Postcapitalism and the precariat

Is Marx’s “Fragment of Machines” a prophecy coming true? Niki Seth-Smith reviews Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism”.


The film Mad Max: Fury Road was praised this year as “radically visionary”, something more than a 373 million dollar grossing action film. It hit a nerve, I think, not because it’s a dystopian fable, but because it’s a post-capitalist one. It plays, of course, on our fear of ecological disaster and breakdown into brutal tribe life, but look at its proposed escape. As a lieutenant under the tyrant Immortan Joe, the real protagonist of the film, Furiosa, dreams of leaving the hellish Citadel and finding the pre-crisis world of her childhood. Yet this dream of return proves impossible. She must re-return, back to the Citadel, and realize that she was living in an artificial hell, driven by man-made scarcity. Joe has all the water. He keeps his subjects thirsty as a means of social control. Abundance, he says, is bad for you.

Our collective unconscious – and Hollywood has always been a channel for that – knows that we are living in a world of possible abundance, prevented by the desperate rent-seeking behavior of late capitalism. Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism is such an important intervention not only because it attempts a theoretical framework for this reality, but also, crucially, because it identifies a new source of political agency. He’s proposing not only that the Citadel must be seized, but a theory of who will do the seizing.

In his Telegraph review, Liam Halligan is spooked by Mason’s vision of a world in which “IT means fewer jobs”. This is too pessimistic, he writes. In fact, IT is making capitalism “more efficient”. This encapsulates the paradoxical logic that defenders of late capitalism are today forced to take. Efficiency is good, yet not the obvious result: a decrease in necessary labour hours needed for production and distribution, prices dropping towards zero. No wonder the proliferation of what David Graeber has called ‘bullshit jobs’. No wonder the drop-off in productivity. Technological progress has outpaced capitalism’s ability to adapt. Gillian Tett argues in the Financial Times that Mason has not accounted for “the fact that technology is currently turning many workers into the equivalent of insecure digital sharecroppers, rather than collaborative creative spirits.” She mentions Uber as an example. But Uber, Air B’n’B, or whatever the latest innovation of the commercialized ‘sharing economy’ happens to be, is beside the point. These represent the ‘push back’, the attempt to re-monetize the social wealth of the commons, the innumerable networks of cooperation and reciprocity that the digital age allows. Uber is not an example of Postcapitalism in action, it is at the frontier of the fight to re-capture the commons back into the old system of profit.

We do not kiss each other for free.

In William Davies’ recent book “The Happiness Industry” he outlines how far this frontier may be pushed. Mason hints at this with his striking metaphor, that 21st century capitalists “would have to treat people kissing each other for free the way they treated poachers in the 19th century”. Davies’ book shows that, in many ways, they already do: the colonization of our emotional life as a conscious aim of industry has a long history, stretching back at least to the Enlightenment. The rapid advance of technological progress has merely accelerated, at an alarming rate, the reach and depth of this drive: just look at today’s beauty, fashion and dating industry and their interaction with social media and how we build our relationships online. We do not kiss each other for free.

This gets to the heart of my objection to Mason’s book. His economic analysis is sound. His projections for the future, were the world not to undergo a radical system change, are disturbingly plausible. My query is with his new political subject. In other words: who is our Furiosa?

The long waves of capitalism

Let’s look at the economics first. By applying Marx to Kondratieff’s long wave theory, Mason gives an answer to the ‘end of history’ question far more believable than the now ludicrous faith in the triumph of neoliberalism. We feel stuck, he says, because we are. In Kondratieff’s theory, capitalism has a rhythm: there are waves of upswings and downswings that should last approximately 50 years. In Mason’s theory, we are today stuck in the fourth wave, which should have ended with the economical upheaval and power struggles of the late ‘70s. Organised labour should have successfully resisted the lowering of wages, so forcing capitalists to innovate themselves out of the crisis: “working-class resistance can be technologically progressive… it forces the new paradigm to emerge on a higher plane of productivity and consumption”. But class struggle failed to fulfill that role. Instead, in the ‘80s, capitalists were able to slash wages in the centres of global capitalism like the UK and the US, go for low-value production, and mask the unsustainability of an undead economic model with a huge wave of financialisation. The long-wave pattern was disrupted. That’s because, Mason believes, we are now at the end of the capitalist era.

Whether or not we accept Mason’s interpretation of Kondratieff, the idea that we are in the midst of capitalism’s long goodbye, living under an incoherent system on constant life support, has understandably gained traction since the 2008 crash. Mason’s theory also makes sense of the peculiar feeling that ‘nothing feels new’ when it comes to anti-capitalist imaginaries. “Reappropriate free time!” “Never Work!” “Luxury is not a luxury!” “What do we want? Everything!” The slogans of the ‘70s – these are from the Situationist International and Italy’s Autonomia movement – still sound urgent and fresh today. Perhaps that’s because their vision of the future was left hanging, unfulfilled. Postcapitalism suggests that now, thirty years on, their time has finally come. Mason credits Aaron Bastani who, as co-founder of the left platform Novara media, has helped to popularize and theorize the idea of FALC, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. But the basic premise is not new and can be traced back, as Mason shows, to Marx and his obscure pamphlet, “Fragment on Machines”. By candlelight, in 1858, Marx imagined an economy where the main productive force is information, where this information is ‘social’, and that this would tend towards the unlimited creation of wealth. 

It seems obvious to us now that the internet is fast becoming a machine through which we can access the entire, accumulated knowledge of society. Mason, channeling Marx, uses the word ‘deploy’. ‘Deploy’ is about human capability.

Marx also predicted that the big question would change from ‘wages versus profits’ to the ‘power of knowledge.’ With the Internet of Things due to increase the informational component of even our remaining ‘concrete’ objects, we are living increasingly in this vision of a knowledge economy. And, as we all know, information wants to be free. Or does it? In his book “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free”, Cory Doctorow argues that technology doesn’t want anything: it is people who are heading towards their own liberation. Mason, like Doctorow, is not a techno-determinist. His faith is not in technology. It is in people. Or more accurately, in ‘a new kind of person’.

So who is this new subjectivity? Talking about Fragment on Machines, Mason says: “This is possibly the most revolutionary idea he [Marx] ever had: that the reduction of labour to a minimum could produce a new kind of human being able to deploy the entire, accumulated knowledge of society…”  This is not a claim about ‘access’. It seems obvious to us now that the internet is fast becoming a machine through which we can access the entire, accumulated knowledge of society. Mason, channeling Marx, uses the word ‘deploy’. ‘Deploy’ is about human capability.

WTF is Eleni Haifa?

Mason has written an essay that sheds light on this. It is published on the Verso website and under-read, mistakenly framed as merely a ‘literary’ observation. It attempts to do what Virginia Woolf did when she proclaimed that “on or about December 1910 human character changed”.  To illustrate this, Woolf had unleashed her powers to describe the modern character onto an ordinary elderly woman on a train. She was called Mrs Brown. Mason’s ‘Mrs Brown’ is ‘Eleni Haifa’, a 22 year old of indeterminate ethnicity, carrying two iPhones, who Mason spots on a Richmond train. Her name is a fiction, compiled from “the badge of the last barista who served you coffee, combined with the place you last saw a riot on TV news.” The fictionalised Haifa puts us in mind of real-life Jessica Riches (@littlemisswilde), who appears in Mason’s 2012 book ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere’. Riches is a twitter addicted UCL student who is politicized by the 2011-2012 student movement. Kate Webb, in her review of the book, commented that the “public school educated” “chick lit reading” Riches seemed at first a strange choice, but perhaps appeared in ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere’ precisely because she is politically unformed or “culturally un-imprinted”, as Webb puts it. Haifa is also “not a revolutionary” but “could be”. Haifa and Riches are symbols for Mason of the new kind of person ‘under development’.

In other words, the driver of change is no longer the working class. There is a new political agent on the scene, one with ‘multiple economic selves’. Surely this is a description of the modern, precarious worker, the freelancer or struggling creative, juggling side projects with low-wage work?  In “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class”, Guy Standing describes this new class as wanting “control over life, a revival of social solidarity and a sustainable autonomy, while rejecting old labourist forms of security and state paternalism”. Surely we can place Jessica Riches and ‘Eleni Haifa’ in this group?  Yet Mason suggests this as a more fundamental shift than that described by Standing. Even Standing’s ‘salariat’ can be ‘the new kind of person’. In fact, the final pages of ‘Postcapitalism’ suggest that it is only the uber-rich who are “excluded from this great experiment in social communication”. Don’t be distracted by the scathing descriptions of the anxious, body-guarded, lipo-suctioned rich, sporting their identikit Ivy League sweatshirts. Mason genuinely pities American CEOs, because they don’t have real Twitter accounts. Locked in the model of the tired old subjectivity, the 1 per cent lose their human right to be part of the future.

The driver of change is no longer the working class. There is a new political agent on the scene, one with ‘multiple economic selves’.

Mason may be onto something. But it should be acknowledged that his theory is predicated on a premise that is just as philosophical, psychological and bio-political as it is economic. These categories, as we’ve seen, have collapsed in on themselves. Yet that’s not how Postcapitalism, or the rest of Mason’s work, is framed. When you’re on this territory, it is not enough to point to what happened with the London riots, the Arab Spring, or the indignados. As Mason says himself, in the late ‘70s there was a problem of agency: organized labour wasn’t able to push us out of the fourth long cycle and into an adaptation phase. What’s to say the agency is there now? It’s true that the gap between humanity’s technological capabilities, and their fruits, is widening. It’s becoming ever harder to ignore that the ‘success stories’ of late capitalism, like Apple and Google, exist predominantly to restrict, not enable, the flow of goods. Google, through its carefully managed relationship to Open Source, is better at understanding the power dynamics of this gatekeeper role, but essentially it too is an Immortan Joe, profiting from control over a potentially abundant resource. Mason points out that the scale of the shifts due to hit in a matter of decades – ageing demographics and climate change being the most seismic and potentially catastrophic – will bring about, all too literally, a ‘do or die’ scenario for moving beyond capitalism. But we have seen humanity’s peculiar talent for failing to act in its own interests.

Perhaps it is not enough for ‘the new kind of person’ to be adaptable, creative, social, and possess multiple economic selves, in order for them to deploy “the entire accumulated knowledge of society” and thus act in the collective interest of humankind. It’s not enough to own two iPhones. When Marx imagined greater liberation due to more free time, he could not have conceived of the everyday reality of a zero contract barista, or a contracted PR rep, ready to slip on the work mask every hour of every day. It’s decades since Antonio Negri started writing about ‘cognitive capitalism’ and its means of control within the ‘social factory’. With Michael Hardt in their Empire series, Negri has carried on to develop the idea of the ‘multitude’ as the agency that will move us beyond capitalism. The idea has been critiqued for its vagueness. Alain Badiou called it “a dreamy hallucination”. Yet don’t their ideas map onto Mason’s when they say in Commonwealth: “‘Today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living” and that “there is a breach in the social relation of capital opening the possibility for biopolitical labour to claim its autonomy; the foundations of its exodus are given in the existence and constant creation of the common…”? 

Not just an economic transition

What Mason proposes in his Project Zero makes sense as steps towards a post-capitalist economy. Suppress monopolies and socialize the finance system, he says. Reward innovation not rent-seeking behaviour, and institute a basic income scheme. Do this by pressure from below, including the setting up of more collaborative business models, as well as an expansion of non-market networks of sharing and collaboration. At the same time, seize control of the state apparatus, and reshape it to nurture these new economic forms (eventually the state would make itself redundant). Use the immense amounts of data now available to do what the Soviet Union’s State Planning Committee could never do: reliably simulate the present and guide the future of a complex economy. There is not one answer, but many: use new forms of democracy to channel the wisdom of crowds, our ‘collective genius’.

Yet Mason accepts that the pathway to post-capitalism is not (only) an economic transition. It is a “human transition”. His first principle is telling, and not sufficiently thought through: “to recognize the limitations of human will-power in the face of a complex and fragile system”. Will. Motivation. Why did Furiosa go rogue? To chase a childhood memory, a “dreamy hallucination”. My objection then, is not to Mason’s propositions, but to Postcapitalism’s implicit claim to be based on economic theory, when it rests on something more like a leap of faith. Read the very beginning and very end of Postcapitalism and you’ll see what I mean. Chapter 1 begins as a classic analysis of contemporary political economy, “When Lehman Brothers collapsed, on 15 September 2008….” Yet it ends with a sentence that reveals that the book, at heart, is not analytical, nor even only propositional. It is something more like a spiritual call, less factual statement than prophetic utterance: “postcapitalism will set you free.”

Further reading:

On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs – David Graeber, Strike Mag

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Well-Being – William Davies, Verso Books

Wtf is Eleni Haifa? – Paul Mason, Verso Books blog

Empire – Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt, Harvard University Press

Precariat: the new dangerous class – Guy Standing, Bloomsbury Academic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Kevin Carson

Very thoughtful review. I think Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber Marx would also be a useful tie-in here for comparison to Mason’s view of the subject of history.