A response to Postcapitalism

The end of capitalism?

How do we move beyond capitalism? That’s a good question.

Once we move beyond capitalism, where are we? Is it something nebulous called postcapitalism? Can we see postcapitalism today?

A new book by Paul Mason tries to capture the trends of an emerging capitalist crisis suggesting a new form of economic organization will prevail. Citing issues related to the global credit and financial crises, the problem with value production tied to information and cognitive “products,” political conflict, and alternative forms of living, Mason convincingly argues that the time for capitalism to end is now (or soon).

However, I am not absolutely convinced. Capital often creates crises to renew forms of capital accumulation. David Harvey has written extensively about this in his newest book, and numerous scholars writing on cognitive capitalism find capital to be renewing itself through crisis. Philip Mirowski lays out how neoliberalism survived the financial crisis in Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste.  But, still, the allure of something beyond capitalism is seductive.

Crisis in or crisis of ?

It makes us beg the question, as Bob Jessop asks, are we experiencing crises in capital or crises of capital.

Jessop (slide 12), building on Nicos Poulantzas, explains that “crises ‘in’ are normal and may be resolved through established crisis-management routines and/or through innovations that restore previous patterns. Crises ‘of’ are less common and involve a crisis of crisis-management, indicating inability to ‘go on in the old way’ and demanding more radical innovation.”
So is postcapitalism building on a crisis of capital?

Postcapitalism and Technology

It’s nice to think about postcapitalism.

However, I think Mason overreaches by putting too much power in a loose conception of technology. He argues that “technology has created a new route out, which the remnants of the old left – and all other forces influenced by it – have either to embrace or die.”  This sort of faith in technologies – conceptualized as artifacts that give us capabilities – falls into the trap of technological determinism.

This simply means that he fails to acknowledge the conditions under which these technologies come to fruition, the social knowledge on which they are built, and the relations of production under which they are made. These relations of production are highly unequal under capitalism. The capitalist exploits labor to create profit, or capital, to further accumulation. Sometimes there are crises such as overaccumulation, but capital has been able to subvert these crises and find new ways to profit.

This is the problem: the idea that technology creates outcomes. It doesn’t. We do.

The Currency of Postcapitalism

This is not totally detrimental to his argument though. Mason explains that innovations in information technology have changed the way we work, how long we work, and generally, the economy we work to make possible. But at the same time, vast information has made an unsturdy base for corporate capital profits: value extracted from socially produced information (think Facebook or Twitter). In the face of alternative modes of production, which he calls “collaborative production,” he sees that market forces are dwindling.

Now, this actually is an area where I agree with Mason. The alternatives that he mentions – carsharing, food co-ops, free kindergarten, parallel currencies, etc – are all excellent precursors towards a new economy. One based on a moral obligation called debt. Not a financialized debt.  I recommend checking out David Graeber’s text called Debt: The First 5,000 Years). 

For Mason, “the currency of postcapitalism” is “free time, networked activity, and free stuff.” This is an excellent idea, but it bastardizes the spirit of postcapitalism (maybe communism) by introducing economic logics into things that are non-economic (what we might call life).

In fact, by calling this the “sharing economy,” we are doing ourselves a disservice. We are using economy in its newer, neoliberal sense: as a thing that we construct to control social relations. In its old meaning, economy simply meant something much closer to efficiency or careful management of resources. When economy begins to mean money, finance, and wealth, our notions of efficiency begin to become synonymous with cost-effectiveness, greed, and profit. And then we have already lost. Instead of doing things efficiently as a group, a community, or making shared resources possible, we just use market logics to manage things. People in power win. Wealth dominates equality. So when Mason claims that  we are “…reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours” I am skeptical of the organizing logics of postcapitalism.

The Value of Information

One problem with economic thinking in postcapitalism arises when Mason discusses value. He suggests that the value of information can  only be known “through a form of accounting that included non-economic benefits, and risks, could companies actually explain to their shareholders what their data was really worth. Something is broken in the logic we use to value the most important thing in the modern world.”

But we have ways of understanding value in many ways. We have Marx’s labor theory of value, for example. This basically suggests that internet users create value through immaterial or digital labor. By using the internet, contributing to social knowledge, or providing your personal data to companies such as Google or Facebook, we – internet users – are producing value which we are not compensated for. For example, when you use Google, they collect data about your searches and create a profile about you. This profile is used in packages of “audience commodities” which are then sold to advertisers. Nearly all of Google and Facebook’s profits come from advertising.

But in some respects, Mason is right. Information is hard to value; but knowledge is even harder to value. Knowledge is social. Information is more private, it’s encapsulated or enclosed knowledge. It’s put to use to serve capital interests. Therefore, it more easily fits with capitalist notions of property. Like land, it can provide a means for production, or to promote the circulation of capital.

In all, I think Mason wants to argue for an escape from economy, but doesn’t say it. He argues for economic freedom and nearly zero hours of work, but he doesn’t abandon economy. I think if the project of postcapitalism is successful – and hopefully inevitable – then we need to think about a total escape from economic/capitalist logics.


About anthony


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