Collaborative commons – a new era dawns?

Are we about to enter a new post-capitalist era?

A few thoughts on the ‘zero marginal cost society’, after hearing Jeremy Rifkin speak at the RSA London, 29th April.

Jeremy Rifkin argues that the zero-marginal-cost era is almost upon us, where there will be no longer any significant extra cost in bringing a product or service to market. No marginal cost means no profit, and there are some big implications there!

It will be the era of ‘collaborative commons’ (a hefty term), with social media blazing the trail. The next stage will be an internet of things when we can create what we want online – create our own apps, develop our own private algorithms, and more. We’ll not only communicate online, we’ll make our journeys in driverless cars, depend on green energy. Beyond that we’ll 3D print our own products: the first printed car (do I believe it?) is already on the roads. All American schools are to have their own 3D printers. Our natural instinct to share will be reborn, already have been in social media. We’ll share cars, find rooms to stay through community websites, children will realise that toys are not to be possessed but to be played with for a while, and then passed on. (Have the children been told?) The millennial generation, under thirty, already have a different more collaborative mindset. And this is only the beginning.

Rifkin is not arguing a political case, not is he anti-capitalist. This he argues is a development even Karl Marx failed to foresee, though Keynes with his concept of technology replacement came close in 1930.

Rifkin was asked at the RCA talk why was that people in the UK still thought in terms of the old categories of private, state and charity. With the millennial generation Rifkin believes that that will change. But I’d argue that as of now there’s no new paradigm, collaborative commons isn’t remotely part of the language or understanding. And without a big idea which people connect to, sharing as an economic driver will be much harder to establish.

Rifkin senses the change is inevitable. It doesn’t need protagonists. It will happen. In a collaborative world future generations will naturally revert to a sharing paradigm. They may not know it. But… without protagonists change will be much easier to resist. The music industry was swamped by free downloads before it knew what was happening. We’re all much wiser now.

Everyday products and services will inevitably be cheaper. Businesses will make less money. Pay lower wages. If we can 3D print and costs come tumbling, industries will go under. Rifkin argues there will be a long transition period. But could the result still be economic collapse? Will we be able to afford mortgages? To argue that in a collaborative world we will be sharing property rather misses the point. We may all, without explicitly realising it, decide it’s better to stay with inequitable old world A rather than leap of a cliff hoping that we’ll parachute happily into a promised collaborative land. I predict a hard landing. Or maybe we won’t even jump.

Christians and atheists – marching together

It’s odd how Cameron’s remark on Britain as a Christian country attracted the attention of our diehard atheists. He probably expected it, they’re waiting for whatever they see as any provocation. They accuse Cameron of being divisive and they are plain wrong on that. 59% defined themselves as Christian in the 2011 census. That’s a key finding. (How many defined themselves as of other faiths, a sizeable percentage – how many atheists?) Much more importantly – any claim we’re not Christian is simply unhistorical.

It’s argued the golden rule – treat others as you wish they treat you – predates Christianity. Christianity is of course part of a continuum, born out of Judaism, its gospels written down in Greek, and our Western understanding of Christianity heavily influenced by ancient Greek ideas. It’s also shares an ethical understanding with all the world’s great religions. But it’s our Christian tradition that’s woven it into our society.

Likewise the sense we have of the worth of each individual – we are all equal before God – that’s a powerful idea, central to Christian belief, and at the core of our society and democracy. (Less so arguably in right-wing politics where the idea of human worth tends to be localised down to a community or social group, whereas human worth is a universal concept if it’s anything.) Enlightenment ideas built on that belief. Christianity as with every institution produces its own elites, but there’s a sense of human worth woven into our history, promoted by reformers, suppressed by elites, but always there. That’s the core Christian message, not, for example, 16th and 17th century persecutions. There would be no enlightenment without that Christian tradition, ironically no humanists either.

What also of ideas of compassion, responsibility, service, all woven into our society. And free will. And indeed Calvinist rejection of free will – back to Max Weber and links between religion and the rise of capitalism – rest easy if you’re member of the elect, because it’s predestined you should be.

Why do humanists waste their time on all this bile, why so short-fused? They are passionate about many social issues. AC Grayling is spot on in this month’s Prospect about intolerance. We should all of us who share liberal ideas and ideals – and we all come from that same background of Christian idealism – we should all be working together, and taking on bigotry – and practising love – wherever and whenever we can. We share a profound sense of human worth and we should be taking up that cause together, not squabbling.

Compassion to animals

There’s a marvellous charity my daughter made me aware of, Compassion in World Farming. That’s something else this blog is about – compassion to all creatures, not just the human kind. We are of course desperately poor at showing compassion to other human beings much of the time, so we can hardly expect animals en masse to get a look in. Family of course is another matter, and pets are part of family, so our compassion there is absolute.

Compassion as an attitude, a state of mind, compassion toward the world, toward all of life, is transformative.

3000 pigs died earlier this week in a fire in Northern Ireland – scarcely a footnote in the news. It’s indicative of the way we keep animals. Three sheds, I assume 1000 pigs per shed.

Some piggeries are out in the open – they catch your eye as your driving – for example, on a hill above the M4 in the wilder bit of Berkshire, near Blythburgh in Suffolk. They’re not especially attractive to look out, and pigs and green grass don’t co-exist easily. The animals providing most of our meat we never see, and they hardly see daylight, so green grass or no I love to see piggeries.

Remember the other side

What should a Zenpolitics blog be about? Believing in good in the world, that we are naturally good rather than evil or violent at heart. There’s a battle between two natures but human fulfilment lies in finding the goodness within, and the compassion and love that’s an expression of that. All a bit simple and lovey-dovey, but your attitude to the world is fundamental. I quoted Michael Ignatieff in an earlier blog, sounding disillusioned with human nature. High politics and international conflict can challenge the most stalwart campaigner for peace, justice and love. But  you have to believe it’s there inside you, inside all of us.

One starting point is to understand the other side. The other person, the other country. Why do Russians dislike the West and fall in behind Putin? Why do Iranians not thrown off the ayatollahs and embrace Western democracy? Why has the Arab spring not unleashed beneficent democracies on the Arab world?

It looks different from the other side. In terms of boundaries the West and its colonial legacy has laid out the boundaries of much of the modern world outside of East Asia but our legacy is domineering rather than democratic, our identity is not their identity. Our press is singularly unable to get its head round that simple fact. This doesn’t mean, for example, that we kowtow to Putin, but it brings more wisdom to our arguments.

I met a publisher from Belgrade at a recent book fair. She was looking to buy the rights for a book on Vladimir Putin. Books exist, she said, but they are all hostile. ‘He is a hero in Serbia.’

There is another side.

The Use of Force

In Blood and Belonging (1993) Michael Ignatieff wrote as follows:

“If I had supposed , as the Cold War came to an end, that the new world might be ruled by philosophers and poets, it was because I believed , foolishly, that the precarious civility and order of the states in which I live must be what all people rationally desire…’

His optimism was short-lived:  ‘…liberal civilisation – the rule of laws, not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence – runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved only be the most unremitting struggle against human nature.’ He argues that tolerance, compromise, reason cannot be preached to those who are mad with fear or mad with vengeance.

And yet, to my mind, those liberal values run deep, they do not run against the human grain. But they need peace in which to express themselves. Violence and compassion – these are the polarities.

Ignatieff supported the Iraq war, and this troubles me.  Ten years earlier, in 1993, he’d written:  ‘We must be prepared to defend them [our values] by force … the failure to do so has left the hungry nations sick with contempt for us.’

It is I’d argue the force, the violence, of our interventions that generates contempt. The invasive, overwhelming nature of the aid and support we provide, and all its myriad and often unwelcome ties. Our contempt for other cultures.

A politics of argument and compromise cannot be introduced by force. Afghanistan is the supreme case in point. Nor (sadly) can it be introduced simply by kindness and compassion. The road is a long and complex one: that realisation is the beginning of wisdom.

[Quotations are from Paul Wilsons’ review of Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashesin the NY Review of Books (April 2014).]

Philosopher Kings

‘Don’t put yourself on the (political) stage, Mr Ignatieff,’ to paraphrase an old song.

Democracy comes many forms. In many Western European countries the old liberal political establishments are under threat from a populist right. The radical left used to be there as a counter-poise but no more. Putin and Erdogun are two populist leaders much in the news, appealing to nationalist sentiment. At the other extreme we’ve the rare instances of eminent men, known for their wisdom, philosopher kings, parachuted in but, as the experience of Michael Ignatieff in Canada and Mario Monti in Italy shows, street-fighting capability is a more useful attribute than wisdom.

Called from Harvard by Canadian Liberal Party leaders as a potential leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, Ignatieff fought the 2011 election as leader and came a mighty cropper. His book Fire and Ashes bring all his professorial wisdom to bear on what was a searing experience.

What role does wisdom have in politics? UN reports on climate change are scorned as biased, likewise balanced appraisals of Europe and immigration. And when science and appraisal are scorned as tools of the ‘establishment’, and when scorn itself becomes a weapon, we have one of the key issues Ignatieff highlights in his book.

Paul Wilson’s review (NY Review of Books April 2014) of Fire and Ashes helps us here:

‘No, the regret one feels is for the gradual death of civility in politic which his book so vividly chronicles. Ignatieff was right when he called [that] civility ‘fragile’. Of all political systems, democracy is the easiest to pervert, because it depends far less on rules than on mutual respect between players.’

When respect fails, Wilson argues, so does good governance. Witness the USA, and increasingly the UK. He ends by quoting Orwell holding up ‘common decency’ as a bulwark against ‘smelly little orthodoxies’.

Just who those smelly orthodoxies might be today is a subject for another time.