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Paul Mason and His Critics (Such As They Are)

Monday, December 14, 2015 23:11
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In a preview article at The Guardian last July for his new book Post-Capitalism (“The end of capitalism has begun,” July 17), Paul Mason — following a path previously trodden by John Holloway and by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt — argued that the emergence of a successor system to capitalism would resemble not so much the 19th and 20th century models of storming the bastions of power and seizing control of state and corporate institutions, as the earlier evolution of capitalism itself from within the interstices of feudalism. Post-capitalism will grow from many building blocks in the present system, now present only in nascent form, as the old system succumbs to chronic crisis tendencies and the seeds of the new system grow together into a whole and finally supplant the old one.

Among the seeds both of the new system and of the old one’s destruction are the declining absolute quantity of labor required for production, networked communications and social organization, the rise of cooperative production, and the destructive effect of freely replicable information on the market price system.

Stephanie McMillan at SkewedNews (“So-Called “Post-Capitalism” is Just Another Crappy Capitalist Snowjob,” July 22) isn’t having any of it. She dismisses Mason’s post-capitalist vision as — well, I guess her title is pretty self-explanatory.

The problem is, it’s not exactly clear from one paragraph to the next whether her critique is based on a careless reading of Mason’s actual article, or she’s treating him as a type and telescoping together what he actually says with other stuff said by a lot of “New Economy” and Silicon Valley types she doesn’t like. She wouldn’t be the first figure on the Left to lump together decentralism, networks and high tech with Gingrichoid dotcom capitalism under a general heading of “things I don’t like,” and to unjustifiably dismiss left-wing visions of commons-based peer production and open-source as Trojan horses for Peter Thiel-style capitalism. I’ve seen the same thing from Thomas Frank on the center-center-Left, and even from Doug Henwood (a sort of managerial-centrist Social Democrat).

I suspect she’s doing the same thing herself, based on all the “theys” she cites in this passage and their (to put it kindly) tangential relationship to anything Mason actually says:

First they offer reassuring-sounding it-won’t-be-that-bad schemes like “cradle to cradle,” “conscious capitalism,” “social entrepreneurship,” and “green capitalism.” But these are quickly revealed to be the same old crap in prettier packaging.

Then they decry capitalism’s “excesses” by defining the problem not a capitalism itself, but as errors within an otherwise acceptable economic system. They add qualifiers: crony capitalism, disaster capitalism, corporate capitalism, blah blah blah. They build stellar careers as public intellectuals by offering the comforting thought that if we could simply eliminate its worst elements, the system might yet be saved. But this formula sounds increasingly hollow, as people figure out that the worst aspects of capitalism aren’t a mistake. They’re inherent to it.

The problem is compounded by her lack of clarity as to just what her criticism is. She admits at one point that cooperatives, networks and such may “positive and necessary steps towards a non-capitalist mode of production” — but if the overall system remains capitalist they’ll simply be coopted as parts of capitalism, and their character will be defined dialectically by the character of the larger system they belong to. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But she never really makes it clear how she envisions socialism succeeding capitalism, or just what a fully socialist system would entail. Could a post-capitalist system evolve from nascent elements within the fabric of capitalism, gradually knitting together and then supplanting it, in a manner analogous to the emergence of capitalism from late feudalism? Or will it require some kind of dramatic insurrectionary transition in which the working class seizes all the commanding heights of the political and economic system and fundamentally transform it in one grand action?

If she acknowledges that the existing seeds of post-capitalism might grow until they result in a phase transition — a “transformation of quantity into quality” — and change the fundamental character of the system, then it’s hardly fair to blame Mason for pointing to the seeds of a post-capitalist system just because the existing system is still capitalist. And it’s hardly fair to dismiss him as an apologist for the present system if he explicitly argues — which he does — that the existing seeds of post-capitalism are nascent and undeveloped and their ultimate outgrowth will be a system very unlike the present.

McMillan hardly even acknowledges that Mason has a vision of post-capitalism as a future system that will grow out of the present one — never mind explaining exactly how the fully developed future system he envisions fails to live up to genuine socialism.

And McMillan never makes it clear what she sees as the fundamental defining features of capitalism itself, as opposed to the “excesses” and “qualifiers.” Is it just the wage system, or the extraction of rent and profit from the remuneration of labor? Is it the bare existence of market exchange and commodity prices as such? What, in concrete terms, would be required for “the framework of capitalism [to be] broken entirely”? How far would cooperatives, peer-production and the rest have to evolve, and what larger structures would they have to be part of, before the system as a whole would no longer be characterized as “capitalist”?

So let’s go through McMillan’s critique piece by piece, and compare it to what Mason actually said.

We’ll start with the two paragraphs quoted above. Going through Mason’s article, I’m at a loss finding anything he said that remotely sounds like praise for any kind of “conscious” or “green” capitalist model in the present economy as post-capitalism in action, or just calling for reforms to pare off a bit of “crony capitalism” from a fundamentally sound system. Far from celebrating proprietary corporate walled gardens like Uber or AirBNB as models for his ideal end state, the primary models he appeals to in the United States are genuinely free and open projects like Linux and Wikipedia. And even more than that, he lionizes the counter-institutions emerging in places like Greece as an alternative to neoliberalism: barter currencies, squats, and genuinely non-capitalist sharing networks.

I can only guess that McMillan really dislikes the greenwashed “progressive capitalism” model pushed by Paul Romer, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Bono, and because of her unstated ideological assumptions she’s unable to perceive the very stark differences between that model and what Mason envisons.

She continues:

In a Guardian article anticipating his new book “Postcapitalism,” he spreads the good news that we have already entered the post-capitalist era, “without us noticing.”

But hold off on the victory party, comrades. If we were beyond capitalism, we would have noticed. I don’t know about you, but I imagine that a post-capitalist world would feel a little less like the same old frenzied forced march on the treadmill of anxiety, alienation, and failure to make ends meet.

It’s hard not to suspect this misconstruction of being flat-out disingenuous or wilfully obtuse, when Mason makes it abundantly clear in numerous places that “[w]ithout us noticing, we are entering the postcapitalist era” only in the sense that the nuclei around which post-capitalism will crystallize, in a prolonged evolutionary process, into a full-blown system already exist within the present system — not that post-capitalism already exists as a system. For example:

[Capitalism] will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system…

* * * *

As with the end of feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s replacement by postcapitalism will be accelerated by external shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being. And it has started.

* * * *

Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm.

* * * *

You only find this new economy if you look hard for it.

* * * *

It seems a meagre and unofficial and even dangerous thing from which to craft an entire alternative to a global system, but so did money and credit in the age of Edward III.

* * * *

Present throughout the whole process [of feudalism’s evolution into capitalism] was something that looks incidental to the old system – money and credit – but which was actually destined to become the basis of the new system….

A combination of all these factors took a set of people who had been marginalised under feudalism – humanists, scientists, craftsmen, lawyers, radical preachers and bohemian playwrights such as Shakespeare – and put them at the head of a social transformation.

Get the picture? We are, without noticing, entering the post-capitalist era in the same sense that people near the height of feudalism would have failed to notice the building blocks of what would one day be a radically different capitalist system. It’s hard to see how McMillan could have read the statements quoted above and still misread Mason’s “we are entering the post-capitalist era” in such a crude fashion.

She continues:

He offers as evidence the claim that we’ve “loosened the relationship between work and wages.” This is pretty clever. He knows that people who envision a future beyond capitalism—socialists, communists, anarchists—understand that abolishing the wage system is the key to emancipating humanity from capitalism. But only a fool (or a well-paid content provider) could possibly confuse “abolishing the wage system” with “wages dwindling to nothing.” All that’s happening is that capitalists are taking more and we’re getting less. Far from capitalism being no more, capitalism is doing better than ever, at our expense.

Being ultra-underpaid is not a positive step toward a bright new economy—it sucks! Garment workers in Haiti paid 225 gourdes a day ($4.01 at the current exchange rate) understand this. Prisoners in Alabama paid 23 cents an hour understand this. It certainly must begin to gnaw on the minds of interns, as well as WWOOFers (working on farms in exchange for room and board, then turned loose to starve during the winters), that unpaid work doesn’t lead to “dismantling capitalism” but rather “testing out another form of wage-free capitalist accumulation.”

This is just despicable. Mason explicitly states that cooperative, self-managed work is a way out from the neoliberal sweatshop economy of falling wages, and will eventually supplant it in a post-capitalist social economy. McMillan may think he’s wrong. She may well believe that new communications and production technology will be coopted into capitalism, and that current trends will result in the increasing dominance of precarious, underpaid employment and sweatshop labor, rather than Mason’s vision of an economy of abundance centered on peer-production and self-employment. She may believe that Uber, AirBNB and sweatshops are what will actually result from Mason’s good intentions, his predictions to the contrary notwithstanding. If so she should make a case for it.

But I simply cannot convince myself she’s stupid enough to actually believe low-wage, precarious employment and sweatshop work is what Mason himself defines as the abolition of the wage system. But he is not an apologist for sweatshops and precarity or for the capitalist model they’re a part of, and portraying him as such is inexcusable.

The “sharing economy”is another huge restructuring of the employer/employee relationship that benefits investors at the expense of the masses. Our workdays are being stretched into a series of endless tasks, cobbled together out of freelancing and side hustles, with barely any compensation to speak of. Yet they tell us this is somehow liberatory, that we’re participating in some glorious manifestation of the commons because we have to rent out our bedrooms, drive strangers around in our cars, hawk ourselves with “self-branding,” sell our possessions on eBay for a few bucks, and crowdfund our creative work, while millions in fees are collected by … someone. Someone else. Someone not us. Someone not us who lives in a mansion.

Once again, McMillan conflates Mason with the unspecified “they” of greenwashed New Age capitalism. But to repeat, Mason may or may not be wrong that the current “sharing economy,” now still imprisoned to a large extent within proprietary corporate walls, will eventually burst forth from its capitalist integument and become a genuinely cooperative and open-source sharing economy controlled by the users themselves. If so McMillan should make a case for that. But he is not an apologist for Uber and AirBNB, and anyone who seriously portrays his argument as such is either dishonest or so hindered by their own ideological blinders as to be incapable of reading him with even basic competence.

Let’s see what remedies many of them point to: “collaborative commons,” “workplace democracy,” “workers’ co-ops,” “mutual aid,” the “sharing economy.” These sound good, and indeed some of them may be positive and necessary steps toward a non-capitalist mode of production. But they are just that—steps—and it’s a mistake to confuse them with the path as a whole. Unless the framework of capitalism is broken entirely, they circle back to the beginning every time. Capitalism is not damaged simply because we engage in activity that is cooperative, non-hierarchical, collaborative or “socialistic.” It can and often does assimilate this activity, monetize it to generate new revenue streams. At the same time it helps manage and metabolize our discontent.

This despite Mason’s own explicit statement that capitalism is attempting to coopt the p2p and cooperative revolutions within a corporate framework, using “intellectual property” the same way feudal landlords used absentee title to the land the peasants worked, in order to extract rent from them:

You can observe the truth of this in every e-business model ever constructed: monopolise and protect data, capture the free social data generated by user interaction, push commercial forces into areas of data production that were non-commercial before, mine the existing data for predictive value – always and everywhere ensuring nobody but the corporation can utilise the results.

…The business models of all our modern digital giants are designed to prevent the abundance of information…

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.

Obviously Mason’s vision of post-capitalism presupposes the failure of these “intellectual property” enclosures, and the emergence of genuinely cooperative, open-source and p2p versions of the present “sharing economy” falsely so-called. He obviously believes that the corporate enclosure of the information and sharing economies is an interim phase, ultimately doomed to destruction by the same uncontrollable free information technologies that are currently destroying the old-line music industry. His “educated and connected human being” is, in Negri’s words, a new subject of history, a gravedigger, destined to tear the enclosures down.

As Niki Seth-Smith of Precarious Europe argues (Postcapitalism and the precariat,” August 24) in response to those like McMillan who tar Mason’s vision with corporate “sharing economy” employers like Uber,

These represent the ‘push back’, the attempt to re-monetize the social wealth of the commons, the innumerable networks of cooperation and reciprocity that the digital age allows. Uber is not an example of Postcapitalism in action, it is at the frontier of the fight to re-capture the commons back into the old system of profit.

And, more generally, Mason sees capitalism as a system beset by multiple crisis tendencies. One of them is the ultimate unenforceability of the “intellectual property” rights and other legal monopolies that artificial scarcity in information depends on. As Cory Doctorow has argued (I paraphrase from rough recollection), the computer is a machine for copying bits of information at zero marginal cost. So any business model that depends on stopping people from copying bits of information is doomed to fail. Mason predicts, more broadly, the failure of all attempts to enclose the technologies of abundance as the basis for a new “social system of accumulation” or Kondratiev long-wave (which is basically what Gates, Buffet and their ilk are aiming for).

To repeat, McMillan may believe this isn’t going to happen, and that the corporate enclosures will prevail indefinitely. If so, she should make an argument for that belief rather than simply portraying Mason as an apologist for the corporate enclosures. But that would actually require intellectual honesty.

Mason argues, post-modernistically, that because “information wants to be free,” the concept of value has become meaningless….

It’s obvious to anyone who pays attention that the falling prices of an infinitely-replicable immaterial service does not, by any means, translate to the world of physical commodities. Some things can’t be replicated in pixels or even by a 3-D printer. Clothing, food, housing, fuel and computers can only be replicated by employing the labor power of exploited workers. Those things are not losing value.

Exploitation in the process of production is still at the heart of the global economy. And as long as the value produced by workers is being appropriated and accumulated by capitalists, then we are still in capitalism.

Only a self-serving Silicon Valley dreamer or a severely deluded business journalist can argue, with a straight face, that the falling price of ebooks translates into everyone on the planet being able to have plenty of free food. Perhaps Paul Mason ought to do a little experiment on himself: stay in a room with unlimited information. When he gets hungry, he can eat it.

Anyone who says the unenforceability of information monopolies has no bearing on the cost of physical commodities doesn’t know much about physical production. McMillan should have paid closer attention to this statement of Masons: “The knowledge content of products is becoming more valuable than the physical things that are used to produce them.”

Back in the 1990s, Tom Peters — now there’s a genuine apologist for capitalism, wrapped up in New Age salesmanship, if McMillan wants to see what one actually looks like — crowed in ecstasy over the portion of the price of his new Minolta camera that resulted from “intellect”; that is, he was utterly jubilant that all the embedded rents on “intellectual property” were a larger part of its price than the actual materials and labor. Likewise, it’s primarily patents and trademarks that enable companies like Nike and Apple to completely outsource actual production to independent contractors, and use a legal monopoly over disposal of the product to enable themselves to mark up the price to a thousand or more percent over the actual cost of production. So it doesn’t take a genius to see that abolishing the patents and trademarks — or their growing unenforceability against knockoffs in small job-shops as a result of technological trends — would cause an implosion in the retail price of such goods relative to the income of those who produced them.

But it doesn’t stop there. Technological change is not only enabling the unlimited replication of information at zero marginal cost, but it’s radically cheapening and ephemeralizing physical production as well. If information — bits — want to be free, then atoms at least want to be a hell of a lot cheaper. The emergence of relatively small-scale CNC machine tools in the ’70s enabled the rise of networked cooperative production in Emilia-Romagna, as well as the corporate outsourcing of a growing share of production to independent job shops in Shenzhen. It reduced the cost of production machinery by an order of magnitude and made craft production in smaller cooperative shops feasible. The revolution in even smaller tabletop open-source CNC tools in the past decade or so has reduced the cost of machinery necessary by another order of magnitude, and made it possible to carry out, in a garage shop with ten or twenty thousand dollars worth of open-source machinery, the kinds of production that would have required a multi-million dollar factory fifty years ago.

It’s impossible to overstate the practical significance of this, from the standpoint of labor. The original material rationale for the wage and factory systems in industrial Britain and America was a technological transition from general-purpose craft tools affordable to the average artisan, to extremely expensive specialized machinery owned by capitalists who hired laborers to work it. The availability of a garage factory’s worth of open-source high-tech craft machinery at the equivalent of six months union factory wages — and still rapidly falling — is a direct reversal of that transition.

Increasingly the capitalists’ profits do not depend on ownership of the means of production, but control of the right to use them — the ownership of patents rather than machines. This intermediate stage, capitalism’s last desperate attempt to snatch scarcity from the jaws of abundance, is doomed to failure.

Seizing an old-style factory and holding it against the forces of the capitalist state is a lot harder than producing knockoffs in a garage factory serving the members of a neighborhood credit-clearing network, or manufacturing open-source spare parts to keep appliances running. As the scale of production shifts from dozens of giant factories owned by three or four manufacturing firms, to hundreds of thousands of independent neighborhood garage factories, patent law will become unenforceable. In the mass production age patents were enforceable mainly because the combination of a handful of firms, producing a handful of standard proprietary designs for a handful of major retail chains, lowered the transaction costs of enforcement.

And when we figure the combined cost-reductions from 1) stripping the price of manufactured goods of the embedded rents on patents and trademarks, 2) lean production on-demand for local markets with minimal distribution and marketing costs or management overhead, and 3) all the attendant costs of guard labor, bullshit jobs, planned obsolescence and subsidized waste when the inefficiencies of mass production and monopoly control are eliminated, we’re probably talking about a necessary work week of ten or fifteen hours — with radically reduced raw material and energy footprint — to produce our existing standard of living.

I said above that McMillan doesn’t make it clear what she sees as the path from capitalism to socialism. But she does provide a few clues, primarily in this passage:

The good news is that it is possible to destroy [capitalism]. It is the producers of material value—the working class—who are in a position to lead all of us out of capitalism. Their hands are on the means of production—factories and land and infrastructure. By taking it out of the hands of capitalists, they free it so it can be used by all to meet the needs of all, for a real common good.

The proliferation of these fake anti-capitalist schemes should serve as a wake-up call—a loud and clear sign that we need to get our shit together, to organize and build a real mass movement led by the working class against capitalism. We need to become a strong social force, so we can fight our exploiters and win.

In other words, through direct, insurrectionary assault to seize control of the commanding heights of state and corporation. This basically throws away the entire advantage that new, liberatory technologies offer to the working class. The fact that material means of production are becoming cheaper, more ephemeral and more affordable, and that material costs of production are declining as a source of value relative to the social capital and social relationships of the working class itself, is the basis of the strategy of Exodus that Toni Negri and Michael Hardt outlined in Commonwealth.

…the trend toward the hegemony or prevalence of immaterial production in the processes of capitalist valorization…. Images, information, knowledge, affects, codes, and social relationships… are coming to outweigh material commodities or the material aspects of commodities in the capitalist valorization process. This means, of course, not that the production of material goods… is disappearing or even declining in quantity but rather that their value is increasingly dependent on and subordinated to immaterial factors and goods…. What is common to these different forms of labor… is best expressed by their biopolitical character…. Living beings as fixed capital are at the center of this transformation, and the production of forms of life is becoming the basis of added value. This is a process in which putting to work human faculties, competences, and knowledges–those acquired on the job but, more important, those accumulated outside work interacting with automated and computerized productive systems–is directly productive of value. One distinctive feature of the work of head and heart, then, is that paradoxically the object of production is really a subject, defined… by a social relationship or a form of life.

* * * *

Capitalist accumulation today is increasingly external to the production process, such that exploitation takes the form of expropriation of the common.

The Old Left strategy centered on mass, structure and hierarchy at least made some sense in the mid-20th century, when its objective was seizure of a mass-production economy (although mass production itself, contra Galbraith and Chandler, was never inherently very efficient and actually wasted most of the advantages of efficiency and decentralization offered by electrical power, as described in the work of prophets like Kropotkin in Fields, Factories and Workshops). When the mass-production economy is itself a decaying dinosaur and it’s within the capability of a growing segment of the working class to produce superior goods in a home workshop, the idea of a frontal assault rather than simply withdrawing our labor into a counter-economy is just plain stupid. To quote a friend of mine, Katherine Gallagher:

We won’t be encircled by “them,” but woven through their antiquated structures, impossible to quarantine off and finish. I’m not a pacifist. I’m not at all against defensive violence. That’s a separate question to me of overthrow. But to oversimplify, when it comes to violence, I want it to be the last stand of a disintegrating order against an emerging order that has already done much of the hard work of building its ideals/structures. Not violent revolutionaries sure that their society will be viable, ready to build it, but a society defending itself against masters that no longer rule it. Build the society and defend it, don’t go forth with the guns and attempt to bring anarchy about in the rubble. I think technology is increasingly putting the possibility of meaningful resistance and worker independence within the realm of a meaningful future. So much of the means of our oppression is now more susceptible to being duplicated on a human scale….

And I think we should be working on how we plan to create a parallel industry that is not held only by those few. More and more the means to keep that industry held only by the few are held in the realm of patent law. It is no longer true that the few own the “lathe” so to speak, nearly as much as they own the patent to it. So we truly could achieve more by creating real alternative manufacture than seizing that built. Yes, there will be protective violence, but it’s not as true as it was in the past that there is real necessary means of production in the hands of the few. What they control more now is access to the methods of production and try to prevent those methods being used outside of their watch. Again, I’m not saying that the “last days” of the state won’t be marked by violence. But I am saying we now have real tactical options beyond confronting them directly until they come to us. (originally a series of tweets as @zhinxy in July 2012 — paragraph divisions mine.)

As Nick Dyer-Witheford argued in Cyber-Marx, there are two broad groups, sometimes using superficially similar rhetoric but in fact fundamentally opposed, that celebrate the emergence of a new kind of society based on current technological trends. One such group, whose material interests center on putting new wine in old bottles, enclosing the new liberatory technologies of abundance within a corporate framework of artificial scarcity for the sake of rent extraction, are trying to pass off a counterfeit of the real thing. Another group is promoting the real thing — among them autonomists like Dyer-Witheford, Hardt and Negri, groups like Oekonux that see peer-production and free and open-source software as kernels of a future communist society, and thinkers like Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation who envision a system incorporating non-capitalist markets along with cooperative production based on the natural resource and information commons. Mason, I think, falls unmistakably in the latter category.

The false prophets of corporate information capitalism do a great deal of harm in passing themselves off as the real thing. But deluded figures on the Left like McMillan, who pretend that the two groups are the same, arguably do even more damage by discrediting our best hope for a post-capitalist society.

The Center for a Stateless Society ( is a media center working to build awareness of the market anarchist alternative


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