Post capitalist Society? Not so fast.

A response to Paul Mason (

Every decade or so, usually but not always on the heals of a severe economic downturn, someone writes a book or influential article predicting the end of capitalism. And, so, I have to admit that I approach articles announcing the end of capitalism with great skepticism. The latest announcement comes from the pen of Guardian contributor Paul Mason (17 July 2015 “The end of capitalism has begun”). As post-capitalist sooth-saying goes, Mason’s is not a bad piece. And, yet, it gets enough of the parts wrong to cast serious doubt on his conclusion. Capitalism is not coming to an end, at least not soon, and not for the reasons Mason suggests.

Like many of its predecessors — GWF Hegel, Daniel Bell, Jean François Lyotard — it is knowledge or, more specifically, information that is leading the charge. That is because knowledge is felt to differ substantially (no pun intended) from its more substantial and therefore easily commodified counterpart. And, to an older and more traditional variety of Marxist, this distinction may indeed sound radical. After all, did not Marx turn both Hegel and Ludwig von Feuerbach on their heads, contrasting their “idealistic” approaches to his own “materialist” approach? But what if what we make and sell and purchase aren’t “things” at all? What if they are ideas, knowledge, information? Yet, to those of us who actually enjoy some familiarity with Marx’s writings, we will recall, very early on in volume one of Capital — in fact on page 1, paragraph 2 — the following lines: “The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind. The nature of these needs, whether they arise, for example, from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference” (Marx 1982:125). The charism of a commodity does not consist of its material character, but of the capacity of investors to charge consumers for its use: bottled water is a commodity, but so too is a patented idea.

And, yet, Mason’s argument is not without foundation. The more we hand the production process over to machines, the less the manual labor required in the mechanized production, and, assuming that the maintenance of human beings costs more than the maintenance of machines, the lower the costs of mechanized production. Mason attributes this insight to late night revolutionary fantasies that seized Marx while exiled in England:

The scene is Kentish Town, London, February 1858, sometime around 4am. Marx is a wanted man in Germany and is hard at work scribbling thought-experiments and notes-to-self. When they finally get to see what Marx is writing on this night, the left intellectuals of the 1960s will admit that it “challenges every serious interpretation of Marx yet conceived”. It is called “The Fragment on Machines”. In the “Fragment” Marx imagines an economy in which the main role of machines is to produce, and the main role of people is to supervise them. He was clear that, in such an economy, the main productive force would be information. The productive power of such machines as the automated cotton-spinning machine, the telegraph and the steam locomotive did not depend on the amount of labour it took to produce them but on the state of social knowledge. Organisation and knowledge, in other words, made a bigger contribution to productive power than the work of making and running the machines (Mason).

In fact, Marx was here channelling a passage from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right with which every left-wing Hegelian was intimately familiar:

The universal and objective aspect of work consists, however, in that [process of] abstraction which confers a specific character on means and needs and hence also on production, so giving rise to the division of labour. Through this division, the work of the individual [des Einzelnen] becomes simpler, so that his skill at his abstract work becomes greater, as does the volume of his output. At the same time, this abstraction of skill and means makes the dependence and reciprocity of human beings in the satisfaction of their other needs complete and entirely necessary. Furthermore, the abstraction of production makes work increasingly mechanical, so that the human being is eventually able to step aside and let a machine take his place (Hegel 2012: 232-233; §198).

So, why did technological improvement not emancipate labour as Hegel had predicted? Technology failed to emancipate labour because technology is subject to another, far more fundamental, mechanism within the capitalist formation: the value form of the commodity. Again, an older, more traditional, reading of Marx finds in the value form nothing more than the alienated and expropriated labour of the worker. Therefore, on this traditional reading, the solution to alienated labour is for labour to reappropriate both the value and the means of production (past labour) that capital has seized from them. Mason rightly sneers at this orthodox interpretation. But from this he leaps to the conclusion that abstract value is arbitrary and unnecessary. “But what is all this information worth? You won’t find an answer in the accounts: intellectual property is valued in modern accounting standards by guesswork. A study for the SAS Institution in 2013 found that, in order to put a value on data, neither the cost of gathering it, nor the market value or the future income from it could be adequately calculated” (Mason). And then he leaps to the further conclusion that, because it is arbitrary, and because it is dependent on technological reproduction, the costs of producing and reproducing this knowledge form a downward sloping curve whose long-term equilibrium price is zero.

If a free market economy plus intellectual property leads to the ‘underutilisation of information’, then an economy based on the full utilisation of information cannot tolerate the free market or absolute intellectual property rights. The business models of all our our modern digital giants are designed to prevent the abundance of information. Yet information is abundant. Information goods are freely replicable. Once a thing is made, it can be copied/pasted infinitely. A music track or the giant database you use to build an airliner has a production cost; but its cost of reproduction falls towards zero. Therefore, if the normal price mechanism of capitalism prevails over time, its price will fall towards zero, too (Mason).

“All mainstream economics proceeds from a condition of scarcity, yet the most dynamic force in our modern world is abundant and, as hippy genius Steward Brand once put it, ‘wants to be free’” (Mason).

Let’s take this one step at a time. Yes, back in the 1860s — well before the SAS Institute study — some economists (though not Marx) embraced a rather mechanical view of value: value is literally the labor time it took to produce any commodity, plus materials, plus the work of the investor, plus rent. You get the idea. Yet this mechanistic interpretation of value began to give way in the 1860s to a new, far more dynamic understanding of value. Value actually had nothing to do with the time spent on producing any product. Value was a social average. The example Marx gives is of the machine loom, which vastly decreased the amount of time it took to produce fabric. The shop that adopted the loom could create several times the volume of fabric as the shop that still depended on manual labour, allowing that shop to charge the same amount for the same quantity, but at a far reduced cost; or allowing that shop to drop its price substantially, bringing it in line with its costs. In either case, those shops that still manufactured by hand were compelled to manufacture at a relative loss. When eventually all shops adopted the same technology, sector-wide prices once again reached equilibrium. Clearly, value has little to do with the amount of labour time spent making any given commodity. But that’s not all.

Marx also called attention to the fact that consumers are inevitably choosing among several competing items and this meant, in effect, since the quantity of money a consumer is ready to spend is not unlimited, if a manufacturer wants to attract consumers away from, say, Whisky and toward fabric, she must so place the price of that product to make the trade-off attractive. Finally, value is also related to aggregate quantity of any product available. If shelves of product remain unused after all consumer desires have been sated, the value of those products — and so the labour that went into producing them — is substantially reduced, no matter the “material wealth” laying dormant on the warehouse shelves. Neoclassical economists such as Leon Walras, William Stanley Jevons, Alfred Marshall, and Carl Menger, all of whom wrote in the 1870s and 1880s, viewed the world of commodities as a dynamic interconnected world in which all factors shaped and were in turn shaped by all other factors. To grasp the complexity of value, these economists developed multivariate regression formulas which showed, as they anticipated they would, that all factors were intimately, structurally, related. Moreover, they showed how these factors were shaped by history, weather, technology, and information flows, wars, treaties, and unanticipated fatalities and inventions.

In many ways, of course, their economic theories only confirmed what Marx had observed a decade earlier; that capitalism was not so much an economic system as a dynamic, living, highly differentiated social formation being borne along by the abstract value form of capital. If machines had not in fact emancipated workers, as Hegel had anticipated, this was because the aim or object of capitalism was not to produce material goods. Material goods were merely a by-product. The real object of capitalism was the production of abstract value.

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine in your head the number of pairs of shoes you want. Picture that pile of shoes. Now, imagine the number of zeros you want to add to your paycheck. How many zeros is enough? When will you know that you have enough zeros? Marx’s point was that there is no point at which investors will suddenly say, “Ok. That was fun. I have enough.” Because there is no metric, no principle, no guideline or internal compass, no gauge that reads “Full” when you have accumulated enough zeros. So, no matter how much you produce — information, knowledge, shoes, computers, it makes no difference — you will never produce enough zeros. And this means that there will always be enough work. Always.

Which is why Marx argued in volume three of Capital — which no true Marxist ever reads because they are out on the streets (or coffee shops) fomenting revolution — toward the very end of volume three, that the real end of capitalism would depend on actively legislating the shortening of the work day.

The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper. . . . Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized communities, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as ends in themselves, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite (Marx 1991: 959).

It would be nice if there were some automatic mechanism — knowledge or information or technology or the historical dialectic — that was destined to bring an end to capitalism. But there isn’t. Instead there is tireless and usually thankless political organizing, legislative drafting, and, if we work hard and are lucky, the gradual shortening of the work day.