A World Waiting On Post-Scarcity

Post-scarcity may only seem like something posited in a work of fiction. But rapid advances in seldom-reported technologies, coupled with sociological forecasts of our transition towards a new kind of civilization, say otherwise.

Immanuel Wallerstein

The theories of American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein and other social scientists focus on how global society is stratified in such a way that a minority of countries wield much greater power and technology than the rest. Wallerstein taught his ideas in a historiographical approach called “world-systems approach”, positing that the world is sufficiently connected historically and socially to be studied as a single social system called a “world-system”. Described in Wallerstein’s history books, Volumes I-IV of The Modern World System, the world-system is a “capitalist world-economy” marked by a division of labor between the richer regions with high profitability and poorer regions with low profitability of the production process. The priority of this historical system, Wallerstein says, is the “endless accumulation of capital”. By this, he means participants seek to pile up more and more security for themselves in the market by making endless accumulation of capital their goal, knowing we only have finite resources to exploit.

As I discussed in my recent article “Wallersteinian Socialist Civilization” published at Dissident Voice, Wallerstein predicted a successor to the current world-system, and called the successor a “socialist world-government”. Now I have used the word, I warn the reader to not misinterpret “socialist” as the term has been used by Wallerstein. “Socialist” here bears no relationship to the “socialist” regimes that collapsed in the Twentieth Century, or continue to survive in China, Cuba and North Korea, and it is regrettable that an alternative word with less historical baggage is not available. The socialist system predicted by Immanuel Wallerstein is not stifling to freedom, but maximally free in both economic and social terms. Wallerstein argued frequently that it is in fact the capitalist system that remains dependent upon limiting our economic freedoms and the free flow of people, information and means of production, so as to keep a minority of countries and firms in a monopolistic position.

The economic stratification of countries is said to emphasize, in Wallerstein’s world-systems approach, a form of “class struggle” between the technologically endowed ruling countries of the West and the so-called Third World which lies in a state of appalling poverty beneath us. All of us have seen the images of this inequality, but we have tried not to blame ourselves for it, instead preferring to talk about the charity and aid our societies and governments symbolically offer to less “developed” states.

The class struggle between the advantaged and disadvantaged areas in the world economy finds many expressions, but none are more obvious than the political tensions in middle-tier countries trying to acquire better technology and improve their competitiveness in the global market. The richer countries of the West have consistently retained a technological advantage in accord with what Wallerstein calls the “axial division of labor” in the world economy. The axial division of labor, setting apart the high-tech Western production processes from the far more common low-tech production processes, ensures poor countries are incapable of finding niches in the market enough to obtain beneficial trade. The result is what has been called “unequal exchange” in the structuralist interpretation of the global economy provided by Argentine economist Raul Prebisch. Poorer countries, only able to make products of little worth, are unable to obtain their due when it comes to trading with richer countries.

Dominant states and firms have consistently promoted what they call a “free” market ideology that seems to only benefit their position, and they do everything in their power to curtail any economic freedom that might threaten their monopolistic privileges in the production process. These privileges keep the world economy fully profit-oriented, and are dependent on maintaining scarcity so the strong firms and states can dominate the limited resources and skills in the world. Endless profit, of course, is the objective scripted into the capitalist mode of production, and endless profit is possible only by suspending most of the world in a state of severe disequilibrium and poverty. This is where power relates to scarcity, and the leverage of the centers of wealth and power in the world remains tied to the perpetuation of scarcity.

More now than ever before in history, the circulation of socially-transforming technologies has had massively observably democratic effects and these effects are widely evident in politics. The “idea market” or “information market,” if such terms have merit, have become freer markets than the old concept of “freedom of the press” could have possibly had in mind. Personal computing and the information explosion of the Internet have had undeniable democratic effects by widely spreading the ability to publish and promote ideas. It is not absurd to imagine even further democratic advantages arising from yet more emerging technologies, as I postulated in my already mentioned article at Dissident Voice. Such advantages could seriously threaten Wallerstein’s axial division of labor that is always required to rationalize the capitalist mode of production.

For the first time ever, new technologies could be anticipated to empower the most deprived sectors of people in the world. When gunpowder, the printing press or air travel were introduced as strides in human progress, they apparently benefited only the elites, the military, the Church etc. Now personal computing and the explosion of the Internet in our lives, although originally developed for US military uses, have more than empowered us all. These technologies have completely spun out of the control of states and corporations, and can even empower people enough to fight states and corporations with the benefits of global reach and anonymity. This is just our first experience of a runaway technology empowering the people, and many more can be expected to follow as even more amazing technologies are miniaturized and made available to everyone. It is worth adding the cautionary point here, however, that I have no way of accurately knowing just when the panacea is going to arrive. It would be unfortunate for any of us to unrealistically get our hopes up over what is still a big “if”.

But since we are exploring possibilities, let us take for example 3-D printing in the house, which may someday inspire the development of a nanotechnology “everything machine,” a perfect panacea to all scarcity and disequilibrium in the world economy. Imagine if people could make anything in the household, with the assistance of just one global technological provider? What need would there be? Today’s 3-D printers must be laughably crude compared with what is going to arrive in coming decades. Strides in nanotechnology and biotechnology could potentially move us away from a profit-oriented economy to a post-scarcity situation that fits the description of asocialist mode of production with maximal freedom. Nano and bio machines may someday be household appliances that can literally do anything we want of them, and so our capacity to help ourselves and our fellow man will be so high that “economics” itself will become an outdated word describing a concern of primitives. As a friend recently commented on this idea, if it came true, economics would be replaced by a system more akin to what is depicted in the popular indie game Minecraft, where the player-controlled character can cultivate or build anything desired with freely available tools.

The idea of a post-scarcity market may seem like an oxymoron, but there would still be a market in a post-scarcity world, and it would be the “freest” possible market, which is why it fits Wallerstein’s description of a “socialist” world system so well. This is the same case I already drafted in my article “Technology for Socialist Civilization”, where I compared the electronic social media market on the Internet to what a post-scarcity market would be like with actual material products. Electronic products on the Internet at some sites are created at zero cost, and sold or made available freely through a provider, e.g. videos on YouTube, so there is still a kind of market in which products are circulated and competition occurs. Competition between users on YouTube is typically for subscribers, and the motivation would still exist even with no possibility of monetary gain attached. This social media market we experience every day is, in my argument, already an example of a post-scarcity market. Even if everything had no cost and no profit incentive existed, the Internet would still represent what can be called a market. Therefore, in my interpretation, no scarcity or even promises of profit need to exist for a market to exist. People are still motivated to bid for products or share them freely, and the circulation of products will still occur in a post-scarcity society that works on a similar basis to a social media website.

The idea of post-scarcity might seem fictitious still, but it is every bit as plausible as democratization of information and press power through the Internet would surely have seemed twenty years ago. Technology reports are worth reading in combination with political and social theory, because many developments in science and technology are making a post-scarcity world seem more and more possible every day.

Distrust and criticism of the post-scarcity model economy imagined in this article are welcome and entirely necessary. Extremely terrible things can be predicted to happen if things go wrong in this process, because the stakes are so high, but the current system dependent upon scarcity and plagued by disequilibrium is doomed to end one day. When Wallerstein discussed the transition period away from the existing economic system due to its ongoing structural crisis, he made strong warnings that the transition and our role in it ought not to be misconstrued. In fact, transition away from the current historical system cannot be a blissful thing, and according to Wallerstein’s essays it would have to be a “period of disintegration” experiencing “transition to an uncertain alternative”. He also cautions how “everyone will be acting somewhat blindly even if they will not think they are so acting”. If solutions and alternatives such as Wallerstein’s socialist civilization are fumbled, risk would certainly be high. Perhaps chaos is exactly what should be anticipated even in the best case scenario, as history has always been a bumpy ride and we cannot expect the future to be different. What looks like an impending paradise can always quickly break down into something catastrophic, hence the value of cautionary tales and the duty of us science-fiction writers to tell them.

8 Comments

  1. Hasn’t planned obsolescence been used to create artificial scarcity for the last 50 years? Couldn’t double-entry accounting have been mandatory in our schools all of that time? So now we have the result of 50 years of nonsense. Get some economists to compute what Americans have lost on depreciation of automobiles in that time?

    http://www.spectacle.org/1199/wargame.html

  2. Economic liberalisation within nations like China and India and trade liberalisation between nations has in recent decades led to rapid declines in poverty globally and increasing equality globally. Global inequality has declined dramatically in recent decades. See, for instance, Parametric estimations of the world distribution of income This study from the Brookings Institute found that from the six years from 2006 to 2011 global poverty was cut in half. It took 25 years to global poverty rates in half prior to that. The authors attribute this to the spread of capitalism around the globe, the rise of globalization and better economic governance.

    So to me the evidence from the past few decades of declining poverty and diminishing inequality coinciding with the increased penetration of capitalism globally are at odds with Wallerstein’s interpretation of, to use those outdated terms, first world nations exploiting third world nations.

  3. Great thoughts, but it verges on the vision of a utopian society in the future, of which we all know, is most likely unattainable…. Scarcity will still occur for one still needs material to be manufactures by 3d printers of the future… Perhaps life will be pleasant on earth, so long as there are people and robots willing to explore asteroids and planets for precious minerals and resources and ship them back to earth… Not to mention issues of population density if everyone can have anything they want… This socialist govt you have described will most likely have to revert to totalitarianism to keep the ever expanding societies in check… And as we all know, some people are just not content to live peaceably and communally

  4. Until we can obtain energy for free, we will not live in a post scarcity environment. Let us suppose we have a machine that can make anything we design, including food. That machine will still need to be powered, and still need to have the appropriate raw materials. At the very least there will be a market in electricity, mining and possibly food production (for those wishing organic…), not to mention service industries such as security. While many products may be delivered faster and cheaper, I don’t think true post-scarcity is close. We will still have to work after all 🙂

  5. apart the fact that every child needs not to starve, I’m wondering how evoluted culture has to be to evolve in a free market post scarcity context ; maybe so cultures in the South have been to destabilized, destructured by past and present occidental visions that they will not know how to come to a sort of “intellectual-arty” society (no need to mhysical work for the next meal) and maybe will produce even more meaning-less content on youtube that we usually do ; by the way I believe connection to nature is the best way to keep far from perversity ; thanks for the article and links

  6. Some interesting ideas – but keep in mind that we do not have free markets at present, but a mercantilist system. The theory of comparative advantage also explains why poor countries can and do benefit from trade with rich countries. The people thereof are often taken advantage of by their kleptocratic governments and their rich-world counterparts, but when given a chance to trade freely they benefit. If they did not benefit, they would not trade.

    In a world of material plenty there will still be shortages of other necessities – such as creativity. That said, it will gradually become more obvious to us that wealth is about social position and influence, NOT about things. This means that the future economic system, though compatible with free market capitalism and following all the same rules, will more closely resemble a potlatch – a gift economy. Those who contribute the most will have the highest social position, and therefore will be the wealthiest.

  7. Calling the current world economy, particiularly in the West a “free market” is conflating capitalism with mercantilism.

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