After capitalism, what? (Random thoughts on Paul Mason’s article)

by Jehu

I am reading an article by Paul Mason, “The end of capitalism has begun”. This article can be placed in the context of several videos exploring the same theme by radical thinkers. There is, for instance, a video by Peter Hudis, “Alternatives to Capital”; and David Harvey gave a rambling lecture from 2013 along the same lines,  “The End of Capitalism”.

The three pieces are all of a type: speculation regarding the end of capitalism and of what might replace capitalism if it is at its end.

According to Mason, the end of capitalism is driven by three forces: First, capitalism has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly because, while markets depend on scarcity, information is abundant. Third, Mason notes the spontaneous rise of collaborative production that is no longer determined by markets and managerial hierarchies.

To be sure, the end of capitalism has been predicted so often that any sane person would conclude the subject hardly bears serious examination. The end of capitalism is the “Who shot JFK?” of social commentary, periodically surfacing in society during crises. None of the above mentioned individuals are insane, however, yet they are willing to stand before audiences and speculate on what many may judge to be crackpot theories.

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As persuasive as the above argument may appear, speculative discussions of what comes after capitalism are not just confined to the fringes of politics as in the case of Harvey, Hudis and Mason. As many have pointed out in the past few years, the most important bourgeois economics thinker of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, made no secret of his belief that the epoch of capitalism was rapidly drawing to a close. Keynes based his prediction not on some variation of a radical assertion that the poor would rise up against their oppressors,  but that capitalism would essentially lose its economic rationale.

Accumulation, Keynes argued, lay behind not only capitalist relations of production, but behind even the laws and morality of bourgeois society. By 1930, Keynes argued, accumulation was being threatened by the fantastic increase in the productivity of labor facilitated by accumulation itself. Our success in developing the productivity of labor, he stated, was outrunning the new uses to which labor could be put. It did not take a genius of Keynes’s sort to arrive at what may be for us a startling conclusion: the epoch of labor was passing away before our eyes. The “old Adam” in us was doomed and soon even labor itself would have to be rationed out like a scarce commodity during war-time.

What is most surprising about this is that no one challenged Keynes on this; in fact, his argument was commonplace in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, only a few years earlier, 1926, Henry Ford had shocked the country by unilaterally reducing the hours of his own labor force to eight while doubling their wages to five dollars a day. No one giving serious consideration to the subject could look at the industrial revolution and especially fordism and not conclude that a new epoch for society was just over the horizon.

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Despite the fact that this sort of speculation was rife during Keynes’s lifetime, labor plays no less a central role in our time than in his. In fact, today, labor and employment has become an obsession that drives all politics in every state in the world market. Every political measure offered by every political party is justified on the basis it will create jobs. If anything society has become more obsessed with labor today than it ever was in Keynes’s day when jobs creation had not yet become the over-riding public goal.

So obsessed has society become with labor that, in their discussions of the subject of the future after capitalism, the three radical thinkers I mentioned, Mason, Harvey and Hudis, don’t even speak of a future society after labor,  but only a future society after a particular sort of labor: wage labor, i.e., capitalism. In fact, their separate discussions could easily be characterized as speculations on the future of labor after capitalism.

  • What forms will labor take?
  • How will labor be organized?
  • What will labor produce?
  • How will the product of labor be distributed?

The real subject of these sorts of discussions, which emerges explicitly in the hyperbolic discussions of automation in the mainstream media, is how do we save labor from a dying capitalism. In his article Paul Mason suggests it’s time for utopian thinking. “At the heart of further change to come is information technology, new ways of working and the sharing economy.” According to Mason, in the future there will still be labor, but this labor will use different, more advanced, means of production, be organized differently and its product will be distributed according to a different social logic than the market.

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In the dystopian future set in the most recent Mad Max sequel, destitute crowds gather at the foot of a high cliff to receive not new, fantastic, and as yet unimagined consumer products created by modern industry, but a ration of water. In radical imaginings of the future after capitalism this scene most often appears: crowds of destitute people, bereft of all means to life, lining up to receive some ration of basic commodities.

The reality of our times is otherwise: people line up to be apportioned labor. They even risk their lives and the lives of their children, making dangerous journeys over very long distances not to get a handout in a refugee camp, but to get a job in the European Union and the United States. Here is the fundamental disconnect between reality and the radical discussion on post-capitalist society.

In the capitalist mode of production labor itself exists for labor alone, not for the enjoyment of society; production exists for production alone; capitalistic accumulation is its own end. Capital is self-expanding value — this every person who has ever opened Capital already knows — but value is itself only the expenditure of some definite quantity of living labor embodied in some use value. The self-expansion of value, therefore, is nothing more than wage labor reproducing itself as its own product on a still larger scale.

What sense does it make to speak of labor after labor has become its own aim? Once labor exists as its own end, how can labor have any future after this? And what sense does it make to speak of labor after capitalism when labor and its incessant expansion alone is the aim of capitalism?

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According to Mason, “With the terrain changed, the old path beyond capitalism imagined by the left of the 20th century is lost.” Yet, despite this changed terrain, the new world of labor after wage labor will still require politics, i.e., a state:

“But a different path has opened up. Collaborative production, using network technology to produce goods and services that only work when they are free, or shared, defines the route beyond the market system. It will need the state to create the framework – just as it created the framework for factory labour, sound currencies and free trade in the early 19th century. The postcapitalist sector is likely to coexist with the market sector for decades, but major change is happening.”

In Mason’s view, a society beyond capitalism will still coexist with capitalism for some period of time. Which is to say, a society where labor is an end in itself will still coexist with this new collaborative labor. How do we tell the difference between labor that exists as an end in itself (wage labor) and collaborative labor that does not? And why is the state necessary to mediate these two forms of labor or provide a framework for labor that does not exist as an end in itself? Which is to ask, why is the state necessary to provide a framework for labor that produces no value? What is it about Wikipedia, a collaborative project of volunteers, that requires a state? This question becomes that much more urgent once you realized the state itself is only labor in a particular form, surplus value. The whole of the state sector is simply the unproductive consumption of some previously expended value producing labor.

Here, Mason likens the present transition of society to the transition between feudalism and capitalism. But he neglects to mention that the state itself lived off the surplus labor produced in both modes of production. How is the state supposed to live off the voluntary labor expended on Wikipedia, since this labor does not take the form of a commodity and the labor expended on it produces no value? Without even realizing it, Mason is proposing that labor as an end in itself must dominate collaborative activity as long as the two coexist!

In fact, the state plays an altogether different role in this transition than the one Mason believes: it serves as an obstacle to the abolition of capitalism, a role it performs, at least in part, by placing severe artificial intellectual monopoly property rights on information.

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It may be true, as Mason argues, that digitized information wants to be free, but that is hardly the problem with transition to a post-capitalist society. That information wants to be free is not very difficult for radicals to understand since, as a commodity, digitized information appears to be ephemeral, or unsubstantial, unmaterial and thus not really commodity at all in the sense we employ this term. Since Guttenberg introduced the press, the cost of the transfer or reproduction of information has collapsed to just a minute fraction of what it once was when reproduction of knowledge required days, weeks or even months of painstaking manual labor. Few of our generation realize information, knowledge itself, was once the most prized possession of the very wealthiest members of society. Today, it takes only a few minutes of googling to call up almost any knowledge mankind has acquired in the last 5,000 years.

The bigger problem, expressed in the converse form of extraordinary efforts by the monetary authorities of the world market to induce inflation, is that both commodities and labor want to be free as well. Society is thus faced with the very real prospect that the prices of everything it produces and labor power itself is headed toward zero. The trajectory of prices, deflation, effects not just capital alone, but labor and its wages as well. The insignificant cost of reproducing information is nothing compared to the advances in agriculture in the United States. Here, a task that once took the better part of the life time of almost all human beings — producing food — now engages the labor of less than one half of one percent of the population.

The thing that terrifies our radical thinkers today is that labor itself wants to be free, which implies, above all, that wages are going to zero. Nothing we do can prevent this from happening. And nobody knows what to do about it but to speculate on possible forms of labor beyond ‘labor as an end in itself’, i.e., capitalism.

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