Paul Mason is that rare creature: a left-wing optimist. He isn’t mourning the death of labor power or the rise of machines. That’s because the two have converged to kill off capitalism. Well, nearly. The British journalist reckons we are close enough to a new order that he has eschewed the hyphen in the title of his new book, “Postcapitalism.”
Mason is right to question whether our current system can handle the looming prospects of climate change, long-term wage stagnation and sovereign debt crises. But his argument that information technology has halted the march of global capital is less convincing.
The self-described “Guide to Our Future” has a clear destination: 21st-century socialism. The prescription is partly heterodox – free public goods and a guaranteed basic income – and partly open-source evangelism. But Mason won’t say exactly how to get there, who’s taking us or how we’ll pay for all the free stuff.
Ever since Karl Marx first spelled out the inherent contradictions he believed would lead to capitalism’s inexorable demise, the system has defied predictions of imminent collapse. It has adapted to downturns and demographic shifts. Companies have leveraged technology to create new markets even as other industries dissolved. But Mason argues that this chaotic process of constant renewal is now at an end because of two factors: the near-obliteration of labor power and the nature of the information economy.
His labor argument is fairly straightforward. When workers had bargaining power, workplace innovations created growth. If owners of capital tried to cut costs by exploiting employees, resistance to wage suppression forced them to pioneer new business models instead. But the decline of workers’ power since the 1980s has led to wage stagnation and low-value production in the developed world, stalling capitalist ingenuity.
It’s a stretch to state that the era which gave us the iPhone hasn’t been innovative. But making machines doesn’t matter so much to Mason. In the information technology economy, the real value isn’t in the device but in the knowledge it collects. Though Google’s main product is its search engine, the company derives its worth from the data that users provide when searching for stuff online.
The marginal cost of these digital packets is close to zero. But Google can profit off that information because intellectual property laws allow the company to own it and not share it publicly. The same goes for Apple and its 99 cent digital music downloads.
In other words, capitalist ownership makes information – the basic resource of our current economy – artificially scarce even though it is infinitely reproducible. The contradiction of attempting to control resources that are abundant and created by input from the public is one that capitalism can’t solve. For Mason, this threatens the whole system.
He points to open-source projects like Wikipedia or Linux as alternatives to corporate control. The dream is that these projects are the vanguards for a whole system of collaborative projects, powered by the voluntary labor of the revolutionary class. Yet such examples of online altruism are vastly outnumbered by hyper-capitalist Silicon Valley startups that have sucked up billions of dollars of investment by promising to disrupt industries from taxi-hailing to hotels.
Mason’s agents of change, the digitally networked and highly educated, may be creating value for free every time they share a video on Facebook or perform a Google search. But that loosening of the relationship between wages and labor looks like an adaptation rather than a subversion of capitalism. Claims that the influx of technology into the workplace has decreased the need for human labor also don’t stand up to scrutiny. U.S. labor productivity hasn’t spiked in the past two decades, perhaps because offshore workers are still cheaper than some machines, or because corporate earnings are returned to shareholders rather than reinvested.
Truly cooperative alternatives to corporate distribution may remain sparse until robots really do begin to save us some labor time. Even then, it’s an open question whether our connectedness and high levels of education will provoke public intolerance for stagnation, exploitation and climate destruction. And if they do, the path from online solidarity doesn’t lead straight to open-source sharing. In the era of Edward Snowden, widespread publication of personal data may be a hard sell.
“Postcapitalism” doesn’t look like the blueprint for whatever follows the current phase of capitalism, but its urgency in the face of potentially apocalyptic change is important in itself.