Distributed Capitalism

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Jeremy Rifkin:

"The new era will bring with it a reorganization of power relationships across every level of society. While the fossil fuel-based First and Second Industrial Revolutions scaled vertically and favored centralized, top-down organizational structures operating in markets, the Third Industrial Revolution is organized nodally, scales laterally, and favors distributed and collaborative business practices that work most effectively in networks. The "democratization of energy" has profound implications for how we orchestrate the entirety of human life in the coming century. We are entering the era of "Distributed Capitalism."

The partial shift from markets to networks establishes a different business orientation. The adversarial relationship between sellers and buyers is replaced by a collaborative relationship between suppliers and users. Self-interest is subsumed by shared interest. Proprietary information is eclipsed by a new emphasis on openness and collective trust. The new focus on transparency over secrecy is based on the premise that adding value to the network doesn't depreciate ones own stock, but, rather, appreciates everyone's holdings as equal nodes in a common endeavor.

In industry after industry, cross-sector networks are competing with autonomous transaction-based business models, and peer-to-peer business practices conducted in commercial commons are challenging competitive business operations in siloed markets.

Distributed capitalism ushers in new business models, including 3D printing in the manufacturing of durable goods and performance contracting and shared savings ventures in the service and experiential sectors, which greatly reduces capital, energy and labor costs, and increases productivity. In the new lateral economy, the exchange of property in markets is increasingly subsumed by just-in-time access to goods and services in networks, purchased in the form of leases, rentals, timeshares, retainer agreements, and other kinds of time allotments.

When thousands of businesses -- large companies, SMES, and cooperatives -- connect with one another in vast networks, the distributed power often exceeds the power of standalone giant companies that characterized the First and Second Industrial Revolutions." (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeremy-rifkin/the-third-industrial-revo_b_981168.html)

Should We Worry about the Future of Labor within it?

"Before Spinuzzi demonstrates how networks are “enacted”, he describes the transfigurations that have occurred in the time period between the waning of the industrial age and the development (or negotiation) of what Castells has called “informational capitalism.” This new brand of capitalism is different from the modular form that Marx envisioned in that the “deskilling” that occurs when tasks are “broken down into easily learnable and repeatable components” is challenged. No more assembly lines and workers who can’t see the final products. Rather, in information capitalism the complete net work is interpenetrated, deeply rhizomatic: “it has multiple, multidirectional information flows” (137). Because of this characteristic, some folks claim that capitalism will move toward a more distributed form. Distributed capitalism will come to look a lot like shareholders in companies – distributed, desires for “unique support” from vendors, and trustworthy relations among consumers (think Amazon.com’s comment function). This process of co-configuration – whereby producer and consumers configure one another at all times reciprocally – will disrupt supply chains and create “advocates” or “professional relationship workers” who “assemble temporary ‘federations’ of suppliers for each transaction or service. In effect, the layer between producer and consumer will have an individualized shim. While these new ways to describe capitalist paradigms in the information age could be positive, they also have a negative side.

In the move toward this new distributed capitalism, Spinuzzi notes how some negative social practices could come into being. Working through Deleuze, we get a new picture of social interaction that moves society from a Foucauldian pantopticonicism rooted in systems of discipline from above toward a distributed, control-based horizontal & vertical social competition between all workers in the capitalist agora. In this new field of work, laborers who are able to participate in the information economy are in a constant state of competition that renders job security, benefits, and retirement static for only the most successful or sought-after workers. It seems natural that champions of neoliberal economic systems like Milton Friedman and his fellow Chicago School economists would eat this hyper-competitive, cream-rises-to-the-top labor model up . . . and as long as Friedmanites continue to occupy influential positions at the IMF, World Bank, and other organizations, this new model will likely be championed as the future of economic Development.

While I’m not naive enough to believe that unions and collective resistance have near the power that they once levied against big-business capitalism, I see distributed capitalism one of the last steps in the progressive deterioration of collective resistance in labor systems. Once Haraway’s “homework economy” blurs the boundaries between life and work (lifestreaming) and the quest for individual consumptive experiences dissolves mass production (which itself is pretty debatable if you’re a believer in the herd mentality), the consumer is left in a ecstatic state vis-a-vis the instant and constantly individual gratification of extreme commodity fetishism. All the while the worker – now left without affiliation and only existing in the network as a fluid, constantly re/de skilling cog – moves on to new “opportunities.” (http://justinlewis.me/me/2010/02/05/a-world-without-bosses-distributed-capitalism-net-work/)

More Information

* Book: Spinuzzi, Clay. Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Technical Communication. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008.