Brand new, you’re retro

Issue: 148

Joseph Choonara

A review of Paul Mason, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (Allen Lane, 2015), £16.99

Some 45 years ago futurologist Alvin Toffler published a breathless evocation of a world transformed. Visions of talking dolphins and a rather disturbing fixation with erotic cyborgs fill the pages of his work, Future Shock.

“What is occurring now is,” he insisted, “in all likelihood, bigger, deeper and more important than the industrial revolution.” The historical rupture, according to “a growing body of reputable opinion”, was comparable only with “the shift from barbarism to civilisation”. The “great, growling engine of change” powering this transformation was technology and, for this engine to run, “knowledge must be regarded as its fuel”. Bureaucratic organisations, incapable of coming to terms with this new world, would decline, and so “man will find himself liberated, a stranger in a new free-form world of kinetic organisations”.1

One of the most striking things about Paul Mason’s latest work, PostCapitalism, is just how passé his vision of the future is. There is little here that has not appeared in the writing of André Gorz or Daniel Bell from the 1960s, in the works of autonomist Marxists such as Antonio Negri from the 1970s, or in Manuel Castells’s Information Age trilogy in the late 1990s.

Mason, whose work as economics editor for Channel 4 News provides some of the few bright spots within the dark firmament of British television broadcasting, is a clearer and more accessible writer than most of his forebears. He has a journalist’s eye for a narrative hook. And an early immersion in Trotskyist politics means he takes Marxism seriously; there are references here to Evgeny Preobrazhensky, Nikolai Bukharin, Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg and many others. Yet his eagerness to meld aspects of this understanding with ideas that he imagines heretical, but which actually form the common sense for much of the radical left today, creates two serious problems.

First, there is a problem with how Mason writes his history. Take, for example, his discussion of Alexander Bogdanov. Although once one of Lenin’s closest associates, Bogdanov was expelled from the Bolshevik organisation by Lenin in 1909. Mason writes:

The 1905 revolution, said Bogdanov, showed that workers were not ready to run society. Because he thought post-capitalist society would have to be a knowledge society, any attempt to create it through blind revolutionary action could only bring to power a technocratic elite, he warned… All this was anathema to Lenin. Marxism had become a doctrine of imminent breakdown and revolution.2

In Mason’s account, Lenin is the ultra-left extremist, determined to drive through an immediate revolutionary transformation of Russia, Bogdanov the more patient and considered figure. The nature of Lenin’s break with Bogdanov is complex, not least because it involved a sharp polemic on the subject of philosophy, which Lenin had, during the upsurge in revolutionary activity that culminated in the 1905 revolution, considered a “neutral field”. It was only as the revolutionary tide ebbed that he began to condemn, with increasing urgency, Bogdanov’s attempt to blend Marxism with Kantianism.3 Nonetheless, underlying this philosophical spat was the simple fact, ignored by Mason, that Bogdanov headed up a left opposition movement within Bolshevism. This opposition condemned Lenin for his insistence that the Bolsheviks participate in elections to the Russian Duma (parliament). At this point, it was in fact Bogdanov who was driven by revolutionary impatience, writing:

Some people…have come to the conclusion that we must change the previous Bolshevik evaluation of the present historical moment and hold a course not toward a new revolutionary wave, but toward a long period of peaceful, constitutional development… We will proceed on our way according to the old slogan.4

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Many of the narratives presented by Mason—on the history of workers’ resistance from 1771 onwards, on the degeneration of the Russian Revolution or on an assortment of historical debates among the revolutionary left—end up reading like “just so” stories, designed to buttress arguments about the contemporary world.

The second issue with Mason’s work is his overall theoretical framework, which also sets out from a Marxist perspective before it moves off on some eccentric trajectories. There are two important components of his framework to consider: his appropriation of Nikolai Kondratieff’s theory of long economic waves and his version of Karl Marx’s labour theory of value.

Long waves

Kondratieff was a Soviet economist and a victim of Joseph Stalin’s purges. He is today best known for his claim that economies exhibit long-term cycles or waves, lasting about 50 years. “Kondratieff waves” have exerted an influence over economics both right and left.5

We should certainly not rule out long periods of economic expansion or stagnation. Indeed, it seems uncontroversial that there are such periods, for instance the decades of powerful growth that followed the Second World War or the long depression that began in the 1870s. The proposition becomes even less contentious if we accept, as Mason says at one point, that for Kondratieff, “there is no claim as to the exact timing of events, and no claim that the waves are regular”.6 However, once you lose the periodicity and wave-like form, it is rather hard to see what advantage is gained by referring to Kondratieff waves or cycles at all.7

At times, though, Mason does seem to think there is a necessary “fifty-year cycle”, which is a far more problematic assertion.8 Just because capitalism exhibits behaviour that averages out at such a period—and we have very few 50-year periods to look at in the relatively short history of capitalism, and even fewer for which credible data exists—does not mean that we should anticipate waves of this kind to pattern capitalism going forward. To assume this is to reduce the complexity of capitalism as a historical system to the simplicity of a mathematical formula.

Not only is there a danger of oversimplifying the trajectory of capitalism, there is also the question of what drives the various phases in its history. Mason is sceptical about Kondratieff’s explanation, which was based on the exhaustion of very long-term capital investments.9 Mason, rightly, wants to place profit rates at the centre of his analysis of economic patterns. However, he also believes that the turn to neoliberalism “restored profit rates from the late 1980s onward”, a view he attributes to Michel Husson and to “New School professor Ahmed Shaikh”.10 Shaikh’s argument is in fact that the rate of profit “stabilised” or that its fall was “suspended”, rather than being restored. Husson by contrast does claim it was restored but there is a large body of writing questioning his position, and in my view the weight of evidence is firmly on the side of Husson’s critics.11

Part of the problem here is that, like many contemporary Marxists, Mason holds that, alongside the tendency of the rate of profit to fall identified by Marx in the third volume of Capital, the various ­countertendencies he also identified carry equal weight. However, unlike most of those Marxists, Mason does not want to leave profit rates as indeterminate. Instead he argues that the counteracting tendencies simply “break down” at some point, leading to cyclical crises. Sometimes there are really big failures in which the counteracting factors are “exhausted” leading to a bigger “breakdown”. This allows Mason to present his own highly schematic version of the Kondratieff cycle without relying on Kondratieff’s explanation.12

While it is true that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall operates in tension with the counteracting tendencies, there are good reasons to believe that, in normal times, there will be long-term downward pressure on profit rates. Briefly, the cheapening of fixed capital, the most important counteracting tendency, has a contradictory impact on profitability, negatively impacting on capitalists who invest in fixed capital prior to the fall in the value of their investment; furthermore, the existence of “capital-saving” investments does not preclude the most successful capitalists attempting to access further “capital-intensive” investments, which empirically does seem to be the pattern through most of the history of capitalism. Given these factors, the periods in which the counteracting tendencies really become effective are precisely moments of crisis, during which capital can systematically be devalued across the system, and debts, accumulated in the preceding period, tend to be destroyed through default or other means. This is accompanied by the boost provided by attacking workers’ wages. In other words, the crisis is the realisation of the counteracting tendencies in their sharpest form, not an expression of their exhaustion.

The persistence of the decline in profitability over many cycles, noted by Mason, reflects the difficulty the system faces in clearing itself out through large-scale bankruptcy and debt default. This becomes a greater problem as the units of capital swell to a large size, as states become heavily implicated in the economy and as the financial system weaves the whole thing together in an ever-tighter mesh.13 This can eventually lead to the eruption of deeper and more prolonged crises like that of the 1930s or the one that we entered in 2007-8. Such an analysis can account for the long-term shifts in capitalism without recourse to long waves.

Mason introduces an additional problem into his analysis because he feels the need to buttress his position by presenting the classical Marxist position in highly caricatured form. Stalin, he says, had Kondratieff executed because the theory “would bring Marxism face to face with a dangerous proposition: that there is no ‘final’ crisis of capitalism”. This deterministic reading of political economy was, Mason writes, accepted by “the whole of the far left” in the early 20th century. Everyone from Rosa Luxemburg onwards held that “crisis theory should describe the finality of capitalism”. “Only in the 1970s, when the idea of ‘relative autonomy’ arrived in Marxist economics, did the discipline begin to understand that not all layers of reality are a simple expression of the layers beneath them”.14 This is particularly odd as it ignores his own comment a few pages earlier regarding Leon Trotsky’s criticisms of Kondratieff: “Trotsky was here insisting that political conflict between nations and classes was more important than economic forces”.15 There was always a non-deterministic Marxism available, even if it was for a time rendered marginal by the weight of Stalinism and social democracy.16

The reason why Mason feels the need to cling to the schematic model offered by Kondratieff emerges once he integrates struggle into the picture, for it provides him with a way of periodising capitalism and postcapitalism. He 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.17 Instead the neoliberal boom took off, eventually running up against its limits and leading to the current crisis. Mason argues that we are now seeing the combination of the end of the neoliberal solution to the downswing, and the embryonic beginnings of a new economic paradigm, the “fifth wave”, whose “core technology” is “information”.18

Rise of the machines

To understand the new paradigm Mason has in mind we must turn our attention to his take on Marx’s value theory. The essential argument of value theory is that abstract, socially necessary labour is the source of value, which can in turn be quantified in terms of its duration. Capitalism draws together the living labour of workers, which creates new value, along with dead labour, embodied in machinery and raw materials, which creates no new value but which passes its value on to the end product as it is used up. Profit arises because capitalists only have to pay workers enough to reproduce their labour power, and there is no reason why this has to be as much new value as the workers create. The gap between the new value created by living labour and the value that must be advanced to hire this living labour is referred to by Marx as surplus value. In this understanding, all of the profits across the capitalist system ultimately rest on the exploitation of living labour. Mason presents this argument with admirable clarity.19

The problems come when he discusses information. The central notion in Mason’s book is that we are moving to an epoch in which information is rendering value irrelevant. In an “information economy”, writes Mason, market mechanisms will “drive the marginal cost of certain goods, over time, towards zero—eroding profits in the process”. “Knowledge-driven production tends towards the unlimited creation of wealth, independent of the labour expended.” There are two central claims here: that “automation can reduce necessary labour to amounts so small that work would become optional” and that “stuff that can be made with tiny amounts of human labour is probably going to end up being free, shared and commonly owned”.20

Mason seeks a Marxist pedigree for his argument by appealing to Marx’s “Fragment on Machines”, a text beloved of autonomist Marxists.21 This fragment is contained in the Grundrisse, a draft for Capital unpublished in Marx’s lifetime.22 Here Marx discusses the way that machinery comes to dominate the worker in the production process and how scientific knowledge “which capital appropriates free of charge” is embodied in technology. Direct labour tends to be replaced by “general scientific labour, technological application of natural science” and by the use of the new technology. “Capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production.” “As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure…production based on exchange value breaks down”.23

Now, the first thing that should be said is that we have to treat anything in the Grundrisse with care. As Hal Draper puts it, “One must bear in mind that these notebooks were scribbled by Marx for his own use or as possible rough drafts for future publication; their form often reflects ­carbuncles and insomnia as well as a train of thought”.24 However, once these passages are read in context it quickly becomes clear that Marx is not talking about a smooth process of transition from capitalism to socialism brought about by science. He is thinking through the manner in which capitalism, through its mobilisation of science to boost the productive forces, is intensifying its own contradictions: “Capital itself is the moving contradiction…it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time…as sole measure and source of wealth”.25

Yet under capitalism, he adds, it is “absurd” to see fixed capital becoming “an independent source of value”. “It [machinery] can be effective only with masses of workers, whose concentration relative to capital is one of its historic presuppositions… Machinery enters only where labour capacity is on hand in masses. (Return to this)”.26 Realising the ­liberatory potential for machinery would require a communist society. “While machinery is the most appropriate form of the use value of fixed capital, it does not at all follow that therefore subsumption under the social relation of capital is the most appropriate and ultimate social relation of production for the application of machinery.” Capital’s desire to reduce “human labour to a minimum…will redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation”.27

If Mason’s use of the “fragment on machines” is suspect for theoretical reasons, the notion that living labour is vanishing under the weight of automation is also dubious on empirical grounds. There is simply no evidence that capital is any less dependent on wage labour. On a global scale wage labour had by 2013 become the fate of 1.6 billion people, surpassing non-wage labour for the first time in world history; Britain alone has a waged labour force of about 30 million.28 The bulk of these people, whether they produce material goods or services, are productive labourers, in the sense that they generate surplus value for capitalism.

Even if there are particular fields of employment where very few workers are employed relative to the amount of fixed capital mobilised, this does not mean that those areas are exempt from profit making. As Marx points out in the third volume of Capital, the formation of prices of production tends to redistribute value in accordance with the amount of capital invested by specific capitalists. In effect, the exploitation of wage labour creates a global pool of surplus value that is then appropriated by capitalists to the extent that they mobilise capital.29

It is certainly true that if the marginal price of fixed capital was tending towards zero, this would present problems for capitalism. However, this argument seems to be based on some pretty strange views of how capitalism actually works. Consider this statement: “Software is a machine that, once built, will last for ever. Sure, it can be made obsolete by newer software, but the world is full of old software that—if the right hardware could be found to run it—could run forever”.30 Software, then, is eternal and free, provided nobody ever comes up with better software and provided there happens to be hardware to run it on.

In the real capitalist world, where production, whether of goods or services, typically involves using machinery and computers, one cannot neglect hardware. It might be the case that some of this hardware, notably computers, can now be produced more cheaply. However, if we look at the overall mobilisation of fixed capital across the system, in value terms, the trend is still for this to increase as it has for the past century.31 The idea that the immensely expensive spheres of biotech, space travel or nanotechnology are developing a “price-zero dynamic” is laughable.32

Value and information

Mason goes even further than this. For instance, he echoes many of the positions held by autonomist theorists of “cognitive capitalism”. He describes their view thus: “Because profit increasingly comes from capturing the free value generated by consumer behaviour, and because a society focused on mass consumption has to be constantly fed coffee, smiled at, serviced by call centres, the ‘factory’ in cognitive capitalism is the whole of society”.33 His criticism of this concept is merely that it is not yet a fully consummated system, indeed cannot be within capitalism. Nonetheless, he 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”.34 This is another notion familiar from the work of Hardt and Negri, for whom, “Even the prostituted body, the destitute person, the hunger of the multitude—all forms of the poor have become productive… The poor is the condition of every production”; “labour cannot be limited to waged labour but must refer to human creative capacities in general”; and even being hungry or dreaming is productive of surplus value.35

This dovetails with notions of the “prosumer”, a consumer who creates value for capital through use of technology such as the internet. “Amazon works, for example, by offering to sell you things based on your previous choices—information you provided for free and could not choose to withhold. The whole business model is based on the one-side capture of externalities by Amazon”.36 This ignores the extent to which Amazon has simply developed a new model for selling and distributing commodities based on extremely effective forms of exploitation of large numbers of workers along with huge concentrations of capital. Their enormous and Orwellian sounding “fulfilment centres” typically employ around 1,000 people. New technology is used very effectively here—to monitor workers and ensure a sufficiently high work rate in what amounts to a modern version of Taylorism. As one undercover reporter in such a depot puts it: “We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves.” He describes walking 11 miles a night for the special night rate of £8.25 an hour. In the same article Amazon boasts of investing £1 billion in the UK. This combination of capital intensity and exploitation, rather than some autonomous process of value generation from consumers, is the real secret to Amazon’s profitability.37

Google, by contrast, derives the overwhelming bulk of its revenue from advertising. This leads some to see Google as extracting value from users who perform searches via Google. In fact Google is obtaining its value from capitalist firms who pay it in order to advertise. To achieve this requires that Google invest capital and exploit workers, who ultimately create the service that it is selling, and it does so in a competitive environment alongside other capitalist firms (Microsoft, Baidu, Yahoo, Ask, etc) who are trying to perform a similar service more productively.38

Despite the extraordinary handwringing among certain contemporary Marxists, autonomist and otherwise, theorising even the most purely “knowledge based” industries using the tools Marx provided is not beyond our capacity. The Marxist political economist Guglielmo Carchedi points out that those he calls “mental labourers” participate in production in a two-fold sense, just like other workers. On the one hand, they engage in a labour process through concrete labour to generate or transform use values; on the other hand, they are engaged in surplus value production and are exploited.39

Carchedi offers a disarmingly simple answer to the problem of all those mental labourers dreaming up code or answering emails in their spare time:

This is not exploitation. If capital is a relation of production, this relation is suspended in the labourer’s free time and resumed when the labourers return to their work. During this time, labourers are not exploited. The emails that a mental labourer answers from home in her free time, say in one hour, count as if they had been answered during her working time. But the time during which she works for capital, say eight hours a day, remains the same. However, the moment she returns to her work, her labour becomes more productive. It is as if in the first instant of her work she had answered those emails. Her productivity has risen but the surplus value she produces is still that produced in eight hours of work.40

He also argues explicitly that there is no reason why the unit values of the output of mental labour processes should tend towards zero. The total value is the total capital, both fixed and circulating, required to produce the output, along with the costs of administration, advertising and so on. The unit value is this cost divided by the number of units sold, whether supplied in physical form or downloaded. As Carchedi points out, “The size of the output is variable. It depends on the technology used. Its limit is obsolescence, a point reached when, due to intense competition, the demand for it falls to the point at which it is not profitable any longer to produce it”.41

Mason, by contrast, seems to argue that obsolescence is no longer an issue because we now have “machines whose utility derives from the information used to run them” so we can now “think of software as a machine”.42 But it was equally true that the utility of the ZX Spectrum lay in the software that ran on it, and so too for the mainframe computers that transfixed Alvin Toffler in the 1970s.43

Of course, there are lots of people who do things via the internet for which they are not paid. But people who edit Wikipedia pages or design open source software are not active as productive labourers. Why should this be so baffling? Going to the shops to purchase commodities is also a non-productive activity, however essential it is to Tesco or Sainsbury. With Mason, as with so much of the recent literature, it is as if “non-market interactions” only emerged with the World Wide Web.44 Similarly, Marx’s framework has no problem with “free appropriation of knowledge”. Carchedi points out that parents have been freely imparting knowledge to their children, for better or for worse, for quite a long time now.45

New workers?

From these questionable theoretical premises Mason draws some stark strategic conclusions. First of all, out goes any emphasis on the working class. “Those who cling to the idea that the proletariat is the only force that can push society beyond capitalism are ignoring two key features of the modern world: that the route to postcapitalism is different; and that the agent of change has become, potentially, everyone on Earth,” he writes. “Work—the defining activity of capitalism—is losing its centrality both to exploitation and resistance”.46 Here Mason is, like Hardt and Negri before him, simply drawing the logical conclusion from his analysis.

However, whereas Hardt and Negri might rate Marx’s account of class as a historical proposition, Mason is even more dismissive. Referring to Frederick Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England, he writes, “Marx was wrong about the working class… Engels’s anthropology of the English working class in 1842 is detailed, complex and specific. The Marxist theory of the proletariat is not: it reduces an entire class to a philosophical category”.47

Mason combines this generalised rejection of Marx’s class analysis with rather sweeping claims about the transformation of work:

The core workforce has been able to cling on to stable, permanent employment, with non-wage benefits attached to the job. The periphery must relate either as temporary agency workers, or via a network of contracting firms. But the core is shrunken: seven years into the post-2008 crisis, a permanent contract on a decent wage is an unattainable privilege for many people. Being part of the “precariat” is all too real for up to a quarter of the population.48

As with Guy Standing’s recent writing on the precariat, the empirical claims are never really substantiated. One would certainly not guess from this passage that only 6.2 percent of employees in the UK are in temporary employment, and only 2 percent are in temporary employment because they cannot find a permanent job.49 Across the OECD as a whole, temporary employment rose from 9.2 percent in 1980 to 12.2 percent in 2007, before falling slightly as the crisis developed.50 This is not to discount the suffering of those trapped in temporary work but we should not derive a picture of deepening precariousness across the labour force from the experience of a minority of workers, and we should certainly not extrapolate from these changes to a transformation of the social relations of capitalism.

Yet this is exactly what Mason seeks to do, arguing that the key conflict today is not a class conflict between capital and labour but a clash between hierarchies and networks. Mason advocates “cooperative, self-managed, non-hierarchical teams”.51 However, contemporary capitalism has no problem with networks and team-working, provided these are embedded within structures of value creation and extraction. Indeed, a whole literature has developed extolling the virtues of networks.52 “Team-working”, viewed as an element of the management style known as Toyotism or lean production, is entirely mainstream.53 In this regard it is interesting to compare the experience of an Amazon worker, cited earlier, to the corporation’s ­description of what goes on in their fulfilment centres:

We continuously work to streamline our processes and eliminate defects and we empower all our associates to innovate to help achieve this… We use many systematic methods to make work processes easier and more efficient, including the “Kaizen” programme, derived from the Japanese term meaning “change for the better”. Through the Kaizen programme, associates, working in small teams, can identify areas for improvement giving them the opportunity to influence their working environment and streamline processes.54

Mason is insistent that “networked movements are evidence that a new historical subject exists. It is not just the working class in a different guise; it is networked humanity”, yet when it comes to actually existing networked movements, we find something odd.55 Class, it turns out, gives social substance to networks. Take one of his examples:

In 2014, 30,000 shoe workers at Yue Yuen factory in Shenzhen staged the first big strike to use group messaging and micro-blogging as organisational tools… Terrifyingly for the Chinese authorities, the factory workers in Shenzhen were using the very same technology as the liberal, networked students who in 2014 staged the democracy protest known as Occupy Central in Hong Kong. If you accept that the main faultline in the modern world is between networks and hierarchies, then China is sitting right on top of it.56

It is very difficult to comprehend the strengths and weaknesses of these two movements without introducing a concept of class. After all, regardless of whether the Yue Yuen factory workers were organising using mobile phones, they were organising a class movement to block the production of surplus value. The Hong Kong movement was, by contrast, largely composed of students and individual workers, and, though hugely important and heroic, according to one participant, it left “no organisational legacy” as the “tens of thousands of people dispersed back into regular life”. Another argues that the “mere spontaneity of the movement” was “not enough to advance it” and so “it is indispensable to seek support from the working class”.57

Mason, by contrast, wants to move on from such petty concerns. For him “technology has created a new route out, which the remnants of the old left…have either to embrace or die”. This avoids all the aggro of having to rise up in revolution or expropriate the capitalists; there is a piecemeal process of reform available. It involves “a gradual, iterative and modular project. Its aim should be to expand those technologies, business models and behaviours that dissolve market forces, eradicate the need for work and progress the world economy towards abundance”.58

However, for those problems that cannot be solved by gradualism, such as environmental catastrophe, we need the state: “Only the state, and states acting together” can organise the required “centralised, strategic and fast” response. For anyone foolish enough to ask how Mason’s emphasis on these centralised states fits with his network model, he offers this answer: “In postcapitalism, the state has to act more like the staff of Wikipedia.” So the century old polemic between reform and revolution, which hinges on whether it is possible to take possession of the capitalist state and turn it to the advantage of workers, or whether it is necessary to smash it, is overcome with a few keystrokes: “I’ve tried to make this a project usable both by people who see states as useful and those who don’t; you could model an anarchist version and a statist version and try them out. There’s probably even a conservative version of postcapitalism, and good luck to it”.59


There are good reasons to be sceptical about Mason’s pick ’n’ mix strategy of resistance. The problem, though, is that on many issues he is cutting with the grain of much of what passes for radical left thinking. Faced with this, it is incumbent upon those of us operating in the classical Marxist tradition patiently to spell out what we mean when we talk about a strategy centred on the working class. It absolutely does not mean that our concerns are reducible to the bread and butter issues encountered in the workplace, though these are certainly important. The left has to take up each and every major political question, to challenge each instance of oppression, regardless of where they arise.

The classical Marxist argument is first and foremost one about where power lies. If the system is still one that rests on the extraction of surplus value from labour, and there is nothing in Mason’s book to convince me otherwise, then the point of production remains the point at which our side is strongest and most concentrated. That proposition holds regardless of whether workers engage in manufacturing or provide services, whether they work for Google or for Ford.

That does not mean we can simply reiterate old formulae, ignore the contemporary forms of struggle or turn a blind eye to the new world of work. Indeed we are crying out for perceptive analysis of these. Sadly, though, such analysis will not be found here.


1: Toffler, 1970, pp14, 25, 30, 113.

2: Mason, 2015, p219.

3: Lenin, 1978, p449; Lenin, 1977.

4: Bogdanov, 1993, pp34-35. See Cliff, 1994, pp281-293, and Harding, 2009, pp273-281, for more realistic assessments of Lenin’s fight with Bogdanov.

5: As Mason point outs, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter included them in his theory of the business cycle. On the left, Ernest Mandel, a leading theoretician of the Trotskyist Fourth International, adopted a version of long waves quite similar to the one advanced by Mason. Another astute Marxist writer, Michael Roberts, has also deployed the concept, although he believes the cycles have lengthened to “64-72 years”—see Mason, 2015, p34; Mandel, 1995; Roberts, 2013.

6: Mason, 2015, p36.

7: This was, in fact, one of the major criticisms of Kondratieff made by Leon Trotsky and others. For an excellent critique of long waves see Harman, 1999, pp132-136.

8: Mason, 2015, p77.

9: Mason, 2015, pp37-38.

10: Mason, 2015, p71. I think “Ahmed Shaikh” must actually be New School professor Anwar Shaikh, who does indeed write on the rate of profit.

11: Shaikh, 2011. For examples of the wider literature, see: Harman, 2010; Kliman, 2011; Roberts, 2015; Choonara, 2012.

12: Mason, 2015, pp70, 76, 72-73. Those not familiar with Marx’s famous law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and its countertendencies can consult Choonara, 2009, pp74-83; Choonara, 2013.

13: For more on these points, see Harman, 2007; Callinicos and Choonara, 2015.

14: Mason, 2015, pp33-34, 65, 50.

15: Mason, 2015, p39.

16: This non-deterministic Marxism originates with the founders and is explained with great clarity in Frederick Engels’s well known letter to J Bloch, in which he rails against economic determinism—Engels, 2010, pp33-37.

17: Mason, 2015, p93. Mason’s approach to history echoes that of Antonio Negri in which capital has periodically to reconfigure itself in the face of waves of resistance, with a new revolutionary subject then constituting itself on the new terrain of capital—see Negri, 2003, p76. However, Negri and his cothinker Michael Hardt tend to see the emergence of what they call “Empire” and the new subject, the “multitude”, in the latest phase as a consequence of the struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s—Hardt and Negri, 2001, pp43, 51, 409. For Mason, presumably such struggles erupted too early in his cycle.

18: Mason, 2015, p109.

19: Mason, 2015, pp147-159. See also Choonara, 2009, pp19-44; Choonara, 2013.

20: Mason, 2015, pp120, 136, 164.

21: Mason, 2015, pp134-138. Again these arguments are not new. The American Marxist Hal Draper criticised precisely these kinds of positions three and a half decades ago—Draper, 1978, pp575-579. See also Carchedi, 2012, pp225-244.

22: Those picking up a copy of the Grundrisse may be baffled by the absence of the phrase “fragment on machines” from the analytical content list. The relevant sections are entitled “Fixed capital. Means of labour. Machine” through to “True conception of the process of social production”—see Marx, 1993, pp690-712.

23: Marx, 1993, pp695, 700, 705.

24: Draper, 1978, p576.

25: Marx, 1993, p706.

26: Marx, 1993, pp701-702. The final “return to this” reinforces Drapers point about treating these notes with care.

27: Marx, 1993, pp699-701.

28: ILO, Key Indicators of the Labour Market, 8th edition.

29: Marx, 1991, pp254-301; Choonara, 2009, p113-118.

30: Mason, 2015, p164.

31: See, for instance, the graphs in Basu, 2012, p11.

32: Mason, 2015, p173. This is reminiscent of Toffler’s claim that dramatic shifts in patterns of industrialisation, consumption and even human psychology were imminent as deep-ocean mining “becomes feasible and economically advantageous”. The main evidence for this seems to be that a scientist at General Electric had “kept a hamster alive under water by enclosing it in a box that is, in effect, an artificial gill”—Toffler, 1970, pp188-191.

33: Mason, 2015, p139.

34: Mason, 2015, pp143-144.

35: Hardt and Negri, 2001, p158; Hardt and Negri, 2004, pp66, 111-112. See also Mason, 2015, p210. Mason is quite right that if this happened we would be moving beyond capitalism; Hardt and Negri seem unwilling to take this step and continue to refer throughout their books to capital and capitalism.

36: Mason, 2015, p132.

37: BBC News, 2013. The ethos of intense exploitation extends to white collar employees in the US in what one former human resources executive refers to as “purposeful Darwinism” directed towards staff—Kantor and Streitfeld, 2015.

38: At most we can say that Google has, for now, established something approaching a monopoly in certain spheres and perhaps there is an element of monopoly pricing here, at least while Google retains its position. However, there is no reason in principle why other search engines could not in time erode this advantage. After all, in 1998 54 percent of searches were done using the now defunct AltaVista search engine, compared with Google’s 65 percent share today—Vise, 2008, p40; comScore search engine rankings, 15 April 2015.

39: As Carchedi points out, there is only an analytical distinction between “objective” and “mental” transformation, as objective transformation (such as creating a new physical commodity) involves mental transformations and mental transformation (such as writing a computer program) involves objective transformations—Carchedi, 2012, p196.

40: Carchedi, 2014, p4.

41: Carchedi, 2014, p5.

42: Mason, 2015, pp167, 169.

43: Although at least Toffler recognised that computers rapidly become obsolete—Toffler, 1970, p69.

44: Mason, 2015, p171.

45: Carchedi, 2012, p224. So too with the music industry, which has undergone rapid transformation with the rise of streaming and downloading services. So far this has not killed off the industry, even with the existence of some illegal free streaming and downloading sites. People seem to forget two basic facts. First, music piracy did not start with the internet, as the large collection of copied audio cassettes that most people of my generation possess will testify. Second, even if the music industry did collapse under the weight of file-sharing, this would not provide a template for capitalism as a whole. Even to partake of this illegal activity, one requires a computer, electricity supply, internet access, not to mention basic material prerequisites such as food, clothing and shelter.

46: Mason, 2015, pp178, 179.

47: Mason, 2015, pp184-185. Again this echoes an old argument. Many years ago André Gorz suggested that Marx’s writings on class are “not based upon either empirical observation of class conflict or practical involvement in proletarian struggle”. Instead, he argued, class struggle is the transposition of the philosopher Georg Hegel’s notion of absolute spirit, in which the contradictions of material reality are ultimately resolved, to the social field—Gorz, 1982, pp16, 18.

48: Mason, 2015, p207; compare this with Gorz, 1999, pp48, 50: “According to forecasts made in 1994, stable, full-time employment in Germany will fall to only 30-40 percent by the year 2003. Great Britain is already below this level… The company is no longer a workplace or a work collective: it simply calls on providers of services as one might call on a dentist or a plumber when you need one.” And Standing, 2011, pp15, 24: “In most countries, the statistics show that the number and share of national labour forces in temporary statuses have been rising sharply over the past three decades…we may guess that at present, in many countries, at least a quarter of the adult population is in the precariat.”

49: ONS data, April-June 2015, non-seasonally adjusted, available from

50: OECD, LFS employment by permanency, available from

51: Mason, 2015, p287.

52: Castells, a left wing theorist of what he calls “the network society” is a key point of reference, although he only warrants a single, brief mention in Mason’s book. See Castells, 2000.

53: Whether firms really practise what they preach and whether it actually works is more open to question, see Bradley, Erickson, Stephenson and Williams, 2000, pp31-50.

55: Mason, 2015, p212.

56: Mason, 2015, pp211-212.

57: See Yu, 2015; Sung, 2014.

58: Mason, 2015, ppxiv, 243. Indeed, Mason seems to have developed an almost paternalistic concern for the youth of today: “The more Marx’s bearded face pops up in the panicked pages of mainstream newspapers, and the deeper the social catastrophe inflicted on the youth of tomorrow, the greater the chance becomes that they will try to repeat the failed experiments of Marx’s followers: Bolshevism and the forced-march abolition of the market”—Mason, 2015, p49.

59: Mason, 2015, pp261, 273, 290.


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