By Gene Miller, December 2015
Let’s make Victoria a model for the new economy.
Season’s best to you. Seatbelts, please. “Socialist twaddle,” one commenter responded. “Poppycock and vapour,” wrote another. You wonder if outraged readers got past the title of Paul Mason’s remarkable Guardian piece, “The End of Capitalism Has Begun.”
Maybe “socialist twaddle” is code for “terrifying.” It is terrifying!
Mason’s provocative 5000-word essay (now also published book-length as Postcapitalism) claims “the left’s project has collapsed; the market destroyed the plan; and [networked] individualism replaced collectivism.”
If you’re in the habit of humming “My Union Makes Me Strong” under your breath, you will want to grind your teeth and chalk all of this up to the savage genius of cornucopian capitalism or, more conspiratorially, to the evil capitalist oligarchy within the corporations, the banks, and Wall Street.
But without getting entirely lost in ideological parsing or regret, you may resignedly concur with Mason that neoliberal policy and practice has captured the flag: capital has won, labour has lost, and even government’s role as market regulator and as deliverer of public goods and services is under challenge and threat in many places.
Mason hypothesizes an emerging “postcapitalism” made possible, ironically, by capitalism’s own quest to increase efficiency and reduce labour cost. First, he suggests automation “will hugely diminish the amount of [human] work needed—not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.” (It takes us off topic, but compare this rosy conclusion to The Atlantic’s recent and ominous “The age of the robot worker will be worse for men.”)
Second, Mason asserts that information can be temporarily privatized to simulate the conditions of scarcity upon which market pricing is based, but not for long, because information in an age of global connectedness cannot be fenced or channelled.
Third, we are moving into a culture of “collaborative production: goods, services and organizations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy.”
Mason and others have inelegantly but accurately named this in its totality “the sharing economy.”
He acknowledges that the sharing economy is in its nativity and can be hard to find, leave alone enlisted as a solid foundation upon which to build an argument for postcapitalism. Mason writes: “It seems a meagre and unofficial and even dangerous thing from which to craft an entire alternative to a global system, but so did money and credit in the age of Edward III [about 1350].”
Inviting us to apply a long-cycle historical perspective, Mason notes that post-feudal “merchant and slave capitalism” reached its apex in the 17th and 18th centuries, only to be replaced by the disruptions, market and social, of industrial capitalism. Noting “it is impossible to prevent the abundance of information,” he believes we now have a toe in a third kind of capitalism: “cognitive capitalism.”
Mason’s themes mesh nicely with Jeremy Rifkin’s 2014 The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. Prosumers (Rifkin’s clever twist on “consumers”) are sharing or exchanging cars, homes, clothes and other items via social media sites, rentals, redistribution clubs, and cooperatives at low or near-zero marginal cost in the fledgling sharing economy. “In this new world, social capital is as important as financial capital, access trumps ownership, sustainability supersedes consumerism, cooperation ousts competition, and ‘exchange value’ in the capitalist marketplace is increasingly replaced by ‘sharable value’ on the Collaborative Commons,” asserts Rifkin.
Howls a comment-writer elsewhere, “Our blind faith has led to a priesthood of billionaires who rob us of agency.” Rifkin and Mason might argue that agency can never be repressed for very long. Motivated by a combination of necessity and opportunity, ever larger numbers of people are changing how they behave and live. Unannounced and obscured within the folds and recesses of the market system, certain practices of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm.
For some, this is a statement of possibility, for others, a threat.
If you’re inclined to wave away Mason’s vision of present-day capitalism’s vulnerability and susceptibility to change over the next half-century, stop just long enough to reflect on how arrangements in every area of human activity are in rapid and radical flux. I note that my own short lifetime is bracketed either end by the antediluvian “uppity nigger” and the futuristic-sounding “same-sex marriage.”
Mason claims that “we are on the brink of a change so big and so profound that this time capitalism itself, the immensely complex system within which entire societies function, will mutate into something wholly new.”
Those of you particularly attuned to the prospects for environmental apocalypse will sense the almost scripted timing of this emergent postcapitalism. It seems like a cosmic intervention that a technology-enabled sharing economy would bloom just as we enter the climax stage of the climate gamble which, if left to play out, is sure to dictate its own shocking new economic terms and social arrangements.
If you are inclined to file everything you have read to this point under “sci-fi,” you may miss a darker narrative surrounding Mason’s vision, captured by this excerpt from NY Times columnist Frank Bruni’s prescient and disturbing 2014 meditation, “Lost In America”:
More and more I’m convinced that the US right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint.
There’s a feeling of helplessness that makes the political horizon especially unpredictable. Conventional wisdom has seldom been so useless, because pessimism in this country isn’t usually this durable or profound.
For most voters, the national narrative is no longer plausible. The new jobs don’t feel as sturdy as the old ones. It takes more hours to make the same money or support the same lifestyle. Upward mobility increasingly seems a mirage, a myth.
And it suggests that this isn’t just about the economy. It’s about fear. It’s about impotence. We can’t find common ground and peace at home, can’t pass needed laws, can’t build necessary infrastructure, can’t, can’t, can’t.
How sad. Sadder still is this: Nowhere is there any indication that people see a method or a messenger poised to arrest it.
Mindful of Bruni’s sombre ruminations (and their resonance beyond national boundaries), I want to localize Mason’s postcapitalism by suggesting that Victoria is ground zero for every hopeful trend and possibility he is outlining. It’s my belief that Victoria, self-unaware, is in fact the global crucible for this profound social and economic transformation—Mason’s “sharing economy.” This is the place of possibility and promise others will wish to audit as the contours of an open-ended future are being shaped.
The reasons why remain ephemeral, but Victoria seems to have the right DNA for this—the un-planned purpose for which this place was made. Factors may include this city’s innocent but urgent and ceaseless quest for community and neighbourhood-scale relations; a plucky impulse for self-sufficiency; a reflex tendency to celebrate the small accomplishment; a love of generosity; our adjacency and economic subordination to the “real” cities of Vancouver and Seattle; the strong atmospheric influence of First Nations culture and values; benign climate and fecund nature; and the need to craft a survivor’s identity following the collapse of our (mostly spurious) English cultural memory. Also, there isn’t a lot of financial aggression and make-a-zillion triumphalism here; and frankly, the little that exists feels Jurassic and preposterous.
What, then, if our city offered itself as a living laboratory, a model in the transition to a sharing economy, a place the world could visit and study? “Welcome to Victoria. The Future Is Made Here,” the highway sign might say.
Might it be time for a more visible entity, a Victoria Centre for the Practice of the New Economy—aligning and amplifying the wide web of organizations, institutions, initiatives, networks—focused on innovation within, and promotion of the various features of, the sharing economy? What if, as a result of attracting the best, the most exploratory sharing economy innovators (there are many, locally and elsewhere), we could offer to other places a widely adoptable and adaptable model of a sharing economy future?
It sounds fanciful, but, ultimately, this is a crucial and timely economic and ecological proposal, and our city is well poised to play this role. To cement such a claim, ponder Canadian Naomi Klein’s remark in her recent book This Changes Everything: “Ecological crisis signals the death knell for an economic system that was already profoundly failing us.”
Consider: The present is, in some ways, simply the past persisting. Operating within one economic culture, it seems to us unimaginable that fundamentals will or can change. Still, history demonstrates inarguably that transitions are real, triggered by crisis and propelled by novelty. Given the urgencies and risks within Bruni’s assessment of the social mood, and Mason’s belief that conditions now exist for fundamentally new economic arrangements, might little Victoria’s time for leadership actually be upon it?
Bruni is right: People do need a method and a messenger.
Gene Miller is a founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences.