This 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.