Tuesday, December 8, 2015


I try here to critique an article in the guardian on postcapitalism.  My thoughts are in red, and the original is in black

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.

The reduction of the need for work was promised during the rise of capitalism with the industrial revolution, so promising it again rings hollow. It's hard to determine whether the need for work decreased or not, but hours of work certainly haven't decreased. People are working harder today than the average medieval peasant or craftsperson, regardless of whether the need has decreased.

Some say that the need has decreased only because we have "petroleum slaves".  This is unsustainable and therefore so is anything like postcapitalism that depends on it.

I don't know how the relationship between work and wages has been loosened and how that would help make postcapitalism possible.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant.

I don't know why you can't have markets based on abundance. Just because there is enough doesn't mean a market isn't a useful way to exchange goods and services. Sure, if each individual was able to produce everything for themselves, you wouldn't need markets, but that is not related to scarcity or abundance. Also, information is only as abundant as there are people creating and interpreting it and the material basis to disseminate it. The internet has a large material and energy cost and we live on a finite planet. Finiteness does not imply scarcity, abundance does not imply infinite resources.

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.

There were many other rises of collaborative production before the information age and they mostly either failed or became capitalist. There is some (sometimes lots of) internal  collaboration even in the most competitive company. Wikipedia does respond to market forces--as long as they need money they will continue to raise it and people will only donate if they feel like Wikipedia is meeting a market need. I do agree that less hierarchical networks (such as Wikipedia) are becoming more possible.

Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated, barely noticed by the economics profession, and often as a direct result of the shattering of the old structures in the post-2008 crisis.

I don't see why these should fare any better than the Communautes de Travail. Successful food coops start out with postcapitalist ideals but after a few years it is hard to distinguish them from Whole Foods. Time banks and alternative currencies don't last long or don't do much commerce because they are too dependent on the capitalist economy for their survival. 

You only find this new economy if you look hard for it. In Greece, when a grassroots NGO mapped the country’s food co-ops, alternative producers, parallel currencies and local exchange systems they found more than 70 substantive projects and hundreds of smaller initiatives ranging from squats to carpools to free kindergartens. To mainstream economics such things seem barely to qualify as economic activity – but that’s the point. They exist because they trade, however haltingly and inefficiently, in the currency of postcapitalism: free time, networked activity and free stuff. It seems a meagre and unofficial and even dangerous thing from which to craft an entire alternative to a global system, but so did money and credit in the age of Edward III.

I am not very familiar with the greek situation. Perhaps they can do better in creating a new system, especially if they can gain some isolation from the rest of the economy. But he is right that free time and stuff are only there because of capitalism, so you can't base an alternative system on that unless it's just a starting point for serious production. Money and credit helped capitalism in conjunction with industrial production of goods and services. If the production had continued to be feudal, we wouldn't have capitalism.

New forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new legal contracts: a whole business subculture has emerged over the past 10 years, which the media has dubbed the “sharing economy”. Buzzwords such as the “commons” and “peer-production” are thrown around, but few have bothered to ask what this development means for capitalism itself.

That is just fluff. Show me capitalists who share their rents and profits with those who produce them in a significant manner. "Few have bothered" because it doesn't mean much.

The result is that, in each upswing, we find a synthesis of automation, higher wages and higher-value consumption

He just said a few paragraphs up that real wages are falling. So this is contradictory. I totally disagree with "higher value consumption". Newer nowadays is usually shoddier, more expensive and dumbing down than older. But there is a Religion of Progress taboo about choosing older.

 Information is a machine for grinding the price of things lower and slashing the work time needed to support life on the planet. As a result, large parts of the business class have become neo-luddites. Faced with the possibility of creating gene-sequencing labs, they instead start coffee shops, nail bars and contract cleaning firms: the banking system, the planning system and late neoliberal culture reward above all the creator of low-value, long-hours jobs.
I don't know if the owners of coffee shops, etc are neo-luddites, or if they originate in the business class. I disagree that the reason for those kinds of businesses have to do with information making some work less necessary. The author seems to be totally clueless that work efficiency is not the only value human beings care about and that these other values might be motivating the coffee shops and other so-called neo-luddite enterprises.

We’re surrounded not just by intelligent machines but by a new layer of reality centred on information. Consider an airliner: a computer flies it; it has been designed, stress-tested and “virtually manufactured” millions of times; it is firing back real-time information to its manufacturers. On board are people squinting at screens connected, in some lucky countries, to the internet.
Seen from the ground it is the same white metal bird as in the James Bond era. But it is now both an intelligent machine and a node on a network. It has an information content and is adding “information value” as well as physical value to the world. On a packed business flight, when everyone’s peering at Excel or Powerpoint, the passenger cabin is best understood as an information factory.

He is again betraying his ROP values: human flight reduced to information processing is considered progress. What about the joy of flight that the Wright Brothers and other originators of aviation understood?
Yet information is abundant. Information goods are freely replicable. Once a thing is made, it can be copied/pasted infinitely. A music track or the giant database you use to build an airliner has a production cost; but its cost of reproduction falls towards zero. Therefore, if the normal price mechanism of capitalism prevails over time, its price will fall towards zero, too.
This is a delusion brought about by using up several million years of stored sunlight in a few hundred years. Prices will go up as petroleum dwindles, and as we start paying the true cost of earth care.

For the past 25 years economics has been wrestling with this problem: all mainstream economics proceeds from a condition of scarcity, yet the most dynamic force in our modern world is abundant and, as hippy genius Stewart Brand once put it, “wants to be free”.

Information is obviously one of the gods of ROP, with a will of its own. People want to be free, not information.

In the “Fragment” Marx imagines an economy in which the main role of machines is to produce, and the main role of people is to supervise them. He was clear that, in such an economy, the main productive force would be information. The productive power of such machines as the automated cotton-spinning machine, the telegraph and the steam locomotive did not depend on the amount of labour it took to produce them but on the state of social knowledge. Organisation and knowledge, in other words, made a bigger contribution to productive power than the work of making and running the machines.

But he forgot about petroleum and coal:http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2009/05/end-of-information-age.html and

We are surrounded by machines that cost nothing and could, if we wanted them to, last forever.

He is working himself into a religious frenzy here. From my value system I see it as neither possible nor desireable. I like to work and interact directly with the physical and natural world. I do not like factories or efficient offices (unless I only spend a small amount of time in them). I like to work in a garden, to mess with mechanical and electric hardware, to cook, to heal with touch, as well as do computations (which involve my mind first and the computer second) and communicate, but if I only did the last two I would go nuts.

As with virtual manufacturing, in the transition to postcapitalism the work done at the design stage can reduce mistakes in the implementation stage. And the design of the postcapitalist world, as with software, can be modular. Different people can work on it in different places, at different speeds, with relative autonomy from each other. If I could summon one thing into existence for free it would be a global institution that modelled capitalism correctly: an open source model of the whole economy; official, grey and black. Every experiment run through it would enrich it; it would be open source and with as many datapoints as the most complex climate models.

This is my favorite part of the article, because I want this too. But why not start small, as in Sim Village, so we have a chance in hell of modeling it (and the necessary isolation to make it happen)?

All readings of human history have to allow for the possibility of a negative outcome. It haunts us in the zombie movie, the disaster movie, in the post-apocalytic wasteland of films such as The Road or Elysium. But why should we not form a picture of the ideal life, built out of abundant information, non-hierarchical work and the dissociation of work from wages?

Because the world is not ideal, in the sense of having to conform to our wishes, and any attempt to ignore trade-offs (like between work efficiency and work satisfaction or between work efficiency and community) and other things we don't like (like the internet's dependence on petroleum) leads to dystopias. I am all for figuring out ways of dissociating work from wages. Umm wait, didn't the medieval economy already figure that one out yet? Oh it must be worthless since it's not (bow down) INNOVATION. Nothing from the past could possibly be of value accoring to ROP.

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