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The Abolition of Scarcity - Kevin Carson

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.

The future will be shaped by three interlocking trends: imploding capital outlay requirements for production, reduced transaction costs of networked organization, and eroding enforceability of artificial property rights. Taken together, they will render the propertied classes' privileged access to large amounts of land and capital irrelevant, act as a force-multiplier for bootstrapping the alternative economy, drastically lower the revenue streams required both for households to subsist and microenterprises to stay in business, and shift a large portion of consumption needs into the category of Free or virtually Free as embedded rents on artificial property rights are washed out of the price of goods.

Collapsing capital outlay requirements for production, resulting both from the desktop revolution in the immaterial sphere and the micromanufacturing revolution in the physical sphere, will act as a force multiplier for the resources available to the alternative economy, thus nullifying the propertied classes' privileged access to land and capital and enabling the alternative economy to bootstrap itself exponentially from limited resources.

The radical cheapening of means of production will also undermine the logic of capitalism. The wage system came about because of the technological shift from production with individually affordable artisan tools, to production with expensive machinery that only the rich could afford. Today we are experiencing a reversal of that shift. A garage shop with a few thousand dollars' worth of homebrew CNC tools can do work that previously required a million dollar factory. The primary form of productive organization, instead of the old mass-production factory using expensive product-specific machinery, is becoming the job shop using cheap general-purpose craft tools. Capital, rather than being expensive and inaccessible to labor, is becoming cheap and ubiquitous. This destroys the entire material basis of capitalism and wage labor.

Low overhead costs reduce size of revenue stream required for a business to stay in business, and the size of the outside revenue stream required for a household to subsist. When a microenterprise (including the household as a subsistence “enterprise”) has little or no overhead cost, it can weather periods of little or no income without going in the hole; and what income stream it does have is free and clear. So the distinction between being “in business” and “out of business” disappears, and people can incrementally increase the share of their needs met through self-employment and subsistence production with virtually no risk.

Networked, stigmergic organization of the kind described by Eric Raymond in “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” is also a force multiplier. Innovations are developed by the self-selected individuals most interested in them, and can be adopted immediately wherever they are useful without any administrative mediation. This is the dynamic of fourth-generation war networks, and of the file-sharing movement (in which geeks crack DRM this week and grannies can download next week). Stigmergy is a synthesis of the highest developments of both collectivism and individualism, without modifying or impairing either in the least.

The disappearance from product prices of previously embedded capital outlay costs and other sources of overhead, and of previously embedded rents on artificial property rights like copyright, mean that a growing portion of our consumption needs approaches — if it does not reach — “Free.”

Theorists of new-wave capitalism look to rescue the old system from its contradictions through the use of green technology as a profitable capital sink, or Romer's model of cognitive capitalism in which innovation is capitalized as a new source of rents. They also look for ways to reinflate demand to sufficient levels that labor can be employed forty hours a week to buy stuff designed to fall apart and go straight to the landfill, so labor can buy more shoddy crap and keep the wheels turning, so that everybody can keep working forty hours a week producing crap and earning the money to buy crap.

But these models require the use of artificial scarcity to capitalize innovation as a source of rents, or to inflate capital investment requirements to artificial levels, in order to prop up the value of investment capital. When artificial property rights like patents and copyrights become unenforceable, the normal tendency of technological innovation in a competitive market is to destroy monetized value.

The proper approach should be, rather, to flush all artificial scarcity rents and capitalization requirements out of the system, to eliminate all forms of subsidized waste like planned obsolescence, and to allow bubble-inflated housing prices to collapse, so that the total work hours required to pay for the remaining monetized costs of living are radically reduced. The remaining available hours of paid labor should be redistributed through a shortening of the average work week — probably twenty hours or less.