Should capitalists plan on putting The Doors on their karaoke machines?
According to Paul Mason they should. Me, I’m not convinced.
Before discussing Mason’s argument, let me get a few things out of the way. First, Mason implies he invented the word “postcapitalism,” which makes as much sense as the idea that Al Gore invented the internet. (But maybe Mason gives credit to the long line of other postcapitalist thinkers in the book, which I’ll have to read when it’s published.) Second, I’ve long been suspicious of technological determinist arguments, that is, the attempt to explain history and society (mostly or solely) on the basis of changes in technology. (That’s not to say technology doesn’t matter; just that it’s a mistake to treat it as the essential cause of everything else.) Finally, the bit about Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” (pdf) represents a terrible misreading. (The passages from the Grundrisse are not, as Mason would have us believe, about “an economy in which the main role of machines is to produce, and the main role of people is to supervise them,” but a form or stage of capitalism in which laborers become appendages of machines as a condition for the existence of more, relative surplus-value.)
There is, in fact, a great deal to appreciate in Mason’s discussion. I’m thinking, in particular, of his critique of neoliberalism (which “has morphed into a system programmed to inflict recurrent catastrophic failures” and to create mostly “low-value, long-hours jobs”) and the problems mainstream economists have had in making sense of both information (since they start with the presumption of scarcity) and the rise of new kinds of economies (such as parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces, which they mostly ignore as irrelevant to the “real” economy). I even like Mason’s discussion of the new opportunities for collaboration and the reduction of work time created by recent changes in information technology (although many of us are actually forced to have the freedom to perform more, not less, labor as a result of digital information and information-based automation).
For me, the biggest problem with Mason’s treatment is his two-part argument: that capitalism will necessarily fail when it comes to dealing with new information technologies and that such technologies will necessarily usher in a new, noncapitalist economic and social order, ushered in by “a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being”). I just don’t see it.
Let’s consider each of the two parts in order. First, the idea that capitalism will come crashing down as information grows. The key element, for Mason (and for many others before him, such as Jeremy Rifkin), is that the new communication technologies are reducing the marginal (per-unit) cost of producing and sending information goods to near zero, which means that if information goods are to be distributed at their marginal cost of production (zero) they cannot be created and produced by capitalist firms that use revenues obtained from sales to consumers to cover their costs and to realize profits. And that’s the rub: it is precisely the existence of private property (and the other conditions of existence of private commodity production) that keeps the cost of information from going to zero. Information may “want to be free” and capitalist property is certainly an obstacle to the flow of more information but that doesn’t mean information is or will be costlessly produced or utilized. For every Wikipedia there are hundreds of Microsofts—and thousands of other capitalist enterprises that utilize proprietary information to produce still other commodities.
The other side of the argument is thus also questionable: there’s nothing about new information technologies that necessarily lead to forms of economic organization different from or beyond capitalism. Would but that were the case! It’s certainly possible that a democratically organized, worker-owned enterprise would be able to take advantage of networking and other new forms of organizing information but the mere existence of such information technologies does not bring new forms of noncapitalist enterprise (or other socialist or communist forms of economic organization) into existence. I do think we need to pay attention to the way “educated and connected” human beings are utilizing new information technologies (as I often remind my students, they permit such activities as “stealing” the digital information in music and videos and then “sharing” that information within and between communities). But, we need to remember, lots of people have organized noncapitalist forms of economic organization long before the new information technologies were imagined, and they’ll continue to do so (perhaps in different forms) within and at the margins of “cognitive capitalism.”
But to get there—to allow such noncapitalist forms of economic organization to be imagined and put into practice—we need more than new information technologies. We need a ruthless critique of the existing economic order and forms of political organization (aka a political party) to produce utopian discourses and concrete interventions to move us in that direction.
While I’m on the topic of postcapitalism, let me also take up the case for socialist recently made by Gar Alperovitz and Thomas M. Hanna. Once again, I’m sympathetic—especially since the more talk about socialism these days the better. And Alperovitz and Hanna do make a convincing case for public ownership and control, including the fact that we already have lots of examples (from the Texas Permanent School Fund to the Tennessee Valley Authority, from publicly owned electric utilities to public internet systems) in our midst. Great! There are lots of ways for the state to distribute the surplus to meet social needs and there’s no reason to limit ourselves to tax-and-spend policies. Why not let the state take direct control of economic activities? But then let’s also talk about how the surplus is produced and appropriated within such state enterprises. If we don’t, then we’re just talking about expanding state capitalism (capitalist enterprises that are owned and/or regulated by the state) and not about eliminating capitalist exploitation itself.
Both Mason and Alperovitz and Hanna seem to overlook that particular aspect—the class dimensions—of the critique of political economy.