Is another (economic) world possible? When economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek helped invent the doctrine of neoliberalism in the 1930s and 1940s, they meant to say, decisively, “No!” Only the unregulated price system could assure the rational allocation of resources, economic growth, and stability over the long haul. That is why Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “There is no alternative” to free market principles, and hence what you see is what you’ve got: The future can only be the same as our present, history has ended, and capitalism is permanent. We have lived with that dispiriting sense of closed horizons for some time now, but suddenly, over the past five years, a refreshing stream of new books has appeared with titles such as Does Capitalism Have a Future?, How Will Capitalism End?, and Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Similarly, the Nation recently devoted a special issue to the theme of getting “out from under capitalism.”[i]
Among all these, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, has gained a good deal of attention as an engaging, forceful argument that another world is not only possible but indeed in the offing.[ii] Hidden in today’s information technology and “networked” knowledge, Mason argues, lies the promise of a grand social transition toward a collaborative mode of production surpassing the price system of bourgeois markets, a transition made absolutely imperative in our time by the coming, combined threats of climate disaster, aging populations, and the gargantuan growth-killing overhang of debt the world over. Let me say that I’m all for a democratic and egalitarian future beyond capitalism (though for reasons suggested below, I’d still prefer to call it “socialist”), and I welcome and embrace his argument for the necessity of such a future, especially in the face of the present and coming dangers he cites. Mason’s book, however, is less a sure guide to the future than a ghost of futures past. His presentation of “postcapitalism” as a dramatically new analysis of present conditions and future prospects actually evokes visions that are at least fifty or sixty years, maybe a century, old—visions that proved too facile and optimistic a long time ago. We need something more hard-headed—as Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci’s old slogan put it, a mind more pessimistic, combined with a forward-looking will—when we think about how we might get from where we are to where we want to be.
First, let me outline Mason’s perspective; then I will compare it with futures past. Mason mines the Marxian, socialist, and labor-movement traditions for insights into the dynamics of capitalism while tapping contemporary reportage on business, finance, and technology to diagnose the yet-unsurpassed crisis of 2007-2008 and to forecast trends eating away at the old mechanisms of market society. He does this all in the service of a view Mason considers post-Marxist and up-to-date. He unearths the long-wave theory of Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff to outline a history of industrial capitalism since the late eighteenth century in four major phases, culminating in an abortive fifth cycle commenced by the “neoliberal” masters of the 1990s. At previous junctures between one long wave of roughly fifty years’ duration and another (i.e., from the end of a long downturn to a new long boom), Mason explains, a combination of social struggles, new technologies, and exogenous shocks led in each case to a reinvention of the capitalist mode: Those shift points led, in the late nineteenth century, toward the monopoly form and in the mid-twentieth century, toward the American-led “Fordist” system. Now, however, any comparable shift has stalled.
Despite the false dawn of the boom in globalized, dot.com capitalism during the late 1990s, he writes, the neoliberals’ unbridled free-trade, low-wage, and financialized order has proven not only crisis-ridden but also unable to build a viable growth engine on the basis of our time’s new technology (“info-tech”). He argues this is the case precisely because the networked, digital world cannot be assimilated to the cost-accounting methods and accumulation process of capitalism. Borrowing not a little from the “wired” technophilia of author and futurist Stewart Brand, Mason repeats Brand’s line, “information wants to be free”: that is, in principle, digitized, networked knowledge is so shareable and enduring that its “marginal cost” tends toward zero.[iii] Thus, the value of goods and services built by digital means steadily declines, except as they are propped up by the losing battle of new monopolists (Apple, etc.) to rigorously enforce intellectual property rights.
Given this trend—and here Mason is an orthodox Marxist—the declining rate of profit becomes virtually irreversible. The consequent lack of productive investment opportunities shunts growth into the financial sector, which despite its apparent profit engine mainly promises repeated bubbles and bloated debt. The presumptive motor of what would have been a new (fifth) capitalist long wave—”info-capitalism”—has not, and indeed cannot, take off, precisely because the technological resources, shareable and enduring as they are, tend to reduce value: That is, info-rich products become a sink for capital rather than a means of collecting new profits. (In years past, prior theorists made a similar point when they speculated about technology that is not only labor-saving but also capital-saving, or what happens when capitalism enters a “disaccumulationist” phase.) Thus, economic stagnation and more devastating financial crises await us, even as climate change, aging societies, and new massive flows of migration from the impoverished world pose daunting, unavoidable demands for public investment and social provision. Not info-capitalism but info-tech postcapitalism is the way of the future.
Mason argues that at this very moment, the working class and the old labor movement as agents of change have been entirely fragmented or atomized by the employers’ offensive beginning in the 1970s. Workers proved unable to resist the wage-lowering, job-cutting program of “neoliberal” financialized capitalism. Consequently, our times have lacked the labor resistance that at previous long-wave turning points compelled capitalists to shift gears, innovate technically and organizationally, and find ways of sustaining mass purchasing power. Here, Mason turns post- Marxist, doubting that the industrial working class ever represented a revolutionary, anticapitalist force. He stakes out a position as a post- “socialist” as well, since prior transformative models, notably the Stalinist command economy, proved calamitous.
In place of those agents now comes the productive force of info-tech, bearing within it not only potentially skyrocketing productivity and cost reductions that can make available an abundance of “free stuff,” as Mason often says, but also behavioral models of shared knowledge, collaborative creativity, and casual attitudes that “blur” the boundaries of work and leisure. The “networked” generation of the young who are accustomed to mobile connectivity, he writes, expects lots of “free stuff” (why should cost-free file-sharing of pop music be prohibited?), and they act productively for the sake of the work without pay (namely, the power of Wikipedia’s contributors, or the computer geeks who make modular improvements to “open source” software). New models of “peer-to-peer” exchanges and services outside the marketplace, cooperative workshops, and the collective provisioning that emerged in popular insurgent movements like the defense of Istanbul’s Gezi park: These forecast the future. Government and business will need to make way, as we embark on the postcapitalist “project,” for a long, gradual shift to a new mode that will increasingly displace the marketplace, private productive property, and compulsive profit-making.
This way forward, Mason insists, is not utopian: To begin with, it is imperative (in the face of climate catastrophe and the coming, radical devaluing of fossil-fuel industries if that is to be avoided) and practicable as economists work out means of a universal basic income—a key step toward recognizing the growing disjuncture between available work and income. This postcapitalist future, in Mason’s view, is not “socialist,” it seems, since it dispenses with old ideas of centralized state planning: consumer markets and entrepreneurship will persist (even as free, shareable goods and services gradually expand their sway) while government will need to undertake the key measures of providing basic income and nationalizing the finance system as well as the energy companies.
Any number of excellent points appear in this scenario: its sharp sense of the contemporary crisis, its critique of the price system and conventional economic (and neoliberal) dogma, the profoundly historical analysis of capitalist development, and, crucially, its attempt to bring the postcapitalist “transition problem” into serious and imaginative consideration. Yet much of the argument is also all too familiar, surprisingly vague, and weakly defended.
A “postcapitalist vision” of change, understood as something distinct from the struggle for socialism, actually flourished in the mid-twentieth century, dating back as far (in the United States) as journalist Walter Lippmann’s 1914 claim that “a silent revolution is in progress” as corporate combination “is sucking the life out of private property”—and that only determined intelligence was needed to acknowledge the actual “collectivism” of the time and combine it with democratic government. Later, invoking again a “silent revolution” in the context of post-World War II reconstruction, politician and author Anthony Crosland coined the term postcapitalist society for the “statist” order initiated by Britain’s Labor Party that, he said, steadily moved the productive order away from the absolutes of private property and profit toward social services; others at the time cited the postwar European “mixed-economy welfare state” as a “post-bourgeois society.”[iv]
This intellectual trend culminated in the original theory of a “post-industrial society,” especially in the United States, as a way of describing tendencies believed to lead away from market absolutes. In this view, very much as in Mason’s diagnosis, the transition from the hegemony of an “economizing” logic toward a “sociologizing” logic (those are sociologist Daniel Bell’s terms) stemmed from the growing, noncommodity form of knowledge as a social resource. Bell, the best- known exponent of “post-industrial” theory, was explicit: The emerging new society was “one in which the intellectual is predominant.” This was decidedly not a “new class” notion of an elite, technocratic intelligentsia. Rather, he argued that contemporary productivity stemmed from advances in “basic science” and its technological applications, rendering the research university as central an institution as the business corporation was to industrial society and injecting into the heart of development the inevitably public good of knowledge. Bell’s meaning was clear: The advancement of scientific knowledge demanded a kind of indicative planning in major social investments, and this crucial new resource was not a marketable commodity. It was not only science as such but also new “intellectual technologies,” by which he meant to highlight the computer-based modeling and planning tools of the sort now used in climate science, that shifted the ground away from the sole calculus of the marketplace.
And Bell was far from the only figure to work in this vein. The historically coincident debate over “automation” (the term coined in the early 1950s to refer to computer-controlled continuous-flow production processes capable of displacing great amounts of living labor) arose in the early 1960s to make many of the same arguments that Mason and other “end-of-work” theorists offer today: The prospect of mass redundancy meant either a social disaster of mounting, permanent unemployment (and coercive means of controlling a superfluous underclass) or the radical reduction of the work week and a break between work and wage accomplished by publicly provided basic income. A writer for the sober-minded League for Industrial Democracy (LID) predicted a standard fifteen-hour work week by the end of the twentieth century.[v]
There too was a bit of fond optimism. That does not mean, however, that there is no genuine rational kernel within such speculation, and Mason rightly finds an origin to it in the passage in Marx’s (1858) Grundrisse often cited as the “Fragment on Machines”: Here Marx wrote, the human laborer in the course of what we would later call automation “steps to the side of the production process” as “watchman and regulator,” and what matters is not the worker’s measured and exploited time on the job but rather the appropriation of his [the worker’s] general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body—it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation- stone of production and of wealth. It is then, Marx wrote, that “the theft of alien labour time . . . appears a miserable foundation [of social wealth] in the face of this new one.”[vi]
Mason rightly expands on this: Marx recognized “general social knowledge” as a force of production, the role of “the general intellect” as the new key of human social capacity to meet the needs of social reproduction.[vii] And Mason’s argument that contemporary capitalism cannot maximize the contributions that knowledge-based productive forces can make to human welfare is a plausible translation of Marx’s point about the obsolescence of the wage and property relation under late capitalism. But it is not at all accurate to read Marx’s argument as offering “a knowledge-based route out of capitalism”[viii] or to suggest, as Mason does, that Marx’s “general intellect” is now present in the mobile internet. Marx’s point, rather, was that production would become so profoundly social in practice, manifested in the generally educated individual, that private appropriation and disposition of wealth was both injurious and rooted in an outmoded, baseless claim to property rights. What social force could break with that illusion and that practice was, for Marx, and for us too, another question. There’s the rub.
Contrary to the LID prediction of a fifteen-hour work week, no automatic mechanism of social reason was at work in the late twentieth century to meet productivity gains with scaling back labor and building new means of social provision. Despite the “post-industrial” confidence that knowledge resources could not be commodified, business, legislatures, and courts have managed to go rather far in that direction, even if Mason is correct that the intellectual property regime is in the long run a losing battle against the free flow of tech knowledge. In line with his view that “information wants to be free”—that “info-tech” is by nature the incubus of a new society—he tends to count on the modes of “spontaneous” collectivity and collaboration evident in the worldwide protests of 2010-2013 (from the Arab uprisings to the communal assemblies of Spain and Greece and to Occupy Wall Street) as the source of social energy: “The 99 percent are coming to the rescue,” he states simply in the book’s next to last line. “Postcapitalism will set you free,” is the last.[ix]
Would that it were so. But the key elements of the old socialist and labor movements that Mason leaves behind as putatively obsolete are precisely the things we need to think much harder about in imagining “transition”—and that is, what new forces of solidarity (agents who imagine collectivity as an alternative to illusory, marketized individualism) and organization (a base for persistent agitation) can be built in our time to put his kind of “postcapitalist project” into effect, in opposition to the terribly powerful forces we know are arrayed against that project. For it isn’t at all clear that the 99 percent or networked millennials “spontaneously” generate those forces; we need, in addition to forecasts like Mason’s, a hard-headed new politics of social movements and new strategies of mobilization for change.
[i] Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, Georgi Derluguian, and Craig Calhoun, Does Capitalism Have a Future? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (London: Verso, 2016); Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015); Sarah Leonard, “Zombie Ideology,” Nation 304: 16 (May 22/29, 2017), p. 3.
[ii] Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).
[iii] Mason, Postcapitalism, 115.
[iv] Howard Brick, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 4-6, 50-53. See also Anthony Crosland, The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956) and George Lichtheim, The New Europe: Today, and Tomorrow (New York: Praeger, 1963).
[v] Brick, Transcending Capitalism, 189-200, 208.
[vi] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Vintage, 1973), 704-705.
[vii] Mason, Postcapitalism, 136.
[viii] Ibid., 137.
[ix] Ibid., 292.
Howard Brick is Louis Evans Professor of History, University of Michigan. He is author of Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Cornell University Press, 2006), and with Christopher Phelps, Radicals in America: The U.S. Left since 1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2015).