In PostCapitalism, Paul Mason has produced a work of stunning breadth and scope. His central project is to situate today’s world in political and economic history, and in doing so to answer a question that is troubling the world’s leading thinkers: why is it that at a time of technological change so rapid that one year’s science fiction is next year’s reality, is productivity stagnant and the market economy in crisis? In doing so, he clearly hopes to reorient the political left, alerting us to the new class struggles, new possibilities and new utopian visions being created by the digital age.
He asks us to imagine a future in which information is more important to production than machines, raw materials or even labour. Some economists call this “Trekenomics”. In the science fiction TV series Star Trek: the Next Generation, there is no money. Advanced machines can produce food from thin air, there is no scarcity of energy or raw materials, and so supply and demand no longer function.
Further, he argues that this world is already being brought into being, and that capitalism cannot cope. Information can be copied infinitely and freely – only copyright law stands in the way of every human being owning a copy of every work of art that has ever been created for the cost of a broadband connection and a few hard-drive. As the information content of physical goods rises capitalism’s pricing mechanisms break down. It is not possible to value abundant information within the market.
In order to cover such a large amount of ground, Mason is forced to skim over some key debates that have been taking place in movements of technology workers since the 1980s. The left has made a historic mistake, which Mason is trying to correct, in largely ignoring these movements because they did not take the same form as historic class struggles – trades unions, strikes, disputes over pay and working hours, and so on.
As PostCapitalism describes, we are at the beginning of a new era in production. Just as factories and assembly lines once displaced agriculture, the new information society will displace capitalism. The breakdown of the pricing mechanism for information clinches this argument. But just as the feudalism’s struggle between Lords and serfs was replaced by capitalism’s struggle between bosses and workers, the new era will be sculpted by contests between the powerful and the great mass of people. These new class struggles have already begun, and our enemy is both powerful and cunning.
PostCapitalism mentions the old buzzword “Web 2.0” only briefly, describing it as a rollout of easier development tools. This is an important mistake. Web 2.0 was a counter-revolution that threatens to create a new dystopia. To understand why, we will need to examine how the internet functions.
Computers execute lists of instructions, called code. We do not need to understand the technical detail, only that a computer will carry out the instructions given to it by humans in sequence. This code has been described by Professor Lawrence Lessig as the “law” of the internet. Code decides whether a given email lands in your inbox or your spam folder. It decides what results you see when you search. It decides which of your friend’s Facebook posts you see in your news feed, and which you do not.
In the early days of computing, code was available for inspection and modification by any skilled user. This meant that the law that guides networks was in the hands of its users. From the late 1970s, that changed, with companies deliberately hiding the code from users. A technology worker called Richard Stallman (sadly mentioned only once in the book) recognised that this was the struggle of the future – whomever controlled the code would control the world, and without openness there could be no accountability for these new laws. In our own time, he has been proven entirely right, as we have learned that some software companies hide backdoors in their products, allowing American intelligence agencies secret and unaccountable privileged access to our computers. It has even been suggested that Facebook could fix an election, if it so chose, by changing which articles users see, boosting turnout in one group and suppressing it in another.
Stallman’s GNU project set out to create a completely open set of software, so that no user would suffer the tyranny of living under laws that they could not even see, let alone control. A Herculean international effort created the operating system commonly called Linux, which today runs on 75% of smartphones and over 80% of public internet servers.
This project had much in common with the utopian socialist and cooperative movements of the 19th century, such as Robert Owen’s New Lanark (today, a world heritage site). They attempted to build a new world of cooperative work under capitalism, but failed in the face of market pressures and political opposition. Stallman’s project succeeded where they had failed by harnessing the time of thousands of developers across the world through the internet. The fact that information goods can be shared without cost allowed investment by individuals and companies into a common pool of capital without any fear of freeloaders.
Web 2.0 was the counterrevolution against this movement. Early internet technologies, largely financed by universities and the military, were built so that their code ran on the user’s computer. Microsoft Word is a good example – you install it on a machine, you save your documents to a local disk. This model proved to not be profitable enough, as anyone can ‘steal’ a free copy of Word from the Pirate Bay.
The first efforts to commercialise the internet ended in disaster with the 2001 dot com crash. A new model was needed, and that model was Web 2.0. Henceforth, code would run on ‘the cloud’, allowing the likes of Google and Facebook to collect users’ data centrally, and profit from this through targeted advertising. There was no technical advantage to this (in fact it is less efficient than older distributed technologies), but it allowed capitalist investment in the sector to turn large profits for the first time, funding great leaps forward in usability and marketing. The new, centralised services quickly displaced the old, decentralised services.
The artist and thinker Dmytri Kleiner has demonstrated the utopian nature of attempts to fund the new mode of production through the market. His Telekommunisten artist collective created the idea of a “social fiction” – a riff on science fiction. Science fiction imagines what would be possible if technology was more than it currently is; social fiction imagines what would be possible if society became more than it currently is. He built a clone of Twitter called Thimbl. It has two major differences from Twitter – firstly, that its code runs on the user’s computer or smartphone, so that they are in personal control of their data. Secondly, that it was based entirely on technology from the 1970s. The barrier to a distributed, democratic Twitter or Facebook isn’t technological – it is social, it lies in the class structure of our society and venture capital’s stranglehold on funding.
Worse still, the new centralisation created the conditions for massive state surveillance. With our emails, photos and conversations stored in giant warehouses in America, it became ever-easier for the security state to plug in and watch all of us. Military money has poured into Silicon Valley, integrating its largest firms into the American imperial project.
This security state / tech company nexus is feudal lord or capitalist of the new era, the social force that will seek to control and exploit us. The utopian movements created by technology workers, together with the new internet-driven political movements, are the counter force propelling society towards freedom and equality.
Mason has rendered an invaluable service in by putting those movements into their proper context in the history of worker’s struggles and political economy. It now falls to the rest of us to grow and connect our movements, to fight for investment into common production and open, accountable code. The outcome of the coming decade’s struggle could determine whether the next century is one of unparalleled freedom, or unparalleled ruling class power.