by Paul Mason
Paul Mason continues his sketch of a postcapitalist world by drawing out its implications for something in increasingly short supply—time.
If we are lucky, the world stands on the brink of a rapid transition beyond carbon. We know how the post-carbon transition will be measured: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other bodies have created fairly detailed metrics and timetables. We need to halve carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve zero net carbon by 2050.
But suppose, on the same timescale, we wanted to begin a transition beyond capitalism. How would we measure it? The only time it was attempted before began with the hubris of ‘war communism’ under Vladimir Lenin and ended with the decay and sclerosis of Leonid Brezhnev’s USSR. One of the most startling aspects of the failed Soviet transition was its utter theoretical confusion.
The economist Yevgeny Preobrazhensky understood the transition as the interplay between the objective laws of the market and attempts to plan the economy, But under Stalinist
The postcapitalism thesis suggests a different route beyond the market, premised on the decisive automation of productive activity, the delinking of work from wages, the leveraging of the network effect and the democratisation of data. States need to:
• enable the emergence of a non-market sector of the economy, consisting of mutuals, co-operatives and pools of relative abundance;
• expand the state sector to provide universal basic services and a basic income;
• enhance network effects, to create free utility not captured by private ownership and market exchange, and
• enact laws to break up tech monopolies and discourage rent-seeking business models, including more traditional rent-seekers such as property and financial speculators.
Labour theory of value
But how to measure progress? Though Preobrazhensky got many things wrong, one of the most important principles he introduced to transitional economics was that the state should ‘demystify’ its own actions. While Marx, following Smith and Ricardo, had used the
The theory suggests that the monetary value of everything created within a given economy is equivalent to the
In traditional capitalism, surplus generation is driven by coercing more work out of the workforce than is needed to reproduce
First is the so-called zero-marginal-cost effect, by which the price of a commodity falls exponentially towards its production cost, leaving firms highly reliant on market power (over workers, consumers
Fall in working hours
At the heart of a postcapitalist transition is the promotion of both of these outcomes. The break-up and/or public ownership of big corporations, removing their predatory pricing power, promotes the collapse of prices towards production costs. Meanwhile, empowering wage bargaining and providing a high social wage of free public services and universal welfare encourages rapid automation of the economy, with a resultant fall in the working hours necessary to reproduce human life.
Preobrazhensky wrote that ‘for the transitional epoch … the thermometer that determines the success of the new society is the increase … in the
In the UK, the average annual number of hours worked per worker has fallen from 2,200 to 1,700 since 1950. There are 8,760 hours in a year. If we deduct 2,920 hours for sleep that means the average worker enjoys 4,140 hours of leisure time per year (presuming five weeks holiday, the weekend, bank holidays and other leaves-of-absence).
But mainstream economics shows little interest in leisure time as
Blurred dividing line
Yet in less than a generation, networked information technology has begun to blur the dividing line between work and leisure. The 1,700 work hours include time spent on smartphones or using a work computer to make consumer transactions or carry out personal interactions. Though impossible in the highly-coerced jobs at the low-skilled end of the
The quid pro quo is that these self-same workers have to do large amounts of work in their leisure time. As a result, the capitalist obsession with establishing abstract units of work time and imposing precise movements on workers, which began under Taylorism in the 1890s, has become much less important than the completion of projects to certain deadlines and to a given quality.
Rather than just a single value stream, emanating from exploitation in the workplace, there are now three value streams originating from our typical activities. First is work, which produces surplus value in the traditional Marxist sense and provides the wages with which the surplus can be
This has profound implications for the two-dimensional trade-union or social-democratic view of ‘work-life balance’: it can’t just be about reducing the 1,700 hours average work per year by one fifth.
The information capitalists and the rent-seekers need, above all, a workforce which is employed securely enough to gain access to the two most important devices: a smartphone and a bank account (which are being merged into a single technology via the Apple Wallet, Paypal and Facebook’s new digital currency). They do not need the rate of surplus extraction to be high within productive work itself—just for wages to look high enough to match the interest rate and for work discipline to be weak enough so that the employee can use her phone.
We could, in theory, expand ‘leisure time’ while still facilitating the enslavement of large parts of the workforce to these
The project has to be conceived synergistically. Legislating for a shorter working week, with no loss of pay, promotes automation. Introducing a universal basic income and services provides a one-time subsidy for rapid automation. It weakens the link between subsistence and work, allowing more people to survive as well-paid work becomes scarce—and it offsets the inevitably weak bargaining power of labour in a mercurial, financialised economy.
Even a switch from a five- to a four-day week would create a huge cultural shift in attitudes to work: those who have
But a shift to a three-day week would go further: it would frame non-work as the norm and paid work as the exception. Cultural production and consumption, by a workforce less stressed, less controlled by alienating devices and more educated, would become a major feature of life for the mass of people.
Thriving non-market sector
Into this space, state support for non-market business models would then begin to create a thriving non-market economic sector with its own internal synergies. We would see non-market supply chains begin to form, as well as the more horizontal synergies which exist between consumer and producer co-ops in cities like Madrid and Amsterdam (where the state promotes their creation). There is nothing—other than the predatory nature of the incumbent corporations and the spinelessness of legislators—to stop us mandating the platform co-operative as the norm for minicab hiring or short-term property lets. Ditto for the provision of capital to co-ops and non-profit banks by the state.
As I argued in Postcapitalism, the role of the state is not to plan precise outcomes but to create a space for new institutions, property forms, sources of capital and producer behaviours. For Preobrazhensky—who was of course shot during the Great Purge in 1937—the measure of advancing socialism was the number of things provided by the state. The worker’s entitlement to these things was always related, via a token system or a non-tradeable currency, to the amount of work done.
For us, the measure of advancing postcapitalism is the falling number of hours worked in the wages system, the rising amount of leisure time spent not
Though there will be other metrics—such as falling poverty, rising wellbeing and a collapse in the rate of interest chargeable to consumers—the ultimate measure of the transition beyond capitalism will be time.
This article is a joint publication by Social Europe and IPS-Journal
(Paul Mason is a leading British writer and broadcaster and author of Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future.)
by Paul Mason