The Jaundiced Eyeball

Power to the Pixels

Chris Lehmann   February 18, 2016

It sure was a short “end of history.” Back in 1992, with the Berlin Wall leveled and Russia abruptly abdicating its self-appointed role as bureaucratic overseer of the historical dialectic, Francis Fukuyama and his neoconservative confreres surveyed the reconfigured world order and saw that it was good. Free markets would rule, and liberal democracy would cover the globe, lifting humanity into an agreeable state of material well-being.

Now, with a quarter century’s worth of hindsight, we know that history wasn’t about to sit still for its embalming. The 2008 economic meltdown delivered but one among many rude countervailing verdicts; we’re also living with resurgent economic, ethnic, and religious nationalisms, looming climate catastrophe, and unpredictable new populist and anti-austerity movements, here and abroad.

Yet here we are, and for left-leaning thinkers with a weakness for grand theory, the present moment is ripe with its own dialectical promise. In Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Paul Mason, the economics editor for Britain’s Channel 4 News, seeks to stand Fukuyama on his head. In pronouncing the triumph of liberal market capitalism, Fukuyama was following a bastardized version of Hegel’s philosophy of history; Mason, for his part, has countered with a bastardized account of the Marxist historical dialectic. A heterodox British socialist, Mason believes that an egalitarian political economy is the natural outcome of the all-conquering information age. All prior modes of production, distribution, and political conflict will be eclipsed. It’s the socialist version of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity—and alas, it is no more convincing than the fond reverie that the anointed leaders of the Silicon Valley elite will eventually conquer the rude indignities of aging, mental slowdown, and death. 

In Mason’s fantasia of the coming economic singularity, the relentless upsurge of “information” throughout the outmoded, merely material production process is destined to overcome the arbitrary divisions of geopolitics, the artificial regimes of labor and management, and the price mechanisms and doomed austerity politics that confine us to the sloughs of Capitalism 1.0. “By creating millions of networked people,” he writes, “financially exploited but with the whole of human intelligence one thumb swipe away, info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being.”

Mason is a congenital optimist. His previous book, Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere (2012), hailed Occupy and the Arab Spring as the vanguard of a new brand of digitally enabled social revolution. But even by the standards of society-as-server techno-determinism (a tradition that, conveniently enough, also dates roughly back to the end of the Cold War), there’s a stunning complacency to the notion that educated, connected humanity will spontaneously overthrow the financial infrastructures, armed political regimes, trade pacts, and state subventions of the neoliberal world order in much the same fashion that Apple rolls out a new iPhone interface. For Mason, like countless other apostles of tech determinism, the former stuff of historical conflict—the fight for higher wages, job security, basic social welfare provisions—is now being seamlessly abolished via the consolidation of radical new networks of information. In the dawning info-millennial age, workers and citizens will have manifestly less to fight for because their fates are being reordered along equitable lines.

For left-leaning thinkers with a weakness for grand theory, the present moment is ripe with dialectical promise.

The magic ingredient of all this fast-acting social change? Why, it’s the homely price mechanism, which by Mason’s account, will drive every phase of economic production toward the utopian state of free distribution. Because information technology has permitted us to copy and reproduce cultural products, engineering plans, and other formerly high-wage, high-price commodities for a nominal pittance, we stand on the verge of a postcapitalist sea change, Mason contends. With no price points to maximize, neoliberal capitalists will simply throw in the towel, and the populace will come into a new age of radical self-rule.

Following the lead of fellow wigged-out social prophet Jeremy Rifkin, Mason dubs this the “zero marginal cost effect”—a process in which freely copied and circulated information basically crowds out all other economic inputs, and leaves the digitally empowered new human being unshackled from all prior forms of economic convention and exploitation. Like Fukuyama’s “last man” at the end of history, Mason’s new historical agent has the world open up invitingly before her. But while the last man of the nineties had to suffer the painful dislocations of ideological, social, and political collapse, this new millennial avatar of the zeitgeist only has to spend a lot of time online. Point, click, and sit back for the revolution.

Sure, capitalism’s legacy masters might still create new price cartels, monopoly protocols, and the like to try to reverse the remorseless downward pressure that information exerts on prices—but such desperate measures really just underscore their perverse failure to grasp the radical implications of the revolution that they themselves have unleashed. “Information is not some random technology that just came along and can be left behind like the steam engine,” writes Mason. “It invests all future innovation with the zero-price dynamic: biotech, space travel, brain reconfiguration or nanotechnology, and things we cannot even imagine.”

Like Francis Fukuyama’s “last man” at the end of history, Paul Mason’s new historical agent has the world open up invitingly before her.

Caught in the relentless downward drive of the price mechanism toward zero, capitalism has only a few paths forward, none of them plausible. It could continue to spin off new markets and pricier technologies to service them—but here again, the logic of the zero marginal cost effect would just kick in with redoubled force. It could seek to extract greater margins from property rights, following the strategies of the record industry in the face of the mp3 revolution—but we all know how that turned out. Or, faced with plummeting labor demand (and the teetering regime of what Bafflerite David Graeber has memorably dubbed “bullshit jobs”), it could transform more routine nonmarket interactions into fee-based commercial concerns—but that wouldn’t begin to make up for the revenues and jobs lost to the frictionless flow of information. “You could pay wages for housework, turn all sexual relationships into paid work, mums with toddlers in the park could charge each other a penny each time they took turns to push the swings,” Mason writes. “But it would be an economy in revolt against technological progress.”

And that progress adds up, in the big picture, to one simple axiom: “An economy based on information, with its tendency to zero-cost products and weak property rights, cannot be a capitalist economy.” (The italics are Mason’s.) It’s a nifty formulation for a faux-economic law, particularly since it permits Mason to sidestep the all-too palpable tendency of the information economy to promote big-data monopolies that systematically drive prices up and wages down, whether via the notorious “surge pricing” of Uber and other rentier-style service cartels, or through the push to replace assembly-line workers with robots––which is particularly aggressive, as it happens, at the Foxconn factories in China that do contract work for Silicon Valley leviathans. In reality, the information economy is poised to drive the wage component of production toward zero, even as it enlists the price mechanism into the service of the techno-oligarchy’s plutocratic whim of the moment.

Down in the Valley

In marshaling this argument for the labor left, and in highlighting the vulnerabilities of the neoliberal regime’s drive to squeeze greater profits out of a diminishing capitalist bottom line, Mason is largely rehashing the fashionable memes that have bewitched the digital economy for nearly three decades now. Former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson popularized the price-point-zero argument in his 2009 new economy broadside, Free. Upon inspection, Free turned out to be cobbled together with research lifted, sans acknowledgment, from Wikipedia—a little-noted scandal that actually spoke more eloquently about the digital mode of production than Anderson’s own labored case ever could. You find a freely distributed intellectual resource, plunder liberally, repackage it under your TED-sanctioned brand name and publishing house’s nameplate, and presto—you keep the sales royalties.

The zero-marginal-cost model is indistinguishable, in practice, from rentiership, theft, and monopoly. In this respect, it’s no different from that other great node of Silicon Valley liberation: the Apple OS, which has a lineage traceable to Unix and Xerox, and continues to promiscuously adopt features from corporate rivals such as Microsoft and Samsung, as well as from open source Linux programs—when, that is, it’s not fending off megamillion-dollar patent lawsuits from public universities. And back in the golden nineties, Anderson’s still more tripped-out Wired colleague Kevin Kelly pronounced that nearly every element of consensual reality had been upgraded, and liberated, by the computer revolution; his recent book What Technology Wants (2010) largely asserted, over and over again, that the answer to the title question didn’t matter: technology, the sum of all human knowledge, wants “the good,” and hence is deserving of our worship. (His next book, out this summer, is, of course, titled The Inevitable.)

That these glib innovation mantras double as slogans for millennialist liberation––and against ill-specified, pre-digital bad things, like print media or creative control over one’s work product—is scarcely surprising to weary travelers who’ve let their eyes linger on an airport book stall. What’s innovative about Mason’s argument is his forcible transplantation of the Wired dogma out of its native capitalist habitat, and into the vanguard of anti-austerity activism. The results are distinctly strained, and far from pretty.

The Workers Paradise, Without the Workers

Postcapitalism, as Mason envisions it, is a far cry from the old discredited industrial-era project known as socialism. What’s more, the nature of work has grown so profoundly unstable and footloose under the zero-seeking forces of digital commerce that the systematic degradation of labor is likewise a relic of the industrial age. “Work—the defining activity of capitalism,” Mason announces in one of his trademark italicized apothegms that make little actual sense, “is losing its centrality both to exploitation and resistance.” Give the information revolution enough time, he asserts, and it “will erode the link between labor and value altogether.”

Mason is largely rehashing the fashionable memes that have bewitched the digital economy for nearly three decades now.

This last claim is particularly flummoxing—not only because there’s no evidence to support it, but also because Mason, diehard British labor radical that he is, devotes the bulk of the economic theory informing Postcapitalism to (if I may borrow his forcefully epiphanic style here) insisting on the continued valence of the labor theory of value. If that value is to be consigned, with all the rest of the atrophied capitalist order, to history’s digital dustbin, then why bother with its rhetorical defense? The closest Mason can come to an answer is, alas, another invocation of the labor theory’s plastic obedience to the digital world’s incorrigible trippiness: “Only the labour theory can properly comprehend what it means economically, if the world of physical objects becomes alive with information.” Grover Norquist at Burning Man could scarcely have put it any better.

The more one ponders the mysteries of our information age as Mason limns them, the more one discomfiting fact becomes plain: not only is there no place for work in the postcapitalist future, but there’s no evident place for workers—i.e., ordinary product-crafting, task-oriented humanity. Recall that the new human selected for optimal advancement in the postcapitalist schema is the “educated and connected” one—and in our currently structured economic world, those descriptors are often interchangeable with “rich and leisured. 

So, as work begins to break up into undifferentiated allotments of information, the historical working class will follow suit. “Though it is not dead,” Mason writes indulgently, “the working class is living through a moment of sublation. It will survive in a form so different that it will probably feel like something else. As a historical subject, it is being replaced by a diverse, global population whose battlefield is all aspects of society—not just work—and whose lifestyle is not about solidarity but impermanence.” For a chronically impermanent corps of insurgents to wage an uprising against “all aspects of society”––while explicitly denied the experience of workplace confraternity or other face-to-face brands of social solidarity—seems less a bold prophecy than a grandiose wish-fulfillment fantasy. After all, three decades or so into the digital revolution, there’s scant evidence that networked mass resistance has accomplished much of anything, despite the overblown claims that social media connectivity created popular revolts during the 2011 Iran election protests and the 2012 Arab Spring. Even when it comes to the digital world’s pet populist crusades, such as the war on copyright and the case for net neutrality, the actual mobilization of Netizens into battle with society at large is an equivocal achievement at best.

As for the future political complexion of the dissolving working class as it ramifies through the world at large, well, that will just depend, won’t it? Take the plight of workers in China. Yes, it may be the case that they’re housed in soul-killing company dormitories and have been driven to suicide in such numbers that some major manufacturers have installed nets on the premises to catch falling bodies. But check out their social media savvy!

In 2014, 30,000 shoe workers at Yue Yuen factory in Shenzhen staged the first big strike to use group messaging and micro-blogging as organizational tools. . . .Terrifyingly for the Chinese authorities, the factory workers in Shenzhen were using the very same technology as the liberal, networked students who in 2014 staged the democracy protest known as Occupy Central in Hong Kong. If you accept that the main faultline in the modern world is between networks and hierarchies, then China is sitting right on top of it. And China’s workers—who for now look like digital rebels but analogue slaves—are at the heart of the phenomenon of networked rebellion. These networked movements are evidence that a new historical subject exists. It is not just the working class in a different guise; it is networked humanity.

Well, no. Workers don’t stop being workers, and they don’t accrue political agency in a repressive society by enhancing their Klout scores. For all their networked gadgetry, the Shenzhen workers organized and recruited the way that working-class communities have done since the dawn of the industrial age: by airing grievances in the secure confines of their own physical communities. “In Yue Yuen,” one strike organizer told the China Labour Bulletin, “it often happens that a Taiwan guy”—i.e., a senior management executive—“wants to punish a section head, but the latter gets together with a fellow villager, also a section head, to mobilize a strike. . . . [Section heads] didn’t publicly direct the strike, they did it secretly because this is related to their vital interests.”

So much for the vaunted transparency of the digital networked world. Should labor leaders in the world’s largest manufacturing economy elect to publicize their position in casual speech, let alone on social media, their work will vanish—not in the dialectically cozy sense of the phrase, but in the way that makes it impossible to feed themselves and their families. Meanwhile, the Internet did play a role in the strike action, but as is often the case in authoritarian regimes, it was as much a source of government disinformation as a preserve of world-conquering worker empowerment. Under Chinese law, only the government-backed labor federation is recognized as a bargaining agent for workers—and once this huge paternalist outfit started to posture online, confusion spread among the strikers as to what might be a legitimate demand floated by the federation, and what was simply a short-term tactic to get the strikers back on the line. “When we saw what was on the Federation’s microblog we thought they would be on our side,” one veteran organizer recalled. “But we were in for a surprise. . . . We had high hopes for the Federation but we were tricked. Now the Federation says they can help in the union re-election, but the activists dare not show up; otherwise, they’ll get into trouble.”

The new historical subject, in other words, bears an awfully strong resemblance to the old Chinese surveillance state—or if you prefer a Western analogue, the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. The networked stayed networked, and hierarchs stayed in control.

Looking Backward

Mason’s casual elision of workers’ actually existing struggles in the workplace is part of a long tradition of impatience among the Western left: engaged thinkers will evince just enough interest in, and rhetorical solidarity with, the industrial working class to cheerfully nudge it off the historical stage. This was the brunt of the famous Paris ’68 exhortation to office workers: Aux barricades, fonctionnaires! That sentiment telegraphed a certain winking appropriation of Marxist militance. But just as much, it exuded relief: now that the knowledge workers were on hand, maybe they could finally bring off the rebellion that the working-class communards have botched, time and again.

Information doesn’t just want to be free; it wants you, grateful producer/ consumer/ citizen, to be free. It’s all so effortless, so seamless!

Further back in the American radical scene, Edward Bellamy, in his utopian novel of a postcapitalist social order, Looking Backward, delivered a portrait of an information economy thoroughly drained of social conflict and politics. In the novel, Julian West, a young Bostonian, undergoes a routine medical procedure in 1887 and awakens in the year 2000. He finds that the Boston of the future is a world without social conflict, political controversy, or really anything of enduring public interest. Everyone’s material needs are met through an elaborate system of pneumatic tubes, supplying goods on demand—not unlike the business model of Amazon Prime. Work is performed only as a collective duty to the state, not for personal enrichment or the satisfaction of base social ambitions. Eventually, West learns that the America of the future has arrived at this placid condition after a ruinous industrial civil war, which all but wiped out the aggrieved working class. With that crucible behind the new America, one of West’s kindly interlocutors explains, “the industry and commerce of the country . . . were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for common profit.”

Bellamy’s evocation of this administrative-state utopia is meant to be attractive—indeed, it helped launch the short-lived radical Nationalist movement during the late nineteenth century. But like most utopias, it comes across as supremely boring and soul-killing—bereft of meaningful historical agency and meaningful historical challenges in equal parts. Still, Looking Backward conveyed a useful moral, in spite of itself: a republic shorn of its workers slides all too easily into authoritarian complacency and consumer indolence.

Just as Bellamy makes the most enduring features of his perfect society the achingly dull and procedural ones—the droning loudspeaker systems issuing instructions to the bovine public, the group meals, the pneumatic tubes––social prophets of Mason’s stripe fetishize the banal routines of online life out of all sensible proportion. In Mason’s coming utopia, workers are everywhere falling apart, sublating and randomly recomposing like quantum particles. But information, the great transitive force of our future, is weirdly uniform in its role as designated liberating force of first resort. Information doesn’t just want to be free; it wants you, grateful producer/consumer/citizen, to be free. It’s all so effortless, so seamless! “How many generations of rebels,” Mason wonders, “wasted their lives in garrets writing angry poetry, cursing the injustice of the world and their own paralysis?” It turns out they just needed to employ some different Boolean searches, is all!

In hi-tech engineering, before a single piece of metal is shaped, objects are designed virtually, tested virtually, and even ‘manufactured’ virtually—the whole process modeled from start to finish—on computers. The mistakes are discovered and rectified at the design stage, in a way that was impossible before 3-D simulations came about. By analogy, the same goes for the design of a postcapitalist. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted—whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the ‘imagineering’ session of a startup company.

That sense of gnawing injustice and paralysis those old industrial age loser-poets used to complain about? For information savants, another easy fix! “Because its precondition is abundance, postcapitalism will deliver some form of social justice spontaneously.” Phew, well, that’s a relief! 

Once information leaches into every last object in the physical world, via the ballyhooed advent of the Internet of Things, well, it’s all largely pro forma mop-up work. This will be “the real take-off point for the information economy,” Mason writes. “From then on, the key principle is to create democratic social control over aggregated information”—never mind that all such information will be monetized and cartelized from the handful of digital monopolists who’ve wired our homes and workplaces for real-time feedback on our formerly private habits and behaviors. The state will, of course, be modeled on Wikipedia, collaborating and sharing information “to nurture the new economic forms to the point where they take off and operate organically.” Then it’s just a couple of short steps to “let market forces disappear,” “socialize the finance system,” and “pay everyone a basic income,” per three of Mason’s casually dismissive closing chapter subheads.

We don’t like to linger on the thought that there’s precious little daylight between the enforcers of authoritarian factory discipline in the unfree East and the liberty-defending wizards of American private equity.

Of course, information isn’t an undifferentiated liberationist good. It doesn’t create any economic systems or behaviors—let alone social justice—organically or spontaneously. Like any other sphere of our common life, it’s prey to ideological distortions, hackery, and operational blindspots. To take just one strikingly relevant example, recall the covertly recorded speech that Mitt Romney delivered to GOP donors in Boca Raton, Florida, during the 2012 presidential campaign. Now, here was something that had all the earmarks of a digital media intervention right out of the Paul Mason playbook: A temp catering employee heard Romney holding forth on matters of wealth inequality, and took to his camera to capture the proceedings on video, later posting the damning clip on YouTube and a number of liberal blogs. The GOP nominee spouted his nonsensical line about 47 percent of Americans being on the government dole, mere automatons programmed to support the redistributionist agenda of President Obama and the Democrats. As the story burst into the cable news cycle, an abashed Romney tried to cough out a series of unconvincing apologies for his remarks, and there the narrative stood—as one of the major turning points in what had been, until then, a hard-fought battle between the major party candidates.

But here’s the thing: Scott Prouty, the catering worker who filmed Romney’s talk, wasn’t focused at all on the infamous 47 percent quote. Instead, what caught Prouty’s outraged attention was an anecdote Romney related about a visit to China during his private equity days. Romney took a tour of a Chinese mega-factory, where workers were quartered in cramped dormitories. One of his guides pointed out that the workers’ campus was encircled with guard towers and barbed wire—and the candidate recalled that he professed some shock that conditions there were so bad that workers had to be penned up. No, that wasn’t it at all, his guide insisted: the towers and wire fences were there to keep out people desperate to come in and work there.

It’s the sort of anecdote designed to garner appreciative chuckles among right-wing donors—you see, everyone misunderstands just how awesome it is to work for us!

It also falls instantly apart under critical scrutiny. If aspiring workers were mobbing a workers’ encampment to somehow sneak their way onto a production line, they’d be detected by the plant’s management, and duly evicted. Even if they eluded early detection, then come nightfall, they’d be rather conspicuously bedless. (Once more in the real world, hierarchies trump resourceful networking. 

In short, Scott Prouty’s outrage was abundantly justified. Romney “just walked through this horrendous place and thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty good,’” Prouty explained to MSNBC host Ed Schultz. Indeed, the reason Prouty leaked his video to Mother Jones editor David Corn had nothing to do with the 47 percent remark; he did it because Corn had earlier published an expose of how Romney had steered Bain Capital cash into several shady manufacturing concerns in China.

But that could never be a viable media meme in our information age. There was something too dismally old-school-plutocratic about the Republican nominee’s camaraderie with China’s strongman factory managers. American voters and media producers simply aren’t attuned to the notion that, at this late date, an aspiring leader of the U.S. economy is beguiled by a sweated workers’ compound as a vision of our great globalized free-trade future—any more than Paul Mason is detained by the boring and upsetting news that these same Chinese manufacturing moguls exploit their networked workforces by spreading disinformation across the gloriously liberating agoras of the social media landscape. We don’t like to linger on the thought that there’s precious little daylight, in the grand neoliberal scheme of things, between the enforcers of authoritarian factory discipline in the unfree East and the liberty-defending wizards of American private equity. Nor do we want, evidently, to disturb the placid, do-nothing lefty-libertarian saga of how the chirping devices coming off those selfsame assembly lines are covertly engineering capitalism’s predestined downfall.

No, we much prefer the story of how Chinese workers are the vanguard of info-liberation, because they use gadgets and microblogging platforms just like we do. And it doesn’t really matter whether the person spinning that fable is a maverick-visionary on corporate retainer like Kevin Kelly, a maestro of jukebox agitprop like Jeremy Rifkin, or a reformed socialist like Paul Mason. Maybe this is how history ends after all.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.