One Click at a Time

Owen Hatherley

  • PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason
    Allen Lane, 368 pp, £8.99, June 2016, ISBN 978 0 14 197529 0
  • Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams
    Verso, 256 pp, £12.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 78478 096 8

Both Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work advocate things that seemed to have disappeared from thinking on the left sometime in the late 1960s: technological optimism, futurism, the making of programmes and the issuing of demands as opposed to bearing witness through protest. Both use the curiously neutral coinage ‘postcapitalism’ for their alternative, rather than socialism, social democracy, communism or anarchism, each of these tainted for the authors in one way or another.

Srnicek and Williams reject practically everything that the Euro-American left has thought and done since 1968, bar a somewhat tokenistic acknowledgment of the importance of sexual and racial ‘intersectionality’. Their problem isn’t with ‘identity politics’ – the common bugbear of everything-went-wrong-in-the-1960s leftists – but with the abandonment of the belief that a society beyond capitalism is both possible and necessary. ‘From predictions of new worlds of leisure, to Soviet-era cosmic communism, to Afro-futurist celebrations of the synthetic and diasporic nature of black culture, to post-gender dreams of radical feminism,’ they write, ‘the popular imagination of the left envisaged societies vastly superior to anything we dream of today.’ It’s especially frustrating because ‘today, on one level, these dreams appear closer than ever,’ through the ever greater expansion of automation, the communal production and distribution of open-source software and ‘copyleft’ systems of repudiated ownership, and the possibilities opened up by 3-D printing. Srnicek and Williams came to notoriety in 2013 when they issued a ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’, affirming ‘mastery’, technology and the liberatory possibilities of capitalism if pushed beyond its limits. It was a heady and largely unconvincing theoretical melange, fuelled by a rather Weimar Republic sense of apocalyptic excitement (‘After Hitler, us!’). Inventing the Future is more sober; the manifesto was wilfully offensive, but here the authors are keen to make converts.

Mason, who arrives at postcapitalism from a background in technology and economic journalism, and a sometime involvement in Trotskyist politics, begins his ‘guide to our future’ at the border between Moldova and the Russian-backed statelet of Transnistria: a place, he tells us, where people would rather the stability of dictatorship than the chaos of neoliberalism. The river Dniester is ‘the geographic border between free-market capitalism and whatever you want to call the system Vladimir Putin runs’ (it remains unclear why that system shouldn’t also be called ‘free-market capitalism’). To cross into Putinland is to realise that ‘the best of capitalism is over for us’: around 2050 it will all start to collapse, through climate change, ageing, migration and economic dysfunction. Both Mason and Srnicek/Williams are sceptical that the Keynesian anti-austerity programmes of Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos or pre-capitulation Syriza – to ‘suppress high finance, reverse austerity, invest in green energy and promote high-waged work’, as Mason puts it – are nearly enough to stop the rot. But the lack of a viable systemic alternative is ‘logical, if you think the only alternative is what the 20th-century left called “socialism”’, which Mason defines sweepingly as ‘state control and economic nationalism’ along with a ‘brutal hierarchy’. For the much younger Srnicek and Williams, the problem is reversing the errors of post-1968 left-libertarians; for Mason, they didn’t go nearly far enough.

Mason especially displays the sort of belief in historical necessity and progress that most Marxists have learned to be deeply embarrassed by. Postcapitalism is both necessary and possible because ‘capitalism can no longer adapt to technological change.’ In language that recalls Marx’s preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ‘it will be abolished’ because it has exhausted its productive resources, and harbours ‘something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system’. The two books share an excitement about the possibility of a ‘new kind of human being’, but mean different things by it. Srnicek and Williams envisage ‘an interventionist approach to the human’, an embrace of ‘individual bodily experimentation’ set ‘against restricted images of the human’ – a rather startling image, a new human with a new body. Mason’s prosthesis is more familiar: the internet, which has created ‘the educated and connected human being’ and whose vanguard is the ‘networked generation’ he credits with the wave of protests in recent years, encompassing everything from Occupy to the Arab Spring to Maidan. His analysis now seems over-optimistic, to put it mildly, but he expresses no second thoughts about the ‘networked revolutions’ he hailed in his last book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere (2012). Wisely, Srnicek and Williams do not find a new historical subject in graduates using Twitter.

In both books the critical fronts are a total opposition to austerity and neoliberalism, and a focus on the possible consequences of increased automation, including the creation of a ‘surplus population’. The ‘real austerity project’, Mason argues, is ‘to drive down wages and living standards in the West for decades, until they meet those of the middle class in China and India on the way up’. As a result, ‘the next generation will be poorer than this one; the old economic model is broken and cannot revive growth.’ Those places which, in their different ways, have managed to insulate themselves – authoritarian China, Russia or Iran, residually social democratic northern Europe – will not be exempt: ‘By 2060, countries such as Sweden will have the levels of inequality currently seen in the USA.’ In thinking about how we got here, Srnicek and Williams – like so many recent writers, from Owen Jones to Mark Fisher to Philip Mirowski – lay great stress on the think-tanks (the Mont Pelerin Society and the like) that had their solutions ready when Keynesianism faltered in the mid-1970s. The ‘folk politics’ of Climate Camps, single-issue campaigns and localism have proved inadequate as a response to the neoliberal conquest of state, academia and ‘common sense’. Mason is braver, and more ambitious. There are structural reasons, he says, why capitalism as it currently exists is a brake on technological change and human improvement, but changes in labour and distribution have created a new historical agent capable of transcending it.

The central problem, as Mason sees it, is that ‘an information economy may not be compatible with a market economy.’ He gives a good potted account of the various theories of capitalist adaptation since the turn of the 20th century, focusing particularly on the Russian Socialist Revolutionary economist Nikolai Kondratiev’s ‘waves’ of capitalist change – a rejection of the collapse and catastrophe scenarios of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. A wave involves the ‘rollout of new technologies, the rise of new business models, new countries dragged into the global market, a rise in the quantity and availability of money’: the ‘third wave’ of capitalist expansion around the Belle Epoque, for example. Mason tracks the attempts by Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Rudolf Hilferding and Eugen Varga to explain this apparent thriving of what they considered a moribund system. For Luxemburg, the collapse would finally come once everywhere on the globe was pulled into the system. However, she ‘had ignored the fact that new markets … can be created not only in colonies but within national economies, local sectors, people’s homes and indeed inside their brains’.

Another wave appeared to have come after 1989, when capitalism ‘experienced a sugar rush: labour, markets, entrepreneurial freedom and new economies of scale’ as a result of the assimilation of China, Eastern Europe and the former USSR. But by the end of the 1990s, it was obvious that something had gone awry. The dotcom crash made clear that the new industrial revolution wasn’t nearly as profitable as we had been led to expect. In the new ‘infocapitalism’, prices ceased to be dictated by labour, degradation of materials, production costs and so forth, but were set arbitrarily as a response to the new accessibility of ‘free stuff’. How much can iTunes charge for an mp3 when digital files can be copied limitlessly, and new music is accessible on dozens of semi-legal channels within seconds of its release? Another problem was the free software movement: the ready availability of collectively produced, free software such as Linux meant that ‘new forms of property ownership and management become imperative,’ presaging a ‘new mode of production beyond capitalism’. ‘Hard-assed capitalists’ like Google are reliant on free software: Android, for instance, which Google uses for its phone operating system. There will, Mason concludes, be no new ‘wave’ emerging out of current forms of info-capitalism. (Srnicek and Williams agree: the ‘new industries’ – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – ‘only employ 0.5 per cent of the American workforce’, and ‘the average new business creates 40 per cent fewer jobs than it did twenty years ago.’)

Mason’s great exemplar of a postcapitalist institution is Wikipedia, a hugely successful and non-profit-making enterprise which relies on the enthusiasm and voluntary labour of countless thousands of editors, a self-regulating network which pays no one and cannot be bought or sold. It is a better choice than Uber, the rampantly exploitative taxi network Mason has cited elsewhere, but his account of Wikipedia suggests he hasn’t done much editing on there himself. Wikipedia is reliant to the point of parasitism on research not done by a network, but by academics – that’s why ‘citation needed’ is the thing most likely to be inserted into your text should you write a shoddy entry, shortly before it is slated for deletion. (Though Wikipedia can be highly undiscriminating as long as the source looks official enough. All ‘real’ research is citable, however dodgy, as a look at some of the historical edit wars over, say, Russia and Ukraine will tell you: Stalinist historians and the Ukrainian security services are regularly cited as reliable authorities.) The sin of ‘original research?’ – a solecism nearly as grave as ‘citation needed’ – is another reminder that the non-postcapitalist labour of academics is the basis of nearly the entire operation. Wikipedia is less a new form of knowledge than a novel packaging of an old one.

PostCapitalism, like Srnicek and Williams’s ‘Accelerationist Manifesto’, sets itself up on the rock of Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’ in the Grundrisse, a thought experiment in which ‘capitalism collapses because it cannot exist alongside shared knowledge.’ This is now coming, Mason believes, courtesy of peer-to-peer networks and the like, which promise ‘an economy where machines can be built for free and last for ever’. ‘Though a machine shop smells and sounds much as it did thirty years ago,’ he writes, drawing on his own youthful experience, ‘it is as different from the one I worked in as an iTunes track is from a vinyl record.’ Nearly half of all jobs will soon be automated, he claims, and the resulting unemployed ‘can’t all become postmodern servants for the 1 per cent’. With the shrinking of waged labour, and the incapacity of new technologies to get the system going again owing to their in-built preference for the free and collective, capital is reduced to consuming the remains of the welfare state while frantically trying to find a way to ‘monetise’ social networks. ‘To capture the externalities in an information-heavy economy,’ Mason writes, ‘capital has to extend its ownership rights into new areas; it has to own our selves, our playlists, not just our publicised academic papers but the research we did to write them. Yet the technology itself gives us a means to resist this, and makes it long-term impossible.’ Like Marx or Luxemburg, he believes that capitalism has limits: it’s just that they were premature in hailing them.

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The wager of neoliberalism, for Mason, is that ‘the exhilarating rush of new technology was taken as justifying all the pain we’d gone through to get free markets. The miners had to be smashed so that we could have Facebook; telecoms had to be privatised so we could have 3G mobile phones.’ In fact, ‘the destruction of labour’s bargaining power … was the essence of the entire project, the means to all the other ends.’ As a result, however, the working class has not disappeared, but a ‘three billion strong proletariat’ has come into being. Mason is extremely sceptical that this proletariat is capable of political consciousness – ‘on the subsoil of precarious work, extreme poverty, migrant labour and slum conditions it has been impossible for anything that matches the collectivity and consciousness of the western labour movement at its height to grow in the global south’ – though since he goes on to argue at some length that the Western labour movement was never revolutionary, he might have reflected on the fact that the quasi-rural ‘subsoil’ of China or Latin America has been much more inclined to insurrection in the last seventy years than the organised workforces of Birmingham or Pittsburgh have. But anyway none of this matters, because the ‘agent of change has become, potentially, everyone on earth’, and ‘as a historical subject’ the proletariat ‘is being replaced by a diverse, global population whose battlefield is all aspects of society – not just work’.

What makes this part of PostCapitalism so frustrating is the gap between Mason’s exceptionally subtle handling of the familiar shibboleths of far-left history, and his awed invocation of the new networked human. He makes a sophisticated case that ‘the proletariat was the closest thing to an enlightened, collective historical subject that human society has ever produced,’ though he was never fully convinced it needed to overthrow capitalism, just temper it, with the help of unions, co-operatives and self-education, to ensure that the lives workers were carving out for themselves within the system were safe and viable. Against Marx’s idea of the proletariat as an ‘absence’ without its own culture or baggage, Mason points out that the new Lancashire industrial workforce created a distinctive autonomous culture while Marx was still at university. Where Lenin considered the ‘labour aristocracy’ a reactionary force within the working class, Mason knows that in reality skilled workers tended to be the left vanguard, as in Glasgow and Berlin in 1919, or Birmingham and Turin during the 1970s.

Mason excels when he is describing the effects of financialisation on Leigh, his hometown in the north-west of England, or the history of workers’ militancy in the 20th century. But he is much less convincing when he branches into the territory of the ‘networked movements’ of recent years. The organised factory proletariat in the US, Europe and Japan never carved out a path to postcapitalism – or socialism as it was then known – but Occupy, Maidan, Tahrir Square, and even the protests against the Workers’ Party government in Brazil, ‘are evidence that a new historical subject exists. It is not just the working class in a different guise; it is networked humanity.’ The ‘new gravedigger’ produced by capitalism consists of ‘the networked individuals who have camped in the city squares, blockaded the fracking sites, performed punk rock on the roofs of Russian cathedrals, raised defiant cans of beer in the face of Islamism on the grass of Gezi Park’ etc. This is kitsch, but more significant is Mason’s failure to analyse the political content of the movements of the young. Not a lot of people in any of them considered ‘capitalism’ their main enemy, probably less so than the average striker in the 1930s or 1970s. They are a disparate bunch, from all manner of class backgrounds, advocating various positions across the political spectrum, but all united apparently by their use of Twitter and their distrust of ‘old elites’ and hierarchies. Since they carry no baggage, it isn’t worth investigating why, say, the protests in Brazil so easily passed over into racism, why some in Tahrir Square preferred a new general to an elected Islamist, why both sides in Ukraine’s unrest had a crucial far-right element, or why the descendants of Occupy in London and New York now find themselves campaigning for ageing, old-school leftist social democrats. Mason sweeps all this away on a tide of goofy utopianism.

The point Mason reiterates again and again is that in the struggle between postcapitalism and its alleged neoliberal enemies, ‘everything is pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy.’ This is perhaps the issue on which he differs most from Srnicek and Williams. The first part of Inventing the Future mounts a critique of local, self-organised, non-hierarchical politics. Srnicek and Williams prefer to call it ‘folk politics’, though it seems as deeply enmeshed in the internet and its social networks as the futurism they advocate; more so, in fact. The participants in folk politics, like Mason’s young networked individuals, prefer ‘the everyday over the structural … feeling over thinking’. Their exponents can be found in Occupy, 15M in Spain, the Zapatistas and most forms of politics predicated on direct action: immediacy is all. In folk politics, ‘the importance of tactics and process is placed above strategic objectives,’ so that the mode of communication – whether the face-to-face deliberations in a protest camp or the use of social media to organise – becomes a fetish, and political content secondary. So far as Srnicek and Williams are concerned, the idea of being the change you want to see in the world practically guarantees that change won’t take place.

Why does folk politics apparently thrive in the networked world of contemporary protest? Because, they claim, it creates a warm glow, a sense that you are indeed ‘doing something’, reinforced when a minor battle is actually won: ‘Small successes – useful, no doubt, for instilling a sense of hope – nevertheless wither in the face of overwhelming losses.’ The ‘key challenge facing the left today,’ they write, ‘is to reckon with the disappointments and failures of the most recent cycle of struggles.’ These include ‘the recent history of revolutions – from the Iranian Revolution to the Arab Spring’ (a big sweep there), which has ‘simply led to some combination of theocratic authoritarianism, military dictatorship and civil war.’ They have more time for movements that have tried to approach state power via the more familiar route of winning elections: the attempt, for instance, to create ‘dual power’ between the state and collectives in Venezuela – something which now seems abortive, but was at least an attempt to build something genuinely ‘counter-hegemonic’ and ‘structural’.

What the historical labour movement did, in Srnicek and Williams’s eyes, was set itself goals and demands – for pensions, social security, fewer working hours – and fight for them inside and outside the workplace. What they are really proposing, when their critique of folk politics is put aside (it already seems overtaken by events, now that the young post-crash left is organising not in affinity groups but in political parties), is that a new set of demands be agreed and doggedly insisted on, in the manner of the old left. Two of these – Full Automation and Universal Basic Income – are concrete; the other, The Future, is naturally somewhat vaguer. Srnicek and Williams remind us of the once-ubiquitous belief that by the 21st century, we’d all be working a three-day week, yet ‘the average full-time US worker in fact logs closer to 47 hours a week,’ not counting travel. This is all the more absurd, they argue, given how much work is automated already, let alone what’s to come in the future. Their imagined non-labour movement will demand full automation as something that isn’t just possible but necessary. Yet while a great deal of work could be automated without serious problems, there remains much that it is difficult to imagine being automated even in the long run, care work in particular – an issue that Srnicek and Williams gloss over.

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As for what will sustain the population after full automation is achieved, that’s where the Universal Basic Income comes in. Mason also supports UBI, and proposes that it should be ‘paid for out of taxes on the market economy’, so that its recipients can put their time into the postcapitalist part of the economy. Google will be ruthlessly taxed so that former call centre workers and Poundland shop assistants can do shifts on Wikipedia. Here, as elsewhere, Mason goes further than Srnicek and Williams in articulating an alternative and putting forward a means of achieving it. Where Srnicek and Williams show some affection for aspects of Soviet socialism (particularly its space programme and its ‘interventionist’ approach to nature, human and non-human), Mason has contempt for the ‘forced march’ approach of the USSR and its satellites. The Soviet system, he argues, provided a ‘way out’ of capitalism that ended up creating ‘something worse than capitalism’. (This isn’t terribly fair: the real question, you might think, should be whether it was better than Russian capitalism, as it existed at the turn of the 20th century or has in the last 25 years, which is a more difficult matter.)

Mason doesn’t share the opinion of ‘cyber-Stalinists’ that computing power gives new life to the fantasy of a completely planned economy: ‘Even with the best supercomputer and the biggest data farm, planning is not the primary route beyond capitalism.’ Such a system, he argues, has no role for ‘e-commerce, network structures, peer-to-peer free stuff’ – that is, forms of noncapitalist life that actually exist. Mason remains a peculiar kind of Marxist. He opposes blueprints for computerised socialist economies for much the same reason that Marx and Engels attacked contemporary ‘utopian socialists’: that their plans ignored the ‘real movement that abolishes the present state of things’ – that is, the organised working class. Mason’s version of this is his networked kids, busy abolishing capitalism one click at a time.

And yet, suddenly, near the end of PostCapitalism, planning comes back. For the first time, Mason brings up climate change. He rejects the notion that ‘the market’ could help, via carbon trading or the like, and then, as if speaking from another book entirely, advocates ‘state control and planning’ as the means to move to a zero-carbon economy in which the ‘low wage, low skill and low quality corporations’ that thrive under neoliberalism will be ‘ruthlessly’ suppressed, as the labour movement was in the 1980s. The incredible non-hierarchical network turns out to be completely irrelevant to what is obviously going to be the major problem of the next hundred years. Srnicek and Williams, meanwhile, do little more than note that climate change is one of the vast structural issues that ‘folk politics’ couldn’t possibly solve: after full automation, they claim, a more relaxed population would consume less, hence putting less pressure on resources. That’s as may be, but it would be nice if either Mason or Srnicek and Williams had told us a little more about our new robot servants: where they will be made, what they will be made of, where the materials to make them will be mined – that sort of thing.

The optimism of both these books, the belief that big problems can be solved, is infectious, but in the end postcapitalism, like postmodernism, is the name of an absence, not a positive programme. Like the anticapitalism of the early 2000s, it tells you what it’s not: in this case, the old left, folk politics, social democracy or Stalinism, with their hierarchies and lack of cool free stuff. Postcapitalism, like precapitalism, could be feudalism or slavery or some Threads-like nightmare of devastated cities and radioactive nomads. Or it could merely be the non-free-market statism that so horrifies Mason. Socialism, however much its meaning may have been clouded by overuse, still means something social, communism something communal, anarchism something anarchic. Each is something you might want to fight for because you believe in it. Postcapitalism tells you that the forces of production make something possible, then suggests either that you demand it, or that you’re already doing it.