This time, it’s different

Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism is a book for our times—and the decades ahead.

Robin Wilson
4 August 2015

After the 1979 Conservative election victory in Britain and its repetition in 1983, Labour was intellectually comatose, such energy as it had mainly dissipated in factionalism, between a conservative leadership and a radical wing which yet seemed to look backwards. It was outside Labour, in a journal which had gradually floated itself off from the Communist Party of Great Britain, Marxism Today, where a serious reckoning was being made, even in advance of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, through path-breaking essays like Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The forward march of Labour halted’ (September 1978) and Stuart Hall’s ‘The great moving right show’ (January 1979). And as the Iron Curtain was about to come down on the Communist political family—including its ‘Eurocommunist’ dissidents—in October 1988 Marxism Today published a startling diagnosis of the strange world in which the left now found itself, encapsulating a look forward into the 1990s in the phrase ‘new times’.

The special issue of Marxism Today devoted to this theme slaughtered many sacred cows, essentially arguing that the left was like a beached whale in a ‘post-Fordist’ world of ‘lean’ or ‘just-in-time’ production, where the old mass-production lines were being replaced by boutique production for diverse and demanding consumers. ‘Organised’ post-war capitalism, a relatively stable world in which big corporations recognised trade unions as an institutional voice of (at least male) workers and advanced capitalist states secured relatively full employment (at least for men) with a national welfare floor, was giving way to ‘disorganised’ capitalism, where capital roamed the globe and small and medium enterprises were often at the heart of innovation. The ‘new times’ analysis extended from the economic to the cultural arena, urging the left to recognise that it now inhabited a world characterised by what Antonio Gramsci had prefigured as ‘individualistic society’.


Since then, what defines this new form of capitalism has become clearer. It was described as ‘informational’ by Castells (1996) and ‘cognitive’ by Boutang (2008). If Fordism raised the productivity of labour quantitatively by building upon the Taylorist disaggregation of the labour process into simple, repeatable parts, co-ordinating them via a production line whose speed management controlled, informational/cognitive capitalism pursues qualitative innovation by cultivating and capturing the knowledge in workers’ heads.

But this is in no sense simply a substitution of mental for manual labour, with everything else unchanged. On the contrary, there is a fundamental distinction, which goes to the heart of the crisis of legitimacy contemporary capitalism faces—of which the explosion detonated in the financial institutions in 2008, so ably analysed in Paul Mason’s instant book, Meltdown, was merely a symptom.

Taylorism and Fordism were all about enhancing capital’s control by destroying the autonomy of labour. Never again would there be workers who had the space and capacity to articulate alternative social projects like the toolmakers and other highly skilled manual workers who led the first shop stewards’ movement in Britain around the time of the first world war, so well described by James Hinton (1973). Huw Benyon’s ethnographic Working for Ford, published in the same year, painted a quite different contemporary picture of a deskilled workforce whose ‘economic-corporate’ militancy, as Gramsci would have described it, did not translate into any radical political ideas.

The big difference with informational capitalism is the loss of dependence of high-competence workers on the company. A toolmaker could only acquire his skill through an apprenticeship with a firm. But today’s cognitive workers have acquired their knowledge through publicly funded education systems.

Critically, since the ‘new times’ analysis, knowledge itself has become largely a public good, as a result of the internet, rather than a commodity to be bought: why buy (or indeed competitively produce for sale) encyclopedias when Wikipedia is better, as a product of the ‘wisdom of crowds’, than any such alternative could be? And this creates the key problem for capital which Boutang recognised: if knowledge is no longer a commodity, yet it is the primary resource for production, how can capitalists corral that knowledge for their own private profit? How can they even put a meaningful price on it?

This was the contradiction which Marx recognised yet which in his time seemed merely theoretical—that between the socialisation of the ‘forces of production’ and the private appropriation of profit derived from them. And it is at the heart of a magisterially reflective new book by Mason, a longue-durée view of the history of capitalism—of the arguments about its political economy and the shape of a successor to it.

Of course the publication is wonderfully serendipitous in a UK context: here is Labour, once again, digesting a decisive defeat by a Conservative party well to the English-nationalist, ‘free-market’ side of the European centre-right; and here, once again, is an insurgent challenger to Labour’s shell-shocked centrist leadership, offering up tried Keynesian remedies. And in the space of New Times comes Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future (Allen Lane).

Owl of Minerva

This is a very ‘Marxist’ book, in many ways except one: it is not a tract written for a sect. First, it is characterised by an intellectual rigour, based on respect for theoretical argument allied to a voracious reading across a wide diversity of disciplines, which was much more evident amid the crucible of the 1970s class struggles in Britain, in which Mason was socialised, than it is today—as manifested in a superficial and dismissive Guardian review. Secondly, it follows Hegel’s recognition, endorsed by Marx, that the Owl of Minerva only flies at dusk: we can only fully understand social change with the benefit of hindsight.

Thirdly, this is a book of ‘political economy’: it disdains the crass reductions of the ‘neo-classical’ intellectual outriders of Thatcher—of politics to economics and of economics to the putatively utilitarian motives of individual actors. Fourthly, it develops the insight of the Soviet economist (and victim of Stalin’s purges) Nikolai Kondratieff, who saw beyond the business cycles of capitalism to which orthodox economics attends a more profound pattern of waves of innovation, expansion, decline and recovery, each around five decades long.

This is now the world of open-source software like Linux, of collaborative public projects like the Large Hadron Collider, of co-operative systems like Mondragon in the Basque country.

The first wave, emerging in the late 18th century in England, was defined by the appearance of the factory system, steam-powered machinery and canal transport; it went into depression in the 1820s, culminating in the revolutionary crises of the late 1840s (whose limited outcomes were to disappoint Marx). The second saw machine-produced machinery replacing mere ‘manu-facture’, spread across the advanced world by railways and steamships, the telegraph and stable currencies; the 1870s depression was to be the stimulant of new technologies, deployed in the third wave. From the 1890s, this was the era of heavy industry, the internal combustion engine and the telephone, of ‘scientific’ management and mass production—of Taylorism and Fordism; the Wall Street crash was the starting gun for an effective civil war in Europe, only resolved by the defeat of fascism in 1945.

The fourth was the time of mass consumption of synthetic goods, of the airplane and an apparently endless boom—until the shuddering 70s oil shocks and ‘stagflation’. Mason argues that the fourth wave, lasting over six decades until the iconic fall of Lehman Brothers, was extended by the fall of the Berlin wall, which allowed the political right to exploit the demise of a dogmatic and dictatorial Stalinism to sideline the whole empowering and emancipatory Marxist tradition which had inspired successive cohorts of workers’ movements.

Overlapping was the onset of the fifth wave, emerging in the 1990s as the globalised, networked, mobile-communications world we know today—yet prematurely stalled by what has become a protracted crisis. Indeed, these phenomena are interconnected: precisely because profit could no longer be readily appropriated by capital from the real economy of informationalised goods and services, the parasitic apparatus of ever-more baroque and dizzying financial instruments grew like Topsy until its inevitable collapse.

What drove these long cycles? Mason argues that the explanation lies in Marx’s ‘labour theory of value’, which he took from the classical economists. Crucially, Marx developed it for the world of the factory system, in which labour itself became a mere commodity. He thus explained profit under capitalism as the ‘surplus value’ of the labour embodied in the value of commodities produced over the labour embodied in the reproduction of the power to labour itself (and in the raw materials consumed). And he derived a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, as competition between capitalists encouraged them to substitute capital for value-creating labour, to the initial benefit of the innovating enterprise but the eventual collective loss of all. Hence the depressions and the intense workers’ struggles associated with each wave—except, Mason points out, the last.

The fourth wave was marked by an unprecedented attack by a profit-squeezed capital, now facing competition on an international scale, on the organisation of labour itself—emboldened by the long boom, full employment and the welfare state—with big symbolic defeats like that of the British miners in 1984-85. Hence the confusion of the fifth wave: with informational networks unamenable to surplus extraction in the old hierarchical way, stagnation is becoming the norm in the advanced capitalist world; yet the collective weakness of labour means the worker resistance characteristic of previous waves is lacking.


But Mason argues that capitalism has created a new gravedigger—the ‘networked individual’, who believes (not unreasonably) that information is a public good, and so (in economic terms) non-exclusive and non-rival, and who therefore resists the appropriation of value from it by a private monopoly like Microsoft. This is now the world of open-source software like Linux, of collaborative public projects like the Large Hadron Collider, of co-operative systems like Mondragon in the Basque country.


A cathedral of postcapitalism: the Large Hadron Collider. Flickr / Thomas Cizauskas. Some rights reserved.

And Mason proposes a ‘postcapitalism’ which is emergent from this world—not one where the pace would be forced in a Leninist, inevitably authoritarian, fashion. His ‘revolutionary reformism’ would have the goal of minimising the amount of labour for a wage, through releasing the vast innovative capacity of networks, while maximising the non-wage, shared contribution each ‘networked individual’ can contribute to society.

In a world thus redirected from the ‘shareholder value’ of neoliberalism to the ‘labour value’ of postcapitalism, there would still be labour. But, increasingly, it would be labour voluntarily shared for mutual benefit, rather than contracted and corralled by a capitalist.

Keynes’ ‘euthanasia of the rentier’ would be achieved through the socialisation of financial institutions, never again allowed to engage in the ‘capitalism of the casino’. Company law would be reformed to turn enterprises into societies—it passes unnoticed in the Anglo-Saxon world that the word for company in French (société) and German (Gesellschaft) is the same as that for society. And the state would enable rather than direct this transition, with the long-term outcome which Gramsci well described as the integration of ‘political society’ into ‘civil society’.

Mason envisages this transition as taking place over decades: it is a kind of radical gradualism, developed through experimental innovation on a variety of scales. But for him there is no way back for capital: if Kondratieff’s message didn’t appeal to Stalin because it suggested capitalism had profound recovery powers, Mason can see no wave beyond the fifth, arguing that capitalism has always depended on scarcity and is incompatible with a world of abundant, socially-produced goods.

But he also stresses the urgency of change. For this to him is a race against two huge challenges: the dramatic rise in dependency ratios in ageing, advanced-capitalist societies and, above all, the threat of climate chaos.

And yet here there is hope. After the factory system was established in the first Kondratieff wave, as Marx brilliantly argued in Capital, the labour movement in Britain saved capital from its own rapaciousness by successfully pressing for factory legislation which would restrict child labour and limit the working day. While individual capitalists predicted the end of civilisation as they knew it, this was in the long-term interest of capital, albeit no longer unconstrained.

What has been interesting about the fifth wave, even if labour has been weak, is that the environmental movement has grown stronger with each passing year. And while, particularly in the US, sections of capital warn of dire consequences if greenhouse-gas emissions are dramatically reduced, other voices are beginning to see the market potential of the ‘green economy’ and bending to the demands of a finite planet.

Gramsci always sought to temper ‘pessimism of the intelligence’ with ‘optimism of the will’, and vice versa. This outstanding book contains much by way of sobering intelligence—yet much, too, to embolden the activist. And, yes, how well Jeremy Corbyn does in Labour’s leadership contest is quite important—but this is much bigger stuff.

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