I Have Seen The Techno-Future, And I’m Not So Sure It Works

Writing in the Marxist blog, People And Nature, Gabriel Levy examines the thinking of Paul Mason.

“I have seen the future, and it works”, wrote the American journalist Lincoln Steffens after visiting Soviet Russia in 1919, at the height of the civil war. The Bolsheviks, he said, were “a revolutionary government with an evolutionary plan”. 

Nearly a century later, one of the UK’s most thoughtful journalists, Paul Mason, argues that information technology can open the road to post-capitalism where the Russian revolution failed. He’s as enthusiastic about technology’s capacity for liberating humanity as Steffens was about the Bolsheviks.

A Chinese labour demonstration. "Networked humanity", or "the working-class movement"?
A Chinese labour demonstration. “Networked humanity”, or “the working-class movement”?

Networked computers underpin “postcapitalism as a process emerging spontaneously”, and what matters now is networks against hierarchies, Mason writes in Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (Penguin/Allen Lane, 2015). He aims to visualise goods, labour and services “provided collaboratively, beyond the market”, and then to “turn these insights into a project” (p. 265).

For the “old left” (including the Soviet Union’s first leaders) it was the industrial working class that would instigate a transition beyond capitalism; today, “by creating millions of networked people, financially exploited but with the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away, info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being” (p. xvii).

I’d recommend reading Mason’s book and/or a long article in the Guardian that summarises the main points. People who spend time thinking about how we might supersede capitalism may welcome his fresh, serious approach. I do. So here are some questions the book raised and, for me, failed to resolve.

(I didn’t think these up on my own; a discussion group I participate in, focused on issues of communist theory, spent two evenings discussing Postcapitalism. If you live in London and want to join our discussions, usually on the last Thursday of the month, email me and I’ll pass on the details.)

1. What about the parts of the labour process not so dramatically transformed by networked computers?

I liked Mason’s description (pages 109-145 especially) of the technological revolution brought about by networked computers, and his argument that it marks a fundamental transformation of the labour process (i.e. the process via which humans interact with nature and get what they need from it).
Computers have not only given us open source, wikis and information-sharing on a completely different level from a generation ago; not only made a wealth of information accessible to billions of people with “a basic education and a smartphone”; but have also overturned some of the economic laws by which capitalism functions, Mason writes. “Once you can copy and paste something, it can be reproduced for free. It has, in economics-speak, a ‘zero marginal cost’.”

Information technology is transforming manufacturing too, Mason argues, and gives the example of the jet engine. Its efficiency (i.e. the proportion of heat it converts into thrust) rose from about 20% to 35% during the 20th century. It now looks like rising to 65%, thanks to the vacuum-pressured shaping of metal crystals into engine blades – a technique advanced by a range of information technologies (digital control systems in flight, virtual testing in design, etc). And it doesn’t stop there. Factories full of frighteningly smart robots exist now. Near-commercially-efficient 3D printing exists now.

But to what extent does this information technology revolution impact on the rest of the economy – on agricultural production, manufacturing, the construction of places for people to live?

My impression is that the more closely a part of the economy interacts with nature, the trickier are the challenges of applying new technologies, the more dubious their advantages, the greater the dangers of misapplication under capitalism. What about monocultures, factory farming and GM crops in agriculture? What about the overuse and misuse of medicines? And this leads to a broader point that Mason skirts around: that technology is not neutral; it not only shapes our social relationships, it is also shaped by them.

2. To what extent does technological change alter the way capitalism works?

Mason argues that the infotech revolution is laying waste to marginal theories of economics and requires a re-elaboration of the labour theory of value (pp. 146-164). I think there is more to the countervailing tendencies than he allows.

“In practice”, he writes, “capitalism escapes the tendency of innovation to shrink the labour content of the economy, and thus shrink the ultimate source of profit, because it creates new needs, new markets and new industries where labour costs are high, so there are more wages to drive consumption” (p. 164).

Yes, but capitalism also distorts the technologies it controls, not only negating their potential but even turning them into weapons against humanity. Think of the agricultural or health technologies mentioned above, or nuclear power.

Many early 20th century Marxists took Marx’s point that the development of the productive forces gives rise to crises in the social relations of production that in turn produce revolution, and interpreted it mechanically. For all Mason’s welcome efforts to break with orthodoxy, I think his view of the potential of productive forces (specifically, technology) is similarly mechanical.

3. Isn’t climate change relevant to the central arguments about the role of technology?

Global warming is presented in Postcapitalism (chapter 9, pp. 245-262) as proof that market-led strategies of change are “utopian” (p. 249). Mason writes that he avoided “building in” the climate crisis to the first eight chapters because they aimed to show “how the clash between info-tech and market structures is, on its own, driving us towards an important turning point. Even if the ecosphere was in a steady state, our technology would still be pushing us beyond capitalism” (p. 247).

But global warming is an outcome of technological change as much as super-efficient jet engines and wikipedia. It was made by humans, living in capitalist social relations. To put it another way: the ecosphere is being pushed out of its steady state not by “externalities” (as economists like to call them), but by the distorted misapplication, under capitalism, of technologies (fossil fuels, cars, urban infrastructure) that were just as revolutionary as smartphones in their time.

The use of fossil fuels to produce motive power gave a twist to the development of industry in the late 18th and early 19th century comparable to the twist now being given by info-tech. The introduction of fossil-fueled steam power in industry made possible the physical transformation of goods on a previously unheard-of scale; fossil-fuel-powered transport produced in its time previously unimaginable interconnection much as the internet did a century and a half later.

The industrial revolution did not itself produce the danger of global warming; that has come from the proliferation of fossil-fuel-driven technologies and industries, of fossil-fuel-heated and fossil-fuel-lit cities, and the soaring wastefulness of first-world consumption, in the last fifty years or so. And it was only in the late 1980s that the sciences of climatology and oceanography – funded and developed by capitalist states initially because of their potential military significance – stumbled across the reality that burning fossil fuels (together with some other economic activities practiced excessively, such as clearing forests) are global warming’s primary cause.

Lincoln Steffens. A cartoon by Art Young from New Masses journal (1932). Source: Spartacus Educational
Lincoln Steffens. A cartoon by Art Young from New Masses journal (1932). Source: Spartacus Educational
But, anyway, this all brings us back to the point that not only is society shaped by technologies, but also society shapes technologies.

What to do about global warming, then? “The starkness of the climate target, and the clarity of the technical ways of responding to it, mean it will require more planning and more state ownership than anybody expects or even wants”, Mason writes (p. 261). But the world’s states, collectively, have consistently repudiated the simplest possible planning measures (ending subsidies for fossil fuels, supporting alternative fuels, and so on).

To my mind this puts in question Mason’s formula of “revolutionary reformism” to produce a post-market economy. In chapter 10 of Postcapitalism, he envisages a transition overseen by states that will “nurture the new economic forms to the point where they take off and operate organically” (p. 273). The state should “act as an enabler of new technologies and business models”, always with an eye as to how they fit larger social goals (p. 274).

I am sceptical. All the politicians in all the governments received those reports about global warming, from the late 1980s onwards, that told them very clearly that failure to unseat fossil fuels from their predominant position in the economy would spell disaster for everyone’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, their own included. In almost all cases, they did nothing – or, worse, practiced “politics” by pretending they had heard the message and reducing it to what was “practicable” without damaging capitalism. This suggests that the transition to post-capitalism will be messier, wilder, more difficult, perhaps more violent, than the state-overseen process that Mason so optimistically describes.

4. What about the working class as the motive force of change?

The working class is “living through a moment of sublation”, Mason writes, in one of his main challenges to left-wing orthodoxy. “It will survive in a form so different it will probably feel like something else” (p. 180). “As a historical subject, it is being replaced by a diverse, global population whose battlefield is all aspects of society – not just work – and whose lifestyle is not about solidarity but impermanence”.

This gigantic group of people showed, in the wave of social movements that started in 2011, that it “does fight, and does embody similar and technologically determined values, wherever it takes to the streets”, Mason continues. But this means we have to say that “Marxism got it wrong about the working class”. It was “the closest thing to an enlightened, collective historical subject that human society has ever produced”, but was “preoccupied with ‘living despite capitalism’, not overthrowing it.”

This train of thought starts with Mason citing the French socialist writer Andre Gorz, to the effect that “work – the defining activity of capitalism – is losing its centrality both to exploitation and resistance”; the current decline of organised labour, therefore, is “as historic as its rise 200 years ago” (p. 179).

There are some valuable insights here mixed up with some poor (because too sweeping) generalisations, in my view.

For sure, the working class movement as conceived by the narrow-minded socialism that Gorz criticised – industrial, first-world, struggling in the first place on workplace economic issues – is in decline. The two great political tendencies that dominated it from the late 19th century – social democracy (in its post-1890s form committed to achieving socialism via parliament) and Bolshevism (i.e. the conviction that socialism starts with the working class, its “vanguard” at the front, “seizing state power”) – are also in decline. The superseding of Bolshevism by Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and the transformation of social democracy into Blairite warmongering, showed where the limits of these tendencies were.

Efforts to find ways to overcome or supersede capitalism in the 21st century surely need to take account of this history, and of how those limits came into being. (At our discussion group the work of e.g. the End Notes group, who have tried to theorise this was referred to.)

While that old workers’ movement has declined, the working class in newly-industrialising and newly-urbanising countries has expanded, and is now infinitely greater in numbers than the late-20th-century working class in the rich countries, let alone the 19th-century working class Marx was writing about. (Mason’s two earlier books, Live Working and Die Fighting, and Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, have a great deal of interest to say on these changes.)

To say that these people are “preoccupied with ‘living despite capitalism’, not overthrowing it” is in my view a meaningless generalisation. It could have been said in the mid 19th century or the mid 20th century, and would have meant just as little.

Mason writes that “[Friedrich] Engels’s anthropology of the English working class in 1842 is detailed, complex and specific. The Marxist theory of the proletariat is not: it reduces an entire class to a philosophical category.” (p. 185). Taking us through a whirlwind 15-page history of the workers’ movement, Mason argues that Marx’s view has been “disproved”; capitalism destroyed successive types of working-class collectivity and resistance; the struggle is no longer in the workplace as it was in the “Keynesian era”; the “gravedigger” of capitalism today is “the networked individuals”.

This part of Mason’s argument doesn’t work for me. First, Marx did not have “theory of the proletariat”, I don’t think. His idea that the working class was the “gravedigger” of capitalism was an abstraction – but twenty or more years before the Paris Commune, it couldn’t have been much else. As a result of the Commune, he put flesh on the bones of that proposition – and there is no sign in what he wrote that he saw the working class as a monolithic mass, its existence determined narrowly by the workplace.

Second, the function of Marx’s idea of the working class as the “gravedigger” of capitalism was not to prescribe a narrow path by which the transition would take place; these prescriptions were mostly the work of 20th century Marxists (or “Marxists”), in social democratic, Bolshevik or Stalinist guise.

Third, if only we dump the narrow, workplace-based ideas of what the working class is – which E.P. Thompson challenged in the 1960s, before Gorz extended the theme – we have a wide definition of the working class, embracing the hundreds of millions of people living between cities and the countryside, of “precarious” workers, of women outside or on the edge of the workplace-based workforce. This, to my mind, is the main potential agency of social change.

Mason describes his “networked humanity” as those who have camped in city squares, blockaded fracking sites, performed punk rock in Russian cathedrals, defied Islamism in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, demonstrated in Rio and San Paulo and organised strikes across southern China. This is “not just the working class in a different guise; it is networked humanity.”

Isn’t this just a semantic squabble, then? I don’t think so.

In Mason’s version, this “networked humanity”, on the basis of the technological transformation and overseen by a reformed state, create the spaces for post-capitalism as they go; to the extent that they engage with all this consciously, they do so in order to survive under capitalism, not to put an end to it. In my version, the reality in which these hundreds of millions of people live is the ground on which social movements will develop, independently of the state and ultimately able to overwhelm or supersede it.

I don’t have to accept cardboard cut-out ideas of “class consciousness” to believe that people are capable of envisioning social organisation superior to capitalism, and of integrating this into their activity as social beings. I don’t have to believe in some of the teleological ideas about the working class that Gorz critiqued so effectively to see the working class as a motive force of change. And I don’t have to believe in the Bolshevik mantra (long since proven inadequate) of “overthrowing” the capitalist state and replacing it with a “workers’ state” to throw cold water on Mason’s hopes that a “revolutionary reformist” state can be relied on to usher in change.

5. Isn’t the planet of networked human beings a rich-country illusion?

Mason’s “networked humanity” embraces what I would call the expansion of the working class – but not the workers’ movement in its old form – outside the rich countries. Nevertheless, his optimism about abundance under capitalism, at least of “information goods”, has a distinctly rich-world ring to it.

A bunch of poorer-country workers – let’s say, Chinese workers in an electronics factory – who followed Mason’s arguments on their connected devices, might say: “Ha! Those bastards in the rich world have an abundance of everything. Even information technology.”

These workers’ lives are shaped not only by the high-tech products that they manufacture in the global economy, or use in the shape of their smartphones, but by the low-tech buildings in which they live, the low-tech food they eat, the low-tech lives of their families in the countryside (to which in many cases they send a proportion of their wages) … and by a huge and complex web of social relations. This combination will surely shape social movements in which they will participate.

Freely available in all rich countries
Freely available in all rich countries

These movements will not look like the European workers’ movements of the 20th century and their participants won’t think like European workers did in the 20th century. But aren’t such movements the central fulcrum of change, the factor on which change more than anything else depends – rather than technology as such?

6. What about the state?

“The most challenging arena for action is the state; we need to think positively about its role in the transition to postcapitalism”, Mason writes in his final chapter (p. 273).

The state – how to confront it, supersede it, overtake it, negate it – has produced the most difficult dilemmas for movements of social liberation throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. I don’t have worked-out answers to these dilemmas … but I am not sure that Mason’s simplistic formulas help address them either.

“In the socialist project, the state saw itself as the new economic form”, he continues. “In postcapitalism, the state has to act more like the staff of Wikipedia: to nurture the new economic forms to the point where they take off and operate organically.”

But the state is bound up with forms of physical and economic domination; it is bound up with, and works violently in the interests of, really existing elites and their power and privilege. I don’t believe that the development of technology, no matter how profound, will overcome that problem. GL, 4 April 2016.

About the main photo. On 8 June 2010, a Global Day of Remembrance for Foxconn Victims, including a large number of the Chinese workforce who committed suicide, was held. At Foxconn’s Annual General Meeting, student protestors from Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), Hong Kong workers’ unions, and human rights groups demonstrated outside an Apple store in Hong Kong, to hold Apple and Foxconn accountable to workers’ rights. Photo credit: SACOM.

More on Postcapitalism by Paul Mason on People and Nature 
From the Russian revolution to socialism on Mars – People & Nature.
The new world in our hearts: a critical engagement with Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism – on the Self Certified blog.
More on related issues
“What is wrong with free money?” by the Against Capital and Nation group (July 2015). That’s a critique of “universal basic income”, that Paul Mason writes about.
“‘The instrument of labour strikes down the labourer’. Marx on machinery is worth reading” People and Nature, June 2015.

1 comment:

  1. The global infrastructure of the World Wide Web, i.e., the Internet, is controlled by capitalism - mainly the major telecomms companies such as BT. If they wanted they could simply pull the plug!