This began life as a few quick morning coffee fueled points on online reactions to the piece 'The end of capitalism has begun' Paul Mason published in mid July. I had read the piece itself the previous afternoon on my second monitor in work, suitably enough in micro break fragments as I was worked on a project. It was only after I'd read a good few paragraphs in and noticed the scroll bar hadn't moved much that I twigged it was a long piece and remembered he'd a book coming out so this much be a extract / chapter of it. It has appeared since at 'Post Capitalism - A guide to Our Future'
This morning at 7am I woke and half asleep performed my terrible morning ritual of reaching for Facebook on my phone. There I saw that overnight dozens of friends had shared and commented on the piece. What follows is a reaction to the comments.
The most fundamental critique was a rather hostile one from Doug Henwood rubbishing the basis of it. Doug more or less writes it off as a recycling of the already discredited 'New Economy' articles of the 1990s. More substantially he says if you look for economically quantifiable evidence for Mason's claim in the relation between GDP growth and employment growth it simply isn't there. He presents a graph of US data showing that the two continue to track each other up and down quite closely.
I wonder if that isn’t too crude a measure though, what would be interesting would be to track that relationship in manufacturing. My suspicion is that the average disguises huge productivity boosts in manufacturing due to automation but then the surplus labor under conditions where there is little or no welfare state pushed workers into retail and service sector jobs where automation has yet to penetrate. Under capitalism workers not longer necessary in for manufacturing do not get transformed into post-capitalists in a utopian low work, high consumption society.
Another and in fact related fundamental critique was that Mason's piece lacks a feminist perspective because it doesn't deal with the massive growth in care work and its commodification. Related because automation of care is limited but more fundamentally, as with most non feminist economic analysis, not looking at this area is part of the way the key question of reproduction of labour is pushed to the side. As if asking where new workers comes from, how they are cared for and who does that caring deserves no more than a footnote.
To be fair as the piece appeared to be an extract(s) from this book it is quite possible that question will be fully covered elsewhere in it. If not it is of considerable significance not least because a lot of the expansion of services work is also an expansion of care when you think about it. Beyond the obvious categories of child minding what other sort of work is coffee making, food serving, personal gym instructors and even dog walking. On a side note the expansion of this labour intensive workforce is made possible by the expansion of wealth inequility. It can be viewed as a modern recreation of the huge amounts of other peoples labour that the wealthiest 10% have access to for their personal needs - 100 years ago that took the form of domestic servants.
The third fundamental critique was that apart from a mention at the end the piece doesn't deal with the environmental consequences of automated production. The much greater use of resources has enormous environmental consequences, C02 release generated climate change being one that threatens catatrosphe in the short term. Again to be fair it may well be that is dealt with in depth in another chapter.
What I liked about the piece was the very same technological deterministic nature of that a lot of the commentary has reacted negatively to. Now thats a little curious as I'm normally fairly hostile to rigid determinism but for lack of better terminology thats because people try and deploy it to win political arguments on the micro / short term level. That is I'm suspicious of accounts that try and write off the degeneration of the Russian revolution with reference to the backwards state of 1918 Russia. But I'm much more sympathetic to the idea that the fundamental changes of 1700-1900 cannot be explained without the changes wrought by the transition from feudalism to capitalism being given primary importance.
Beyond that the problem the left has today is that the conditions that created a socialist consciousness and mass struggle methods of organisation in the late 19th and early 20th century are fading from existence. I've written a couple of detailed pieces about that in the last years. I'm very unconvinced by reactions to this piece that write off the deterministic techno utopian aspect behind an insistence that 'no, the answer is to build trade unions'. The problem we have is that 100 years ago that wasn't an answer the left had to insist on, it was something that already happened in the sort of society that existed. Socialists didn't create the unions, the unions created the socialists (yes thats a huge oversimplification, perhaps its better to say they were built on fertile ground etc but they certainly were not willed into being through intellectual work).
Lacking those sort of semi spontaneous forces the left today tries and most often fails to bring old school movements into existence through a triumph of the will, if we build it they will come approach. In the last decade that mostly has not worked at all and the reason is not a failure to try hard enough, be serious enough or in its most toxic form avoid being distracted by 'identity politics' to concentrate on 'real class politics'. A lot of pretty crap nostalgic left projects are emerging from a belief that we have to return to methods that no longer work and try harder.
Again I'm going to blame Lenin's influence here, this time his ideas of socialist consciousness being imported into the class by middle and upper class intellectuals rather than being an organic development that those intellectuals has the skills / privilege to encode.
In that context I think we need the forces of production to be developing a fundamental change in society inside existing society. Lenin claimed that capitalism’s role in that regard had come to a role in 1914 but that was simply just one of his counter productive contributions to the left. We need the tensions Mason's piece describes to be real. Of course the enormous danger is that the significance given to them is simply a product of that need. Wishful thinking in other words.
Which gets me to the last point which is that most of the dismissals I've read focus on how the changes described are incorporated into capitalism. The conflict between network and hierarchical forms can be dismissed because capitalist companies, in particular tech companies are activitly creating and including networks in their structure.
I think this actually fails to understand what is being argued. Which is not that we are facing a process that is almost completed. The comparison made to the development of capitalism within feudalism in Mason’s piece is already an answer for this criticism "Present throughout the whole process 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. In feudalism, many laws and customs were actually shaped around ignoring money; credit was, in high feudalism, seen as sinful. So when money and credit burst through the boundaries to create a market system, it felt like a revolution"
What matters is not so much whether capitalist companies can incorporate networks (they clearly can) but whether capitalist companies are the best fit for what is developing. If they are not than over time the pressure builds for the new forms to 'burst through the boundaries' just a capitalism eventually burst out of feudalism.
In another context in the last 19th and early 20th century socialists (incorrectly) understood that this was about to happen and their task was to aid the birth of this new society that would emerge at any moment. And most wrote and organised in that sense, that they would see this transition and it would happen soon. Mass participation in all the forms of socialism that emerged was premised on the idea that this was a short term struggle about to come to fruition. It's very hard to see new mass movements for what is a potentially high cost transformation coming into existence on any other basis today. Paper selling and meetings about Che won't do that.
I think Masons strength is his ability to write about these ideas in a form that gets a genuine mass market, I guess as a populist. Popularisation requires a more superficial treatment to retain audience but its one of those skills thats very hard to hit the right mark on. Instead on the one hand the left generates texts only a view can read or the banalities of Socialist Worker. Finally the forthcoming book is obviously going to be broad and sweeping and the inevitable problem with such texts is that this means they have to move outside the areas of expertise of the writer and the readers. Graeber’s Debt is another recent enough example where it was packed with fascinating ideas but also reached too far.
I’ve initiated a collective reading / discussion project of the book Post Capitalism - A guide to Our Future starting early September and progressing through it quickly if you are interested?
WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )