A postcapitalist pseuds’ corner


A postcapitalist pseuds’ corner

Two books prophesying the future show a distinct ignorance about present-day capitalism.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Books Long-reads

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).

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).

What the two books mean by neoliberalism is simply the political right – though whether, say, David Cameron’s policies really fitted into this trendy and fuzzy category is left unsaid. The books not only point out the reliance of neoliberalism on the state, but also make much, in the wake of Edward Snowden, of state surveillance. They briefly recognise, too, that the state plays a major economic role. But they take the reputedly neoliberal concept of deregulation at face value. They miss how today’s state has, in the words of spiked’s Phil Mullan, become a ‘conservator state’, working to preserve and protect a stagnant, status-quo economy by ‘incessant regulatory tweaking’, which ‘forever complicates business life’. Britain’s Ofcom, for example, continually meddles with but gets no improvements from BT.

But what the state does to corporations today, it does even more to personal life. The books note that work now reaches into every aspect of personal life, but entirely neglect how the state has gone even further in doing this. Not for them any discussion of how the end of the Cold War ushered in Tony Blair’s Third Way of elitist, anti-democratic diktat on how we should diet, exercise, be good parents, use the right language, uphold the EU and so on. Indeed, Mason strikes a statist, authoritarian note in insisting that his postcapitalist state would keep ‘the overall energy price to consumers high – in order to suppress demand and for them to change their behaviour’. Similarly, S&W, in their starry-eyed demand for full automation, no more work and full unemployment, don’t just seek abundance and even new needs. In an unlovely contradiction, they want productivity increases only to create more free time, not more output. Likewise, their proposed three-day weekend would lead to significant reductions in energy consumption. Left unsaid in this scenario is how developing countries can develop with less energy, or how robots can multiply with less electricity use.

Mason writes vividly and for the intelligent layperson. S&W rightly say that leftist media organisations ‘should not shy away from being approachable and entertaining’, and should not end up ‘simply preaching to the choir, pushing narratives that never escape their insular echo-chamber’. Yet, in the manner of the pseuds’ corner of leftist authors they cite so repetitiously, S&W blather on about ‘hyperstitional progress’, ‘synthetic freedom’, ‘sedimented universalisms’ and ‘transformational vectors’ (6). So who, exactly, do these books identify as the agent of change, the subject to take humanity into a world after capitalism?

In his famous Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, his rough notebooks not on economics but on political economy, Marx wrote, just a bit more clearly than S&W, that, ‘In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity’ (7). What the two books have in common, despite their authors’ fondness for the Grundrisse, is the prejudice that today’s capitalism coexists but is incompatible with and thus subverted by non-capitalist economic forms.

For Mason, these forms mainly consist of Wikipedia, open-source software, parallel currencies – the IT-based world of the networked information knowledge economy and ‘peer-to-peer free stuff’. These bits of the economy are, he hints, staffed by under-35-year-olds who wear headphones on the London Underground – ‘white wire people’ who believe information should be free and who differ from ‘the old demographic’ of the 20th century: ‘the elderly middle-class couple in their hats and tweeds; the stubbly manual worker reading his newspaper; the guy in the suit’. This is why Mason proposes a postcapitalist Office of the Non-Market Economy – though thankfully he avoids the abbreviation Ofne.

For S&W, by contrast, today’s non-capitalist economic forms are what the United Nations calls the ‘unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade’ that dominate the mushrooming urban slums of the developing world. Yet though these forms are non-capitalist, S&W say, the market also mediates them, and that distinguishes them from pre-capitalist economies. Lost? You’re not alone.

So, once again: who is the potential agent who will drive us all to S&W’s avowedly utopian postcapitalism? ‘The most obvious answer’, we hear, is the world’s expanding surplus population of the unemployed and underemployed – although two pages later ‘we must accept that no answer readily presents itself’.

For ourselves, we are not too bothered, right now, about the lack of an obvious gravedigger for capitalism. Anyone with eyes in their head to notice, say, terrible transport or massively disappointing IT will do as an audience. More important than this or that particular audience are clear, independent ideas.

On that count, these sad books fail, and fail miserably.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University. He is also editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams , is published by Verso. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, by Paul Mason, is published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)


(1) Capitalism may be marching toward automation, but it is extraordinarily difficult to find the total of service jobs in the world today. Figure calculated from World Bank data for 2006 (!) for employment in services as a percentage of total employment. The 2015 total for professional service robots sold worldwide, by contrast, was 41,060 units, up from 32,939 in 2014. It escapes these writers that the enormously automated US, for instance, is, as even the Financial Times has noticed, ‘in the midst of its longest private-sector hiring spree on record, adding 14.4million jobs over 73 straight months’ – or that US productivity ‘grew only 1.4 per cent a year from 2007 to 2014, compared with 2.2 per cent from 1953 to 2007’.

(2) Mason’s uncritical adulation for bourgeois American writers – the fraudster economist Paul Romer, the Green poseur Jeremy Rifkin and the IT hipster Kevin Kelly – is matched only by S&W’s adoption of California’s W Brian Arthur, and his facile view that innovation is a simple combination of what has gone before. For a critique of that idea, read this piece here.

(3) At the US DIY store Lowe’s, the LOWEbot, a more advanced version of the retail robots applauded by S&W, is able only to find items for customers and scan shelves to perform inventory control. For retail robots, stacking shop shelves is a capability that remains years away.

(4) Not content with alarmism about US jobs at high risk, the Oxford Martin Institute added that a further 19 per cent are at medium risk. For a review of Brynjolfsson and McAfee, see here.

(5) Mason, it’s true, displays a chart which seems to indicate gradually declining productivity in the developed world – though the chart’s provenance, and what it is really measuring, are characteristically unclear. See also his chart on foreign direct investment, which suggests that the total amount in the world in 1970 was zero. Of a piece with this is his shocking repetition of a canard popular among economics hacks: that McDonald’s is the ‘thirty-eighth biggest economy in the world – bigger than that of Ecuador’. Notoriously, this confuses corporate turnover with national GDP. The latter measures value added, not turnover.

(6) With their willfully obscurantist language, S&W clearly write not for lay people, but for what they call ‘the left’. And who precisely is that? In a revealing endnote, the authors define the left as ‘the following movements, positions and organisations: socialism, communism, anarchism, left-libertarianism, anti-imperialism, anti-fascism, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, feminism, autonomism, trade unionism, queer politics and large sections of the green movement’ – not counting, of course, ‘many groups allied or hybridised with the above’. With their backward-looking paeans to the government of Chilean Stalinist Salvador Allende (1970-73) and the mildly reformist Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee’s Alternative Corporate Plan (1976), S&W are not ‘inventing the future’ so much as inviting us to make a journey into the past. They cannot and will not countenance the possibility that ‘the left’ might actually have collapsed after the end of the Cold War.

(7) Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, Penguin, 1973, pp106-7

Picture by: Psit / Flickr, published under a creative commons license.

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Topics Books Long-reads


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