Paul Mason: “Momentum itself is at a crossroads.”
Labour List reports,
Corbyn cheerleader Paul Mason has joined Momentum, he disclosed today, as internal disputes continued with senior members rejecting claims they had attempted to thwart democracy through “Blairite” manoeuvres.
Former BBC and Channel 4 journalist Mason said his decision to sign up was in part to support efforts to implement online all-member ballots which will decide how the group is run.
The proposed democratic structure, which would see all of Momentum’s 20,000 members vote on strategic decisions, has proved controversial, with officers on the steering committee publicly criticising the changes.
Now supporters of the reforms, which are backed by the group’s chair Jon Lansman, have defended the decision robustly, following a weekend of accusations of “bureaucratic manipulation” and a “coup”. Much of the internal unrest has played out in public, with steering committee members Jill Mountford and Michael Chessum penning public statements about their unhappiness.
Paul Mason’s announcement that he has joined Momentum – at a time when the grass-roots organisation faces a serious crisis – prompts a number of reflections.
This Blog has commented before that Mason began his journey in an activist direction in Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere. The New Global Revolutions. Paul Mason. Review. Andrew Coates.
To Mason there are signs of the “emancipated human being” emerging “spontaneously from within the breakdown of the old order”. The illumination of the multitude can be seen in the “act of taking a space and forming a community” – from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. This showed “the deployment of digital communications at work, in social life, and now in the forms of protest.” But in the tradition Mason refers to, there are more sceptical strands. Capital and the state can colonise such “smooth spaces” (democratic and equal areas) and make them “striated” (integrated into established exploitation and power) is less obvious (A Thousand Plateaus. Gilles Deleuze. Félix Guattari. 2003)
Paul Mason’s book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2015) is an important book brimming with ideas. It uses many Marxist concepts (echoing Ernest Mandel on Kondratiev waves as in Long waves of capitalist development: the Marxist interpretation. 1980). This is the idea that capitalist development and crises, innovation and stagnation, are long-term cycles (we are on the downward one at present). We will leave it to specialists to judge how well he has integrated this theory into PostCapitalism and whether the premise stands in the first place. But, that said, it is always refreshing to see – as will be seen below – somebody on the left who writes about the world today beyond the categories of 1917 ‘Leninism’.
The heart of PostCapitalism is a reflection that develops the labour theory of value in modern conditions. “As Marx speculated, many commodities, such as software, music, and designs for objects to be reproduced by machines, can now be reproduced at virtually no cost. This leads to a conceptualisation of “immaterial” labour, the basis of what he calls “post capitalism”. “
“The defeat of organised labour did not enable – as the neoliberals thought – a ‘new kind of capitalism’ but rather the extension of the fourth long wave on the basis of stagnant wage growth and atomisation. Instead of being forded to innovate their way out of the crisis using technology, as during the late stage of all three previous cycles, the 1 per cent simple imposed penury and atomisation on the working class.”(PostCapitalism Page 93)
He draws on Marx’s Fragment on Machines (a favourite text of the writers such as Toni Negri and Michael Hardt. (Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.) and Paolo Virno (A Grammar of the Multitude 2004). This is a form of social order and economics, within capitalism itself, fostered by the (apparent) central role of information in the economy, civil society, and the state.
As Mason says,
the Niches and hollows out the markets system “new forms are developing, new forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new legal contracts” the “sharing economy”, “common” ‘peer production.” (PostCapitalism Page xxii)
Mason uses a number of terms to describe the emergence of ‘post-capitalism’. The key conceptual divide is not class struggle but “networks v hierarchies”. This is a belief that there is an inherent desire for a “beyond” capitalism in the search for human autonomy. The central lever of change in this direction is the “networked individual”.
At this point it would be better to look at PostCapitalism in terms of political agency. That is ““New opposition movements, “determined to avoid the power structures and abuses that hierarchies bring…” (PostCapitalism. Page xxii)
As David Tyfield notes (On Paul Mason’s ‘Post-Capitalism’ – An extended review. 2015)
Realizing the end of capitalism demands a social force actually to seize the reins of power. One may expect, given the Marxian resources used to this point, that the identity of this social agency would be obvious. Mason, however, makes a distinct and compelling break with his own orthodoxy at this point, arguing that post-capitalism will not be constructed by the ‘working class’. Indeed, going further, he argues that Left-wing movements seeking to expedite the emergence of a progressive information post-capitalism must do some profound rethinking of political shibboleths.
What is needed instead is the construction of a new global social movement, focused not on communal identities as exploited workers but on new and dynamic collective identities as enabled and emancipated and interconnected persons, enjoying the abundance and leisure of an equitable and socially just information society. On this point, then, Mason presents some speculations regarding how the political economy of this post-capitalist utopia could be organized, before finishing with an extended discussion of how we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’ and what such a ‘transition’ could involve.
Although since he does refer to Cornelius Castoriadis or the contemporary current inspired by his ideas, this closely resembles the dynamic of ‘autonomy’ versus “heteronomy”. Humans, networking on their own initiative, face the ‘heteronomous’ (that is not just laws laid down by desire instead of reason but by ‘external’ forces, extra-social authorities ). Or simply, the world of capitalism constructed outside their control, and against their will. Creative, or “enabled” individuals, need to seize control of the ‘imaginary construction of society”. In Serge Latouche’s Cornelius Castoriadis ou l’autonomie radicale (2014) this goal is summarised as “l’autonomie individuelle et la participation de tous aux décisions qui les concernent.” – individual autonomy (self-rule) and the participation of everybody in decisions which concern them. It will be the basis of “l’utopie concrète”. The author, who also supports a ‘zero-growth’ (décroissance) version of Green politics, believes equally that everybody except a tiny minority (crudely, those in control of the ‘heteronomous’ world, capitalists and politicians) has an interest in this ‘project’.
Latouche makes clear the direction one can follow once ‘identities’ are reordered around terms like networks/hierarchies – or self-determined autonomy against external command. Mason believes we live in a “Post-scarcity” world, in which, referring to the radical theorist André Gorz (a figure that brings the two writers close), “Info-tech makes the abolition of work possible. All that prevents it is the social structure we know as capitalism.”(PostCapitalism Page 181)
Some of this is perhaps at odds with zero-growth theory (though both writer’s visions of the future are too vaguely defined to engage in a serious confrontation). But in other respects his vision of the future has parallels with Latouche: eventually work will become voluntary, basic commodities and public services are free and economic management becomes primarily an issue of energy and resources, not capital and labour. That will be, we might conjecture, the best version of “post-capitalism”. In some respects we are ‘already there’ in that significant commodities in the digital economy are free and open-source (FOSS) and non-capitalist, such as Linux, Firefox and Wikipedia.
A transition is summarised as follows:
The road-map will involve harnessing zero-marginal-cost production, and seeking to avoid the failings of twentieth-century Communism and capitalism. The section articulates ‘five principles of transition’, all envisaged operating through non-hierarchical social networks:
- To use massive amounts of real data to understand, model, and test ideas for social change so that they fit observable trends in human behaviour.
- Ecological sustainability.
- Ensuring that a transition to post-capitalism is not conceptualised simply in economic terms, but in wider human terms.
- To address problems with diverse approaches, rather than attempting monolithic solutions.
- Maximise the power of information.
Mason boldly announces that more widely, “Under a government that embraced postcapitalism, the state, the corporate sector and public corporation could be made to pursue radically different needs with relatively low-cost changes to regulation, underpinned by a radical programme to shrink debt.”(Post Capitalism Page 278)
I already have a problem with Mason’s reference to a foreshadowing for this transition to Alexander Bogdanov‘s novel Red Star: like all utopias, from Étienne Cabet‘s Voyage en Icarie (1844) onwards, it looks to me more like an order than a democracy.
In the current New Left Review Rob Lucas (The Free Machine) offers a significant critical account of Mason’s views.
After outlining the wider economics (briefly sketched above) he falls upon the networked individual.
Mason’s ‘networked individual’ might be read more as a figure of the future, an incarnation of the ‘social individual’ that Marx meditated upon in the 1844 ‘Notes on James Mill’: developed yet suppressed by capitalist reality, an individual no longer separated from the social means of reproducing her own life, and able to appropriate finally—in a formulation from the Grundrisse—‘all the powers of science and of nature’ and of ‘social combination and social intercourse’ that it has hitherto been capital’s task to develop. For now those powers remain largely locked in opaque technical infrastructures that someone else owns, scholarly literature in gigantic silos accessible only to those with the requisite affiliations.
Rather than Latouche’s bald assertion of a universal interest in autonomy, founded ultimately on our existence as beings on an ecosystem called Earth, Mason talks of the potential contradictions of capitalism.
But, as Lucas notes,
The rise of information cannot just mean the emergence of a new mode of production which can sit harmoniously alongside an enduring capitalist one—as in Yochai Benkler’s visions—or a stable new regime of capitalist accumulation, as in some post-autonomist interpretations, since ‘an economy based on information’ cannot ‘be a capitalist economy’.
The finality of this judgement sits a little awkwardly with Mason’s insistence that the transition will have to be implemented by a specific subject. But who should this be? Mason surveys the history of the workers’ movement, from rebellion (1900s) and repression (1930s) to co-existence (1950s), arguing that its spontaneous ideology was one of work-place control, solidarity, self-education and ‘the creation of a parallel world’. This, rather than trade-union reformism or revolutionary communism, was what the shop stewards who emerged outside unions supporting the First World War to form factory committees and councils, were looking for. But after the mass-slaughter of workers through fascism and war, a settlement came about in which work seemed ‘absurd, ridiculous and boring’, and from the early 1960s workers could see that a dramatic increase in automation was ‘no longer science fiction’.
These difficulties aside, out of this changes that have taken place since automation and the information society, emerges the “The figure of ‘the network’, ” the alternative to Bolshevism’s command and control.“
A network is a set of connections, it may be a way of giving a broad picture of a social force (a market, a cycle of production, a political movement, even a ‘state’). But Mason does not precisely define one – we are all networked, any more than the recent theories of ‘populism’ have succeeded in demarcating the ‘people’ from the elite.
Lucas, if one can simplify his argument, could be said to state that in the absence of any defined social ‘subject’ of historical change, “The theory risks becoming a sort of signpost merely pointing at a technological sublime.” Furthermore, “It’s not clear at which point Mason’s postcapitalist transition would definitively issue into a stable new mode of production. “
Now however Mason appears to have found his subject-object of historical change: Momentum.
Why I joined Momentum. Paul Mason.
Momentum itself is at a crossroads.
It faces two alternative futures: one in which all the negative, hierarchical and factionalist tendencies of the 20th century left are allowed to resurface; another in which Momentum — and ultimately Labour itself — becomes a horizontal, consensus-based organization, directly accountable to its mass of members.
Ones hackles are raised by the very term “consensus based” – presumably that means no elections but something ‘superior’ to them.
Mason later elaborates on this,
As to its internal structures, Momentum should take major decisions by consensus, using electronic democracy to engage every dues-paying member.
As L.A. Kaufmann puts it (The Theology of Consensus).
Instead of voting a controversial plan up or down, groups that make decisions by consensus work to refine the plan until everyone finds it acceptable. A primer on the NYC General Assembly website, the structural expression of the Occupy movement, explains, “Consensus is a creative thinking process: When we vote, we decide between two alternatives. With consensus, we take an issue, hear the range of enthusiasm, ideas and concerns about it, and synthesize a proposal that best serves everybody’s vision.”
Now let’s just note for the moment (apart from the failures of this model in the Occupy movement, and more recently, this very year, in efforts to use the model, even partially, in the unsuccessful Nuit Debout movement in France) that Jeremy Corbyn was not elected by consensus. That one of the few issues this Blog agrees with Chantal Mouffe on is the need for dissensus – the free clash of opinions – for the functioning of democracy. That a challenge to the existing political set up creates stasis, in the sense used by Giorgio Agambem, an upsetting of order and agreement that has parallels to civil war. Which it is the business of democracy to resolve as peacefully as possible.
Now let’s look at the practice.
Electronic democracy is another problem, though before looking at its difficulties we should note that some critics of the Momentum leadership were recently trumpeting this method for Labour members to elect the shadow cabinet.
That E-democracy is no panacea can be seen by its central importance in Beppe Grillo‘s Movimento 5 Stelle: a means by his clique to run the show and not a democratic tool at all.
That said, in practice Mason’s world does not look to me like a consensual model of politics: “Faced with an unprecedented level of hostility and sabotage from the media, the business elite, Labour can only win as an insurgency.“
How on earth one could contain this clash, or quarantine it off, from the island of Momentum consensus is hard to tell. Perhaps this small-groups can operate it. And remain small groups.
Now I agree with the fine intentions behind this next statement, ” We need to turn half a million-plus members into activists: people proud to be identified with Labour as the party of social justice; people equipped with the ideas and organizational skills to start making a difference…”
This is also in the realm of good intentions:
I am not worried about “entryism”. Anybody who is in a left wing group or party right now should be allowed to join Momentum, so long as they openly and irrevocably dissolve their organizations and pledge to support Labour in all future elections.
Under party rules it would take them two years to become members so I favour a rule change to shorten that to a few weeks. Ditto for anybody who wants to leave the Greens or SNP and join Labour.
The problem is not “entryism”: it is a view of politics whereby it becomes the task of a small group to capture and direct a larger organization.
That’s what the Blairites did to Labour; we don’t want a left wing version of it. Above all we don’t want a scenario where die-hard Bolshevik re-enactment groups decide to take over Momentum, so that it can then take over Labour, and then Labour takes over the state.
I think the most revolutionary thing we can achieve is to put a left Labour government in power: to switch off the neoliberal privatization machine, to end expeditionary warfare and the arming of dictators, to redistribute both wealth and power to the people.
And this is about as ‘new’ as the ‘New Left’ circa, er, 1961.
We also have to propagate a new way of doing politics — emulating the best of the grassroots and horizontal movements, embracing popular participation, people’s plans, people’s budgets and popular assemblies.
If Mason’s contribution for the simple reason that it talks of wider issues and might deflect attention away from rants against Momentum’s leadership is welcome it is far from clear that is about to become a full political actor in the Labour Party let alone the new subject-object of the transition from capitalism to ‘post-capitalism’.