This is simultaneously an important book and a somewhat disappointing one. Here, as with his other book ‘Why it’s still kicking off everywhere’, he’s taken a really important topic and written about it with great clarity and a style that makes quite difficult stuff rather accessible. The disappointment (which also applied to the other book) is that the analysis is great but the prescription falls rather flat.
Here he’s writing about the way in which the present model of capitalism, and by extension the capitalist system itself, has reached a critical point. The old model is coming off the rails, sinking under the weight of the massive debts that it has created as a result of financialization and downright fraud, and finding that its very success in transferring wealth upwards leaves it short of the demand that it needs to keep the wheels turning. It’s not suited to a world in which the marginal cost of the stuff that people want to buy is approaching zero. It is in any case ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of climate change, an ageing population and instability-induced mass migrations.
What’s really great about this book is the way it synthesises some of the best writing about the transformative potential of the internet and the web with a non-dogmatic perspective from the Marxist tradition. So on the one had we get Yochai Benkler, who I think is rather brilliant but have never seen anyone on the left even notice, and on the other hand we get Kondratieff, and also Preobrazhensky and Hildferding on the transition from capitalism to socialism. There’s an account of the difficulties that the Soviets had in running a planned economy, and no concessions to the notion that the USSR was in any sense ‘actually existing socialism’ or even ‘a degenerated workers’ state’. And some interesting observations about mainstream economic and management theory that I didn't know about.
There’s a critical account of how the Marxist tradition has been wrong about the politics of skilled workers, and of the working class as a whole – how it has historically sought to build institutions and mechanisms of solidarity within capitalism, rather than simply set its face against it because it had nothing to lose but its chains. There’s a great discussion of the role of skill in the labour process under capitalism, and the extent to which capitalism in its Taylorist and Fordist modes needed to expunge skill from work.
There are sections that made me smile, and others that made me want to punch the air in gratitude that someone else had ‘got it’ and expressed it better than I could.
I learned lots – not least about Bogdanov, a sometime ex-Bolshevik and early Soviet sci-fi writer with a powerful view of a post-capitalist society (among lots of other things). But I was also struck by some omissions. There’s no mention of Harry Braverman, whose ‘Labour and Monopoly Capital’ is all about Taylorism and capitalism’s relationship to skill; or to Mike Cooley, whose ‘Architect or Bee’ addressed the same issues – rather prophetically, I’d say – in relation to the automatization of white collar work. Stafford Beer, who tried to deploy early computers in support of Allende’s socialist planning, doesn’t get a mention.
And since he makes much of the idea that the left can and should learn from the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it’s a surprise to find no mention of E P Thompson, who explored the same idea at length in ‘The Poverty of Theory’. And I’d like to have seen at least a nod to Karl Polanyi, who wrote about the cruelty explicit in the emergence of the market economy, and about the first wave of globalisation and its collapse, in ‘The Great Transformation’. Polanyi’s important, too, in that he writes about how the rise of capitalism created capitalist people, and how by implication another society would bring about different people – it’s a rather strong rebuttal of the ‘human nature’ argument for capitalism and greed.
It’s a book, not a three-year university course, so all of these omissions can be forgiven. So, ultimately, can the fact that ‘what is to be done’ section is a bit thin and a bit lame. Some of it reads like a lefty version of the ‘Californian ideology’ – technology is great and it will enable super new stuff that makes things better. I don’t think he gives sufficient weight to the way in which new communications technologies do allow the marketization of things that have hitherto not been susceptible – I’m thinking of ‘task-sharing’ websites like TaskRabbit, which are the 21st century equivalent of the hiring fair for domestic servants. Trebor Scholz has written some good stuff about ‘platform capitalism’, and it also doesn’t get a mention here.
I’m aware too, that the internet has rubbed away some of the scraps of autonomy and economic independence that were – precariously – available to some self-employed ‘creative’ artisans. CD sales at the end of a gig helped some independent musicians to make a living, but no-one buys them anymore except as a way of making a donation. Writers might expect to get paid for freelance contributions; now they are offered ‘guest blogs’ to which they are expected to contribute for free.
But I don’t want this to come over as a sustained whine. I really liked this book, and my disappointment with the end is in proportion to my exultation at the strength of the analysis. I hope that Paul Mason find a way to build on it, and to provide concrete examples of successful prefigurative projects. I don’t have any problem with the idea of building a new world within the shell of the old one; there are many variants of this strategy, and they’re not all utopian or apolitical or reformist. We just need to find the right ways to do it.