Okay. As in all good blues songs, this story starts with ‘woke up this mornin’…’ and goes on to bemoan conditions of the storyteller’s life. We then go on to tie in an excellent critique by Stephanie McMillan of Paul Mason’s views on Post-Capitalism and why she thinks he is wrong to claim that it is the beginning of the end of capitalism.
In my case, I woke up this morning and read two articles on my kindle. This device, of course, is mass produced by Amazon (mine says ‘Assembled in China’ on the back), is sold cheaply as a loss-leader for their ebook platform so they can tie you into their proprietary format and bookstore, and does indeed allow me to hold literally thousands of books and articles in my two hands. I rarely pay for the content however – such is the abundance of good material on the internet that the bulk of my time using the device is spent reading articles saved for later when using Facebook or Twitter. In three years of owning it, I don’t think I have bought more than five books from the kindle store. The books I have bought have been mostly from independent online publishers such as OR Books or Synergetic Press.
Whether ‘information wants to be free’ (as in liberty), or not, the fact is that information does apparently ‘want’ to be free (as in beer, as in gratis). None of this is news, of course – we are all pretty much drowning in free or very low cost information, some of which is of an extremely high standard, to a degree unimaginable to previous generations.
I am of course adding to this flood of information right now by writing this article, unpaid, as in the case of almost all bloggers, and am happy to do so. Not that I wouldn’t prefer to be paid, but I understand that this is not feasible for a small organisation such as the P2P Foundation which simply could not survive without significant voluntary efforts. They would certainly pay me if they could.
Bloggers do this kind of thing for one because they enjoy it, find it interesting, support the aims of the organisation (if writing for one and not just on their own blog), and like to have a platform in the world where their voice can be heard. This is especially true of sites such as this which have a wide readership. Most bloggers don’t have that privilege and end up talking to audiences which can often be measured in single figures.
One related factor is of course, ‘exposure’. I write articles on here, and then maybe a magazine or even larger website asks me to write something for them. This is exciting for the writer as it promises an even wider readership. The company tells me that they are operating within very tight margins however, and cannot pay me any sort of financial compensation. The message here, either explicitly or implicitly, is that I am doing it for further exposure. So one day, a few more links up in the chain, I may actually get paid for writing something. However, even content creators with millions of views and followers into the hundreds of thousands on YouTube can hardly make ends meet; they have levels of exposure which in the old paradigm would have placed them into a comfortably remunerated elite, and yet in the current paradigm they can barely raise the relatively low amounts of money needed to create more content.
So, as The Oatmeal eloquently points out, ‘exposure’ is a myth. Nothing times nothing still equals nothing. The whole thing is a mirage to keep you churning out content unpaid. I concede that there are bloggers and YouTubers who do ‘make it’; who do manage to generate enough ‘eyeball minutes’ that their tiny cut of the advertising revenue does actually add up to something with which they can buy food, clothing and shelter, and even become very rich; but this always reminds me of the basic capitalist ‘carrot and stick’ propaganda – look at this billionaire on the chat show sofa who raised himself up from nothing! If you work hard enough, it could be you! And if you don’t, well consider the fate of the tramp or bag lady, abandoned by society, sleeping in the street. That could also be you, so get back to work.
These narratives always leave out exactly who did most of the hard work which enabled the billionaire to become so wealthy, and of course the intense societal pressures which pushed the bag lady into penury and probably addiction and madness as well. But let’s not get too far off the track here – the trouble with considering these sorts of subjects is that it’s like deciding to remove an old shopping trolley from a canal – you don’t realise until you start to do it that it is tangled up with tons of other things which also will have to be pulled out of the water in order to remove the trolley…
Anyway I think we have established that it is difficult nowadays to make a living by means of increasing the amount of information in the world. If you do manage, via increasing exposure, to get to a position where a newspaper, magazine or website with a very large readership is willing to pay you, it will never be much, and from my perspective it seems pretty much certain that you will have to knock the edges off your most radical views and at least to some extent conform to a mainstream perspective. Which is to say: conform to the logic of capitalism.
Anyone doing anything which might seriously damage capitalism and which it cannot find a way to water down or co-opt is relentlessly pilloried by its servants in the media (consider the cowardly and inaccurate media reports on Wikileaks and Julian Assange just for one example; no character assassination angle left unexplored).
So basically if you want things to change, there is an easy way of knowing which of the proposed alternatives to capitalism does or does not pose any real threat to the incumbent system – if all the media (including the so-called left wing media outlets) are intensely invested in destroying it then it probably is something you should support. If they are in favour or only one side of the political ‘spectrum’ is against it, it is probably just being used as a distraction and has been or is in the process of being co-opted by the logic of capitalism already.
All of which brings us to Paul Mason, his announcement of ‘the end of capitalism’ (the seventh most read article on the Guardian website in 2015, more than many major news stories), and the so-called ‘sharing economy’.
The two articles which found themselves next to each other on my kindle were firstly this review by Stephanie McMillan of Paul Mason’s article, and secondly the article itself.
Reading the first of these, I was beset by the stinging realisation that she is right:
“The “sharing economy” is another huge restructuring of the employer/employee relationship that benefits investors at the expense of the masses. Our workdays are being stretched into a series of endless tasks, cobbled together out of freelancing and side hustles, with barely any compensation to speak of. Yet they tell us this is somehow liberatory, that we’re participating in some glorious manifestation of the commons because we have to rent out our bedrooms, drive strangers around in our cars, hawk ourselves with “self-branding,” sell our possessions on eBay for a few bucks, and crowdfund our creative work, while millions in fees are collected by… someone. Someone else. Someone not us. Someone not us who lives in a mansion.
This is not post-capitalism. It is humiliating and disgusting. It is capitalism in full effect.“
She lands the killer blow here:
“Only a self-serving Silicon Valley dreamer or a severely deluded business journalist can argue, with a straight face, that the falling price of ebooks translates into everyone on the planet being able to have plenty of free food. Perhaps Paul Mason ought to do a little experiment on himself: stay in a room with unlimited information. When he gets hungry, he can eat it.”
Of course there has been plenty of discussion in this blog of the rights and wrongs of Mason’s arguments (one review is here), but I think hers is the clearest takedown I have seen so far.
Some more details from the author’s life for real-world context purposes: this article is being sent to the P2P Foundation web server via my internet connection which is a community-owned mesh network known as guifi.net. I paid, and pay, extra for the privilege of supporting this commons-based initiative – because the locally-owned company who installed my connection don’t enjoy the economies of scale required to be able to install it for ‘free’ as do the large telecoms corporations here in the Spanish state. On the plus side they also don’t need to claw it back from me by not maintaining the infrastructure and then charging me €1 per minute to get through to their telephone helpline when it inevitably and frequently goes wrong (as all the big telecoms do here, and whose hours of downtime are as high as the numbers of official complaints about them). I have had, so far and touch wood, almost no downtime in over a year of using guifi.net.
I did find out however, that ultimately my internet connection does come, where the mesh network terminates, from one of the big telecom providers – Movistar (formerly Telefonica), which was a public utility under the fascist dicatorship of Franco and was then sold off and privatised, leaving an effective monopoly, which they duly abused to the absolute maximum, not only in Spain, but also in many countries in Latin America whose governments sold them the publicly-subsidised communications infrastructure in similarly corrupt privatisations. They have since slightly improved their once-atrocious customer service, although they have a nasty habit of ‘forgetting’ to stop charging you when you leave them.
I also get my electricity from a community-owned cooperative which sources all its energy from renewable sources – but is forced by the state to use the privatised power grid and charge the same rates as the big energy corporations (so much for ‘the free market’ the until-recently incumbent conservatives keep going on about). This is of course the same government which felt able to tax the sun itself.
And my mobile phone provider is another cooperative – which is forced, again by state regulations, to be a sub-contractor of Orange, the huge French telecoms multinational rather than being able to own its own infrastructure.
So in all three cases I can congratulate myself that I am supporting the commons and community-based initiatives, while in all three cases I am ultimately being provided with services by the same mega-corporations I was seeking to avoid in the first place. And these are genuine community attempts to free ourselves from the shackles of capitalist logic, not ‘sharewashing‘ corporate behemoths in disguise. It only goes to show that we are a long way from the promised ‘end of capitalism’.
The fact is that Mason appears not to have really considered that capitalism will not go down without a fight. This excellent letter to the Guardian also comes up with a sharp critique of his article’s misplaced optimism:
“Since I can’t sprinkle Wikipedia on my porridge, clothe myself with an open-source pattern for jeans, or access the internet by data alone, I’m puzzled about Paul Mason’s postcapitalist proto-utopia (Welcome to a new way of living, Review, 18 July).
How does he propose dealing with the non-virtual elephant in the middle of his sharing economy: ie that the means of production – the factories, mines, farms and power plants that make the stuff we need and use – are all owned by someone who expects payment? Is the missing detail to his argument the abolition of private property? Because surely it would take that, even to access the internet and its wealth of data for free, and be clothed, housed, etc.”
So having read the critiques of Paul Mason’s article, I finally got around to reading the article itself, and I realised that he, despite the totally valid criticism, does have a point as well, and in fact despite the headline, he does include some important disclaimers into his own argument (emphasis mine):
“I believe it offers an escape route – but only if these micro-level projects are nurtured, promoted and protected by a fundamental change in what governments do. And this must be driven by a change in our thinking – about technology, ownership and work. So that, when we create the elements of the new system, we can say to ourselves, and to others: “This is no longer simply my survival mechanism, my bolt hole from the neoliberal world; this is a new way of living in the process of formation.””
I think the real issue is not that it is impossible in a practical sense that new technology and ways of organising could mean the end of capitalism, more that this ‘fundamental change in what governments do’ is pretty much nowhere to be seen at this point; in fact as my examples show, most governments are in fact doing the complete opposite and are effectively bought and paid for by the corporations, whose legislation they simply rubber stamp. The various ‘free trade’ agreements currently under secret negotiation could of course soon make it legally binding for governments to enact the wishes of corporations, under pain of huge financial penalties and potential lawsuits if they do not.
I personally do not see that the freemarket libertarian desire for no government at all can be feasibly realised at this moment in history, due to the inherent desire and tendency of private corporations to form monopolies – without some sort of ‘partner state‘ enacting regulations designed to break up monopolies it is inevitable that Amazon or something like it would eventually buy up all the competition and then control the market to its own advantage, ruthlessly excluding all those humans without sufficient purchasing power and condemning them, absent any sort of state safety net, to death, or at least to the most precarious form of subsistence imaginable, given that it would also effectively have absolute power to use up their natural resources.
I do therefore agree, at least in part, with Mason when he says:
“If I am right, the logical focus for supporters of postcapitalism is to build alternatives within the system; to use governmental power in a radical and disruptive way; and to direct all actions towards the transition – not the defence of random elements of the old system.”
However the transition surely must come both from within and without state control, with of course effective controls on the same – which means a truly free media of course, or at the very least a free internet (another freedom potentially threatened by shadowy trade deals).
We do get a clue in the article of how Mason got where he is: a paid columnist writing for a mainstream newspaper like the Guardian, and reporting on business for Channel Four News in the UK, when he says:
“Millions of people are beginning to realise they have been sold a dream at odds with what reality can deliver. Their response is anger – and retreat towards national forms of capitalism that can only tear the world apart. Watching these emerge, from the pro-Grexit left factions in Syriza to the Front National and the isolationism of the American right has been like watching the nightmares we had during the Lehman Brothers crisis come true.”
Likening pro-Grexit left factions in Syriza to the Front National in France seems like a laughable attempt to put the argument back into some sort of of establishment-friendly box lest the suggestions are starting to sound too radical. From my point of view, the whole point of why Greece still remains enslaved to the troika is that they were unwilling, for whatever reason, to follow Varoufakis and the left wing of Syriza’s plan to at least threaten a ‘Grexit’ – the only tactic by which they might have had some leverage in the argument. Mason’s own film on Syriza has in fact been criticised by Varoufakis for its inaccuracies. This is of course, one more thing entangled with the shopping trolley at the bottom of the metaphorical canal, and we will leave it there for now.
Mason includes this plea for optimism towards the end of the article:
“Is it utopian to believe we’re on the verge of an evolution beyond capitalism? We live in a world in which gay men and women can marry, and in which contraception has, within the space of 50 years, made the average working-class woman freer than the craziest libertine of the Bloomsbury era. Why do we, then, find it so hard to imagine economic freedom?”
The simple answer to this is that gay rights and contraception do not threaten capitalism at all, and in fact can be safely berthed within it – the ‘pink pound’, as the money spent by the LGBT community is known in the UK. True economic freedom is no more an option within full-on capitalism than not turning up for work would be for those poor souls in China who assembled my kindle.
To give Paul Mason his due, I am sure that his position is much more fully stated in his book on Postcapitalism, and the comments here by Pat Conaty certainly make me want to read it:
“Mason’s analysis is not rosy. It is balanced. Not to take action radically though he shows as socially and ecologically suicidal. He does address all the questions you are raising so pertinently Henry [he is speaking to Henry Tam]. This is why his book is so key. Both Rifkin and Naomi Klein in their latest books leave you concerned about how precisely we can make the transition practically. Both stress that a commons model of production is emerging potentially to provide us hope that is practical. Mason agrees and he uses Kondratiev and Marx and Benkler and Bauwens to argue and show the transition needs to be over a long cycle of a 50 year or so K-wave but the key thing about Kondratiev’s analysis as he shows so well is that the crucial part of the K-wave is the breakthrough required with new systems in the first 25 years.”
Ultimately there are two ways of looking at this – if we consider how things are right now, before the ‘perfect machine’ effects which Mason is proposing will bring about the end of capitalism have fully kicked in, or if we are assuming that he is wrong about them altogether; then we need to actively destroy capitalism ourselves or some form of it will exist until we are driven to extinction, probably sooner rather than later.
On the other hand, if he is right, then capitalism is going to destroy itself over the next generation or so and we need to be ready with a new cooperative model which will both act as a transitional ‘safety net’ and form the basis for an entirely new mode of production. I say we get started on the latter as soon as possible and replace the exploitative ‘sharing economy’ with an economy that has the commons at its heart.
Connect with the author on twitter @guyjames23