The Zero Marginal Cost Society and two unanswered questions

If you didn’t read the Zero Marginal Cost Society of Jeremy Rifkin yet, please do. This is a clever description of the transition that we are experiencing already today.

Jeremy Rifkin shows that the success of capitalism is quickly leading to its own destruction. The capitalism really emerged in the XIXth when huge capital was mobilised to create big production units requiring important labour forces. Two centuries after the third industrial revolution is creating a new order where the capital needed is rather small, almost insignificant, productivity is nevertheless huge and always bigger, and labour more and more irrelevant. One of the consequences is the establishment of a new order where ownership is replaced by free access.

The current Internet of Thing revolution is a good illustration of this move. Internet after having delivered a true revolution in the Communication sphere, is now fully redefining the energy sector, and will tomorrow completely transform the logistics of goods. In addition to that the perspective given by 3D printing will also certainly put an end to the big centralised production units we know. More and more the consumer will become its own producer, the famous prosumer.

Rifkin sees the birth of a new society, fully decentralised, organised through the management of new collaborative commons, a society of abundance, where people are mostly freed from working, and dedicated to a a more empathetic age. With two dangers to be avoided, an ecological disaster if the improvement of the management of the resources is slower that our current destruction, and, second obstacle, the cyberterrorism.

I have to say that I fully share the passion of the author about this new age which is so quickly emerging under our feet or at our fingers range. Nevertheless in my opinion there are two points that the books leaves untouched and which, I think, are very much important:

– Even if the cost of living might be reduced to almost zero, this almost raises a lot of questions on the way the society will be able to distribute enough revenue to non-working people in order to allow an equal access to this almost free order.

– Second, even if Rifkin is very positive and see a logical evolution towards a more empathic order, I am not totally convinced that all will be kept enough busy with their empathic social activities. The absence of work may create dangerous psychological frustrations before new values win, if they do.

I would dare to say that we already see the need to answer these two questions. Today the populisms easily point the globalisation as being responsible for the current disorders. But I fear that beyond, we already see a new growth not creating any job at all. This is already an issue in the US for instance. We have therefore to be quick to come with new fiscal and social answers to address this new challenge, which might be very much demanding. Few see renewables delivering enough jobs for the armies of unemployeds. I would be cautious on this, and Rifkin is certainly right expecting the labour activity being dramatically reduced. We have to immediately cope with this, and this transition might be socially very painful if we do not address these two points very soon.

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