The Intellectual Situation
Where we're going we don't need roads
How will it end? For centuries even the most sanguine of capitalism’s theorists have thought it not long for this world. Smith, Ricardo, and Mill pointed to a “falling rate of profit” linked to inevitable declines in agricultural productivity. Marx applied the same concept to industrial production, suggesting that the tendency to replace workers with machines would lead to a chronic and insurmountable lack of demand. Sombart saw the restive adventurousness of capitalism as the key to its success—and, ultimately, its failure: though the appearance of new peripheries had long funneled profits back to the center, the days of “stout Cortez” had ended and there would one day be no empires or hinterlands to subdue.
Schumpeter was the gloomiest of all. He opened a chapter titled “Can Capitalism Survive?” (in his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy) with the definitive answer, “No. I do not think it can.” Inspired by Marx, he imagined that the very success of capitalism—the creation of large enterprises through continuous innovation—would lead to profound fatigue as innovation came to be merely routine, and the bourgeoisie turned its attention toward the banalities of office life: “Success in industry and commerce requires a lot of stamina, yet industrial and commercial activity is essentially unheroic in the knight’s sense—no flourishing of swords about it, not much physical prowess, no chance to gallop the armored horse into the enemy, preferably a heretic or heathen — and the ideology that glorifies the idea of fighting for fighting’s sake and of victory for victory’s sake understandably withers in the office among all the columns of figures.” He foresaw a world in which intellectuals, a marginalized and unhappy lot, would turn their discontent into politics and lead the discontented castoffs of capitalism toward socialism.
Their motto seems to be “I for one welcome our new robot overlords.”Tweet
These predictions, however, failed to describe what was actually happening with capitalism in the 20th century. By the 1980s people had turned toward a different proposition of Schumpeter’s: that competition “from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization” was the source of dynamism in a swiftly growing economy. For Schumpeter, the crises of capitalism were signs not of the system’s debility but of its secret health. Business cycles were zesty, violent guarantees of continued growth. Monopolies were only temporary and could be broken up by the “perennial gale of creative destruction.” When in the 1960s and ’70s the otherwise impregnable position of American industry was broken by competition from Germany and Japan, Schumpeter seemed prescient. The response of corporations in the 1980s—enormous mergers, leveraged buyouts, union busting, corporate raiding, mass layoffs, and upward redistribution of wealth—seemed almost to be taking his words as prescriptive.
But while the economy has been dynamic, it has not been healthy. Several crashes later, the gloom has returned, and the signs of autumn are once again most recognizable in the pronouncements of free-market capitalism’s erstwhile boosters. In the past year, many have taken up Larry Summers’s remark that we have entered a period of “secular stagnation,” marked by persistent and slow growth worldwide. Fiscal austerity is general, taxes remain low, and debt levels continue to rise—which means that Western countries, by selling treasury bonds to the rich through capital markets, are actually paying their elites in bond yields to avoid having to go through the politically impossible process of taxing them. Absent any political recourse to countercyclical fiscal policy, central banks in the US, the Eurozone, and Japan have kept interest rates low and pumped trillions of dollars of fiat money into the financial system, keeping banks and dot-com companies liquid and driving the rich to put their money into the condos now flooding Manhattan, all while leaving median wages pleasantly low. It’s kept things humming along, but not much more than that. Fear courses through the veins of the free-marketers, who recognize that all is not well with the system they love.
One form that such worry takes is that robots are coming to take our jobs. From The Second Machine Age to Rise of the Robots, a new wave of technofuturists predicts that most manufacturing and a good deal of white-collar work in “services” can and will be subject to automation. The special force of the technofuturists’ predictions today lies in the fact that many of us read their work on devices we carry in our pockets that have already destroyed jobs, or at least made them more precarious, at newspapers, record companies, travel agencies, taxi services, and even casinos. The statistics they purvey are worrying, among them the fact that the share of workers in global manufacturing is on the decline. China’s share peaked in the 1990s at 15 percent and has decreased since. Dani Rodrik calls this process “premature deindustrialization”: the ability of more and more developing countries to “skip” the usual stages of capital accumulation (mass industrialization accompanied by adding workers in services) by replacing more workers with machines and moving others into services.
The surprise is that a number of prominent left intellectuals have begun to view the idea of automation with equanimity, even optimism. Most prominent among them are the accelerationists, whose widely circulated “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” is the inspiration for a new book, Inventing the Future, by the manifesto’s original authors Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Their motto seems to be “I for one welcome our new robot overlords”—for the principle of “accelerationism” is that automation is likely to become general, and so the left needs once and for all to cease imagining that blue-collar unionism and socialist parties will drive us toward communism.
The accelerationists insist that the future will be one in which, thanks to computer assisted advances in automation, wage labor is a condition guaranteed to very few, and “surplus populations,” already large, will dominate the planet. Prior socialists imagined that victory would come through the workplace; the accelerationists argue that, in the future, the workplace won’t exist in anything like the form we have now, and in any case it will have very few permanent workers. Assuming this position, they ask: What would be the social vision appropriate to a jobless future? What, after the end of working-class socialist dreams, should the left propose?
Among the most comprehensive statements of the accelerationist mind-set is something out of the mainstream: Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. Mason is a BBC journalist who did indispensable reporting about the crash of 2007–8 and the antiausterity parties that came out of the “movement of the squares” in 2011. Postcapitalism draws an essential connection between the two. Having witnessed Lehman collapse and LIBOR manipulated, Mason thought he saw the end; having traveled among the indignados from Puerta del Sol to Syntagma to Gezi, he believed he had seen the beginning. Postcapitalism advances familiar arguments that capitalism has reached an impasse and follows them with wild-eyed, Wired-style notions of what might replace it.
All the problems of the world dissolve in a warm open-source bath! Capitalism loses on the playing fields of Valve Software.Tweet
Mason begins with the argument that capitalism is going through a prolonged and possibly irremediable crisis. Drawing on a version of Kondratiev’s “long-wave” theory, according to which capitalism proceeds from huge boom to major bust in rough half-century cycles, Mason suggests that we have reached the end of a wave that began in the 1950s and is petering out as we speak—only this time, unlike in previous cycles, there is no flashing exit sign, and this is partly because of labor’s quiescence. In each of capitalism’s previous cycles, Mason argues, labor responded to crisis with machine breaking, political movements, and illegal and legal forms of organization. The proletariat of the postwar era, by contrast, grew up in an environment of welfare states and cheap or free higher education. Fewer and fewer people were working in production proper; increasingly more were on the bottom rungs of a burgeoning white-collar ladder. The self-protective and suspicious working-class culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries became integrated into capitalism and the democratic institutions of the welfare state, which neutralized the working class’s revolutionary potential.
And yet, according to Mason, the working classes made one last planet-spanning assault on the commanding heights in the 1970s, and the fallout produced a new historic agent that will become capitalism’s gravedigger. Like the autonomist theorists who inspire him, Mason takes as his central case study Italy, which between 1969 and 1977 saw an almost continuous series of strikes and factory occupations. The Italian Communist Party struggled to canalize this wildcat energy, while student leftists agitated for an extraparliamentary, revolutionary solution to the crisis. In Italy as elsewhere, the political right recognized an opening. Drawing on economic ideas they had developed for generations, archconservatives broke with the consensus on maintaining full employment and compromising with organized labor. Titans of industry in coordination with conservative parliamentarians unleashed a dramatic war against the working class—shutting down underperforming industries, expanding the supply chain across the globe, and crushing trade unions with every ounce of political energy they had.
But if the working class was defeated in this crisis, a new consciousness emerged out of the defeat. Mason joins Antonio Negri in viewing the breakup of the trade-union movement based on industrial “mass workers” as giving rise to a new political subject: the “socialized worker” who was pretty much anyone employed or unemployed (in Negri’s more recent work, the “multitude”). The underemployed socialized worker in this new capitalism finds her form of revolutionary organization not in the labor union, but in something Mason calls “the network”:
In the past twenty years, capitalism has mustered a new social force that will be its gravedigger, just as it assembled the factory proletariat in the nineteenth century. It is the networked individuals who have camped in the city squares, blockaded the fracking sites, performed punk rock on the roofs of Russian cathedrals, raised defiant cans of beer in the face of Islamism on the grass of Gezi Park, pulled a million people onto the streets of Rio and São Paulo and now organized mass strikes across southern China.
They are the working class “sublated”—improved upon and replaced.
This sublimely ridiculous image, which in principle unites anti-Putinist Pussy Riot with fracktivist Mark Ruffalo, suggests that nearly any person—whether a factory worker in Shenzhen or a middle-class hater of Dilma Rousseff—could be the bearer of revolution.
The potential for this sort of mass liberation of everything isn’t a guarantee that it will ever take place.Tweet
The context for Mason’s argument is his belief that a new “mode of production” has come into being, which (again somewhat following Negri, but also Wired) he calls “info capitalism.” Under info capitalism, the introduction of new technology into engineering creates the possibility of reducing the costs of production. A process of design and engineering that once took many employees—designers, draftsmen, modelers, manufacturers—now takes only a few: a designer creates a 3-D model on the computer and then prints it using a 3-D printer; the ensuing product is manufactured in a nearly automated factory. Open-source code makes it possible for new technology to spread rapidly, and at less and less cost. (Mason’s model for this free and voluntary form of production is Wikipedia, which he views with the same starry eyes with which Hegel watched Napoléon march victoriously through Jena, the sign of Spirit moving through history.)
All this, Mason imagines, offers a way out—as long as some (nearly impossible) political conditions are achieved. “Once firms are forbidden to set monopoly prices,” he suggests as a first step, “and a universal basic income is available . . . the market is actually the transmitter of the ‘zero marginal cost’ effect, which manifests as falling labor time across society.” In other words, he imagines antimonopoly laws becoming robust (in the absence of a populist movement), so that companies like Google lose their hegemony and networked indignados can take over production (in the absence of a labor movement), using Amazon-like tools of tracking to calculate societal needs, and produce everything for free (in the absence of anyone desiring to make money). All the problems of the world dissolve in a warm open-source bath! Capitalism loses on the playing fields of Valve Software.
But the potential for this sort of mass liberation of everything isn’t a guarantee that it will ever take place: to refute the theory of a tendency toward “zero marginal costs,” one only need provide a single instance of its opposite. And Mason in fact provides several: to wit, Google, Facebook, and Apple, which have a near monopoly on search, social networking, and music. Even a company that begins from open-source models—GitHub—finds ways to make its operations profitable. But according to Mason, “the network” views this hierarchy with suspicion; your average wikipédiste knows that the musicians whose music Apple sells (at great profit to itself ) might do better if their work were given away for free and the artists were subsidized by other means. In order to succeed against its adversary, “capital has to extend its ownership rights into new areas; it has to own our selfies, our playlists, not just our published academic papers but the research we did to write them.” This partial concession in fact seems more and more like the future we are entering than the one Mason envisions. “Yet,” Mason insists, “the technology itself gives us the means to resist this, and makes it long-term impossible.”
It does—much as the factory gave us the tools to resist its domination. Workers could shut down the entire supply chain by pulling a few switches; hackers could take over production and release everything in the world for free. But does that mean, given the opportunity to resist, workers will? The past in this regard is not as reassuring as we would like. Let us imagine the future promises much worse: that instead of an end to capitalism succeeded by a society run by not-for-profit versions of Mark Zuckerberg (and Mark Ruffalo), there is an economy marked by persistent sluggishness and stagnant or declining demand. The familiar cycle—workers continue to go into debt to make up for weak income; this debt is turned into lucrative financial instruments by downtown wizards; these instruments collapse when their basis is revealed to be valueless; eventually new instruments are founded on new kinds of debt—continually reasserts itself. New technology makes old work obsolete, throwing millions into precarious work but guaranteeing salaried jobs for fewer numbers of highly skilled workers. The hegemony of these workers—the tech elite, financed by venture capital, resisting the dispossessed “network”—suffers setback after setback, as bubble after bubble bursts, but nonetheless is never dethroned. Stagnation remains general, but no solution appears on the horizon. This is, in fact, pretty much the world we live in. Until the eventual collapse of its fossil-fuel basis — and who knows, even this might be survived, if not happily—there is no reason for it not to go on endlessly.
The vision of the accelerationists breaks with an idea that has been with the left for generations: that work itself would be liberated and redeemed under socialism. Free time would become more abundant, but work, too, would become more joyous. Craftsmanship would alternate with leisure. The tribune of this idea has always been William Morris, who wrote that “art is man’s expression of his joy in labour.” This is not a vision that entices the accelerationists. For them, as work has become irretrievably precarious, working-class struggle has fled with it, and anyway the coming robot future spells the end of the ideal of full employment. So the accelerationists call for less work, more automation, and the guarantee of a basic income.
Though the times are bad, the accelerationists presume that the state of the left will get better simply because it can, in principle, get better.Tweet
Getting less work seems unlikely to come about without the fight for solidarity, the chief intellectual achievement of the workers’ movement, and one that none of the accelerationists see fit to mention as an ideal worth preserving or even renovating. This is despite the fact that automation—or, more broadly, the increasing precariousness of labor through technologically assisted means—has always been dialectically connected with it. What tech enthusiasts call“disruption” is in fact almost always directed at forms of organization that preserve a modicum of workers’ control over knowledge and the products of labor. Because London taxicabs are controlled by people who have built up impressive maps of one of the world’s most complex cities in their brains, they ought to be replaced by self-driving cars operating on Google Maps. Because high school teachers have professional systems of accreditation and training and have unions to protect these, they must be replaced by lower-paid short-term Ivy-League graduates and cyber charters.
Automation isn’t a neutral, inevitable part of capitalism. It comes about through the desire to break formal and informal systems of workers’ control—including unions—and replace them with managerially controlled and minutely surveilled systems of piecework. An entire political and legal infrastructure has been built up to make these so-called tendencies seem like the natural progression of capitalism, rather than the effects of fights—sometimes simple, sometimes violent—to deprive people of whatever sense of control they have over their work. The only reason such work has ever not been totally shitty is that some attempt to preserve such control was made. This — not some implausible notion of a fully automated postwork future—still remains the surest of utopian impulses, the one most likely to deliver the things we want.
Though the times are bad, the accelerationists presume that the state of the left will get better simply because it can, in principle, get better. An imaginative (if implausible) account of the future, accelerationism is a weak account of how anyone might be persuaded to get there. We recall Lenin’s comment about how communism would be “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” The accelerationists seem to be telling us: forget about the Soviets, the electricity will do that work for us! But politics can’t get done by machines.