This Ain’t Your Dad’s Workers’ Revolution

In the last decade, technology has given rise to a new trend toward decentralization of means of production that threatens the firm grasp established producers hold over the economy. The proliferation of peer-to-peer and sharing economies has already shown its ability to disperse capital and produce more efficiently than large-scale firms. Taxicab companies the world over are scrambling to lobby governments to ban ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft. Nervous hoteliers continue to cajole legislators to crack down on residential sharing services like Airbnb. The state of Minnesota has banned free online education programs. Desktop 3D-printing machines are being heralded as the next industrial revolution. The technology of the twenty-first century is scaring the capitalist class.

As Jeffrey Tucker writes, “everyone has access to and controls the means of production. It seems like a socialist dream, except that it is being realized through private property, entrepreneurship, and the universalization of the commercial spirit.”1 The division of classes in the affected industries is being challenged. Taxi drivers live off wages traded in exchange for their labor while the owners of cab companies live off the profit they earn from their ownership of capital; however, Lyft drivers are laborers just as well as taxi drivers, but they own the cars they drive. Airbnb’s renters own the rooms they rent and maintain. In the nineteenth century, Benjamin Tucker identified the goal of anarchist socialism as wiping out “the distinction between wage-payers and wage-receivers,” and “[n]ot to abolish wages, but to make every man dependent upon wages.”2 These peer-to-peer economies are showing that anticapitalism is becoming commercially profitable. Could capitalism’s innovative process of creative destruction destroy capitalism itself?

Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would unavoidably and necessarily progress to its own destruction as competition creates monopoly and knocks more and more capitalists into the proletarian class. Eventually the numbers become so obviously in their favor, that the proletariat develops class consciousness and overthrows the capitalists. The system sows the seeds of its own destruction. Socialist utopia would follow.

Compare this with Francis Fukuyama who, like Marx, takes a Hegelian deterministic view of history, but predicted that capitalist liberal democracy would be the final form of sociopolitical arrangement. Writing in 1989, he concluded that human civilization had settled not on “an ‘end of ideology’ or a convergence between capitalism and socialism.” Instead, the world had witnessed the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.”3

So which of the two will turn out to be right? Marx’s predictions certainly do not appear to have come true. According to David Prychitko, “[a]lthough capitalist markets have changed over the past 150 years, competition has not devolved into monopoly. Real wages have risen and profit rates have not declined. Nor has a reserve army of the unemployed developed.”4 So it would appear that Fukuyama’s predictions better describe the world we are living in today. There is no Marxian worldwide proletarian revolution on the horizon, but could the peer-to-peer revolution be the means by which capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction? It is at least conceivable that home 3D-printing could replace factory manufacturing and ridesharing technologies replace the oligarchic taxi systems.

In a follow-up to his aforecited article, Jeffrey Tucker examines how much technology could change the economic system: “A feature of P2P is the gradual elimination of third parties as agents who stand between individuals and their desire to cooperate one to one. We use such third parties because we believe we need them. Credit card companies serve a need. Banks serve a need. Large-scale corporations serve a need.”5 These new technologies connect consumers directly to the worker-producers in an efficient manner, eliminating the need for a third-party capitalist that traditionally benefited from economies of scale. We may be witnessing the beginning of a workers’ revolution, but it surely is not your dad’s workers’ revolution. Instead of the means of production being owned by the workers in the collective sense, each worker will own the means of production that he uses.

So why, then, does the Left seem less than excited about these developments? The socialist magazine Jacobin registers several complaints: First, that technological innovations are “pushing down wages.”6 Of course, it is not the wages of Uber drivers that are being driven down, it is that of the establishment cabbies who, along with their employers, are unfamiliar with this new phenomenon of a competitive market. The wages of these new tech-savvy competitors could only have risen, considering their jobs did not even exist before the advent of Uber. The second complaint is that these new competitors have little regard for regulation. Jeffrey Tucker’s response to this is the only appropriate one: “Flouting government is something that socialists once prided themselves in doing and favoring. How far they have fallen since the New Deal, when the left made its peace with the regimented corporate state.”7 The core issue, Jacobin’s Avi Asher-Schapiro asserts, is that these innovations “shift risk from companies to workers.”8 Capitalist enterprises exist to bear risk, so it only makes sense that as workers gain more independence and the capitalist fades into irrelevance that risk could only be borne by workers.

The UK newspaper Socialist Worker expressed similar skepticism about 3D-printing technology: “No doubt it will be an incredible tool for skilled, dedicated designers with time and resources to devote to it … But it would be wrong to see 3D printers as opening up a new mode of production. We can’t simply produce everything we need from a printer.”9 This opinion seems to neglect the sharing aspect of the technology. One need not be a “skilled, dedicated designer” to print useful items since designs are shared freely. While it is true that we cannot print our meals from a CAD file, there’s no reason this cannot change in the future. Pizzas, chocolate, pasta and hamburgers have already been printed, and methods will only become more efficient over time. New printing materials are being experimented with daily and synthetic vegetables may just be the market’s next miracle.

There are, of course, some problems—both material and political—that would need to be surmounted in order to entirely change the capitalist system. Ultimately, every industry, no matter how radically it changes, depends on the harvesting of raw materials. Until home manufacturing can be done at the atomic level, copper still must be mined and oil must be drilled. Because there isn’t a copper mine nor an oil field in every uptown apartment, unless the next big invention is desktop machine capable of alchemy (or as urban youngsters call it, “street chemistry”), it seems that capitalists will still dominate industries concerned with harvesting raw materials. There also exists the problem of government restriction to preserve the profitability of established firms, be it through licensing requirements, intellectual property laws, or whatever else. But if these newcomers are as good at flouting regulations as Jacobin suggests, we ought to have no cause for concern.

Socialists have traditionally attempted to cope with the entrenched capitalist system by opposing each successive step in the mechanization of production. In the early nineteenth century, the Luddites smashed their workplaces’ new spinning frames and power looms out of fear that the adoption of more efficient methods of textile production would put them out of work. Today, the Left laments the death of the grocery clerk at the hands of the self-checkout line. As they understand it, more machines surely means less jobs.

Thank the stars the Left is completely wrong, or else nearly every person in the developed world would have been unemployed ages ago. In the 1860s, ninety percent of Americans were farmers; today, due to tremendous advances in agricultural technology, that number is less than two percent.10 Technology destroyed eighty-eight percent of the jobs! Yet we do not see unemployment rates anywhere near that high. In one of his acerbic, lucid short essays, Frédéric Bastiat pointed out that all labor that can be avoided through trade or technology is labor that can be applied to something else, even if it is not immediately identifiable what, exactly, that something else is. Imagine Robinson Crusoe, marooned on the Isle of Despair, needs to fashion a board from a tree to construct a cabin, but just as he was to begin shaving the trunk with his axe a plank washed ashore. He would have to be certifiably mad to ignore the plank on the beach and continue whittling at the tree so that he could ensure himself two weeks of labor.11

In 1935, the Albertan government’s building projects employed men with picks and shovels instead of modern machines. Upon seeing this, politician William Aberhart quipped that if creating work was the objective, why not give them forks and spoons?12 The logical conclusion of this mindset of economic technophobia is primitivism (which is an actual political ideal for some people, believe it or not). If every invention which makes a specific use of labor obsolete is an evil, the wheel should never have been invented. The crudest spear saves a tribesman hours that would have otherwise been spent chasing, tackling, and brawling with animals and is therefore a threat to working people. The function and intention of technology is to obviate the need for an act of labor. If labor is the highest political aim, then wandering naked in search of food to avoid starvation is the utopia.

Perhaps as significant the peer-to-peer and sharing revolutions’ threat to the current capitalist economic structure is their threat to the State. As Jeffery Tucker puts it, the State is “the ultimate third-party provider.”13 It exists, ostensibly, to provide the public with that which they could not produce on their own, such as policing, arbitration, media of exchange, and the most shining example of the State’s splendor—the post office. But maybe a monopoly on the legitimate use of violent force is not actually necessary to enjoy all these things; maybe there’s an app for that.

Technology not only enables private individuals to provide to the public services traditionally associated with government, it can also be used to subvert government’s power to govern. The War on Drugs has been a failure from the start, but cryptocurrency allowed for pseudonymous drug markets like Silk Road to flourish. Silk Road was eventually shut down and its alleged organizer detained, but by the time the FBI had sliced their celebratory cake, Silk Road 2.0 was born and was bigger than ever. When Defense Distributed released online the files for the first functional, fully printable plastic firearm, the U.S. State Department ordered the files be taken down within 48 hours. By that time, the files had already been downloaded over 100,000 times from Defense Distributed’s site and had been shared on sites like Mega and The Pirate Bay, where they are still accessible. Although Edward Snowden’s revelations have shown us how governments can use technologies against subjects, for those who want to do so, it has never been easier to defy the State.

Despite centuries of workers and socialists being certain that Luddism is the path to prosperity and that throwing one’s sabots into the cogs of productive inventions is the only way to ensure survival, it may turn out that the most best technique of liberation is technological advance. Despite millennia of subjects justifying the despotism they endure with theories the necessity and inevitability of the State, it may turn out that coercion as the foundation of social organization can be hurdled after all. To those opposed to authority in the workplace and in society as a whole, this technological revolution may be an ancient dream come true.

Footnotes

  1. http://fee.org/the_freeman/detail/whos-afraid-of-the-workers-revolution
  2. Tucker, Benjamin R. Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One. New York, NY: Adamant Media Corporation, 2000. §113 ¶2.
  3. Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?” The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989): 1–2.
  4. http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Marxism.html
  5. http://fee.org/the_freeman/detail/how-far-can-the-p2p-revolution-go
  6. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/09/against-sharing/
  7. http://fee.org/the_freeman/detail/whos-afraid-of-the-workers-revolution
  8. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/09/against-sharing/
  9. http://socialistworker.co.uk/art/34182/3D+Printers%3A+We+can%E2%80%99t+print+our+way+to+freedom+under+capitalism.
  10. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/trouble/timeline/
  11. Bastiat, Frédéric. Economic Sophisms. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996. 243–44.
  12. “5,500 Hear Social Credit Expounded By Party Leader.” Lethbridge Herald, May 18, 1935. 3 column A.
  13. http://fee.org/the_freeman/detail/how-far-can-the-p2p-revolution-go
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