It is always a pleasure to see Pete Green’s name listed in the contents of International Socialism. I personally learnt a lot about Karl Marx’s theory of value from reading Pete’s early contributions to this journal and what he has to say is always illuminating, even if the thrust of his recent piece was to critique my review of Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism.1
At one level, it is not surprising that Pete should have such a different take on Mason’s book. Pete has his obsessions and I have mine, and a book as provocative as Mason’s certainly does not encourage an innocent reading.
However, some of Pete’s objections did not make much sense to me.
Pete suggests that I am churlish in dismissing Mason’s book as a potpourri of arguments borrowed from autonomist and post-Marxist authors. It is, he says, like dismissing a John Heartfield photomontage because it appropriates photographic elements from elsewhere. However, there is a difference. Heartfield’s compositions generate something new, something with its own internal unity and shape, out of the appropriated material. Unfortunately, in Mason’s book, what we get is more a jumbled compendium of ideas, quite a few of which were far from convincing in their earlier elaborations.
Nothing that Pete says convinces me of any great novelty here. He seems, for instance, impressed by Mason’s suggestion that climate change will put the “whole global system under strain” and imperil democracy.2 To me this insight seems entirely unexceptional—surely this has been commonplace on the far-left for years.
To avoid getting stuck in a point by point rebuttal of Pete’s arguments, let me focus on what seems to be his main line of criticism concerning Mason’s economic analysis.
Pete seems to think that I am overly reliant on an orthodoxy developed by thinkers associated with this journal, in particular Mike Kidron and Chris Harman. Certainly, earlier analyses cannot simply be repeated. It is necessary to assess critically the considerable changes to capitalism over the past few decades, and modify and develop our theory accordingly. But the problem first identified by Kidron, namely that the units of capital have become so large, so entwined with the state and financial system, that a clearout of the system allowing the restoration of profit rates is extremely difficult today, seems to be central to an understanding not simply of the crises of the 1970s and 1980s but also of the crisis that began in 2007-8.
Indeed, the whole period since has been characterised by attempts to provide life support for the massive firms that form the core of the capitalist system—not just through direct governmental support and bailouts, but also mediated through the financial system, for instance by means of quantitative easing and low interest rates. The result has been the extraordinary sluggishness of the recovery and the continued fear, very apparent in early 2016, of a new meltdown in the future.
Of course, there has been some restructuring. That point was acknowledged by Harman some time ago: “What occurred through these decades was a process of recurrent ‘restructuring through crisis’ on an international scale. However, it was only a limited return of the old mechanism for clearing out unprofitable capitals to the benefit of the survivors”.3
Pete claims that I also misread Mason because the latter’s argument is that the “fifth wave” of capitalist development, based on “network technology, a global marketplace and information goods”, has stalled.4 Compare this with what I wrote:
He [Mason] argues that traditionally workers’ resistance kicks in as the economic downswing starts and wages come under pressure. The problem is that in the most recent wave workers did not, when the moment arrived in the 1980s, resist sufficiently. As a result, capitalists felt no pressure to reorganise production.5
This seems an entirely accurate summary of Mason’s argument. I go on to argue that, for Mason, we are seeing a combination of a failing neoliberal solution to the downswing and the “embryonic beginnings of a new economic paradigm, the ‘fifth wave’”.6 There must, of course, be some evidence of the emergence of this wave because Mason spends most of the book discussing the various symptoms.
I must confess I am not at all sure what Pete’s objection is on this score.
Pete also accuses me of conflating two different arguments in Mason: that there is a developing zero-price dynamic among “information goods” such as software and “a distinct question about the valuation of fixed capital”.7 He does not say what the “distinct question” is but I assume it was my objection that the fixed capital mobilised by the system is growing rather than diminishing in value.
However, Mason does claim precisely that the transformation of production sucks “physical goods” into “the same zero-price vortex as pure information goods”.8 And he makes it clear that this is something that has been happening since the 1990s, not just in some hypothetical post-capitalist future. Indeed, he devotes a whole section of the book to exploring how “zero-cost effects begin to cascade over from information into the sphere of machines and products, and from there into labour costs”.9 Why is this astonishing shift not reflected in the data?
Pete also argues that Mason does not follow the logic of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in claiming the breakdown of the whole labour theory of value as the productivity of “mental” labourers becomes immeasurable.10 Unfortunately, Mason does echo precisely the kind of breakdown theory espoused by Hardt and Negri. Mason writes: “The rapid change in technology is altering the nature of work, blurring the distinction between work and leisure and requiring us to participate in the creation of value across our whole lives, not just in the workplace”.11
Mason may not believe that this is fully consummated as a system of production, but he does, nonetheless, seem to believe that capitalism can generate new value outside the sphere of production. One concrete example he gives is the creation of value through consumption activities online, and he cites Amazon or Google as instances of this. As I said in my review, I think there is a better reading of the political economy of these firms, based more soundly in Marx’s value theory.
Another objection is that I am too dismissive about Mason’s adoption of the precariat thesis. Apparently my figure for temporary workers in the UK, 6 percent, was “grossly misleading” as it “excludes…agency workers, who are classified as self-employed”.12 Pete is simply wrong in his assertion. The July-September 2015 figure of 1,704,000 temporary workers does include 315,000 agency workers.13
Perhaps this underestimates the true figure, because agency workers are incorrectly classified or missed out of the statistics altogether. But even the highest estimates of those placed in employment by agencies put an upper limit on the figure somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million.14 Even if we accept the highest estimate for agency work and lump them together with all the other temporary workers, we are not even close to the quarter of the workforce that Mason wants to classify as a precariat.
Similarly, the recent rise in self-employment is a little more complicated than Pete suggests. I pointed out in a separate article, noted by Pete, that it had only risen 2 percent since 1993.15 He claims that I ignore the fact that it fell after 1993 and rose from 2008. Well, yes, but it also only rose 2 percent from 2008.16 It is true that some of the recent rise is probably explained by the failure of the economy to create sufficient numbers of new employment opportunities. There are also more older people who, it seems, are not confident enough to retire. But there are also well-to-do consultants and successful business owners jumbled up in the figures.17
One valid criticism Pete makes is that I did not comment on the analogy made by Mason between the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and capitalism to post-capitalism.18 But the whole logic of that analogy is that post-capitalism can emerge within the interstices of capitalism and, so Mason seems to think, the left merely has to promote the appropriate technologies and business models to ensure that we triumph.19
Pete does agree that the point of production remains a critical site of struggle. Mason’s alternative, “networked humanity”, is, Pete writes, “far too fuzzy for my taste”.20 I am pleased that we can agree on that point. However, Pete seems to ignore the extent to which Mason’s strategic emphasis flows from his wider analysis. On this point at least, I think Mason is far more consistent than Pete gives him credit for.
1 Green, 2016, a response to Choonara, 2015a.
2 Green, 2016, p198.
3 Harman, 2007, p152.
4 Green, 2016, p201.
5 Choonara, 2015a, p166.
6 Choonara, 2015a, p166.
7 Green, 2016, p202.
8 Mason, 2015, p142.
9 Mason, 2015, p171, pp169-172.
10 Green, 2016, p203.
11 Mason, 2015, pp143-144.
12 Green, 2016, p203.
14 Local Government Group, 2010, p9; Eurofound, 2008, p3.
15 Choonara, 2015b.
16 Much of the post-1993 fall is due to a reclassification of workers in construction by the Inland Revenue. By 2008 the figure had crept back up to 13 percent of the workforce. Today it is about 15 percent, www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_374941.pdf
17 Choonara, 2015b.
18 Green, 2016, p199.
19 Choonara, 2015a, pp175-176.
20 Green, 2016, p204.