Saturday, August 27, 2016


THE GENERALIST stays clear of mainstream politics by and large. If I had to pick a badge I'd call myself a counter-culture activist beatnik. Opposed to the Right, my work over the years has often overlapped with the concerns of the Left (whose broad social policies I support) but I am not of the Left.

Which is why it was interesting for me to attend a packed meeting above a pub in Lewes for an address by Richard Seymour, whose book 'Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics' was recently published by Verso.

The warm-up was a union railwayman who gave an energetic speech about why we need guards on the trains, something the train companies and the government seem ready to get rid of. He said that the guards perform some 35 different roles and responsibilities, not just controlling the doors. After three ten-hour days of ACAS negotiations with the company, a reworked agreement was arrived at but then rejected by the government, leaving the union in a limbo situation. We were told that there would be no more strikes. Instead the union will put pressure on councils and MPS and fight the proposals, station by station. Ticketing staff are also threatened with redundancy.

Richard Seymour took the stand and talked fluently for at least 30-40 mins with no notes. I scribbled copious notes which I have tried make good sense of for this post.

RS began by welcoming the emergence of so many young intellectual activists, some seen carrying Rosa Luxembourg tote bags, in response to Jeremy Corbyn, after years of declining membership.

Initially Corbyn got on the leadership campaign supported by 15% of Labour MPs on the basis that no-one thought he would ever win. However this created an unexpected buzz on social media. The three other candidates had more or less the same agenda and were openly defeated by Corbyn in the battle of ideas. Why were they so inept? They panicked and had no answers whereas Corbyn had a clear sense of purpose.

When New Labour were first elected, the Blairites had ideas and energy and made the old hard left look unattractive, In 2015, says Seymour, there were the usual "ritual stitch-ups organisationally" to try and control the party. "In Scotland, the bastion of the old Labour Right were complacent and assumed that it was their turn for power. They attacked the SNP from the Right and were soundly defeated.

"For many years the party was anchored in the centre largely because the trade unions were the Right wing of the party. They would never back a radical candidate preferring moderate policies that they could live with. But the party they founded was in a state of secular decline and existential crisis after years of privatisation." The soft Left candidate Ed Miliband attacked the unions, was too dependent on the Blairites and lost the election.

By summer 2015, the unions were lining up to vote for Corbyn and were drifting to the left in response to neo-liberalism.  Backing Corbyn became union policy, a move that ruptured the political continuum. The unions were back to their default status quo position indicating, says Seymour, "that something was seriously up with the political settlement in this country."

"What followed was turmoil and a big social democratic shift, which could be seen across a whole series of countries, a movement to the Left, both social and economic, as a reaction against austerity. A movement from below that radicalised a lot of people. A crisis of representative democracy.
Corbyn capitalised on that.

"Economies were stagnant and even growth periods were weak. For decades working class membership of the Labour Party had been decline. Leadership was not derived from the people but was connected to the State. The technocratic coalition government tried to increase austerity and promote the state above society."

Seymour believes this is an interesting time in British politics. 'We won a fragile victory and we have a chance to reconstitute the Left. It's a generation of work. To reconstitute political activity takes time. Corbyn is trying to do lots of things and win the media cycles. He is trying to change the conversation fundamentally.

At present, the next General election is set for May 2020. "If Corbyn did win, his administration would be treated like an emergency government, like in Venezuela. There would be a ratcheting up of the atmosphere of rhetoric. This is a fight you've got before you".

The talk turned to proportional representation, pluralism and coalition building towards a mass movement and about the splits in Labour's past. "Learn something from Nigel Farrage, a gifted political leader, an advocate for people who want to enjoy racism and barbecues in peace. His language is mainstream".

"One of Jeremy Corbyn's ingrained political weaknesses is the way he exploits the media. There are better people. He is almost an anti-personality. He is not a charismatic leader. He has priestly authority and preaches the politics of kindness. Believe me, he means it. It's real. He is not sectarian and is relatively open to Greens, trade unionists, progressives. He is a unifying figure for this particular moment. He is a place-holder for a new idea of how we can do politics."



Paul Mason is one of the best writers on the future of economics and I was fortunate enough to find this excellent interview, broadcast on April 6th this year on CBC Radio on a channel simply called 'Think'. It's entitled:The End of Capitalism?

As a reporter, Paul Mason visited many conflict zones. "In each case," he writes in 'Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future', "the struggle for justice collided with the real power that runs the world." In conversation with host Paul Kennedy, one of Britain's most outspoken critics of neoliberalism explains why he is optimistic that technology and our changing relationship with the state may create societies that are healthier and more just.

THE GENERALIST was impressed by this man's articulateness, clarity and persuasiveness. Someone who really knows where we are and where we might be heading. Unless we do something about it. I scribbled notes of the ideas that really spoke to me:

"I stand unashamedly in the position of the 19th century Utopian Socialists except I don't think its utopian and I don't think we have to go through the stage of socialism. We don't need to relive the experiment. We can go Route One towards what they were trying to do. They wanted to create societies that were highly human, defined by people's tendency to collaborate, to share, to do things altruistically, give gifts into what we call a Gift Economy, in the hope of some other gift coming back. That's what these people who in the 18th century formed these experimental communities were trying to do. 

He references Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. "They were trying to do this with two impediments. They were trying to live a life of abundance when there was actually scarcity. They were to be real, rounded, fulfilled human beings from a starting point where people were working 10-12 hours a day in factories, where there was high domestic violence, huge amounts of ignorance, short life-span..."

He talks about current day on-line communities of utopian socialism and how we need to be educated to "the unstoppable momentum of information as a new technology". The cost of MB storage and bandwidth has collapsed. The price of DNA sequencing is collapsing at the same rate. Information wants to be free.

"We must address, in a holistic and societal way, what to do about jobs." He quotes one academic projection that within the next 30 years, 47% of all jobs in the US will be automated. Mason is in favour of accelerating the progress towards greater automation but believes "we don't have the courage to automate; we fear it. What do we do with humans? People are paid whether they are working or not."

He references Nikolai Kondratiev, a Russian economist who identified the fact that Western capitalist economies have long term (50 to 60 years) cycles of boom followed by depression.  Mason says modern capitalism arose on an economic model based on slavery and child labour. When that collapsed it was driven by highly-skilled male workers and manual labour. This was replaced by Fordism which, post-WW2 , was on steroids. Each boom and bust cycle was followed by an upswing. This time round there has been no upswing. Major economies all over the world have stalled.

Mason is fascinated by the general revival of interest in Marx but in particular in the discovery of one of Marx's notebooks, previously unknown,  uncovered by members of the Italian Left in the 1970s. Marx's normal position was that capitalism would be defeated through a battle between the classes. 

But one entry in this notebook is about creating a pool of social and public knowledge - the General Intellect - which could be accessed by anyone though free machines that would last forever. Mason believes he was not predicting the internet so much as he was predicting software. "He's seen the telegraph system so he understands it works because it mobilises the social knowledge of all telegraphers in the world." 

Mason argues that Marx's idea of creating a social knowledge machine that was controlled by and accessible to everybody redefines what it means to be left-wing. Instead of waiting for a major crisis or class war, he believes we can sublate capitalism to create something better. [Sublate is defined as: to negate or eliminate (as an element in a dialectic process) but preserve as a partial element in a synthesis.

Interestingly, at this point, Mason is asked about his musical abilities. He was a child musician and drew inspiration from both sides of his family culture - brass band music (northern England) and dance band music (Jewish/Lithuanian). He says his brain is used to a lot of left-sided thinking which is good for juxtaposing and montaging ideas. He was schooled in economics at Sheffield Uni and 'annoyed a large number of people' of the neo-liberal persuasion who don't believe he has the competence to write what he has. "They don't like the term neo-liberalism [1990-2015] and they don't like being told that it is a system which has flaws."

He describes what he does as 'complex thinking about reality'. He believes that information technology will undermine capitalism. "You could have info-capitalism, a gradual change at a crisis- free rate, but that is the airport book scenario." He talks about the 'zero cost effect' that will affect economics as radically as the discovery of zero did in mathematics. This effect means you have zero price goods which means "work and wages are de-linked and work and non-work blur into each other."

Mason believes that instead of fighting for what's left of work "we should pay people just to exist". Utrecht is currently trying out this idea of a Basic Income. Canada experimented with this some years ago. If our mental capital, our total information and knowledge, is cheap or free, says Mason, "we can flatten the inequality between the Ultra rich and the Super poor". He quotes the Italian left-wing thinker Antonio Negri who says: "Our factory is the whole of society"  

Forget BREXIT, Mason believes the potential for Postcapitalism is to mobilise a social and cultural revolution, a human revolution. "We can begin to pursue a kind of change that will look more like 2011 with Occupy, The Indignatos in Spain, the Greek occupation of the squares, the Brazilian movement of 2013, the occupations in Turkey. [Spanish sociologist] Manuel Castells says 'They designed the kind of society they want on the internet, they live it a bit on the internet and then they take it into the squares and public spaces of their own society.'

"That's the way we're going to have to do things" says Mason. A heavy tweeter, he sees his smartphone as an "externalisation of myself. I wouldn't want to go back to not having these devices." 
He believes in the promises of a social and cultural revolution. Instead of acting like individual cells, sealed off from society as a whole, we are now leaky cells involved in a generational change linking technology and freedom. "We need to be unashamed utopians, not anchored in reality, free to be diverse and follow different paths". His book and ideas are not putting forward a prescriptive utopia. He considers that he is handing down Post-It notes about the future which might help teams who are working of what we should and can do. 

"Capitalism might survive with big semi-feudal companies vying with each other to create giant monopolies that will create much greater inequality, will destroy the planet and repress revolutions.

"We must have the courage to think creatively about the markets and the State and the free, collaborative, cooperative, unmanaged space called The Commons. That space is the one we have to expand just as aggressively as capitalism expanded its system 200 years ago."

"The self-belief of the 1% is in danger of ebbing away to be replaced by a pure and undisguised oligarchy; but there is good news. The 99% are coming to the rescue. Postcapitalism will set you free."



THE GENERALIST has a big slush pile and this story by Farhad Manjoo, which appeared in New York Times on 21st January 2016 has stuck in my mind ever since. This seems the right time and the right place, following Paul Mason's comments, The story is headlined: 'Domination of 'Frightful 5' appears to be unshakeable'. The logos accompanying this post indicate which companies are being referred to.

Manjoo writes: 'By just about every measure these five American consumer technology companies are getting larger, more entrenched in their own sectors, more powerful in new sectors and better insulated against surprising competition from upstarts.

'Though competition among the five remains's becoming harder to picture how any one of them, let alone two or three, may cede their growing clout in every aspect of American business and society.'

According to Geoffrey G. Parker, a business prof, author of 'Platform Revolution': 'These five rode that perfect wave of technological change - an incredible decrease in the cost of I.T., much more network connectivity and the rise of mobile phones. Those three things came together and there they were, perfectly poised to grow and take advantage of the change.'

This doesn't stop other companies - Uber, Airbnb, and Netflix - from becoming huge but they're likely to stand alongside the Big Five, not replace them. As for start-ups, the F5 are so well-protected that 'in most scenarios, the rise of new corporations only solidifies their lead'.

 The core of the F5s indomitability? 'They have each built several enormous technologies that are central to just about everything we do with computers. In tech jargon, they own many of the world's most valuable "platforms" - the basic building blocks on which every other business, even would-be competitors, depend. These platforms are inescapable....together they form a gilded mesh blanketing the entire economy.'

'In various small and large ways, the Frightful Five are pushing into the news and entertainment industries; they're making waves in health care and finance; they're building cars, drones, robots and immersive virtual-reality worlds. Why do all this? Because their platforms - the users, the data and all the money they generate - make these  far-flung realms seem within their grasp.'

Read whole article here:

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