The slogan from the World Economic Forum, “You’ll own nothing and be happy,” set off a round of backlash when it filtered down to hoi polloi.
Similar to “Green,” it’s using a glittering generality to obscure – to mystify – another agenda.
Take the Fourth Industrial Revolution:
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR or Industry 4.0) is the ongoing automation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices, using modern smart technology. Large-scale machine-to-machine communication (M2M) and the internet of things (IoT) are integrated for increased automation, improved communication and self-monitoring, and production of smart machines that can analyze and diagnose issues without the need for human intervention.
Frankly, few would oppose such developments in and of themselves. “Fully Automated Luxury Space Communism” is a meme essentially describing the world of Star Trek and few in the West, or in Asia, would oppose it on principle. Certain cranks, on the right and the left, would, on idiosyncratic ideological grounds – think Bronze Age Pervert types channeling Fight Club – but few really oppose the vision.
After all, robots are simply very complex tools, and even “artificial intelligence” is not different in kind to actuarial tables – indeed, “Artificial Intelligence” and “Machine Learning” are fancy ways to say “statistics” and “algorithms.” Statistics and algorithms are as old as civilization, they have merely been automated and leveraged to an extreme degree with the invention of semiconductors. There really is nothing “magical” about it, merely another incremental step in technology.
Only Ted Kaczynski wants to see humans reduced back to digging trenches with a shovel; laying underground cable is a lot easier with a trencher.
There is also a legitimate environmental concern with modern consumer capitalism. Climate hysteria aside, humanity has already polluted their environments to a significant degree and mineral acquisition is getting more and more difficult as the surface levels have been mined out; similarly, fisheries are in dire straits globally.
But there is a right way to go about these things, and a wrong way.
Much of the media around such topics is not in-depth think pieces, but instead a form of consumerism for yuppies. Consider Alec Leach’s In the Future We Won’t Own Clothes, We’ll Rent Them, which while is as bad as it sounds, nevertheless helps clarify the real issues from the dross.
Currently, most products are designed with a linear lifespan. We make things, and when they’re no longer needed, they’re thrown away, likely ending up in a landfill or incinerated. If all, or part, of a product gets recycled, then most of the time it goes further down the value chain — T-shirts end up as rags or insulation, for example. It’s massively wasteful, and it means manufacturers are losing ownership of valuable resources when they could be keeping hold of them.
In a circular system, products are designed from the very beginning to be recycled, without moving down the value chain. Take a running shoe, for example. Due to the huge amount of stress the body puts on it while it’s in use, it’s a product with a limited lifespan. When the shoe reaches the end of its lifespan, instead of being thrown away, it could theoretically have its upper reprocessed and sole melted down, so those components could then be used in making another running shoe.
The idea is that we’d reach a point where consumption and production doesn’t result in any waste at all, as every used or unwanted product is recovered, then fully recycled.
[C]ompanies will commit to collecting and re-selling a higher volume of used garments, while using more recycled fibers in their products. Most importantly, it urges companies to design products to be recycled — which is the beginning of a truly circular system.
Any serious environmental reform will have to come at the industrial level. Consumers making a personal choice to buy “green” products is nothing more than aspirational branding to upsell and often “green” products are worse for the environment than the cheapest products.
However it is difficult to get industrial reform because modern capitalism is based on externalizing environmental costs. If the environment is a commons, the modern corporation simply externalizes environmental costs to the commons, as it dumps its pollution into the river or the landfill. Pollution taxes simply lessen the profit margin of a company’s externalizing, but doesn’t fundamentally change the nature.
Being able to fully recycle clothing without moving down the value chain is a laudable goal. In theory, the recycling would require only the energy input.
But political economics has social consequences. Consider:
Well, a truly circular economy would create a culture where we use products, rather than own them. Currently, manufacturers make things, then sell them and forget about them — that’s what’s creating so much waste. If manufacturers were instead recovering, recycling and reprocessing their products, then it makes much more sense for them to rent them rather than sell them.
That way, they still own all of the materials, and can ensure they’re recovered and recycled correctly. With resources becoming scarcer and increasingly valuable, this business model makes much more sense in the long run.
Notice the subtle shift. The goal is to recycle clothing, but in order to do that, the manufacturer must maintain ownership and “rent” to the consumer instead of “sell” to the consumer.
But any free marketeer would simple respond: why is there no economic incentive for the consumer to recycle? If they were paid for their old clothing by the producers intent on recycling them, it would have more or less the same effect as the producers “renting” to the consumer instead of “renting” to the consumer. And if the market isn’t there, that is simply because the producers have been allowed to externalize the environmental costs.
Consider also the social and class perspective these ideas originate in:
It’s not hard to imagine a future where clothing is rented rather then owned, as part of some kind of subscription service — like Spotify or Netflix for your wardrobe. It’d be especially useful for garments with short lifespans or limited uses — kids’ clothing, running shoes, wedding suits, that kind of thing.
This is dressing up something quite old into something quite new. “Wedding suits?” Tuxedo rentals have been a staple of the Western middle class forever. This writer didn’t own a tuxedo until he was thirty, but had rented a number of them since high school – it is likely the majority of American men have never owned a tuxedo but have rented them as the occasion warranted.
As for kid’s clothing, likely most Americans have worn “hand-me-downs” from older siblings and neighbors, and kid’s clothes have always been reused – not recycled – at yard sales, thrift stores, and Goodwill.
If the goal is to recycle clothing without going lower on the value chain, there is hardly any need for producers to maintain “ownership” of consumer’s personal clothing – which would surely involve some sort of mobile phone app – perhaps the real agenda here – instead, a simple and straightforward removal of the producer’s ability to externalize environmental costs.
There would be no need to institute some bizarre social-economic arrangement where a clothing companies maintainers ownership literally of the clothes on your back. Instead, consumers would simply be paid by the producers for worn out clothing, which would then be recycled at the same level of the value chain.
The entire concept is yet another way to externalize costs – if they can no longer externalize environmental costs, they can externalize the costs of recycling onto the consumer.
The last decade’s hottest Silicon Valley start-up is … Uber. A taxi company. The entire business model of Uber – which has yet to turn a profit – is to avoid local limousine regulations, and to externalize the costs of taxi maintenance to the drivers. The only value that Uber has added is making the process of calling a taxi dispatcher easier and more efficient. Everything else they do is labor and regulatory arbitrage and externalizing costs – and even then they have never turned a profit.
It would be more economically efficient – and better socially – to simply reform limousine regulations in various localities. Perhaps Uber could charge a penny or so to use their app, or perhaps the very nature of the app, basically simply the value of network effect, should be a cooperative along the lines of a credit union, or indeed even some taxi dispatch services.
AirBnB is no different: a better app than Craigslist’s Vacation Rentals, and the same regulation arbitrage to extract more value and externalize more costs than a simple change in hotel and insurance regulation.
Former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos infamously said, “your margin is my opportunity.” In theory, this is free market capitalism working as intended: squeezing every last inefficiently out of the market – the only problem is the Capitalist Class still appropriates value. The problem for ideological capitalists is that Bezos can leverage scale to appropriate all the value for himself, thus out-competing everyone else.
The more rational choice: simply stop competing with Bezos and buy Amazon stock, that way you are a capitalist too, without having to do any work?
After all, that is the entire point of capitalism: to not work for your money, but to have your money work for you. In other words, to extract economic rent.
Eventually the economics of scale leads to extreme efficiency – good for consumers – and centralization of economic functions into a handful of firms.
In the United States, we call these firms “Amazon” and “GM” – in the Soviet Union, they were called “the Ministry of Agriculture” and “the Ministry of Transportation.” In Capitalism, a private class of owners extracts the excess value, in Communism, a public class of party officials extracts the excess value.
Either way, it is Fully Automated Luxury Communism.
The real agenda here, the real meaning of “you’ll own nothing” is nothing more than the recreation of feudalism, where all real estate – even your own personal home – is owned by the Financial class to whom you will pay rent. That is one way to do it, another way would he Henry George’s Single Tax, or Geolibertarianism.
Sadly, the link is lost: there is a Communist version of Mencius Moldbug. Also Jewish, also a scion of the aristocracy, in his case, “the red aristocracy,” that goes through the entire thing: a centralized executive, a stable bandit as opposed to a transitory bandit, the Communist party as the loyal aristocracy, the upper class keeping the peasants happy while allowing the bourgeois prosperity without allowing them to upend the power system.
The systems are virtually identical.