Post-Capitalism

2003-11-02

First the Anglosphere, now the end of capitalism -- that James C. Bennett provides some fascinating insights. The latter essay has a bit of that breathless tone one associates with most thinking on "the new economy" (it was written in 1998-1999), but there's much to chew on here. Bennett notes that it was Karl Marx who coined the term "capitalism", the core meaning of which involves ownership of the means of production by someone other than the workers (thus the inevitability of class conflict between the capitalists and the proletarians, at least according to Marx). What Marx did not foresee was the decline of manufacturing and industrialism as a percentage of economic activity, and the rise of the information economy (and, I might add, the service economy). Bennett makes much of the fact that in the modern information economy, the means of production are fully within the grasp of many knowledge workers ("have laptop, will travel"). This turns Marxist class theory on its head: we are all capitalists now (or, looked at another way, we are all proletarians now). Well, not all, naturally; but in certain professions, the individual worker can personally own his or her means of production. At a minimum, this applies to programmers, writers, graphic artists, musicians, researchers, and other knowledge workers. Notice that all of these workers produce "intellectual property": code, words, images, music, information, and other output that can be encoded as bits on the wire. Bennett waxes rhapsodic about the development model inherent in the open-source software community, but he pays less attention to the fact that open source is, as Eric Raymond observes, a gift economy. Unfortunately, giving things away does not help put food on the table, at least not directly. This may be why so many open-source programmers are tied in one way or another to the service economy, either as individual consultants or as employees of large service organizations such as IBM and HP (and others are still tied to the industrial or manufacturing economy, since they are supported by commercial hardware/software companies such as Sun and Jabber Inc. (!) or work by day on proprietary software that is sold as "product"). We see something similar in creative fields: writers may give talks and musicians may perform (which are essentially "services"), but they still make money the old-fashioned way by selling books and recordings (the physical manifestation of their creative output). And next to their names we still find that special little symbol: ©. Yes, it is the government enforcement of intellectual property monopolies that protects the status of those individualistic knowledge workers. How else would free-agent capitalists make a living? That is the crux of the matter (it is especially interesting to me, since just about everything I do -- protocol development, documentation, writing articles and essays and poems, composing songs and music -- is knowledge work of one kind or another). Despite all the talk of new vs. old economy, the hard fact is that any economy is based on bringing a good or service to market and being paid for it by those who value it more highly than the money they have in hand. Yet my experience in the open-source software community indicates that most people just want their free stuff. They don't want to pay for code, for docs, for assistance, or for the valuable time of the many smart and dedicated people who create all the stuff they use for free. Similarly with MP3s, weblogs, articles, research results, images, and everything else that can be encoded as bits on the wire over this wonderful thing we call the internet: people just want to download it all for free, and never give a thought to compensating the creators in any way, even if they have tipjars prominently displayed on their websites. Some would say the problem is the lack of a good system of micropayments. I say that's hogwash. We're dealing with something more fundamental than that -- we're dealing with human psychology. People simply don't like to part with their hard-earned money, and no high-minded notions of a gift economy are going to change that reality. Can we continue to expect people to create "intellectual property" if they are not compensated, or will knowledge workers eventually go on strike like the industrialists in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged? Will old forms of compensation (such as patronage) reappear, and will new forms arise, accompanied by new forms of organization and networking among creative individuals? Will knowledge workers settle for less compensation from their creative work, or will they perhaps dedicate more time to services and therefore less time to creation? The answers will vary from individual to individual, but in aggregate the actions of knowledge workers will shape future markets for intellectual creations. May you live in interesting times....

Postscript (14:13): I just noticed that Doc Searls blogged similarly yesterday, albeit in a less worried tone. His conclusion: that everyone involved in creative markets -- each writer, musician, artist, coder, retailer, intermediary -- needs to learn how to work in the electronic tsunami of free information and networked markets, then take advantage of new opportunities therein (such as TidBITS perhaps). "Just 'cuz it's new water doesn't mean you can't learn how to swim in it." As always, Doc rocks.


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