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In the final part of his series on the rise of the sharing economy, Adam Booth reviews Paul Mason's new book, PostCapitalism, about the impact of information technology and its contradictory contribution within the crisis-ridden capitalism system. What is the way forward for society in order to utilise the abundance of technology and wealth we see around us today?

[Read parts one and two]

Capitalism’s “long waves”

The modern world is a seemingly incomprehensible system; complex, chaotic, and contradictory. On the one hand, we see an abundance of wealth and the most incredible scientific and technological advances all around us. On the other hand, simultaneously, we see rising inequality and a neverending crisis of the economy.

It is these contradictions that Paul Mason, economic editor for Channel 4 News, tries to unpick in his new book PostCapitalism. As the title of the book suggests, PostCapitalism is an incisive analysis of how the driving forces behind capitalism in its progressive heyday – competition, private ownership, and the pursuit of profit – have now become an enormous fetter on social and scientific progress; thus posing the vital question of what kind of system is needed now in order to take society and humanity forward.

Most impressively, Mason ties together the various threads of 21st Century capitalism’s rich tapestry in order to explain how technology, the economy, and class struggle interact. Taking up the “long-wave” theory of capitalism’s development, originally proposed by Soviet economist Kondratieff, Mason argues that overlaying the more frequent and periodic booms and slumps that capitalism undergoes are longer cycles – or waves – marked by the invention and dissemination of certain key technologies: steam-powered machines and canals; railways and telegraphy; electricity, the telephone, and production management techniques; automation, plastics, aeroplanes, semi-conductors, and nuclear power; and now, the internet and information technology.

Whilst Mason maintains a slightly schematic view of history, with his description of capitalism as a series of cyclical epochs, he diverges from Kondratieff is in his explanation for the cause of capitalism’s long-wave turning points, providing a more materialistic analysis than the founder of long-wave theory.

Whereas Kondratieff presented his long-wave theory in an extremely mechanical, deterministic – and, indeed, philosophically idealistic – fashion, seeing capitalism’s conjunctions as being primarily technological, through innovations that qualitatively transform production, Mason goes one step further and asks: what conditions were responsible for allowing such technologies to take hold across society in the first place?

For, as was discussed earlier, technology is not a deus ex machina to the capitalist system, randomly appearing out of nowhere. Certain material conditions are required for science and technology to make progress. Whilst the success of this-or-that inventor or the generation of this-or-that innovation might have a certain arbitrariness, these accidents are nevertheless a reflection of an underlying necessity: within capitalism, the need to develop productivity in the drive for profits.

For Mason, the key to understanding the creation and development of these historically revolutionary technologies lies in the question of class struggle. What precedes all such turning points in the first two hundred years of capitalism, Mason argues, are militant struggles of the working class, fighting against attempts by the capitalists to drive down their wages and attack their conditions. It is this mass resistance, Mason asserts, that provides the main incentive for the capitalists to invest heavily in new technology, in order that they can raise productivity and thus increase their profits whilst also accepting higher wage levels.

In Mason’s own words:

“If the working class is able to resist wage cuts and attacks on the welfare system, the innovators are forced to search for new technologies and business models that can restore the dynamism on the basis of higher wages – through innovation and higher productivity, not exploitation…

“…working-class resistance can be technologically progressive; it forces the new paradigm to emerge on a higher plane of productivity and consumption. It forces the ‘new men and women’ of the next era to promise and find ways of delivering a form of capitalism that is more productive and which can raise real wages.

“Long cycles are not produced by just technology plus economics, the third critical driver is class struggle. And it is in this context that Marx’s original theory of crisis provides a better understanding that Kondratiev’s ‘exhausted investment’ theory.” (Paul Mason, PostCapitalism, Allen Lane publishers, 2015 hardback edition, p76)

So where does information technology and the internet fit in within this general picture painted in PostCapitalism? Well, according to Mason, the worldwide crisis in the 1970s, which marked the end of the post-war boom, was the highpoint of the fourth long-wave of development. But unlike in previous waves, in which successful mass class struggles had ensued after crises, the fights that followed on from the crisis of the 70s ended in defeats. “Neoliberalism”, as personified by Thatcher and Reagan, had been victorious. The trade unions were beaten; the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed; and the labour movement and the Left were routed.

The capitalists emerged victorious from these battles and the system was able to carry on growing on the backs of those who had been defeated. Wages in the advanced capitalist countries were held down; globalisation took off as the market expanded into China, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union; and growth was temporarily maintained, artificially, through financialisation and a massive expansion of credit.

The key difference, then, was that the working class – this time – did not successfully resist the attacks of the ruling class, and wage levels could not be maintained through struggle. The result was an economy that, instead of investing in technology and productivity, became increasingly parasitic, with growth based on fictitious capital, bubbles, speculation, and the exploitation of millions of low-wage workers in the ex-colonial countries.

Now, Mason says, we are at the beginning of a new “fifth wave” of capitalism, which is occurring in the midst of this sclerotic fourth wave. But this fifth wave has already stalled. And the reason, Mason explains, lies in the nature of the technological driving force at the heart of this latest wave: information.

The contradiction of an information-based economy

In order to explain the stalled fifth wave, Mason takes us on a whirlwind tour of Marxist theory, including an examination of the labour theory of value and an overview of Marx’s analysis of capitalist crisis. Indeed, Mason argues, an appreciation that labour is the source of all real values is essential in understanding the extreme contradictions posed by the information age.

Throughout capitalism’s existence, the capitalists have – under the impulse of competition – re-invested their profits back into new technologies and techniques in order to increase productivity and thus decrease their costs, producing more for less. By lowering their own production costs below the current market price, the most productive and advanced capitalists can reap super-profits and drive their competitors out of business. Such new innovations and methods, however, soon become generalised throughout the economy, and a new “socially necessary” value becomes established.

The tendency within capitalism, therefore, is towards an increase in productivity and a lowering of the labour time required to make the commodities needed in society. Breakthrough technologies, such as those discussed above, were revolutionary in providing a qualitative boost to productivity.

But within an information-based economy, this tendency has reached extreme limits, and in doing so highlighted the contradictions of the capitalist system and its inability to utilise the technological potential that exists. For example, many of the goods we buy now are either digital – such music, videos, and other media, etc. – or are mass produced on the basis of information – for example, the computer designs for 3D-printed products. Meanwhile, the means of production and infrastructure of production are now themselves also digital, such as computer software programmes and HTML websites.

This rise of the information-based economy has revolutionary implications. For the unique quality of digital information is that once the original product has been made (or coded), all future copies are infinitely replicable at almost zero cost. The value (and thus price) of such digital commodities, therefore, should tend towards zero, if a free market of perfect competition really existed. Indeed, millions of people are obtaining such commodities for free, either through illegal downloading or “Open Source” software, such as the Firefox web browser or the Open Office suite of programmes.

Under capitalism, however, this poses an enormous contradiction. Capitalist corporations do not produce to fulfil needs, but to make profits. But since profits are ultimately derived from the value produced by labour, if the socially necessary labour time – and thus value – in commodities is reduced to zero, then the profits will tend towards zero also. Hence the difficulty that many info-tech companies are having in “monetising” their products and services, as discussed earlier.

The result is that for many info-tech companies, the main source of income is actually from advertising, raising money from advertisers who are willing to pay large amounts in exchange for the data that such companies have collected for free from their users and subscribers.

The other alternative for the info-tech industry – and the one most commonly seen – is to try and abolish the link between the value of their commodities and the price by cementing a monopoly position and thus removing market forces from the equation. As Marx always explained, in this respect, the law of value is really only a tendency; where there are monopolies or restrictions to the supply of certain commodities, prices can diverge wildly from actual values.

As discussed earlier, the dominance of monopolies in the info-tech sector is clear: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google – all of these giant information-based corporations, for the sake of their own profits, actually do everything they can to restrict society from fulfilling its potential for digital superabundance, as Mason explains:

“Once you can copy and paste something, it can be reproduced for free. It has, in economics-speak, a ‘zero marginal cost’…

“This has major implications for the way the market operates…once the economy is composed of shareable information goods, imperfect competition becomes the norm.

“The equilibrium state of an info-tech economy is one where monopolies dominate and people have unequal access to the information they need to make rational buying decisions. Info-tech, in short, destroys the normal price-mechanism, whereby competition drives prices down toward the cost of production…

“With info-capitalism, a monopoly is not just some clever tactic to maximise profit. It is the only way an industry can run. The small number of companies that dominate each sector is striking…Apple’s mission statement, properly expressed, is to prevent the abundance of music.” (PostCapitalism, p117-119)

In essence, therefore, information technology has exposed the key contradiction at the heart of the capitalist system: the contradiction between use value and exchange value. An abundance of use-values (i.e. wealth) in society is entirely possible. But as long as there is private ownership and production for profit, it is impossible to resolve this contradiction, and instead of super-abundance we see scarcity.

Indeed, this contradiction that info-tech highlights so clearly is already seen in the case of many of our more tangible needs, from food (with supermarkets going to extraordinary lengths to prevent people taking leftover foods from their skips) to medicine (with big pharma companies taking legal action against drug-producers in the developing world for producing “generic” copies of their patented drugs).

The contradictions posed by an info-tech economy, in other words, are not completely new or unique; they are just an extreme and acute form of this contradiction between use value and exchange value – or, as Mason himself quotes, “between the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘social relations’”. In other words, we have the productive ability to create super-abundance and satisfy a whole range of global needs; but the ‘social relations’ – the way in which production is owned, controlled, and organised, and the laws and logic of the system flowing from this – prevent us from doing so.

Modern information technology and automation, as we have discussed earlier, have opened up a world of possibilities that were previously unimaginable. The horror and injustice lies in the chasm that exists between these hypothetical – and entirely realisable – possibilities and the dystopian future (and present) that capitalism offers:

“Technologically, we are headed for zero-price goods, unmeasurable work, and exponential takeoff in productivity and the extensive automation of physical processes. Socially, we are trapped in a world of monopolies, inefficiency, the ruins of a finance-dominated free market and a proliferation of ‘bullshit jobs’.

Today, the main contradiction in modern capitalism is between the possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control of over power and information.” (PostCapitalism, p144, emphasis in the original)

“…the real danger inherent in robotization is something bigger than mass unemployment, it is the exhaustion of capitalism’s 250-year-old tendency to create new markets where old ones are worn out.

“…We should be going through a third industrial revolution but it has stalled. Those who blame its failure on weak policy, poor investment strategy and overweening finance are mistaking symptoms for the disease. Those who continually try to impose collaborative legal norms on top of market structures are missing the point.

An economy based on information, with its tendency to zero-cost products and weak property rights, cannot be a capitalist economy.” (PostCapitalism, p175, emphasis in the original)

Which way forward: postcapitalism or socialism?

dead endFor Marxists, the solution to this contradiction is clear: we need a revolution in how production is owned, controlled, and organised; a revolution in how society is run. We need to abolish the laws and logic of the capitalist system and replace them with a new set of economic laws: ones based on common ownership, a rational plan of production, and democratic control and management. In other words, it is socialism or barbarism.

For Mason, however, the perspective and solution are not so clear cut. Mason agrees – citing the prospect of “secular stagnation” and the impending climate catastrophe – that without a radical change in society, humanity most certainly is facing a barbaric future. But the alternative, Mason asserts, is not socialism, but “postcapitalism”.

Mason’s description of his hypothetical postcapitalism, however, would sound to many like socialism: democratic and public control over the banks and major monopolies; investment in technology and automation to reduce the value of goods and the hours of the working week to a bare minimum (and eventually to zero); the provision of a universal basic income, with the need for wages and money gradually withering away as more and more of the economy comes under a common, socialised, democratic plan of production.

Why then not just call a spade a spade? Why the need for the term “postcapitalism”? Part of this semantic question originates from Mason’s own view of socialism, which is consistently equated throughout his book with the top-down, bureaucratically controlled Stalinist regimes seen in the 20th Century. In reality, such societies were not socialism, but were monstrously deformed caricatures of socialism; and to attack socialism on the basis of these examples is to attack a straw man.

Nevertheless, there is a key difference between Mason and Marx, which the author of PostCapitalism himself acknowledges, and this difference lies in the identification of the agent of change for this historical and radical transformation of society.

For Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trostky, the revolutionary agent of change was the organised and conscious working class – the “gravediggers” that capitalism had created. For Mason, by contrast, there is “a new historical subject”: “networked individuals” – in other words, the educated, smart-phone-wielding, social-media-connected masses. The fact that the labour movement failed to successfully resist the ruling classes’ attacks in the 1980s, and the fact that recent mass movements that have taken to the streets across the world in the previous period have done so spontaneously and without hierarchies is proof, according to Mason, of the need to look towards the “network” rather than the organised working class for the revolutionary change that is needed today.

But – and these are the main limitations of Mason’s otherwise excellent new book – there are two key flaws with the conclusions drawn by Mason. Firstly, whilst it is true that the organisations of the working class have been found lacking in the past few decades, one should not assume that spontaneous, “horizontal” movements are the way forward.

For a start, it is not the fault of the working class that their organisations – or, more precisely, their leaders – have failed them at key moments in the class struggle. Workers have done everything that can be asked of them: from Venezuela to Greece, workers have demonstrated, gone on strike, and elected in radical left leaders who promised to change the world; the problem is that such leaders have not lived up to their promises. The trend towards spontaneous movements – from the Arab Spring to the Indignados in Spain – is a reflection of the bankruptcy of the so-called leaders of the working class and the lack of a revolutionary leadership.

The fact that these mass spontaneous movements draw in such a wider layer of the population – “the 99 per cent” – does not highlight the destruction or death of the working class, but quite the opposite: it demonstrates the enormous “proletarianisation” that has taken place in society, with even formerly middle-class layers now impoverished and pushed down into the ranks of the working class by capitalism – hence the fact that civil servants, university lecturers, and even lawyers are now unionising and taking strike action these days, in 21st Century Britain.

In addition, one must note that these spontaneous movements ultimately achieved none of their aims. In some respects, Mason is correct: what is left of #Occupy and the Indignados movements are “networks”; but these are not simply utopian experiments or communal camps in a city square, but organised, networks and political movements that have gathered around radical figures such as Bernie Sanders in the USA or Pablo Iglesias of Podemos. The same could be said of the rise of the SNP in Scotland, the OXI referendum in Greece, or the mass movement behind Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. In other words, spontaneous movements of “networked individuals” have been transformed into organisations and political movements with a programme to fight austerity and change society.

Secondly, whilst Mason emphasises the role of the network, a large part of his final chapter describing the transition to postcapitalism emphases the need for the state “to use governmental power in a radical and disruptive way” to bring about “revolutionary reformism”. In other words, for all the talk of capitalism’s key contradictions and the revolutionary potential of the “network”, Mason’s vision is for a gradual, state-led, reformist change towards what is ultimately just another version – but a bit more radical – of the “responsible capitalism” called for by many other left-reformists.

The question of the state’s role is key in all of this discussion. For example, Mason tells us that, “In postcapitalism, the state has...to nurture the new economic forms to the point where they take off and operate organically” (p273). Later, in a discussion on the changes needed in the workplace, Mason comments: “What could induce corporations to do any of this? Answer: law and regulation.” (p277)

Elsewhere, we are told that: “under a government that embraced postcapitalism, the state, the corporate sector and public corporations could be made to pursue radically different ends with relatively low-cost changes to regulation, underpinned by a radical programme to shrink debt” (p278); and that, with regards to banking and finance, “the intention is not to reduce complexity…but to promote the most complex form of capitalist finance compatible with progressing the economy towards high automation, low work, and abundant cheap or free goods and services.” (p283)

But throughout this description of postcapitalism and the transition to it, we are not told what kind of state is carrying out this transition, and which class is it that is controlling this process? Like the reformist analysis of the state and of the transition to socialism put forward by the social democrats at the beginning of the 20th Century, which Lenin polemicises against in his 1917 masterpiece State and Revolution, there is a vagueness and obscurity to Mason’s description of the postcapitalist state.

If this postcapitalist state is not just a benign version of the bourgeois state, then one can only assume that it is a new, qualitatively different state, constructed by the “networked” masses to take over the key levers of the economy, in order to democratically run and control the economy and society. But again, if the latter is meant, then really we are describing a socialist state – only a healthy workers’ state, as opposed to the degenerated or deformed workers’ states of the bureaucratic Stalinist regimes.

However, with his call for “revolutionary reformism”, it would seem that Mason is in fact referring to the former – calling for the capitalist state to somehow act against the interests of the ruling class, take power away from the major monopolies that currently control society, and carry out the transformation to a new form of society that would work in favour of the exploited masses that the capitalist state currently serves to oppress. Why, one has to ask, would a capitalist state act in such a manner to undermine capitalism’s very existence?

Indeed, as the recent example of Tsipras’ capitulation in Greece has demonstrated, there is no reformist way out of the capitalist crisis; and any attempt to do so, rather than being nurtured by the bourgeoisie and the capitalist state, will see the full force of the ruling class, the media, and the bourgeois state used to crush such resistance to the needs of capital.

Mason’s presentation of Marx’s ideas, analysis of the current impasse of capitalism, and vision for a potential future of plenty based on technology and automation is insightful and inspiring. Ultimately, however, his conclusions fall short because of what seems to be a pessimism about the possibility of a real, genuine, revolutionary change and a lack of faith in the ability of the organised working class to bring about such a transformation in society.

Nevertheless, despite its limitations, PostCapitalism is an extremely useful read for anyone who wants a thorough and revealing insight into the contradictions of capitalism and how they are manifested today in this era of information and the internet.

["PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future" by Paul Mason is available to purchase now from Allen Lane publishers]

The solution: boycotts; the law; or organisation?

sharing economyBack in the world of the “sharing” / on-demand economy, a number of “solutions” have been put forward in an attempt to promote the progressive side of these newly-developing models, whilst abolishing their worst excesses and ugliest symptoms.

The most simplistic solution proposed is for customers and users to boycott the profiteering companies that lie at the heart of the “sharing” / on-demand economy. But such individual actions, whilst full of good intentions and high morals, do little to address the main contradictions at the heart of these rising models and platforms. Indeed, by boycotting, the progressive side of these potentially revolutionary methods and technologies is lost altogether – the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.

Yes, the hypothetical possibility exists to create new, less morally-dubious versions of certain on-demand services and to restore the original ethos of altruistic reciprocity to the sharing economy. But, like with all small-scale utopian experiments, such attempts will remain islands of socialism in a sea of capitalism, unable to compete against the big for-profit companies in the “sharing” / on-demand sectors with their access to capital, lower wages, and economies of scale.

Importantly, an attempt to boycott the bad apples and promote the best examples ultimately does nothing to tackle the key question: that of private ownership and the anarchy of the market. It is these, not the morals of this-or-that capitalist, that are the driving force behind the attempts to squeeze workers in the on-demand economy. And it is not individual action, but collective action, that will enable workers to fight back. As Marx commented, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”

Indeed, in order to resist the race to the bottom that the on-demand economy accelerates, there is talk of trying to unionise and organise those currently working – atomised – within the sector. There have been stories of Uber drivers in some cities forming unions. Elsewhere, a “freelancers” union has been set up to try and protect those in the on-demand economy from the most extreme levels of exploitation.

At the moment, self-employed workers offering their services via such apps are competing on price and quality, with ratings given to “taskers”, etc. by customers meaning that intense competition between workers is explicit. Regulation and/or unionisation have been suggested to resist this, with possibilities including the introduction of a minimum wage rate for all those working in the on-demand economy. Whichever way you look at it, the rules of the game are currently stacked firmly in favour of the capitalists.

As Dean Baker, a Washington think-tank economist, commented in the New York Times, “You are getting people to self-exploit in ways we have regulations in place to prevent.” Stanley Aronowitz, a researcher at the City University of New York, stated in the same article that, “It might as well be called wage slavery in which all the cards are held, mediated by technology, by the employer, whether it is the intermediary company or the customer.”

Similar suggestions have been made in relation to the “sharing” economy. Currently, big companies in the “sharing” economy offer no protection for their suppliers or their customers. For example, AirBnB hosts or guests are liable for damages, which would typically be covered by the hotel or hostel in a normal hotel business. The same situation exists in the on-demand economy, with Uber drivers having all liability for the maintenance and insurance of their vehicles. Again, it is the workers who are made to pay all the costs whilst the bosses reap the profits. And again, the solution proposed by some, such as Juliet Schor, a Boston-based academic writing for The Great Transition, is organisation and regulation:

“An alternative…is one in which sharing entities become part of a larger movement that seeks to redistribute wealth and foster participation, ecological protection, and social connection. This will only happen via organization, even unionization, of users. Indeed, the question of whether providers should organize is now firmly on the table, although it is too early to know how things will evolve.”

“Airbnb has begun to encourage its users to organize…The company wants these groups to push for favorable regulation. But they may develop agendas of their own, including making demands of the company itself, such as setting price floors for providers, pushing risk back onto the platforms, or reducing excessive returns to the entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists. On the labor exchanges, where the need for organization is perhaps most acute, providers could push for minimum wages.”

The whole of capitalism has been a history, on the one hand, of the bosses doing everything in their power to atomise and exploit workers; and, on the other hand, of previously unorganised workers coming together, taking collective action, and fighting back.

For example, earlier in the 20th Century, work at the docks was characterised by its extremely precarious nature, with workers forced to turn up every day in the hope of being selected for the few jobs going. By the 1970s, however, the dockers were highly organised – one of the most militant sections of the working class. Today, meanwhile, we see strikes by workers in the USA in the fast-food industry, previously renowned for being one of the hardest sectors to organise in.

In all such cases, it is through struggle that organisation occurs. Pushed into a corner by the insatiable appetite for profits of the capitalists, the unorganised workers in the on-demand economy today could be a powerful component of the labour movement of tomorrow.

There is much talk at the moment of using legal methods to improve the lot of those in the on-demand sector. In particular, there are a variety of cases being brought forward in order to address the legal status of workers in the on-demand economy – for example, Über is being taken to court for not classifying their drivers as employees, but as “independent contractors”. The difference is not trivial, with employee status coming with certain guarantees, provisions, and transfer of liabilities onto the company.

It is important to retain a sense of proportion, however. Whilst individual legal cases may go the way of the workers involved in this-or-that on-demand company, such victories would be largely pyrrhic, taking place as they are amidst a full frontal global attack and onslaught against workers and their wages, jobs, and union rights. As Juliet Schor notes in her article for The Great Transition:

“Part of the difficulty in assessing the impact of these new earning opportunities is that they are being introduced during a period of high unemployment and rapid labor market restructuring. Working conditions and protections are already being eroded, real wages are declining, and labor’s share of national income in the US has declined to historic lows. If the labor market continues to worsen for workers, their conditions will continue to erode, and it will not be because of sharing opportunities. Alternatively, if labor markets improve, sharers can demand more of the platforms because they have better alternatives.”

In the final analysis, whilst certain groups might be able to improve their terms and conditions through the courts, the Law remains part of the capitalist state, designed to protect the rights of private property and the profits of the rich.

In the face of the general attack against the working class by the ruling class, therefore, there needs to be a general resistance and counter-attack by workers, designed not merely to win this-or-that court case and this-or-that particular reform; but a mass political movement that has as its aim the abolition of the capitalist state and bourgeois property relations, and the introduction of a socialist plan of production involving common ownership and democratic workers’ control.

As a first step, the demand should be for the big profiteering companies of the “sharing” / on-demand economy to be nationalised and turned into public services. If Uber was part of a nationalised, democratically controlled public transport network (including the trains, buses, and rental bikes), then public transport could be planned with extraordinary levels of efficiency at low cost. Drivers could be guaranteed decent conditions and a living wage, without the need to compete against one-another. Eventually, with automation and driverless cars, drivers could be replaced altogether and provided with training and education to move into other jobs.

A publically run AirBnB, alongside the nationalisation of the major hotel firms and a mass programme of council housing, meanwhile, could be used to provide a home for everyone and cheap holiday accommodation for all. Combined with a programme of nationalising the banks and financial houses, investment could be poured into public transport, housing, and many other sectors. Scarcity of society’s needs and the scourge of precarious employment could be eliminated at a stroke.

The fetter of capitalism and the need for revolution

capitalism isnt working smallAt the same time, legal questions relating to the “sharing” economy are highlighting capitalism’s contradictions; in particular, the fetter that private ownership has become in terms of progress. On the one hand, with the rise of the “sharing” economy, there is a clear potential for organising and distributing society’s resources rationally, fairly, and efficiently. On the other hand, under capitalism, firms like AirBnB have given rise to a whole host of legal cases, with tenants being sued by landlords for sub-letting their rooms. The need to efficiently distribute – for example – accommodation, therefore, is coming into conflict with laws that are designed to protect the landlord’s (private) property rights and his/her income from rents.

Such legal cases only go to prove Marx’s general point, outlined in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, that:

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.” (our emphasis)

In other words, the legal relations – that is, the property relations – that we have within capitalist society are not compatible with the technological and scientific potential that capitalism has created. And the presence of such a contradiction highlights, Marx notes, the dawn of “an era of social revolution”.

As Juliet Schor explains in her article entitled “Debating the Sharing Economy”:

“…these new technologies of peer-to-peer economic activity are potentially powerful tools for building a social movement centered on genuine practices of sharing and cooperation in the production and consumption of goods and services. But achieving that potential will require democratizing the ownership and governance of the platforms.”

“The sharing economy has been propelled by exciting new technologies. The ease with which individuals, even strangers, can now connect, exchange, share information, and cooperate is truly transformative. That’s the promise of the sharing platforms about which virtually everyone agrees. But technologies are only as good as the political and social context in which they are employed. Software, crowdsourcing, and the information commons give us powerful tools for building social solidarity, democracy, and sustainability. Now our task is to build a movement to harness that power.” (our emphasis)

Professor Schor provides an insightful materialist perspective on the question of the new models and technologies that are emerging. As we have discussed earlier, and as Schor highlights here, under capitalism, the potential for such technologies will remain just that: a potential.

No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.” (Karl Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)

These words by Marx highlight the situation today. The potential is vast, as Mason and others have pointed out: the possibility to allocate resources efficiently and equally; to democratically run production and society in a rational way; and to vastly increase living standards whilst simultaneously reducing the hours of the working day. Marx’s maxim of “from each according to their ability; to each according to their need” could be easily achieved.

But as long as we are stuck within capitalism, this potential will be squandered. As long as the giant monopolies – of the info-tech world, the finance sector, and elsewhere – remain in private hands, the anarchy of the market will continue to reign.

All attempts to “democratise” and “socialise” these new platforms and technologies will come into conflict with the legal, property, and social relations that exist currently – designed to defend private property and the profits of the 1%. A revolutionary break with capitalism will be required. We invite you to join us in the fight for revolution, so that we may release the creative and technological potential that sits before humanity at the present time.

Educate Yourself

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Socialist Appeal are proud to publish this basic guide to help focus your studies of Marxist theory and practice. Visit the various tabs to find links to introductory articles, classic texts, and audio talks for different topics. We also invite our readers to become acquainted with the more basic ideas of Marxism by starting with the recommended short reading list, going through the FAQ section, reading this article that combats the myths about Marxism, and listening to the following audios:

Why Marx Was Right - Alan Woods

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Marxist theory is the basis upon which our analysis, perspectives, program, and participation in the movement are based. It is our "guide to action." This why Socialist Appeal and IMT place so much emphasis on political education. To this end, we have created an extensive Education Plan to assist comrades in their political development. This is an important resource.

However, it's length and scope may seem daunting to new comrades. With this in mind, Socialist Appeal has compiled a shorter list of classic works and other important writings we think will serve to lay a strong foundation in the ideas and methods of Marxism. We would like to encourage all our supporters and those interested in learning more about Marxism to read (or re-read!) through the works on this list.

This selection of writings is an excellent introduction to many of the fundamentals of Marxist theory. There are many other writings that could be added, but this selection provides a strong basis for those wishing to equip themselves with the necessary ideas for the daily work of fighting for socialism.

Many of these are smaller books or pamphlets; some are more lengthy books; and others are just short articles. This list should therefore be more digestible than the full Education Plan, particularly those with busy work or school schedules. All of them are available to

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Dialectical Materialism is the philosophy or methodology of Marxism. Every political movement, party, or even statement of any kind bases itself, consciously or unconsciously, on some sort of philosophy or world outlook. Marxism is concerned with effecting a radical change in society, and therefore requires an exceptionally clear, thoroughgoing, and systemic set of philosophical principles.

The ideas of Dialectical Materialism, based on the best traditions of philosophical thought, are not a fixed dogma but a system of tools and general principles for analysing the world materialistically and scientifically.

If we are to understand society in order to change it, this cannot be done arbitrarily, since the human will is not master of nature; rather, our ideas and thoughts are reflections of necessary material laws. Instead, we must seek to understand the laws of how human society changes. By following our education plan for Dialectical Materialism, the reader will familiarise themselves with this way of looking at the world so that they too can begin to apply Marxist ideas.

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Historical Materialism is the result of Dialectical Materialism applied to human society and history. It encompasses the general theory of how and why society develops in the way it does. A deeper, more concrete understanding of these principles in combination with a study of real, living history of class struggles enables us to come to a general understanding of where capitalist society is headed and what political strategy is required to successfully influence the course of events.

The basic principles of Historical Materialism are that human society has inherent laws guiding it - its developments are by no means arbitrary or accidental, nor the mere subject of the will of great men and ideas. Human individuals can and do influence society according to their ideas, but only ever within definite material constraints and conditions. Above all, the law determining historical development is that of the development of the means of production - meaning economically productive technology, science, technique etc. The extent of the development of the productive forces determines the social relations of production - i.e. the structure of society, class relations etc. Each social system has its inherent laws of motion. If we want to overthrow capitalist society, we must understand how capitalism works.

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Marxist economics is the study of the laws of motion of capitalist society. Why does capitalism perpetually go into crisis? Why does mass unemployment exist? Are commodity production, the domination of the market, and rich and poor natural, immutable states of being for humanity? Or are they merely the products of this specific mode of production - capitalism? If so, is there any way capitalism can exist without these problems, or by minimising them?

Marxist economics is a “holistic” way of analysing capitalist economy. It starts out by placing it in its real historical context (rather than dreaming up abstract idealisations of capitalism to justify it, as bourgeois economics does), studying all its interconnections and contradictions, rather than artificially isolating one aspect of it. In doing so, Marxist economics lays bare the functioning of capitalism; the exploitation and injustice inherent within it. Those who want to get to the essence of why, in the 21st Century, despite having a more advanced understanding of the world than ever before, humanity seems plunged into perpetual crisis it cannot get to grips with, should look no further than Marxist economics, beginning with the writings of Marx himself.

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Like money, the state is something we are all very familiar with and take for granted, but its real essence tends to elude us. The ideologists of capitalism have tried, in various ways, to justify the capitalist state as supremely rational; a neutral arbiter for society, and the embodiment of justice. For Marxists, the state is not at all neutral, nor just. It is certainly anything but rational. We must strip the vale of mysticism away and reveal the state’s real basis. To do that, we have to treat the state historically - taking in its origins, rise, and eventual fall.

The state has not always existed. It is inseparable from class society. Ultimately, it is the instrument for the ruling class to oppress and hold down the masses, guaranteeing the status quo and the sanctity of property. Although the modern state performs many other functions, these are secondary to its real basis - the protection of a set of property relations. To do this, it needs “armed bodies of men” and a monopoly on the use of violence. To establish socialism, it will not be possible for the working class to use the state as it currently exists - that is, with the same network of judges, heads of police and army etc. All the key texts explaining how exactly we relate to the state, and the

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The Russian Revolution is the greatest event in world history for Marxists. For the first time, the working class successfully took and held power. The slaves fought back and won. For these reasons, the name of Lenin and Trotsky, and the entire 1917 episode, has been deliberately dragged through the mud by the bourgeoisie ever since.

Naturally they are aided in this task by the degeneration of the revolution and by the existence of Stalin’s monstrous dictatorship. However, Stalinism represents the opposite of Bolshevism’s real traditions, which readers can read about in this section, as well as the Marxist explanation for why Stalinism took place and what this means for our movement.

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Radicalised youth, seeking to understand how to change modern society, naturally tend to look to both Marxism and Anarchism in equal measure. The question as to which philosophy, or which combination of the two, has the best answers, has long been at the forefront of the minds of revolutionaries.

Anarchism is naturally attractive to all those correctly alienated by bureaucracy in the revolutionary movement. Anarchists are certainly correct to reject Stalinism and careerism. However, it is not sufficient simply to reject these phenomena. We need to understand why bureaucracy and oppression exist and what role they play, in order to understand how to avoid them. We believe that, for all its opposition, Anarchism has little to say about the alternative to bureaucracy. Instead, it is Marxism’s historical materialist method that allows us to understand these problems. In this section the reader will find a series of articles dealing with anarchism and the issues that anarchism raises.

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The discrimination and oppression of women is integral to class society, such that Engels even referred to it as the “first class oppression”. Along with the class system itself, the oppression of women often takes on the appearance of being natural, immutable and eternal, since it has been with us for so long.

But Marxism is a historical science, concerned with understanding the fundamental changes that society goes through. It cannot be satisfied with comfortable prejudices. A study of the origins of human society, as Engels famously conducted in his book The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, reveals that the oppression of women is by no means natural and was not even known for much of our history. As Engels explains, the oppression of women arose with the emergence of class society and private property; it will fall with it.

Marxists are fully in solidarity with feminists: we are irreconcilably opposed to the oppression of women and fully support the struggle for their emancipation. We believe this will be achieved through the class struggle, since that is the basic locomotive of history in a class society such as ours. However, Marxism represents a distinct set of ideas from feminism, which is a more eclectic and varied set of ideas. We believe that in this section, readers will find the tools Marxism

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Fascism is something of a bogeyman in modern British society, and has an almost mythical character in bourgeois public opinion. But despite constant talk of it, very little is said about why it happened and how it may or may not happen again.

Fascism is really the death agony of capitalism and the “distilled essence of imperialism”. The fascists in Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries were only able to come to power on the back of defeats of the working class. Ultimately, the madness of fascism expresses the historic crisis and dead-end of capitalism that had arrived by the early 20th Century, alongside the inability of the working class to take power and replace capitalism with a workers’ state, due to the corruption of their leadership, in the form of both reformism and Stalinism. Fascism could and should have easily been avoided had the working class possessed a militant and united leadership prepared to take power.

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The question of nationalities - that is, the oppression of nations and national minorities, which has characterised capitalism from its birth till the present time - has always occupied a central position in Marxist theory. Once again, the historical materialist approach of Marxism dissolves the apparent “natural” role of the nation as a necessary expression of human society. Nations have by no means always existed, nor will they always exist in the future.

The nation as we know it today is a product of the development of capitalism and its need to unify peoples into units of a certain size (depending on the level of the system’s development – e.g. more recently formed nations tend to be much bigger) to consolidate the market. The contradictions and tensions between nations are a result of capitalism’s “combined and uneven” development. The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production itself force each ruling class to expand outwards, developing a global market and imperialism in the process.

The violent tensions that this process breeds in turn give rise to nationalism, racism and wars. There is no way a successful world revolution, abolishing the global capitalist system, can take place without a careful and nuanced understanding of the national question, with all the sensitivities and complexity it brings. Therefore this section is of the utmost importance for revolutionaries.

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War is a constant feature of life under capitalism, especially in the epoch of imperialism. There has not been a single day of peace since the end of WWII, despite the appearance of WWII (and all previous wars) of being the “war to end all wars”. Capitalism is inherently unstable, competitive and violent. Moreover, there can be no final peace between the classes, since this system is based on the exploitation of the working class by the rich. 

However, there are wars of different kinds under capitalism. The question of war is the hardest equation of all to judge, so careful study is essential so that revolutionaries are not blown off course by the complexities involved. For example, some “socialists” called for support for the war in Iraq, as it had the appearance of establishing “democracy” over dictatorship. Equally, the failure to understand the true meaning of WWI and its implications was the direct cause of the death of the Second International.

Wars, like revolutions, represent the sharp extreme of capitalism’s crisis. Under capitalism, there will be many wars in the future. The more revolutionaries study and understand capitalism’s previous wars, the better equipped we will be to fight against future wars and the capitalist system itself.

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Socialist Appeal is the British section of the International Marxist Tendency, which is active in around 40 countries. Our aim is to spread the ideas of Marxism, in an organised fashion, in the labour and youth movement. Only the British working class has the ability to change British society, because of the central role they play in production and their shared interest in establishing socialism.

However, we must carefully study the history and traditions of the British working class in order for Marxist ideas to connect with them. There are all too many groups who simply declare themselves the vanguard of the British working class, and have a dismissive attitude to the class’ real traditions.

In this section readers will find a series of articles explaining our position on the class struggle in Britain, the key points in the history of the British working class and the lessons to be learnt from them, and the strategy of the Marxists in relation to the movements of the masses.

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The ideas of Marxism and the need for a revolutionary party are not the result simply of a single individual, but arise from the study of history - the history of class struggle. In this respect, the revolutionary party is often referred to as being the memory of the working class, and our task is to learn the lessons from history in order to prepare for the revolutionary events taking place today and in the future.

In this section we present a series of articles and audios covering the key revolutionary struggles in history - from the early class struggles in Rome to the tremendous movements of the working class in the 20th Century. By reading and listening to these, our readers should gain a good overview of the history of the revolutionary movement and the main lessons to be learnt from these.

For analysis of 21st Century revolutionary movements, check out the News and Analysis sections of the website!

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Marxist theory

Hitler and the Rise of Fascism in Germany Hitler and the Rise of Fascism in Germany
Duration: 00:51:40
Date: 9 Mar 2017
Workers’ control, democracy, and power Workers' control, democracy, and power
Duration: 00:57:00
Date: 2 Mar 2017
In Defence of the Russian Revolution - part two In Defence of the Russian Revolution - part two
Duration: 00:21:16
Date: 17 Feb 2017
In Defence of the Russian Revolution -  part one In Defence of the Russian Revolution - part one
Duration: 00:22:04
Date: 1 Feb 2017
Materialism and Dialectics in Ancient Greece Materialism and Dialectics in Ancient Greece
Duration: 00:48:58
Date: 27 Jan 2017
Imperialism in the 21st century Imperialism in the 21st century
Duration: 00:57:35
Date: 13 Dec 2016
Fascism: What it is and how to fight it Fascism: What it is and how to fight it
Duration: 00:36:44
Date: 12 Dec 2016
Dialectics, science, and nature Dialectics, science, and nature
Duration: 00:48:55
Date: 9 Dec 2016
Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution
Duration: 00:42:54
Date: 30 Nov 2016
Marxism, Imperialism, and War Marxism, Imperialism, and War
Duration: 00:50:16
Date: 25 Nov 2016
The Hungarian Revolution: 60 years on The Hungarian Revolution: 60 years on
Duration: 00:47:10
Date: 1 Nov 2016