Paul Mason is a valuable resource for the international socialist left, a hardworking and skilled BBC journalist and economist equally comfortable reporting on the financial chicanery of European central banks and the street confrontations of striking Chinese factory workers—and an entertaining storyteller to boot. His years covering firsthand the changes in capitalism and the resistance these changes have generated have led Mason to ask a series of provocative questions in recent years that are rooted in but also challenge some of the key tenets of Marxism.
Here are just some of the big ones raised in his latest book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future:
■ As capitalism’s advances become increasingly based on information technologies that cost little to reproduce, what are the implications for a system in which the value of commodities is derived from the labor that goes into their production?
■ Does the rise of economic forces not driven by profit such as Wikipedia and the open source Creative Commons represent a new mode of production developing inside capitalism, much
like capitalist production and trading networks gestated for centuries within feudal Europe?
■ Has the historically low level of militant strikes in recent decades contributed to a long-term capitalist crisis by enabling bosses to get by through continually increasing exploitation, rather than ruling classes being forced by working-class resistance to invest in new technologies and policies that could form the basis of the next cycle of renewed profitability?
■ Have Marxists been wrong to see workers as the revolutionary agent on the basis that they “have nothing to lose but their chains,” when in fact militant working-class movements have been more focused on defending the economic gains and strong communities that they have fought to achieve under capitalism?
The weakness of Postcapitalism is that Mason, driven by the desperate urgency of quickly finding a way out of the Left’s current predicament as the bomb timer of catastrophically irreversible climate change approaches zero, plows through these complex questions with one-sided answers that he then shoehorns into a new grand theory of economics and social change in the twenty-first century that goes something like this:
A) The growth in the past two decades of an information-based economy is not seamlessly evolving into a new sharing economy—as techno-utopians hoped, or beginning a new fifty-year capitalist cycle of innovation and stagnation—as previous technological developments had done, but instead is creating a crisis by undermining capitalist property relations.
B) The working class, the most powerful challenger to capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has remained fatally weakened from the decades-long damage done first by Stalinism and then by its collapse.
C) The key force that will challenge twenty-first century capitalism is not the working class but “networked individuals” challenging capitalists’ attempts to maintain their control over the information economy through monopolization, intellectual property claims, etc.
D) This conflict won’t be primarily defined by a revolutionary struggle for state power, which was never in the cards for the working-class movement, but by the undermining of capitalism from within by “postcapitalist” information networks that are already well underway but need to gain a vision of their potential to be the basis for a new society.
There is clearly only so much that a brief review can do with such an ambitious book. While there are many valuable insights in Postcapitalism, I’m going to focus on what I think are pretty gaping holes in its central thesis. To begin with, Mason uses a series of straw men to refute the Marxist view of the working class as a revolutionary agent: Marx viewed workers as a philosophical category rather than a living thing with internal contradictions; Marxists have never studied the nature of work itself and the impact of information technology; Marxism, “with its insistence on the proletariat as the driver of change,” doesn’t think workers themselves need to change in order to lead a different society.
All of these assertions can be refuted by dozens of well-known writings by Marx that Mason pretends don’t exist. By contrast, Mason agrees with much of Marx’s economic theories, and therefore produces a wide range of well-known and obscure writings from Marx and his followers to demonstrate the complexity of these theories.
Given that Mason argues that Marxists have never really understood workers and what makes them tick, it’s odd that a book proposing that workers be replaced as the revolutionary force with the “networked individual” doesn’t have a single chapter describing or defining them. At one point Mason cites shoe factory workers in Shenzhen using group messaging and social media to organize their strike and concludes that this “is not just the working class in a different guise; it is networked humanity.” Other than one being a more inspiring term than the other, I have no idea what distinction is being made.
Then there is the confusion of the final chapter, which concludes a book-long argument advocating the development of noncapitalist economic institutions rather than fighting for state power with a call for a series of measures—from debt restructuring to the nationalization of the banking and energy industries—that can only be carried out from the seat of a central government.
As with almost anything Paul Mason writes, Postcapitalism has many useful observations about this era of rapid economic and social change, and it makes a convincing case that the Left needs to put forward a positive vision of the society we want even as we engage in the constant defensive battles that capitalism forces us to fight. But at a time when a new generation identifying with socialism is beginning to ask the age-old question of reform or revolution, Mason advocates a “revolutionary reformism” that, like too much of this book, sounds too much like a radical-sounding justification for people to keep moving on the paths that neoliberalism is already taking us down.