Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Paul Mason's Postcapitalism - A Detailed Critique - Chapter 5(9)

Socialised Capital

In the same way that the process of capital accumulation, concentration and centralisation led to the development of large scale socialised capital, that swept away the monopoly of private capital, so the power and cheapness of technology, and particularly communications and network technology throws up these new forms. By facilitating an increase in the number of independent commodity producers, it creates what I have called in the past technological feudalism, with those independent commodity producers operating like peasants, and the owners of cyber space occupying the role of landowners. But, there is no automaticity here. Socialised capital can take the form of a worker owned cooperative, or of a giant corporation like Microsoft. There is a huge difference, in reality, between the two. The associated producers in both, should exercise democratic control over the socialised capital, but they don't. In fact, even with a consumer cooperative, the workers do not exercise control, the consumer shareholders do, which usually, in practice means that control comes to rest in the hands of a permanent bureaucracy.  As I have described elsewhere.

In the same way, there is no inevitable reason that the technology leads to a profusion of networked individual producers, as opposed to creating a series of Ubers, where the workers are given the appearance, and all of the disadvantages of being individual commodity producers, and sellers, but who, in reality, are only wage workers, employed by capital, which extracts surplus value from their labour. In reality, many of those employed in the gig economy, with the appearance of self-employment, are no different to the Scottish pebble collectors cited by Adam Smith. They appear to sell a commodity, but, in reality, because there are so many of them, they have to sell it below its value, and thereby obtain, at best, only the value of their labour-power, the same as if they had been employed as a wage worker. 

In recent weeks, I have heard Paul on TV, repeat an argument I put forward a year ago that, instead of trades union action for Uber drivers, what we should actually be calling for is that the trades unions enable the Uber drivers to become what they are claimed to be, i.e. actually self-employed. But, rather than being individually self-employed, they should be collectively and co-operatively self-employed. They own their cars, the base technology for ride sharing already exists. They should simply establish their own co-operative alternative to Uber, using that technology, But, the fact that they have not already done so illustrates the point. The fact that capitalism creates the technology, and also creates the social forms that make such transitions possible does not lead inevitably to such a transition. It requires consciousness; it requires planning to bring the future into the present; and it requires organisation. But, the trades unions, the social-democratic parties and most of the Left are locked into a 19th century, not even 20th century mindset of trades union, economistic struggle, ill-equipped to provide the working-class with such solutions. 

Paul argues that Marx's concept of the “General Intellect”, referred to in The Grundrisse, in The Fragment on Machines, is one he had not used before or that he used again, but that is not true. The concept is essentially the same as his argument in relation to co-operative labour in general. That is it produces something greater than the sum of the parts, and this something, costs the capitalist nothing. Ten workers producing individually may produce 100 items, but working cooperatively they produce 110 items, so that the capitalist obtains these additional items for free. It's the same thing with science. Capital obtains the benefits of the discoveries of science for free, just as they obtain the gifts of Nature for free. That was what Ricardo had also pointed out as against Smith. Once its discovered, says Marx, that steam can produce motive power, capital pays for the construction of a steam engine, and for the coal to fuel it, but it does not pay for the natural property of steam to expand, and thereby drive a piston. 

Paul says, 

“This is possibly the most revolutionary idea Marx ever had that the reduction of labour to a minimum could produce a kind of human being able to deploy the entire, accumulated knowledge of society; a person transformed by vast quantities of socially produced knowledge and for the first time in history more free time than work time.” (p 138) 

Alternatively, it could result in a docile, dumbed-down population of drones, addicted to a new opium of the people, in the shape of endless cat videos, pictures of people's food, and news on the latest activity of the Kardassians, or is it the Klingons. 

Paul argues that info-capitalism had fuelled a global crisis that threw labour out of the workplace and left millions of the world's poorest scrabbling in dumpsters for food. But, he seems then to have forgotten the tables he presented in Chapter 4, showing that between 1983-2008, the real incomes of two-thirds of the world's people grew significantly, and, in fact, the global workforce doubled, mostly in these developing economies. 

The real culprit here is not info-capitalism, or globalisation, but “neoliberalism”. It is that conservative politicians, after 2008, deliberately constrained growth so as to prevent wages rising, and to prevent interest rates rising, which would have collapsed asset prices, and the whole socio-economic model on which they had rested for the previous thirty years. It's not zero marginal costs that prevents an expansion of production, so as to increase the mass of profit, its that a substantial expansion of production, which would expand the mass of profit, would simultaneously put an end to the near zero interest rates, which are essential to keep asset prices astronomically inflated. 

Paul also mentions the concept of a new type of capitalism – cognitive capitalism – developed by the followers of Hardt and Negri. This is not the place to discuss that concept, but Paul is right to note that we are not living in such a new system. In fact, although we have the existence of transitional forms of property, the vast bulk of that capital continues to be controlled by private capitalists, via their shareholdings and appointment of executives. 

He concludes the chapter by setting out his own post-capitalist hypothesis. It is that, since the 1990's, an information revolution has created a network economy, in which the marginal cost of information is near zero, and this undermines the norms of capitalist property. Digital commodities reduced in value to near zero, and as the information content of physical goods rises (though this, as I showed earlier is itself a contradiction) so these are also pushed towards zero. As it becomes more difficult to extract profit from such activity, so it makes other means of extracting profit, such as from lending, more important. Again, this is self-contradicting. If everything we want to buy is more or less free, why would we (including capitalists buying elements of constant capital) need to borrow to buy it? 

Capital responds by imposing monopolies, attempting to extract profits from narrow margins, and attempts to commoditise free information. Alongside this, new forms arise such as Open Source production, peer to peer networks, and so on. 

“The proliferation of these non-market economic activities is making it possible for a co-operative, socially just society to emerge.” (p 143) 

Paul believes that all this is an indication that the 240 year lifecycle of industrial capitalism is nearing an end. Paul doesn't fall into a catastrophist vision here, instead suggesting that either the system stabilises around some form of cognitive capitalism, or else it is transcended into a post-capitalist society, where free or cheap commodities abound, and the distinction between work and leisure starts to disappear. The division will be over social justice issues, such as growth v sustainability.

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