By Dave Sewell
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The Zero Marginal Cost Society

This article is over 9 years, 7 months old
Issue 391

Internet entrepreneur Adam Dell set up Shared Earth in 2010, a web service for connecting would-be gardeners to unused plots of land. Jeremy Rifkin enthuses about the start-up’s rapid expansion.

When Dell says, “We have no business model”, Rifkin corrects, “Shared Earth does have a business model: it’s called the commons.” He sees it as one of many harbingers of a new collaborative and technological society that will one day make capitalism obsolete.

But the deal that started it combined Dell’s land and equipment with the labour of a woman who owned none – and they split the produce 50-50 – a percentage that would make a feudal baron blush, yet Rifkin seems not to even notice.

Rifkin is a management consultant with pretensions to being a prophet of post-capitalist utopia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, glossing over this contradiction involves a dizzying bout of jargon, pseudoscience and handwaving historical trends into existence on often rather flimsy evidence.

Along the way he uses some genuine insights that will be familiar. He argues with sincerity that capitalism is not eternal, that the market creates waste and anarchy and that greed and competition are not human nature.

Rifkin isn’t out to arm the system’s opponents with the arguments they need to overthrow it, but to scare the bosses into taking on board what seems to be his real, more modest goal.
He’s lobbying for investment in, to use his own language, “TIR infrastructure” and principally the “IoT”. That’s Third Industrial Revolution and Internet of Things respectively.

This would mean free universal wifi coverage, an “Energy Internet” of cheap renewable electricity on a decentralised grid, and a “Logistics Internet” that would minimise wasted capacity in lorries by coordinating journeys and combining loads.

For all that Rifkin calls this decentralised, in practice it seems remarkably like Stobart Group’s method of buying up the haulage wings of other companies and rationalising them through job cuts.

A new generation of “prosumers” – consumers who are also producers – is supposedly growing in the background to build on this economic base a new society of sharing, even as the old capitalism starts to wither.

Most of the book consists of looking for evidence to back up these two trends. Some of it adds up. Rifkin’s central claim, that technological advances drive down profit rates and throw whole industries into crisis, is certainly true – and a major factor in the current crisis.

The years of recession make his claims for the growth of car-sharing and couch-surfing fairly convincing too, if not necessarily his extrapolation from them.

Bolder claims for 3D printing’s power to free people from wage labour are more far-fetched – and if there’s any truth to his vision of contact with doctors being replaced by massive databases and patients trying to filter out the bullshit on chatrooms, then it’s more chilling than comforting.

But whether or not these trends take off they can’t take us beyond capitalism. Falling profit rates have caused crises before. Far from finishing the system off, new technologies have given it new leases of life with new fields of activity to exploit.

So have institutions that can seem like a non-capitalist “commons” such as the NHS that help underwrite the skilled workforce that British capitalism needed for the long boom.

Rifkin seems to be betting on just about every horse imaginable (with the curious exception of genetics) to repeat that recovery for the 21st century. But his hypothetical winnings would go to the very bosses we’d have to defeat in order to deliver on his egalitarian promises.

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