story about the history of capitalism than what is available from either the oblivious optimism of mainstream economics or from apocalyptic-messianic strains of Marxism.
Postcapitalism’s solution is an eclectic blend of borrowings from dissident strains in 20th-century Marxist thought. Drawing on the work of Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev, Mason argues that we can usefully break down capitalist history into four-plus roughly 50-year cycles of accumulation, which are centered on a struggle to balance what Marx called the “forces” and the “relations” of production: that is, a struggle to pit technological advances against working-class power so as to maximize profitability without making the working class too poor to reproduce itself. These cycles, Mason suggests, can be intuitively understood as ages of technological development, though that’s only part of the story. The four periods run from the 1790s to 1848 (the era of the rise of factories, steam, and canal transport); from 1848 to the 1890s (the age of the railroad and telegraph); from the late 19th century to 1945 (the birth of mass production, wide use of electricity, and the rise of the “scientific management” of the work process); and from 1945 to the 2008 crisis (the rise of the transistor, mass production for consumers, and plastics). What drives the transition from one cycle to the next is the way the conflict between capitalists and workers reaches a crisis pitch that obliges capitalists to slough off unprofitable enterprise, regroup, and assemble new techniques of accumulation.
This “long wave” approach is supported by a great deal of research among historians of capitalism, though the Soviet state considered it heretical, since it implied that capitalism was capable of potentially endless mutation rather than prone to collapse. (Stalin had Kondratiev murdered in 1938.) What Mason adds is an emphasis on the power of labor to force the hand of capital. This may sound implausible, given that in the two and a half centuries Mason wants to describe, only perhaps 50 years were marked by broad militancy among an identifiable “working class.” But part of Mason’s unorthodox approach is to think of “the forces of labor” (to borrow a useful term from the sociologist Beverly Silver) as broader than just a unionized and militant working class. He is more concerned with what Marx describes as the unexpected social consequences of capitalist labor conditions, called “the general intellect.” With this phrase, Marx suggests that capitalism produces something like a new kind of person, not only the worker, who can sense the possibilities gone to waste in the unleashing of technological progress.
Mason is at his best when he describes the uneven situation of a technologically accelerating and economically stagnating post–2008 world: “we’re living in an age of the network alongside the hierarchy, the slum alongside the web café,” he writes at one point. Elsewhere, he eloquently describes the dark future awaiting us if we keep information technology behind paywalls, and keep the labor market of increasingly needless “bullshit jobs” plodding forward:
Los Angeles and Detroit look like Manila today — abject slums alongside guarded skyscrapers; Stockholm and Copenhagen look like the destroyed cities of the American rust belt; the middle-income job has disappeared.
Despite the vividness of this picture, however, all Mason has to offer as a counterweight is the sheer creativity of young people who “will no longer accept” such futures. He describes the social forces that will drive this youthful, non-class-based rebellion as a “granular, spontaneous micro-process, not a plan.” Postcapitalism is an extraordinary achievement of storytelling, fine-grained and schematic with equal success, critical of early 20th-century Marxism while insisting on the contemporary urgency of Marx’s thought, persuasive in its passion and its intellectual clarity alike. But it founders around the question of the power of education and technology to lead us past the horrors of 20th-century capitalism. On the one hand, Mason knows all too well that post-capitalist stories appeal to a mass readership because they erase or downplay the terrible struggles that have given us the technologies we prize. On the other hand, the concrete suggestions he makes in the book’s final chapter — a universal basic income, nationalizing banks, regulating finance — all leave untouched the problem that what counts as “money” under capital is produced by exploitation. The histories of social struggle Mason is so good at narrating disappear in these bland policy recommendations.
I think Mason would have a thoughtful reply to this criticism, which is that, as a socialist, he is less interested in abolishing money than in tweaking it as part of a long transition to a post-capitalism, in which “money” as we know it would eventually wither away. It is not a revolutionary so much as a gradualist program he’s advocating, and he has said as much. Still, it’s notable that he would pause at the threshold of including not only the technology that’s the product of past struggles, but also present-day social struggle, as the engine of the end of capitalism, given his acute sensitivity to working-class history, especially British working-class history. Postcapitalism is truly moving when Mason describes the working-class culture of his grandmother’s generation, built, he writes, around a “sub-logical and implicit” class consciousness that included not only unions but newspapers, poetry, gatherings at pubs; not only through strikes but through “sayings, songs, sighs, body language and constant acts of micro-solidarity.” But this touching account of the collective becoming of the working class is framed by a harrowing narration of the mass murder of leftist militants across the course of the interwar years, and into the postwar era:
What Orwell called “the flower of the European working class” was crushed. Even if it had only been a question of numbers, this deliberate slaughter of politicized workers […] would have been a turning point in the story of organized labour. But there was a massacre of illusions going on as well.
The “illusions” to which Mason refers here all have to do with the efficacy of working-class militancy in preventing war, and in overthrowing capital rather than peacefully transitioning beyond it. I think his class-based memories — tender memories of the sheer possibilities of “general intellect,” and traumatic ones of its destruction — are what lead Mason, in the name of thoughtful, non-apocalyptic socialism, to abandon the very question of political conflict that produces the technical innovations he thinks can now peacefully usher in a post-capitalist world. Like so many of us, he wants the change to happen without anyone getting hurt.
I am not a romantic about revolutionary violence, but it’s worth noticing that the implicit narrative of Postcapitalism — once there were titanic struggles over capitalist social relations, and now there are innovations springing up that may transform them, without further bloodshed — tends to skip over the ongoing violence required to buttress falling profit rates the world over. Mason passes quickly over the violence along national borders, in maquiladoras and in Foxconn cities, the violence against migrant and casualized workers from the Philippines to Abu Dhabi. And he passes over forms of militant struggle happening right now that would surely form the backbone of any creative-class overthrow of the law of capitalist value. (I’m thinking, for instance, of the First Nations-led fight against pipeline expansion in British Columbia, and of the indigenous resistance to damming in Honduras, which has been met with brutal violence, including two assassinations since March.) People right now — young and not so young, with very few from the creative classes — are pushing back, at terrible risk, against the reproduction of the conditions for capitalist survival, not least its energy infrastructure. No transition past the law of value can happen without these forms of struggle. And someone will still have to fix the air conditioners.
Chris Nealon is chair of the English Department at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of two books of criticism, Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall and The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in The American Century, and three books of poetry: The Joyous Age, Plummet, and Heteronomy. A chapbook, The Victorious Ones, is recently out from Commune Editions. He lives in Washington, DC.
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