No substitute for politics
Is it really as simple as ‘social networks vs the hierarchies’? Yassamine Mather takes issue with Paul Mason
First of all let me clarify that this is not a review of Paul Mason’s Post-capitalism: a guide to our future. The book was published almost a year ago and the general theme has been explored by many commentators and reviewers. What follows are a series of comments about some of the claims made by Mason regarding the effect of new technology and how they have been interpreted.
Post-capitalism is a follow-up to Why it’s kicking off everywhere, in which Mason reviewed the protests of the ‘Arab spring’, as well as the Occupy movement, demonstrations and political events in southern Europe in 2012, leading him to conclude that a new era had started. At that time he wrote: “We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near-collapse of free-market capitalism”.1 However, the claim about the “near-collapse” was and remains an exaggeration. No doubt free-market capitalism has problems: no-one believes the promises of the ‘trickledown effect’ from the astronomical wealth gathered by the one percent, while underconsumption and overaccumulation of capital are creating serious economic problems. But capitalism is not collapsing and it will take a lot more than the current level of dissatisfaction for it to be overthrown.
In describing a number of global protests, Mason argued that unemployment amongst graduates “with no future” meant their technological and networking skills were producing new forms of rebellion. There was “an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in human consciousness about what freedom means”.2
Of course, it is true that there is a new generation of protestors (as opposed to the ‘Thatcher generation’, who were wholeheartedly pro-market). This new breed is less cynical and more active than some sections of the radical left amongst the older generation. However, reading the book today, many of the global protests described in detail seem distant, if not irrelevant. The ‘Arab spring’ was predictably defeated: the situation in Libya and Syria is disastrous, while there is military rule in Egypt. And there is nothing very progressive or revolutionary about the current Syriza administration in Greece - in fact it represents another example of the left’s many defeats in the current period.
The campaigns around Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have replaced Occupy as the centre of attention for many and, while both campaigns have their limitations, we should welcome them as positive. Youth unemployment remains a major issue, but, in the absence of a revolutionary alternative, it can be diverted into nihilistic, rightwing or religious forms of rebellion - as we are witnessing in parts of the third world and amongst sections of the migrant population in advanced capitalist countries.
I am not going to write much about Paul Mason’s analysis of the current economic situation in Post-capitalism, except to pour scorn over claims that Kondratiev’s long wave theory - according to which capitalism goes through generational cycles of stagnation and innovation - explains the current economic downturn. According to Mason, the current wave is different from those that went before, because new technology has allowed capitalists to adapt without innovating, by providing them with the tools to seek out new forms of value. At the same time, it has allowed the rest of us to innovate without adapting, by allowing us to explore new lifestyles without having to think about their political implications. That is why, he believes, capital will not find a way out of the current crisis and the present situation is unsustainable.
Basically, Kondratiev argued that the ‘long waves’ of the capitalist economy lasted something like five decades, during which there are shorter booms and slumps. At first there are strong booms and weak recessions, while later there are more serious recessions. I can think of a number of problems with this:
1. The idea of fixed-period cycles is itself problematic. The long length of the cycle and their relatively short duration in the last two centuries makes any summation on this issue unscientific.
2. While economic cycles are technical realities, they have nothing to do with Marxist political economy: they do not relate to the class nature of society, surplus value or the organic composition of capital.
3. Kondratiev’s theory ignores the effects of wars and imperialism.
In summary it is difficult to find any reasons to support the relevance of long-wave theory as far as the current state of the capitalist economy is concerned. It is true that capitalism has undergone periods of overaccumulation and underconsumption, but we are now witnessing a more fundamental structural crisis of capital, with serious devastating consequences. In the words of István Mészáros:
It is not a matter of indifference whether a crisis in the social sphere can be considered a periodic/conjunctural crisis, or something much more fundamental than that. For, obviously, the way of dealing with a fundamental structural crisis cannot be conceptualised in terms of the categories of periodic or conjunctural crises. The crucial difference between the two sharply contrasting types of crises is that the periodic or conjunctural crises unfold and are more or less successfully resolved within the established framework, whereas the fundamental crisis affects that framework itself in its entirety…
It cannot be stressed enough that the crisis in our time is not intelligible without being referred to the broad, overall social framework. This means that, in order to clarify the nature of the persistent and deepening crisis all over the world today, we must focus attention on the crisis of the capital system in its entirety. For the crisis of capital we are experiencing is an all-embracing structural crisis.3
The current crisis affects all aspects of the economy, from manufacturing to finance and commerce, throughout the world, and no-one is talking of a speedy recovery. Far from it: we are witnessing a gradual worsening of the situation. Under such circumstances it is irresponsible to imagine the situation can be resolved, as some propose, by neo-Keynesian policies or gradual change which exploit “cracks” in the existing order4 - or, for that matter, through the use of networks aided by technology and virtual mobilisation.
My main comments about the book deal with what Mason calls the digital revolution, his enthusiasm for the widespread use of social media - and the claim that it will change and indeed speed up resistance and rebellion against the ravages of capital, paving the way for gradual yet fundamental change in the political/economic system.
Never mind the self-driving car (mentioned by Mason) - the gurus of new technology promise the ‘internet of things’. However, capitalism controls every aspect of the ‘technological revolution’, gearing it towards the interests of profit in terms of targeted marketing, advertising and consumption; towards increasing control in terms of the power of the state to be able to monitor everything we do or say, courtesy of social media.
So, under capitalism, the promised ‘internet city’ will be a walled environment catering for the rich and better-off middle classes, while the rest of the population will be kept well away from it. In ‘The fragment on machines’ (Grundrisse pp690-712), quoted by Mason, Marx writes about “an automatic system of machinery” - one “set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself”, so that “the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages”. I have read the various passages of this section and, although it is remarkable in terms of predicting the role of machinery, I cannot see how one can deduct from it that on the basis of the current state of automation (both in manufacturing as well as software automation) capitalism will ultimately be destroyed by dispersing knowledge among the workers.
According to Marx, given the tendency for knowledge to become predominant, labour-time becomes a “miserable foundation”: the worker “steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor”. The law of value (the value of a commodity being determined by the labour time embodied in it) is regarded by Marx as the architrave of modern social relations, yet apparently it crumbles in the face of the development of capitalism.
According to Mason, the digital revolution has created unprecedented opportunities for the working class and its allies. However, this is not quite the full story. Not only have advances in digital technology empowered states to monitor every aspect of our lives: they have enabled ignorant capitalists to use even the least trusted software or hardware to sack employees - not to forget the fact that it has given states and bankers the ability to print money under that elusive title, ‘quantitative easing’. Some of the abuses of technological progress in the era of capitalist crises have caused serious damage.
In addition the future of new technology itself is not so rosy as Mason portrays. The fall in Apple’s profits are, above all else, yet another sign of stagnation in the mobile technology sector. Robert J Gordon, in his book The rise and fall of American growth,5 analyses the political economy of new technology and argues against techno-utopians who think that the information revolution will rescue the American economy. Of course, Gordon has his own critics, but the data he provides is quite convincing:
The evidence accumulates every quarter to support my view that the most important contributions to productivity of the digital revolution are in the past, not in the future. The reason that business firms are spending their money on share buy-backs instead of plant and equipment investment is that the current wave of innovation is not producing novelty sufficiently important to earn the required rate of return.6
There are many illusions about the current state of automation and the liberating, organising role of social media and Mason is not an exception in this regard. New digital technology is facing many challenges, both in terms of its limitations - mainly to do with current understanding of the functioning of the human brain - but also to do with problems created by its short-sighted, at times disastrous, evolution and management. Superficial understanding of new technologies has led to poor execution of projects aiming to reap short-term benefits from technological advances. In addition, the non-technical, bureaucratic layers working and managing these systems are paralysing progress and, of course, the limitations of these current developments will be exacerbated, as the economic situation worsens. Those with any in-depth knowledge of robotic and software automation, the efficient use of databases or cloud systems point out these limitations; however, ‘business’ rarely listens to their concerns.
As far as automation is concerned, we now have the ability to work a robot in space, yet collecting garbage remains a task performed by humans even in advanced capitalist countries - where there is enough unemployment and wages are low enough to discourage the use of robots in this unpleasant task. Capitalism’s priorities are determining where progress is made and often this is against humanity’s interest. When it comes to jobs in the service sector, from supermarkets to airlines, the drive for profits leads to the replacement of cashiers or check-in staff with automated systems, yet the new technology is often inefficient and poorly tested. In fact, in both supermarkets and airports, there are workers ready to intervene between the customer and the device, as they are frequently required to do.
A little knowledge
New technology is now dominating every aspect of the workplace, from finance to law, from e-commerce to customer relations. Companies ranging from banking and insurance to travel and marketing are investing huge sums in the automation of processes and tasks. This reliance on new technology has increased demand for skilled labour, systems experts and developers dealing with complicated code and networks. Shortages of such skills means that companies are paying astronomical sums for anyone with expertise in continuous integration, continuous deployment and development operations.
In the UK, many companies are compensating for this shortage by ignoring the complexities of new technology and the consequent need for specialist staff, claiming that administration and management of an advanced IT project is all about procedure or project management, not technology. So management of complicated IT projects involving automation is left to those who have no understanding of or expertise in the complicated programs, codes or systems used in the development and deployment of such tools. Business schools are training a whole layer of these people.
These middle managers and administrators are experts in using spreadsheets and smartsheets to produce project plans that are invariably inaccurate, or simply wrong. This group, who know how to fill in the right box and can show projections with pie charts, produce ‘high-level presentations’ to impress senior management, yet they have little or no understanding of what they are talking about. A whole language has been developed by this layer; they are experts at fooling the many. They copy-paste meaningless phrases purporting to display technological understanding, but in fact, the more they talk, the more they expose their ignorance of hardware, software, systems and networks.
This vast layer of middle management, business analysts and project managers with little or no knowledge of technology are a real threat to technological progress. Currently they are slowing down, and at times paralysing, the introduction of new technology, especially automation; in the long term they will cause disaster, as they are not equipped to understand, assess or deal with the risks. We can already witness how this is failing to work on a daily basis.
One part of an automated or general IT system goes down, which may be a website or an application essential to the functioning of all or part of a company. The IT department is contacted, although, strictly speaking, it is just a buffer between the company and the suppliers, who could be anywhere in the world: India, east Asia, Ireland, the US or eastern Europe. The IT department’s knowledge of the web of technologies deployed is so limited that it is not even in a position to determine if the problem is down to software, hardware or networking. So they arrange an international conference call of the various suppliers. Many of those on the call are unfortunately part of the same administrative layer of middle management, repeating terms and phrases they do not understand.
We should be happy that new technology is providing jobs for school-leavers without training in these disciplines and graduates of business schools. It is just that in a different economic order these individuals would be using their education doing something more constructive. In calls or meetings intended to solve IT problems, they talk about firewalls, server patches, CMS, databases - yet few of them have ever come across a database or witnessed a single installation, never mind installing any serious software (perhaps with the exception of redundant packages offered by Microsoft pop-up adverts on their laptop). A major IT problem is being discussed, and typically each supplier tries to prove the problem has nothing to do with their product. Non-technical staff from the IT department are clueless and so are the quiet participants in, or moderators of, interminable conference calls. An exhaustive, unproductive and often useless exercise. At the end of the day the problem is best resolved in an email exchange between two technical experts. The long call with this layer of middle management can be summed up as a complete waste of time and effort, yet it is a regular part of the daily activity of most major IT departments.
In the public sector there has been an abysmal failure of expensive IT projects, such as those undertaken by Capita. Despite repeated failures to complete a project on time and in budget, the company is still the favourite contractor for local and central government. According to the Public Accounts Committee, in 2014 the ministry of defence wasted at least £70 million on an army recruitment system due to poor management of IT suppliers: “Leaked MoD documents seen by The Times show that the £1.3 billion Recruitment Partnering Project … is almost two years behind schedule, and may require a £50 million investment to replace flawed IT systems.”7
Indeed, according to The Daily Telegraph,
Whitehall has been plagued by costs of its administration online. But few programmes have been more troubled than the shambolic efforts to establish an electronic borders system. In 2007, the home office published a strategy “to create a new offshore line of defence”, checking individuals as far from the UK as possible and through each stage of their journey.
The contract was placed with Raytheon Systems Limited, an American-based technology and defence company. But within three years the deal was terminated - at a cost of £224 million to the taxpayer in compensation paid after a lengthy legal battle. Since then, a series of successor programmes, including the latest called Semaphore, have sought in vain to realise the aims of the original e-borders concept.
A damning National Audit Office study found that at least £830 million had been spent without “failing to deliver the full vision”. That is a charitable way of putting it. As we report today, the system routinely collapses and over a 48-hour period last June, effectively ground to a halt.8
In other words, the evolution of new technology is a disaster under capitalism and it is facing a brick wall at a time when research establishments and universities are starved of funding.
Who controls what?
Like other parts of the digital revolution, social media - credited by Mason as the host of networks capable of challenging the “hierarchies” - has its own limitations. This is what Mason writes on the subject:
Social media and new technology were crucial in shaping the revolutions of 2011, just as they shaped industry, finance and mass culture in the preceding decade. What’s important is not that the Egyptian youth used Facebook, or that the British students used Twitter and the Greek rioters organised via Indymedia, but what they used these media for - and what such technology does to hierarchies, ideas and actions.
Here, the crucial concept is the network - whose impact on politics has been a long time coming. The network’s basic law was explained by Bell Telephone boss Theodore Vail as early as 1908: the more people who use the network, the more useful it becomes to each user. (The most obvious impact of the ‘network effect’ has been on the media and ideology. Long before people started using Twitter to foment social unrest, mainstream journalists noticed - to their dismay - that the size of one’s public persona or pay cheque carried no guarantee of popularity online. People’s status rises and falls with the reliability and truthfulness of what they contribute.)
First of all, the organising power of social media, used on its own, is often exaggerated. Yes, we can advertise demonstrations, protests and meetings online. However, the approval of virtual-reality participants (those who might ‘like’ or indicate possible attendance) never matches actual participation. No wonder the powers that be couldn’t care less about ‘virtual’ support.
In the examples Mason mentions -, the demonstrations in Egypt, Greece and so on - social media has only been one of dozens of mobilising tools used by very organised, often centralised forces, with decades of history. It is only on the basis of this background that they had any effect. The Muslim Brotherhood’s strength in the demonstrations before the downfall of Hosni Mubarak resulted from many factors - amongst them decades of semi-clandestine organisation, the power of the mosques and seminaries, the ability of the party to organise political activity under the guise of religious work, and of its hierarchical, centralised network to acquire extensive financial support form Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. All this played a far more significant role than the use of social media.
The younger left and secular forces, solely relying on social media and the web for organising protests, were under the illusion that they enjoyed much support - support which was nowhere to be seen when it came to the real struggle against both Mubarak and his successors. The same is true of Greece - at the end of the day, for all the efforts and sacrifices of the protestors and their radical presence online, they were unable to oppose the collapse of Syriza in an effective, revolutionary way, precisely because they did not have a centralised, organised party.
Yes, social media can help tremendously in the organisation of protests and actions, but it also plays an important role in terms of surveillance and control, not just by the state and its security forces, but also the media, employers and capitalists. Note, for example, the use to which the rightwing media puts its scrutiny of Labour leftwingers and activists in the current debacle over ‘anti-Semitism’.
Why do most sites you visit these days, from travel companies to software sellers, to retailers, encourage you to log in via Facebook or Twitter? Because they can ascertain your tastes, your travel habits, your friends, your last purchase … ‘Targeted advertising’ is now the claim of the market groups all over the world, and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram play an important role in this. You basically save the companies time and money by providing them with an enormous amount of information. Facebook’s own propaganda makes this clear: “Facebook brings more advertising control to location targeting.”
But Mason tells us that everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchies, which represents “the main fault line” in the modern world. Yet we never learn why Mason does not consider the hierarchies’ own use of networks, let alone how he thinks the networks will defeat the hierarchies, which by definition are better financed and better organised and therefore more successful.
In his review of Mason’s book, David Beer writes:
Despite their appearance, networks often contain hierarchies. Much of what we know about contemporary decentralised networks would suggest that they are not free from hierarchies. Just to pick one quite superficial example, if we look at something obvious like social media then Clout scores and other means of measuring influence and amplification are designed to reveal those very hierarchies. Networks are not flat: they are three-dimensional, and they have a z axis.
Decentralisation, then, is not necessarily equivalent to empowerment or democratisation. It may not even give people the voice that it appears to give them. Instead we are all left howling into the wind, with a few select voices getting heard above the din. We should instantly wonder why it is that those few voices get heard. Is it something about what is being said or is it potentially a product of the particular hierarchies afforded by these media infrastructures and their apparently equally distributed chances of communication?9
The reality is that the ‘networks’ we on the left create online are limited either to the people we know or those who more or less agree with what we say. In other words, a predictable, self-congratulatory group giving illusions of general consensus, while at the same time providing the state with sometimes invaluable information (until a few years ago they could only acquire such knowledge by going through our bins!). All this at a time when marketing firms are getting detailed information about our tastes and preferences - not to forget our plans and schedules …
So far the most western states have informed us about what they have learned from social media relates to ‘Islamic terrorists’ or paedophiles. However, we know that states have the power to limit and control social media. China and Iran’s Islamic Republic are examples of countries known to keep a tight grip, gaining from posts and messages the information needed to thwart and arrest members of the opposition. They also use IT infrastructures to stop the normal functioning of social media through filtering, and slowing down internet speed, especially at crucial times.
In 2009, Conservative minister for security Vernon Coaker acknowledged that government plans “may include requiring the retention of data on Facebook, Bebo, MySpace and all other similar sites ... It is absolutely right to point out the difficulty of ensuring we maintain a capability and a capacity to deal with crime and issues of national security ...” Civil liberty activists were quoted as saying that, even without recording social media activities, the plans “would allow the government to record every email, text message and phone call and would turn millions of innocent Britons into permanent suspects”.
To sum up, the idea that social media based ‘networks’ could break hierarchies built on class allegiance, aided by state organisations, is clearly ridiculous. We welcome every act of defiance, every protest against the system of capital and its state, whether organised via social media, through the print media or by word of mouth, but we must remember that protests on their own do not change anything. For far too long the left has held the illusion that radical actions, in the absence of a powerful working class party, can mobilise the forces to make the ruling class retreat. The sad reality, however, is that radical action is too often accompanied by defensive slogans (save the NHS, our library, our education …) and no serious politics at all.
It is inevitable that, faced with the ravages of neoliberal capital, many seek quick and easy answers to the structural crisis engulfing our planet. However, those of us who have witnessed the repeated defeats of the left must accept that calls to activism in themselves solve nothing. Without political organisation, far from advancing our cause, they may delay serious planning and long-term preparation.
1. P Mason Why it’s kicking off everywhere London 2012, p3.
4. See J Holloway Crack capitalism London 2010.
5. RJ Gordon The rise and fall of American growth: the US standard of living since the Civil War Princeton 2016.