#156 Digital Marxism

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Karl Marx said that workers should own the means of production.  In the digital economy, they do: a computer and a smartphone. 

Karl Marx called for workers to have ownership of the means of production.  When he wrote The Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels in 1847 they didn’t.  In 2023, they do.  You see, we’ve moved from a production to an information economy.

Digital Economics

The term digital Marxism was invented by Daniel Pink in his 2002 book titled Free Agent Nation.  The book is mostly about the rise of the gig economy, which I explained in more detail in podcast #51 titled God’s Gig Economy.  One of the enablers of the gig economy is digital Marxism.

Ok, Marx stated that the workers must own the means of production.  This is based on the fallen nature of humans, which we find in the Christian Worldview.  We believe God created a perfect world, fallen humans messed it up, and we find salvation through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as our savior.  Clearly, Karl Marx didn’t believe in the first and third parts, but he DID accept the fallen nature.  I have more to say about him in podcast # 106 titled Karl Marx and the Devil.  The fallen nature is important to economics, by the way.  Economics is the study of the production and distribution of goods and services in a scarce environment.  Scarcity started with the fall.  And, just about every important economic concept is based on the scarcity assumption.  That’s why digital Marxism is so fascinating. 

So, Marx looked at the fallen nature of demanders of labor in the middle of the 19th century and noticed they were taking advantage of the scarcity they owned: That is, the supply of work.  And, Marx had a lot to complain about: Child labor, terrible, dangerous working conditions, and a six-day workweek were common.  There was more supply than demand for labor, and the factory owners took advantage of labor.  But, then, as the century progressed, things didn’t get worse, as Marx predicted, instead, they got better.  Marx and his patron, Friedrich Engels finally surmised that their prediction was NOT coming true, and workers were NOT going to rebel on their own, so Socialism needed a push, which was provided by the political force of Communism.  Vladimir Lenin enters the picture in the early years of the 20th century, and the economic idea of socialism rightly earns a very bad reputation as it was enforced by political power.  Things haven’t changed much in a hundred years.  Socialism is STILL based in power. 

Karl Marx claimed that workers must own the means of production.  As Daniel Pink points out, in the information age, they do. 

I ask my students at Dallas Baptist University to picture either of their parents at work.  What are they doing?  In the information age, it’s very likely they are staring at a computer or talking on a smartphone.  Three elements are at work here:

  1. Training.  Training is free.  You learn how to run a computer at a tax-supported school that’s free.  
  2. The mechanism.  A computer costs about $500 and a smartphone about the same.  If you can’t afford a computer, you can use one at the public library for free.  If you can’t afford a phone, the government will give you an Obama phone.  And for those of us who know the phrase, “There’s no free lunch,” take a look at your cellphone bill, you paid for it.  
  3. Distribution of information.  It’s free also.  Again: If you use the computer at the library, they are providing internet service for free, and if you have an Obama phone, you get the service for free.

Freedom of Labor

You can work for anyone.  Discrimination is illegal, and as I point out in podcast #33, titled Ending Discrimination, it can’t exist in a competitive environment.  Freedom for labor to work anywhere, anytime, is increasing in the information age. 

Niall Ferguson at the Hoover Institute at Stanford showed a video of a riot in the United Kingdom.  Young people were protesting about being unemployed.  The news commentator turned toward the camera and stated, “Look at them, they have nothing, nothing.”  Mr. Ferguson stopped the video and calmly pointed out that the young protestors had a free 12-year education and free health care.  I would add, at least in my community, many of the best students graduate from High School with a Junior College degree, for free.  Yes, I said for free.

You see, Marx was right in the middle of the 19th century.  Workers had nothing.  But that was in the production economy.  In the digital economy, each person owns their own factory for producing information: A computer and a smartphone.

Freedom of Movement

You can live anywhere.  I’ve mentioned in podcast #131 titled Abraham and Wealth Migration about the economic and regulatory impetus that has encouraged people to move from California and New York to Florida and Texas.  In the information age, because of these extremely cheap instruments, the computer and smartphone, you can live just about anywhere.  This is great for the economy.  Before this freedom of movement, firms could choose labor only from the pool of people who lived within physical commuting distance.  Now that people are free to move anywhere, employers are free to hire labor who live anywhere. 

In the other course I teach at Dallas Baptist University, Strategic Management, we study Michael Porter’s Five Forces of Industry analysis.  He says if you look at the power of suppliers, buyers, substitutes, rivalry, and entry, you can predict the future success of an industry.  The cost of entry has been reduced to near zero in the digital age.  As I mentioned earlier, you get training, the mechanism for the production, and the distribution of information, almost free.  

Freedom of Information

In their book titled Superabundance, Marion Tupy and Gale Pooley explain how products and services are superabundant when you consider what you’re paying for them, in time price.  That’s how much time you have to work to buy something.  Lighting is a classic, and extreme example.  150 years ago, folks used candles that were very expensive.  Then, they were blessed to use kerosene lamps that were much cheaper and more effective.  Then came the incandescent bulb, powered by electricity that transformed life.  Think about it: Before that, life basically followed the movement of the sun.  You were active when the sun was up, you slept when it was dark.  It was very difficult and expensive to produce enough light to do anything in the dark.  Then came light-emitting diodes, known as LEDs.  Tupy and Pooley point out that the time price to buy 1000 lumens of light is extremely, almost ridiculously cheap.  Yes, you have to pay for the bulb, but the power to light it is almost insignificant.  If you serve on your church board, I hope you’ve noticed how blessed you are to be paying an electric bill that powers LEDs, compared to wax candles from only 150 years ago. 

In the 1950s when I Love Lucy was popular, information moved through a very narrow tube.  First, there were only three channels: ABC, CBS, and NBC.  As a side note, I grew up on the plains of South Dakota, where we only received two networks, so folks in my generation talk about TV shows from that third network that I never saw.  Not only were there three pipes of distribution, but access to the pipe was also very limited.  TV was mostly evening family entertainment, and it was extremely difficult to get a spot on an evening program.  And, TV broadcasting stopped at midnight.  I remember many times in my teens, watching TV until they played the national anthem, and signed off.

Comparatively, today the distribution pipes are relatively unlimited.  You can hold your free Obama phone at arm’s length, and shoot a video that looks pretty much like the broadcast CBS did with Walter Cronkite 60 years ago.  Put the video up on a social media platform, and you’re now a broadcaster.  And what was the entry fee?  It was near zero. 

Life is Better

In 1 Timothy, Christians are called to care for widows and orphans because they didn’t own land, which was the means of production in the first-century agrarian society.  The equivalent in today’s information economy is the ability to create value via the digital economy.  Just about everyone has access to digital sources that create value.     

We have this tendency to think about the past as golden and perfect.  It wasn’t.  God gave us brains that do us the favor of remembering the good things but forgetting the bad things.  But in economic terms, the first line of the book The Great Escape by Angus Deaton is correct, “Life is better now than any time in history.”  And the extension from the Christian Economist is, “And it’s going to get better.”  Digital Marxism is only one of the economic effects that make the future better than the past. 




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