On Friday journalist Paul Mason published a fairly long article in the Guardian entitled ‘The End of Capitalism Has Begun.’ It features some interesting thoughts, and will hopefully help disseminate some ideas which have been floating about in academia for quite a while to a broader audience. That said, there are a few things in the piece which I think are somewhat naieve and require a response to.
The main thrust of Mason’s argument is that capitalism is inevitably on the way out because of several social changes being wrought by contemporary networked information processing technologies. Firstly, Mason argues that because of the increased levels of automation brought by digital systems, there will be a dramatic reduction in the volume of work required within a society. Secondly, he argues that the fundamental laws of economics have been broken by an information economy within the contemporary state of informational abundance. Finally, he argues that ‘cognitive capitalism’ is predicated on a mode of collaborative and networked social production which itself is contradictory to the type of individualised wealth production associated with capitalism.
The first of these points is hardly new. The displacement of labour from humans into various forms of machinery is, of course, something which has occurred for at least a couple of hundred years, as was presciently observed and described by Karl Marx (in the Fragment on Machines, a text which Mason cites later in his essay). Alongside the ongoing historical transformation of production processes, there have always been the claim that technology will make everyone’s life better by reducing the need for arduous and boring labour tasks, instead freeing humanity to enjoy increased levels of leisure time accompanied by a higher level of material wealth and comfort. And whilst there are certainly some humans who are in that situation today, we could also point to the increasing precariousness of work, particularly within neoliberal economies where full employment has never been an important goal, as a reminder that decreasing the overall level of manual labour does not necessarily entail benefits for all.
Rather than seeing work and wealth equally being divided amongst citizens, today we instead find millions of unemployed or underemployed humans who are effectively used as an industrial reserve force to reduce any demands for increased wages, reduced working hours and other kinds of benefits which were associated with the collective action of the twentieth century trade union movements. Whilst a relatively small number of humans become more materially wealthy than any of their predecessors, this occurs alongside a growing inequality between the global super rich and everyone else. As research last year found, the richest 85 individuals on the planet now own more than the poorest 50% of the global population, around 3.5 billion people.
Additionally, in a ‘creative’ ‘digital economy where communicative acts are themselves commodified over corporate social networks, what does and does not count as productive work is itself problematised. Theorists ranging from autonomist Marxists such as Franco Berardi through to cyberutopian capitalists such as Clay Shirky have argued that what used to count as leisure time is now a key motor of wealth generation, as your online ‘leisure’ activities are used to tailor personal, location-aware advertising to your behaviour.
Which brings us to Mason’s second point, that economics is predicated upon scarcity, and that the current abundance of information demarcates that we have entered an era where traditional economic theory cannot adequately function. Again, rhetoric surrounding the end of the economics of scarcity is not new, but such thinking fundamentally fails to grasp the dynamics of scarcity surrounding informational systems, and systems is a key word here, because economics is about circulation and flows, not a single thing (be it information, energy or anything else). Information is certainly a crucial component of digital networked ecologies, and the volume of contemporary information – what Mark Andrejevic and Berardi have both described as information overload – is certainly not one of scarcity, but the key is to think in systemic terms as to what type of scarcity is generated as a consequence of the abundance of information. The answer, is that human attention is what become scarce when information is abundant.
Indeed, the notion of the attention economy is not that new, with early versions of the term being deployed by authors such as Michael Goldhaber and Georg Franck around the turn of the century. For an excellent overview of contemporary debates surrounding economies of attention I would suggest reading this article by Patrick Crogan and Sam Kinsley. The key point, is that far from rendering the economics of scarcity redundant, what we instead find is that the abundance of online information means that human attention is increasingly scarce and thus becomes a desirable and lucrative commodity, which is why heavily targeted online advertising is a booming multi-billion business, one which ventures such as Google’s search engine, Facebook, YouTube and other major online players are almost entirely dependent upon for their revenues and astronomical market valuations.
The third point Mason raises, that online networks are predicated upon modes of social cooperation and collectivity which are contradictory to the mode of capitalism they are located within, and thus contain the seeds of a new social system which will eventually replace capitalism itself, is arguably the most complex and interesting point he raises. However, this too is hardly a new statement, as it is one of the central tenets of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s triad of books Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth, as well as being an argument which has been raised in differing forms by theorists such as Bernard Stiegler (via the economy of contribution) and Michel Bauwens (via peer-to-peer production). I wont go into these positions in much detail here, but what I do think is worth highlighting is that many of these claims about biopolitical production, economies of contribution and peer-to-peer production were originally made quite a while ago (Empire was released in 2000), and that since those times, there has been the emergence of the the big corporate social media players whose financial model is entirely predicated on the exploitation of the free cooperative labour of their users.
This isn’t to say that people don’t get anything from Facebook (basically some cost-free server storage, a fairly clean user interface, and access to the billion-plus strong Facebook network), but that Facebook’s market valuation of over 250 billion US dollars is entirely built upon its ability to commodify the social relationships of its users. Far from existing outside of, and in opposition to a capitalism which is wrongly assumed to by monolithic and rigid, we see the way that capitalism (which depends upon finding new areas to provide growth) has found a way of extending what it understood to be a commodity, so that many aspects of our social lives, which were previously thought to be intangible, unquantifiable and thus could not be monetised, are now major players in global financial markets.
Indeed, whereas during the early days of the internet, the underlying technology itself and the modes of cooperation it made possible such as the distributed mode of production that underpins Free and Open Source software were seen as radical new technologically-enabled alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, what we have seen more recently has been the way that capitalism has been able to find novel ways of reintegrating these innovations into financial markets, such as the way that Google utilises open source software outside of search in areas such as Android and Chrome. Indeed, one of the most interesting analyses of contemporary capitalism comes from Jodi Dean, who argues that our current era is marked by a stage of communicative capitalism, whereby far from forming alternatives to global capitalism, participation in networked digital telecommunications has become a central driver of the capitalist economy.
Mason surmises his argument by stating that:
The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next
This presents a straightforward binary opposition between network and hierarchy, between the new, good digital ways which point towards a postcapitalism and the bad, old ones which represent our capitalist past and present. However much I might wish this to be the case, and it would be really lovely to think that current technologies will inevitably lead to the replacement of a system of gross global social inequalities and catastrophic climate change with something better, I find the kind of technological determinism present in Mason’s essay to be blinkered at best. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari remind us in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, it is not a case of opposing hierarchical models with networked and decentralised ones, but a case of understanding how these two tendencies occur in different ways in actual systems which are almost always a combination of the two.
Thinking this way means mapping the new hierarchies and modes of exploitation associated digital technologies whilst also looking for the lines of flight, or positive ways of transforming the situation that the new technological formations present. That doesn’t mean that there can be no hope for change that involves technology, but that positing this situation as a good/bad binary opposition, or suggesting that technology itself holds essential characteristics which will necessarily transform society in a particular direction is a misguided approach. Indeed, some of the most interesting materials coming out of the P2P foundation recently have argued that openess is not enough, that just making things open or collaborative can lead to growing inequalities as the actors with the most attentional, algorithmic and economic resources are ususally those best placed to leverage open data, open culture and open source ventures. Alongside openess, they argue that we need to think about sustainability and solidarity in order to bring about the type of social and ecological transformation that would mark the end of capitalism. That to me sounds like a far more productive call to action than simply gesturing towards the digital technologies whose introduction has not thus far been accompanied by a more egalitarian and sustainable global society.