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

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.


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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform


46