Paul Mason’s postcapitalism

This text is a comment on Paul Mason’s The end of capitalism has begun from an anarchist communist perspective, and I suggest at least skimming through the original article to better understand the points presented here.

Almost a thousand years ago, the millenarian movement as well as that of the heretics, expressed views about society which Silvia Federici describes as, at their best, calling for “an egalitarian social order based upon the sharing of wealth and the refusal of hierarchies and authoritarian rule”. [1] Later on, the utopian socialists outlined remarkably similar conditions for human well-being, and soon enough, along came Karl Marx and underpinned his purposefully vague vision of a future communist society with a thorough analysis of capitalism and its inherent contradictions.

Anarchist communist Peter Kropotkin seized on the opportunity to point out the revolutionary potential of technology already some 150 years ago, and saw in it a seed and a means towards human emancipation – from the state, from capitalism, and from work as we know it. In each of these cases, externally or internally imposed material conditions put such ideas into immediate opposition with the reigning order, created genuinely revolutionary outbursts, and expressed utopian visions of a potential society. John Maynard Keynes, in turn, to take a mainstream figure of more modest claims, predicted that we would work perhaps 15 hours a week by now, thanks to that same technological potentiality.

What all these examples – and many others with them – also have in common, unfortunately, is that their largely commendable visions have not yet come to fruition. It is with this nuanced and somewhat somber realization that I’d like to approach Paul Mason’s recent text concerning the supposedly oncoming age of postcapitalism. Not to completely shoot it down as idealist or naive, but rather to draw on the strengths of his analysis while cautioning that a lack of realistic historical analysis combined with a somewhat sensationalist tone might lead to disappointment and unexpected outcomes. In a sense, I’d like to claim that all these groups and individuals, and their visions, were realistic, and that in a sense they were right – we could do this, we could have a radically different society – and that the actual turn of events is “wrong”, in that it defies a logic that springs from an honest concern for the well-being of sentient creatures.

Paul Mason proclaims that it is time to be utopian, and I agree, because I don’t see any reason to refrain from being utopian, at least to some extent, at any point in time. A social movement, especially a revolutionary one, must always know where it is going, even if it by necessity is a sketch and a hypothesis, because otherwise it is hard to know where and how to start, and impossible to utilize prefigurative politics to get there. The phrase “utopian” is far too often used in a cynical way, to deride proponents of radical change, and I refuse to identify with the term in such a manner. In that way, I see Mason’s vision as utopian in the positive sense of the word, and I agree with some of his sentiments. It is rather with the glimpses of methodology, and the analysis of past struggles for social change, that I find myself at odds.

First, Mason’s analysis of the left is somewhat odd. It seems to be focused on the center-left of modern social democracy, or as he himself writes, even liberal parties, which for me hardly qualifies as “the left”. If that is to be understood as the left, then certainly the left seems out of ideas, or even desire, to move beyond capitalism. But in that case, there is also an alternative beyond the left – whatever we might call it, in certain Marxist and various anarchist tendencies, which for a very long time have offered what can broadly be described as libertarian socialism. Not much of Mason’s critique seems aimed at libertarian socialism. These currents are largely materialist in their analysis, have always had utopian components, don’t focus on “forced-march techniques” and never intended to forcefully destroy the market “from above”. It seems then, that Mason applies his critique from an angle which he considers novel and not yet utilized, while in fact he echoes critiques of mainstream politics heard from anarchist and other socialist radicals for many, many years.

Mason does mention both anarchist David Graeber and Karl Marx, but does so somewhat in passing, while arguably, much of what is here presented as a “postcapitalist” analysis of capitalism could fit well within a Marxian analysis (left communists, council communists, autonomist Marxists, Marxist-Humanists, etc), and notions of building the new in the shell of the old are found abundantly throughout anarchist literature and thought, from Proudhon’s mutualism, through most anarcho-syndicalist tendencies and to modern representatives of various strains of anarchism.

Such distancing in itself can be seen as just a tactical way of avoiding being dragged down into sectarianism and ideological quagmires, but at the same times it raises concern whether the lessons of history have been properly accounted for in terms of how to go forward, or if Mason is genuinely trying to reinvent the wheel. This is eerily familiar to the Zeitgeist movement, for instance, which expresses many libertarian socialist ideas, but has a rather shallow analysis of state and capitalism, which in my opinion causes on the one hand its visions to have dangerous flaws, and on the other hand its praxis – how to proceed in practice to reach the goal – to be very weak and detached from existing social movements.

This somewhat generic concern could be found to be inaccurate on a closer analysis, but as the text unfolds, it is rather confirmed on several important points. Mason’s unproblematic relation towards the state being a particularly unappealing notion from an anarchist perspective, weaved in with a distinct lack of practical suggestions beyond dangerously naive appeals for the state to “nurture” the transition. Another significant problem is the, somewhat sensationalist in its self-confidence, statement that we are entering a unique and profound shift in our mode of production – apparently without even noticing it.

I would argue that throughout history, there have been many moments, a sort of paradigm shifts, where new sudden innovations, breakthroughs or disasters have shaped the unfolding events in often radical and sometimes unexpected ways. The Black Death changed the conditions for the feudal serfs, while the introduction of the steam engine and electricity fundamentally changed production and transportation as well as many other aspects of society. In each such shift, there lies a socially revolutionary potentiality. When, for instance, manual labor is substituted for electrically augmented labor, this ripples the fabric of the mode of production, introduces new contradictions and areas of conflicts, and disposes of old relations or traditions.

It is much easier to have a serious impact, in this state of a “blank slate”, where the relations and contradictions are new. It is not necessarily easy, but it is definitely easier than when fighting perhaps hundreds of years of ingrained customs, habits and control mechanisms. Each such shift, is in its own sense unique, with a unique set of attributes and potentialities. This is true also for information technology, but it is in my opinion not correct to envisage this shift as somehow uniquely different in its revolutionary potentiality as compared to the shifts earlier in history – shifts that so far often did lead to social upheaval, but that rarely overcame and fundamentally changed a given mode of production, or when they did, it wasn’t necessarily for the immediate benefit of the popular classes.

Electricity and the following industrialization, reshaped both society and the process of production in fundamental – violent, even – ways. But the basic underlying mode of production, capitalism, remained intact, and in fact, thrived. It was a reshaping it came to own, and which it molded in its own “interest”, despite fierce resistance from the would-be labor force that often preferred death or severe destitution to wage labor. As the portion of labor dedicated to agriculture shrunk away and was replaced by industrial work, to a point where the former has gone from an overwhelming majority to mere percentages in western societies, it is clear that the likes of Kropotkin were right regarding how little effort it would take to produce food for an entire population with new technological aids. What did not follow, however, was the radical break with capitalism that such potential lack of scarcity could imply.

Something that always irks me in discussions of this type, is whenever I come across the excitingly proclaimed sentiment – age old or brand new – that now we’ve reached a state of abundance that makes production according to ability and distribution according to needs a real possibility. It has always been a real possibility to organize society along such egalitarian lines, of course with “abundance” and the satisfaction of “needs” seen as relative to the material conditions of the time – nomadic hunter-gatherers, early farmers, industrial settings, and so on. But what is becoming more and more apparent as technology makes it increasingly easy to provide ever more abundant resources is that our present mode of production – capitalism – was never intended to embrace such a “post-scarcity” scenario, instead leading to absurd manifestations of artificial scarcity. This is something Mason of course emphasizes in regards to information technology, where inherently abundant resources are made scarce, but at the same time he doesn’t seem to note that we’ve operated on a policy of artificial scarcity in many other areas, such as food and housing, for the longest time.

We have enough food to feed the entire world, and enough resources to house everyone, but instead a lot of the food we farm is thrown away, while the homeless roam the streets surrounded by empty houses. Not to mention “Big Pharma”, where ridiculous amounts of resources are directed towards what can only be described as luxury consumption of medication instead of towards real, deadly and easily curable diseases that still plague large parts of the world.

When the industrial work allocation peaked in the west, and started to contract, again , as with agriculture, we did not see a revolutionary contradiction surface and prevail, but instead saw the growth of a new sector – services – as industrial jobs gravitated towards new markets. In this way, and hand in hand with globalization as well as other neoliberal policies, capitalism has once again turned an existential threat into a tool in its own service, this time largely aided by information technology. Here, Mason’s hopes of a great contradiction between the potential abundance of information and goods offered by information technology seem to already be partially put to shame, or at least in a state where we seriously need to ask ourselves how we are supposed to reclaim the initiative.

Another observation that puts specific IT-related claims of the exceptional conditions of our present time into perspective is Andrew Kliman’s book The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession [2], in which the author challenges what he calls the “Conventional Left Account” of the last decades; neoliberalism taking hold in the early 80s; worker’s share of income and real pay declining; profit rates rebounding; and growth lacking due to the redirection of profits from new production to de-regulated finance markets. Using convincing data and analysis, Kliman instead points towards Marx’s analysis of the tendency of the falling rate of profits, and argues that rather than a victorious neoliberalism, we’re seeing a desperate capitalism, unable to recapture its very contextual post-WW2 growth and profit rates. Here we have a rather orthodox Marxian explanation that could, if sensationalized in a way that Kliman avoids, offer the way out. Or perhaps used in tandem with Mason’s analysis. Even without taking sides, the thing to keep in mind is how many factors and aspects are at play, and how dangerous it can be to over-emphasize and single out one of them.

Mason’s approach also largely seems to deal with the state of western societies, even though he does mention that the workforce is “hugely expanded”. The fact that many of these new workers are also industrial workers (or service workers with very similar working conditions) doesn’t seem to affect the analysis. It can of course be argued that the potential for change will be realized in the most “advanced” part of the economy, but that was the idea a hundred years ago as well, when the sages of the time expected the proletariat of Germany to rise, but instead got a revolution in largely pre-industrial Russia. A shift might start elsewhere, due to specific circumstances, and then sweep over the world. This could be South America, The Middle East, or Asia depending on what factors we put most trust in.

All this doesn’t mean that we should give up or ignore information technology. On the contrary, I think there are relevant battles to be fought in this area, but so are the battles in workplaces, around social issues and around global economic and political power interests. Information technology is here but one of the arenas where we have to struggle, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the others.

So when Mason claims that what we need is “a project, the aim of which should be to expand those technologies, business models and behaviors that dissolve market forces, socialize knowledge, eradicate the need for work and push the economy towards abundance” we are left wondering what it is we are actually supposed to do, when these technologies right now don’t seem to “dissolve market forces” but instead, as for instance is the case with Uber or AirBnB, utilize the networking potential and people’s voluntary work and association, for free, to privatize and extract profits, and sometimes also to monetize and commodify yet another area of life that was before outside of the sphere of economics altogether. It almost sounds as a tech-inspired accelerationism, in worst case, and we’re not really given any hints as to how this technology is supposedly going to dissolve what it on the face of it seems to strengthen, or at least maintain.

This leads us to the topic of potential action, and sadly the feeling is that we are somewhat left wanting, in best case, and shirking, in the worst. The chief concern here is the unproblematic role that Mason attributes to the state in this process. Drawing parallels with late feudalism and the onset of capitalism, Mason describes how the state switched “from hindering the change to promoting it”, but what does that really tell us about the role of the state and the outcome of this promotion? The enclosures of commons, poor laws, combination laws, the harsh penalties imposed on those refusing to submit to wage slavery – all the parts that together form what is known as the process of primitive accumulation – do rather imply that the state co-opted the process, or was itself utilized as a tool by the new emerging elites.

This is where an anarchist analysis of the state, based on first hand experience and roughly 200 years of libertarian thought and struggles, together with a Marxian analysis of the role of the state in the rise of capitalism sounds an alarm bell the size of a Google server hall. Mason goes on to tell us that “It will need the state to create the framework – just as it created the framework for factory labor, sound currencies and free trade in the early 19th century” and that we need “to use governmental power in a radical and disruptive way; and to direct all actions towards the transition – not the defense of random elements of the old system”. There is however no mention how we are supposed to seize the state for these purposes, why we should expect it to already be on our side, or how we stop short of abusing that new power in the way power interests always have tended to abuse it – to protect themselves, the new elite, from enemies real and imaginary, known by a hundred different names.

Beyond this glaring issue lies another one hinted at in the last quote. Obviously, no anti-capitalist considers their struggle as one for “the defense of random elements of the old system”. While Mason at places acknowledges the multitude of struggles that can and should be pursued in parallel, he seems to at the same time dismiss at least a portion of them as being of this dubious type. But there seems to be a lack of examples here that only underscores the potentially unnecessary dichotomy. Some of the most popular and well known libertarian struggles were exactly a combination of defending worker’s rights within the old system, while at the same time building the new world in the shell of that old one. I am of course thinking about the anarcho-syndicalist movement, as well as the many ways in which anarchists radicalized working class struggles on bread-and-butter issues (I always instinctively want to write bread-and-roses issues – maybe I should) around the globe, from Haymarket, the Paris commune and the various eastern European as well as Asian revolutions and free territories, to contemporary struggles in South America or the Middle East.

What we are left with, then, is a set of good and inspirational (albeit somewhat sensationalist) notions regarding the revolutionary potentiality of technology, surrounded by a lack of utilization of the rich history of anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist struggle on the one hand, and an unattributed echoing of many libertarian socialist ideas on the other. Now, at this point this text might indeed come across as a mauling of Mason’s ideas. But instead of dismissing it out of hand, I’d prefer to end by focusing on the potentialities of technology, because it is here that Mason’s contribution is the most appealing.

There is a lot of room for an anarchist communist reinterpretation of Mason’s ideas. Above all, there is definitely potential to more actively engage, as anarchists, in the ways that information technology is utilized and developed. Some years back, then-CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer, compared prominent software that runs under licenses impossible to utilize by commercial companies with “a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches”. [3] This should be like music to our ears. Engaging in and not only participating but actively trying to radicalize free and open source software and other autonomous, decentralized and empowering techniques seems today to be an underutilized method. It could work, for instance, similar to the techniques of the successful South American anarchist groups, which based their tactics around the notion of especifismo and social insertion; on the one hand, specific anarchist organizations; on the other hand, participation in social movements as anarchists, trying to help those social movements succeed while radicalizing them.

One of the most interesting features of the young internet was the way in which technology and norms outpaced regulation and oversight. Before legislators realized it, people were already utilizing the new technological basis to create and share on a scale never before seen. For a while, the internet was basically free. This led people to adopt practices that turned out to be at odds with what legislators and the political and economic elites directing them had in mind. As anti file sharing laws were passed around the globe, literally millions of people were formally turned into criminals, which for many for the first time opened their eyes to how little their individuality and liberty really mattered when push came to shove. To a degree, that rebellious nature of the internet still persists, and there has certainly always existed a potential in this power vacuum for anarchist radicalization, agitation and direct action. Many people intuitively object to the limitations imposed on the sharing of freely available resources, the surveillance, and state-corporate intrusions into both the privacy and liberty of individuals so prevalent online today.

There is a whole range of technologies and applications, from file sharing, secure communication and freely available software tools for users, to the collaborative projects for the purpose of creating these solutions for the benefit of everyone. All these things can be utilized on a scale between oblivious and radical, where the latter is more of a prefigurative politics to use and create things as an alternative, in opposition to the established norms and systems, as a means of building the new in the shell of the old, both in terms of users and creators. Or exactly as Mason puts it: “This is no longer simply my survival mechanism”. Having free software developers, creators and contributors of culture, and users of distributed file sharing connect with each other in consciously subversive networks is one thing. But as awesome as freely available software and culture are, we all still need to eat, and we need a place to call home. This is where I think it is important to consciously connect digital radicalism to the material basis, and the social conflicts taking place in the real world, thus expanding and strengthening the network of resistance.

There is no reason to believe that the impact that radical groups can have in real life social movements couldn’t be translated into the realm of software and information technology in general, and also tied in with other anarchist organizations and activities, such as for instance syndicalists and those involved in social movements outside unions. This would lead to a broad approach, where many methods are utilized and everyone can find their particular form of resistance, fostering an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual aid while engaging in and radicalizing many struggles at the same time. While it would introduce many activists to new and useful tools available according to need, it would connect the tech-savvy radicals to the traditional real world movements, thus connecting them to a rich tradition of this type of agitation and direct action, and also to the struggles and relevant issues of millions of people. This now starts to look as a nurturing from below, by the grassroots, and on a broad front. If Mason’s text or the coming book can inspire more anarchists to engage in direct action of this type, or think about ways to utilize this opportunity, then indeed, his contribution has been very helpful.


[1] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, https://libcom.org/library/caliban-witch-silvia-federici

[2] Andrew Kliman discusses his findings, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0yU5mTYxas

[3] Web Archive, Interview with Steve Ballmer, https://web.archive.org/web/20010615205548/http://suntimes.com/output/tech/cst-fin-micro01.html

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