Mason says that because information technology has reduced the need for workers by automating more forms of work, disrupted price structures by flooding the market with an abundance of information, and facilitated new mechanisms of sharing and trade, it has begun to erode the fundamental structures of capitalism, coupled with external stresses, it will move us, over time, and with fits and starts, toward a post-capitalist world. The new project of the Left, he argues, should be the creation of alternative structures and institutions to replace those of the dominant culture as they disintegrate.
There is much to like about Mason's essay. I agree with his contention that information technology has been an important force for liberation and for the establishment of a new commons in some spheres. (Though, we ignore the ways in which it also facilitates new forms or repression at our own peril. The manifestation of Foucault's Panopticon in the form of surveillance technologies and the development of drone warfare are as much expressions of information technology as are cell phone cameras that can document police violence and technologies that democratize media.) I also agree that the Left would be well served by an increased focus on what Gandhi called the constructive program. (Though as a counterpart to, not as a replacement for, resistance. Mason argues that we need to stop engaging in defensive tactics. I think that we need to both defend communities, human and wild, and carve out new liberated spaces at the same time.) And there is the fact that a major British journalist is joining the growing and diverse list of public figures from Russell Brand to Pope Francis who are openly and directly critiquing capitalism in a culture that had been largely silent about capitalism since the end of the Cold War.
But Mason's account of the emergence of capitalism is deeply flawed in ways that also cloud his analysis of the present and the future. He writes:
The feudal model of agriculture collided, first, with environmental limits and then with a massive external shock – the Black Death. After that, there was a demographic shock: too few workers for the land, which raised their wages and made the old feudal obligation system impossible to enforce. The labour shortage also forced technological innovation. The new technologies that underpinned the rise of merchant capitalism were the ones that stimulated commerce (printing and accountancy), the creation of tradeable wealth (mining, the compass and fast ships) and productivity (mathematics and the scientific method).The feudal model of agriculture collided, first, with environmental limits and then with a massive external shock – the Black Death. After that, there was a demographic shock: too few workers for the land, which raised their wages and made the old feudal obligation system impossible to enforce. The labour shortage also forced technological innovation. The new technologies that underpinned the rise of merchant capitalism were the ones that stimulated commerce (printing and accountancy), the creation of tradeable wealth (mining, the compass and fast ships) and productivity (mathematics and the scientific method).
This account begins with a popular misconception: that communal agriculture in feudal Europe collapsed because it over-stripped the carrying capacity of the land. The concept comes from a 1968 article by Garrett Hardin called "The Tragedy of the Commons." Hardin argued that in a situation where people farmed land in common, as was common in feudal England, nobody would protect the commons because each individual farmer would have an interest in using more than their share of resources and no incentive for conservation. Hardin's surmise was taken as historical fact -- despite a complete lack of evidence that any such thing did happen. If anything, it appears that communities of peasants organized to regulate the use of common resources.
The end of communal agriculture in England was, in, fact, quite brutal and bloody. People were driven out of their communities and into the cities as communal land was forcibly seized and privatized and sold to people who had become wealthy as a result of Spain paying back its debts to British and other Western European creditors with gold and silver looted from the Americas. This created not a shortage, but an abundance of available labor, which provided the workforce for British industrialization.
This points to the second major flaw in Mason's reading of the history of capitalism -- Mason suggests that technologies like sailing ships and mining techniques were the drivers of capitalism's evolution while ignoring the human and material elements of the system. Technology appears as a force that precipitates cultural change rather than a product of that change. (For an excellent critique of this position see Raymond Williams' "The Technology and the Society.") In his technological determinism, Mason misses a process vital to the emergence of capitalism: the process of accumulation.
Marx observed that the rise of capitalism was dependent on the influx of new wealth in the form of precious metals from the Americas which spawned the emergence of a managerial class, that most beloved class of modern politicians -- the middle class, which Marx called the bourgeoisie. Silvia Federici points out that Marx's account of primitive accumulation was incomplete since it ignored the enclosure of the commons, the driving of rural workers into the cities to form the basis of the proletariat, the creation of a domestic sphere in which women provided free labor, and the witch persecutions which created a climate of terror that facilitated these changes. Slavery provided the work force for capitalist expansion in the Americas, following on the heels of genocide.
Federici also points out that because it depends on infinite growth (nevermind the impossibility of such a thing given the laws of thermodynamics), "capitalism must engage in continual accumulation "capitalist accumulation is structurally dependent on the free appropriation of immense quantities of labor and resources that must appear as externalities to the market"
So does the information economy. This "post industrial" economy still depends on industry and agriculture, these simply occur out of the sight of most people in wealthy nations. The infrastructure of the information economy depends on the mining of minerals and the extraction of fossil fuels from lands expropriated from Indigenous communities and the labor of the displaced rural people from these areas in mines, oil and gas wells, and factories. Will these people be invited to be full participants in a "post-capitalist" economy? And is that what they and their communities want? Most likely not, but Mason doesn't tell us.
Exits from capitalism have always been available to some for a price. The communes of the 1960's and 1970's were largely populated by the children of the bourgeoisie. Burners celebrate the cashless economy of Burning Man while forgetting the process of accumulation that feeds it -- people come to the desert to give away resources they obtained by succeeding within a capitalist economy, often with the benefit of racial, class, and colonial privilege. The post-capitalism Mason envisions may have room for more people, and may even be accessible to most people in the US and Canada and northwestern Europe and parts of Asia, but its hard to see it actually having room for everyone. This is not to say that such exits from capitalism play no role in transforming it -- but they are not complete, they are not enough.
The technologies themselves at play are of mixed provenance. On the one hand they are the product of the Cold War drive to maintain military control in the event of a nuclear war. On the other hand they are the product the work of groups that included a lot of neurodivergent people who had eaten fungi and fungal derivatives rich in serotonergic alkaloids creating a silicon simularum of mycelial webs. There were both repressive and liberatory impulses involved in the emergence of our information technologies, and they continue to be used in both repressive and liberatory ways.
Adrienne Rich once wrote "Poetry never stood a chance of standing outside of history." Neither does technology. Technological developments will both shape and be shaped by the people who engage them, who in turn are influenced by a host of political, economic, cultural, economic, spiritual, and magical forces. We can't rely on technology to bring down capitalism. We have to use it and engage it strategically in combination with old, new, and very old strategies of resistance and cultural innovation.