I have only a rudimentary grasp of economics but I am thoroughly enjoying reading Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism
His provocation is that capitalism is broken. Cycles of boom and bust punctuated by state bail outs are unsustainable. Soon the state will be milked so dry that it won’t have enough capital to patch up the system. Bail outs transfer money from the poor to the rich, which eventually makes our society so unequal that social conflict will become inevitable.
But from the wreckage of a system built on unsubstantiated credit, a new economy can emerge. One based on information technology which is open-sourced, home-made and shared. This sharing economy is not made of controlled platforms like Uber or Airbnb, but of co-operatives sharing non-market goods, time banks and LETS currencies. It’s an economy based on sharing of knowledge skills and information.
In showing how we have got here, Mason traces the trajectory of the western economy over 300 years of waves, first promulgated by the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff. His near contemporary Joseph Schumpeter noted in the 1930s that the period of disruption preceding each wave is characterised by innovation and fizzing entrepreneurial activity.
It’s these waves which pricked my ears because they refer to many of the most important things we value in the collections at Derby Silk Mill.
Put simply, the first industrial wave was characterised by the Spinning Jenny and water power, which moved the production of cloth from looms in weavers’ cottages to the first factories (Mason directly refers to Arkwright’s Mill in Cromford founded some 50 years after Derby Silk Mill further down the Derwent Valley).
The second wave was caused by the disruption brought about by the age of steam. This increased productivity and distribution, but also heralded a fateful reliance on carbon to fuel the economy. In the early years of the 19th century Derby Silk Mill eschewed water power and moved to coal. Derby itself, set in the middle of England, became a centre for the manufacturing of locomotives, an industry which still exists 175 years later.
The third wave was brought about by growth of communications technology, with radio, television and the radar, and personal mobility such as the motor car and bicycle.
By the 1960’s a fourth cycle began, spurred by the main frame computer and jumbo jet engine. Information and people moved more freely and quicker than ever before. Dominating the ground floor of Derby Silk Mill is the RB211 jet engine which certainly disrupted Rolls-Royce in the 1970s. The cost of its development nearly bankrupted the company and it was saved only by nationalisation. Yet the prototype RB211 (the engine that powered the Boeing 747) was the precursor of the now ubiquitous Trent engines which have underpinned the great success of Rolls-Royce over the last 40 years.
Mason notes that we are now in the midst of a Schumpeter-style disruption between a fourth and fifth cycle. The end of the fourth cycle is characterised by ‘info-capitalism’ where the price of goods and services are arbitrarily costed by corporations like Apple (he gives the example of the 79p people pay to download a track on ITunes which neither reflects neither the cost of materials nor production of music).
The closed nature of information and technology cannot last forever, nor can the hierarchal nature of capitalism. New generations of users, networked as never before, view file sharing as second nature. They are used to not paying for art or music, and when they do it’s to not receive information, such as an advert free subscription to Spotify!
Concurrently, the disruption is also characterised by a financial crisis heralding the beginning of the end of an oil economy and the noticeable effects of climate change. Bail outs and climate mitigation will change the way the state supports its infrastructure. Austerity impacts not just welfare but all aspects of civic infrastructure from parks to libraries, museums and galleries. There is a danger that at some point the state will be so small, it won’t be able to withstand another financial crisis.
So in a museum which exemplifies the last 300 years of capitalism, could our approach offer a glimpse of the future?
A post-capitalist economy, Mason argues, is based on open-sourced technology and the exchange of non-market goods like care, ideas and creativity. The Silk Mill’s workshop is full of equipment which stimulates creativity and learning. The public can learn new skills and make things using a Raspberry Pi, CNC router, 3D printer, laser-cutter alongside more traditional tools and techniques. Volunteers have made museum display cases, designed a mobile kitchen and told new stories about Derby’s cultural heritage. They have encouraged and looked out for each other as part of a collective enterprise.
Volunteers participate and co-produce with us on an informal give/get basis. They give time to hack fixtures and fittings and solve problems for the museum, in return they use the equipment or develop skills for their own endeavours. For example, one volunteer uses the workshop to develop his ideas to make bespoke skateboards, in return he teaches coding to year 8’s from the local high school during our Wednesday afternoon Code Club.
It’s not just the making of the museum which is open sourced, there is also a knowledge exchange. We propose a crowd-sourcing of knowledge and experience around collections. This, curated by the museum, stimulate further dialogue with audiences and enhance understanding of objects, narratives and place. Curation becomes the assemblage of the interaction of the public not just the interpretation of knowledge by the institution. This is real public history.
In the museum space we’ll enable an ‘open’ access to collections to visitors. All of our collections of industrial and social history will be openly accessible in ‘display storage’ with additional digital access through3D scanned collections. The code could be made available to the public who could then 3D print their own version of the object.
This level of participation should help stimulate a new kind of civic institution. Most museums’ relationships with their visitors are transaction based. Customers pay an admission fee for an experience which is primarily didactic. If, as Jon Alexander from the New Citizenship Project contends, we see visitors not as consumers but citizens then the museums of the future will need to build mutual relationships with the public, be non-hierarchal and, be a platform for the free exchange of knowledge and creativity.