The Marxist revolution has begun but no-one’s really noticed yet - RSA

The Marxist revolution has begun but no-one’s really noticed yet.

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For Marx, meaningful change would only come about when the workers seized control of the means of production.  In his day that meant land, factory machinery and transport networks. Were he around now, I think he would probably cast a tired eye over the left’s moral crusading on executive remuneration and welfare payments and look instead with enthusiasm to what is stirring in the economy. 

For Marx, meaningful change would only come about when the workers seized control of the means of production.  In his day that meant land, factory machinery and transport networks. Were he around now, I think he would probably cast a tired eye over the left’s moral crusading on executive remuneration and welfare payments and look instead with enthusiasm to what is stirring in the economy. 

For it is there that something extraordinary is just starting to happen: the means of production are being seized by the workers – some of them at least. 

It is already widely noted how rapid technological change is transferring the power to design and manufacture from large companies into the hands of individuals and small networks. Less noticed is the way that a similar transfer of power is happening for other business practices associated with the service sector as much as manufacturing.

Marketing, for example, no longer requires expensive advertising or marketing departments but can be done through a skillful use of peer-to-peer online networks. Distribution can be conducted immediately and cheaply if your product is intellectual content but even if you are selling something with a physical form then firms like Ebay and Amazon offer sophisticated distribution infrastructures. R&D no longer requires an office full of pointy-heads as there is a sea of free advice out on the web if you know how to access it. Even the mysteries of the finance department are opening up to individuals and networks with the rise of crowdfunding and other investment sites.

What started as a consumers’ revolution is becoming a workers’ revolution

I have characterised this as a shift towards ‘self-generated value’ because consumers are creating the things they value for themselves rather than relying on business to do it.  However, the capacity provided by the internet to generate this value for yourself also means the tools are now available to generate value for others.  Millions of people are now producing on-line content or using the internet to provide fundamental support to their off-line activities.  And many of those millions are finding ways to make money from that value generating activity.  In effect, what started as a consumers’ revolution is becoming a workers’ revolution as people increasingly produce things directly for customers rather than having to work for a company to do this.

What Marx got wrong

However, Marx was very wrong about two things which explains why this is not a revolution he would entirely recognise.

Firstly, he believed fundamentally in the labour theory of value: the notion that the value of any commodity is determined by the work that has gone into producing it.  For him the reason workers should seize the means of production is so they can lay claim to the full value that they, and they alone, have created.

Over the years, it is an economic theory that has taken a very serious intellectual battering. Quite rightly as it turns out because the shifts we are seeing towards self-generated value are not being driven by Marx’s concerns.  Instead they owe far more to a strong desire to participate directly in the production of value for oneself and for others. Put another way, what is driving this is an entrepreneurial and creative spirit to generate value not a campaigning spirit to seize value.

Secondly, Marx saw the means of production being seized only when the workers acted collectively as a class to do so.  Again, this is a theory that has been beaten to a pulp both intellectually and in reality as class allegiance has dwindled along with the industrial sector which Marx and Engels studied so closely.  So the means of production are not being seized by unions and workers’ communes but by individuals and loose networks of individuals.

For these reasons, today’s Marxists who have noticed this shift to self-generated value either regard it as unimportant or as something to be appropriated by the ‘working class movement’ and transformed into a collectivist phenomena.

A new battle for economic control 

Marx might have been more intellectually adventurous than today's Marxists

I’d like to think that Marx himself might have been more intellectually adventurous. I wonder if what he might see in its very earliest stages is a conflict not over control of the existing means of production as such but over the right to use a new means of production free of the constraints imposed by those who control the older means of production.  This is closer to what happened in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as merchants and early industrialists battled to loosen the old feudal nobility’s grip on property and trading law which had been established when the main means of production was the land.

So today we see those making wide use of new technologies struggling against the laws that served the interests of those who run the more centralised and closed economy of public corporations and large companies.  Hence the battles over intellectual property law which is raging most acutely in the creative industries.  The rather fraught relationship in the US between banking regulators and crowdfunding sites. And the emerging tensions between the users of the on-line currency Bitcoin and state officials.

However, the question Marx may have asked himself given his radical concerns is not only whether those who are seizing, or more accurately, transforming the means of production will triumph but whether their new power will be shared widely when they do. In short, is this really the coming of a new age of democratised ownership and trade or is it simply one elite facing down another?

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  • No, sorry. it's really just bits and pieces from around the net on areas that interests me, and as such prone to confirmation bias.

    Still, I would argue that the main opposition is that the "exponential DOOM" argument has been stated by others (way more skilled than me) through history on a lot of different subjects, and none has really happened.

    But i think that advancement in our understanding of complex systems can explain these failed predictions. A single exponential trend in a large system can be thwarted by the sum of other trends, or the parameters necessary for that trend can change so it flattens and take a 'S' shape instead (or go chaos).

    So if an exponential trend is to happen in a large system, it needs to either be a fundamental part of the system, or there must be a convergence of trends that go in that direction. There are signs of the latter happening.

    Btw. I cant believe I forgot to mention Open Source - the king of movements - in my first comment. doh..

  • Thanks for that - really interesting. Is there any particular literature or writer you're drawing on for some of this thinking? Or have you written more yourself somewhere?

  • [A bit long, sorry]
    Your viewpoint matches that of top entrepreneurs, social activists like the Zeitgeist movement, progressive economists and futurists.

    You mention some/most of the problems and coins it 'self-generated value', but i think the result of the viewpoint is a bit understated. It seems to me that the current economic model is under a severe attack, and i have trouble imagining how it can possibly survive.

    1. Exponential technological growth.
    This is the big driver of the shift from centralized to distributed personal production and service. Everything is getting smaller, cheaper and better, and automated systems seems inevitable. 3d printing, 'tri-corders', robotics etc all work against jobs, and it now seems clear that the job-creation process works slower than the job-'deletion' process of technology/mechanization.

    2. The internet has opened up a unique possibility to share and collaborate, and people are utilizing this beyond what is legal. Free information, ideas etc are flourishing and cant really be stopped. Apps and services are abundant, and as such difficult to profit on.

    3. Social movements are seeing this too, and are promoting self reliance on every aspect of our basic needs.

    4. alternative valuesystems.
    Bitcoins, community money, circular consumption, self-reliance and others will continue to chip away on the flow of cash that is needed by the current debt-model.

    That leaves our current model without influence on production, service and information, and a severely hampered value-flow, but our current debt-model absolutely requires a exponential-like growth of value-flow for it to survive. Complex system can be surprisingly resilient, but even if it somehow survives the current attack, the next seems to be just around the corner.

    My point is that this 'new battle' seems to be already fixed against the old economic system that seem to have out-competed itself. I dont think it will ever rise again apart from perhaps a smaller economy with scarce sell-able items - while they wait for the next attack.

    Then we could move on to what the consequences will be for the political system, property/crime, and other systems, and this is imho where the really big changes will occur, but i'll leave that for another discussion.

    I too see an unstoppable global change coming, but because of the exponential attack, and the exponential growth-need of the current system, the clash will likely come as lightning from an empty sky, and it will bring an almost unimaginable change along with it.

  • This quote from Marx seems to enlighten the premis;

    "The point is rather that private interest is itself already a socially determined interest, which can be achieved only within the conditions laid down by society and with the means provided by society; hence it is bound to the reproduction of these conditions and means. It is the interest of private persons; but its content, as well as the form and means of its realization, is given by social conditions independent of all."

  • Yeah. I get it. But those sole traders at present owe more than GDP. So they don't own the means of production. Banks do.

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