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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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