In a Guardian piece, Paul Mason, author of the forthcoming Postcapitalism, argues that in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, information technology is toppling capitalism in a way that a million marching Marxists never could, with the new normal unable to function by the dynamics of the old order.
I agree that a fresh system is incrementally forming–especially in regards to work and likely taxation–though it’s probably a heterogeneous one that won’t be absent free markets in the near term and perhaps the longer one as well. “Abundance” is a word used by a lot of people, including the author, in describing the future, but it may not be what they think it is. Food has been abundant for many decades and there have always been hungry, even starving, people.
Mason quotes Stewart Brand’s famous line “information wants to be free,” but let’s remember the whole quote: “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. …That tension will not go away.”
At any rate, I’m with Mason in thinking we’re on the precipice of big changes wrought by the Internet and its many offshoots and can’t wait to read his book. An excerpt:
As with the end of feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s replacement by postcapitalism will be accelerated by external shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being. And it has started.
Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.
Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies – the giant tech companies – on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.
Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world – Wikipedia – is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.
Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm.•