The eclipse of capitalism – or maybe not

Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, [amazon_link id=”1137278463″ target=”_blank” ]The Zero Marginal Cost Society[/amazon_link], covers lots of interesting territory but isn’t my cup of tea. One reason for that is apparent in the subtitle: “The internet of things, the collaborative commons and the collapse of capitalism” – wide-ranging is good, but ranging wide over such a disparate set of topics is a bit of a stretch.

[amazon_image id=”1137278463″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism[/amazon_image]

Another reason is that near the start of the book there is an anti-economics rant, economics being characterised by “unquestioning acceptance, and refusal to envision alternative explanations, lead[ing] to a festering of inconsistencies that pile up.” While I certainly agree that economics too often sets environmental constraints to one side – which is what Rifkin’s rant builds up to – I always check the references and bibliography at this point to see how much modern economics the ranter has read. And as is always the case with such critics, Rifkin cites next to no work done in the past 25 years.

The main argument of this book is that near-zero marginal cost activities make up a growing proportion of economic activity, and this signals the inevitable decline of capitalism. Capitalist markets are not an efficient way to organize a society in which most things are free, because the socially efficient price is zero when marginal costs are zero. Rifkin draws on his last book [amazon_link id=”0230341977″ target=”_blank” ]The Third Industrial Revolution[/amazon_link] and adds in the effects of the Internet of Things and smart grids in optimising energy use to apply this argument to energy prices. He cites also MOOCs and 3D printing. It is not a new observation to point out that many activities involve high fixed costs and low marginal costs. Digital or digitally-enabled activities are adding to the roster of industries with this structure, shaking up business models in music, publishing, newspapers and – soon – education; but other industries from aerospace to pharma to broadcasting have long experienced increasing returns. These too challenge the model of small, perfectly competitive firms delivering efficient outcomes through the magic of the price mechanism and the market.

Rifkin does not, for my taste, adequately address the question of how the high fixed costs are to be covered in his post-capitalist world. “Within 10 years every building in America and Europe, as well as other countries around the world, will be equipped with smart meters,” he writes. He predicts huge cost as well as energy savings, citing a Cisco forecast that the Internet of Everything will generate $14.4 trillion in cost savings and revenues. So that’s selling smart meters plus the cost savings from using less energy once they are installed, I guess – and wouldn’t Cisco, purveyor of smart devices, say that anyway? The smart meter installation programme in the UK alone is estimated to have a: “positive net present benefit of £6.7 billion over the period to 2030, by delivering total benefits of around £18.8 billion and costs of around £12.1 billion.” (House of Commons Energy Select Committee estimates.) These order of magnitude smaller estimates for a longer period predate the actual existence of technical standards and operational meters, needing to be installed in every home and business in the country. I’m sure it’s worthwhile, but I’m sceptical about this happening within 10 years, all around the world.

The most interesting chapters in the book cover collaborative efforts and the switch “from ownership to access.” There have been interesting articles and stirrings around just this past week on the sharing economy – from The Economist, from Public CEO, this New York petition, John Kay in the FT. (HT to @johnfingleton1 for the links.) Parts 3 and 4 of Rifkin’s book provide an overview of this territory. By this stage, I had gone into irreversibly sceptical mode, and concluded that it is too early to say that none of the new digital businesses will find a viable business model.

This book would be a good airport read. Rifkin is a clever and widely-read writer. I don’t like the way he opts for polemic over analysis, but that’s me. Others might enjoy this high-level canter over a wide territory – but I’d caution you to take the claims with more than a pinch of salt.

5 thoughts on “The eclipse of capitalism – or maybe not

  1. So according to Piketty capitalism is doomed (or we’re doomed by capitalism) because the rate of return to capital is growing. and this week capitalism is doomed because fierce competition and new techniques will wipe out the return to capital (at least private, not social investment like meters in every home) making ownership redundant? Could it be that two people just extrapolated some trends?

  2. Pingback: Our #economicsfest programmer @diane1859 on Jeremy… | Bristol Festival of Ideas

  3. Pingback: The eclipse of capitalism – or maybe not ...

Comments are closed.