Will technological innovation undermine capitalism? Jeremy Rifkin recently participated in the BBC debate show Start the Week with Saskia Sassen and Kwasi Kwarteng. Here he presented his analysis of what he sees as the emergence of zero marginal cost production and the collaborative commons. For more see the video lecture on Mark Carrigan's blog.
Rifkin sees a seismic economic shift underway brought on by the development of technologies and social formations which enable production with near zero margin cost meaning that once the initial set-up costs have been paid the production of new products costs almost nothing.
This could have been the holy grail for capitalism as, in theory, profit can be maximised. But it also means that if the capitalist does not hang onto the technologies then they can get into the hands of anyone which is precisely what did happen in the information industries. This has, for Rifkin, led to a (sort of) radical democratisation of the publishing and music industries. With fairly minimal set-up costs people can produce, publish and distribute their own journalism, fiction or music at almost zero cost.
This “collaborative commons” by-passes the big companies in favour of peer-to-peer distribution. For Rifkin this model is now moving into two other key areas: energy and transport. Communities, cooperatives and households are now producing their own renewable energy and through networks sharing it with each other and avoiding being tied to the profit-making imperatives of large corporations.
But will this lead to the end of capitalism? Rifkin is generally very positive about these developments but does acknowledge that there is likely to still be a role for certain big corporations who provide the infrastructure for these and stresses that work must be done to ensure “network neutrality”. This, however, seems to be to be fairly unlikely if we look at the most developed area for this so far, information. Facebook and Twitter may be providing the infrastructure for our communications but they are certainly not doing so in a neutral way as are all aware these platforms are increasingly commercialised spaces and while they may aid democracy in some ways they are not themselves democratic as we have little say in how they manage our communications. These are systems which are structured in order to monetise our interactions through advertising not in order to enable communication as such.
Also, he claims that blogging, youtube, etc. are zero margin cost while this is not entirely true. There is a cost to the user generated content of such sites in the form of the expenditure of human labour in the production of the content. People are just not paid for this labour.
For instance, Rifkin seems to see the impact of the collaborative commons on the publishing industry as being a victory for the democratisation of journalism with the power to publish being wrestled away from big companies by individual, crusading bloggers whereas actually the production of copy came to be disassociated from paid labour. Ariana Huffington perhaps put the first major nail in the coffin of paid journalistic labour when she sold the Huffington Post (a news site built on the labour of unpaid bloggers) to AOL for $315 million.
While it seems that there may well be radical potential for new more democratic economic forms to emerge out of these new kinds of production this will not happen spontaneously, rather it will require collective management of the resources and the technologies which enable their distribution. It is unlikely that Facebook or energy companies such as E.On will happily provide the infrastructure for the free distribution of goods at least without finding new ways to generate wealth from their users.