The Revolution will not be downloaded
Farooq Sulehria reviews Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason (£8.99; 368 pages; Paperback; Published 2 June 2016 by Penguin)
Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future has generated considerable interest among the leftist circles. A passionate debate, for instance, has been conducted on the pages of International Socialism Journal. An endorsing blurb by Naomi Klein on the back cover has perhaps further contributed to the book’s status. The book has certain merits, no doubt. It offers a scathing critique of the neo-liberal project. The neoliberal ‘false dawn’ is not merely dismissed empirically; he ridicules the market fundamentalism by narrating everyday experiences. For instance, contracts issued at Apple’s Foxconn plants in China, in 2010, forced workers to sign a pledge not to commit suicide due to workplace stress. (p, 178).
Likewise, Mason has helped to re-introduce certain Marxist debates on the economy. The attempt to explain the capitalist crisis by way of Kondratieff waves is important. Besides offering a wealth of information, his journalistic writing style renders the text accessible to a general reader. There is a lot in his analysis as well as perspective one finds convincing.
Many on the left will agree with Mason when he claims that the contemporary capitalist crisis will either lead to a return to the 1930s or if the present system survives, albeit in a weakened state, the working classes will bear the brunt. There is, he claims, an optimistic possibility as well: this crisis can lead to postcapitalism. It is on the question of postcapitalist transformation one finds him indeed problematic.
In his view, there is a mismatch – impossible to sustain in the longer run – between neoliberalim and information-based economy. This mismatch issues from miraculous advances in technology. The technological advancement has rendered the Marxist conception of ‘class’ irrelevant. The clichéd proletariat is, in fact, dead. ‘In the past twenty years, capitalism has mustered a new social force that will be its gravedigger…It is the networked individuals who have camped in the city squares’ (p, 212). Bearer of postcapitalism, this networked individual is ‘adept at drawing down knowledge from a relatively open and global system’, behaves in a networked way ‘from work to consumption to relationships and culture’. As long as one has ‘basic education and a smartphone’, any ‘barista, or admin worker, or legal temp can become, if they want to, a universal educated man’. Even factory workers in China, during their non-work time have become ‘avidly networked’ (p, 115).
The main contradiction is not between classes (or core and periphery, a debate he does not really broach). It is between networks and hierarchies. Networks represent the ‘possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods’ while hierarchies constitute a system of ‘monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information’ (p, 144).
Wikipedia is one such embodiment of networked, abundantly and socially produced, goods. ‘Wikipedia has 208 employees. The thousands who edit it do so for free…With 8.5 billion page views per month the Wikipedia site is the sixth most popular in the world…By one estimate, if it were run as a commercial site, Wikipedia’s revenue could be $2.8 billion a year’ (p, 128). Mason points out that in the case of Wikipedia, ‘network makes it possible to organize production in a decentralized and collaborative way, utilizing neither the market nor management hierarchy’ (p, 129).
The only problem Mason is unable to fix in his book is the question of climate. When Wikipedias under postcapitalism will socially and abundantly go on producing consumer goods, the postcapitalist society will have to adjust production/consumption with the climate.
Borrowing, in an eclectic manner, from Marx, Antonio Negri, Manuel Castells (though Castells is not acknowledged) and Peter Drucker, the postcapitalism conceived by Mason suffers from two major and interlocking flaws.
Firstly, it is fanatically ‘Eurocentric’. When he claims that capitalism is ‘global, fragmentary, geared to small-scale choices, temporary work and multiple skill-sets’ and consumption ‘has become a form of self-expression’ (p, xvi) while boundaries between work and leisure have been blurred (p, 209), he is definitely not talking about garment workers at Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza. When this trap-house of a factory collapsed, 1,133 workers died on April 24, 2013. The tragedy reminded many of New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. Earning 1.36 euro, working 10/12 hours a day, four million Bangladeshi garment workers live on starvation wages, unable to fend off hunger let alone think of ‘consumption as self-expression’. The workers are sometimes even denied the right to go to the toilet. Here the blurring of boundaries is not between leisure and work. Here the workers find blurring of boundaries between work and slavery. The other global commodity, Apple iPhones, are produced in the similar fashion.
Eve the so-called blurring of boundaries between work and leisure, often glorified in postmodernist and post-Marxist discourses, is indeed questionable. This blurring of boundary is in reality an encroachment of workers’ free time. When one is working online from home, after the office hours, blurring of boundaries between work and leisure is hardly anything to glorify.
Likewise, Mason’s ‘networked individual’, bearer of postcapitalism, is in a majority in London, Tokyo and Sydney. True, as mentioned above, Chinese have been taken into account. During their non-work time, they get networked. What about India? He does not mention that hardly 20% in India have access to Internet. This brings us to the second major flaw in Mason’s book. It simply refuses to take into account the global digital divide. Roughly two-thirds in Asia and Africa happen to be on the wrong side of digital divide. In fact, before downloading postcapitalism, digitally deprived Afro-Asians will have to download basic literacy.
It is, therefore, understandable that Nepal witnessed a refreshingly old-fashioned revolution led by Maoists instead of dot.communists. A partially successful democratic transformation in Tunisia would not have been possible without its strong trade union base. Even if one buys widely-circulated mainstream myth, flaunted by Mason as well, that the Arab Spring was a networked, Facebook revolution, the developments in Syria and Egypt further expose Mason’s thesis that blindly ignores the role of state.
It seems the state will play a neutral spectator as dot.communists will volunteer, Wikipedia-style, to socially download food, clothing, electricity and education for the global South as well. Even if one concedes that Wikipedia-style volunteer work is uniquely new in human history, what if networked individuals and dot.communists refuse to download the revolution. Mason himself points out that this e-bourgeoisie is hardly interested in politics. His hope lies in the fact that networked individual is indeed angry. So was apocryphal proletariat. Mason ridicules the left for not understanding that the proletariat has not really risen to deliver the end of capitalism. Instead, the proletariat devised strategies to survive and to go on living despite capitalism. What if angry networked individuals also go on living with survival instincts? Ironically, this highly glorified harbinger of postcapitalist revolution is a post-ideological subject. At least, Mason nowhere describes the philosophical outlook of his revolutionary subject. Herein lies yet another problem with Mason’s thesis. He identifies the technological possibilities of building postcapitalism. He identifies the subjectivities. He selectively deploys Marx to build his claims. But he dismisses Lenin and simply ignores Gramsci. His post-ideology dot.communists will simply outdo capitalists through their voluntary services, a bourgeois state not withstanding.