Comrades in Digits

Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future BY Paul Mason. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 368 pages. $27.

Capitalism as we know it is failing, says Paul Mason, and it’s high time to anoint a successor. In his futurist tract Postcapitalism, he attempts to do just that, mixing Marxist theory, labor history, tech euphoria, and about forty other ingredients into something resembling a unified theory of political economy.

Postcapitalism bears some resemblance to the utopian and dystopian literature of the 1990s, the time of the dot-com bubble. Common to both schools was the notion that technology was radically transforming the way we work and nothing would ever be the same again. To boosters, tech was producing a world of more meaningful, more pleasurable work, flattening hierarchies, enabling worker autonomy, and, in grander moments of tech reverie, ushering in a regime of peace, love, and understanding. To pessimists, jobs would disappear and we’d all go broke. Neither vision came to pass. Contra the boosters, work is still drudgery for many of us, hierarchies are as rigid as they’ve ever been, and bellicosity and ignorance are, still as ever, in long-term bull markets; contra the pessimists, the US economy has added twenty-five million jobs since Jeremy Rifkin published The End of Work in 1995.

While rejecting both brands of dot-com prophecy, Mason accepts many of the same premises. He exaggerates the terminal decrepitude of capitalism while also parroting business-press propaganda about the revolutionary qualities of the cybereconomy. Nineties enthusiasts of the Information Age wanted to get to a postwork world and wishfully assumed that capitalism no longer needed workers. But there’s been no disruption of the correlation between economic growth and job growth in the US. Nor are we experiencing the “exponential takeoff in productivity” that Mason describes; in reality, productivity is trending toward zero growth.

There’s no room here for an analysis like that of the economist Robert Gordon, who argues that all the great transformative inventions have already happened. As much as it might annoy tech boosters to hear it, the iPhone is a blip compared to the telegraph—or, less glamorously, the flush toilet. The telegraph reduced the time it took to communicate over long distances from weeks to minutes, and the toilet relieved us of some nasty tasks. Gordon may be wrong. But we should dispense with the narcissism of the present that makes us imagine we’re living in a world of unprecedented change.

Mason contends that capitalism can’t survive the latest industrial revolution because it can’t deal with the infinite, costless reproducibility of the digital commodity—aka a nonrival good. In the boring old days, two of us couldn’t own the same CD; each of us needed one. In the bold new days, an MP3 can be copied without limit at virtually no cost. To protect their revenue, tech and entertainment giants must erect thick walls of intellectual-property protection, a battle they’re destined to lose in the end. Prices will be driven down toward zero, and capitalism will die.

This new order creates the potential for a mode of production beyond that of capitalism, and Wikipedia and open-source software are its precursors. This economy will no longer be based on things; it will operate on information and the promise of eternal abundance. Capitalism can’t handle abundance—plenty just isn’t profitable. Fortunately, though, abundance is postcapitalism’s stock-in-trade, and so it will deliver social justice “spontaneously,” Mason insists.

Info giddiness looks to be the by-product of a financial frenzy. In the late ’90s, we had the NASDAQ bubble, starring Netscape and Pets.com; now we have start-up mania, featuring “unicorns” (billion-dollar corporate babies) like Uber and Airbnb. The first popped disastrously, leading to bankruptcy and recession; the second is losing air now that the Federal Reserve has ended its long indulgence following the Great Recession. Back in the ’90s, we had books like Charles Leadbeater’s Living on Thin Air, which celebrated our liberation from things; now we have Mason’s Postcapitalism, which hymns a profit- and labor-free future of post-itude. Curiously, Leadbeatercame out of the Communist Party of Great Britain, while Mason has the small Trotskyist sect Workers Power in his past. Apparently, when certain Marxists move on, they shed the materialism characteristic of their species and posit instead a world where mind rules over matter.

Mason frequently gets lost in what might be termed (in an homage to Marx) information fetishism. In Marx’s notion of the fetishized commodity, we see commodities trading on a market as things in themselves; this arresting spectacle works to obscure all the human activities that produce them. The commodity becomes a “fetish” because it’s divorced from its context. Similarly, information fetishists treat information as a thing unto itself, forgetting that it’s always information about something—and that this something is typically quite material: an inventory of goods on hand, statistics about a student, an airplane’s altitude and speed.

How exactly do these info-products undermine the very structures of capitalism? Mason wisely doesn’t ask the question, because his argument couldn’t survive the answer. Sure, your thermostat can now be hooked up to the Internet of Things (mine is), but it’s still attached to heating and cooling units made of steel and toxic chemicals and powered by carbon. Mason points to the rampant illegal downloading of Game of Thrones as an exemplary undermining of intellectual-property restrictions—but those copies were downloaded onto computers and phones via fiber-optic cables: rival goods produced in familiar industrial fashion.

Following management guru Peter Drucker, Mason replaces the old proletarian with the “universal educated person.” This vision of today’s model toiler as a knowledge worker is at odds with the actual labor market. There are about 1.5 million software developers and computer programmers in the United States; there are almost twice as many truck drivers, and nearly ten times as many food preparers and servers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the next decade the five occupations showing the largest numerical growth will be personal-care aides, registered nurses, home health aides, food preparers and servers, and retail salespersons. The entire information sector—which includes traditional and Internet publishing and data processing—accounts for about 5 percent of the US economy; manufacturing, for 12 percent; finance, for 20 percent.

Viewed against this backdrop, info fetishism comes across as a pet utopian reverie of intellectuals and techies, who are privileged enough to regard the world of things as an afterthought. That’s certainly the case with Mason. Even though he talks at times like a hardheaded materialist, he often lapses into the patois of a Silicon Valley guru, lightly seasoned with a tempered revolutionary ardor. The new networked workplace, he argues, “gives us multiple economic personalities, which is the economic base on which a new kind of person, with multiple selves, has emerged. It is this new kind of person, the networked individual, who is the bearer of the postcapitalist society that could now emerge.” But as one ponders the implications of this (undemonstrated) assertion, it begins to seem that the frenetically recalibrating digital self just as likely points to a dystopian inner fragmentation as it does to a utopian era of exploratory shape-shifting. Indeed, a cranky Marxist might regard this trend as a fresh form of alienation for the digital age: One longs for solidarity within this multiple self as much as one aspires to realize it among the desocialized selves toiling in a call center. It’s not clear how the sort of solidarity required for the emergence of a postcapitalist society is going to develop, or what mode of organization will lead us there. The revolution will not be Twitterized.

Mason is light on most other historical forces that involve political deliberation—both how this ambitious transition to postcapitalism can be organized and how the future society will be run. He talks about things the state will need to do—thankfully, he hasn’t gone state-phobic—but what it might look like remains unexamined. At one point, he puts forward the idea of a Wiki-state, which is supposed to face down the threat of climate change, cope with an aging population, and subdue oligarchic finance. But anyone who’s ever read the edit history of a Wikipedia article on a controversial topic, full of additions and deletions and polemical infighting, will suspect that Wikified governance would be a headlong plunge into a Babel of unresolvable agendas. How could this process handle massive conflicts over wealth and power?

Mason does lay out what Trotskyists like to call a transitional program. In doing so, he dismisses the concept of a planned economy as a toxic relic of Stalinism. That’s a strange move for someone in love with the liberating possibilities of technology. There’s more computing power in my iPhone than there was in the entire USSR in the ’70s. Walmart’s management of its supply chain, from the factory in Shenzhen to the shelf in Chattanooga, is testimony to capitalist businesses’ use of info tech; why couldn’t these techniques be appropriated by a future socialist society?

Mason tries to sketch out other key traits of the emerging postcapitalist world: new forms of collaborative work; the suppression of monopolies; the partial eclipse of market forces; and a universally guaranteed basic income. He would partly socialize finance, creating tightly regulated, utility-like banks, while nonetheless allowing “a well-regulated space for complex financial activities.” This is a puzzling concession. Most complex financial activities are designed to evade taxes and regulations, or to cope with the volatility of financial markets that complex financial activities help cause, or to coax fees out of unsuspecting clients. It’s striking to note just how much of Mason’s ideal world depends on the neoliberal vision of market autonomy that he wishes to transcend.

A deliberate transition into postcapitalism would nonetheless be resisted strenuously by elites. Mason is probably familiar with Engels’s famous comment on the crushed revolutions of 1848: “It was the first time that the bourgeoisie showed to what insane cruelties of revenge it will be goaded the moment the proletariat dares to take its stand against them.” But there would be no insane cruelties in Mason’s transition. The 1 percent, he claims, are actually quite unhappy and would ultimately welcome their expropriation. No longer condemned to managerial power, holidays in luxurious resorts, and private jets, nor to the rigors their children face at miserable universities like Harvard and Cambridge, they would relax and grow happy. The last two sentences of the book are a promise to the 1 percent: “The 99 percent are coming to the rescue. Postcapitalism will set you free.” If you believe that the old order is being spontaneously overthrown by the mad onrush of information, you will believe pretty much anything.

Doug Henwood, the author of My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency (OR Books, 2016), is working on a study of the American elite.