Post-Capitalism or Snake Oil?

Jul 20th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

Less than a week after Greece was forced to agree to stringent austerity measures in exchange for a three-year bailout, the journalist Paul Mason, a Channel 4 broadcaster whose coverage of the process of Syriza's humilation sided strongly with the left coaltion party, has written a think piece for the Guardian that replicates the same style of thinking that led to both the left's infatuation with Syriza and the party's defeat. The headline for Mason's piece is “The end of capitalism has begun” and, if nothing else, the column is proof that the Greek defeat has done nothing to alter Mason's commitment to the peculiarly confused and reformist version of “anti-capitalism” that haunts the left today.

In his column Mason asserts that we have entered a post-capitalist phase and that this new phase was made possible by three big changes in the modern world. My initial response to Mason will only address the first big change.

Mason wrote that post-capitalism has arrived because "[information technology] has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages."

How is it that our smart phones, iPads, and all the other innovated and innovative communication technologies have brought on post-capitalism? It turns out that what these devices have done is what capitalist gadgets have always done. From the steam engine to the ultra sonic dishwasher in Disney's House of Tomorrow, our gadgets have always aimed at reducing work. Yet somehow, according to Mason, the way these new technologies reduce the need for work is post-capitalist.

Mason offers nothing in the way of explanation as to how or why information technologies are different from previous labor saving devices, rather he suggests that the reduction in the need for work is itself anti-capitalist. This simply isn't the case. The drive to reduce hours worked is one of capitalism's defining characteristics. Here's why that's so:

capitalCapitalism is the system that produces commodities in order to sell them at a profit. Because of this need for profit capitalists have always aimed at speeding up production, whether by disciplining workers or innovating the machinery. Faster, more efficient work, leads to increased productivity, which leads to more profits, at least for awhile.

Let's pause for a moment to consider this word commodity a bit, because if we recall what a commodity is we can understand why a reduction in the amount of work needed to create an iPad or a Big Mac is profitable.

Karl Marx, a critic of capitalism nearly as well known as Yanis Varoufakis, started his book Capital Volume One this way:

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as 'an immense accumulation of commodities'...”

A commodity is a useful item that was produced not to be used, but to be exchanged. The pervasiveness of the commodity form is what defines capitalism. More than its hierarchical relations, more than its inequalities, what defines capitalism is the way commodities are produced and sold for a profit. Unlike previous economic systems wherein people might work the land and feed themselves, under capitalism everyone needs money to exchange in the market just for survival's sake. That is, the more pervasive the need for money to exchange for commodities becomes, the more pervasive capitalism is.

Baudrillard-Consumer-SocietyTo complicate this a bit more, under capitalism there is a class of people who employ another class to make commodities. We'll call the employers the capitalist class and we'll call the employees the workers. These capitalists must pay workers enough so that workers can buy what they need in commodities and come back and work again. In order to profit the capitalists must get the workers to produce more products than they need for themselves. That is, the commodities a worker needs on a given day must cost less (and take less time to make) than the commodities this worker will produce on a given day. The consequence of this is that a reduction in the amount of work needed to make, for example, a McDouble and a Pabst (or any other foodstuffs that are good enough for the working classes) must occur before Capitalism starts. If it takes as much time to make a McDouble and a Pabst as it takes for one worker to make, say, ten iPods then the capitalists would have to pay the worker what they'd hoped to keep as profits.

Again, speeding up production or reducing the amount of work needed to create and recreate the world is something capitalism does from the start. The fact that information technologies help the capitalists do what they always do isn't a sign that these technologies are post-capitalist or that they lead to something called post-capitalism.

Mason also claimed that the decoupling of work from wages is a post-capitalist phenomena. But, under capitalism there is no relationship between the work done by a worker and his wages. Capitalism couldn't function if there was such a relationship. Rather, under capitalism, there is only a relationship between the wages paid and the amount of work necessary to create the commodities a worker needs in order to work. Under capitalism workers aren't paid for the hours they work, but rather they're paid the equivalent of the hours worked to make the worker's daily bread, or his daily Kit Kat bar, Starbucks coffee, gallon of gas, microwaved burrito, packet of bacon flavored popcorn, and a day's worth of his rent and utilities.

postcapitalismMason starts his argument for post-capitalism with a basic misunderstanding of the nature of capitalism and the conclusions he draws are, unsurprisingly, mistaken and confused. That said, it's worthwhile to go through each part of Mason's think piece one step at a time, because the assumptions he makes and the mistakes that result from those assumptions are, to a large degree, the mistakes most of the “anti-capitalist” left makes. They are similar to the mistakes that David Graeber and the leadership of Occupy Wall Street made four years ago, and they are very similar to the sorts of mistakes that Syriza and, even more, Syriza's supporters outside of Greece have made during the Greek crisis.

These missteps and mistakes are worth returning to, worth taking apart methodically, and I'll return to that effort next week and in weeks to come.

Douglas Lain is the publisher of Zero Books, a novelist (Billy Moon and After the Saucers Landed), and a sometimes pop philosopher for the Partially Examined Life Blog and Thought Catalog. He is also the voice behind the Zero Squared Podcast.

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2 Comments to “Post-Capitalism or Snake Oil?”

  1. TimCampion says:

    Wow. Just wow. “Under capitalism workers aren’t paid for the hours they work” I gurss thats why no workers get paid an hourly rate. Oh no wait, hang on just a god damn cotten picking minute. Actually they do. You do realize that this is the sort of reasoning that the dailt show loves to lambast. As a Business owner I get the point you are trying to make. Staff are paid to perform a particular task or set of tasks but the reality is that they get paid an hourly rate to do so,

    The problem with where we are heading is that the true benefits of automation are being co-opted soley toward the bottom line at the expense of the individual. The true benefit that automation brings is the ability to free society from having to work as much in order to simply survive. But unfortunately this is a significant opportunity that just as with the industrial revolution is being missed. As more and more people are replaced with automation this will inevitably lead to further downward pressure on wages at a time where the cost of basic needs are on the increase. The end result is people working longer hours on lower pay simply in many cases to meet those basic needs.
    But thats ok because all those benefits that could have gone toward largely freeing society have predominently been realised on the corporate bottom line instead.

    • Douglas Lain says:


      One of the problems that Marx’s critique of Capitalism faces is that it seems counter intuitive. To say that workers aren’t paid for the hours they work but are paid based on the price of the commodities they need to survive seems crazy at first, but it is in fact true.

      Rather than argue this out for you myself I’ll quote a bit from and give you a link to Karl Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital.

      If several workmen were to be asked: “How much wages do you get?”, one would reply, “I get two shillings a day”, and so on. According to the different branches of industry in which they are employed, they would mention different sums of money that they receive from their respective employers for the completion of a certain task; for example, for weaving a yard of linen, or for setting a page of type. Despite the variety of their statements, they would all agree upon one point: that wages are the amount of money which the capitalist pays for a certain period of work or for a certain amount of work.

      Consequently, it appears that the capitalist buys their labour with money, and that for money they sell him their labour. But this is merely an illusion. What they actually sell to the capitalist for money is their labour-power. This labour-power the capitalist buys for a day, a week, a month, etc. And after he has bought it, he uses it up by letting the worker labour during the stipulated time. With the same amount of money with which the capitalist has bought their labour-power (for example, with two shillings) he could have bought a certain amount of sugar or of any other commodity. The two shillings with which he bought 20 pounds of sugar is the price of the 20 pounds of sugar. The two shillings with which he bought 12 hours’ use of labour-power, is the price of 12 hours’ labour. Labour-power, then, is a commodity, no more, no less so than is the sugar. The first is measured by the clock, the other by the scales.

      Their commodity, labour-power, the workers exchange for the commodity of the capitalist, for money, and, moreover, this exchange takes place at a certain ratio. So much money for so long a use of labour-power. For 12 hours’ weaving, two shillings. And these two shillings, do they not represent all the other commodities which I can buy for two shillings? Therefore, actually, the worker has exchanged his commodity, labour-power, for commodities of all kinds, and, moreover, at a certain ratio. By giving him two shillings, the capitalist has given him so much meat, so much clothing, so much wood, light, etc., in exchange for his day’s work. The two shillings therefore express the relation in which labour-power is exchanged for other commodities, the exchange-value of labour-power.

      This is just the beginning of the argument. Marx develops this fully, but I’ll summarize here and then suggest you read this essay. Here’s the thrust of it: Labour-power is the worker’s potential to work, and the price of the worker’s potential to work is not the same as the value of his living labor. That price of the worker’s potential to work is equal to the price of the commodities he needs in order to live. If the capitalist is to make a profit then the prices of the commodities that a worker produces, the results of his living labor, are more than the prices of the stuff the worker needs to live a day and come back the next.

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