Published by Allen Lane, 2015
Lost? Mason would have given a better clue as to what he was about if he had called his book Post Capital. For then many would have understood its intellectual heritage in Marx’s Capital. His aim is to tell us how capitalism will be superseded. His method is that of Marx’s Theory of History; the idea that changes in the technology of production lead to changes in the social way that production and society is organised. So Mason tells us about the move from rural agricultural technologies to urban industrial technologies. These changes were the prime cause of the end of feudal social relations, based on land and a promise of service in return for protection, and the beginning of capitalism, with social relations based on the market and private ownership of the means of production. As Marx succinctly put it ‘the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.’
Mason’s case is that he has found the change in technology that will lead to a new social and political system, post capitalism. Plenty of airport books will tell you that the personal computer, the smart phone, the internet and the coming internet of things – the information economy – is changing the world. Mason believes that it also heralds the end of capitalism. His basic point is an economic one. The cost of reproducing information – whether a book, a piece of music, the software that runs a complex airliner, or even the design of that airliner – is effectively zero. I can just download it. Because of that, the dominant relationship between people using that information will not be that of seller and buyer. Why should anyone buy it if they can just copy it? Instead the relationship will be one of sharing. And an economy based on sharing, not the market and private ownership, will be quite different from capitalism.
Mason argues that we can see the beginnings of this sharing economy in open source software and Wikipedia, which are produced outside the market and shared. And following Marx’s idea of the role of the working class in creating socialism, the group of people who will bring about this social change will be the new class of educated connected individuals, participating in a new connected non-hierarchical society.
Is Mason right? It is exhilarating to read a book so optimistic but also hard-headed about the future. However, I think he is wrong. Capitalism has responded to information copying by both strengthening intellectual property rights and creating information monopolies like Apple and Google. Open Source software has not killed off its commercial competitors. More important, while part of the economy is based on information, most of it is not. Essentials like food and energy cannot be simply copied for nothing. And Mason is blind to the fact that a large sharing economy already exists in the things that we (actually mainly women) do for each other – cooking, washing, caring, housework – at home, which has so far co-existed with capitalism.
So I doubt if educated networked individuals all busy creating and sharing information are going to bring down capitalism. Mason has a penultimate chapter on the environmental crisis, which looks very much like an afterthought. Yet surely the change this crisis is likely to bring to our energy intensive economy as cheap energy supplies decline, coupled with the effects of global climate change on our food supply, is a far more fundamental technological change than the information economy, and could well change the nature of capitalism. But it is less attractive to contemplate than the benign effects of the information economy, which marches with the dominant narrative of progress. The ruin of the planet unfortunately does not.