Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason

Hilary Wainwright reviews Paul Mason's latest book and questions how far information technology is leading us towards a post-capitalist economy

October 20, 2015
5 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


  share     tweet  

post-capitalism-masonThis is an important book whose ambitious scope stimulates thoughts on the big issues: through what means of adaption is capitalism surviving? What are their limits? Are signs of these limits appearing? Paul Mason connects his answers with proposals for new strategic thinking on the left. He suggests tendencies that produce a dynamic beyond capitalism. He attempts to sketch out how we might build on these tendencies to achieve an alternative to capitalism. It is a captivating but not wholly convincing read.

Mason combines outrageously bold assertions with detailed empirical analyses of actually existing capitalism that undermine his own broad-brush assertions on how it could be. My central doubt concerns the agency or causal power he ascribes to information technology (IT). In his introductory chapter he asserts: ‘Information is different from every previous technology. As I will show, its spontaneous tendency is to dissolve markets, destroy ownership and break down the relationship between work and wages.’

In his conclusion, he compares the impact of IT with that of contraception. We are ‘witnessing a 40,000-year-old system of male power begin to dissolve before our eyes as a result of change triggered by a different kind of technology: the contraceptive pill’. Indeed, it is his excited optimism about the trends associated with new IT towards sharing, the creation of non-monetary value and new forms of production that drives the book. His anticipation of his conclusion – ‘Information technology is leading us towards a post-capitalist economy’ – sums it up.

Mason is right to stress the insufficiently understood importance of these developments, which he situates in a wider political economy. Yet when he goes on to analyse the forces at work in the capitalist world as it is, he describes forms of power that will not easily ‘dissolve’. He outlines, for example, ‘the creation of monopolies on information and the vigorous defence of intellectual property’. Drawing on his brilliant TV coverage of Greece, he identifies the determination and power of political elites to ensure that any transitional tendencies are definitively blocked. The power of IT and the collaboration it facilitates has been necessary to recent movements of rebellion but is not proving sufficient to bring down authoritarian regimes and transform society.

While Mason is unconvincing in demonstrating a transition to a post-capitalist order, what does emerge from his book is that we are now on a contested terrain over what the changes he describes are moving towards. It is full of ambivalences and risks as well as opportunities for transformative politics. It is a terrain of strategic struggle that the left ignores at its peril and for which left organisations need to radically change.

On the one hand are the distributed, peer-to-peer forms of production made possible by new information and communication technologies and especially commons-based peer-to-peer production in which value is created by ‘produsers’ in shared innovation commons. On the other hand, as we’ve seen with Microsoft, Facebook and Google, is capital’s economic power and will to monetise and appropriate the value created through this expanded connectivity.

The notion of a contested terrain raises the question of agency. Mason addresses this, first negatively to insist that it is not the working class as we have known it, and then sociologically – describing the lifestyles of the young generation of precarious, highly connected, highly educated graduates. But he does not discuss their sources of power and possible strategies and organisational form in depth, beyond celebrating the idea of the network. For this political dimension we need a critical history of networked, movement ways of organising.

Non-hierarchical, collaborative ways of organising pre-date information technology, though their recent growth has undoubtedly been facilitated by the newly available techno-political tools. In particular, the women’s liberation movement and other rebellions of the 1960s and 70s placed much emphasis on gathering and exchanging information and breaking open the secrecy of the dominant order. Their political concern was to identify the fundamental causes of why things were as the information revealed – and then to change them. This involved the collaborative production and dissemination of explanatory knowledge.

The production of knowledge is a significant step beyond the exchange of information and requires more complex forms of organistion – for sustained debate, experiment, investigation and decision-making – than simply connectivity. Mason’s omission of the historical dimension of today’s networked culture leads him to confuse and conflate information with knowledge, and to use the two concepts interchangably. This means that he tends towards an almost technological conception of organisation. But once the production of knowledge becomes an issue, explaining what the information tells us and guiding our strategies for change, all kinds of difficult issues arise of building political organisations adequate to the kinds of power we face. These problems are not dissolved by IT any more than is capitalism – or, for that matter, is male power dissolved by the contraceptive pill.

Paul Mason has certainly written a guide to our future but it is a guide with which we will want to critically discuss at every turn – exactly the preparation needed for the contested terrain in which we find ourselves.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite


46