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What If Stalin Had Computers?

A new book contemplates the end of capitalism (again)—it's a nice story, but a terrible plan

Hulton Archive/Getty

When will capitalism end? It’s not a new idea, and even the capitalists suspect it will happen. After all, every other mode of production has fallen, and capitalism isn’t a steady-state system. It simply isn’t built to stay the same. As firms incorporate new technologies, capacity increases per-capita, and jobs change, so too does the nature of commodities and consumption. It happened with the assembly line, and it’s happening again with information technology. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted these trends would reduce everyone’s daily toil to part-time by now, while Karl Marx thought the same developments would compel workers to seize the whole system and abolish wage-labor in general. But the system still lives.

If the history of postcapitalism so far is a repeating chorus asking “Are we there yet?”, then the new book from Channel 4 economics editor Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, is a reassuring “Almost!” from the front seat. Like a good co-pilot, Mason keeps his eyes on his indicators, and he has the end in sight. Or at least on his graphs. How the transition might occur is less important than that it must.

Marxist economics is not a vibrant field within the anglophone academy or public sphere. Even Thomas Piketty’s best selling import, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, didn’t take much more than a good title from the communists. Mason is an oddity, as an economics commentator of some stature (at least in the UK, where he has been an economics/business editor since 2001) who believes that labor is the source of all value. He spends much of the first half of Postcapitalism redeeming the work of heterodox Soviet economist Nikolai Kondtratieff, whose model of 50-year four-phase market cycles is Mason’s preferred historical gauge.

The Kondtratieff wave explanation is an intuitive way to look at 200 years of economic history: In Mason’s telling, industrial capitalism has completed four cycles since 1790, driven by the interrelated processes of technological innovation, global expansion, capital investment, and not least by labor struggles. The story a cycle goes more or less like this: Capitalists incorporate new productive technology, sharing the proceeds with workers; profits slow and workers fight with their bosses as firms try to depress labor costs; when capitalists can’t find any more savings, they’re forced to incorporate new technology and start the cycle over. Despite its Soviet origins, mainstream British and American economists have found the model useful for describing how capitalism manages to persist.

The problem is we seem to have broken the cycle. Where workers should have been able to leverage their power for higher living standards, capital instead outsourced production, smashed unions, captured the regulators, and expanded money supply by unpegging the dollar from gold. Mason calls this counter-cyclical move “neoliberalism,” and it’s a helpful definition for a term sometimes used carelessly to refer to anything bad and capitalist. Kondratieff described a dance between capital and labor that was theoretically sustainable—a heresy that did not go over well with Stalin, who felt that the proletariat was only days from halting the waltz.

As it turned out, Stalin was wrong and capital broke up with labor, not the other way around. Mason calls our current situation the “long, disrupted wave”: The lights are on, and Kondratieff’s dance is over. This isn’t the only relationship that’s broken; capitalist economics is incompatible with information technology, Mason claims. As the supply of some commodities (like music files) becomes infinite, price-setting becomes arbitrary and unsustainable. How do you measure the amount of labor in replicable file? The adaptable system of production that Kondratieff saw from the other side is sinking. “The most highly educated generation in the history of the human race, and the best connected,” Mason writes, “will not accept a future of high inequality and stagnant growth.”

Postcapitalism really begins here, at the bargaining table with capital and labor looking for a plan that will settle their differences once and for all. If the world is headed for imminent ecological collapse, then to continue on with our current capitalist mode of production is suicide. Maximizing actors don’t kill themselves, so the operative question is what to do next. How can we maintain people’s standards of living while socializing production, reducing labor, saving the environment, and making the best use of new technology? Mason has some ideas.

The book really comes into its own when Mason addresses the possibilities of contemporary planning. He does not go as far as to endorse “cyber Stalinism” but at the very least poses its thesis: What if the problem with the Soviet Union was that it was too early? What if our computer processing power and behavioral data are developed enough now that central planning could outperform the market when it comes to the distribution of goods and services?

If you raised your hand and said this in an American ECON100 class, you’d be laughed out of the room, so Mason as prominent public employee deserves a lot of credit for bringing it this far into the English-speaking mainstream. The possible socialized uses of technology is an exciting can of worms. Using large sets of behavior and population data, capitalist firms like Amazon and Google have developed predictive capacities that would make Soviet cyberneticians weep with joy. Capitalism says that the best use of this capacity is to sell people stuff, but parts of this process are so socially unproductive and unnecessary—we don’t just have clickbait sites, we have third-rate clickbait sites—that it can’t possibly be the case.

“Imagine if Walmart or Tesco were prepared to publish their customer data (suitably anonymized) for free,” Mason writes. “Society would benefit: everybody from farmers to epidemiologists could mine the data, and make more accurate decisions.” This is just the beginning; remaking productive machinery in the collective interest means driving necessary labor down as far as possible with data analytics and self-management. Why can’t a meatpacking factory function like a web startup, with room for autonomy and achievement targets instead of required hours? It’s fun to imagine how we could do better than capitalism if we all decided to, especially if no one had to worry about creating and maintaining false scarcity around info-tech goods.

The best existing example I can think of for the kind of efficiencies Mason predicts is the difference between Netflix and Popcorn Time. Netflix is, of course, the $28 billion media streaming company with over 2000 employees. Popcorn Time is a legally shady alternative that streams media torrents over a clean ad-less interface. It’s a functional and free alternative, what economists would call a replacement good. Popcorn Time makes no money, and has a staff of 20 around the world who volunteer their labor part-time. Netflix is (as a streaming company) a near-total waste of time. Those 2000-plus workers could be developing a nutritious Slurpee and designing a distribution infrastructure. Or babysitting. Hell, they could be lowering the collective labor burden enough so everyone has time to masturbate one extra time a year, and it would still be more socially useful than charging rent for access to digital content.

In Mason’s telling, postcapitalism involves an abundance of resources, including free time. Without capitalism’s wastefulness, we can refashion the world to allow human potential and creativity to blossom. It’s an enjoyable thought experiment, but capitalists are not looking to make a deal. Given the choice, I have no doubt that the ownership class will literally abandon the planet Earth before they surrender capitalism. Bosses no longer negotiate with organized labor if they can avoid it; they’d rather make a blanket offer to all workers as individuals: Work and/or starve. Violence and coercion don’t play much of a role in Postcapitalism, but that’s not true of capitalism. Huge, advanced police forces ensure this is the deal whether people “accept” it (as Mason says) or not.

Imaginative as it is, Postcapitalism is not a revolutionary book. As Malcolm X observed very clearly of revolution after revolution: “What was it for? Land! How did they get it? Bloodshed!” Capitalists understand this principle very well, and their state proxies are well-armed. The vanguard movements of postcapitalism that Mason identifies—the global occupy sequence, Brazilian World Cup protesters, fracking blockaders—have all been forced out of whatever territory they were able to take temporarily, and that’s with the authorities exercising significant restraint relative to their capabilities. Since postcapitalism doesn’t detail the “How?”, it doesn’t have to answer “How do we kill that many cops?”

There’s a reason Marxists—even heterodox ones—don’t usually speculate on how to arrange communism: Marx says not to. “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself,” he writes with Engels in The German Ideology. “We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Not even Marx claimed to know what communism will look like, but he knew it would have to destroy capitalism first.

It’s hard to follow Marx into his beautifully hopeful “will have been” idea of history without thinking he’s doing some sword-in-the-stone prophecy, but he nonetheless reveals important problems with postcapitalism. I cannot imagine the real movement that could, in retrospect, validate Mason’s version of history. The true qualities of capitalism, including the weak points where it finally fails, will only be visible in the shadow of whatever social force destroys it. The people Mason describes, at least as motivated and defined by the historical factors he describes (education, connection, stagnant wages), do not seem willing or able to confront the system at the necessary scale or with the required intensity. To borrow a perspective from Marx, I do not believe Mason’s theory of capitalism will have been the case.

The true story of capitalism, like all social forms, will be written in its ashes. Until then, a theory of historical necessity and a couple bucks will get you a cup of coffee. Mason criticizes leftists for being against things that exist instead of for things that could be, but the position of the cart in relation to the horse isn’t up for sensible debate. Postcapitalism is still one revolution away.

This article has been updated to reflect Paul Mason's current job, which is at Channel 4 and not the BBC.