In the dying days of 2016, newspapers reported that the average age of sleeper trains running from London to Scotland was 41 years. A little earlier, Whitehall’s obscure National Infrastructure Commission discovered that Brits can only access 4G mobile networks 53 per cent of the time; it asked that government rush to install comprehensive 5G networks for road and rail users by… 2025. So, among today’s radical texts, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work are refreshing: they’re wholly supportive of progress in IT (Mason) and, more broadly, automation (Srnicek and Williams, henceforth S&W). They’re also refreshing because they’re ambitious in scope and about the goals they set society. S&W are also right to argue that ‘any future left must be as technically fluent as it is politically fluent’.
It’s a pity that both books understand nothing about new technology, and devote merely a page or two to the barriers contemporary capitalism puts in its way. For Mason, machines think, and car production lines are ‘intelligently managing’ what the workers do. For S&W there is a wave of automation around us ‘in every single function of the economy – from production to distribution to management to retail’, and ‘the roboticisation of services is now gathering steam, with over 150,000 professional service robots sold in the past 15 years’ – a piffling cumulative total against the more than 1.5 billion jobs in services around the world (1).
In eulogising capitalism’s reputed commitment to automation, the authors follow in a long line of economists and sociologists who, despite their ignorance about technology and, in particular, the human toil that still goes into making, maintaining, repairing and upgrading it, turn it into an independent force of its own. Marx wrote about the fetishism that surrounds commodities; these authors make a fetish of IT. Us ignorant readers learn from Mason that IT is the fastest growing technology in history; well, try getting a fibre broadband connection from BT anytime soon. We learn – for the first time! – that ‘info-capitalism’ is different from the normal sort because copy-and-pasting software costs nothing, so reproducing information products is free and thus has a zero marginal cost (2). Mason glibly tells us that IT is ‘a disappearing act’: the PC becomes the laptop, the laptop shrinks and gets more powerful but is superseded by the smartphone and the tablet, and, magically enough, ‘information theory plus transistors gives the ability to automate physical processes’. Indeed, with IT ‘you can have machines that cost nothing, last forever and do not break down’; information goods ‘naturally’ leverage scientific knowledge and their users feed back data that allows these goods to be ‘improved, for free’. Similarly with S&W: retail jobs ‘are set to be taken over by machines’ – despite the fact that the notorious poor pay in these and many other jobs, the authors fleetingly observe, might well be ‘repressing investment in productivity-enhancing technologies’ (3).
Every mainstream enthusiast for IT is quoted uncritically. Mason gives three outings to the Oxford Martin Institute’s ubiquitous econometric forecast that 47 per cent of US jobs are at high risk from computerisation. S&W are even more derivative: they reference Institute authors, along with their MIT co-thinkers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, no fewer than 17 times (4).
It’s a pity that both books understand nothing about new technology, and devote merely a page or two to the barriers contemporary capitalism puts in its way
Yet for all the euphoria about IT, the West today suffers from crises of capital investment, productivity, research and development (R&D), and – very relevant to these – from an obsession with risk. But you would barely know that from these two books (5). In total, they boast about 600 pages of text and indexes, along with more than 1,200 endnotes. Sometimes their sprawling eclecticism has merit: Mason, for instance, revives one’s interest in the Soviet writers Kontradieff (long economic waves), Preobrazhensky (the economics of the Soviet Union) and Bogdanov (science fiction, politics and much else). Yet the errors by far outweigh the intriguing moments.
First, for all the authors’ hostility to economic determinism, the resilience and triumphs of capitalism are much more blamed on structural changes than they are on the ideological weakness of working-class leadership. Of course we get a few barbs against trade-union leaders and social democracy, and S&W murmur about the need for long-term vision, a vaguely ideological ‘counter-hegemonic project’ and a ‘full spectrum approach’; but Mason and S&W mainly blame the left’s failure on changes in working-class life, changes in the physical infrastructure of the world and its cities, and deindustrialisation.
Being a necessary stage towards postcapitalism, S&W tell us, deindustrialisation means that the industrial working class ‘could never have been the agent of change’. Here again what S&W would call the ‘privileging’ of economic determinism downplays politics. But insofar as politics is a culprit for today’s difficulties, both books – when they are not still relentlessly attacking Leninist conceptions of ideological leadership – target that familiar bugbear, neoliberalism. This is their second major error.
They try to define it. Mason says neoliberalism uses the state to marketise, privatise and deregulate in the interests of finance, even if its key goal, and one that differentiates it from the paternalistic, communitarian, statist solidarity encouraged by traditional conservatism, is to atomise and thus destroy labour’s bargaining power. S&W broadly agree. Matters are not helped, however, by Mason’s history. He sees the start of the neoliberal era as the end of the Cold War (1991), even though Chile’s General Pinochet also implemented it (1973), as did Thatcher and Reagan (1979).