Paul Mason‘s imminent book ‘Postcapitalism’ is plugged this weekend in the Guardian with an extended essay on the subject. Accompanied by some excellent graphics, some of which I’ve reproduced here, the broad thesis is that capitalism as we know it is ending, and that we are moving into a ‘sharing economy’, but at its heart is a Marxist argument about information and power. Mason goes so far as to argue that the changes we are witnessing herald the arrival of a new kind of human being, a sort of cocktail of Marxist proletarianism, social Darwinism, and Kurzweilian posthumanism.
Mason describes the new dispensation as ‘cognitive capitalism’, which is a variant of classical capitalism that acknowledges the new and intangible value of data and information. He quotes a SAS Institute paper (possibly this one) from 2013 that claimed that ‘…in order to put a value on data, neither the cost of gathering it, nor the market value of the future income from it could be adequately calculated.’ The dynamics of this new economy are therefore, Mason argues, ‘profoundly non-capitalist.’
He proceeds to Marx, and in particular to Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines‘ wherein, all of a century-and-a-half ago, Marx theorised beyond the limitations of the technology of the day, towards a point where machines produced things under the supervision of ‘workers’. In Marxist terms, the crux of this statement is that the workers aren’t producing anything, they’re not really ‘workers’ in the labour sense of the word. In such an economy, the main productive force would be information, he argued. And that, Marx argued, would undermine capitalism fundamentally.
The transition to post-capitalism will involve the state, the market, and collaborative production beyond the market, Mason says. Individuals and small communities, empowered by technology, will become new agents of change. He also brings in the other grand challenges, as they cannot be ignored – climate change, demographics and migration, and ‘fiscal time bombs’ (the last of which appears to me to be somewhat insignificant in the face of a system collapse!) Providing a contemporary context for considering this imminent change, he spends a lot of time on Greece, and how the Greek people are getting on with life (‘collaborative production’ examples) and working around austerity and other inconveniences.
Mason’s argument seems to focus on the conditions for change (austerity, inequality etc.), and the tools for change (technology, information technology, big data) rather than the politics or even the economics of change. Not that this is a bad thing – his conflation of some major themes is fantastic, in particular modern information technology and Marxist capitalist thought. The politics and economics of change need to be considered in order to inform the transition; the transition itself may indeed define the next phase, whatever that may be. Mason’s invitation to ‘be utopian’ may well echo the bourgeoise in 1789 Paris, only to be dashed by the Terror, and a transition that perhaps didn’t take France, and Europe, as far as once had been hoped.
The market is more powerful now than ever before, and the interests of multi-national corporations is sure to have a profound influence. The most idealistic mega-political projects in the world today are deeply driven by corporate interests – witness the machinations of the banking sector in Europe, and the corruption and excess in China. The State itself is now a market player, a market entity in many cases. Bobbitt’s concept of the post-national Market State deserves mention.
Ultimately, the question must not be what it is not – postcapitalism merely means that what we have now, capitalism, is ending – but what it is to become. I will read his book with interest when it comes out in a couple of weeks. He is a thoughtful journalist, and a thinker with a varied background – an excellent combination.