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. How can we truly utilise the abundance of technology and wealth we see around us today?
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?
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?
For 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?
Back 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
At 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.