The Future of Craft: Is Technology the Only Path to Postcapitalism?

As much Wikileaks as Wikipedia, postcapitalism offers recognition for craft as a positive means of production.

While Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) mounted a convincing analysis of terminal capitalism from a macroeconomic perspective, it is yet to translate into policy. The fear is that the 1 per cent are too embedded in the political machine to allow for an attack on their interests.

Paul Mason’s recent Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future reaches similar conclusions to Piketty’s, but its solution is more bottom-up. While Piketty speaks to economists, for whom change springs from policy, Mason sees hope in popular movements. He offers a readily digestible mix of history, theory, anecdote and catchy turn of phrase:

Confronted by emissions targets, we offset them, paying for trees to be planted in someone else’s desert rather than changing our own behaviour. Confronted with evidence that the world is ageing, we spend $36 billion a year on cosmetic surgery.

Mason examines the cyclical nature of capitalism, where bursts of infrastructure spending lead to diminishing returns. Despite the historical resilience of capitalism, Mason argues that the latest extended 70-year boom is terminal. The recent success of neoliberalism in atomising labour means that business has not been forced to develop the kind of innovation necessary to kick-start the next cycle. Instead, the focus has moved to financialisation and the stockpiling of wealth by the 1 per cent.

According to Mason, the focus of innovation is now the sharing economy. More and more goods are produced with ‘zero marginal cost’, such as the circulation of music through MP3s. Wikipedia has not only provided a free way to access information but has also crowded out profit-oriented alternatives.

Mason offers something more radical than an antidote to capitalism, such as slow food. While opposing dominant capitalist modes, lifestyle movements are essentially forms of niche consumption that complement the mainstream economy — see the latest hipster burgers from McDonald’s.

Going beyond this, Mason argues that the not-for-profit sector can be the eventual replacement for what is now the realm of big business. He identifies two future developments that represent an irreversible crisis for capitalism: climate change and the ageing population. Neither of these can be successfully addressed by the market. What he proposes as a solution is a kind of info-socialism, which involves intelligent policy levers that can steer the economy towards a more sustainable future.

Is Mason right? There isn’t the kind of grinding logic that Marx proposed in dialectical materialism. But it sounds appealing.

Do we want Mason to be right? Getting to Mason’s postcapitalism entails speeding up the process of automation, replacing human labour with robots, freeing up time for writing more Wikipedia entries. What about the objects made by hand, drawing on skills passed down through generations to manipulate material for human use and pleasure?

Mason’s Postcapitalism joins Guy Rundle’s A Revolution in the Making (2014) as an optimistic vision of the future extrapolated from the camaraderie of the maker movement. Both are modernist visions that advocate for the embrace of new technologies. While optimism is a rare and precious thing, from a broader perspective their visions look relatively one-dimensional. Such belief in progress belongs more in the universalist North than the dialogic South, where innovation sits alongside custom.

Postcapitalism leaves me wondering about the other side of the maker movement: objects made by hand. Objects made with craft skill such as handwoven textiles, thrown ceramics, hammered metal and blown glass have a beauty and meaning that cannot be reproduced mechanically. By contrast to Mason and Rundle, socialist critics of the nineteenth century, like William Morris, looked to the past rather than the future as an escape from the soulless machine. Is there a place for pre-capitalism in postcapitalism? For many Indigenous cultures, resistance is more about reviving pre-colonial traditions than leaping ahead of current technologies. Is there a way back, as well as ahead?

Sure there are plenty of meaty theoretical issues to bite into with Postcapitalism, but the craft angle is particularly useful to bring into question its modernist assumptions. It helps us consider whether new is always better than old, disruption better than continuity, agility better than strength.

I can see four possible pathways for craft in today’s postcapitalism.

1. False craft

If craft aligns itself with art as part of our elite culture, then for Mason it will be part of the problem, not the solution.

Mason briefly considers the way in which the wealthy class is able to avoid confronting the inevitable limits of capitalism: ‘Today, the ideology of being bourgeois in the Western world means social liberalism, a commitment to fine art, to democracy and the rule of law, giving to charity and hiding the power you wield beneath a studied personal restraint’. In this context, buying Fair Trade craft is a way of demonstrating a surface interest in social equity without confronting any systemic issues. Indeed, during the period of the Arts and Crafts Movement only the wealthy bourgeois could afford the hand-woven tapestries produced by the socialist William Morris.

From this perspective, craft is a diversion from the real action. It creates a false sense of solidarity that elevates rare handmade skill while distinguishing itself from the toiling masses. This Portlandia is populated by hipsters who care more about single origin than social justice.

2. Rearguard capitalism

To an extent, etsy shows how an independent maker can take advantage of the remote marketplace made possible by contemporary capitalism. Online distribution has the potential to aggregate tiny niche markets over great distances. This is the maker movement celebrated by Marcus Westbury in the recent ABC series Bespoke. Where is this path leading?

According to Mason, one of the ways that capitalism responds to the increasing automation of work is to expand into areas that were previously the realm of friendship, such as dog-walking services. To follow this trajectory, we could well find ourselves with an Uber for craft. It seems just a matter of time before there’s an app for domestic crafts such as darning or knitting, where you can outsource bespoke gifts such as booties for the new grandchild.

3. De-commodification

Mason channels Stuart Brandt’s adage, ‘Information wants to be free’. The most obvious obstacle to this in modern capitalism is intellectual property, which transfers the legal system for ownership of material things, like land, to the possession of abstract information.

But the restriction on information is not always at odds with the consumer. As the ‘dirty secret’ of capitalism, the means of production are conveniently hidden by the ‘commodity fetish’, or what is more positively known today as ‘brand identity’. After the scandals with worker suicides in Foxconn factories, Apple started promoting itself as ‘designed in California’ — anything but the reality of ‘made in China’.

Industrialisation followed by consumerism has created increasing distance between the producer and the consumer. It’s impossible to imagine any product in the supermarket that will include the name of the person who actually made it.

But the increasing uptake of Q-codes has made it easier for consumers to access information from the shelf. This can include not only the ingredients and processes but also the supply chains and their labour conditions. Rather than being seen to hide information from their consumers, brands are slowly revealing more of their production. The Levi’s handwoven Khadi range of jeans from India includes the name of the artisan weaver on the label.

The rise of Amazon and eBay also rides on the increased trust that consumers have in an open review section, where they can share experiences and ratings of a product. This inadvertently opens the door to sharing information about production.

This openness can have a positive impact on craft, as it exposes consumers to the conditions of making. This can package a romantic scene of organic village life that offers a mental antidote to sterile 24/7 urban existences. But it also enables genuine appreciation of the skill, patience and energy that is invested in a well-made product. As much WikiLeaks as Wikipedia, postcapitalism offers recognition for craft as a positive means of production.

4. Heirloom postcapitalism

Despite its pre-capitalist origins, modern craft was always beholden to the market, relying on the capital of collectors or Sunday shoppers. While a crucible for creativity, the buying and selling of craft alienates it from its role as an heirloom object, defined by custodianship rather than private consumption. Traditionally, craft circulates through non-financial spaces, such as religious devotion in temples or rites of passage like weddings. Postcapitalism should not be able to replace these practices by more sophisticated technologies. It should involve a return to what was lost to modernity.

David Graeber’s critique of financialisation, Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011), points to a way back to more reciprocal forms of exchange. Traditional social currencies such as wampum acknowledged debt in a way that was meaningful to the community as a whole, rather than just accountants. A revival of these practices need not be based on a New Age mysticism but could arise from a careful study of weaknesses in the social fabric.

Postcapitalism looks to the collective as an answer to the current dysfunction. But technology needn’t be the only platform for its development. In Australia we have many precapitalist forms of collectivity to learn from. The settler-colonial challenge is to appreciate this fact, and find ways of connecting that respect its custodians. Postcapitalism is something we can look back on as well as forward to.

This was first published in Arena #141, 2016

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