Monday, January 28, 2013

Ubiquity: Toward a Humanist Theory of Post-Economics

…the organized labor movement as it is constituted today is as much a concomitant of a capitalist economy as is capital. Organized labor is predicated upon the basic premise of collective bargaining between employers and employees. This premise can obtain only in an employer-employee type of society. If the labor movement is to maintain its own identity and security, it must of necessity protect that kind of society.
Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals; 1946 (italics in original)
Alinsky's insight demonstrates the dishonesty with which the term "socialist" is leveled at those who argue for collective bargaining rights. In no true sense can socialism be the agenda of those who seek to force employers to treat employees fairly, because under a socialist system there would technically not be any employers or employees.

It is difficult to see a clear path from the labor movement to a post capitalist society because of this. In truth, labor is a vital part of any economic system, and the employer/employee relationship is vital to capitalism, regardless of where the power resides.

Economics in any and all forms rests on the assumption of conditions of natural or artificially enforced scarcity, far less than enough to supply everyone. The study of economics and its everyday business control and transactions tells you how each variation of the Price System makes an ideology of how to divide up that scarcity. You will find economics defined in terms of scarcity in every textbook on the subject, usually in the opening chapter. Without scarcity, some of them candidly admit, there would be no need for economics.

John Waring Technocracy and Humanism; 1985
What both Libertarian and Socialist economic theories promise us is never ending labor and ever diminishing returns. Socialism offers one version of universal fairness: no one will have more than anyone else, all will suffer or succeed equally. Libertarianism offers us the lottery ticket of being one of that lucky and capable few who can make the right decisions and end up controlling the means of production and thereby harnessing power to have everything one desires, at the expense of everyone else. All other economic theories fall somewhere between the two, but all are based on the concept of scarcity.

Post-scarcity economics is something else altogether. In fact, as Waring points out in the quote above, post-scarcity is not really economics at all. Post-economics seeks to design a system whereby those things needed for human flourishing: food, air, water, freedom, information and companionship are not scarce resources, but abundant, as ubiquitous as gravity.

Economic text books start with an explanation of scarcity by contrasting that which is scarce with that which is abundant. An example text books once commonly used was the air we breathe. No one charges you for each gulp of oxygen needed to sustain life it was argued. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. In Principles of Microeconomics by Libby Rittenberg and Timothy Tregarthen argue that air, or at least fresh, breathable air, has become a commodity and has generated a cost because of pollution. We now understand that our need to breathe fresh air comes at the price of shutting down a factory that belches poison into the atmosphere, thereby costing people jobs and money.

The commodification of air is a terrible step in the wrong direction, as are the predicted water shortages that some environmental experts predict will cause terrible water wars as governments and NGOs attempt to take control of the ever shrinking fresh water reserves world wide.

Rittenberg and Tregarthen argue that one of the only abundant, cost free resources we have at our disposal right now is gravity. Gravity is virtually infinite. I can use all the gravity I want when sticking to the earth, and no matter how much I use, I cannot diminish your ability to access it. The difficulty of course is that I have no real say in how much or how little gravity I may want to use. Gravity is a constant, a part of existence in the universe.

But gravity is free.

Rather than commodify abundant resources we should be engineering systems that decommodify scarce resources. We are seeing this battle unfold right now on the Internet. Information and communication costs have plummeted. Encyclopedias are now essentially free, and all the world's information is potentially at our fingertips. But the Internet is swinging towards limiting access and charging more for information: artificially restricting access in order to generate profits for the few.

Like the sudden change in the status of air from abundant resource to scarce resource, this is a step in the wrong direction. We should be engineering ubiquity, not scarcity.

It is time to deliver on Eisenhower's promise of energy that is "too cheap to meter." It is time to solve the problem of scarcity, with the ultimate goal of decommodifying labor.

Only then will human beings truly be free.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, the other side of engineering systems that decommodify scarce resources is harnessing ubiquitous resources like solar energy. Also, I recommend the film "Flow: For Love of Water." Remember Cochabamba!