Review: Zero margin call

April 4, 2014

By Robert Cole

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Seismic shifts in the organisation of human civilisation have occurred only twice in the last 10,000 years. Or so says Jeremy Rifkin in his new book, “The Zero Marginal Cost Society.” We are, he writes, in the throes of a third transition. It is one that will bring the death of capitalism and the onset of the “Collaborative Commons.”

Rifkin makes a number of intriguing observations. Before men and women could write or irrigate land, he says, societies were built around mythologies. These frameworks gave way to feudal systems that leant heavily on Abrahamic, Buddhist and Confucian theologies. Feudalism was itself eclipsed by the age of ideologies – and the supremacy of capitalism. As would-be collaborationists, humanity is now latching itself onto what Rifkin describes as “psychological consciousness.”

Rifkin’s concept of psychological collaborationism is hard to grasp. Humanity, he says, is coming to “realise that the ultimate creative power is reconnecting with one another and embedding ourselves in ever-larger systems of relationships that ripple out to encompass the entire set of relationships that make up the biosphere Commons.” And that’s one of the book’s clearest statements.

The point may be best approached via the examples he cites. Rifkin chooses the internet as exhibit A. Thanks to the worldwide web, people are sharing rather than grubbing for money. Since the internet is free to use, profit is being drained from the system. And capitalism is losing potency, since profit is its lifeblood.

New-age collaborationists, writes Rifkin, will work in the open, on common ground they share with other citizens. Energy generation and logistics will soon be mimicking operating principles trailblazed by the internet. How? Electricity and transport capacity will be created locally and spread over networks that need no central organisation and precious little capital.

Thanks to solar panelling and mini wind farms, people will generate their own power, pass on surpluses, and eclipse the need for large fossil- or nuclear-fuelled plants. Meanwhile, goods that can’t be fabricated on 3D printers will be ferried across continents through intricate networks of shared journeys. With coordination and interaction processes developed with the internet in mind, shared short hops will be converted into logistically significant long hauls.

But hang on. Society, surely, has long been collaborationist? Rifkin fails to appreciate that ownership fosters carefulness. Rented houses, compared to owner-occupied ones, tend to dilapidate more quicklu. Capitalism will live on as sections of civilisation continue to cleave to the profit motive. It is odd, moreover, that Rifkin fails to appreciate that the joint-stock company, one of capitalism’s apogees, is a collaboration. They pay tax, distribute investment and redistribute dividend wealth. They are often owned by citizen shareholders, regulated by state authorities and staffed by consumers. The model may work far from perfectly. But Rifkin gives few reasons for readers to believe that his collaborative vision will work any better.

The book is intriguing, if obscure at times, rather than convincing. Rifkin insists that we are crossing an epoch-defining Rubicon. That maybe a conceit deployed to give the book a flash of interest-enhancing sensationalism. But while many things are changing in the way Rifkin suggests, many more are likely to stay the same.

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