Increasingly the capitalists’ profits do not depend on ownership of the means of production, but control of the right to use them – the ownership of patents rather than machines. This intermediate stage, capitalism’s last desperate attempt to snatch scarcity from the jaws of abundance, is doomed to failure.
Techno-Utopianism, Counterfeit and Real by Kevin Carson. Read the full series here or scroll down for the PDF.
I mentioned above the tendency of the establishment Left and verticalist types, with their fixation on organizational mass and structure and their insurrectionary model of social change based on seizure of the state, to reflexively conflate the liberal capitalist and Leftist versions of techno-utopianism.
Stephanie McMillan. One of the least thoughtful specimens of this genus is Stephanie McMillan, as revealed in her response to Mason’s article “The end of capitalism has begun” (a preview article in The Guardian essentially summarizing the arguments of his book).
She dismisses Mason’s post-capitalist vision as “just another crappy capitalist snowjob” (the title of her article). The problem is, it’s not exactly clear from one paragraph to the next whether her critique is based on a careless reading of Mason’s actual article, or she’s treating him as a type and telescoping together what he actually says with other stuff said by a lot of “New Economy” and Silicon Valley types she doesn’t like.
She wouldn’t be the first figure on the Left to lump decentralism, networks and high tech together with Gingrichoid dotcom capitalism under a general heading of “things I don’t like,” and to unjustifiably dismiss left-wing visions of commons-based peer production and open-source as Trojan horses for Peter Thiel-style capitalism. Thomas Frank is the classic example of this tendency. I’ve also encountered it in personal exchanges with Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer, a sort of centrist social democrat. Henwood — in a conversation where he defended copyright as a protection for creators against my advocacy of information freedom — told me the model of commons-based peer production and information freedom advocated by Bauwens sounded “like 90s dotcom capitalism.” All I can say is that anyone who seriously compares Richard Stallman to Bill Gates is out of their intellectual depth.
McMillan is obviously doing the same thing herself, based on all the “theys” she cites in this passage and their (to put it kindly) tangential relationship to anything Mason actually says:
First they offer reassuring-sounding it-won’t-be-that-bad schemes like “cradle to cradle,” “conscious capitalism,” “social entrepreneurship,” and “green capitalism.” But these are quickly revealed to be the same old crap in prettier packaging.
Then they decry capitalism’s “excesses” by defining the problem not a capitalism itself, but as errors within an otherwise acceptable economic system. They add qualifiers: crony capitalism, disaster capitalism, corporate capitalism, blah blah blah. They build stellar careers as public intellectuals by offering the comforting thought that if we could simply eliminate its worst elements, the system might yet be saved. But this formula sounds increasingly hollow, as people figure out that the worst aspects of capitalism aren’t a mistake. They’re inherent to it.
McMillan, based on her other writing in SkewedNews, favors an insurrectionary approach in which the global working class, organized into a mass movement, seize the means of production. But the problem isn’t that she disagrees with Mason’s vision of post-capitalism as a future system that will grow out of the present one the way capitalism grew out of feudalism. It’s that she doesn’t even do him the courtesy of acknowledging that that is, in fact, what he envisions. She suggests, in a disregard of what he actually wrote that not only borders on disingenuousness but spends a bit of time sightseeing there, that he views the existing sharing economy and precaritization of labor as post-capitalism already in being.
In a Guardian article anticipating his new book “Postcapitalism,” he spreads the good news that we have already entered the post-capitalist era, “without us noticing.”
But hold off on the victory party, comrades. If we were beyond capitalism, we would have noticed. I don’t know about you, but I imagine that a post-capitalist world would feel a little less like the same old frenzied forced march on the treadmill of anxiety, alienation, and failure to make ends meet.
To repeat, it’s hard not to suspect this misconstruction of being flat-out disingenuous or wilfully obtuse, considering how many times Mason unambiguously repeats that “[w]ithout us noticing, we are entering the postcapitalist era” only in the sense that the nuclei around which post-capitalism will crystallize, in a prolonged evolutionary process, into a full-blown system already exist within the present system — not that post-capitalism already exists as a system. For example:
[Capitalism] will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system…
* * * *
As with the end of feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s replacement by postcapitalism will be accelerated by external shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being. And it has started.
* * * *
Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm.
* * * *
You only find this new economy if you look hard for it.
* * * *
It seems a meagre and unofficial and even dangerous thing from which to craft an entire alternative to a global system, but so did money and credit in the age of Edward III.
* * * *
Present throughout the whole process [of feudalism’s evolution into capitalism] was something that looks incidental to the old system – money and credit – but which was actually destined to become the basis of the new system….
A combination of all these factors took a set of people who had been marginalised under feudalism – humanists, scientists, craftsmen, lawyers, radical preachers and bohemian playwrights such as Shakespeare – and put them at the head of a social transformation.
Get the picture? We are, without noticing, entering the post-capitalist era in the same sense that people near the height of feudalism would have failed to notice the building blocks of what would one day be a radically different capitalist system. It’s hard to see how McMillan could have read the statements quoted above and still misread Mason’s “we are entering the post-capitalist era” in such a crude fashion.
He offers as evidence the claim that we’ve “loosened the relationship between work and wages.” This is pretty clever. He knows that people who envision a future beyond capitalism—socialists, communists, anarchists—understand that abolishing the wage system is the key to emancipating humanity from capitalism. But only a fool (or a well-paid content provider) could possibly confuse “abolishing the wage system” with “wages dwindling to nothing.” All that’s happening is that capitalists are taking more and we’re getting less. Far from capitalism being no more, capitalism is doing better than ever, at our expense.
Being ultra-underpaid is not a positive step toward a bright new economy—it sucks! Garment workers in Haiti paid 225 gourdes a day ($4.01 at the current exchange rate) understand this. Prisoners in Alabama paid 23 cents an hour understand this. It certainly must begin to gnaw on the minds of interns, as well as WWOOFers (working on farms in exchange for room and board, then turned loose to starve during the winters), that unpaid work doesn’t lead to “dismantling capitalism” but rather “testing out another form of wage-free capitalist accumulation.”
This is just despicable. Mason explicitly states that cooperative, self-managed work is a way out from the neoliberal sweatshop economy of falling wages, and will eventually supplant it in a post-capitalist social economy. McMillan may think he’s wrong. She may well believe that new communications and production technology will be coopted into capitalism, and that current trends will result in the increasing dominance of precarious, underpaid employment and sweatshop labor, rather than Mason’s vision of an economy of abundance centered on peer-production and self-employment. She may believe that Uber, AirBNB and sweatshops are what will actually result from Mason’s good intentions, his predictions to the contrary notwithstanding. If so she should make a case for it.
But I simply cannot convince myself she’s stupid enough to actually believe low-wage, precarious employment and sweatshop work is what Mason himself defines as the abolition of the wage system. He is obviously not an apologist for sweatshops and precarity or for the capitalist model they’re a part of, and portraying him as such is inexcusable.
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.
Once again, McMillan conflates Mason with the unspecified “they” of greenwashed New Age capitalism. To repeat, Mason may or may not be wrong that the current “sharing economy,” now still imprisoned to a large extent within proprietary corporate walls, will eventually burst forth from its capitalist integument and become a genuinely cooperative and open-source sharing economy controlled by the users themselves. But if so McMillan should make a case for that rather than passing Mason off as an apologist for Uber and AirBNB.
Let’s see what remedies many of them point to: “collaborative commons,” “workplace democracy,” “workers’ co-ops,” “mutual aid,” the “sharing economy.” These sound good, and indeed some of them may be positive and necessary steps toward a non-capitalist mode of production. But they are just that—steps—and it’s a mistake to confuse them with the path as a whole. Unless the framework of capitalism is broken entirely, they circle back to the beginning every time. Capitalism is not damaged simply because we engage in activity that is cooperative, non-hierarchical, collaborative or “socialistic.” It can and often does assimilate this activity, monetize it to generate new revenue streams. At the same time it helps manage and metabolize our discontent.
This despite Mason’s own explicit statement that capitalism is attempting to coopt the p2p and cooperative revolutions within a corporate framework, using “intellectual property” the same way feudal landlords used absentee title to the land the peasants worked, in order to extract rent from them:
You can observe the truth of this in every e-business model ever constructed: monopolise and protect data, capture the free social data generated by user interaction, push commercial forces into areas of data production that were non-commercial before, mine the existing data for predictive value – always and everywhere ensuring nobody but the corporation can utilise the results.
…The business models of all our modern digital giants are designed to prevent the abundance of information…
By creating millions of networked people, financially exploited but with the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away, info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being.
Obviously Mason’s vision of post-capitalism presupposes the failure of these “intellectual property” enclosures, and the emergence of genuinely cooperative, open-source and p2p versions of the present “sharing economy” falsely so-called. He obviously believes that the corporate enclosure of the information and sharing economies is an interim phase, ultimately doomed to destruction by the same uncontrollable free information technologies that are currently destroying the old-line music industry. His “educated and connected human being” is, in Negri’s words, a new subject of history, a gravedigger, destined to tear the enclosures down.
As Niki Seth-Smith puts it:
In his Telegraph review, Liam Halligan is spooked by Mason’s vision of a world in which “IT means fewer jobs”. This is too pessimistic, he writes. In fact, IT is making capitalism “more efficient”. This encapsulates the paradoxical logic that defenders of late capitalism are today forced to take. Efficiency is good, yet not the obvious result: a decrease in necessary labour hours needed for production and distribution, prices dropping towards zero. No wonder the proliferation of what David Graeber has called ‘bullshit jobs’. No wonder the drop-off in productivity. Technological progress has outpaced capitalism’s ability to adapt. Gillian Tett argues in the Financial Times that Mason has not accounted for “the fact that technology is currently turning many workers into the equivalent of insecure digital sharecroppers, rather than collaborative creative spirits.” She mentions Uber as an example. But Uber, Air B’n’B, or whatever the latest innovation of the commercialized ‘sharing economy’ happens to be, is beside the point. These represent the ‘push back’, the attempt to re-monetize the social wealth of the commons, the innumerable networks of cooperation and reciprocity that the digital age allows. Uber is not an example of Postcapitalism in action, it is at the frontier of the fight to re-capture the commons back into the old system of profit….
It’s true that the gap between humanity’s technological capabilities, and their fruits, is widening. It’s becoming ever harder to ignore that the ‘success stories’ of late capitalism, like Apple and Google, exist predominantly to restrict, not enable, the flow of goods. Google, through its carefully managed relationship to Open Source, is better at understanding the power dynamics of this gatekeeper role, but essentially it too is an Immortan Joe, profiting from control over a potentially abundant resource.
To repeat yet again, McMillan may believe Mason’s scenario isn’t going to happen, and that the corporate enclosures will prevail indefinitely. If so — also to repeat yet again — she should make an argument for that belief rather than simply portraying Mason as an apologist for the corporate enclosures. But that would actually require intellectual honesty.
Mason argues, post-modernistically, that because “information wants to be free,” the concept of value has become meaningless….
It’s obvious to anyone who pays attention that the falling prices of an infinitely-replicable immaterial service does not, by any means, translate to the world of physical commodities. Some things can’t be replicated in pixels or even by a 3-D printer. Clothing, food, housing, fuel and computers can only be replicated by employing the labor power of exploited workers. Those things are not losing value.
Exploitation in the process of production is still at the heart of the global economy. And as long as the value produced by workers is being appropriated and accumulated by capitalists, then we are still in capitalism.
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.
Anyone who says the unenforceability of information monopolies has no bearing on the cost of physical commodities doesn’t know much about physical production. McMillan should have paid closer attention to this statement of Mason’s: “The knowledge content of products is becoming more valuable than the physical things that are used to produce them.”
Back in the 1990s, Tom Peters — now there’s a genuine apologist for capitalism, wrapped up in New Age salesmanship, if McMillan wants to see what one actually looks like — crowed in ecstasy over the portion of the price of his new Minolta camera that resulted from “intellect”; that is, he was utterly jubilant that all the embedded rents on “intellectual property” were a larger part of its price than the actual materials and labor. Likewise, it’s primarily patents and trademarks that enable companies like Nike and Apple to completely outsource actual production to independent contractors, and use a legal monopoly over disposal of the product to enable themselves to mark up the price to a thousand or more percent over the actual cost of production. So it doesn’t take a genius to see that abolishing the patents and trademarks — or their growing unenforceability against knockoffs in small job-shops as a result of technological trends — would cause an implosion in the retail price of such goods relative to the income of those who produced them.
But it doesn’t stop there. Technological change is not only enabling the unlimited replication of information at zero marginal cost, but it’s radically cheapening and ephemeralizing physical production as well. If information — bits — want to be free, then atoms at least want to be a hell of a lot cheaper. The emergence of relatively small-scale CNC machine tools in the ’70s enabled the rise of networked cooperative production in Emilia-Romagna, as well as the corporate outsourcing of a growing share of production to independent job shops in Shenzhen. It reduced the cost of production machinery by an order of magnitude and made craft production in smaller cooperative shops feasible. The revolution in even smaller tabletop open-source CNC tools in the past decade or so has reduced the cost of machinery necessary by another order of magnitude, and made it possible to carry out, in a garage shop with ten or twenty thousand dollars worth of open-source machinery, the kinds of production that would have required a multi-million dollar factory fifty years ago.
It’s impossible to overstate the practical significance of this, from the standpoint of labor. The original material rationale for the wage and factory systems in industrial Britain and America was a technological transition from general-purpose craft tools affordable to the average artisan, to extremely expensive specialized machinery owned by capitalists who hired laborers to work it. The availability of a garage factory’s worth of open-source high-tech craft machinery at the equivalent of six months union factory wages — and still rapidly falling — is a direct reversal of that transition.
Increasingly the capitalists’ profits do not depend on ownership of the means of production, but control of the right to use them — the ownership of patents rather than machines. This intermediate stage, capitalism’s last desperate attempt to snatch scarcity from the jaws of abundance, is doomed to failure.
Seizing an old-style factory and holding it against the forces of the capitalist state is a lot harder than producing knockoffs in a garage factory serving the members of a neighborhood credit-clearing network, or manufacturing open-source spare parts to keep appliances running. As the scale of production shifts from dozens of giant factories owned by three or four manufacturing firms, to hundreds of thousands of independent neighborhood garage factories, patent law will become unenforceable. In the mass production age patents were enforceable mainly because the combination of a handful of firms, producing a handful of standard proprietary designs for a handful of major retail chains, lowered the transaction costs of enforcement.
And when we figure the combined cost-reductions from 1) stripping the price of manufactured goods of the embedded rents on patents and trademarks, 2) lean production on-demand for local markets with minimal distribution and marketing costs or management overhead, and 3) all the attendant costs of guard labor, bullshit jobs, planned obsolescence and subsidized waste when the inefficiencies of mass production and monopoly control are eliminated, we’re probably talking about a necessary work week of ten or fifteen hours — with radically reduced raw material and energy footprint — to produce our existing standard of living.
McMillan’s preferred revolutionary agenda of direct, insurrectionary assault, to seize control of the commanding heights of state and corporation, basically throws away the entire advantage that new, liberatory technologies offer to the working class. The fact that material means of production are becoming cheaper, more ephemeral and more affordable, and that material costs of production are declining as a source of value relative to the social capital and social relationships of the working class itself, is the basis of the strategy of Exodus that Toni Negri and Michael Hardt outlined in Commonwealth.
…the trend toward the hegemony or prevalence of immaterial production in the processes of capitalist valorization…. Images, information, knowledge, affects, codes, and social relationships… are coming to outweigh material commodities or the material aspects of commodities in the capitalist valorization process. This means, of course, not that the production of material goods… is disappearing or even declining in quantity but rather that their value is increasingly dependent on and subordinated to immaterial factors and goods…. What is common to these different forms of labor… is best expressed by their biopolitical character…. Living beings as fixed capital are at the center of this transformation, and the production of forms of life is becoming the basis of added value. This is a process in which putting to work human faculties, competences, and knowledges–those acquired on the job but, more important, those accumulated outside work interacting with automated and computerized productive systems–is directly productive of value. One distinctive feature of the work of head and heart, then, is that paradoxically the object of production is really a subject, defined… by a social relationship or a form of life.
* * * *
Capitalist accumulation today is increasingly external to the production process, such that exploitation takes the form of expropriation of the common.
The Old Left strategy centered on mass, structure and hierarchy at least made some sense in the mid-20th century, when its objective was seizure of a mass-production economy (although mass production itself, contra Galbraith and Chandler, was never inherently very efficient and actually wasted most of the advantages of efficiency and decentralization offered by electrical power, as described in the work of prophets like Kropotkin in Fields, Factories and Workshops). When the mass-production economy is itself a decaying dinosaur and it’s within the capability of a growing segment of the working class to produce superior goods in a home workshop, the idea of a frontal assault rather than simply withdrawing our labor into a counter-economy is just plain stupid. To quote a friend of mine, Katherine Gallagher:
We won’t be encircled by “them,” but woven through their antiquated structures, impossible to quarantine off and finish. I’m not a pacifist. I’m not at all against defensive violence. That’s a separate question to me of overthrow. But to oversimplify, when it comes to violence, I want it to be the last stand of a disintegrating order against an emerging order that has already done much of the hard work of building it’s ideals/structures. Not violent revolutionaries sure that their society will be viable, ready to build it, but a society defending itself against masters that no longer rule it. Build the society and defend it, don’t go forth with the guns and attempt to bring anarchy about in the rubble. I think technology is increasingly putting the possibility of meaningful resistance and worker independence within the realm of a meaningful future. So much of the means of our oppression is now more susceptible to being duplicated on a human scale….
And I think we should be working on how we plan to create a parallel industry that is not held only by those few. More and more the means to keep that industry held only by the few are held in the realm of patent law. It is no longer true that the few own the “lathe” so to speak, nearly as much as they own the patent to it. So we truly could achieve more by creating real alternative manufacture than seizing that built. Yes, there will be protective violence, but it’s not as true as it was in the past that there is real necessary means of production in the hands of the few. What they control more now is access to the methods of production and try to prevent those methods being used outside of their watch. Again, I’m not saying that the “last days” of the state won’t be marked by violence. But I am saying we now have real tactical options beyond confronting them directly until they come to us. (originally a series of tweets as @zhinxy in July 2012 — paragraph divisions mine.)
Techno-Utopianism, Counterfeit and Real (With Special Regard to Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism)
Download a PDF copy of Kevin Carson’s full C4SS Study: Center for a Stateless Society Paper No. 20 (Spring 2016)
- Stephanie McMillan
- Kate Aronoff
130. Stephanie McMillan, ” So-Called “Post-Capitalism” is Just Another Crappy Capitalist Snowjob,” SkewedNews, July 22, 2015 <http://skewednews.net/index.php/2015/07/22/called-post-capitalism-just-another-crappy-capitalist-snowjob/>.
131. Paul Mason, “The end of capitalism has begun,” The Guardian, July 17, 2015 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/17/postcapitalism-end-of-capitalism-begun>.
132. McMillan, op. cit.
134. Mason, “The end of capitalism has begun,” op. cit.
135. McMillan, op. cit.
138. Mason, “The end of capitalism has begun,” op. cit.
139. Niki Seth-Smith, “Post-Capitalism and the Precariat,” Precarious Europe, August 24, 2015 <http://www.precariouseurope.com/power/postcapitalism-precariat>.
140. Stephanie McMillan, op cit.
141. Negri and Hardt, Commonwealth, p. 137.