by Daniel Whittall
Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, Pluto Press, 248pp £15.99, ISBN 9780745334035
Alberto Toscano & Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute, Zero Books, 296pp, £15.99, ISBN 9781780992754
Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism begins with a profound under-estimation of the matter at hand. ‘Ditching neoliberalism,’ Mason announces, ‘is the easy part. There’s a growing consensus among protest movements, radical economists and radical political parties in Europe as to how you do it: suppress high finance, reverse austerity, invest in green energy and promote high-waged work.’ Simply to read that list of demands made by the protest movements invoked by Mason is, surely, to recognise that ditching neoliberalism will be far from easy. Any simple reading of the hostile press coverage and establishment soundbites that have greeted the mere election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in the UK would be enough to make clear that reversing austerity and suppressing high finance will not come about with any great ease.
Having under-estimated the central problem around which his book turns, Mason then seems to equally under-estimate the scale of the transformation required to accomplish that which he aspires towards. A transition beyond capitalism will come about, he argues towards the end of his book, if we ‘reshape the tax system … and reshape company regulations.’ Mason believes that ‘large corporations could also be very useful for driving change,’ especially when they are induced to act differently by ‘law and regulation.’
That such statements bookend a study that attempts to combine a history of working class political movements with an analysis of Marxist and radical economics in an effort to envision how a future world beyond capitalism might come about tells us much about the nature of the critical project Mason is undertaking. His book is a bracing read, a romp through the history of working class movements – almost entirely European or North American – and their relationship to technological change alongside a Marxisant critique that deploys thinkers as diverse as Nikolai Kondratieff and André Gorz to argue that the collapse of the value form in an Open Source economic future heralds the beginnings of another, postcapitalist, world. Yet for a study that attempts to grapple with what a world beyond capitalism might look like, Mason’s Postcapitalism proves itself to be profoundly unconcerned with the violent reality that would no doubt confront many of us in any transition from capitalism. That he neglects this violence is unsurprising, given his reluctance to factor conflict into his narrative of transition. But it does mean that as a ‘guide to our future,’ as the book’s subtitle announces itself to be, Mason’s is a peculiarly confused handbook.
The confusion begins with Mason’s description of the neoliberalism that he thinks can be so easily consigned to the past. In the introduction to Postcapitalism, he defines neoliberalism as ‘the doctrine of uncontrolled markets.’ Its central tenets are that ‘the state should be small (except for its riot squad and secret police); that financial speculation is good; that inequality is good; that the natural state of humankind is to be a bunch of ruthless individuals.’ Yet having defined neoliberalism so, Mason proceeds for another 90-plus pages before changing tack, and announcing that ‘the essence of the entire project’ was ‘the destruction of labour’s bargaining power.’ He then moves to directly contradict the understanding of neoliberalism that was articulated earlier, asserting that ‘neoliberalism’s guiding principle is not free markets, nor fiscal discipline, nor sound money, nor privatization and offshoring – not even globalization. All these things were byproducts or weapons of its main endeavour: to remove organized labour from the equation.’
Not only is the ‘main endeavour’ of neoliberalism absent from his original definition of it, but his invocation of it is based on arguing that those things which he had earlier claimed to be the main elements of the project are now, 90-plus pages later, reduced to secondary tools. What makes it worse is that whilst Mason is surely right to argue that neoliberalism is a class strategy, the nature of that strategy seems to disappear again from his analysis by the time he comes to propose how to move away from capitalism. For if neoliberal capitalism has made itself on the back of labour, then it will surely not relinquish its grip quite as easily as Mason suggests. Law and regulation have been with us throughout capitalism’s history, and whilst they may have tempered some its worst excesses they have done nothing to stem the march towards rampant inequality. Indeed, it has often been through the deployment of law and regulation that class power has been entrenched, within neoliberalism and before. It will take much more than simply deciding that we will now deploy the law in a different direction for such class power to be toppled.
When one reads Mason’s account of the history of working class struggle, the logic behind his belief that a transition to postcapitalism will be one seemingly without struggle becomes clearer. For one, he seems to believe that whatever social movement will drive forward the transition to postcapitalism will be able to call upon potentially limitless support. Where Marx believed that it would be the role of the working class to overthrow capitalism, Mason argues that ‘the route to postcapitalism is different … the agent of change has become, potentially, everyone on earth.’ For Mason, the working class can be consigned to the dustbin of history, as far as being an agent of change is concerned, for two reasons: first, it has become too besotted with the fruits of its own oppression – it is now ‘disorganised, in thrall to consumerism and individualism.’ Second, work itself, once the defining activity of capitalism, is now, Mason believes, ‘losing its centrality both to exploitation and resistance.’
That the traditional industrial workplace no longer exists as the centre-point of militant unionism and radicalism in the capitalist core can be conceded, though its importance beyond, particularly in the rapidly industrialising regions of the global South, remains for now. Yet for Mason to claim that work has been losing its central position in the apparatus of capitalist exploitation seems incongruous with the facts of the age. To take Britain as only one example, barely a week goes by without a lecture from Iain Duncan Smith or some other government functionary on the need to ‘get Britain working’ again, read as code for cutting the already-meagre welfare support payments that enable the poorest in society to get by. If anything, poverty wages and precarious employment practices render the world of work a more central site of capitalist exploitation than it has been for several generations, particularly as the welfare payments upon which a world-beyond-work within capitalism could once conceivably be built begin to disappear.
In rejecting the role of class struggle for the transition to postcapitalism, Mason makes the claim that the central point of antagonism within capitalism now is that between the network and the hierarchy. Historical capitalism was hierarchical, whilst technological innovations mean that the postcapitalist future will be networked. Concurrently, ‘the worker of the Keynesian era had a single character’ whilst ‘the networked individual creates a more complex reality.’ The reason for this, Mason suggests, is all down to information and its abundance today. Abundant information and Open Source software are leading towards the potential for an economy in which the link between labour, work and value becomes severed. Once this happens, only monopolies – vast conglomerates with near-total dominance over one particular sector of the economy, and often with interests in other sectors too – can survive. Yet even these monopolies cannot have total control in an information-led economy, and will eventually be undermined altogether. Open Source software – Linux, Firefox,and Wikipedia being only some of the most famous examples – make decentralisation and collaboration not only possible, but essential, and open a window towards a postcapitalist world.
Such is Mason’s account of how he foresees the transition to postcapitalism. Again, though, a glaring contradiction lies at the heart of his framework. In his accounts of capitalism’s historic economic and political transmutations Mason is at great pains to emphasise the role of worker’s struggle and resistance in forcing capitalism to adapt, to renew itself, and to innovate. Yet the transition to postcapitalism will be driven not by struggle but, almost spontaneously, by technology. Mason depicts technology as playing a liberating role in the struggle between networks and hierarchies. Nowhere in his book does he give serious attention to the other big alternative to his vision of a postcapitalist future, namely, an evolved and intensified capitalism in which ever-increasing numbers of humanity are rendered surplus to social need, and in which rampant ecological transformation coupled with increased global conflict force an increasingly localising economy to deploy technology for the purposes of controlling, surveilling and confining its ever-increasing lumpenproletariat.
Instead of a contest between networks and hierarchies, Nick Dyer-Witheford, in Cyber-proletariat: Global labour and the digital vortex, figures contemporary capitalism as a vortex in which networks and hierarchies are swirling alongside workers – active and still struggling, contrary to Mason’s account – and capitalists of different sorts. Where Mason’s account is broad-brushed, Dyer-Witheford dives into the vortex and provides cross-sections of some of the central antagonisms within it. Where Mason argues that an ever-increasing technological innovation will bring about a utopian world where capitalism’s worst elements are sidelined and overcome by the surplus production of information-derived goods and services in an Open Source fashion, Dyer-Witheford has his sights set squarely on something altogether more revolutionary. As he writes in a passage worth quoting at length,
Communism will give primacy to the expanded reproduction (in the sense of the fulfilment and development of needs) of the human, not of capital. It should not therefore be identified with the development of technologies. The revolutionary process may appropriate technologies or develop new ones, but it may also free people from technological dependences. Such a position is neither cyborg not Luddite: it does not imply a reactionary essentialism, a return to some supposedly extra-technological human authenticity. But it does insist that communist transformations of human ‘species-becoming’ will move at different paces and in different directions from those dictated by capital’.
Where Mason often condescends to what he sees as old and outdated ways of organising – he has a particularly dismissive moment where he suggests that public libraries are nothing more than ‘a maze of mediocre and random knowledge’ that ought to be superseded by Wikipedia – Dyer-Witheford understands that a thoroughgoing technologisation of everyday life will not necessarily be in the interests of all of humanity. Instead of ‘postcapitalism,’ where technological innovation seamlessly, and without struggle, leads towards an improved, streamlined, decentralised capitalism beyond the value form, Dyer-Witheford argues for a ‘cybernetic communism’ that will only be achieved through proletarian struggle amidst ecological crises. If postcapitalism appears almost inevitable in Mason’s account, in Dyer-Witheford’s it is instead the reproduction of surplus humanity and the increasing localisation of economic and social processes under circumstances of environmental collapse, economic inequality and social polarisation that is the more likely outcome of any technological innovation allowed to proceed without social struggle and sustained only by a blind faith in the possibilities of technology.
How does Dyer-Witheford come to such different conclusions to Mason, despite them both being preoccupied with similar concerns? For one, Dyer-Witheford is more attuned to the role of social antagonisms, and to the contradictions at the heart of capitalism. When he writes, early on, of the coexistence of ‘extraordinary high-technologies and workers who live and die in brutal conditions often imagined to belong in some antediluvian past,’ one can’t help but think of Mason’s account where workers in the global South appear only temporarily, and then primarily as barometers for the ever-increasing ease of access to internet and smartphone technologies.
Dyer-Witheford’s account of the uneven development of cybernetic capitalism, its increasing proletarianisation of vast sectors of its working and, increasingly, middle classes across the divide of the global North and South, centres on the contradictions at the heart of its mode of production. The process of proletarianisation itself is the central one here, with technology operating both as a new form of fixed capital with which to entrench capitalist class power and at the same time as a part of a broader process in which the alienation of workers and the various strata of the non-working proceeds apace. Here lies the primary contradiction of proletarianisation within cybernetic capital, namely, that technological innovation both secures capitalist class power and simultaneously creates the conditions for it to be undermined. Dyer-Witheford tracks these dynamics across the globe, from the various Silicon Valleys where cybernetic capital reproduces itself most directly, to the vast mining complexes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Amazon and elsewhere from which coltan and other minerals essential to cybernetics, and entirely unmentioned in Mason’s Postcapitalism, are dug from the earth’s surface.
‘Cybernetics was from its start the creation of war,’ and ‘future proletarian struggles should adequate themselves to wartime.’ Such sentences would be unthinkable in Mason’s relentlessly optimistic account, but in Dyer-Witheford’s book they take their place as realistic measures of the times, and of the likely responses of capital to any increase in social struggles, within the context of a capitalist vortex swirling today in a more rapid and unstable fashion than it has for generations.
Mason and Dyer-Witheford both offer attempts to map capital’s current functioning, to reconstruct the social struggles at its heart, and to chart its future. Mason believes that the complete modelling of capitalism in all its complexity is both possible and desirable and, appropriately enough, that it can be computed using mathematical modelling. What we need, he argues, is ‘an open, accurate and comprehensive computer simulation of current economic reality.’ Dyer-Witheford, too, longs for an image that could capture capital whole, asking ‘where today are the images of the cybernetic systems which this proletariat labours to build, and with which it is being replaced?’ The answer to this question can be found, in part, in Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle’s Cartographies of the Absolute. Toscano and Kinkle seek to divine ‘an aesthetics in and against capital’ by inquiring into what it means to create ‘a cultural and representational practice adequate to the highly ambitious … task of depicting social space and class relations in our epoch of late capitalism or postmodernity’ (their debt to Fredric Jameson is openly acknowledged here). This fine book pursues its object through studies of diverse aesthetic projections of the world as made by capital, discussing modes of representation as diverse as the industrial and oceanic photography and films of Allan Sekula to 1970s cult werewolf movies; from The Wire to Wall Street via critical docu-dramas like Inside Job; from the art and image of logistics to that of living, and dying, labour.
Toscano and Kinkle’s attempt to analyse what they call the impulse to cognitively map capitalism in its totality centres around ‘the problem of visualising and narrating capitalism today.’ Because ‘mapping is above all a practical task,’ its invocation gives ‘a more concrete cast, a rooting in everyday life’ to the efforts of those who attempt it. For the critic of any attempt to cognitively map global capitalism, the task is to ‘tease out the symptoms of, at one and the same time, the consolidation of a planetary nexus of capitalist power and the multifarious struggles to imagine it.’ We might read both Mason and Dyer-Witheford as being involved in this project of cognitively charting the dynamics of contemporary capitalism in order to produce route-maps of the way forward. Ultimately, though, Toscano and Kinkle conclude that any attempt to understand capitalism in a manner that might be productively deployed to challenge it must, of necessity, be both partial and partisan:
Overview, especially when it comes to capital, is a fantasy … there is in the end something reactionary about the notion of a metalanguage that could capture, that could represent, capitalism as such.
Both Dyer-Witheford’s and Mason’s accounts defy this sense, showing that efforts to cognitively map capitalism through text, as much as through film or visual image, remain a worthwhile, if complex, pursuit. All three of these books provide plenty of revelatory moments, all being engaging reads that provide multifarious resources for the theoretical and material struggle against capital. Ultimately, it is Dyer-Witheford’s account that seems to most convincingly map capital’s functioning through its inclusion of social antagonism both as a part of the charting of capitalism, and as a constitutive element of the way forward. Mason, on the other hand, too often turns away from contemporary possibilities for social struggle and finishes up with an account that all too easily cedes the power of social and economic transformation to technology, with people merely the beneficiaries of inevitable technological transformations that need to be managed and regulated. This becomes clear when you realise that it is only in his penultimate paragraph that Mason opens himself to the possibility that, aside from a postcapitalist transition of the sort he has described so effervescently, ‘the danger is that as the crisis drags on the elite’s commitment to liberalism evaporates … the self-belief of the 1 per cent is in danger of ebbing away, to be replaced by a pure and undisguised oligarchy.’ On this point Mason’s map reaches its borders. The world beyond it remains as terra incognita, uncharted territory. Instead, as Dyer-Witheford shows, this claim ought to be the starting point of any critical cartography of capitalism that seeks to gesture towards the future.