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Paul Mason on post-capitalism and human rights in the digital age

Paul will be exploring how humans can resist machine control at FutureFest 2018. Join us at London's Tobacco Dock on 6-7 July.

Facebook is making billions but many people feel it is encroaching on our privacy and human rights - what can be done to address these concerns?

The first thing we must do is use existing competition laws and ask the states that regulate these companies why they have allowed respective single company monopolies in each of the tech sub-sectors. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Samsung and Apple only compete at the edges of relatively monopolised business sectors. So, break up is on the agenda if or when a state or government acquires the courage to raise it. But increasingly, the other option would be to accept a natural monopoly.

The digital identification registry, which is needed for any social media or network data to be useful, could easily be a public good. Rather than nationalising companies like Facebook, simply provide for public ownership of the ID registry, with the obvious guarantees against surveillance. If I want to go on Facebook or Google, then in order for them to identify me, they’d have to interact with this publicly owned registry.

On top of that, it’s important that we attack information asymmetry. Classical market theory predicts that patents, copyrights, trade unions and guild-like employment practices would disappear in a perfect market. But they’re far from disappearing, they’re strengthening. The key tool is government intervention, governments need to enshrine a human right to information symmetry. That is, if an algorithm is acting upon me, I need to know that that’s the case and, in an ideal world, I need to know what it is. Applying that to Facebook, it’s almost impossible to imagine. As Fredric Jameson famously said, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

I would argue, as we are increasingly surrounded by algorithms and machine control, one of the most fundamental human rights of the 21st century should consist of knowing which algorithms are operating upon us and what their intent is.

Currently, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than Zuckerberg telling me the nature of the algorithm that Facebook is using on me.

Paul

There are speculations that Google, Facebook and Amazon pay very little tax in the UK - should they be forced to do so, not asked? And if so, how?

I think another key building block of a radical, progressive response to the tech age would be states giving themselves the right to infer the earnings of companies that refuse to bring their operations onshore.

For example, you could say we know that Google does roughly 20 per cent of its European turnover in Britain, and we know what its global turnover is, so we can simply tax it a gross sum equivalent to its inferred turnover. Once you did that, I think they would come onshore.

The idea that states don’t have the right to ask what tech companies are doing creates the possibility of these Cambridge Analytica type scandals. Everything is presumed legal, when in fact everything should be open to challenge under human rights legislation. That would bring the tech industry – both in tax terms and in operational management terms — onshore.

Why do you think the state feels it can’t intervene?

The first issue is that the state doesn’t always know what’s going on.

But often the neoliberal state professes ignorance and simply doesn’t want to know what’s going on until people finally say, “this is a problem.”

The state is geared towards non-intervention and allowing companies to always be ahead of the regulator. We’ve always needed an active state to right the problems of the broken economic model. But now that we are faced with machine, AI and algorithmic control, we also need an active state for applying universal principles as human rights.

Three years ago, you wrote 'Without even noticing we are entering a post-capitalist era.' Do you think with hindsight that this was wishful thinking?

In the sense of a transition, I think it’s true. I would argue a key signpost towards post-capitalism is the evaporation of the price mechanism. For example, on iTunes each CD album used to cost £9.99 regardless of quality, supply or demand. That’s what the monopoly position of Apple allowed for the first 10 years of iTunes. Now it’s £9.99 a month for relatively unlimited streaming of content. This tells us that monopoly positions are being eroded. There is no future in charging for things that should be free.

The second signpost is the de-linking of work from wages. Hours of work used to be a fundamental category for capitalism. But that too has begun to evaporate.

The third signpost is the network effect, creating free utility on a vast scale that isn’t automatically captured within the market. For Facebook, Tesco or Walmart to capture the utility created by the sum of all their users' data, there’s nothing inside the laws of capitalism that says they have to own it and we don’t.

This is not a new industrial revolution that’s going to take off without a massive restructuring of the societal business model. For me, post-capitalism was always a combination of objectively emerging facts and spontaneous events between technology and the market, and the intervention of state. For example, we’ve got say, a city like Barcelona, so far ahead in terms of challenging global multinationals to provide services with different business models. I’m pretty confident we are in a transition.

But look at people working for companies like McDonald's, Amazon and Caffe Nero, working long hours for little pay and no job security. Isn’t that as capitalist as we can get?

Yes, but in a way it’s a kind of sick capitalism. They are working long hours for low pay. Why has society made them do that? Because the real mechanisms of their exploitation are the credit system and the technology system.

Apple and Facebook need everybody to have a mobile phone, the banks need everybody to have a bank account, you can’t have either unless you’ve got some type of contracted job, even a very precarious one. Therefore, we are in a situation now where we are creating millions of jobs that don’t need to exist just to keep the revenue streams of tech companies, cell phone companies and banks open.

What you do in a low paid job almost becomes irrelevant. This is a very new situation in the history of capitalism. It's like capital is finally treating labour as Marx described it: abstract and generalised, its content irrelevant. That's another signal we're in a transition.

Paul Mason is a journalist, author and film maker. He is the author of five books, including Postcapitalism: A guide to our future. His films include the five part series on Marxism, K is for Karl; Astoria, a drama about the refugee crisis in Hungary, and #ThisIsACoup, about the Greek debt crisis of 2015. His play Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere was produced by the Young Vic in April 2017 and televised on BBC TWO. His next book, Clear Bright Future, will be published next year by Allen Lane.

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