Book Review: Postcapitalism – A Guide to our Future
Paul Mason, Economics Editor for Britain’s Channel 4 News, reminds us that capitalism is a temporary arrangement with a finite lifespan. Today, he argues, it is possible to observe alternative practices that indicate a post-capitalist future. Arguing that we are moving towards a prolonged period of economic downswing as capitalism loses its ability to innovate, as nations become trapped into spiralling debt management that foreclose public expenditure , as people experience declining quality of life and increased precariousness, and as ecological catastrophe edges closer, Mason wants us to imagine alternatives and explore newly forming practices and networks that do not cohere with capitalist logic and might instead be harbingers of a postcapitalist future.
Mason’s core theoretical model comes from Nikolai Kondratieff who argued that, rather than inevitably collapsing under crisis, capitalism mutates and adapts. Capitalism’s crises, therefore, were not evidence of disorder and imminent collapse, but structural change. Kondratieff argued that these mutations took the form of successive waves. Each wave, Kondratieff argued, has an upswing that lasts about twenty-five years and is fuelled by new technologies and high capital investment, followed by a downswing of about the same length, ending with depression. During upswings, recessions are rare and capital flows to productive industries. During downswings, capital becomes trapped in the finance system and recessions are frequent. Mason argues that capitalism’s waves are currently disrupted because of neoliberal destruction of trade union power; during downswings, capital’s instinctively represses wages however organised labour movements resist this option and force capital to innovate new modes of production and technology that usher the next upswing.
The prognosis of this extended downswing – in which profit persists by depressing wages rather than innovating - are bleak. Mason’s example is his English hometown of Leigh which, during his 1970s childhood, was thronged with prosperous working-class families: “there was full employment, high wages and high productivity. There were numerous street-corner banks. It was a world of work, savings and great social solidarity” (p16). Mason witnessed the destruction of the social fabric and the repression of wages all in the name of clearing the ground for a free-market system. At first this resulted in “crime, unemployment, urban decay and a massive deterioration in public health”, a decay acerbated by financialisation – that is, banks increasingly dependent on leverage household debt so to finance transactions in open trading markets (see Lapavistas, 2013) – so that today’s urban landscape is one of expensive money and cheap labour, propped up by charity “food banks”. Mason’s experience is hardly unique, Lisa McKenzie describes the collapse of her English hometown: “The one Co-op supermarket has gone and in its place are corner shops that sell no food – only cheap alcohol, electric cards, and lottery tickets. There isn’t one single pub left on the estate, and local people sit on the walls where they once were with cans of cheap cider. This is perhaps one of the saddest things I have seen” (McKenzie, 2015). Such scenes remind us that with declining productivity and increasing concentration on open trade markets, capital can extract higher value from finance than direct production and therefore, as Mason puts it, “A single mum on benefits, forced into the world of payday loans and buying household goods on credit, can be generating a much higher profit rate for capital than an auto industry worker with a steady job” (p20).
This reversal is one of several transformations into what Mason terms the ‘zombie system’. If recent OECD financial projections are true, then he interprets that by 2060 “Los Angeles and Detroit (will) look like Manila today– abject slums alongside guarded skyscrapers; Stockholm and Copenhagen (will) look like the destroyed cities of the American rust belt”; overall a “stagnation in the West, a slowing pace of growth in emerging markets and the likely bankruptacy of many states” (28-29). Meanwhile, Mason regards the continuous increases in energy prices as signalling long term commitment to exploiting raw materials, concluding that either there is an overestimation in the value of oil and gas companies by about $4 trillion, or that nobody of influence believes that we’re actually going to cut carbon use.
Where innovation occurs, Mason sees the technological transformations as challenging capitalism’s ability to extract surplus value and this threatens capital reproduction. Efficient markets are determined by the outcome of rational marginal calls between the benefit of buying a scarce commodity, versus the benefit of retaining the money. The key changing point, Mason argues, is that scarcity no longer defines info-tech markets; today information can exist in potentially unlimited quantities (thanks to the magic of ‘copy and paste’) and in productive realms where this is the case, their marginal cost is zero. Meanwhile marginal costs of some physical technology (memory storage, wireless bandwidth, etc.) are collapsing towards zero and information content of lots of physical goods is rising. Accordingly many commodity goods’ production costs can plummet and this wrecks, Mason argues, capitalism’s price mechanism. And, as theory of labour value promises, in circumstances where automation reduces the necessary labour to amounts so small that work would become optional, the produced object will probably end up being free, shared and commonly owned.
Mason argues that in info-tech markets it is conceivable to have machinery which costs nothing, will last for ever and do not break down. Such a machine would transfer a near-zero amount of labour value to the product, thus reducing its market value. Mason’s example is the price of The Beatles’ Love Me Do on iTunes. Not only is the supply of the song infinite, but it costs next to zero to store on Apple’s server and next to zero to transmit to consumers. Yet the cost remains fixed at 99p, irrespective of fluctuations in supply and demand. As Mason argues, the only way it is possible to run such an information business is to rely on copyright law and generate “an entire walled garden of expensive technologies that work together – the Mac, iTunes, the iPod, the iCloud, the iPhone and the iPad -to make it easier for us to obey the law than break it” (p119). Such monopolistic tendencies, he argues, is the only way such industries can run and it completely depends on copyright law and restrictive coding to prevent uncontrolled mass reproduction.
In contrast to monopolistic companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, is open source programming whereby information is made freely available. Popular examples like Firefox and Wikipedia demonstrate the potential of this software to flourish, all based on non-market mechanisms like decentralised cooperative voluntary work. And, inasmuch as Wikipedia makes no profit, it probably makes it impossible for competitors to make a profit in the same space. Social knowledge therefore can dissolve market mechanisms. We are thus moving, Mason argues, towards a model in which the price mechanism for many goods is corroded by pushing the cost of reproducing information goods towards zero.
Of course capital hardly stands by. As Mason argues, it seeks to remain profitable by either creating information monopolies, vigorously defending intellectual property or scurrying to innovate ways of capturing and exploiting produced information such as consumer data or capturing the value of freely produced work (i.e. privatising other people’s voluntary coding). Further, given that wages are repressed and that there is a consequent availability of cheap, unorganised labour, anachronistic production models persist because it is often more expedient to preserve a cheap workforce than to innovate by automating production. Hence significant blockage exists to the flourishing of ‘postcapitalist’ networks.
Unsurprisingly for an economist, Mason’s analysis contains no appreciation of marketing. Arguably an additional variable which acts as a source of labour value is contained in customer based brand equity. For example, whilst Couchsurfing presented an economy of voluntary labour to establish a global network of hosts and guests, not only was this network eventually incorporated in 2011, but crucially it also had its market share overtaken by AirB&B. Arguably AirB&B’s attraction to consumers is that the brand helps guarantee a certain level of service expectation and safety of payment that is, arguably, difficult for voluntary movements to emulate. And, as consumers actively produce what Arvidsson (2007) refers to as ‘ethical surplus’ that drives brand equity, brand value may be thought of as produced by social necessary immaterial labour, thereby countervailing the decline of other sources of labour value.
Further, as I and Detlev Zwick have argued (see Zwick & Bradshaw, 2016), there is evidence to suggest that in the ‘wild’ of network production, marketing looms like a predator to feed on free consumer labour. That is to say, many social media consultants anticipate that the next phase of marketing will exist in a widespread dissemination of marketing logic as it becomes internalised by consumers (a process we call biopolitical marketing) who relish shared productive activities in spaces that are actually private. If marketing is to succeed in this (extremely difficult) task, then we will witness an intensification of marketing rather than disintegration. Here postcapitalism would distort into what O’Dwyer terms ‘virtual communism’; where, though there may be commons-based peer production, the apparatuses that leverage value extraction are never communally held (O’Dwyer, 2013:p498). As Stallabrass (2012) informs, peer-to-peer systems had previously allowed users control of the frame as well as the content. Consequentially, networked economies are typically a privatisation of the commons, not the other way around (see also Kleiner and Wyrick, 2007). This is not to reject Mason’s analysis as overly optimistic, but to agree with Gilbert (2014) that the management of apparently horizontally constituted democratic media is a key battleground of post-Fordist politics.
Specifically, the problem that Mason’s postcapitalism encounters is whether there can be an unleashing of the networks and an ushering of the next phase of innovation that would generate capitalism’s unravelling. Not only must capitalists dispense with opportunities to privatise new commons or strive towards monopolies, but they must also forego the temptations of cheap, disorganised labour and instead invest in expensive machinery that will ultimately destroy their source of surplus value. Whether or not such a phenomenon is likely, Mason challenges us to be “unashamed utopians” (p288) and imagine what a postcapitalist future may look like, rather than be stuck in the Jameson-esque trap where “it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than to imagine the end of capitalism”. As you read this, open source programming is being developed and each time, it carries distinct potential to corrode specific price mechanisms and destroy specific instances of free market logic of marginalism. Only an absolute pessimist would believe that all these pieces of programming will be appropriated, contained, ignored or repressed by capitalism. As Mason puts it, “it is absurd that we are capable of witnessing a 40,000-year-old system of gender oppression begin to dissolve before our eyes and yet still seeing the abolition of a 200-year-old economic system as an unrealistic utopia” (p290). Given the stark economic and ecological forecasts, perhaps we must all consider how we can contribute to transforming these emerging processes into real projects.
Arvidsson, Adam (2007), Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture. London: Routledge.
Gilbert, Jeremy (2014), Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of the Individual.
London: Pluto Press.
Kleiner, D. and Wyrick B. (2007). Infoenclosure 2.0. Mute. 2(4), <available at
Lapavistas, Costas (2013), Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All. London: Verso.
Mason, Paul (2015), Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. London: Allen Lane.
McKenzie, Lisa (2015), The Estate We’re In: How Working Class people became ‘the problem’. The Guardian, 21 January. URL: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jan/21/estate-working-class-problem-st-anns-nottingham (seen in August, 2015).
O’Dwyer, Rachel (2013),Spectre of the Commons: Spectrum Regulation in the Communism of Capital. Ephemera : Theory & Politics in Organisation, 13(3,: 497-526.
Stallabrass, Julian (2012), Digital Partisans: on Mute and the Cultural Politics of the Net. New Left
Zwick, Detlev & Bradshaw, Alan (2016), Biopolitical marketing and the ideology of social media brand communities. Forthcoming.