Neoliberalism is broken…

Opening podium, Solikon2015 11 September 2015

I am a journalist in British mainstream media and I stood outside Lehman Brothers HQ in 2008; I stood in Scotland last year as it almost voted to become the first non-neoliberal state in Europe. I have reported from Greece under Syriza, New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and last summer from Gaza, as it was bombed.

So when I say this, I speak from experience.

Neoliberalism is broken. Since 2008 it’s been kept alive like a zombie — as a model it’s more alive in the heads of the rich, the bankers, the mainstream economists and the media than in reality. The magazines keep on advertising Rolex, the luxury yacht, the Maserati — but a part of every watch, yacht or car was paid for by the state.

In reality the neoliberal model can only deliver: austerity, stagnation, low productivity, the stalled rollout of transformative information technologies — and the endless creation of low-skilled, barely necessary jobs.

When it grows it creates asset bubbles and market collapses, and every boom and bust cycle destroys more of the welfare state; more of the remnants of social solidarity from the post-war era.

This is not a temporary or accidental crisis. It means neoliberalism, far from being the midwife of a third industrial revolution, has stifled it.

But with information technology, a new route beyond capitalism has emerged. For me it exists through three objective impacts of information.

1) Information goods dissolve the price mechanism. When something can be copied and pasted for free, with minimal consumption of mass and energy, its price is at some point going to fall close to zero. Information can be abundant — cheap or free, unless a new. Capitalism’s response is to build — qualitatively new — kind of monopoly can be created. The purpose of tech monopolies is not only to stifle competition; it is to protect IP and extract rent; and to gather all the network externalities created by networked interaction inside the closed wall of the corporation. But such monopolies cannot exist forever.

2) Information goods are eroding the link between work and wages. Among the higher skilled, people are paid to exist; to achieve targets; to remain loyal guardian of the company’s IP. [AIRPLANE] At the low skill end workers time and even movements are targeted with obsessiveness never shown in the factories of the Keynesian era. That is because these are as David Graber calls them bullshit jobs — they do not need to exist. This broken link between work and wages has revealed a secret path to the future — that we could automate most work and find new social arrangements to share out the work that remained. One of the most sustainable things we can do is to reduce the work needed to sustain our lives as a species.

3) Information goods allow horizontal organisation, non-managed companies, distributed, peer-to-peer production and consumption. They allow modular, open source, free or commonly owned things to be produced, or services to be provided. The first time in history tehcnology enabled us to able to work without managers or owners, we did so. At the same time, the first time we were able to form ideal communities online — from the old bulletin boards to the networks you are connected to on your cellphone — that is what we did.

We will see, at this and numerous other conferences, the emerging practice of the co-operative, collaborative and communal production. I just spent the day debating the differences between the solidarity economy and the commons. The solidarity economy is older — it was created in the analog world. It relies on face to face contact. Many people involved in the digital commons dont do face to face. They don’t do long term projects.

So there are differences. But to me, we are a historic moment of convergence. Around….

Production of free stuff. Creation of platforms to trade in a non-market way. Ethical banks, basic income schemes and parallel currencies. Food banks, co-ops, time banks, communal creches and schools. And of course transition projects towards a zero carbon world.

But the most audacious thing we have to do is to name what is emerging. It is a post-capitalist mode of production. [I’ve written a book called Postcapitalism, which Suhrkamp will publish here next year].

Once we do this, we allow all the small scale tactical experiments, the innovators, pioneers, refuseniks — to understand what’s happening and what is possible.

We are part of a vast, complex project that uses the connections between all things and all people to remove parts of human life from the sphere of the market and into the spehere of sharing abundant things, skills and time.

We could be content to name, to experiment, to connect horizontally all the experiments. But I am not content with that.

I want to demand the right to use regulation, executive power and legislation to clear a space for the postcapitalist economy. And then in that space there must be the freedom to think of large-scale postcaptialist solutions as well as small ones. There is of course freedom to remain small and autonomous.

Here are the steps I think you need to think big…

First — to model current economic reality as ambituously as climate science models the weather. NASA billions of modelled data points which can, over time, be replaced with real data. But we tend to model the economy like a train set. Inputs, outbputs, a controlling hand, an energy supply.

If we build a sophisticated model of reality — the economy, the energy supply, the ecosystem, public health — we can ask it questions: like what if we replaced investment banks with credit unions? How big would the co-op sector have to be to make macro-economic impact.

Second — to map the postcapitalist economy. Transformap is a user generated map of solidarity economy. But I want to do much more — I want to know — what is the optimum number of people in a skill-sharing bank, per 1000 workers? I want to map holitic effects — mental health outcomes against collaborative work.

Third to imagine. No act of imagination is wasted in an information economy. Information has transformed engineering so that all the mistakes can be made at the imagination and design stage — if we can do this for an airplane we can do so for social change.

Fourth — having mapped and modelled — you propose modular large-scale change. So:

  • regulation to replace precarious work with work that is flexible and humane.-
  • The de-financialisation of the economy
  • The rapid tapering of copyright and patents
  • The universal basic income
  • And of course the rapid transition to zero-carbon energy systems

Instead of seeing these goals as mere demands, or small scale experiments, we see them as yellow post-it notes on the project whiteboard of post-capitalism.

Like in a startup company: you take one of the post-it notes off the board, you work on it, record your changes, and then maybe back off and let someone else take it forward.

In terms of our practice — we can do this as individuals; change my behaviour — as groups; transform a small companuy into a co-op; or regulatory change — ie legalise and facilitate p2p lending.

For me the transition means more than just toards a post-carbon economy: it is to remove the barriers to abundant information; promote the abundance and zero price effect into the information layer of real things; and ultimately use network technologies and collaboration to cheapen real things, reducing radically the amount of labour requried to deliver a decent life to every human being.

The possibilities opened up for humanity by information technology are so great that we must pity every generation that did not see them. But we must revere those — especially in the labour movements and utopian socialist communities — who tried to create the co-operative, the humane sharing society within the niches of capitalism.

I personally like to allow certain of these heroes and heroines to haunt my brain as I go about the task of promoting co-operation and social justice, and also just reporting the struggles of ordinary people.

I allow them to whisper encouragement to me.

And I whisper to them: the transition is possible. It has begun.

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