Paul Mason: Fully Automated Reformism

By Andy Yorke

PAUL MASON left Channel Four to become an independent left commentator back in early 2016, citing his desire for political freedom, to back Corbyn’s Labour Party, and to argue for the ideas he had developed in his 2015 book, PostCapitalism.1 With a background in IT and the far left, Mason was one of the few journalists reporting sympathetically from inside protests and occupations, and outside the mass media’s standard neoliberal narrative, writing a series of books analysing new social trends in the post-2008 world of crisis and revolts.2

PostCapitalism brings it all together into a new theory, in which neoliberalism is an exhausted economic model, but the information revolution has created within capitalism the basis for the next stage of social development, not socialism but a post-capitalist, IT-networked society of abundance and freedom. After leaving Channel Four, he said, “the claim that I am ‘revolutionary Marxist’ is completely inaccurate. I am a radical social democrat who favours the creation of a peer-to-peer sector (co-ops, open source, etc.) alongside the market and the state, as part of a long transition to a post-capitalist economy.”3

Since joining Labour, Mason has moved rapidly to the right and become stridently anti-Marxist. He defended the “Momentum coup” by John Lansman’s leadership against its vibrant grassroots democracy, calling on members to be “footsoldiers” in favour of a superficial, consultative “e-democracy” leaving policy making to trusted Corbyn insiders, like Lansman and Mason.4 He has waded into the big debates, advocating concessions to tabloid-fomented “public opinion” on a range of issues; immigration, Trident, Brexit, nationalisation, Russophobia, any issue that the British ruling class and right wing Labour MPs see as a red line.

Marx without class

So it came as no surprise that his article in the April New Statesman on the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth came not to praise but to bury his ideas. Mason attacks the supposedly top-down “reinterpretations” of Marx, lumping together Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and… Stalin. His intention is to dislocate Marx’s thinking from the concept of class.

He leverages a couple of Marx’s marginal texts against his core ideas to create the “radical humanist” Marx: “either Marxism is about the liberation of individual human beings or it is about impersonal forces and structures, which… can be very rarely escaped”; it is freedom or “some collective utopia” (or rather dystopia in Mason’s eyes). This isn’t Marx’s method, however. Rather than posing bipolar dichotomies, Marx’s analysis was dialectical, showing not just contradiction and flux, but the inner connection between what seem to be two opposite things.

It is the 1844 Paris Manuscripts which Mason says show Marx as a humanist concerned predominantly with individual freedom. In fact, Marx said “individual freedom” is inextricably connected to “association”, where “social individuals” engage in “social activity” and make “social products”. For Marx, individual freedom for all is achievable only with a “collective utopia” produced by the withering away and progressive abolition of poverty, class, the state and other oppressive, bureaucratic structures. Crucially, he saw bourgeois private property and the social relations this engenders as incompatible with individual freedom for all.5

Mason downsizes and restructures Marx into a “radical humanist” to throw overboard Marx’s political conclusion; the centrality of the working class in the emancipation of humanity through revolution. In its place he poses radical tech-enabled individualism:

“What’s left of Marxism in our era of techno-euphoria and environmental doom? Not its class narrative: despite the doubling of the global workforce, the workers of the world are as encaged in bourgeois society as their white, male, manual counterparts became in the 20th century. Workplace unrest will continue but capitalism has worked out how to quarantine it away from revolution… Fuck the vanguard party. The revolutionary subject is the self.”

Revolutionary Information

Let’s see where this defiant dismissal takes Mason in PostCapitalism, before showing how the working class stubbornly reasserts itself.

Mason’s fascination with the “networked generation” of youth began when he reported on the austerity-driven revolts from Parliament Square and Tahrir Square: “At the centre of all the protest movements is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future” he wrote in Why it’s Kicking off Everywhere (2013), meaning the young, precarious, radical individuals with social media integrated into all aspects of their lives.

According to Mason, technology has “expanded the power of the individual” in struggle. Horizontal forms of organisation drive the protests, rather than the traditional “hierarchical” organisations such as unions or parties. In 2013, he was already hyping networks and horizontalism as being able to “bypass and supersede the machinery of power via… an alternative network of relations”:

“The network in short has begun to erode power relationships we had come to believe were permanent features of capitalism: the helplessness of the consumer, the military-style hierarchy of the boss and underlings at work, the power of mainstream media empires to shape ideology, the repressive capabilities of the state and the inevitability of monopolisation by large corporations.” (All quotes from It’s Kicking Off)

After the defeats of the 2010-15 revolts and revolutions, the emphasis on struggle almost completely disappeared from Mason’s work. His “networked individual” is no longer a figure of struggle but working as a programmer, starting a foodbank, running a credit union or launching an e-startup company.

This broadened, fuzzy category obscures the class differences within the youth and elevates a relatively privileged, narrow layer as deliverer of the postcapitalist society. Working class college students fighting to keep the EMA, the precarious and unemployed youth of the estates networking the London riots on their Blackberries or, for that matter, the youth working at SportsDirect or in a call centre, for whom IT means workplace surveillance and speedups reinforcing management hierarchy… do not – cannot – feature in PostCapitalism.

Ironically, given Mason’s playground “Fuck the vanguard party”, he once spotted the “informal hierarchy” that worked within the protests, with small groups of activists coordinating them (It’s Kicking Off). Now he chooses to gloss over the more proletarian elements (the working class and urban poor that he at least used to acknowledge as agents).

Stripped of its fuzziness and hype Mason’s politics is essentially elitist. And as Podemos’ and Momentum’s weak “e-democracy” show, infotech can also be used by small groups to manipulate broad masses.

While using Marxism as a key prop to help cohere his theory of PostCapitalism, Mason’s conclusions contradict it: the working class is replaced as the agent of change (or even a coherent class) by “networked individuals”; socialism and revolution are abandoned as compromised projects doomed to fail; instead we are witnessing a “long transition” to a “networked society”, where networks grow within capitalism, permeate it, undermine it and ultimately replace it.

This is a two-track strategy: the organic thickening of networked relations from below; P2P networks, opensource projects and the permeation of info technology into everything in an “internet of things”; with a left government catalysing change and empowering networked individuals by directing a “wiki-state”.

The real meat of his thesis lies in his “Project Zero”, for which a left government is the historical enabler: co-ops, a universal basic income, a “wiki-state”, P2P networks, etc. Abandoning Marx, Mason looks back to Robert Owen and Charles Fourier: “with info-tech, large parts of the utopian socialist project become possible”.

Private property and the state

Before analysing Mason’s actual theory, it is important to note its silences and what is left out of it. He puts forward the socialisation of the banks and energy giants as a peaceful process and a precondition to an ecologically sustainable transition. It is hard to see how two of the most powerful, ruthless and reactionary sectors of the ruling class are to be expropriated without revolutionary struggles.

Where the police, security services and military fit into this open-source wiki-state is left out. Are these highly regimented ranks to be dissolved by networks? States exist to defend the property rights of certain, ruling classes. But Mason never explains what class the wiki-state will serve and defend, let alone how at least part of the police, army, etc. can be won over to its cause without a fight against the reactionary elements. These are after all the same police who fought the miners, lied over Hillsborough, infiltrate social movements, suppress anti-fracking groups, kill and harass black men, etc.

In the more limited area of IT itself, how exactly social media can undermine capitalist property and power relations is left unsaid. Yet he recognises that the power of monopolies (Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple) and intellectual property rights are already stifling these possibilities. It is possible to reverse networking so that instead of empowering the individual it empowers the state or the corporation, as we saw with Cambridge Analytica and Brexit. In Tahrir Square, the internet was turned off and thousands of networked individuals became un-networked, atomised individuals, prey to the state.

Mason’s vision is not only confined to wealthy countries and totally at odds with the growing poverty and attacks on democracy worldwide. The fact that IT stuff is made by tens of millions of workers in China is ignored. Likewise, imperialism and war are left out almost entirely from PostCapitalism, appearing only as asides here and there. Mason likes to attack Marxists for being abstract but avoiding these hard realities looks simply like wishful thinking.

There is another potential use for infotech, its real revolutionary potential; to plan production to meet real need. The abundance possible with machinery, renewable energy and now the information revolution is the premise of communism. Mason is right that infotech is being built now that can gather information about individuals’ consumption, aggregate this data and connect it to productive units.

But Mason can’t use the word “planning” without adding the word “command” in front of it, deliberately conflating a Stalinist bureaucracy with planning. His alternative is the “general intellect” or “hivemind” inherent in the networked society. But to really plug all individuals into a world of global information, relationships and mutual projects requires participatory planning in a socialist workers’ democracy.

Until then, however, “markets are not the enemy,” we are told. The only need is for the state to “send clear signals to the private sector” that profits from innovation will be acceptable, but not rents. At the same time, “it is important that a large space be left for what Keynes called the ‘animal spirits’ of the innovator” and to “use state intervention to promote an innovative, high wage private sector”.6 This left wing version of what Blairites like Chuka Umunna call the social market ignores the fact that the market is an engine of inequality and concentration.

The working class is dead (again)

Mason says the world working class now numbers three billion, the greatest number, proportion of the population and global spread, in history. At the height of the revolts, he rejected post-class theorist Andre Gorz as wrong, that “the old proletariat has been dissolved by modern technology and that the class struggle would be replaced by personal politics”. Now, he thinks Gorz was simply ahead of his time: the working class is at an end, the organisational decline and “ideological collapse” of the workers’ movement since 1989 marks “a strategic change”:

“It has become impossible to imagine this working class – disorganised, in thrall to consumerism and individualism – overthrowing capitalism… The old sequence – mass strikes, barricades, soviets and working-class government – looks utopian in a world where the key ingredient, solidarity in the workplace, has gone AWOL.” (pp177-78)

He then goes further and states that Marx “got it wrong about the working class” (pp180, 184). It was never revolutionary and attempts to make it so were doomed:

“Far from being bearers of socialism, the working class were conscious of what they wanted, and expressed it through their actions. They wanted a more survivable form of capitalism. This was not a product of mental backwardness. This was an overt strategy based on something the Marxist tradition could never get its head around: the persistence of skill, autonomy and status in working-class life… Marxism’s first contact with the organised working class led to a big misunderstanding, not just about skill but the kind of political consciousness it produces.”

Mason rejects as excuses the arguments that explain defeats by pointing to “bad conditions or bad leaders”, though his own potted history of the working class admits that at key junctures such as the 1970s, leadership was key, as “Stalinism and Social Democracy worked virtually full-time to channel the class struggle into compromise and parliamentary politics.” (p204)

Mason has even less time for Marx’s followers; Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, thus rejecting developments of his theory that explain changes in the working class and capitalism, such as Engels’ and Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy, which is mainly about skill and stratification in the working class and helps explain the bureaucracy in the labour movement and the durability of reformist “political consciousness”.
The IT revolution has cleared out millions of semi-skilled and middle-income jobs, and is set to destroy millions more. There could not be a better, more sweeping, example of deskilling which vindicates Marx’s historical generalisation, along with his prediction of the “immiseration” or impoverishment of the working class, that all types of labour are eventually reduced to “simple labour”.

Mason asserts the working class has been “sublated” into a broader, precarious, fragmented mass, to be overtaken by the network-empowered individual as the revolutionary subject: “the agent of change has become, potentially, everyone on Earth.”7 Including presumably some of the one percent appealed to at the end; like all post-class theorists, there’s a lot of analysis attacking the concept and reality of the working class, but none about the ruling class and its potential for reform; the liberal bourgeoisie and neutral state are simply assumed.

The Big Idea

Mason asserts that “work is the source of value” and gives a good explanation and defence of Marx’s labour theory of value. He recognises that this “has stood the test of time” and tries to use it for his Big Idea: (147).
He argues that “Information technology, far from creating a new and stable form of capitalism, is dissolving it:

corroding market mechanisms, eroding property rights and destroying the old relationship between wages, work and profit” (p112). He sees the expansion of information technology into every aspect of production and the product itself (e.g. a jet engine that sends back data on its functioning or problems). The new interconnected “internet of things” will revolutionise the economy while eroding capitalist relations: “The knowledge content of products is becoming more valuable than the physical elements used to produce them.” (p111)

To this he adds the effect of “zero marginal cost information”: “Once you can copy/paste a paragraph, you can do it to a music track, a movie, the design of a turbofan engine and the digital mock-up of the factory that will make it. Once you can copy and paste something, it can be reproduced for free. It has, in economics-speak, a ‘zero marginal cost’.” (p117)

This is Mason’s big idea underpinning the inexorable transition to postcapitalism. The progressive expansion of information content into “physical goods…means sucking them into the same zero-price vortex as pure information goods” to produce a massive fall in prices, less work necessary to produce things, and increasing amounts of “free stuff”: “zero-cost effects begin to cascade over from information into the sphere of machines and products, and from there into labour costs.” (p142, p171)

“The impact of wiring every person and every object into an intelligent network could be exponential. It could rapidly reduce the marginal cost of energy and physical goods in the same way as the internet does for digital products.” (p140) He claims the growing internet-of-things could be worth up to $6 trillion by 2025.

Unfortunately, the Big Idea underpinning his theory of PostCapitalism does not have the transformative power he gives it.

First off, Mason completely contradicts the labour theory of value that he has just praised so highly. Commodities exchange for their real value: the amount of socially necessary labour time congealed in them. Even if the information in a mobile phone costs next to zero to produce, it still takes a team of programmers’ labour-time, while the phone casing, microchips, battery, etc. are all made by heavily repressed, sweated labour. Even so, this labour also has to be paid so that the worker can return tomorrow.

Also, information is caught up in capitalism’s constant competitive innovation and has costs of production. Software gets out of date and obsolete; the fixed capital of machinery, computers, cable networks, server barns etc all wear out or are superseded in five to ten years. Labour is needed to produce and replace them and is built into the product’s price.

The same is true of branding, which Mason sees as an “intangible”, when from a labour theory of value standpoint it comes with certain costs in marketing, sponsoring, etc., with its value legally protected from competition. Information, branding, and “big data” are all costs of production that can be turned into commodities, sold on or used to extort royalties.

And information can’t reduce the cost of physical things to the same degree that digital products can be copied for next to nothing. Yes, you can download the blueprint of a turbofan jet engine for free, but a blueprint can’t power an aeroplane. Mason recognises that energy and raw materials will continue to be scarce, but his idea that the cost of machinery will fall towards zero, i.e. of a giant, self-reproducing and self-developing apparatus of production, can never be achieved under capitalism.

It is obvious that a change of the form of society, the abolition of private property in production, is needed to reap the rewards of new technology for humanity, and transform the economy in a sustainable way. Without that, savings will simply be appropriated as profit by the capitalist class, as they have the bulk of productivity gains since the 1970s, with a growing mass of precarious, low-waged service sector jobs to soak up the redundant labour.

Mason says capitalism simply can’t deal with the unemployment that will result, something has to give. In reality, capitalism has an answer: precariousness plus digitisation. All-round surveillance to speed up, stop “time theft” and police union resistance is already happening. Capitalism will make us pay for infotech unless workers struggle collectively against this.

Nevertheless, Mason sees universal basic income as essential to compensate for lost jobs and give people time to learn to network or engage in P2P projects. He tries to show it wouldn’t cost much more than the benefits system, but this just begs the question, what about three quarters of humanity who live in countries without much of a welfare state?

On a planet of seven billion people, mostly poor, where the next meal is coming from is a big issue. Mason’s portrait of the networked society looks absurd, like the statistics that show women will get equal pay in a century, or that poor countries will catch up with the rich in a few hundred years; capitalism’s multiple crises mean we don’t have the luxury of waiting for a “long transition”, in fact it won’t happen. In reality, Mason’s vision is one for the rich countries, especially since he foresees the continuation of the nation state and what it implies: the global order divided between imperialist countries and the semi-colonial countries they exploit.

The biggest problem that Mason recognises but doesn’t have an answer to is that all this zero-cost production information is owned by monopolies that use their intellectual property rights to protect their information products and limit their use. It costs 99p to download a track on iTunes but costs Apple almost nothing, in other words, the profits from iTunes are almost pure rent (pp118-19).

Strangely, there are no proposals to nationalise these IT giants, though his proposal to regulate the IT sector to ensure innovation, not rent, is rewarded, is sure to be resisted as hard as nationalisation by the banks and energy titans. Rather than a network economy that “has started to corrode the traditional property relations of capitalism”, capitalism with its monopolies and state has already proved more than capable of subordinating these new networks and using them to boost profits, while undermining privacy and freedom.

Indeed, without nationalisation, only such giant companies could amass the capital necessary to invest in high-end robotics, nanotechnology, etc. Mason ignores monopoly under capitalism; the point is that, just like machinery and information, they develop under capitalism as the prerequisite of socialist planning, as Lenin pointed out, something that is anathema to Mason.

State, war and imperialism

Marx’s Capital does not stick to an economic analysis of capitalism but is withering in its denunciations of a system born “drenched in blood” from slavery, conquest and dispossession. When Mason quotes Marx on finance as “the purest and most colossal form of gambling and swindling”, it jars with the rest of the optimistic, moderate technocrat writing. Since capitalism can be tamed by a left wing social-democratic government and ultimately retired by the network society gestating and growing within it, there is no need for Marx’s implacable hostility to the system. And, of course, when the left government facilitating the post-capitalist process rules in an imperialist country like Britain, it would be awkward to explore too deeply the linkages between the big banks, monopolies and the state, and their role in propping up dictatorship and military intervention abroad.

Imperialism and war are the big absences in Mason’s text. His economistic account identifies Hilferding’s theory of finance capital as the third long wave of capitalist mutation, but deliberately ignores Lenin’s revolutionary recasting of this theory to explicitly connect monopoly to imperialist rivalry and conclude that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, an “epoch of wars and revolutions”, not just another “mutation”. Mason actually criticises Luxemburg’s “obsession with colonies and military spending” in explaining capitalism’s pre-war economic stability (p62).

Mason’s “wiki-state” is just a name-change for a left government switching off “the neoliberal privatisation machine” and pursuing traditional roles, such as infrastructure provision. What’s new is its need “to think positively about its role in the transition to postcapitalism… clear a space in the capitalist jungle for these new [P2P] plants to grow”. In response to the big rumbling crises growing under capitalism’s feet; climate change, ageing populations, migration, debt – “only national governments and multilateral agreements can solve them” and save capitalism. In reality, nation states and the imperialist system exacerbate them and block solutions.

For Mason, the state’s role is to reward entrepreneurship, not rent, and to “suppress or socialise monopolies”, with the public provision of water, housing, energy, transport, health, telecoms infrastructure, and education (pp273-75). Where will the money come from without hiking taxes on the rich and nationalising without compensation? The ruling class would never accept any of Mason’s minimal conditions of the transition. His own positions on renationalising steel and Carillion have been evasive in practice, or given reactionary rationales: steel is “a strategic resource…if you want an independent defence industry”.

That’s the problem with utopian socialist blueprints and long transitions; they float above the everyday politics without having to connect in action.8 Mason’s reasoned appeal is to people who want to save the system not those that want to overthrow it.

His faith in the state has become more and more explicit since his engagement with the Corbyn project, and with it a rising identification with the nation’s “interests”, that is, those of its ruling class. Brexit needs to happen because we need “sovereignty”; Putin is an enemy because of his threat to multilateralism and globalisation. His paean to the British state last year shows that he is not-so-radical a social democrat after all:

“…There is zero chance of an extrajudicial reaction to a leftwing Labour government… From top to bottom, the UK’s armed forces, security services and police are acutely aware of constraints on their activities by the rule of law…Today our country is under threat: from Isis and other terrorist organisations; from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is waging hybrid warfare on all western democracies. The security services are our first line of defence and they need our support, as do the police and special forces who stand ready to deal with situations…
“The demand for democratic change in Britain is strong. Attempts to revive the paranoid practices of the Thatcher era would have no consent among the electorate – and in an information society would be much more easily exposed.”9

The spectre of communism

Mason is clear why he spends so much time critiquing Marxism: to convince young people not to go down that path and keep them corralled behind Corbynism:

“The deeper the social catastrophe inflicted on the youth of tomorrow, the greater the chance becomes that they will try to repeat the failed experiments of Marx’s followers: Bolshevism” – and thus: “The premise of this book – that there is a different route beyond capitalism, and a different means to achieve it.” (p49)

The penny drops only at the end of PostCapitalism, with a short last chapter with a bizarre focus and title, “Liberate the one per cent”. This is laden with more irony than intended, that of utopian socialism and its past appeals to the elite. Mason voices his worries about the commitment of the liberal bourgeoisie to democracy:

“Today the ideology of the Western elite means social liberalism, a commitment to fine art, democracy and the rule of law…the danger is as the crisis drags on the elite’s commitment to liberalism vanishes”.

Only here at the end, after nearly 300 pages without anything about the dangers of the state, does a shadow fall on Mason’s optimistic description of Project Zero and its rationale, with the hint that there might be an obstacle in the organic movement of society and economy beyond capitalism, one that requires revolution to remove it. PostCapitalism ends oddly haunted by the “the spectre of communism” that Mason had hoped to exorcise.

Notes

 

1. PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future, 2015; https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/feb/26/paul-mason-quits-channel-4-news
2. In 2015 Paul Mason claimed to have been a ‘supporter’ of Workers Power. For the avoidance of doubt, Mason was a member in good standing for two decades, serving on the editorial board of its theoretical journal, Permanent Revolution, and as editor of Trotskyist International, the journal of Workers Power’s international tendency, the League for a Revolutionary Communist International. During the 1990s he edited the Workers Power newspaper, now incorporated into Red Flag. We are happy to make the position clear.
3. https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/mickeygate-the-truth-8145cf278b7a
4. https://medium.com/@paulmasonnews/a-note-on-priorities-for-the-uk-left-85a1d4bdb59e
5. See Communist Manifesto Chapter 2: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm; https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf
6. https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/social-democracy-radicalise-or-its-over-c057e4f8c898
7. PostCapitalism pp. 180, 179, 178
8. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/23/working-class-steel-crisis-scunthorpe-china-dumping;
9. http://novaramedia.com/2018/01/15/ink-it-onto-your-knuckles-carillion-is-how-neoliberalism-lives-and-breathes/; https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/steel-crisis-they-do-not-give-a-shit-86516750a1e0
10. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/16/stella-rimington-should-stop-fuelling-paranoid-fantasies-about-jeremy-corbyn

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