Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Postcapitalism (according to Paul Mason)

I’ve been some time now wanting to review the book of the same title by the “economic journalist” Paul Mason, but only yesterday (for reasons I will explain later on) did I reach a position to do so authoritatively. As I feared, the book expands unnecessarily (in most cases) on the ideas expounded in this article of the Grauniad which originally caught my attention and drove me to buy what I was afraid would be little more than an inflated version: Postcapitalism - the article . With “unnecessarily” I don’t mean the ideas are uninteresting, or entirely without merit. I just mean that all the worthy ones you can find in the book were already in the article, and to properly explain them may be a slightly longer one, still fit for publication in a magazine, would have sufficed (a long read in “the Atlantic” or even the “New York Review of Books”), so most of the 300 plus pages of the book are essentially filler.

Not useless filler, as the book starts with a denunciation of the ills of current capitalism that, being so much against the grain of what the majority of the media reports, certainly benefits from some insistent reiteration. Although not entirely original, either, as such tirades are very much in the line of what has been done (and is still being done) by the likes of David Harvey and David Graeber. Be it as it may, I think his exposition of how the current mostly neoliberal order has driven millions to unending poverty (since the start of the Great Depression and the imposition of austerity measures in some European countries, or of an insufficient stimulus in the USA) is basically true, as is his contention that the system is incapable of “healing itself” and getting all those people back in decent economic shape just letting the “magic of free markets” act. Add to that the incoming double whammy of man made (or at least accelerated) climate change and the demographic shift (populations procreating below replacement level in all advanced economies), plus the sputtering of the technological innovation engines and his case for “panic” seems pretty strong, and in line with what I myself have been preaching for some time in this very same blog.

So what we have in front of us is increasingly frequent crises, increasing inequality, growing masses of unemployed condemned to a life of squalor and hopelessness (that’s why mortality has raised between American middle aged white men and women, isn’t it? They are abusing drugs and drinking themselves to death as the only sensible reaction to a life of continually diminishing expectations) and in the end financial meltdown (credit fueled bubbles are the unavoidable response of the markets to ever shrinking demand, but bubbles have a nasty tendency to burst sooner or later), ecological catastrophe, famines, civil wars, the total breakdown of social order and the stupendously apocalyptic demise of capitalism. And if capitalism is going to implode no matter what, we better try to get rid of it sooner rather than later and start building the next social system, hoping it will turn out better and we could even avoid some of the ugly consequences it seems to have in store for us. So far, so good. Only if you start from faulty premises, you will most likely reach flawed conclusions, and the book under review soon steers into wackyville…

And what makes it go seriously astray is its adherence to the most harebrained of the ideas of my old friend Karl Marx: the labour theory of value. Amazing that after a century and a half of thorough disproving by stubborn reality somebody still buys that old canard, but such is what good Paul tells us confidently. According to Mr. Mason, not only did Karl hit the nail on the head with his theory of value (a theory that, as he should know, he took almost verbatim from David Ricardo, who in turn had taken it from none other than Adam Smith, founding figure of liberalism and capitalism as we know it: Of value and wages), but he even intuited in a most oracular fashion the advent of information technology, artificial intelligence, technological unemployment and the post industrial society. Not only did he intuit all those modern day wonders, but provided the recipe to deal with them, and the consequences for the capitalist mode of production of such tendencies. If we follow our economic journalist lead, Marx legated us all that wisdom in a book that only recently has been published in the West (first German edition in Moscow in 1939 and first English edition in 1973), the Grundrisse (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy), edited (barely) from a number of notebooks he prepared between 1857 and 1858 (previous to Capital) and obviously never reviewed or properly prepared for publication. To be more precise, in a section called the “fragment on machines” he forewarned us of the predicament we find ourselves in.

Being the kind of thorough asshole I am, and specially afflicted by the academic bent that is to be ascribed to any recent Ph. D. I then felt that I could not go on thinking about Mr. Mason’s proposals until I had read for myself all that cornucopia of clairvoyance, so it may be said that Postcapitalism gave me the final push to finally dive in my own daunting copy (893 pages of mostly gibberish) of Grundrisse, that had been sitting on my nightstand for some months (I had bought it towards the end of last year, but hadn’t found the resolve to start it yet). Before continuing with the review of Paul Mason’s, then, I need to unload on poor unsuspecting readers my opinion of this piece of the sage of Trier’s work.

A (sketch of a) review of the “Floor Plan” (that’s what Grundrisse means, folks):

Let’s start saying that, at his best, Marx is not a great writer, or has ever shown a commanding domination of the German language. Some say (rightly, in my opinion) that Nietzsche was a great prose stylist. Some even say (dead wrongly, again according to myself) that Freud’s prose was one of his most notable achievements. Karl was not definitely in their league. I don’t think even the most fervid Marxist lauds what the German thinker did to words, and for reasons I can wholly sympathize with: long, winded sentences with poor structure and too many conditionals. A penchant for rhetorical flourishes to be immediately followed by uninteresting facts that detract from the argument instead of building on it. A quasi pathological inability to follow a logical succession of concepts and an almost comical disregard for what I recently heard referred to as “economy of language”.  And probably the most infuriating feature: his infatuation with the simplest algebraic formulations (subtractions and additions) that made him devote pages and pages (and pages and pages and pages!) to expound on formulas that he could have plainly enough expounded in a single sentence.

That single fact alone makes the reading of the Grundrisse  a most insufferable chore. I’ll illustrate with an example: Marx believes, somewhat tautologically, that the value of a commodity equals the total labour time devoted to its manufacture (including the part of labour needed to replace the needed machine’s wear and tear, to provide the raw materials, and other efforts to manage and distribute it). Within that total value (TV), he separates the amount of work strictly needed for the keeping the workers that participate (directly or indirectly) in such manufacture alive, which he calls necessary labour (NL), from the rest, which he calls surplus labour (SL), the latter being famously appropriated by the evil capitalist. Thus:

TV = NL + SL

Well, that is not that complex to grasp, is it? As it happens, for Karl it surely is, because he thinks it necessary to devote at least thirty friggin’ and frankly unbearable pages (with a tiny font size! And no line spacing! And almost no paragraph breaks!) to give us any imaginable example of what an addition means, and how it works:

So let’s say that the total value of thirty whoppers of yarn is measured as 20 thalers and 2 pfennings and one and a half groschen. But the part needed for the workers to live miserably while producing it is only ten thalers and one groschen. The rest of the time they are producing for free for the capitalist, so the difference being ten thalers and 2 pfennings and half a groschen is appropriated by capital, and is the only source of its profit. Now, if due to technological advance the time needed to produce the thirty whoppers of yarn were reduced so the salary to be perceived by the workers for that time were of only nine thalers and half a groschen (a 10,5% reduction) if the yarn were sold at the same price the surplus value and thus the profit for the capitalist would increase to eleven thalers and two pfennings and one groschen. On the other hand, if due to a crisis of overproduction the capitalist had to sell the thirty whoppers of yarn below its value, let’s say at 18 thalers and one pfenning and one groschen (a 12 and 64/288 % reduction) then he would lose a part of his precious surplus value, that would be transferred to the buyer, for a total amount of two thalers and one pfenning and half a groschen, whilst the necessary value of the commodity wouldn’t have changed a bit and stayed at ten thalers and one groschen. And Proudhon is an idiot for not seeing this, but Carey and Ramsey are even worse and vulgar economists blah, blah, blah, Lackeys of capital and petty bourgeois blah, blah, blah…     

And on and on and on it goes, for those thirty unforgiving pages (and then a little bit later, another twenty ones in a similar vein!) I hope you get the idea of just what unpleasant struggle is to go through such drivel. Many ifs, none of them minimally substantiated: why should the proportion between necessary labour and surplus value be that one? No clue, and the author recognizes that he gives those numbers as way of example, not because they have been measured or are specially plausible. Why modify one of the terms in that particular amount? Is it the exemplification of some other rule? Again, no clue, the author just fancies to show what those particular variations entail (no kidding! It is a goddamn equation, for Christ’s sake!), using those particular coins, that already sounded funny back then (in Capital at least he moved to use English currency after decades living in London, similarly confusing; it makes you realize just how much more rational and easy to use a coinage based on the decimal system is) and sound more funny and alien and unnecessarily complex nowadays.

It has to be noted that Marx could do better, if he devoted some time to tidy things up, eliminate redundancies, complete thoughts that are only sketched at first… the usual labor of editing for publication. The first volume of Capital is eminently readable, and the Communist Manifesto is even exemplar in the stirring tone of some of its proclamations. So part of my complaint is really a cautionary tale against publishing in book format a rough draft that required a lot of additional work to be half readable. Not that different from Volume 2 of Capital (funnily enough, Volume 3 is quite better than 2, by far the worst of the three, which is probably due to Engels being more assured of himself, and having less original material to work with, which allowed him to discard much more and take more liberties with the disjointed manuscript from which he elaborated the final version), with which it shares the penchant for endless pseudo mathematical disquisitions to illustrate how a sum works…  

What this particular jumble of half assed ideas and opinions does not, most empathetically, do, is provide any kind of blueprint of how a post capitalist society would work, or how information technology may pose a threat to the capitalist mode of production, as much as Paul Mason would like us to believe otherwise (a blueprint, it has to be said, that is conspicuously absent not just from this rough draft of a book, but from all of Marx work, which has caused not a little amount of angst and soul searching between his followers when, after winning their revolutionary struggles, they had to construct such societies with the catastrophic results all-too-well known by all).

Back to Postcapitalism

Mr. Mason then reads in a bunch of notes from Marx some indications of the potential of IT to upend capitalism. So what? Regardless of what the ol’ bearded revolutionary thought, isn’t it true that information can not be turned into a commodity (not being fungible) and thus that it threatens a social order based on the accumulation of exclusive rights to enjoy fungible goods (aka commodities)? Well, unfortunately it doesn’t. Let’s summarize Mason’s argument, and then comment on why it doesn’t carry as much water as he believes.

According to him (and again, taken verbatim from Marx), only human labour produces value. This is easily disproved by the fact that a) fertile land is more valuable than arid one before anybody does anything to improve it; b) the proportion between the prices of most natural resources doesn’t have anything to do with the amount of labour it takes to extract and distribute them (in strict opposition to the example Marx loved to quote about gold and iron, without ever inquiring in how many hours it take to produce a pound of each) and; c) the proportion of the price commanded by different occupations doesn’t have anything to do, again, with the previous amount of time devoted to acquire them.

But let’s leave for a moment aside the fact that he is subscribing to an untenable theory (a theory, by the way, that the very same Marx weakened considerably in Volume 3 of Capital, when he recognized that supply and demand can explain long term deviations from the value of many goods, understood as the amount of human labour they contained… now if such value can’t be used to understand prices, what purpose does it serve? None, It is just a metaphysical category to argue that the evil capitalist is taking something that belongs rightfully to the workers), and let’s ask ourselves why he is holding it. The answer is that the belief in human labour as only source of value translates into a “contradiction” at the heart of capitalism: as automation reduces the content of human labour in all production, a smaller and smaller proportion of the population is tasked with the creation of the increasing amounts of value that all the rest have to appropriate and distribute, leading to instabilities, growing crises and finally the cataclysmic collapse (it also led to the “falling rate of profit” of which quantitative economic analysis has failed to find any consistent proof).

In Marx view, that contradiction could only be solved by the overthrow of capitalism (that was thus unavoidable, and caused by its own internal development) and the substitution of “wage labour” (subject to be divided in a necessary part and a surplus which was in turn appropriated) by “social labour”, where people would only work the part strictly necessary for their reproduction, and thanks to technological advances that part would occupy a tiny fraction of their day, the rest being devoted to be “a shepherd in the morning and a literary critic in the afternoon” (that’s the Marxist utopia in a nutshell for you).   

What Mr. Mason adds to such naïve view (note that naïve is not the same as undesirable) is that a good deal of the transition (the technological advance part) has already happened, and the only reason we are not massively benefitting from it is because the process has been sequestered (predictably) by a tiny cabal of greedy plutocrats that have captured the representatives of the people and are twisting the legislative process to try to keep all the wonderful consequences of such advances to their exclusive benefit. But he considers such efforts to be doomed in the end because of the nature of modern technology, it being “information intensive” and information being inherently shareable (its value, rather than decrease from being shared, increases, which squares poorly with that value deriving only from the human labour devoted to its formulation, but I digress). Indeed, one of the parts of the book I enjoyed more (and that was a real addition to what he had already shared in the article I linked to at the beginning of this post) was his discussion of Kondratieff cycles, and how the fifth cycle had not been allowed to run its course (we should be already in the upswing, but we are still in the trough part, and given the rest of conditions described in the book it is hard to see how we could get out of it) because for the first time the labour movement failed to stop the greedy capitalists, and thus those capitalists wringed a number of concessions from workers that allowed them to perpetuate (indefinitely) an essentially unjust, necessarily stagnant social compact that has no way of self correcting but its final implosion.

But there is no need to worry, as the author gingerly tells us that it is only a matter of time until we peacefully realize that information just wants to be free, and spontaneously abandon the clutches of salaried work for cooperatives and more communal based forms of production and distribution (the share economy being a harbinger of the new times) that leave plutocrats and their greedy organizations behind. The precise form the new collaborative economy will take is understandably hard to predict, but it is starting to take shape thanks to the ubiquity of internet (of things and persons), the cloud, zero marginal cost production and the advent of the prosumer. So just sit back, relax and let it unfold, all we need to do to get rid of big bad ol’ capitalism is to relax and enjoy the ride, and let the cunning of reason (or the universal march of the spirit in History with capital H) do its trick.

Which is all fine and good, albeit unlikely, because the author seems to forget a little inconvenient but stubborn truth. It doesn’t matter how much “informational content” the old activity of planting and cropping and packaging may have, there still needs to be someone that actually goes to the field and picks the apples, or drives the harvester (and some of those activities are as far from being picked up by robots as you can imagine). Also, the design of blades for wind turbines can go through a thousand iterations in a computer model, while a few years back just a couple of physical models could be tested in a wind tunnel, which makes for a much more optimized shape, but a) the more optimized shape brings in a paltry improvement of less than 0.1% in the efficiency of the turbine and b) again, still we need someone to actually build the damn thing, which requires a pretty big, capital intensive factory, and then transport it to a godforsaken location, install it and maintain it. “Every business is a digital business” is great as a marketing tool, but very poor as an accurate description of actual society or as a half usable policy guide.

So I just wonder in this brave new world of sharing economy and self realization and endless possibilities where we have left salaried work behind and we essentially do the chosen tasks that we feel like doing at any given moment (that’s what the post-capitalist utopia of Mason tends to sound like to me, at least) who the hell will a) keep on doing the soul-crushing iterative work that still needs to be done if we want to, I don’t know, keep on eating? And b) hoard the enormous resources needed to keep the economy functioning: power plants, industrial equipment factories, microprocessor factories to power all those AI thingies we will be surrounded by, telecommunications infrastructure –antennas, routers, modems, distribution boxes, multiplexers… the myriad non-sexy goodies that keep our infrastructure running and that, so far at least, nobody has figured out how to keep on churning except by paying people a boatload and a half to go and, ahem, producing them.

By ignoring these two inconvenient realities I’m afraid our little book under review, after starting brilliantly with a vibrant denunciation part, veers off course rapidly through the Marxist gobbledygook and ends up with the usual bland recommendations that any self satisfied leftist is wont to proffer these days, recommendations that are not likely to have much effect anyway. Maybe it’s a bit unfair to accuse a journalist of not producing a program actionable enough (or not working to enact it himself), and that is a critique you could legitimately level against my own thinking, as I haven’t offered anything much better in my posts so far. Time to correct that and get back to the drawing board to define in starker terms what should be done, as what I wrote more than a year ago (What I thought a long time ago that should be done) now seems to me insufficient, and not doing enough to better our common lot is, although also the most extended, the great moral failing of our time.

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