From info-tech to post-capitalism?

Times have been hard of late for us leftists. Despite the fact that a good deal of our tradition’s criticisms of capitalism and modernity have proved accurate, the expected solutions haven’t really come – and when leftist governments have assumed power, they’ve often compounded the problems. New issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and resource squeezes, not to mention feminism, decolonisation and identity politics, have arisen and challenged old leftist certainties. Small wonder that there’s a cottage industry in the publishing world for new leftist books trying to make sense of all these emerging trends.

I’ve tried to keep up as best I can with a selection of these volumes. They vary from the gob-smackingly bad – like Leigh Phillips’ neo-Bolshevik Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts – to the serious and thought-provoking. To my mind, almost all of them suffer from an insufficiently analysed commitment to ‘progress’ and technological solutionism. It’s not that I’m arguing instead for regress and anti-technological, reactionary backwardness…here, you can already sense the narrow straitjacket that leftism (and not only leftism, but most mainstream political thought) throws around the debate over ‘progress’ and technology. We need to do a better job when we talk about these ideas and acknowledge their complexities. Not much chance of that with public intellectuals like Steven Pinker strutting their stuff – what’s this weird modernist obsession with proving how much better life is now than in the past all about?

Anyway, Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future (Penguin, 2015) is one of the better efforts I’ve read among this bad bunch. I still think it suffers from some of the characteristic weaknesses of mainstream leftist thought – and I think it would probably have been better titled Capitalism: A Guide To Our Past – but I’ve come away from it feeling enriched and informed. I’m not going to try to summarise it here, but I do want to review a few of Mason’s points that bear most directly on some of the concerns of this blog.

1. Capitalist crisis: Leftists, and Marxists in particular, have long argued that there are inherent tendencies to crisis within the capitalist economy, basically associated with the contradiction between finding consumers to buy its products and immiserating labour to cut its costs, and with replacing human labour with machinery. These tendencies are genuine, but the capitalist economy has proved much more resilient than the early Marxists supposed in overcoming its crises, essentially by finding ever new arenas (places, people, products) to commodify. It’s possible that the present impasse of the global capitalist economy will prove to be no more than another one of these temporary crises, but there are various signs that it’s more serious than that. In briefest outline, these include the unprecedented reliance on debt-fuelled growth by most of the major ‘developed’ countries, the scouring of value from these countries’ own increasingly immiserated populations, placing more wealth into the hands of an increasingly small global economic elite, the pressures of resource crisis and climate change, and the emergence within many of the major western economies of an impetus towards beggar-my-neighbour trade protectionism of the kind associated with the rhetoric, if not the deeds, of a figure like Donald Trump, with all the attendant 1930s-style dangers of global trade wars turning into global military conflict.

2. Working-class response: Marx himself had a rather naïve, intellectually-driven faith in the industrial working class as the universal historical class that would by itself right the wrongs of capitalism and of previous economic systems. But the more influential Marxist position, associated with someone who achieved actual political power, is Lenin’s critique of the ‘trade union consciousness’ of the industrial proletariat: without party cadres to push them into proper communism, according to Lenin all you get with industrial workers is demands for better pay and conditions. That’s pretty much the same viewpoint as legions of conservative thinkers, except what’s a negative for Lenin is a positive for them – witness, for example, John Michael Greer’s voluminous writings on the ‘wage class’ in the USA and its lack of interest in socialism. Mason, much more convincingly, shows how working class movements across the ‘developed’ world in the 19th and early 20th centuries actually did involve a strong leftist (though rarely Marxist) critique of capitalism, which emphasised education, self-improvement, the dignity of skilled manual work and the rich associational life of an engaged, disciplined, politicised workforce. As the contradictions of early 20th century capitalism began to mount, these movements faltered – destroyed by authoritarian populism and/or fascism, or bought off by social democracy, and ultimately snuffed out by neoliberalism with its destruction of organised labour in the west and its individualisation of economic action.

3. The rise of info-tech. The old leftist project is in ruins, then, but Mason sees new possibilities in the rise of networked information as the currency of 21st century human interaction. In his view, information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly, because markets are based on scarcity, whereas information is abundant. Meanwhile, info tech is lowering the marginal costs of production of numerous commodities – including basic physical commodities. The peer production of free stuff enabled by the info tech revolution is growing, enabling people to interact with each other as social beings outside the marketplace. Just as the old idea of the working class as the universal political class dies, a new idea of the well-educated and networked as the universal political class is born. At the same time, traditional forces of capitalist control are attempting to reassert themselves: vast tech monopolies like Google, repressive-authoritarian states and the constant reinvention of indebtedness to entrench exploitation. Hence are the contemporary battle lines between capitalism and post-capitalism drawn.


I think Mason has some brilliant insights into the story of capitalism and of the left’s somewhat-but-not-entirely futile attempts to understand and challenge it. I’m less convinced by the way he construes the coming conflict between monopoly capitalism and post-capitalist info-tech. I just don’t think he provides anything like a ‘thick’ enough description of future energy and resource prospects, the present structure of commodity manufacture and the nature of the open source or peer production movement to give his claims real weight. So it would be easy to dismiss his analysis as another example of starry-eyed, high tech, 3D-printer-fantasising flummery of the kind that disfigures so much ‘postcapitalist’ writing on the left these days. And indeed, in many ways his approach to the ‘zero marginal cost revolution’ isn’t that different to Kate Raworth’s, which I treated to a fairly peremptory dismissal on this site not so long ago.

But I don’t want to jettison his arguments quite so hastily. This is partly because he has a more nuanced view of info-tech as a contradiction within capitalist production, rather than simply as something that’s going to ride to the rescue of a grateful humanity. And it’s partly because I think his analysis can be reformulated in a more interesting way. So I’m going to conclude by trying to reformulate it.

I’ve long been sceptical of the idea of commons as a fundamentally superior form of economic organisation for the production of food and other key basic commodities (perhaps I’ll try to lay this argument out more systematically in another post). Given the opportunity, I think most people historically have preferred to provide for their household needs themselves as far as possible (which is not to say that commoning arrangements haven’t nevertheless been important in numerous ways). But it does seem to be the case that there’s a thriving ‘digital commons’ of peer-produced, open source free stuff out there in the world of information. I think Mason possibly overstates the significance of Wikipedia, Linux and Android compared to, say, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, but he undoubtedly has a point. So I wonder if there’s some key difference between the world of food production and the world of information production?

I’m not sure – if there is, I think it’s probably around such issues as the production of food demanding ongoing physical work over periods of time that are determined by the rhythms of the natural world and not by the choice of the worker, with rewards demanding that the marginal cost of production is quite low relative to the total cost of production. In the world of peer production of information – a new WordPress widget, for example – the work is more modular, determined by the choice of the worker, and with marginal costs of production quite high relative to the total cost of production. And the social kudos gained from producing the widget is much higher than the social kudos gained from producing, say, a carrot. So there’s that. But I think the main thing that’s going on here is that info-tech peer production is essentially an elite pursuit, only available to those in highly privileged positions within the global political economy, whose ability to produce stuff for free rests upon a lot of other people working hard to service their basic needs. The same might be said of a home veg grower who gives most of her produce away or volunteers at a community garden.

In that sense, the peer production of free stuff is made possible by hidden exploitation within the global political economy, and probably therefore stands in a somewhat less revolutionary position to that political economy than Mason supposes. But I think he’s still right that there’s a possibly terminal crisis afoot in that political economy, and that the networked, educated individual may have a role to play in ushering us towards something else. And this is where his critique may connect up with my conception of the supersedure state that I outlined recently.

Here’s how things may unfold. Conservative forces will try to maintain capitalism-as-usual – debt-fuelled growth, austerity and inequality, ever more draconian immigration control, authoritarian state power, connivance with multinational monopolies and so on. But, despite achieving short-term successes and creating a lot of misery, they won’t triumph everywhere, partly as a result of opposition from Mason’s networked, educated people (among others), partly because of exogenous pressures like energy prices and climate change, and partly because they won’t be able to deliver what capitalist political economies have always ultimately been able to deliver to enough people in previous eras to guarantee their survival – increasing wealth and consumer luxury.  Generally, states will weaken, and civil society will have thrust upon it the responsibility of providing for basic needs.

This will turn out to be a lot harder than many people thought – including networked, educated individuals who discover that securing a steady supply of food, clothing, energy and shelter isn’t as easy as producing a WordPress widget. Nevertheless, their instincts towards open collaboration with strangers, lateral thinking, environmental care and shared space will stand them in good stead when it comes to rethinking community provisioning from the ground up. As per my analysis of the supersedure state, states will gradually retreat towards their core centres and populations, which will be increasingly remote from and inaccessible to the majority of people living within their de facto boundaries. Commercial, cash-crop oriented export farming will start to lose its economic rationale, and this is the point at which new, locality-oriented forms of ‘peer production’ of basic necessities may step into the breach. There will be numerous challenges, false steps and failures, but there may also be interesting models, social innovations and successes.

That, at any rate, seems something to aim at. I don’t think we’ll see the world that Mason would like to see – essentially one of free or nearly free basic necessities, universal basic income and a lot of volunteering, leisure and peer production of info-tech. But I think we might see, at least in some places, a world that’s better than that, based on local work, community self-provision and wider political networks of amity within the increasingly empty and moribund shell of a larger body politic left over from 20th century capitalism. In that sense, it’s a world that may have similarities with the one built by the organised, leftist working-classes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let’s just hope that history doesn’t then repeat itself too much.

53 thoughts on “From info-tech to post-capitalism?

  1. But I think the main thing that’s going on here is that info-tech peer production is essentially an elite pursuit, only available to those in highly privileged positions within the global political economy, whose ability to produce stuff for free rests upon a lot of other people working hard to service their basic needs. The same might be said of a home veg grower who gives most of her produce away or volunteers at a community garden.

    OR… is based upon a bet that the notoriety gained might be monetized in the future. I’ll suppose for a second you wrote a dissertation at university. And I’ll further suppose there wasn’t much immediate fiscal reward for the effort. But an immediate fiscal reward was really not your intended outcome. Now I’ll agree that being a doctoral student is something of a privilege… but where I want to take my dispute is that one can earn their way into such a privilege. You needn’t be the son of an aristocrat to matriculate (at least this is the condition where I write from). So writing a dissertation to fulfill the requirements for a Ph.D. is something of a bet toward future rewards for the effort. I imagine the writing of code for a very cool Widget is monetized in a somewhat similar fashion – at least for someone who is not otherwise supported in a highly privileged position.

    And our carrot grower – one hopes her altruism is contagious… but suppose her carrots (and her volunteering spirit) attract the attention of someone at Windsor. I can see the ad copy already… growing carrots for the Queen. And as far fetched as that appears on the surface, tales of such exist. No, not every avid gardener can expect a Royal nod… and not every widget author will create something worth deploying to millions of web pages. But some will. Hope springs eternal. Ask most graduate students.

    Otherwise – I like this post. 🙂

  2. “I just don’t think he provides anything like a ‘thick’ enough description of future energy and resource prospects,”

    This is core error that renders so much of what is written into sheer blather, and perhaps is the reason your writing, Chris, is so valuable.

    If you do nothing actually physically productive, if you have no idea how food is produced, how products are manufactured, or how resources are extracted and refined, then it is easy to wax ecstatic about all sorts of fanciful 3D printed flying cars that will carry the liberated former workers from the cocktail lounge to the beach and back.

    Lab meat, vertical farms–these fantasies only spring from the minds of the deeply clueless.

    And I think your forecast is quite likely:

    “Generally, states will weaken, and civil society will have thrust upon it the responsibility of providing for basic needs.

    This will turn out to be a lot harder than many people thought – including networked, educated individuals who discover that securing a steady supply of food, clothing, energy and shelter isn’t as easy as producing a WordPress widget. “

    • Hey wait a minute… lab meat could end up being a thing. No, I’m not signing up to try it. And I’m not even convinced there is any need for such. But the financial metrics to produce an artificial meat-like thingy from a good ol’ fashioned plant protein have been demonstrated. It does ask for some logical forbearance, but so does flying hither and yon in big steal buses with wings. Logic rarely guides Homo hubris.

      • Lab meat may end up being a “thing”. But so was putting men on the moon, and that sure didn’t last long.

        Activities that are energy-negative are going to face strong headwinds in a reality-based future. Note that I specified reality-based, as opposed to a future that uses financial metrics to make decisions.

        Though, given that energy constraints are inevitable (barring a literal miracle), reality and finance may start to become a lot more similar.

  3. So I wonder if there’s some key difference between the world of food production and the world of information production?

    To follow up and second Ruben’s comment- of course there is!

    There is real work in the production of information, but the mass replication and distribution of information has marginal costs declining to zero. With the carrot, or any physical commodity, the reverse is true. Every additional item produced takes as much or more effort (with declines in soil fertility or ore concentration making things more difficult). More importantly, one can’t live on information. It must always come after the needs for water, food and body temperature stability have been met.

    Production of information and expansion of knowledge have always been a drain on the real economy. Enough surplus must be secured from workers producing real things to support those who are producing the information. As our ability to turn one-off supplies of fossil energy into surplus goodies wanes, so will the number of people working in the ‘information economy’.

    And as those hours not devoted to direct physical production diminish, the sum total of information/knowledge will diminish with them. What will be left is the knowledge of how to produce the goods and services that people absolutely must have to survive. The information heritage of modern civilization may exist on a hard drive somewhere, but nobody will have the time to pay it any attention.

    So even though there are admirable aspects to the production and sharing of information, your supposition that information workers “instincts towards open collaboration with strangers, lateral thinking, environmental care and shared space will stand them in good stead when it comes to rethinking community provisioning from the ground up”, may very well not be true.

    People struggling to secure water, food and shelter may well see strangers as potential thieves, lateral thinking as daydreaming on the job, the environment as something to be struggled with every day and space/land as something to be shared only with family or those who can be trusted completely.

    It’s easy to share things that cost nothing, but when the things to be shared are the difference between life and death it gets a lot more difficult. The “networked, educated individual” may have a role to play, but only if they can produce real goods. Their role certainly won’t be supervising and organizing those who are working their butts off in the fields. And all their education and contacts will mean far less than having a strong back and tough hands.

    • And even though bits of information can be called bytes… one will starve if trying to eat them. So that might put me standing with Ruben and Joe. But maybe off to one side.

      The information heritage of modern civilization may exist on a hard drive somewhere, but nobody will have the time to pay it any attention.

      I think this goes too far. Long before we burned the first drop of oil there were information folks laboring among us. Clerics, philosophers, scientists… why even merchants might be tossed into this group. And the knowledge they produced has been passed down. We don’t need to reinvent navigation by the stars, or tease apart the relationship between carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen when it comes to their roles in photorespiration.

      And so long as navigation by the stars was mentioned – I might take off on Ruben’s “facing strong headwinds” by noticing that sailors of merit know very well how to tack against strong headwinds. Smooth sailing is for the novice. When the methods we employ today fail to serve, those who can navigate will take the helm. Like Joe, I expect there will be a marked shift in which skill sets gain our attention. But to imagine nobody will have any time to spare for thinking beyond the last row of carrots seems too dystopian to me.

      • Joe, that is very well put. But we may well see loci of education the way the old monasteries once were — depositories of some technologies as well as books.

        I completely agree with your unease about “open collaboration with strangers” — if we relocalize, and if the technology that carries on makes trust based relationships among strangers easier, a lot of collaboration is possible. Otherwise, free riders have an edge, and people will turn inward.

        Chris, I really like your rationale at the end of the penultimate para regarding relocalizing ag, and basic necessities, as well as the last para.

        As for the third para from the end, I would say it this way: “Neo-conservative/neo-liberal/globalist forces will try to maintain capitalism as usual, debt-fueled growth, austerity and inequality, ever more draconian forced migration, authoritarian state (and supra-state like EU) power, connivance with multinational monopolies, and so on.” Because this is what they are doing now, and they will try their damnedest to continue.

        To call these people “conservative” is IMO as false as calling neo-liberals classic “liberals.”

        I have a feeling that small cohesive states may get stronger, provided they can maintain supportive alliances, while contrived huge states and supra-states (empires, really) will retreat to the cores and even devolve (viz ancient Rome). Folks here have already created maps of what the U.S. will look like — the debate is whether it will be just four zones, or whether Texas will forge its own path. 😉

      • Aha! This is where I wanted to leave a comment I added to another post.

        Well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I am just going to cut and paste my own comments.

        With regards to Joe’s points about knowledge, and with apologies that I am sure I have already posted this quote on this site in the past months….

        “The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.”
        Archdruid Report Mirror: As Night Closes In

  4. “information” is not always an additional layer above the physical toil. I would argue that knowledge is transferred to assist people to grow carrots and access to certain information / knowledge is essential for human society and even primitive survival. One can also consider seeds as being vessels of genetic information, a resource which was been shared among farmers or distributed by governments for a very long time before they became privatized. Recipes are another interesting examples which not even present day neoliberalism have managed to privatize. So “free information is not necessarily something new.

    I tend to think that the impact on real economy and power relations from the internet is largely overstated. But I do agree that it increases the speed of commodification of all sorts of things and make things which were not previously in the market system into marketable products. With that commodification the surplus value generated through the informatoin tech moves towards zero. But the smart guys are those which use the data as the value created and not the services. And here “the winner takes it all” more ever.

  5. I thought there might be some push-back on the limitations of accumulated knowledge, so let me elaborate.

    If a discovery has been made, it first existed in the mind of the person(s) who observed the data and deduced a conclusion that approximates reality. That discovery may then be written down and communicated to others. One or more of the people who now have knowledge of the discovery can use it or not, but as long as their memory lasts we can be sure that knowledge of the discovery still exists.

    But what if they all die or forget. The nature of the discovery may have been written down in books, but like the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear, there is no one that knows about the discovery anymore. Does the knowledge still exist? Perhaps, in the sense that someone could read the book and learn about the discovery, but what if no one ever reads about it?

    It has been speculated that until 1500, it was possible to read every book ever written in English. Thereafter, accumulated written information needed more than one person to absorb. Now, over 3 exabytes of raw data are produced every day, equal to over 250,000 Libraries of Congress. A lot of that data is in image pixels, but for really comprehensive explanations of nature we might look to scientific papers, of which there are 2.4 million produced every year and about 50 million total since 1665.

    To understand the latest papers in any field requires a lifetime of specialized learning. Making that lifetime available to someone requires a lot of surplus, enough to let the scientist eat and live while doing all that reading and research. So the sum total of the amount of knowledge ‘in play’ at any time is directly related to the number of people who are thinking about it and capable of understanding it.

    When surplus diminishes, so does the number of people available to read, study and understand previously accumulated knowledge. Very soon there will be vast numbers of scientific papers and books that will never be read again by anyone. Untold gigabytes of data and images will never again be seen by human eyes.

    Almost all that data and knowledge will disappear from human consciousness. It will effectively be lost forever; until perhaps, some high-surplus civilization re-appears in the distant future and discovers all those exabytes of data, somehow preserved through the coming millennia.

    In the meantime, there will probably be a tiny amount of humanity’s accumulated knowledge in use at what Vera calls “loci of education”, where the relatively few literate people remaining can study and teach. If one of them were to wander down the slowly decaying stacks of an abandoned library, I wonder what books they would pick out and take home?

    • Joe said:
      To understand the latest papers in any field requires a lifetime of specialized learning. Making that lifetime available to someone requires a lot of surplus, enough to let the scientist eat and live while doing all that reading and research. So the sum total of the amount of knowledge ‘in play’ at any time is directly related to the number of people who are thinking about it and capable of understanding it.

      You make a fairly cogent argument. But I’m still wanting to quibble some.

      There certainly is an exorbitant amount of information already in existence. And much of the technical literature does demand a certain level of expertise to appreciate. Further to your argument I might add that within any one person’s brain it’s not likely that everything they have read/studied over the course of their life is readily recalled. Also to your end of the argument is the question of how all the information should be stored. You remember those old floppy disks? Who uses those anymore? Electronic storage media has changed many times in the course of my career (which incidentally, began before there was electronic storage media, sigh). But enough of my helping bolster your side.

      I’ll continue with my own experience as a plant scientist – someone who might qualify as having a lifetime of specialized learning. I grew up on a farm. We raised our own food and sold the surplus. My father also worked off the farm to assure a more stable income (weather, prices… farming isn’t the most fiscally stable way to provide for a family). Anyway, my siblings and I were afforded a parochial school education through high school. University was the first step in my education that ‘cost’ the government (society) anything (through scholarship). My point being that “a lot of surplus” might not be so much as one imagines. Now the research that my team does involves a fairly widespread agricultural crop which you may have heard about. In the course of doing said research our team grows the crop – and so much of it that we generate some surplus beyond what it would take to feed the team (and the animals it would take to provide for our meat consumption). Now I’ve not included the value of all the other niceties that our group presently takes… but in a resource depleted future one could imagine most of these ‘other’ consumables might no longer exist, or not be deemed worth the extra expense. We do use machinery and chemicals to accomplish our researches, but so much of a plant breeding effort in the early stages is accomplished by hand. Hard to imagine the loss of fossil fuel slowing down that process. There are some technical goodies we might have to forfeit in a grossly dystopian future. But these merely serve to speed up our progress – their loss would not stop us cold.

      I’ve sometimes wondered what my work would be like if there were no electricity for example. Much more difficult is the easiest answer. But not impossible. There would likely be some significant realignments to our breeding objectives. A far smaller geography would be considered – indeed I’d likely work with more than one crop, perhaps even with livestock (shudder).

      The needed skill sets in a fossil fuel free future are certainly going to change. But the required surplus needed from society at large to continue some research as we go forward won’t be beyond our reach.

      • Joe, excellent comment.

        And Clem, your lip doth tremble overmuch.

        You, my friend, are likely in one of the most directly applicable, sustenance-critical jobs that exists in our hologram of a society. As you point out, you try to grow more food in soil, with sunshine, and you do a good enough job that you have surplus to sell or give away.

        I would quibble with you a bit in that you probably didn’t sell soy to build your lab, but that is minor.

        But to Joe’s point, what is String Theory going to do in increase soybean yield? How about Comparative Literature? Theatre (which I started my first degree in before switching to the much more lucrative Sculpture path). Theology?

        You are practically the definition of what higher education will look like post-collapse. You are the exception, not the rule.

    • I see what you are saying, Joe. But at the same time, there is this tiny voice inside me rejoicing… because we’re past saturation and well into decreasing marginal utility of new knowledge in many areas (not all). Ergo, the voluminous production of BS, in science as well as elsewhere. I won’t be sorry to see the avalanche diminish radically.

      I think social systems work best of the “intellectual workers” do not claim a disproportionate chunk of the real output, as they now do. People are drowning in data, much of it bogus anyways…

  6. Thanks as ever for an interesting set of comments. I find myself in the unusual position of defending commons and peer production here, whereas I’m usually critiquing it. However, I’m not going to push my defence too far as I largely agree with Joe – indeed, I was writing on here only recently of the need to focus on private/household production rather than commons as the key basis of sustainable farming, and I’ve watched numerous community food-growing projects come to grief essentially through an overly naïve belief in the power of community.

    What I would say, though, is that currently in a country like Britain there’s an awful lot of farmland in very few hands and there are an awful lot of people living in urban areas with no appreciable access to land and little knowledge of what to do with it. Supposing a scenario of relatively rapid-onset economic and resource crisis, I don’t see many good ways of matching land, people and skills appropriately given those starting conditions. This is where Mason’s ‘networked, educated’ people may have a positive role to play along the lines outlined above – and while I agree that open collaboration with strangers doesn’t come naturally in traditional farm societies for good historical reasons, it may be the saving grace in a populous, urbanised society desperately trying to reinvent itself as a ‘traditional’ farm society. As ever, I’m not trying to suggest that this is a simple route out of our predicaments. Certainly, you could accuse me of wishful thinking or idle speculation. But what’s motivating me is the search for some kind of systematic basis through which we could plausibly move from where we’re at to where we need to be with a minimum of disorder, and frankly the cupboard looks quite bare to me, so this kind of thing is the best I can do. I plan to keep on trying.

    I’m with Gunnar (and Clem, and Vera) on the question of information – I think all human societies are ‘information’ societies, and I don’t see information as intrinsically a drain on the ‘real’ economy. But I also agree with Gunnar that we tend to overstate the importance of the internet and contemporary info tech. Mason made me think that my scepticism on this point has been slightly over-hasty, particularly in relation to the contradictions within capitalist production, but I haven’t fundamentally changed my opinion.

    Clem’s parallels with higher education are certainly interesting. I guess what I’d say there is that yes it IS a privilege, and one that can only be earned into by a global few…perhaps more to the point, universities tend to be (usually) publicly funded and separated off as a kind of merit good from the rest of society – the parallel in terms of peer production and digital commons as a different way of doing the economy isn’t really there. But maybe I need to think about that some more.

    Vera, yes I accept that ‘conservative’ (and ‘liberal’) is a tricksy term…in fact I was just writing something yesterday that was distinguishing it from neoliberalism. But I guess the sense I’m employing it here is merely small c conservative in the sense of ‘conserving’ the status quo.

    • …universities tend to be (usually) publicly funded and separated off as a kind of merit good from the rest of society – the parallel in terms of peer production and digital commons as a different way of doing the economy isn’t really there. But maybe I need to think about that some more.

      Perhaps it might help to consider apprenticeship as another route to gaining a foothold in a “shop” or marketplace where one needs to demonstrate a certain level of skill before being turned loose with precious resources. One can readily see modern graduate training as a sort of apprenticeship.

      The participant in the digital commons can be self taught, or formally trained, but either way their contributions into the larger community mix form the basis for their individual brand. Now some may offer contributions for purely altruistic reasons, but somewhere along the way a few carrots must be procured. If one is still not ready for ‘prime time’ then working alongside a journeyman (journey person??) in the field and sharing in the master’s carrot supply might do the trick.

      And the route to the root needn’t always be along a straight path. There are many who toil for wages in some realm as they seek the background and experience to fledge in an area of their dreams.

    • the search for some kind of systematic basis through which we could plausibly move from where we’re at to where we need to be with a minimum of disorder

      Yes, this will be the key to saving much of the biosphere and humanity with it. I just have my doubts that peer-to-peer networks in information technology or organizations of networked, educated people have much to offer as a paradigm. I just see a disconnect between intellectual collaboration and field work.

      I keep thinking back to the last time it happened that lots of young people were put to work in the US countryside. It was during the Great Depression and I wonder if something like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) or the Works Progress Administration (WPA) would be the answer to getting people out of the city and on to the land. If it were clear that there was little chance of anyone returning to the city permanently, the need to concentrate on agrarian skills would be obvious to all.

      If I were to design a pilot program along those lines, I think the group to sign up would be poor unemployed young men or those incarcerated for non-violent crime. Give them a chance to put those bodies to work learning how to produce food and do other resource conservation work.

      In the CCC, 80% of the minimal salary earned working in the field had to be sent back to an enrollee’s family. The whole CCC program was one of the most popular in the New Deal era and the emphasis on hard work for family benefit surely had much to do with it.

      The CCC and the WPA put people to work on mostly public lands, of which the US had (and still has) a great deal, but I think that if a private landowner were to derive some benefit from having his land be part of the program, private property could be part of such a program too.

      If we can’t get educational or philanthropic entities to take the lead on programs like these pretty soon, we may have to wait until significant hardship and mass unemployment appear in the way of a motivating force. Then we may just get some organized governmental response. Until then, I just don’t know…

  7. I’m not entirely a fan of UBI (and the ecomodernist/post-capitalist free stuff ethos in general) largely because I’m pretty sure that UBI takes us further down the road of forgetting how basic provisioning works. Going any further down that road will only bring us to greater grief later on. That being said I do have some sympathy with the idea that UBI might work better than our current safety net system in the US (and the UK??)
    However, I think that UBI is more likely to be implemented than the wiser alternative, since it is easier for our nation-states to create money (a form of zero marginal cost information) than it is for them to create self-provisioning communities and other real things like carrots. It might keep the bread and circuses going a few more years, right?
    But as another ardent SFF fan said to me over drinks last night in Salt Lake City (this happens, Chris!), “we have to give it back,” by which he meant all that we’ve stolen and squeezed and commodified to create this mindlessly wasteful civilization that is destroying the natural world. And I agree with him in a kind of cheerful doomer-ism, and an even more cheerful embrace of small farms as an ethical proposition. Small farms will not support current extravagance and that’s a good thing.
    However I’m pretty sure a small farm community can support a public library and a decent basic education, so I don’t think an educated mind and tough hands are things we necessarily need to choose between now or in the future.

  8. Thanks for the further comments. The one that really leapt out at me was this from Michelle: “as another ardent SFF fan said to me over drinks last night in Salt Lake City”. I’ll just take a moment to savour that one…right, thanks Michelle. Now onto more humdrum matters – yes I agree on the limits of UBI, I guess all I’d say is that maybe it’s a step in the right direction in delinking social and fiscal productivity, but I agree in other ways that it’s barking up the wrong tree. “I’m pretty sure a small farm community can support a public library and a decent basic education, so I don’t think an educated mind and tough hands are things we necessarily need to choose between now or in the future.” A nice thought to carry forward.

    Joe, that’s interesting on the CCC – a model worth reviving? I’m not sure how it would work vis-à-vis private landownership. Everywhere has its own histories in terms of contestation over the land, but I’m nervous about large-scale private landownership. Here in the UK, we have essentially a society of landlords. Rural/agricultural landlordship hasn’t been very significant economically in recent times – indeed if anything a drain, hence all those public access stately homes – whereas urban landlordship certainly has been. But I can sense the winds of change blowing. Young people are now pretty much frozen out of property ownership altogether, and Mason analyses quite nicely their battles over urban space, the Occupy movement etc. A post-capitalist agrarian society would be deeply shaped by who controls the state – in the UK under present tenure we could easily be looking at a form of neo-feudalism, whereas if small proprietors, householders and young people can exert influence I see a better, agrarian populist outcome. This is where I think Mason’s analysis and his networked, educated folk may be quite important.

    Clem, I’m mostly with you but I’m still not quite seeing how this apprenticeship model works to undermine the extant economic basis for procuring the necessities of life, which is the strand of the digital commons argument that I’m questioning.

    • Help me understand the need to “undermine the extant economic basis for procuring the necessities of life”.

      I’m not wedded to any particular form of life preparation. Formal education in the U.S. from the middle of the last century is where I came up (that and growing up on a farm). But there are many other models – of which apprenticeship is just one – to have in the tool kit. Internships seem to be gaining in popularity. Waning in popularity now (and perhaps this is tragic) is the Cooperative Extension Service. CES still exists here, but it is only a shadow of its former self.

      But there is also the scouting world – Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts; Indian Guides (see: ), the 4-H and others.

      The boy scouts example sprang to mind from Joe’s comment above concerning the CCC and WPA. As part of the Eagle Scout endeavor a young man will coordinate and accomplish some public project. These can be beneficial to a community in a way somewhat akin to the CCC and WPA projects of the 30s here.

      Military service is now voluntary here in the US. There are significant discussions to whether this is sufficient. One of my brothers was in the National Guard. His service there was quite beneficial for personal growth and the financial assistance of the GI bill.

      AmeriCorps is another avenue (google it if you’ve never heard of it… already used the one link limit). There are conversations around requiring some service (either military or americorp like) of all young people in our society.

      There are youth groups within many of the mainstream religious denominations. There are community youth programs in most of our cities. Opportunities abound.

      But we still have the disaffected. Gangs, and school shooters hold up the mirror of ugliness where we’ve failed.

      One aspect of the “life preparation” projects I’ve summarized above is direct human contact. You don’t email in your effort at boot camp. Person to person, face to face… boots on the ground projects are most instrumental. Cell phones, tablets, laptops and social media don’t raise many carrots.

      • Interested to hear your comments, Clem, on the Extension. While I lived in NY I was in their Master Gardener program, and while some of it was very enjoyable (the teaching was excellent, we had some Cornell folks come down too), and manning the help line afterwards was loads of fun, my overall sense of the outfit was that we were being used as warm bodies while having no insight into the organization we served, and certainly no decision making powers at all. That was jealously guarded by the bureaucrats. And there was at the time a lot of emphasis on invasive species and reporting sightings — only later did I realize that I was in fact helping the herbicide industry.

        As for youth corps, I have long thought it’s an excellent idea. I grew up in a country where older kids often went on “brigades” — potato harvests, hay making and late planting, and hop picking. I loved it. It was really part of our education — as were extended hiking trips at the end of the school year. All of us also took shop for 4 years, and when in high school, I put in a year as a metal-working apprentice in one of our factories. (This system, of course, no longer exists, nor the excellent network of trade schools we used to have in CZ.)

        • It sounds like you had a lot of valuable experiences in your youth. I have long lamented the trend in the US toward shielding children and adolescents from the physical world.

          I think the work I did picking fruits and vegetables, delivering newspapers and taking shop classes every day in grade and high school was really valuable. Also valuable was the free-range exploration of my grandparent’s 120 acre farm every summer.

          All of that exposure gave me enough familiarity with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of how things work to allow me to live in the countryside for all my adult life (barring two years living in Beirut), with all the structure building, firewood handling and land work country living can entail.

          In the current era, kids are not even allowed to walk to school unsupervised, much less harvest crops in the field.

          I think depriving young people of the experience of doing meaningful work with their hands is short-sighted. It keeps them from developing a strong intuitive understanding of how the physical world works, especially what is safe and what can be dangerous. I also deprives them of the immediate reward of creating something real and useful with their own hands or of returning something broken to useful service.

          We discuss the problem of getting people out of cities and onto the land, but it would be also good if they know which end of the hoe to grab when they get there.

        • …and manning the help line afterwards was loads of fun, my overall sense of the outfit was that we were being used as warm bodies while having no insight into the organization we served, and certainly no decision making powers at all. That was jealously guarded by the bureaucrats. And there was at the time a lot of emphasis on invasive species and reporting sightings — only later did I realize that I was in fact helping the herbicide industry.

          While I was not there at the moment you were helping out, I would offer that you did more that assist the herbicide industry. I’m not saying the chems got no help from your efforts… but others in the broader community were assisted as well. And you can bet that if the industry had done the work themselves then their data – well, it would be ‘their’ data – wouldn’t have helped the broader community. Though they can argue that based on their data the chems they produce can control the pests found; organic producers get nothing from their effort.

          As for being included in the CES overall… I can’t speak for them, but I’m wondering what other group, watching out for their own personal employment situation, is going to tout the value of the ‘free’ alternative. You were valued (very much I’m guessing) at the local level. But bean counters at higher levels of government would likely argue there’s little or no need for the professionals if we can get volunteers to serve.

          So long as we’re on the CES, and you so cleverly noticed a herbicide industry benefiting from a public sector project… I would offer that one of the strongest knives in the back of the CES here is the development of private sector “extension”. So the chemical industry (read pesticide and fertilizer) as well as the seed industry have developed within their sales and marketing efforts a strong degree of support for farmers (extension like). And if you imagine this is a wholly altruistic effort, then you need another cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage. There is real value being offered by the chem and seed industry… not completely greedy or evil. But if a grower is faced with difficulty “X” for instance, and the person helping her sells product Y to control it, you can reasonably bet product Z (which might also serve) won’t come up in the conversation. It is still possible to defend the commercial system – investment in R&D is SO much greater on the private side for instance – so I don’t want to leave the impression it’s all about shearing the sheep.

          • Joe, yes, we were lucky indeed. I pity today’s kids. They can’t do anything anymore. Except sit staring into screens.

            I read with interest, Clem, your analysis regarding the extension. So basically, in part, little farmers are so few they do not seek out the extension, the Amish are not interested, and in part, the farmers that are left, get it free from the chem people. Damn. It’s like with the doctors… why not write the scrip the guy who was just here giving me free samples recommended? Ugh.

            Chris: I just had a really interesting discussion on Resilience regarding populism. Here is what Bart thinks: “My guess is that populism is an emotional reaction to modernization. A sense of tradition that is threatened by globalization and neo-liberalism. … There’s no coherent set of ideas, since rational thought has been jettisoned.” I am hoping it will inspire you to write your long-promised elucidation of agrarian populism.

          • Ah yes, another one languishing in the in tray. Hopefully I’ll get to it eventually. Could you give me a link to your Resilience discussion?

          • Btw, I am worried about me and you both succumbing to the blogger syndrome… too many posts on the back burner. I began to despair… but recently realized that putting a promised topic into a para or two into something else I am writing suffices. Imagine my surprise! 🙂

            Yeah, it was a discussion in response to a Monbiot article.

          • Thanks Vera. Hmm, another good blogging tip from the Leaving Babylon stable…

      • Maybe I’m missing a trick Clem, but my original point was that the peer production of free stuff was based on a privileged position in the global political economy, and seemed to me for various reasons less likely to subvert that economy than Mason supposed. Then we got into a discussion about education, which seems to have migrated towards the point that societies invest resources in individuals through education, and individuals use their education to feed back into society. I don’t have any problem with that, but I’m not sure that it undermines my original point.

        • Yes, I know. My wife tried to get it for me for Christmas. Then it showed up on Amazon and she snapped it up for me. I think you can but it in Australia still at I’m not sure they send overseas but their number is +61290454394

          • It appears, from their website, they only ship to Australia and New Zealand.

        • Living in one of the richest countries on earth which has currently resigned itself to the fact that the single most important factor determining academic success is class (privilege/income), it seems as though those privileges are quite easily accumulated in a democracy way before future fiscal/resource constraints become relevant.

          Before we start asserting that the future will be hands-on for everyone, we’d be well advised to remember that capitalism might not die just because we’ve told it to, that it operates brilliantly on scarcity now and probably also in the future, and that it’ll still be full of privileged participants telling others to grow their carrots.

          • Very nice Michael.

            Privilege does seem to accumulate quite readily – so where is the foundational moment where privilege sets off? I don’t imagine one chooses to be born into privilege, but it happens. So tracked backwards then one ancestor (or group of ancestors) ascends somehow (rank, accumulated wealth) and with it attains some privilege. Privilege can be lost (or discarded), but with some level of care it can be maintained and even expanded.

            Is privilege always a negative? How does one measure the effects of privilege with a view to determining when it has gone too far?

            In a sense I might offer that I was quite privileged to learn how to grow my carrots at the side of a parent who was rather accomplished in the matter. Lucky me.

            If carrot production becomes something rare and difficult then I’m well positioned to take advantage of this privilege. Otherwise I’m just another gardener who finds himself not worrying where his next carrot is coming from.

          • Where does privilege come from…
            The aristocracy invented itself; human language’s basic characteristic is that something comes from a rhetorical nothing. (Which is neither bad nor good.)
            By stating that “we should all be…”, I’m also neatly inaugurating my role as arbiter. Nearly always works with the peasantry.

            Privilege is positive if it’s the privilege to be answerable for everyone within the confines of said privilege.
            Maybe the realm of privilege has become so seemingly immaterial that questions are a bit hard to come by…

          • Michael, I’m not quite sure who those barbs are aimed at, but if I understand you correctly there’s not much I find to agree with here.

            If we’re talking about Britain (or most other ‘developed’ countries), I’d say that the only people who are ‘resigned’ to the increasingly closed path to ‘success’ are those who most benefit from it – and not even all of them. Privileges do easily accumulate if collectively this isn’t prevented, although accumulating them isn’t ‘easy’ by definition in a society which closes routes to social mobility. The very lack of resignation to these trends animates a lot of the turmoil in current politics, which seems to me likely to get worse unless we jettison the notion that capitalism sets us free.

            I’d certainly agree that capitalism won’t die just because ‘we’ve’ told it to. Who’d disagree with that? As I mentioned above, capitalist political economies have been much more adept than many of their critics imagined at overcoming their crises – usually by buying off the people capable of overthrowing them at the expense of people who aren’t, and of the natural world. I’d agree they’ve operated ‘brilliantly’ on scarcity through a mix of manufacturing artificial scarcity and artificial abundance. But ‘brilliant’ isn’t the same as ‘good’, still less ‘sustainable’. As outlined above, there are various reasons to think that the present capitalist crisis we’re entering could be terminal for it. Which is why thinking about the alternatives makes sense to me. I don’t think any of the privileged people here are ‘telling others to grow their carrots’. However, if it was easier for any but a privileged few to grow their carrots if they wanted to, I think our collective future prospects might be a little brighter.

          • Maybe things will clear up if I tell you that I did not intend to direct barbs at anyone, least of all you 🙂

    • Chris, the Mormons that settled near Salt Lake would have found little to disagree with on SFF. It is a mystery to me how such slavering socialists manage to talk about themselves as conservatives. They were deeply agrarian–the state symbol is a beehive.

      Now, discussing Small Farm Future in Salt Lake City OVER DRINKS is impressive.

      • Yes, the conservative-leftist-agrarian nexus is endlessly fascinating.

        My wine and coffee consumption would rule me out as a Mormon, though. It would certainly help to improve my localist credentials, however.

  9. Hello!

    Long time reader, first time poster. One very interesting book that I’ve come across recently that explicitly tackles the challenges of the future from a leftist perspective is Rationing Earth. Do recommend if you haven’t heard of it before.

    I had a question about centres of production that somewhat relates to the first part of your post. I think it’s correct that as we shifted from being a more low-energy society based on agricultural labour to a more automated society based on manufacturing work in factories, the centre of production shifted out of the home and into the factory, both in practice and inside of people’s heads.

    Now that our economy is providing mostly service jobs rather than manufacturing jobs, has our idea of where the centre of production is located shifted again? Where is it now, culturally speaking? And over the next several decades where do you think it might pass through on its way back home?

    • Hi Ivan, thanks for posting – welcome! Is the book you mention the one by Herb Bentz? It looks very interesting…

      It’s an interesting question about centres of production. I think I need to ponder that a little, but I’m interested in any views…

      • Thanks, Ivan. Well, no answers to your centres of production question forthcoming… I still need to think about it, but my first blush feeling is that the substantial switch to service jobs has left us in the UK (and the US?) feeling a bit empty and vulnerable in situations of slow economic growth – hence the appeal of various quite shallow populisms grounded in nostalgia and selective anti-globalism. Also of course the decline of industrial labour changes the possibilities for labour organisation substantially. Maybe it’s different in the developed country economies that have retained a strong manufacturing base like Germany and Japan – though they seem to be subject to a similar malaise. Our centre of production ideas currently seem stuck in consumerism and nationalism…I’m not sure they’ll find their way home until they’ve transcended those mirages.

  10. Hi Chris,
    Have you heard of Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy? I’m not finished it, but am reading it in tandem with your History of The World… thank you.

    He’s an Australian farmer who after 20 years of Mechanical farming has transitioned his farm through increasing his ecological literacy. (Yes, knowledge is a key capital of farming according to him too). To do so he has broken the analysis of landscapes into 5 factors: solar; water cycle; nutrient cycle; bio diversity; and human interaction.

    I’m still getting into it, but I’d be curious to see what you think of his perspectice as he is talking about slightly larger scales than you, but is grappling with the same context, albeit from an Australian perspective. I wondered whether there was any value in another perspective? Especially when you seem to be disappointed with some of the new work out there? Would love your thoughts

  11. “Privilege” seems to be a loaded word. Perhaps the post-capitalism “privileged” will be widely recognized as those who are able to grow food for themselves. Consider the currently “underprivileged” country of India, could it be a preview of our small-farm future? 80% of the farms in India are considered “Small” or “Marginal”. The average size of land holdings is 1.3 hectares. About 50% of India’s working population is involved with agriculture (compared with 2% for the USA, and 4% for Western Europe).

      • Gandhism aside, India (with its predominantly small farms) is a “net exporter” of agricultural products, while the UK “produces less than 60% of the food it eats.” [Wikipedia]

        • Good point. As documented on this blog, the UK’s poor self-reliance is mostly due to the economics of energy and labour, such that we export the responsibility to produce the labour-intensive crops to other countries. I think your implication is quite right that with more of a small farm economy, our self-reliance would increase.

  12. Just a general comment for anyone who may be wondering why their comment hasn’t appeared here. Please do have a look at my house rules for comments on the ‘About’ page.

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