Post-Capitalism: A guide to Our Future?

Paul Mason’s (2015) recent book Post-Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future has created quite a media stir over recent months.   David Runciman, writing in the Guardian is broadly positive, concluding that Mason has provided ‘a spark to the imagination… a worthy successor to Marx’. By contrast former Labour MP Chris Mullin, also in the Guardian, is more scathing, seemingly lambasting Mason for his socialist politics and ‘utopian folly’. Reviews in other media display a similar ‘Marmite’ reaction.

It was with these reviews ringing in my ears that I picked up the book in preparation for a talk at the Centre for Culture and Art’s Post-Capitalism: Rethinking, Crisis, Culture, and Politics Conference, where Mason himself was also talking about the book alongside a film screening of Boom Bust Boom.

Unusually the book is both everything that it is credited and lambasted for. It is probably overly long and far too eclectic in its choice of supporting ideas. The book’s point of departure is that there is something systemically broken in contemporary neo-liberal capitalism. It proceeds through an ill-advised detour of Kondratieff’s wave theory and a rather ill-informed critique of Marx generally to an appreciation for an autonomist reading (Negri and Flemming, 1991) of the so called ‘Fragment on Machines‘ in Marx’s Grundrisse. Here Mason finds the basis for the optimism of the book’s title: Post-Capitalism.

Info-capitalism, he concludes, sows the seeds of its own destruction because innovation has become ‘non-excludable’, to use a mainstream economic term. That is; information distribution on the internet means that technology can be widely shared at minimal or no cost, and innovation itself can become the product of decommodified cooperation. His big example here is ‘Wikipedia‘ on which many thousands of people help to co-create a reliable and ever expanding source of open knowledge. The effect of this cooperative innovation has been to crowd out for profit providers from the market. If such innovations became generalised, capital would no longer be able to rely on innovation to generate profits, and capitalist social relations would therefore whither away. The handmaiden for this ultimate transition, Mason suggests, is the generation of tech-savvy youths with ‘white cables hanging from their ears’. To give all this a shove, Mason lays out a plan of action that states should engage in now: ceasing privatisation; taking radical and centralised multi-lateral action on climate change and socialising finance.

Video of Mason launching the book at Leeds Beckett University

There is plenty to question here. To pick a few: if the state is precisely what is to be transcended by the radical implications of the digital commons, then why is the state also so necessary to the precursor steps that Mason identifies? Are the generation with the white earphones really so tech-savvy? Aren’t they precisely the ones who are so used to using the Xboxes, Playstations and Apple products that focus on the ‘user’ being just that, impeding rather than speeding the types of problem-solving skills that digital co-creation might both generate and require?

Capital and the Commons

And more than any of this, is Mason’s reading of ‘the Fragment on Machines’ consistent with what Marx was trying to argue, and, much more importantly still, the real-world evolution of capitalist social relations? If the Fragment on Machines is put in the context of the wider discussion of competition in the Grundrisse and Capital, then it is arguable that what Marx was trying to show was the ephemeral nature of the relative form of surplus value, based as it is on the need to maintain an innovation advantage. Because capitalists can’t always exclude others from seeing and then applying their innovations in products and production, this means that the way is always open to other capitalists to copy and even leapfrog their innovation, potentially devaluing inventory and fixed capital. This is what drives the endless pursuit of innovation, the perpetual need to supress labour power and the expansive tendencies of capital. It is one source of the chronic instabilities that present themselves to firms, workers and whole communities as periodic crises (read on).

As Marxists like Werner Bonefeld (2011) and Massimo De-Angelis (2004) and feminist Marxists like Silvia Federici (2012) in particular show us, capital is very attuned to the advantages that arise from the commodification of common resources that it did not pay to produce. In this sense, the digital commons may not be so different to the social commons, such as the biological reproduction of life itself. Capital loves to appropriate these base materials whether or not they are directly paid for. Feminists, like Nancy Fraser (2014) point to the exploitation of unpaid domestic labour as a necessary and universal input to every production process, but very rarely does capital acknowledge this through the allocation of pay to cover these costs. Rather, for the most part, this labour is unpaid, undervalued and merely assumed to be in place.

So like the work of ‘social reproduction’, capital exploits freely available technology and ideas as inputs into the production of surplus value.  The widespread corporate exploitation of Linux is good evidence of this. That doesn’t suggest that cooperative and non-commodified production won’t survive alongside capitalist production or that it can’t be used as a source of opposition and resistance. Again, feminist political economy of the household and body illustrates this well. In the same way then the digital commons might be a new frontier in class struggle, but is it not inherently transformatory or necessarily progressive.

Understanding Crisis

All this demonstrates that, while often inconsistent, Mason’s book is certainly thought provoking. The main line of thinking that the book opened up for me though was around the subject of crisis, systemic punctuation and transformation. In that sense, the premise of the book; that the Great Recession opened up a fissure in contemporary capitalism and is therefore a turning point of sorts – albeit one that must be struggled over – has obviously been a topic of much discussion over recent years. This is graphically illustrated with the proliferation of literature making an appeal to the imagery of Zombies. The dominant narrative here is that neo-liberal capitalism is ‘Zombie like’; still moving and devouring all that happens to be in its path, but dead from the neck up and waiting to be toppled. As Jamie Peck (2010, p. 109) puts it, neo-liberalism…

“…has ‘entered its zombie phase. The brain has apparently long since stopped functioning, but the limbs are still moving… The living dead of the free – market revolution continue to walk the earth, though with each resurrection their decidedly uncoordinated gait becomes even more erratic”.

The first thought that always comes to mind when discussing the idea of crisis and capital is the need for specificity over the use of the term. Stephen Gill (2012) has highlighted the medical genealogy of the word; being the acute point in an illness where the patient either dies or recovers. To stretch the metaphor, however, illnesses can be chronic life limiting conditions or these more acute turning points. I argue below that the way in which crisis manifests in capitalist development takes the form of both long-term malaise creating conditions of chronic instability, as well as acute periods in which alternative futures might appear possible because pre-existing social structures are disrupted.

In terms of the logic of capital, crisis can be read as a break in the circulation of value. From the perspective of capital this relates to barriers or interruptions in circulation that prevent the realisation of surplus value in the process of transferring money into the commodities of labour power, fixed capital and raw materials, through the altered commodity form and back to money, with surplus value included as profit. From the point of view of labour, crises can be seen as acute breaks in the circulation process which begins with labour power and flows through commodities back to the reproduction of labour power.

Chronic Crisis Tendencies and Instability

Taking the latter circuit first, chronic, life-limiting malaise and instability is a fairly accurate description of the everyday lived reality for many. Here I don’t just refer to the 800m or so living in extreme poverty on the UN’s metric and whose crisis is likely caused by the absence of exploitation at the hands of capital.  Rather, I refer to the much larger section of the global population, who may or may not be living in ‘extreme poverty’ regardless of the UN’s rather limited $1.25 a day standard, but whose lived reality is determined by the logic of capital. For these people (including many of the authors and readers of this blog) this crisis is formed through the subsumption of their aspirations, the limitations placed on their opportunities and the way their existence is alienated from others around them because of exploitative relations of production or social reproduction. As Shirin Rai (Rai, Hoskyns, & Thomas, 2014) reminds us, it is these people whose energies are ‘depleted’ by the daily process of reproduction in a world of alienation. On top of all this, the looming impact of climate change is both clearly linked to the expansive tendencies of capitalist production and is set to limit human possibilities into the future. The reality of life under the logic of capital then is some form of crisis for large parts of the world’s population for a large part of the time.  This type of everyday crisis is of course often hidden behind the appearance of formal equality, freedom and the festishism of commodities and money.  Deeply embedded but constantly evolving ideologies serve to obscure these real effects from view.

In this sense, capitalist social relations engender chronic life limiting effects which can be read as ongoing crisis tendencies which might be generative of more acute crisis moments. These tendencies though, are not a special condition but an ‘everyday’ lived reality.

There are other ways in which the tendencies toward acute crisis moments are ever present in the ‘normal’ operation of capitalist competition. Firms unable to keep up with competitive pressures succumb to them, devaluing their accumulated capital and the labour power and potential of their workers. To the extent that clusters of interdependent firms are often co-located geographically, these sorts of competitive crises have spatially concentrated effects and act to switch the geographical flows of capital (Harvey, 1982) from one place to another, leaving behind a trail of devastation in human lives and visible traces of decline in their wake, as my coulleague Andrew Lawson’s (2013) work on ‘Foreclosure Stories’ clearly illustrates.

Acute Crises and Systemic Punctuation

Clearly this is not though the type of crisis potentiality that motivates the media headlines and the Zombie metaphors. Rather crisis in this sense appeals to a more dramatic and systemic reading of the term. Here crisis becomes precisely a departure from the norm of capitalist development. If accumulation and expanding reproduction are read as the desired (if difficult to realise and sustain) steady-state of capitalist development, an interruption to either can have systemic consequences. Crisis in this sense – in that suggested at the outset of Mason’s book – can therefore be ‘punctuating’; a point at which alternative socio-economic paths become possible. The emphasis on the openness of socio-economic change and the role of social struggle in determining the direction of this is one of the real strengths of Post-Capitalism.

These punctuating and systemic crises provide the acute interruptions of accumulation and often social reproduction too. Of course Marx provided a theory of crisis development that focussed on the breakdown of accumulation and reproduction. Subsequent theorists continue to argue about whether these systemic crises are the result of different technical aspects of this theory such as the controversial ‘long term tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ or the necessary under-consumption of the working class because the portion of their labour power that is taken in surplus value means that they are simply unable to consume everything that they produce. One of the senior figures in these debates is David Harvey, who long ago (1982) laid out a way of understanding contemporary crises via Marx’s theoretical treatment of crisis.  He has recently returned to the subject to clarify his thinking in ways that serve as a useful introduction for the unitiated. However, one reads these highly technical debates, Marx provides for a range of ways in which what Simon Clarke (1994) calls ‘disproportions’ in supply and demand between sectors and between capital and labour can lead to these systemic crises.

Of course over the last 100 years there have been several punctuating crises of this type, during which not only variants of capitalism but perhaps capitalist social relations per se were up for question. It was these sorts of crisis that occasioned the transition from laissez-faire to social democracy in the immediate Post-War era and the transition toward neo-liberalisation in the 1970s/80s. In both cases, capital encountered barriers to continued accumulation and reproduction. New ideas, modes of production, institutional forms and distributional arrangements were needed to ensure that capitalist social relations per se, could be sustained. In the first case this involved the spectacular devaluation of capital in the form of two world wars and a severe depression. In the latter it involved Harvey’s famous spatial fix as new areas of the globe were opened up to the flow of capital, first through ‘globalisation’; outsourcing and integration of much of South East Asia into the global economy and then through the post-Communist transition of East and Central Europe. These spatial fixes involved the neo-liberalisation of these societies, as they entered the realms of global capitalism (Shields, 2012).

Neo-Liberalism in Crisis?

Of course, like crisis, neo-liberalism is itself a hugely problematic and ambiguous term (Boas & Gans-Morse, 2009), but it is widely understood to be descriptive of the ideas, modes of production, institutional and distributional arrangements which have gradually come to characterise capitalism as a result of the spatial fix that Harvey identifies. Without opening up another genealogical and definitional can of worms, following Jamie Peck and collaborators (Brenner, Peck, & Theodore, 2010), I use the term here as a dynamic process (ala ‘neo-liberalisation’) which is contradictory in character involving all sorts of different institutional forms. Indeed, Japhy Wilson (2015) argues that constant re-engineering of neo-liberalism – embedded in culture, the ideas of thought leaders and also institutions – is crucial to the ways in which ideology enables the reality of capitalist exploitation to be obscured, even if this neurotic redefinition is often only partially successful.  What is common though, is a partly private and partly state-authored project to restructure the relation between capital and labour to benefit the former and to realise the interests of ‘capital in general’, most easily represented in the form of finance. That said, it is far too simplistic to read this as a finance vs industrial capital distinction, for much of what might pass for the latter is so thoroughly financialised as to make such a distinction redundant.

If then, the premise of Post-Capitalism the book is to be believed, we are living in times of an acute and potentially punctuating crisis moment for neo-liberalisation, opening the possibility for a transition to ‘Post-Capitalism’. While it is hugely significant that a mainstream journalist is willing to confront such systemic and political issues, we are a long way from a systemic crisis of neoliberalisation and therefore much further still from a crisis raising the possibility of a transition away from capitalist social relations altogether. As another colleague Katy Shaw’s (2015) suggests in her recent book on Crunch Lit, the continued dominance of the Vampire metaphor for contemporary capitalism might be more apposite than that of the Zombie. Here’s why.

In the initial post-crisis period there were indeed a range of developments that questioned the continuity of neo-liberalisation, such as the widespread adoption of Keynesian stimulus, banks taken into public ownership and active state interventions in some countries to offset or avoid unemployment, notably in Germany. Politicians and other ‘organic intellectuals’ made high profile speeches at the World Economic Forum at Davos and other places which promised a new kind of economy and academics and thought leaders as disparate as Joseph Stiglitz and Naomi Klein commented that they expected significant change. This window in which alternatives to further neo-liberalisation were to the fore, was short-lived however and the widespread implementation of austerity measures has since reinstated an on-going trajectory of neo-liberalisation.

Austerity as Governance by Crisis

The implementation of austerity though provides another way in which we can think about crisis. Like crisis and neo-liberalism, ‘austerity’ is another over used phrase that requires, but is not often given, a definition. Indeed, it is notable that ‘what is austerity?’ has been one of the most prominent Google searches over recent years and especially during elections. Despite its widespread use, many people simply do not know what it means. Clearly a full definition is beyond the realm of this blog-post, but one suggestion here is that austerity be read partly as means of politically inducing crisis in the reproduction of labour and households.

A video of my talk at the Centre for Culture and the Arts event on Post-Capitalism

Austerity as public spending cuts, reducing welfare or reproductive services often relied on by poor households, forces them to moderate their consumptive behaviour or look for other forms of subsistence.  As such, austerity is crisis inducing in the household. At recent ESRC Seminars on the ‘Hidden Costs of Recovery’ the contradictions of austerity policies which appear to hinder the productive capacities of households were widely discussed, and the commonly proposed answer was that this was the product of state strategies to assert control over especially poor households. At these seminars Ruth Cain showed how this was carried through in the form of the new ‘Universal Credit’ welfare benefit and Anat Greenstein and Daniela Tepe-Belfrage showed the deeply interventionist logic underpinning both the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and the government’s Troubled Families Programme. As Mary Evans and Angus Cameron argued persuasively in these discussions, it is not an accident that these government policies are matched by a moralising culture of austerity which portrays poverty and inequality as the ‘fault’ of poor households, and women in particular. In different ways Johnna Montgomerie, Emma Dowling and Ruth Pearson all highlighted how material and cultural austerity are linked to crises in social reproduction, whose costs are born largely by households, and thereby disproportionately by women (Pearson and Elson, 2015).  As these colleagues argued, this is a dynamic and dialectical process, since crises in social reproduction can also be causes of crises in material accumulation.

In even more dramatic ways, the countries receiving support from the ‘Troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF, massive reductions in the size of the state itself and in the living standards of large sections of the population have been used to moderate the behaviour and future expectations of these populations. As Johnna Montgomerie argues, the forced moral economy of the debt crisis in Southern Europe is selectively applied by the powerful against the relatively powerless. Different debt-moralities are applied to lenders than to borrowers and to different types of public and private borrowers. The result is debt-crisis management as a governing strategy to impose a particular form of moral order in which financial interests are to the fore.

Responding to popular resistance to forced austerity, the Troika – and other member states of the European Union – have been quite happy to see the suspension of democracy as in Italy, or (once international capital had been repatriated) in Greece to merely offer those populations the straightforward choice of accepting the unacceptable or leaving the EU, with all the uncertainty that that would entail. Indeed, following the various rejections of further austerity by the Greek people, the conditions attached to further support have actually been accentuated and Syriza is now implementing a more stringent package of measures than those they were elected to resist. It seems as though the Greek population is being singled out among those requiring external support, for particularly punitive action, in comparison say to the Irish who, after initial protests, did put up with externally imposed austerity.

In the context of the structural lack of external competitiveness of the European economy, it might be possible to start to interpret the application of contemporary austerity, whether internally authored as in the case of the UK or externally enforced as in the case of Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, as an ‘experiment’. Whether consciously designed in this way or not, there may be parallels between the experience of austerity in Europe now and the way that Pinochet’s Chile was used in the 1970s to test neo-liberalisation. Perhaps the experience of poor households in the UK and the bailout countries of Europe can show just how much of an alteration in living standards can be enforced in European societies while retaining stable reproduction, and including, where necessary, the suspension of democracy to ensure implementation. Different scales of governance – and supranational meta-governance in particular – have been used in a divide and rule strategy over the populations of Europe, with the effect that the Irish subjects of austerity expect their counterparts in Greece to swallow the same painful medicine, whether or not it is in the end any good for them. Understood thus, the ‘recovery and return to normalcy’ narrative for the current conjuncture in Europe looks distinctly unlikely. Rather, we might be in for episodic and crisis induced ‘ratcheting down’ of living standards for the forseeable future.

This leads to us to the importance of critically interrogating the logics of policy failure and success, and the ways that this might shape our understanding of precisely how ‘crisis’ should be understood. As Peck et al. (2012) argue, neo-liberal policies often (and predictably) appear as if they fail. But ‘failure’ here needs to be understood in complex and contingent ways because policies “typically fail in such a way as to engender new rounds of experimentation, generally oriented toward the same market- disciplinary agendas that underpinned earlier forms of policy reform—and associated policy failure(s)” (p274). As such, neo-liberalisation often continues while appearing to fail, the appearance of failure induces a sense of crisis and therefore a further justification for more of the same. As Stuart Shields pithily summarises this ‘the time for reform is always now’. In a recent article on EU Meta-governance Paul Beeckmans and I argue that the EU has operated under this logic for more than 20 years now, especially mobilising ideas of failing competitiveness in relation to an evolving list of countries from the US and Japan in the early 1990s, to China, India and other emerging markets today (Nunn & Beeckmans, 2015). Neo-liberalism might be chronically unstable and frequently appear to be experiencing existential crisis, but it is not currently in the throes of the acute episode that might realise its transformation.

Crisis and Post-Capitalism?

If neo-liberalism is not in crisis then, what of Paul Mason’s claim that we might be in a position to witness ‘Post-Capitalism’? Given the preceding discussion we should clearly treat this sort of claim with some caution, without necessarily dismissing it. We shouldn’t dismiss it because the simple act of thinking about ‘post capitalist’ social relations is itself a form of resistance to the dominance of capital and its attempt to write itself into our minds and bodies.

However, no such transition appears likely in the near future. Paul Cammack’s recent work offers a way to think about such issues. In several recent papers he argues that Marx and Engels always intended that their analysis of the contradiction and crisis ridden nature of capitalist development mapped out a world where capitalist social relations were universal before they could be transcended. This makes perfect sense if Rosa Luxemburg’s argument that capital requires social groups outside of it to constitute supplies of new labour, raw materials and demand is taken seriously. As David Harvey has convincingly (and repeatedly) argued, the availability of ‘space’ for capital to expand into is one important way that chronic instabilities and even acute crises can be offset and partially resolved. As Cammack shows though, there is still plenty of space left for capital to expand into, though the doubling of the global workforce since the early 1990s is clear evidence of the intensification of its expansiveness and an explanation for chronic instabilities to come to the fore.  If expansion can offset systemic crises then we shouldn’t expect a crisis-transcendence logic to emerge any time soon.

Finally then, if neither post-capitalism nor post-neo-liberalism are around the corner, what might we expect from the coming decades? To answer that question we might need to enjoin Paul Mason’s ‘optimism of the will’, with a slug of ‘pessimism of the intellect’. Unfortunately there is a popular tendency in ‘the west’ to almost absent mindedly associate capitalism with progress and the sort of distributional and institutional arrangements that have been dominant in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in North America in the post-war period.

However, there is of course no clear reason why we should expect capitalism to be combined with high or rising standards of living and generous redistribution and social protection. For much of the world’s population, capitalist social relations have never been like this.  Indeed, reading it as such may serve to naturalise the social distinctions between those who have, and have not, benefitted from high levels of redistribution and state spending, obscuring important cleavages of ethnicity and gender which structure inequalities of experience, resources and life chances.  Over the long-run, Thomas Piketty’s (2014) recent high profile empirical findings about patterns of inequality across the last hundred years or so may illustrate the exceptionalism of the Post-War experience in the relatively small number of countries where social democracy prevailed, for a relatively short period of time. The equation of capitalism with such progress then was a rather white and male experience, and to speak of crisis in punctuating terms, as the unravelling of social-democratic institutions may also obscure the real experience of capital for people outside of Europe and North America.

Nevertheless, in a world of intensified competition, driven in part by the expansion of capitalist social relations to South and East Asia, it might well be that European and North American populations can expect a tightening of living standards that extends beyond an exceptional period associated with ‘recovery’ from the ‘Great Recession’. Indeed, permanent belt tightening and social conflict over the distribution of costs and benefits might well be the ‘new normal’ of European and North American societies. Rising inequality and instability in the electoral landscape in many countries may just be the first signs of these trends setting in. Increased attention in governance circles to the importance of managing the effects of rising inequality might then be interpreted as a ‘New Politics of Inequality’ where the underpinning moral economy is not so much egalitarian, as about functionally managing the chronic instabilities and tendencies toward crisis that are the normal, everyday and systemic characteristics of an expanding capitalist system.


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