Socialism and IT: Can Technology Liberate Us From Capitalism?

Capitalism, Paul Mason writes in his new book PostCapitalism: a Guide to Our Future, is more than just legal and financial structures. It is also a Primark factory collapsing in Bangladesh and ‘the rioting teenage girls at the opening of the Primark store in London, overexcited at the prospect of bargain clothes’. In PostCapitalism, Mason discusses how the notion of work has been irrevocably transformed by the rise of information technology, and offers some perspectives which he believes might aid the transition to a post-capitalist economy. Traditional manual labour has not, of course, stopped; rather, it has become resituated in an economy in which profit increasingly stems from capturing the free value created by consumer behavior, and because a society defined by mass consumption requires constant caffeine and fast food being served by workers bearing the dreaded ‘professional smile’, the factory floor now becomes all of society, as Antonio Negri first pointed out, and workers can be exploited in places spanning far beyond their own office.

With impressive empirical and historical coverage, Mason argues that we are currently in something of a transition from state-corporate capitalism and info-capitalism to postcapitalism (info-socialism, dot-communism, and so on): Today’s world is one in which the network exists alongside the corporate hierarchy, the internet café exists alongside the slums of Haiti, Owen Jones’s Guardian articles coexist with neoliberal editorials and double-page BMW adverts. These tensions exist alongside the juggling of contradictory, multiple economic personalities in the form of sharing and collaborating online whilst purchasing iTunes songs, and pursuing profitable business models at work before exchanging gifts of intangible value in the evening. Norman Finkelstein, for instance, is radical when it comes to his philosophy of peace activism but fairly intransigent when it comes to political action and his views about BDS; Noam Chomsky is a radical when it comes to political philosophy but a straight up reactionary when it comes to animal rights and veganism. The problem Mason identifies, then, is a psychological as well as structural one.

Many of the substantial democratic and progressive changes Mason hopes for will most likely come from an area many on the left discuss with an unfair level of disdain: technology, in particular private sector innovation (often state-backed). Mason points to cooperatives and self-managed online spaces as quasi-socialist alternatives already becoming increasingly mainstream. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why many postcapinvolved with and working in the ‘creative industries’, such as video game production, often seem blissfully detached from major political issues impacting their lives; on some unconscious level they know that their own style of (relatively) free, open and collaborative work is the stuff of the future. These developments will consequently force activists to do certain things they are, reasonably, reluctant to do: ‘engagement with the mainstream, involvement with political strategy, an enduring structural project more concrete than ‘another world is possible’.’

Why are these observations important? Primarily because the old left had hoped that a militant working class would apply force to market mechanisms through the ballot box and picket line. It was hoped that workers in, for instance, the service food sector would not tolerate their low wages and conditions of work and would organize collectively to press for their demands. But this has not happened to anywhere near the extent that the old left hoped. Instead, we often see capitulation and the pursuit of individual promotion in the form of managerial positions and bonus schemes. We see (failed) individual solutions to collective problems, and a sore lack of collective solutions.

Seeking a remedy, Mason looks to information technology. The IT revolution itself ‘de-skilled the engineering worker, made the labour of semi-skilled workers redundant and accelerated the growth of low-skilled service work’. But it has also blurred the line between work and free time, and though the left has often criticized this aspect of it for leading to surreptitious forms of out-of-work exploitation (mental and social labour are difficult to capture on a timesheet), IT also encourages the collaborative production of goods and services. In labour-theoretic terms, Mason urges the spread of awareness about how ‘leisure’ time often serves as, or can easily be transformed into, work hours. Today, the grand concepts of ‘worker’ and ‘production’ often reduce to someone sitting on the top deck of a bus with their laptop, switching from watching a film to opening a spreadsheet and hitting CTRL+V.

One of most successful collaborate IT projects, Wikipedia, is composed purely of volunteers and deprives the advertising industry of around $3 billion per year, appealing neither to the market nor management hierarchies, and partially fulfilling Marx’s wish in the Fragment on Machines for a world in which information is freely stored and shared in a ‘general intellect’. Neoliberalism, in contrast, encourages devotion to personal gain and doesn’t promote much in the way of social concern and collectivism. It’s not surprising, then, that recent academic work in the cognitive sciences seeks to explore how different workplaces shape perceptions of meaning and collectivity.

Mason also stresses the important factor of what Bell Telephone boss Theodore Vail called a century ago ‘the network effect’: the more people that join a network, the more useful it becomes for all. Over the last three decades, network technologies have led to new horizons for ‘collaboration and production beyond the market’. New academic journals, like PeerJ and the Frontiers series, also encourage collaboration and interaction between researchers, reviewers and authors, even if profits remain concentrated and many editorial roles remain voluntary (with the latter being an almost unavoidable situation if the spectre of financial inducement is to be kept out of the peer review process).

In an IT economy, the market mechanism for setting prices will drive the marginal cost of certain goods towards zero, thus deteriorating profits, with an iTunes song being to be sold, or ‘produced’, a limitless number of times. IT is therefore disintegrating the standard operation of the price mechanism. The success of Open Source software, initiated by the likes of Richard Stallman in his 1985 GNU Manifesto, shows that novel forms of property ownership and management become necessary in an IT-saturated economy. More generally, the IT revolution led to the formation of non-market mechanisms, from voluntary organisation to decentralized action by individuals to peer-to-peer economics through which, Mason writes, ‘money is either absent or not the main measure of value’ – an archetypally socialist, anti-capitalist priority.

Turning to the current economic climate, Mason discusses austerity economics, which is not being applied at the behest any economic necessities or laws in an effort to ‘balance the books’, but rather its true goal, and ‘the real austerity project’ for Mason, is to lower wages and living standards. The aim of many bankers – driving forces of the austerian ideology – is simply to seek wealthy retirement and jealously guard their assets, ignoring the effects of their work on others (the CEO of Prudential, Tidjane Thiam, said in 2012 that the minimum wage is ‘a machine to destroy jobs’, echoing a common sentiment amongst financiers). Relatedly, Mason discusses the effective betrayal of many of the white middle classes to neoliberal values; similar to the varieties of internal colonialism recently explored by Cornel West in Black Prophetic Fire, brought about by the capitulation of affluent blacks in the United States to the neoliberal system of finance and state power. The stabilisation of fiat money and a rejection of financialisation are seen by Mason as sensible and urgent paths away from neoliberalism, with these objectives being more concretely explored by, for instance, the New Economics Foundation. The book calls for what cognitive scientists would think of as a ‘massively modular’ economy in which people can work ‘in different places, at different speeds, with relative autonomy from each other’.

As the work of Owen Hatherley also documents in grim detail, the streetscapes of British towns hit by industrial decline brought about by neoliberalism are today characterised by pawnbrokers, bookies, BrightHouses, charity shops and employment agencies, with town centres being gentrified into pristine gastro pubs and 80s-themed nightclubs sitting next to food banks run by Churches and volunteers. The financialisation of the economy after the collapse of Bretton Woods was followed by consumers being ‘direct participants in the financial markets’, Mason writes, through overdrafts, student loans, credit cards and mortgages. As Marx already noted, the main function of credit is to produce exploitation ‘to the purest and most colossal form of gambling and swindling, and to reduce more and more the number of the few who exploit the social wealth’. This is partly achieved through massive state expenditure in the form of bailouts and effective subsidies; the image of the state as a ‘night watchman’, reclining by the fireplace flicking through his laissez-faire pamphlets, is long dead.

Financialisation has also created an extensive service industry which has developed around wealthy consumers: florists, yoga teachers, boat builders, and ‘alternative’ medicine stores please the haves while giving the have-nots something to ‘aspire’ to. Mason recalls a time of ‘work, saving and great social solidarity’ in his home town of Leigh in the 1970s, with ‘full employment, high wages and high productivity’, and stresses that these kinds of counterposed establishments which define the modern British town only appear so starkly conflicting because of the crucially transitional nature of his conception of the current capitalism-to-postcapitalism climate.

As mentioned, traditional conceptions of work and production rarely apply in an info-capitalist world. PostCapitalism notes how ‘a single mum on benefits, forced into the world of payday loans and buying household goods on credit, can be generating a much higher profit rate for capital than an auto industry worker with a steady job’. Mason therefore adopts the emerging division (often applied to Japan) between core and periphery workers. The former exhibit ‘the ability to reinvent yourself, to align yourself with short-term corporate objectives, to be good at forgetting old skills and learning new ones, to be a networker and above all to live the dream of the firm you work for’. The peripheral workforce is even more ‘flexible’, relying on zero-hours contracts and manual work strictly at the minimum wage. The whole culture of work has also drastically changed. At Pret A Manger, Mason notes, staff are required to don the good old professional smile and exude a creepy level of happiness, being encouraged ‘to touch each other’. We increasingly see the rise of hyper-engaged, passive aggressively optimistic and ‘chummy’ job styles, with applicants often being asked to answer ‘fun’ and ‘quirky’ questions.

IT can also produce new liberated forms of human behavior: activists can share images of Tahrir Square on Instagram, crowdfund ethically motivated projects on Kickstarter, anonymously plan meetings on Crabgrass, and tell Nick Robinson he’s an arsehole on Twitter. These technologies are sorely needed if only because the activist possibilities in many of the major British cities – let alone the smaller towns – are either extremely limited or get little in the way of media attention. Social media is by now a kind of quasi education system, with users sharing news posts and analyses with each other, updating, informing and challenging each other.

Mason’s analysis is refreshing enough, particularly when it covers pricing and information. Still, he consigns the working class to ‘industrial’ capitalism, and so out goes a class analysis and in comes ‘the network’ which cannot be easily dispersed. Mason also makes it seem like only leftists are concerned with egalitarian information technology. But many figures in the private sector in top firms, and even in the advertising industry, want to see this too. What is needed is a promotion of the specifically horizonalist egalitarian tendencies of information technology, which could in turn (and perhaps indirectly) place pressure on the corporate rent-seeking tendencies of capitalism. At the risk of sounding like a Randian libertarian, the goal should be to liberate the private sector centres of technology from the constraints of corporate capitalism, such as the legally enforced pursuit of profit.

The horrific and nightmarish effects of neoliberalism explored in PostCapitalism have been felt across Britain for over two decades. For Mason, this nightmare can be survived if IT is liberated from its corporate priorities and the more collaborate, horizonalist aspects of it are given sufficient public and state support. The reasons to expect backing for these goals are many, including recent increases in public support for IT education and individual ownership of collaborative technologies, and as a New York Times reviewer of T.F. Powys’s fiction once asked, ‘Who has not been so intrigued with a nightmare that he would not drowse again and follow it to its crazy end?’

Elliot Murphy is a writer based in Houston, Texas, and the author of Arms in Academia: The Political Economy of the Modern UK Defence Industry (Routledge, 2020) and Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature (Zer0 Books, 2014).