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Shrinking Capitalism and Rising Commons

If you think that ‘technological singularity’—artificial intelligence controlling human intelligence – is leading us to the brink of civilization, it is nothing more than a Luddite thinking. Technology is, instead, making our life more sophisticated, bridging the gap between the classes, and even changing the classical economic paradigms. These things are observed, not in the complex equation of ‘governing dynamics’, not even in the dry pages of social theories but in simple every day phenomenon – we share music, movies, eBooks almost freely with our friends, exchange the ideas in the social network and share our experiences without hesitation. This is what Jeremy Rifkin, a radical economist, writes in his latest tome ‘The Zero Marginal Cost Society: the internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons, and The Eclipse of Capitalism.’

According to Adam Smith, father of modern Capitalism, an individual is always guided by his self-interest to acquire wealth and property who is completely indifferent to the interest of group but his ‘invisible hand’ promoting the well-being of society. The theory that governed our society for more than a century has come to an end; it is observed as a fallacy in modern economics- the ‘governing dynamics’ of economics doesn’t work on an individual interest but on the interest of the group and the individual. Now let me elaborate the paradox Rifkin makes- the sellers in the market are always in search of innovation to increase the productivity while lowering operating cost in order to compete in the market which eventually reduces the marginal cost, making goods almost free. Eventually, profit dries up and comes the eclipse of Capitalism and birth of shared economy, what he calls the ‘Collaborative Commons’.

Shailesh Wasti
Shailesh Wasti

We are at the dawn of ‘Collaborative Commons’ as the book puts, ‘more than one-third of the human race is producing its own information … sharing it via video, audio, and text at near zero marginal cost in a collaborative networked world’ , the commons equally dominating the agriculture industry, knowledge industry and energy market. In this twenty-first century, knowledge is no longer power rather shared experience and the energy is produced in ‘Zero marginal cost’ where an individual shares the surplus energy at his roof (be it solar energy, wind power) in his community. As Rifkin further puts , “with the next two or three decades, prosumers in vast continental and global networks will be producing and sharing green energy…at near zero marginal cost, bridging the economy into an era of nearly free goods and services.”
This is the new economic paradigm- a trinity of communication energy, communication internet, and logistic internet is born, calling for more equal society. Today, researchers at Harvard University upload their research papers in the blog and a student living in the countryside of Nepal accesses via internet, studies it and even take part in interaction in the network. This is an emblem of equality where knowledge isn’t divided among the classes in the society.
Going through the book, there are some obvious train of thoughts- Rifkin is driven by an imagination of egalitarian society. Or, say, is he advocating a utopian fantasy? Is he more a radical ideologist and less a realist? No! According to Rifkin, like market economy differs from feudal economy, so does social economy differs from Market economy. We are human creatures, social being ‘celebrating compassion as each other’s existence, acknowledging our common bond. There is no need of empathy in heaven and no place for it in utopia because in these otherworldly realms there is no pain and suffering, no frailties and flaws but only perfection and immortality’.
We can’t always live with the principles even if they governed a millennium, for they are the ‘human constructs’. The underlining reality is that the market has changed from Sellers and Buyers to Providers and Users, collaboration from competition. Day by day, the sphere of Commons is expanding and the sphere of Capitalism is shrinking, as he puts ‘in the new era, we each become a node in the nervous system of the biosphere’ each of us becoming a ‘social entrepreneur’. At the end, it is up to us to live with the technology.

– Wasti is a student at Kathmandu Engineering College

Book Review:
The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism
Jeremy Rifkin
356 pages, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014

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