by Trond Ove
Sat Apr 15th, 2006 at 03:32:18 AM EST
Unlike Jerome and several others on this site, I think the Leftist forces in Europe need to start staking out new positions in this rapidly changing world. The Market Liberals are actually correct when they state that the changing economic conditions are going to have to force reforms on us. The problem is that their proposed reforms will crush the power of the strongest equalising force in the world today, the Nation State, and move political and economic power completely into the hands of corporations, with the rise of something close to corporate feudalism as the probable outcome.
Why is this? And how do we fight this, and propose a new, positive way forward? My contention is that there are two broad trends that are going to be the main driving forces in the Western World in the foreseeable future.
Let us start with the most positive aspect, the end of the Mass Production model and the rise of decentralised production of goods and services. Classical Mass Production, with vertical integration and a high degree of standardisation is clearly dying. Brands, who either are no more than design and marketing shops, or who assemble parts produced by the lowest bidder has taken over. Advances in customer research means that people no longer wear the same jeans, drive the same car and watch the same TV channel. Products are still being mass produced, and at a lower and lower price, but they are also increasingly being tailored to the needs and fancies of smaller and more numerous fractions of the market.
At the same, not only the cost of production, but in many fields, the cost of the equipment needed for production is falling rapidly. An example is the medium we are communicating in now. The Internet has lowered the cost of a wide range of tools (programs, etc), news gathering, communication, education, and so on, down to the price of an Internet-capable computer and an Internet line. How phenomenal this is, is very difficult for each and one of us to fathom, as we are only using a tiny part of this enormous pool of free information and tools for ourselves.
The rise of the Open Source movement is an example of how transformative the lowering of production costs and of the machinery needed for production can be. Linux, the flagship of the Open Source movement, has been able to become a credible opponent to Microsoft's Windows, one of the most profitable products ever produced, in many market segments, mostly built on free work done by thousands of computer programmers around the globe.
The Open Source idea has already spread to other fields where the cost of entering is approaching zero. This site is one example. And you can undoubtedly think of many more. I can mention the traditional top-down model of Mass Media, which is creaking under the stress. The cost of high-definition low-cost video cameras has led to an explosion in independent film making that we will no doubt see blossom over the next few years.
We are already able to produce products virtually without cost in our own living room today. Every time you electronically copy a picture you took and send it by email to your friend, you are producing and distributing a product. And the range of products we are able to produce in our homes are increasing by the day.
With advances in 3d printing and nanotechnologies, we are heading towards a situation where most goods needed or wanted in our lives can be produced in our own homes, andor designed to our specifications. In such a world mass-production would probably still be economical, but would be vastly less efficient and convenient compared to the home produced alternative.
So what is in my opinion the biggest hurdle to this Marxist wet dream, where the means of production is put into the hands of every single one of us?
The biggest problem is that the means of control are also getting cheaper and more far-reaching, and they are actively being used by Government and Private entities.
By means of control, I am talking about everything from the strengthening of Copyright, Patent and Trademark regimes and the ability to enforce them, to the increased ability of Product and Service providers to shape and monitor the way we use what they sell. And also direct surveillance of our lives by Government agencies and private entities (banks, etc) of course, which is growing rapidly in scope and efficiency.
This control apparatus is what will keep the elites in power as the Mass Production, Mass Media and Mass Consumption society slowly fades away. The rhetoric of the Information Economy usually goes hand in hand with talk about "intellectual property rights" etc. They are ways to use the growing power of control to keep the lowered cost of information and production from undermining the economical elites.
In essence a system is being built wherein people will be charged for products or the access to making products, by complex means of control. Two examples should hopefully make it clear what I am talking about; iTunes selling mp3s (which are free to copy), and producers of printers selling ink costing more than gold. Not only are there technical means of control in these products to stop people from freeing themselves from the providers, but the companies, along with compliant politicians are also building up laws and regulations to make it illegal to do so.
Artificial scarcity versus the Post scarcity economy
Fighting technical and legislative controls on our lives and our ability to produce content and products is vital if we are to avoid a future where economical elites are using sophisticated technological controls and state power to create an artificial scarcity of products and information. At the farthest extent, we can glimpse a Utopia and a Dystopia, one where the cost of production and the access to means of production and information sinks so much that we can lift the world out of poverty. On the other side, a corporate-feudal society, where the rights of most activities or production of most products are subject to license fees.
I don't see either of these scenarios as very likely to come to full fruition, as there are obviously checks and balances in place in most societies to stop them from going that far. But it seems clear to me that we should be fighting the gradual creep of information and production control seen lately. The alternative is to lose the rights to tinker and produce, and the complete negation of the Post-war European efforts to redistribute the wealth of Nations from the few to the many.