A MEMEnomics Critique of Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, PART I: A Guide to the Future or the Angst of a Marxist in Denial

About two months ago I read a piece in The Guardian newspaper by Paul Mason about the promise of the Information Age. It was as if a layman who knew nothing about the Gravesian framework has articulated the Eighth Level of human existence in some reliable detail. This was a piece that successfully left out the spiritual narrative and based its conclusions on real and possible trajectories. Mason was promoting his book, Postcapitalism, A Guide to Our Future, I ordered the book from the UK publisher months before its release in the US.  This post is part I of a two-part review.

From the get go, Mason casts a wide net on economic philosophies and the nature of the capitalist ideology by proclaiming that capitalism is a complex adaptive system that has reached the limits of its ability to adapt, and therein lies the need for a new system.  The argument is that new technologies are being created at such neck-breaking speed there is no time for traditional market mechanisms such as manipulation of price, supply and demand to be effective.  The book starts with the premise that the information economy cannot be compatible with the market economy or at least not one dominated and regulated by existing market forces.

This was a narrative that got my attention as I was searching for ways to resolve a paradox I ran into a few years ago. As we entered the Fourth MEMEnomic Cycle (The Green 6thlevel system in economics), which I call the  “democratization of information and resources cycle,”and Mason calls Info-capitalism, many liberal thinkers proclaimed it to be the beginning of the end of capitalism. What I couldn’t resolve is how could these same thinkers not see that industrial age capitalism was giving way to a far deadlier information age capitalism made up of very few super-monopolistic global corporations that have no workers, cater only to the investor class, and rely whole heartedly on exploiting of the existing tenets of capitalism. These were the Apples, the Googles, the Facebooks and the Amazons of the new economy, which I thought Mason would address convincingly on his way to lay down the foundation for a Post capitalist society. Or so I thought.

Immediately after outlining the challenges to the current system, instead debating the contemporary issues that need to be resolved, Mason embarks on a strange ideological journey for most of the remainder of the book attempting to revive the virtues of Marxism. For every writer, this is a safe way to insure your work gets published, but Mason goes on a beaten path back in history, trying his hand in being a revisionist. He begins by framing his views through Kondratieff’s Long Wave Theory, which says that economic cycles last about 50 years with distinct stages of prosperity, recession, depression, and improvement. Mason argues that the life of the current cycle was artificially extended by the neoliberal ideology that seeks to fix everything through “financialization.” (In my work, this is a whole cycle that expresses the peak and decline of the Orange system I call the Only Money Matters Era).

In different parts of the book, Mason makes several excuses for why the adoption of Marxism failed, and why this time is the right time for it to succeed. With his sites always set on the plight of the laborer, he   first argues how Marx’s Crisis Theory was as an incomplete understanding of the capitalist system since history proved that capitalism under stress, instead of collapsing, evolved with the help of technology into entirely new structures with different business models resulting in the evolution of skill, markets and even currencies.

Mason argues that throughout all these cycles and changes in technology and business models, the system always fended off efforts to reduce wages until the onset of neoliberalism. His disdain for neoliberal thought jumps off the page in such an effusive way it makes one wonder about his objectivity as a journalist. He claims that everything that has defined the fall of the West from the glory of industrial leadership, like outsourcing, offshoring, automation, and privatization are all byproducts of the neoliberal ideology and its sole goal to defeat labor.

Then, instead of arguing how to improve the plight of the laborer moving into the future (as if the global economy is heading in the direction of labor-intensive work needing Mason to save it), he finds a second love affair with Marx in his improvements on Ricardo’s Labor theory. Instead of boring you with the details of an ideology that’s older than the US civil war, I’ll distill Mason’s wonderings in that direction in a few simple sentences. The theory breaks down the makeup of labor/productivity into two components: a: Live labor, which is the workers’ input into a product, and b: Fixed labor, which is the machine’s share of the equation. Mason supports Marx’s idea that those who profit off what machines produce are the very definition of non-productivity or “theft” in an economy. His conclusion is that an economy, instead of being based on money/wages, should be based on hours worked. Those who can work more hours, would realize what Marx called “surplus value”. Mason’s analysis, as if he’s a union organizer rallying workers on the floor of Foxconn in China, is that live labor is the mother lode from which profit is harvested and the only people worthy of proper compensation are the hourly workers and the rest are all thieves. History is full of examples that show worker-run factories fail miserably unless output is planned by a closed-system command and control structure. Even then it was these systems that created a far bigger level of mass scarcity, and even starvation that the capitalist system ever did.

Mason then draws closer to the issues at hand, again by citing Marx and his work on a lesser known theory called Fragments on Machines, which argues that in the ever increasing fight between technology and labor the focus shifts away from the laborer to the amount of labor that goes into building the machine. This shifts the focus from labor vs. profit to who controls the power of knowledge that goes into building the machine. Mason insists that the nature of knowledge locked into the machine is socially produced and therefore must be social.

In part II, I’ll evaluate the last 2 chapters of the book where Mason offers some valid critiques on the rise of the network and how that is the new machine/factory where the whole of humanity contributes to its design and production process. He combines that with a vivid presentation of facts and challenges facing the world such as climate change and an aging population.







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