Last week Paul Mason posted a provocative Guardian essay suggesting that the end of capitalism has begun. It’s a precursor to his upcoming book PostCapitalism: A Guide To Our Future which is released in a few days time. I’m looking forward to the book, not least of all because it’s an optimistic counterpoint to the gloomy thought experiment I’ve been intermittently working on for months now: what would techno-fascism look like? I finished my first piece of work on this recently, a contribution to the Centre for Social Ontology’s Social Morphogenesis project, making the case that digital capitalism is giving rise to ‘distracted people’ and ‘fragile movements’ while also facilitating surveillance and repression of a degree of efficiency exponentially greater than any security apparatus that has previously existed in human history.
My rather depressing conclusion concerns spiralling obstacles to durable social movements exercising a sustained influence over political and social life, though not necessarily to protest, politicisation or critique. As the project progresses, I want to explore two tendencies towards digitally facilitated suppression: the ‘hard’ strand, the openly authoritarian mechanisms through which digital technology is used repressively and how they might diffuse, as well as the ‘soft’ strand, the increasingly designed informational environment and the cognitive costs involved in escaping it, as well as their implications for collective action.
I situate these in terms of post-democracy and the political economy of the second machine age: crudely, I’m suggesting that the interests of elites in defensive repression, in the face of growing structural underemployment and unemployment driven by automation, creates a risk that ‘soft’ repression (already a problem) comes to be conjoined with ‘hard’ repression, with a post-democratic political climate likely to render popular restraints upon this drift ineffective. This is compounded by a political context in which the war on terrorism is giving way to the war on extremism, normalising repressive measures against those whose ‘ideology’ (let alone their actions) put them outside the political mainstream. Underlying this analysis are some much more specific arguments about ‘distracted people’ and ‘fragile movements’ which I won’t summarise here, as well as an argument I want to develop of where a trend to vertical integration is likely to lead the tech sector and how this might further incline the culture within it in a way susceptible to acquiescing to some rather extreme measures.
It’s a depressing argument. But I’m looking forward to developing it. The project has been on hold since I finished my CSO paper because I need to finish Social Media for Academics. But I’m presenting an initial version of the overall argument at a Futures Workshop in August and then I’ll begin work on a book proposal in September. I’d like to include two chapters of design fiction in the finished book: one envisioning post-capitalism and another envisioning techno-fascism. I don’t believe either outcome is inexorable but I do find my own arguments worryingly convincing (I’m often very critical of my own work but I’m really pleased with the CSO chapter, it went through a slightly brutal multistage review process and it really shows) at least in terms of currently inoperative social mechanisms that one could easily envision kicking in under future politico-economic circumstances not much worse than our present ones. But if Mason’s book is as provocative as I suspect it will be, I’d like to use it as an optimistic foil, not least of all to preserve the social optimism which I’m concerned that I’m in the process of losing.
This extract from a recent Guardian debate with Mason (HT Phil BC) gives a taste of what the book will be like: https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/membership/video/2015/jul/23/paul-mason-is-capitalism-dead-video (unfortunately it won’t embed on wordpress.com)