Paul Mason and postcapitalism: utopian or scientific?

Leftist journalist and broadcaster, Paul Mason, has a new book out at the end of this month. It’s called ‘Postcapitalism’.  I don’t have a copy but Mason has written a long article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, outlining his main arguments, http://gu.com/p/4ay9c

Mason has been a doughty publiciser of labour struggles in his journalism and also offered on occasions a more theoretical and strategic analysis of where capitalism and labour is going.  I think this book is an attempt to sum up his views.  As Mason has some influence among labour activists in Britain and internationally, it’s worth considering what he has to say.

Mason argues that capitalism is set to be replaced by ‘postcapitalism’ (not ‘socialism’, it seems). And this is for three reasons. First, there is an information revolution which is creating a society of abundance in information, making a virtually costless and labour saving economy. Second, this information revolution cannot be captured by the capitalist market and the big monopolies. And third, already the ‘post-capitalist’ mode of production, based on free ownership and cooperation in information, is emerging from within capitalism, just as capitalism emerged from within feudalism.  Is Mason right? Does he make sense?

Well, I have a lot of issues with what Mason argues and concludes.  He starts his article of explanation pessimistically by suggesting that neoliberalism has more or less triumphed in its aims for capitalism leaving ‘old labour’ methods and ideas in disarray: “over the past 25 years it has been the left’s project that has collapsed. The market destroyed the plan; individualism replaced collectivism and solidarity; the hugely expanded workforce of the world looks like a “proletariat”, but no longer thinks or behaves as it once did.”

The first question that springs to mind here is: does Mason think there is still a ‘proletariat’ or not?  Because he is right: far from the working class, even the industrial working class, declining or disappearing, it is growing globally.  See my post,
https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2014/10/21/de-industrialisation-and-socialism/.

The proletariat may be getting larger globally but, according to Mason, it “no longer thinks or behaves as it once did.”  What does Mason mean?  Does he mean that the working class is no longer the force for change that Marx and Engels saw it as back in 1848 and has been looked to by generations of socialists since?  It’s true that strikes and disputes have dropped away in countries like the US and the UK.  But let us balance that with the huge rise in the number of strikes and other actions in emerging economies like China, Asia and Latin America, where the industrial proletariat is increasingly now to be found.  Is the working class impotent as a force for revolutionary change?

Let’s leave that argument for the moment, because Mason does offer what he considers is an optimistic alternative to the class struggle.  The forces of labour may have been defeated but within capitalism are new progressive trends that capitalism cannot suppress or control which could achieve a better, freer, more equal society without the need for class struggle, at least as we have known it up to now.  “Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours. I call this postcapitalism.”

This is not apparently the socialism or communism that the old methods of class struggle and revolution aimed for, because Mason wants to use the word ‘postcapitalism’ as a clear distinction from those old-fashioned terms for a new society.

So what is this ‘unseen’ postcapitalism that (only) Mason sees; what are its distinctive features?  “First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences [my emphasis], will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.”

Ah!  So the information revolution means that less work will be necessary in order to deliver a ‘decent life’, a world without toil.  But is that true given that the world is still in the grip of a capitalist, not a post-capitalist mode of production?  It would seem to me that people are spending more time at home or travelling working for capital on their computers.  The edges between work and free time are especially ‘blurred’ in knowledge-producing sectors.  People are made to work (solve problems) in their free time more than ever before. See G Carchedi’s groundbreaking paper on how that has panned out – Old wine, new bottles and the internet, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.13169/workorgalaboglob.8.1.0069?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Will the information revolution reduce working time under capitalism and thus lead progressively to post-capitalism?  Well, previous technological changes have not done so.  John Maynard Keynes had a similar idea to Mason back in the 1930s (see my post, https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/keynes-being-gay-and-caring-for-the-future-of-our-grandchildren/).

Keynes argued that “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” Keynes predicted superabundance and a three-hour day within 60 years – Mason’s postcapitalist dream.

Well, the average working week in the US in 1930 – if you had a job – was about 50 hours.  It is still above 40 hours (including overtime) now for full-time permanent employment.  In 1980, the average hours worked in a year was about 1800 in the advanced economies.  Currently, it is about 1800 hours.  So, since the great information revolution began under the ‘neoliberal period’ of capitalism, the average working year for an American has not changed.

Mason’s next argument for the move to postcapitalism is that “information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant.”

Really?  For a start, market prices are not determined by the degree of scarcity of a commodity or service.  That is the essence of the unreality of mainstream neoclassical economics.  The great classical economists, Smith and Ricardo, and above all, Marx, showed that prices of commodities and services are fundamentally determined by the socially necessary labour time taken to produce them.  The great contradiction of capitalism is that, as the necessary labour time falls due to technical progress, it lowers the value of commodities and thus puts downward pressure on the profitability of production.  And under capitalism, it is profit (surplus value) that matters, not more output (use value).

It is fine for Mason to notice that technical advances increase the productivity of labour (although we are not seeing much of that at the moment – but that’s another story).  But that is only one side of the equation.  The other side is the squeeze on profitability, the intensification of the class struggle and the resolution of that contradiction (temporarily and periodically) through slumps and contraction.

Mason ignores the two sides of technical advance under capitalism.  Yes, one side suggests the potential for a super abundant, low labour time world.  But the other suggests inequality, class struggle and regular and recurrent crises.  Mason reckons that automation etc is “currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences”.  Yes, that is the point, ‘postcapitalism’ cannot emerge without resolving the contradictions of capitalism.

But Mason remains utopian in his hopes that the elements of ‘postcapitalism’ are mushrooming.  “Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated, barely noticed by the economics profession, and often as a direct result of the shattering of the old structures in the post-2008 crisis.”

Mason cites Greece as an example.  “In Greece, when a grassroots NGO mapped the country’s food co-ops, alternative producers, parallel currencies and local exchange systems they found more than 70 substantive projects and hundreds of smaller initiatives ranging from squats to carpools to free kindergartens.”  The trouble with these examples of the new world is that they are more like a desperate reaction to the crisis of capitalist production, as in Greece.  They will remain marginal, or be turned into profit-led operations competing in the market, as has happened to so many cooperatives and localist efforts over the last 150 years.

Mason admits that these ‘micro projects’ can only succeed in changing our world if they “are nurtured, promoted and protected by a fundamental change in what governments do.”  Given that most governments in the world are pro-capitalist and driven by big business and big capital, this makes that outcome pretty unlikely.  Do we not remember what the modern state is really an instrument for nurturing, promoting and protecting capital and the ruling class?  “The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit.”  Engels, Socialism, utopian and scientific.

Mason then raises what many utopians have advocated before him: that if only we can change the way we think, we can change the structure of economic and social relations.  And this must be driven by a change in our thinking [my emphasis] – about technology, ownership and work. So that, when we create the elements of the new system, we can say to ourselves, and to others: “This is no longer simply my survival mechanism, my bolt hole from the neoliberal world; this is a new way of living in the process of formation.”

So first we must change our mentality and then the state can nurture these micro-level projects.  Cart before horse?  As we are locked within the confines of the capitalist production relations (both private and state), it is these relations that must be changed so that new ways of thinking can bloom.

Mason recognises that his ‘alternative model’ is not yet with us. Instead he forecasts a new capitalist crisis ahead – although this prediction is based purely on a Keynesian analysis of low real wages keeping demand low and a new credit bubble threatening another financial crash.

Mason reckons that neoliberalism “has morphed into a system programmed to inflict recurrent catastrophic failures.”  Well, I thought that it was capitalism that was subject to ‘recurrent catastrophic failures’.  But like other modern revisions of Marxist economics, apparently it is only neoliberalism, a special form of capitalism.  In my view, neoliberalism, a ruling class policy and strategy to drive up profitability by raising the rate of exploitation, is actually the norm for capitalism. It is only in rare and short periods that capitalism looks to invest in new technology to raise profitability, as in the immediate postwar period.

Mason makes much of Marx’s discussion of the role of technology in his Fragment on Machines from the Grundrisse written in 1857 (http://thenewobjectivity.com/pdf/marx.pdf).  Mason suggests that Marx makes the same point as he does: that capitalism expands technology and scientific knowledge to the point that a world of abundance and free time for all becomes reality.

As Mason puts it: “In an economy where machines do most of the work, the nature of the knowledge locked inside the machines must, he writes, be “social”. …“It suggests that, once knowledge becomes a productive force in its own right, outweighing the actual labour spent creating a machine, the big question becomes not one of “wages versus profits” but who controls what Marx called the “power of knowledge”.

But again, this is a one-sided and utopian view of technological progress.  If you read the Fragment carefully, you can see that Marx is not posing some steady and harmonious development of a world of abundance through scientific knowledge embodied in an ‘ideal machine’.  Yes, use values will multiply through technological advance, but this creates a contradiction within capitalism that will not disappear gradually.  Under capitalism, increased knowledge from science and human labour is incorporated into machines.  But machines are owned by capital not society in common.  The class struggle does not disappear under the ‘power of knowledge’.  On the contrary, it can intensify.  For more on this, see G Carchedi’s Behind the Crisis, pp 225-232 (http://digamo.free.fr/carched11.pdf).

So it is not true that as Mason argues that “Something is broken in the logic we use to value the most important thing in the modern world.” And that “the knowledge content of products is becoming more valuable than the physical things that are used to produce them. But it is a value measured as usefulness, not exchange or asset value.”  Use values are expanding dramatically in the information revolution, but the law of value still operates.  Information is not free under capitalism.  Indeed, every day, capitalism is trying and succeeding in measuring, capturing and owning information for profit.

But Mason continues to pursue his utopian view of the knowledge revolution.  He pleads “If I could summon one thing into existence for free it would be a global institution that modelled capitalism correctly: an open source model of the whole economy; official, grey and black. Every experiment run through it would enrich it; it would be open source and with as many datapoints as the most complex climate models.”  If only capitalism would operate in such a way as to create our superabundant postcapitalist world!  But it won’t.

Mason returns to reality: “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.”

But he sees the contradiction, not between capital and labour, but between monopolies and free networking.  This fragments the class struggle (which he seems to deny exists any more) into a battle of individual free minds and the knowledge-controlling forces of hierarchies.  For Mason, the battle is between millions of people on their computers on the worldwide web (possibly in their pyjamas like me now) trying to change the world through the exchange of information against the forces of big business and their controlling structures.  This replaces the old labour versus capital struggles.

Is such a prospect realistic or possible?  The old-fashioned industrial proletariat is still out there and getting larger as more millions are urbanised and brought into factories to make the servers, fibre cables, robots, processors, software and other commodities necessary to create the ‘knowledge revolution’ for those of us in our pyjamas.

If Mason is telling us that the development of the productive forces have now created the pre-conditions for a society of abundance and an end of class exploitation, then that is right but it is nothing new.  It what Marx said 160 years ago.  It is what Engels said in 1880 when he summed up the state of capitalism and Marxism as scientific socialism as opposed to utopian socialism. “The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day-by-day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties — this possibility is now, for the first time, here, but it is here.” (Socialism: utopian and scientific).

But Mason also seems to be saying that this new information/knowledge revolution is by-passing the contradictions of capitalism, the law of value and the exploitation of labour by capital.  If so, then he is wrong.  The contradiction between socialised production and capitalist appropriation remains.  There is nothing new in the knowledge revolution that can change that.  It requires the conscious action of labour to reconfigure “the social infrastructure”, as Mason calls it, to “make a fundamental change in what governments do”.  Without that, ‘postcapitalism’ will remain a utopian dream.

Postcapitalism is published by Allen Lane on 30 July.

51 Responses to “Paul Mason and postcapitalism: utopian or scientific?”

  1. colono Says:

    Abundance, indeed. As long as we don’t count the externalities. What’s new?

    Send Mason out with the preteens disassembling his engines of abundance, let his (gated?) community by displaced and his rivers rendered chemical cesspools by excessive, extractive (precapitalist, really) mining practices.

    Oh, I got to go, need to do some free labour for Twitter in my abundant free time of precarious unemployment. After all, I have a PhD to use for something.

  2. Boffy Says:

    “Really? For a start, market prices are not determined by the degree of scarcity of a commodity or service. That is the essence of the unreality of mainstream neoclassical economics. The great classical economists, Smith and Ricardo, and above all, Marx, showed that prices of commodities and services are fundamentally determined by the socially necessary labour time taken to produce them.”

    Actually, that is not true. What Smith, Ricardo, and Marx show is that VALUE is determined by socially necessary labour-time, but market prices move around the derived market value, as a consequence of the interaction of demand and supply. Smith and Ricardo couldn’t show exactly how that occurs, but Marx in Capital III, in demonstrating the conversion of exchange values into market prices does.

    Marx’s explanation, and Engels further elaboration in his Supplement to Volume III, is that exchange values ceased to operate from around the 15th century, when capitalist production begins. The capitalist is concerned to obtain the average profit, whereas the direct producer was only concerned to recover the value of their commodity.

    The consequence is that where capital first enters a sphere of production, the ones it chooses are those that have low organic compositions of capital, and high rates of profit. For example, spinning and other forms of textile production. But, then capital will continue to accumulate in these spheres until the rate of profit to be obtained is no longer higher than in some other sphere, for example, pottery manufacture. Then capital will begin to accumulate also in this industry.

    But, the consequence is that because capital continued to accumulate in spinning, the supply of yarn continues to rise beyond what it would have done under simple commodity production. The market price of yarn falls below the exchange value of yarn, because supply exceeds the demand at the market value (exchange value). As Marx and Engels set out its that very process that leads to the fall in the rate of profit, which brings about an average rate of profit, as capital then enters other industries, in search of the next higher profit.

    As Marx and Engels set out, from the 15th century, when capitalist production begins, even though simple commodity production predominates, exchange values cease to operate, because the market price of all producers including the non-capitalist producers is itself affected by these prices of production. As Marx sets out, if yarn is produced capitalistically, it sells at its price of production, which here will be lower than its exchange value – so here this market price most certainly will have been determined by its relative abundance – but, Marx says, the cost price for the non-capitalist weaver, is based upon their input costs, one of which is yarn.

    The weaver’s cost of production is now lower than it would be were it based upon exchange values, because yarn is now produced capitalistically and sells at its price of production, not its exchange value. Although, the weaver sells that cloth not at a price of production, but only on the basis of their cost of production plus the value added by their labour, this market price is no longer purely an exchange value, determined by the socially necessary labour-time required for its production, because the price of the yarn, is no longer based on socially necessary labour-time, other than proximately.

    As Marx sets out, output prices are simultaneously the input prices for other producers, and because selling prices are based upon these modified input costs, whether in capitalist production or non-capitalist production, market prices are no longer determined by socially necessary labour-time. That is only the case with the totality of market prices, which equal the totality of values. And, as Marx sets out, it remains true that movements in market prices are determined by movements in value.

    The easiest way to see this, as Marx sets out is to consider any particular commodity. Its price of production is determined by the cost price plus the average profit. The labour-time required for the production of this commodity may remain perfectly constant, so that the value of the commodity remains constant. However, if the average rate of profit rises, this will automatically cause the price of production of this commodity to rise.

    The price of production of all commodities that are produced with a lower than average organic composition of capital, will be lower than their exchange value determined by the socially necessary labour-time required for their production, and the only way this is possible, is because capital accumulation in this sphere continues to increase supply until it reaches a level, whereby the market price falls so far below the exchange value that only the average profit is made.

    In other words, this market price is determined by this relative abundance of supply for this commodity at its market value. Similarly, the market price of commodities which are produced with a higher than average organic composition of capital, can only remain high enough to return the average profit, if supply of these commodities remains low enough that the price exceeds the exchange value to a sufficient extent to produce the average rate of profit. In other words, there must be relative scarcity of these commodities relative to demand at the market value.

    The mechanism for determining market prices, and for fixing prices of production as opposed to exchange values, is precisely via competition, as Marx and Engels set out, and that competition fixes those prices via the interaction of demand and supply, with the value of commodities acting as the locus for that interaction.

  3. Henry Says:

    Mason is an example of First Worldism gone mad!

  4. Boffy Says:

    “The great contradiction of capitalism is that, as the necessary labour time falls due to technical progress, it lowers the value of commodities and thus puts downward pressure on the profitability of production. ”

    Actually, as Marx sets out in Theories of Surplus Value Part 1, Chapter 4, the opposite tends to be the case. Marx discusses Ricardo’s view that what is important is the net product (surplus value), as opposed to Smith, who placed too much attention on the gross product.

    Marx agrees with Ricardo, that it is preferable to have 200 workers creating enough surplus to sustain 100 non-productive labourers, than to have 300 workers required to produce enough surplus to sustain 100 non-productive labourers.

    And the only means of achieving that is through higher productivity. As Marx sets out, that higher productivity reduces the cost of reproducing labour-power, thereby leaving a greater portion of the working-day free as surplus labour.

    Not only does that additional surplus labour, thereby facilitate increased capital accumulation, including the accumulation of additional labour, which thereby produces additional surplus value, but the lower value of labour-power caused by higher productivity, means that any given amount of surplus value will now set in motion a greater mass of labour, and thereby crate even more surplus value.

    That is why despite all of the doom laden predictions of the Malthusians and Ricardians, there has been a continuous and increasing accumulation of capital over the last 250 years, with continuously rising levels of productivity with it, which rather than causing profits to dwindle to nothing, has caused them to increase even more massively, and rather than leading to ever rising mass unemployment and immiseration, has led to massive increases in employment and living standards.

  5. Boffy Says:

    “And under capitalism, it is profit (surplus value) that matters, not more output (use value).”

    The actual contradiction that exists here, as Marx sets out in Capital III, Chapter 15 is that the conditions of producing surplus value are not the same as, and indeed are contradictory to the conditions for realising it.

    “The conditions of direct exploitation, and those of realising it, are not identical. They diverge not only in place and time, but also logically. The first are only limited by the productive power of society, the latter by the proportional relation of the various branches of production and the consumer power of society. But this last-named is not determined either by the absolute productive power, or by the absolute consumer power, but by the consumer power based on antagonistic conditions of distribution, which reduce the consumption of the bulk of society to a minimum varying within more or less narrow limits…But the more productiveness develops, the more it finds itself at variance with the narrow basis on which the conditions of consumption rest… For while a combination of these two would, indeed, increase the mass of produced surplus-value, it would at the same time intensify the contradiction between the conditions under which this surplus-value is produced and those under which it is realised.”

    (Capital III, Chapter 15)

    As he sets out in Theories of Surplus Value III.

    “The same value can be embodied in very different quantities [of commodities]. But the use-value—consumption—depends not on value, but on the quantity. It is quite unintelligible why I should buy six knives because I can get them for the same price that I previously paid for one.”

    (TOSV 3 Chapter 20, p 119)

    If productivity has risen in this way, the six knives will contain as much surplus value as previously the one did. The surplus value has been produced. The problem as Marx sets out here, is not that it is not produced, but that it cannot be realised, because of the elasticity of demand. The more productivity rises, so that more use values are thrown on to the market, the more difficult it becomes to find a market for those commodities at a market price that reproduces that capital – including the produced surplus value – consumed in their production.

    As he says,

    “Now, the difference between the quantity of the produced commodities and that quantity of them at which they are sold at market-value may be due to two reasons. Either the quantity itself changes, becoming too small or too large, so that reproduction would have taken place on a different scale than that which regulated the given market-value. In that case, the supply changed, although demand remained the same, and there was, therefore, relative over-production or under-production. Or else reproduction, and thus supply, remained the same, while demand shrank or increased, which may be due to several reasons. Although the absolute magnitude of the supply was the same, its relative magnitude, its magnitude relative to, or measured by, the demand, had changed. The effect is the same as in the first case, but in the reverse direction.” (Capital III, Chapter 10, p 186)

  6. Boffy Says:

    “The trouble with these examples of the new world is that they are more like a desperate reaction to the crisis of capitalist production, as in Greece. They will remain marginal, or be turned into profit-led operations competing in the market, as has happened to so many cooperatives and localist efforts over the last 150 years.”

    That isn’t born out by the facts. Co-operative production is dominant in a number of industries in a number of economies across the globe, as the International Co-operative Alliance have set out. Co-operatives employ more people than do multinational corporations. In almost every sphere, co-operative production is more efficient, more profitable and more resilient to market conditions than equivalent capitalist production. The Co-op Bank in the UK is a bad example, but in 2008, it was co-operative banks that survived the crisis far better, for example.

    The Mondragon Co-ops continue to expand their capital and their workforce, as well as expanding into other areas, such as the establishment of the Co-operative University, and their alliance with the US United Steelworkers Union to spread co-operative production across North America.

    • sartesian Says:

      Well, there are cooperatives, and then there are cooperatives. According to the very same Intl. Coop. Alliance, about 30% of what it considers the largest cooperatives exist in the finance and insurance sector, and another 28% in the agriculture sector.

      The agricultural cooperatives listed include Dairy Farmers of America, and Land O’ Lakes. I’m pretty sure those qualify as capitalist enterprises, not non-capitalist.

      In industry, for the US, the list is made up basically of electric power cooperatives, and the National Cable Television cooperative.

      The list for largest coops in finance includes Groupe Credit Agricole in France, various credit unions, and agricultural banks.

      And insurance companies……….State Farm, Nippon Life, Kaiser Permanente, New York Life….

      Of the total turnover revenue of the largest coops in the US, banking and insurance account for 60 percent.

      Somehow, I don’t think that represents a step forward to socialism; or what Marx may have had in mind; or anything other than another example of Boffy’s magical thinking: “I wish it were so, so I’ll say it’s so.”

      The devil is in the details.

  7. Pigou Says:

    Michael,

    I’m glad that someone brought up externalities. In reviewing the Marxian literature, including your site, there is a dearth of information concerning Pigovian taxation to remedy the problem of externalities (including but not limited to climate change).

    Are the externalities of Mason’s “free” information significant? Are infotech/advertising operations like Youtube, Facebook, Blog’s, Wikipedia “free-riders” which require mass deployment of hardware itself requiring massive rare earth mining, caustic chip manufacturing, military applications, etc. etc. to make it affordable.

    Along the lines of J Bellamy Foster’s Ecological Rift, is the extractive nature of the system, even with virtual goods, sustainable?

    Do you have a Marxian critique?

    Toward a Pigovian State: January 2015
    http://tinyurl.com/px7jcr7

    Neoliberalism 2.0: Regulating and Financing Globalizing Markets:
    A Pigovian Approach for 21st Century Markets
    http://tinyurl.com/on7zkw5

  8. SimonH Says:

    Neoliberalism 2.0? No thanks, I’d rather have socialism 1.0 which despite what you may have heard hasn’t arrived yet.

  9. Charles Says:

    Mason taps into a perception that automation today is qualitatively different than industrial mechanization. A Marxist treatment of the differences, the similarities, and the consequences for capital accumulation is in The Hollow Colossus.

  10. Jehu Says:

    This is just terrible Roberts. And you should be ashamed to have posted it to your blog. You are missing one of the very biggest labor theory stories of the 21st century. A story that could Marxist economics back on the political map.

  11. Mike Ballard Says:

    As output per hour of labour increases, shorter work time should become law. But that’s a political struggle the NGOs are not going to push. What needs to be done is for the people who depend on wages for making a living to unite as a class and establish common ownership and democratic control over the product of labour, abolish the wage system, and produce wealth for themselves to distribute to themselves on the basis of need.

  12. vallebaeza Says:

    Reblogged this on Econo Marx 21.

  13. Edgar Says:

    This is essentially a variant on Bernstein’s reformist belief that the capitalist system will simply progress to socialism without the need for struggle. Technology will simply dictate the direction of progress and all we need to do is enjoy the ride.

    Also Michael Roberts is absolutely correct to say that the ‘information’ revolution has blurred the lines between free time and work time in that in ones free time we are now expected to work! I would also say that on top of the working time not being reduced the amount of unrecorded and unpaid working time is increasing.

    Under capitalism a vast amount of technological research and development goes not to advancing humanity but is put into the competitive arms race between companies. So firms use the information to get one step ahead of the competition.

    It is quite laughable to talk of post capitalism while the pension age is increasing everywhere and austerity stalks the land, consigning millions to a lower standard of living.

    The technology at the disposal of the ruling class is now frightening. Rather than creating a free space it has closed down a space for radical alternatives. It just creates noise and more efficient ways to collect mass data about people. Rather than pointing the way to post capitalism I believe it points the way to authoritarian capitalism, which I believe is a process that has already begun.

    Playing Big Farm or Angry Birds is not a sign of a coming revolution but a sign that capitalism is about to enter a period of consolidation. But all the contradictions remain in place.

    • Jehu Says:

      It is no such thing. Bernstein’s argument is that finance capital would extend its control over industry. Marx’s argument is that socially necessary labor time would drop owing to improvements in the productivity of labor.

      Where do you Marxists come up with this nonsense?

      It is no accident that working time is increasing even as the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities is falling, since this implies an increase in the mass of wholly superfluous labor time in society per Harman: http://isj.org.uk/the-rate-of-profit-and-the-world-today/

      In other words, that any reduction of hours of labor runs counter to logic of the mode of production, which is the production of value and surplus value, so that, no matter the improvement in the productivity of labor requires the increase in hours of labor.

      It is just incredible you Marxists can no longer connect the dots on your own. You need someone to hold your hand to guide you through the simplest conclusions of labor theory.

      Just pathetic.

      • sartesian Says:

        “In other words, that any reduction of hours of labor runs counter to logic of the mode of production, which is the production of value and surplus value, so that, no matter the improvement in”

        Not always in practice– there was this thing called the Ten Hours Bill (before my time. but I read about it at home). And there was the 8 hour day movement and state regulation.

        Certainly these are expressions of capitalism’s “momentary” condition, subject to the demands of profit, and thus erosion and reversal, but they are moments nonetheless.

        Somewhere in there is what Marx calls the “real domination” of capital, the real subsumption of labor by capital.

      • Jehu Says:

        @sartesian So you are just going to ignore my point about the evidence for unnecessary, wasteful labor time in the economy provided by a host of Marxists, each working on it separately? You just are going to respond to this by pointing to legal of reductions of hours of labor a century ago?

        No wonder Marxism is ignored and marginalized.

      • sartesian Says:

        I’m not ignoring it. Of course there is superfluous, unnecessary labor time under capital, serving no other purpose but the accumulation of value. That’s kind of a given, isn’t it? The whole point of the mode of production isn’t it?

        your argument was that “no matter the improvement in the productivity of labor requires the increase in hours of labor.”

        “No matter what” means in ALL cases.

        Well, it is not the case that “no matter what,” just as it is not the case that there is a “permanent crisis,” permanent overproduction, reduction in wages under ALL conditions no matter what, etc. etc.

        Say what you want about Marxism or Marxists, but it’s the fact that Marx spends a lot of time and effort opposing just the linear reductions you make, the “no matter whats.” There are trends, cyclicalities, and offsetting tendencies– all of which are essential to the reproduction of capital.

      • Jehu Says:

        So, your entire argument, with which you dismiss the whole of my argument, hangs on your rejection of my use of the phrase “no matter what”? Is this what your objection comes down to?

        In that case, why is your argument based on “the demands of capital”, not the material requirements of the social producers? How do the demands of capital become the test for a decrease in hours of labor?

        Really, is this what Marxism has become? Figuring out what fits the demands of capitalism and limiting our demands to this? Are we now hall monitors for the capitalistic mode of production, making sure there is sufficient profit left over after we win our demands?

      • sartesian Says:

        Not my entire argument; my simple exception to what you wrote is the “no matter what.” It’s not historically accurate; and it does not explain why capitalism moves in the way it does move; and it is not Marx’s argument.

        I haven’t said anything about any demands, and neither have you in the comment I responded to. And I have no interest in “making sure” there is ANY profit left over. I’m interested in abolition the social organization that compels labor to represent itself as a commodity, as labor-power, so it can be aggrandized as profit.

        For someone who complains about how Marxists don’t grasp Marx, you’re sure providing a fine example of one.

        Hall monitors? I’m not in school, and when I was, I spent more time getting thrown out than being in.

      • Jehu Says:

        Fine. Then we settled your issue with me. I withdraw my statement, “no matter what”.

        Now please explain this:

        “Say what you want about Marxism or Marxists, but it’s the fact that Marx spends a lot of time and effort opposing just the linear reductions you make, the ‘no matter whats.'”

        Please show me where Marx ever opposed ‘linear’ reductions’ of hours of labor?

      • sartesian Says:

        I never said Marx opposed linear reductions of hours of labor; I said Marx opposed those who claimed that capitalism could never reduce the working day– those who would argue that NO MATTER WHAT the improvement in the productivity in labor, [capitalism, or the improved productivity under capitalism, you decide] requires the increase in hours of labor.

        Details, comrade, the details are your friend.

      • Jehu Says:

        I am going to keep chasing you until you have to stand and fight.

        Where did Marx oppose “those who claimed that capitalism could never reduce the working day”? Can you direct me to this passage?

      • Jehu Says:

        Also: Who are these people who claimed capitalism could never reduce the working day? Can you point me to their writings?

      • sartesian Says:

        First off, nobody’s running. So whatever you’re chasing, it ain’t me. I’m right here.

        You said “no matter the improvement in the productivity of labor requires the increase in hours of labor.”

        I pointed out that no, that is not the case. I did not accuse you of claiming that capitalism could not reduce the working day.

        There have been in history, those who claimed capitalism must always try to extend the working day. They were wrong.

        Marx’s argument is not that no matter what the improvement in productivity of labor, there must be an increase in hours of labor, either for the individual or the class of workers. In his remarks on the 10 hours day bill he points out to those who think capitalism can never increase the wage, or increasing the wage will and must lead to price increases, that reducing the working day to 10 hours is the same thing as an increase in wages. That is my basis for the allusion to those who think capitalism must increase the working day, or labor hours.

      • Jehu Says:

        So, then you admit Marx never objected to the claim from those who said labor hours could not be reduced? Is this correct? The argument you are making actually has nothing to do with hours of labor at all, but with wages? Is this correct?

        Perhaps then you could explain to me what Marx meant in this passage from chapter 15 of volume 3 of Capital:

        “The increase in the absolute number of labourers does not occur in all branches of production, and not uniformly in all, in spite of the relative decrease of variable capital laid out in wages. In agriculture, the decrease of the element of living labour may be absolute.

        At any rate, it is but a requirement of the capitalist mode of production that the number of wage-workers should increase absolutely, in spite of its relative decrease. Labour-power becomes redundant for it as soon as it is no longer necessary to employ it for 12 to 15 hours daily. A development of productive forces which would diminish the absolute number of labourers, i.e., enable the entire nation to accomplish its total production in a shorter time span, would cause a revolution, because it would put the bulk of the population out of the running.”

        How am I misinterpreting Marx in this passage?

    • sartesian Says:

      Because that passage does not say what you are saying: that no matter the increase in productivity, the laboring hours must increase.

      Look at agriculture as Marx makes reference to–Here are the questions: are the total number of living labor hours GREATER for the massively increased output in comparison to say 1903, or LESS than the number of hours consumed in 1903?

      Is there an increase in labor hours that can be “assigned to” improvements in productivity?

      Is there the relative reduction in the labor necessary for the increased output since 1903?

      Is the 2-2.5% of the US population currently engaged in agricultural production expending more total living labor hours now than the 50% of the population in 1903 was?

      Given the growth in population, and the expansion therefore of necessary labor time that can be expected simply from population growth, is there an increase in living labor applied to agriculture now vs. 1903?

      That in fact capital cannot dispense with surplus value is qualitatively different than saying that productivity must expand the total number of laboring hours.

      UNLESS all you want to say is that capital accumulates, it expands, it seeks more living labor, and so the mass of living labor dependent upon capital increases. Again that’s far different from saying that capital recognizes every productivity improvement to expand the laboring time.

      The “real” domination of capital is based on precisely shrinking the necessary labor time without necessarily increasing the length of the working day– thus altering the relation between necessary and surplus labor-time. And how does capital, over the long run, accomplish this? By the substitution of fixed capital, accumulated value, dead labor, for living labor.

      What’s so hard about that.

      As for “putting the bulk of the population out of the running”– some of that has most certainly occurred in both developed and less developed areas of capitalism.

      Look at the number of production hours devoted to semiconductor fabrication and the increases in productivity, in terms of MIPS per chip per hour.

      Are you claiming that the increases in productivity have linearly, or exponentially (as chip processing ability has expanded) increased the total number of production hours; or have production hours fluctuated and even demonstrated cyclical motions?

      • Jehu Says:

        I have no idea if you are just being stubborn or serious in this reply.

        I deliberately included the initial passage from Marx which accepts labor hours can actually fall in some areas of production like agriculture. This fall has no impact on my argument, since ,as Marx immediately goes on to state, despite this fall labor hours must increase.

        Labor hours do not increase uniformly and may even fall. Yet, overall, hours of labor must increase. This is a requirement of the capitalist mode of production.

        Please stop trying to evade my argument. Have the maturity to accept my initial point — “no matter the improvement in the productivity of labor requires the increase in hours of labor”.

        This is not just a debating point over dogmas between communists, it opens an entirely new potential area of attack on the capitalist mode of production. Reducing hours of labor is nothing more than a progressive abolition of labor itself.

      • sartesian Says:

        So you’re back to the “no matter what” which you said you withdrew.

        Have you looked at any figures on productivity increases and hours worked in the railroad industry in the US in the last 30 years, of 50 years, or 100 years?

        Between 1956 and 1970, railroad employment in the operating sectors declined by over 50%. Total hours declined steeply. And the measures of railroad productivity improved: revenue ton miles per loaded car mile, per train mile, per mile of road all improved. Train miles per train hour (network velocity) improved; car-miles per car-day (average length of haul for every 24 hours a car spent on the network improved.

        And after the the Staggers Act and the recovery from the double dip recession in 1982, don’t even think about it. Total employment, operating employment, and operating hours declined dramatically and productivity increased.

        But you know when even greater advances are made? In the 1990s,when capital spending and the application of digital information and control technologies to everything from locomotive tractive effort to crew availability produces tremendous increases in productivity with overall declines in working hours in the industry.

        You can look at the US Dept of Commerce’s Annual Surveys of Manufacturing, and you will see that production hours are highest in 2002 (that’s when the data on the website begins) and then declines steadily throughout out the pre-crisis “recovery” while output climbs.

        So… I’m not debating points here, I’m asking you to look at the real data as to how capitalism is actually composing and reproducing itself.

        If all your saying is that for capitalism to be capitalism, i.e. value expanding value, it has to increase its exchange with labor power, that’s swell, but that’s NOT what you claim you are saying. You say, again, NO MATTER WHAT the increase in productivity of labor, the hours of labor must increase.

        Where’s the data for that claim?

      • Edgar Says:

        Jehu,

        “It is no accident that working time is increasing even as the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities is falling, since this implies an increase in the mass of wholly superfluous labor time in society per Harman”

        Yes, I think I said in my comment that labour time was increasing so not sure what your objection was. I also seem to recall that Marx made the same points in various places. I think Marx called this a contradiction, hence I made the point that all the contradictions remain in place!

        You call this a new labour theory story and I presume you think it has profound implications. Marx thought the same around 150 years ago, so not such a new story after all!

        We have to ask, and you have forced us to do so, what is it that Marx got wrong when he saw some profound development in what can be called ‘superfluous’ labour time?

      • Jehu Says:

        @sartesian

        I really am not clear on what basis you are making your argument. There is nothing in Marx’s argument that says labor time does not fall in any sector of the economy. Agriculture, railroads, pick whatever sector or industry you want.

        To be very clear: I completely agree with you about this. But this is not what I argued.

        My argument is simple: no matter the decline in productive employment in any sector — or all of them together!!! — hours of labor must still increase. The increase comes in unproductive, superfluous, labor.

        It makes no sense for you to keep coming at me with facts I don’t dispute. Please actually read my statements.

      • Jehu Says:

        @Edgar,

        Nothing has changed since Marx’s time? So, I guess the state — which produces nothing — accounted for 45-60% of total consumption in the 1800s?

        What explains this change since the 1800s?

        What does it imply for the higher phase of communism?

        Really, what is wrong with you Marxists? You can’t be this completely dense, can you?

      • Edgar Says:

        “Nothing has changed since Marx’s time?”

        Who said things hadn’t changed? Seriously, who said that!!

        You are the one bringing up Marx’s idea of superfluous labour! It is an idea that has been part of Marxism for every year since Marx’s death and before. Yet we see no sign of communism, just more capitalism, everywhere! Your new big story of labour theory is nothing but a very old story repackaged.

        “The increase comes in unproductive, superfluous, labor.”

        If you are going to make claims like this then you really have to spell it out and in scientific terms. I have heard these claims of unproductive labour before and when it is debated out among Marxists you come round to the conclusion that much of what is claimed to be unproductive actually isn’t – this is particularly the case with government expenditure. Now Marx once claimed public expenditure was unproductive but as you said, things have changed since Marx’s day.

        So if you claim that unproductive labour has reached a level where qualitatively this has huge implications for the end of capitalism then spell it out and offer me the rational. Until then I will consider you just another prophet.

      • sartesian Says:

        “My argument is simple: no matter the decline in productive employment in any sector — or all of them together!!! — hours of labor must still increase. The increase comes in unproductive, superfluous, labor.

        It makes no sense for you to keep coming at me with facts I don’t dispute. Please actually read my statements.”

        Well, I thought I did, when you wrote:

        “In other words, that any reduction of hours of labor runs counter to logic of the mode of production, which is the production of value and surplus value, so that, no matter the improvement in the productivity of labor requires the increase in hours of labor.”

        See, I thought you were arguing that the increase in the productivity of labor would require more “strenuous” efforts on the part of the bourgeoisie to counter-act the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which in fact it does, cyclically periodically. And meaning– extend the hours of PRODUCTIVE LABOR to increase the extraction of surplus value, which in fact it does, cyclically, periodically, and even structurally when capital organizes to drive the price of labor, the wage, below the cost of its reproduction. But… NOT IN ALL CASES.

        If your argument is not referring to the extraction of surplus value, but merely that the improving productivity of labor presents capital with a whole host of accounting issues, legal issues, property title issues, that consume a portion of the surplus value– well OK, I would only say “not in all cases” and leave it at that.

        Unproductive labor is labor that does not produce a surplus value, and so I thought you were trying to demonstrate that the very productivity of labor caused the rate of surplus value to increase would prove to be inadequate to its transformation into a rate of profit.

        Silly me. And all that time you were chasing me over……nothing.

      • Jehu Says:

        @sartesian,

        Okay. Just so we are clear:

        1. I never mentioned anything about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

        2. I never mentioned anything about the attempt of the capitalists to drive down wages.

        3. I never mentioned anything about accounting, legal, property title issues and the impact of these expenditures of labor on profit.

        4. I never mentioned anything about labor that does not produce surplus value.

        The only form of labor I mentioned is superfluous labor time, i.e., labor time that produces neither value nor surplus value, directly or indirectly.

        So, really. Whose comments are you reading?

      • Jehu Says:

        @edgar,

        Just one question: What portion of state expenditures are productive of either value or surplus value?

      • sartesian Says:

        Here are the comments which led me to believe you were referring to productive labor.

        “It is no accident that working time is increasing even as the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities is falling, since this implies an increase in the mass of wholly superfluous labor time in society per Harman: http://isj.org.uk/the-rate-of-profit-and-the-world-today/

        In other words, that any reduction of hours of labor runs counter to logic of the mode of production, which is the production of value and surplus value, so that, no matter the improvement in the productivity of labor requires the increase in hours of labor.”

        Now unproductive labor is labor that does not produce surplus value, but you were talking about the “logic of the system” “which is the production of value and surplus value” which you claim “no matter the improvement of productivity of labor requires the increase in the hours of labor.”

        So I think it was a reasonable to consider your remarks to be concerned with the production of surplus value, and capital’s need to extend the surplus labor time, also referred to by Marx in the Grundrisse if I recall as superfluous labor time. All society is built, again, as Marx analyzes history, on “superfluous” or surplus labor. Only with capitalism does that labor take the form of the commodity labor power, measured by and AS time, and expressing itself as surplus value.

        Maybe it’s just me, maybe not. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only who thought you were referring to productive labor, which inference was strengthened by your citing this quote from Marx which is directly about productive labor:

        “The increase in the absolute number of labourers does not occur in all branches of production, and not uniformly in all, in spite of the relative decrease of variable capital laid out in wages. In agriculture, the decrease of the element of living labour may be absolute.

        At any rate, it is but a requirement of the capitalist mode of production that the number of wage-workers should increase absolutely, in spite of its relative decrease. Labour-power becomes redundant for it as soon as it is no longer necessary to employ it for 12 to 15 hours daily. A development of productive forces which would diminish the absolute number of labourers, i.e., enable the entire nation to accomplish its total production in a shorter time span, would cause a revolution, because it would put the bulk of the population out of the running.”

        And in fact, it is exactly that, — a development of productive forces that does diminish the absolute number of laborers, and enables the entire [nation, alliance, continent, etc] to accomplish its total production in a shorter span– that leads to revolution. It is the change in the relation between the accumulated dead component and the living component– productive labor– that precedes and marks the upheavals in the capitalist mode.

        If your point is and is only that unproductive labor increases as a result of productivity– that’s hardly new, or interesting. It falls into the dog bites man category.

        Pardon me for thinking you had a more sophisticated aim in mind. I won’t make that mistake agains.

      • Jehu Says:

        Ha! That probably explains it. I would not waste a sophisticated argument on a Marxist. I try to keep the discussion as simple as possible, as close to the level of my audience as I can.

        My point is not that unproductive labor increases as the result of an increase in the productivity of labor. My argument, again, is that superfluous labor — labor that produces neither value nor surplus value — increases with the increase in the productivity of labor.

        Superfluous labor is not the same as surplus labor, since surplus labor is the source of surplus value. Superfluous labor is labor that is not just superfluous to the worker, but to both the worker and the capitalist.

        Yes. The argument is not new. It already appears in the Grundrisse as you noted — although you clearly don’t recognize its significance. If you would like to understand its significance, try reading Postone’s “Time, Labor and Social Domination”.

        In any case, thanks for the discussion. You have made for a few interesting days.

      • Edgar Says:

        “What portion of state expenditures are productive of either value or surplus value?”

        I don’t know, this is a very complex question, made more difficult by the increasing role of private providers within the state sector.But I don’t think you can look at a statistic that claims 40 – 60% of the economy is the state and say that equates to at least 40 – 60% being unproductive labour.

        You also have to view this % in relation to the total world economy because, for example, the City of London provides a service not just to the UK but to the whole world. So we can’t say finance is such and such a % of the UK economy, we have to say what % it is of the entire world economy. Only by doing this can we establish the correct proportion and scale of ‘superfluous’ labour time.

        You also have to factor into this equation the following, the increase in the productivity of directly productive industry (think agriculture, large scale manufacturing) allows for an increase in the scope of productive labour itself, so we see a quantitative and qualitative change in the nature of productive labour, from people working on machines in factories to more production that can be considered non phsyicalist or less material. I.e. where measuring its productivity over time becomes problematical.

        Now I can accept that we are closer now than ever before to overcoming ‘scarcity’, and that current social relations obscure this, as the real productivity of labour is higher than we perceive, but we still have the small problem that this can only come about by socialising the whole surplus labour time and that can only happen via a revolution, a revolution carried out by the working class.

        So your new story is the same old story.

        We should also add the following, one reason that ‘unprodcutive’ labour performs suprlus labour is that this reduces the cost of ‘unproductive’ labour, and thereby reduces the burden on surplus value.

      • Henry Says:

        One problem with linking superfluous time to unproductive labour is that some unproductive labour is necessary labour. (and some productive labour is unnecessary- but that is another story)

        If you talk about superfluous time you need to develop it as a category in itself and then bring it into the overall analysis.

        I didn’t see Marx doing that in his mature work, i.e. Capital.

  14. Boffy Says:

    Incidentally, I think Paul Mason’s thesis is wrong, but its typical that when someone puts forward some new idea for discussion like this on the Left, the first reaction is to jump on them, accuse them of heresy, revisionism, and treachery rather than simply to set out calmly and rationally what is wrong with the argument. It is the standard response, and part of the reason why the science has become ossified.

    Every science requires its practitioners to feel free to think out of the box, or it can never develop. In fact, the real scientific method requires actually questioning the established truisms and orthodoxy, to try to falsify it, and thereby to strengthen what is right, and replace what is wrong.

  15. Henry Says:

    “I think Paul Mason’s thesis is wrong, but its typical that when someone puts forward some new idea for discussion ”

    Yes you are correct that the left is dogmatic but, please, let us not pretend that this is a new idea.

  16. Boffy Says:

    An indication of the extent to which Co-ops play a significant role is indicated here.

    • sartesian Says:

      Christ, that’s just pathetic. In the US, every dairy farming organization that is a member of the national dairy coop is “a member of a coop”– every person who is insured by State Farm insurance is a “member” of a coop.

      Let’s pay attention to the details. The overwhelming weight of so-called “cooperative” economy activity is in the banking and insurance sectors.

      What portion of say automobile output do cooperatives account for? Zero? Next to nothing?

      What portion of oil and gas output?

      What portion of semiconductor design and fabrication?

      Cell phones?

      Pharmaceuticals?

      Chemicals?

      Steel?

      Maritime shipping?

      Containers?

      Information technology?

  17. Carlos Says:

    In the US GDP growth and employment growth remain tightly related since the 1950s. On the other hand productivity has decreased since 2000. Like Henwood says, refuting Mason thesis, since about the same time corporations have preferred to shovel cash to shareholders instead of investing in new equipment.

    • sartesian Says:

      Productivity has DECREASED? Or the rate of annual growth in productivity has slowed?

      The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has plenty of data to support the latter, but not the former

  18. BlackCatte Says:

    We have another response to Mason’s piece here…

    http://off-guardian.org/2015/07/24/paul-masons-privileged-utopia/

  19. Matt Says:

    @jehu: You know, if you dropped your insufferably arrogant elitist attitude, you might make make some progress with your point about the growth of *non-productive* labor time under capitalism with “us Marxist” knuckleheads.

    You are not the first to come up with some bright idea on the basis of Marx’s analysis. I got a few of my own.

  20. morgondag Says:

    Well, while its hardly enough to base a new mode of production on, he does bring up the contradiction between market based distribution and free distribution, which hardly existed in Marx time because immaterial products was much less important. There were already patents and such of course but at that point this was really only important between capitalists to copy someone elses design, now we have quite a few immaterial consumer products.
    If, IF, 3D-printing and similar technolgies advance as much as some people expect and it becomes possible for individuals to produce complex physical objects on their own, that contradiction could become more important with corporations trying to enforce intellectual property rights over their product designs and so on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: