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College Quarterly
Winter 2015 - Volume 18 Number 1
The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism
Jeremy Rifkin
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

I am indebted to Sue Halpern (2014), currently writer-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont and to The New York Review of Books from which I received a pre-publication copy of her excellent essay “The Creepy New Wave of the Internet.” I have purloined a couple of pithy quotations, but I urge you to read the original in full. I am also indebted to Jesus Christ, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Orwell and Robert Redfield, who admirably set the background for Jeremy Rifkin’s new book (I somehow feel he would expect no less). They also spoke of enormous social transformations―sometimes with anticipation and sometimes with regret. Jeremy Rifkin has also had change on his mind.

This is not new. Rifkin has been describing, analyzing, predicting and assessing social upheavals of various sorts throughout a long and lucrative career as an exceptionally successful author and consultant. Over the past forty years, he has written about two dozen books on everything from human reproductive technology (1977) to biospheric politics (1991), from the end of beef (1992) to the end of work (1995), and from the future of God (1979) to the future of a hydrogen economy (2002) to the future of global consciousness (2010). If nothing else Jeremy Rifkin knows how to stir things up … an awful lot of things.

“The value of this book doesn’t lie in the accuracy of its specific forecasts, but rather in the extrapolations of current trends that enable Rifkin to reach them.”
– Richard Waters, 2014

To some, he is now a major prophet of the “eclipse of capitalism”; to others, he is an opportunistic know-it-all who presents a challenging critique of contemporary ecology, economics and ethics, but one that is ultimately optimistic and that can be accommodated without doing undue damage to the world as it is (no matter that, no less than Naomi Klein, he assures us that “this changes everything.”)

Rifkin boasts that his avid readers and prominent supporters include Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President François Hollande of France, and Premier Li Keqiang of China. He anticipates a near future with “streamlined” capitalism (not yet the “eclipsed” capitalism of his subtitle). He looks forward to a technology-driven, information-based economy that uses “Big Data, analytics, and algorithms to accelerate efficiency, dramatically increase productivity, and lower the marginal cost of producing and sharing a wide range of products and services to near zero.” I get the sense that he may have made peace with the instruments of total surveillance deployed by the “national security state” in the USA, the UK, France and (aspirationally) in Canada.

Rifkin’s latest vision seems, at first glance, to be to be about as destructive of capitalism as the industrial revolution. It is replete with the breathless embrace of the corporate techno-future that, to me, portends mainly Walmartization of the world, a new mode of production and distribution that is eerily close to Facebook, e-Bay, Amazon and the CIA. From an investor’s point of view, Rifkin is at the very worst a tame prophet of a manageable doom. But, that’s just the first glance. There’s more.

I

Compared to the five figures mentioned in my opening paragraph, Rifkin has certainly been more popular in his own time. He has a set of speeches which he’ll happily deliver at $10,000-$20,000 a pop. It ain’t in Bill or Hillary’s league, but it ain’t chump change either.

Jesus certainly didn’t make that kind of cash and neither did Marx, Nietzsche, Orwell or Redfield. Yet, each one made a pretty impressive mark on those who were willing to pay them heed. Sometimes, of course, their messages were misunderstood and people twisted those of the first three into something quite unpleasant.

Jeremy Rifkin isn’t likely to suffer those consequences. His admirers are not quite as zealous as some of those who have claimed especially Jesus, Marx or Nietzsche as their mentors, spiritual advisors and role models. His speeches also aren’t nearly as disturbing. He offers a soft version of the apocalypse and prophesies from which clever speculators in nanotechnology, immigrant labour and global empathy can surely profit, at least in the short run. He is also unlikely to be remembered for quite as long as my own little triumvirate.

I do not, of course, hold Jesus accountable for the savage deeds that have been done in his name by people who ought to have known better, just as I am happy to absolve Marx for the acts of Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, and Nietzsche for the 1924 Chicago murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by Leopold and Loeb or the rise of Adolph Hitler not long afterward. Still, the name of Jesus Christ is clearly associated with the New Testament and therefore with its final book, The Revelation of St. John the Divine. In it, we read of the coming Battle of Armageddon, the second coming of the Christ and the resolution of human history in the impending “last judgement.” The message can be scary. So, superficially, are some of Rifkin’s riffs.

In retrospect, given the limited geographical knowledge among the authors of the Biblical texts, what seemed to them to be a prophesy of a world-ending global conflict might now appear as just another skirmish in the Near East―the kind of thing that Benjamin Netanyahu might mull over as a nuclear-enabled “final solution” to the problem of those pesky Palestinians―just (I hope) before falling into a deep sleep; that is to say that there are those among us who anticipate enormous cultural game-changers―either with expectations of great good or great ill. Among modern-day millenarians, it is wise to try to keep our balance. It is wise to read Rifkin sceptically.

I urge caution because of the disappointments of the past. Early and even medieval followers of Christianity thought that the apocalypse was coming soon. On the cusp of commercial and eventually industrial capitalism, all manner of Ranters, Quakers, Shakers and assorted antinomians claimed that the world would soon turn upside down (Hill, 1991) and that a great spiritual awakening was soon to be upon us (E. Thompson, 1993).

Likewise, materialists like Karl Marx imagined that the implosion of capitalism was imminent. Though he died in 1883, he thought he might well live to witness the “final conflict.” He did not, and if he were magically to reappear today, he would surely find that most of those who fancy themselves his followers are less than optimistic that they will witness it either.

Nietzsche, too, disappoints those who cling to his speculations about the death of God. Far from passing into the ever-more-crowded trash can of history, God, it seems, is not only declining to go softly into his own good night, but the religions humanity has fashioned to worship him are reasserting themselves, sometimes with ferocious energy, to slash and burn their way out into their own version of redemption.

As for the two lesser mentionables, we can recall that, shortly after World War II, George Orwell (1949) predicted that “Big Brother” would soon be watching us and, upon his publisher’s advice, set the date for global totalitarianism as 1984. Of course, he was wrong, at least as to the specific date … or was he? As for Robert Redfield, at about the same time as Orwell was putting the finishing touches on his dystopian novel, Redfield (1947) was preparing an article for publication in The American Journal of Sociology. It described the cultural origin of all current societies in what he called “folk society,” small human populations in pre-literate, pre-technological times with little division of labour, little economic inequality and almost no internal ideological tensions―societies that have mainly vanished, but that establish an interesting standard against which to test the happiness of our own (Vonnegut (1982: 103).

Here’s the connection among them all: for a very long time people have reacted to notable, ominous and transformative alterations in their material and symbolic environments by conjuring up stories of abrupt millenarian change (Doughty, 2011). These visions of the future can predict salvation or damnation, a heaven or a hell (sometimes on Earth, sometimes not). What Jesus, Marx and Nietzsche did was to inspire/inflame others to take hold of the process of change and make it their own. Each had a vision of the future in which the sins (or at least the sorrows) of the past would be overcome. So does Jeremy Rifkin. What Orwell and Redfield did was to show us a little about where we came from and where we might be headed, perhaps with the hope that forewarned, we would be forearmed.

Marx (1845), for example, spoke of a post-capitalist era when, in the absence of class conflict and aided by technological changes of which he was surprisingly prescient (McLellan, 1971: 132-152), people would be able to work at different occupations in a leisurely, almost hobby-like manner. We could do artisanal, intellectual and agricultural work without ever becoming a weaver, a critic or a farmer. Work would be as much for enjoyment as for mere survival, under conditions chosen by ourselves and neither our employers nor a determinative “invisible hand.”

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
– Karl Marx, 1845

Redfield, too, spoke of such an era, but he looked backward to the “folk societies” from which all cultures ultimately evolved. He didn’t recommend that anyone try to restore the distant past. He was happy to show his fellow anthropologists something about the origin of later societies. Still, it was possible to see, apart from the perils of living too close to nature and being at the mercy of the elements and animal predators, some nice things about folk societies that might be adapted to our own time. People, he said, were intimately related, comfortable in their conformity, caring and supportive of one another; of course, there were nasty things as well including constant observation and supervision, continuous monitoring of beliefs and behaviour, a total absence of privacy and a world of hurt for people who were overly imaginative, innovative and critical of existing norms. Those were characteristics of early societies that we might have done well to leave behind.

We, who are living through what is arguably the most profound transformation in the mode of production and reproduction of symbolic and material goods at least since the industrial revolution and possibly since the agricultural revolution that brought our species for the first time into sedentary, urban and literate civilizations, are especially sensitive to the prospects, possibilities and perils of technology in the twenty-first century. We are awash in actual change and almost drowning in prognosticators and prophets who are out to make a fast buck on the backs of our anxieties or are sincerely deluded into thinking that they know what’s coming. Either way, we must examine them with scepticism and refrain from being an “early adopter of the new big thing,” for we are likely to look like fools when the next “new big thing” comes sloshing down the pipe.

Jeremy Rifkin presumes himself to be the guide to and through the dangers and opportunities that await us. He is prepared to secure a place in the pantheon of mystics, revolutionaries and scientists who have contributed to our historical transformations by leading them, warning against them or simply explaining them so that we will have a better idea of what to do and what can be done. He is taken seriously by people in high places. His influence is uncontestable.

II

Ours is a time of both profits and prophets. We echo the imaginings of St. John the Divine, Karl Marx, George Orwell even as we perhaps subconsciously yearn for a return to the womb of modern humanity in the prehistoric tribal societies that have (mostly) vanished from the Earth. Or, in our more irrational moments, we may reach out to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to help us frame our cries of anguish. Jeremy Rifkin makes a lot of profit; Jeremy Rifkin is widely regarded as a prophet.

I’ve been reading books by Jeremy Rifkin for many years and I have reviewed (Doughty, 1999) a few of his books―Algeny,1980; Entropy, 1983; and The End of Work,1995. I have not been as harsh with him as some of my betters, but I have remained ever so slightly distrustful (or is that envious?) of him. He seems to be an astonishingly influential intellectual entrepreneur, a polymath and a semi-spiritual guide to a future both where “no man has gone before” and where “angels fear to tread.” He has little time for intimate portraits; he prefers vast landscapes and grand themes. For a while I thought of him as a successor to Alvin Toffler―the one-time mentor to American politician Newt Gingrich and the man whose Future Shock (1972) and The Third Wave (1980) introduced the post-sixties generation to the fads and foibles of “futurism.” I am now convinced that Jeremy Rifkin is cutting an even wider swath.

“But what if I were to say to you that 25 years from now, the bulk of the energy you use to heat your home and run your appliances, power your business, drive your vehicle, and operate every part of the global economy will be free?”
– Jeremy Rifkin

Time magazine with its characteristic subtlety once called Rifkin “the most hated man in science” (D. Thompson, 2001). Stephen Jay Gould (1987, p. 230), himself a bit of a maverick and one of my “secular saints,” had earlier described Rifkin’s Algeny “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers,” he went on, “I don’t think I’ve ever read a shoddier work.” And that’s from someone who agrees with him! Gould went on to say that he wanted to “save Rifkin’s humane conclusions from his own lamentable tactics.”

Such criticism has not held Rifkin back. He is surely one of the most prolific for-profit public intellectuals of our day. His career has seen him flourish as a protest organizer against oil companies and a biotechnology critic (1970s), excel as an environmental activist (1980s), network with Greenpeace and others to call attention to the role of cattle (methane) in global warming and thereby take on the beef industry, as well as venture into the world of material production, automation and what he called the “near-workerless world” (1990s), and then rush into the 2000s with an enthusiastic endorsement of the “hydrogen economy” (Rifkin, 2001). More recently, his best-selling The Third Industrial Revolution (2011) echoed and trumped Toffler’s The Third Wave.

III

So, what is Jeremy up to now?

The Zero Marginal Cost Society has at its root the notion that machines will eliminate work as we know it, that alternative energy sources will eliminate the carbon-based economy and that sharing will replace selling as a method of distributing goods. Marginal costs of commodities and services will shrink and the entire premise for vertical organizations―hierarchical corporations will disappear―not completely nor all at once, but gradually over about the next century or two. Capitalism is kaput … or will be soon.

As it collapses, the ideological presuppositions that have sustained our mode of production and distribution of goods will be revealed as mythological. Notions of essential human greed, necessary competition for scarce resources and “social Darwinist” assumptions about the “survival of the fittest” will evaporate like the baseless chimera that they are. Currently dominant corporations will shrivel and die, not because they have been overthrown by political revolution, but because they have become economically irrelevant. As the “marginal cost” (the cost of producing each additional item, whether it be a book, a screw driver or a suit of clothes) shrinks because of technological, organizational and even psychological innovation, the possibility of profit is removed. Capitalism will cease to be; everything will be essentially free. From 3-D printing that will allow us to make cuckoo clocks, violins, auto parts and replicas of Rodin’s “The Thinker” in our basements to internet connections that allow us to barter with people a block or a continent away and to exchange our gifts using personal drones, to robots that do prostate surgery or extract mineral resources, we will build a brave new world of artificial intelligence, cyborgs and―wait for it!―a new array of human values as altruism replaces avarice in a world of abundance which, incidentally, will also be more environmentally sustainable since―did I mention it?―energy will be free!

Let me speed through his book section-by-section to provide as authentic a summary as I can.

“The Internet of Things will connect every thing with everyone in an integrated global network. People, machines, natural resources, production lines, logistics, networks, consumption habits, recycling flows, and virtually every other aspect of economic and social life will be linked via sensors and software to the IoT platform…”
- Jeremy Rifkin

The “Introduction” presents a narrative slightly reminiscent of Karl Polanyi’s seminal volume, The Great Transformation (2001). Rifkin sets the tone for his underlying dynamic by talking prophetically about the impending “paradigm shift” from market capitalism to what he calls the “collaborative commons.” The “commons,” of course, not only alludes to a technologically mediated future of caring and sharing, but also harkens back to late feudalism and the expulsion of landless peasants from the great estates and fiefdoms of Great Britain. The displaced workers migrated to the industrial cities, constituted the “reserve army of the unemployed” who were so crucial to the accumulation of capital in Marx’s time, and went on to form the European Diaspora giving structure to colonialism as well.

In Part 1, Rifkin’s first three chapters offer a discussion of the Enclosures movement that began at the end of the sixteenth century and “privatized” previously common lands. It is followed by an examination of the “vertical integration” of the production process that, not coincidentally, witnessed the twin birth of the modern limited liability corporation and the industrial revolution, all in the context of the originally “free” market so eloquently celebrated by Adam Smith, David Ricardo and the rest of the late-eighteenth-century “classical” economists. He then concludes his with a discussion of what might be called the sustaining belief system (philosophy or ideology as you prefer) that explained and justified those social arrangements―Rifkin speaks fashionably of “human nature through a capitalist lens.” Although he claims to provide “the untold history of capitalism,” his story will be familiar enough to many readers who’s education is not limited to the acquisition of a B.Comm and an M.B.A. or those whose economic studies were not dominated by the neoliberal economists or even the disciples of Paul Samuelson.

“We are expected to believe that, through a protracted process, a long drawn-out peaceful competition between a dying system, capitalism, and what he and others describe as ‘the collaborative Commons,’ the latter will win out.”
– Peter Taaffe, 2014

In Part 2, “The Near Zero Marginal Cost Society,” we are treated to five perspectives on the change Rifkin takes to be ubiquitous and pervasive: free energy, 3-D printing, MOOCs, the “last worker standing,” and the “ascent of the prosumer.”

The premise is the efficacy of the do-it-yourself economy. From the presumption that technological innovation will do to industrial society what the industrial revolution did to agriculture and artisanal employment, Rifkin foretells a profound cultural revolution. His ultimately optimistic view will, however, have some educators worried. We already know what effect technological change is having on our work. Whether in the form of transitioning to a business model in which full-time employment is increasingly the exception and not the rule or of a pedagogical model in which “old-fashioned” teachers who allegedly “fear” technology are unceremoniously swept aside by managerial cost-cutters. Armed with the new-found authority to remove from “content” experts (i.e., teachers) the power to design curriculum, create student assessment protocols and even lecture in their classrooms, they herd us down the rosy path to “zero marginal cost” that some of us judge to be more like the “race to the bottom” in terms of educational excellence. This is not the place to explore the downside of what I have elsewhere called “Mini the MOOCher” (Doughty, 2013), but neither is it the place to let Rifkin’s enthusiasm for techno-education pass unmentioned.

In Part 3, Rifkin does his best to do what Marx never attempted, which was to describe the future, and what Marx dismissed as utopianism (Ollman, 2005). Still, Utopians and putative Marxists have had a few things in common, especially when the latter talked whimsically or, worse, all too coercively about the creation of a “new socialist man.” Rifkin, however, is more adventuresome when it comes to the subject of the abandonment of crude, materialistic individualism in his musings on “the rise of the collaborative commons.” His understated vision of the Leninist/Maoist “dream man” is called the “prosumer.” It refers to people in whom the distinction between “producer” and “consumer” is blurred. It is a word originally coined by Alvin Toffler in The Third Wave.

In the “Internet of Things,” he tells us that the electronic world will transform billions of us into organic nodes in a multiplicity of platforms were we can actively produce and consume products and relationships. We will be able to make and share products, ideas and social activities on a worldwide web of interconnected electronic devices. In addition to being more efficient (cheaper) than capitalist relations, this connectivity will produce solidarity and evolve empathy among populist participants no longer controlled by corporate entities—public or private. Democratized ownership of the infrastructure will reduce and ultimately end the dominance of private and public sector authorities.

Rifkin has read widely and compressed the results into his latest tome―though, to be fair to his previous work, he has also written entire books himself on several of the themes that converge here. That makes The Zero Marginal Cost Society something of a grand unifying theory of his thinking over four decades.
– Richard Waters, 2014.

Part 4 slides us into the workings of the new sharing economy. Ownership, we learn, will have to be communal: “Cooperatives are the only model that will work in a near zero marginal cost society.” With no gain to be made when, for example, no one owns a private automobile but cars are universally available through sharing, the freedom of the highway becomes inclusive of others. It is, he insists, inefficient for everyone to own a vehicle since it means that they sit around unused most of the time. The fetishism of private ownership is to be rendered obsolete by a new ethic of environmental sustainability. The carrying capacity of the Earth simply cannot handle upwards of nine billion people and an equal number of private automobiles. Economic and ecological constraints may eliminate bourgeois affectations inimical to human survival. So, if we are not persuaded by moral imperatives, material limits will do the job.

Of course, the “eclipse of capitalism” doesn’t mean that there won’t be a need for financial relations. Banking as usual, however, won’t play much of a part. Crowdfunding, bartering of commodities, products, services and skills, and the creation of digital currencies unconnected to contemporary legal tender (already tried with limited success by bitcoin, an early and elegant example of great interest to anyone seeking to avoid sales or income taxes). In any case, Rifkin is confident that alternative currencies will be as effective as money and conventional credit in building a new economy as different from capitalism as capitalism was from feudalism. The key, of course is that, whether because of ecological necessity, the collapse of consumerism, technological innovation or other factors, the entire notion of scarcity will be overcome and an era of equitable abundance will be ushered in. People will be content with fewer luxuries. They will achieve greater happiness if their basic needs are met and they are thus liberated from materialist cravings in order to pursue limitless social, aesthetic and spiritual goals. So, in Part 5, we learn about the “sustainable cornucopia” that can be had or, perhaps, that must be had as we find our proper place in the biosphere. In this last section, Rifkin rehearses his stage theory of human progress from our long experience of hunting, gathering and scavenging, through the agricultural, the commercial and the industrial revolutions and on to the imminent zero marginal cost society. In Rifkin’s view, we have successfully negotiated the transitions from loyalty to family to tribe to nation and we are now poised to take the final step into total human empathy, or what he calls “biospheric consciousness.” It is all quite charming.

The death of capitalism is, I must say, something that does give Rifkin a moment’s pause. His ideal society is still some way off and his entrepreneurial background, I suspect, is not something he is likely to renounce without some sadness. The worthy virtues of hard work, savvy investments and consequent capital accumulation have had their rewards, both material and spiritual. It is difficult to read books such as Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby without some hint of affection and understanding. But, we mustn’t cry for Mr. Rifkin. He is a flourishing industry all by himself and his workless, moneyless world of infinite cooperation is sufficiently distant that he needn’t feel compelled to surrender the tokens of his success ... not just yet, anyway.

If I seem churlish, you are welcome to chalk it up to jealousy. I can’t deny that it would be great fun to live Jeremy Rifkin’s commodious lifestyle with political, commercial, industrial and opinion leaders lined up to listen to him explain why they’ll soon be relics of a lesser past. And, what’s worse, not only is there something tremendously attractive about some of what he says, there is also a good deal of truth, even to the “dark side.” I am not sure about his prediction of “free energy,” especially at a time when it’s my electricity bill that’s “unsustainable.” And, although I am all for co-ops, worker control, industrial democracy, credit unions and so on, I am not convinced that the transition from capitalism to … something else will be as gentle and rational as he seems to suggest.

At the same time, it is clear that we can’t go on forever in our current fashion and, as Stein’s Law so graciously puts it, “if something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” (Samuelson, 2013). Capitalism will stop. It may be replaced by Rifkin’s worldwide web of mutual regard, cooperative projects, material and abundance such that everyone will have their basic needs met, albeit at the price of having the few deprived of their obscene wealth; or, in the alternative, it may be displaced by an authoritarian, militarized even more hierarchical society of tyrants, oligarchs, plutocrats, kleptocrats on top and, far beneath, an immiserated, alienated, ignorant and existentially redundant underclass kept brutally in line to tend the machinery and slop the hogs or just hang listlessly around the rusting gas stations.

I’d like to think that much of what Rifkin predicts is at least half-way accurate and I am even willing to put some faith in actual advocates and workers for change who do not seem as well-dressed or as easily greeted by the shakers and movers of the world’s richest countries; but, somehow I can’t avoid the feeling that folks as diverse as Chris Hedges, Evo Morales, Alexis Tsipras and Gar Alperovitz are on one side and Jeremy Rifkin is dispensing his wisdom on the other.

So, back to my initial five. Jesus, Marx and Nietzsche were all enormous voices that called attention to core questions of the human condition. Jeremy Rifkin is not in their league. Orwell and Redfield―writer of fiction and writer of fact―alerted us to danger and informed us about our origins and limitations. I am not sure if Rifkin is in their league either, though I am sure that his biggest fans would have no doubt that he was. His range and sweep can’t be gainsaid, nor can the importance of the questions he discusses. After all, what could be more pertinent in these times that try our souls and our patience than whether we will perish as a species, whether we will so alter conditions on the planet that we will exterminate most other species and, if we do neither, whether we will use our practical genius to create a liveable society for everyone or just continue making life sumptuous for some and odious for others. These questions and Rifkin’s answers are contained in this book.

References

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Waters, R. (2014, March 21). ‘The zero marginal cost society’, by Jeremy Rifkin. Financial Times. Retrieved August 17, 2014 from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/7713c7fc-b07a-11e3-8efc-00144feab7de.html


Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com

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