Reports of Capitalism’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
Late last week, economic journalist Paul Mason, whose Channel 4 blog has been one of the best English-language sources for making sense of the ongoing Greek crisis, published an excerpt from his forthcoming book in The Guardian. It announces that the end of capitalism has begun and that (spoiler) it doesn’t look how we thought it might. The 20th century old/new leftist dream of some crisis-sparked proletarian revolt, he argues, has been battered by neoliberalism and, now, is being replaced by a steady trickle of viable, largely technology-fuelled alternatives to the current economy. “Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques,” Mason writes. “It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviors.”
He contends that advances in information technology have “reduced the need for work, blurred the edges of work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages.” Stemming from the Wages for Housework campaign of the 1970s, feminist movements and scholars have for years highlighted the loose connection between work and pay, along with the blurry line between labor and leisure at home and in the workplace. And, as Doug Henwood rightly pointed out, there’s nothing inherent to technological innovation that means less work, especially for the market’s worst-off; in the last several years, the American economy has actually become more productive (that is, labor intensive) relative to GDP. To date, automation hasn’t so much reduced the need for jobs as it has expanded capitalism’s capacity to create more terrible ones.
Clearly, though, the economy is changing. For Mason, there are a few other factors driving this transition: an influx of abundant information at odds with capitalism’s drive to hoard scarce resources; the rise of “spontaneous production … that no longer respond[s] to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy,” like Wikipedia; and, finally, the growth of alternative economic practices in the face of crisis — food co-ops, time banks, parallel currencies and other measures falling broadly under the umbrella of “free time, networked activity and free stuff.”
As austerity wears at its seams in southern Europe, all of the above are disrupting what Mason calls a “fifth long upswing for capitalism,” differentiated from the previous four by a lack of pressure from the workforce to herald in higher wages, new technology and more consumption. Increasingly, networks are replacing hierarchies and we’re all learning to share more, in cyber and real-space. In their beautiful abundance, these social and actual technologies chafe at ownership; influenced by technology, in turn, there is a new engine of change replacing the industrial worker: “the educated and connected human being.” Information technology and the networked social forms accompanying it are non-capitalist beasts just waiting to be let out of their stables to race toward a post-capitalist future.
But as Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor noted recently for The Nation, there’s no ready-made path from information to liberation. “Our high-tech tools are constrained by market incentives and government surveillance interests that are often intertwined,” they wrote. “We cannot think about surveillance without paying keen attention to the corporations that benefit from it and the deep inequities that result.” Not only is there a barely-hidden world of workers making the digital revolution possible, but tech itself is already being used to serve the interests of those driving our current, vastly unequal economy. It deserves noting that some of the biggest fans of decentralization — technological or otherwise — are right-wing libertarians, who would be as happy to see workplace protections stripped as they would to see a new start-up food co-op take root.
Consider Uber, the poster-child of the for-profit sharing economy now worth $50 billion. Until a landmark ruling last month, the company posited itself as a neutral technology, simply providing its army of contingent drivers with a platform through which to make their own money — and stay exempt from federal labor laws. By ruling that Uber is, in fact, an employer, the California Labor Commission confirmed what many drivers already knew: Work in the sharing economy doesn’t stray very far from the current one.
Left to its own, state-supported devices, capitalism has proven itself plenty adept at navigating crisis after crisis, and, from subprime mortgages to student debt to climate change, monetizing the seemingly priceless. As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi wrote in 2010, banks are a “highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.” Technology is just another hurdle they can ably jump over. Even against the information age’s more egalitarian impulses, tech remains firmly in the hands of the one percent — albeit a nerdier, tanner and more socially progressive one.
Conversely, Mason is exactly right to point out the incredible promise these emergent innovations hold to serve downright radical ends. But what’s going to take them there? “No doubt, the Internet opens up new avenues and opportunities for resistance,” Taylor and Hunt-Hendrix concluded. “But new technologies will not solve the problems at hand: People acting collectively will.” Tech is contested political ground. Even in the transition from feudalism to capitalism Mason references, it took a plague and, importantly, a widespread peasant revolt to lurch Europe out of stagnant feudalism. As in other historical epochs, disruptive power is necessary to drive society’s agenda away from the interests of those already in charge.
Mason’s call to “direct all actions towards the transition — not the defense of random elements of the old system,” to focus solely on building alternatives, is a false dichotomy. If Syriza’s project in Greece has shown anything, it’s that combining a broad-based solidarity economy with political power is deeply threatening to neoliberalism, the top brass of which will risk self-implosion to stamp it out. Acting alone, Solidarity for All didn’t provoke a sadistic backlash from Greece’s creditors. Syriza’s victory at the polls, its leadership’s presence at the negotiating table in Brussels, and the egalitarian populist parties grasping at state power across the Mediterranean did — but neither the challenge nor the solution could exist without the other.
Millennial-led movements from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street have already put the social technologies Mason describes into practice, and are writing new rules for how popular uprisings work in the 21st century. Podemos, Spain’s ascendant populist party, uses a sub-Reddit to make decisions among members at the national level. Thankfully, technology is changing organizing at least as much as it is the economy. Capitalism isn’t going anywhere without a fight, no matter how inventive the alternatives. If the early 20th century labor heroine Lucy Parsons were alive now, she might add an addendum on to the statement she’s best remembered by: “Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to innovate away their wealth.” Today’s movements will need to be at least as creative as the forces they’re taking on, and be building solutions that are even more so. Post-capitalism is coming, but a new and even more disruptive tradition of organizing will have to clear the way first.