Jeremy Rifkin’s Zero Marginal Cost Society is a book that’s come up a few times in discussions here, and while I may have mentioned that I have multiple problems with it — its transparent assembly by interns, the guileless portrayal it offers of the Internet of Things, and particularly some of the lazy methods of argumentation Rifkin occasionally indulges in — it gets one thing so thunderingly right that it is worth quoting at some length.

The following is the best short description of the neoliberal evisceration of the public sphere between 1979 and the present I have ever come across. It resonates with my experience in every particular — and I’ve lived through this, seen it unfold on both sides of the Atlantic. If you were born anytime after, oh, 1988 or so, it will be very useful in helping you understand just what has been done to your world, and to you.

I’ll be honest with you: Sometimes I want to weep for what we’ve lost. Just the enumeration in the very first paragraph is almost overwhelming.

The Reagan/Thatcher-led economic movement to privatize public goods and services by selling off telecommunications networks, radio frequencies, electricity generation and transmission grids, public transport, government-sponsored scientific research, postal services, rail lines, public lands, prospecting rights, water and sewage services, and dozens of other activities that had long been considered public trusts, administered by government bodies, marked the final surrender of public responsibility for overseeing the general welfare of society.

Deregulation and privatization spread quickly to other countries. The magnitude of the capitulation was breathtaking in scope and scale. Governments were hollowed out overnight, becoming empty shells, while vast power over the affairs of society shifted to the private sector. The public, at large, was stripped of its “collective” power as citizens and reduced to millions of autonomous agents forced to fend for themselves in a marketplace increasingly controlled by several hundred global corporations. The disempowerment came with lightning speed, leaving little time for public reaction and even less time for public engagement in the process. There was virtually no widespread debate at the time, despite the breadth of the shift in power from the government to the private sector, leaving the public largely unaware and uninvolved, although deeply affected by the consequences.

For the most part, free-market economists, business leaders, neoliberal intellectuals, and progressive politicians — like President Bill Clinton of the United States and Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom — were able to prevail by portraying the market as the sole key to economic progress and castigating critics as old fashioned and out of touch or, worse, as Soviet-style apologists for big government. The collapse of the Soviet empire, with its widespread corruption, inefficiencies, and stagnant economic performance was trotted out at every occasion as a whipping boy and proof positive that the well-being of society would be better assured by placing all the economic marbles in the hands of the market and letting government shrivel to the most rudimentary of public functions.

Large segments of the public acquiesced, in part because they shared a sense of frustration and disappointment with government management of goods and services — although much of the ill feeling was contrived by a business community anxious to penetrate and mine a lucrative economic largesse that had long remained under government auspices and beyond the reach of the market. After all, in most industrialized countries, publicly administered goods and services enjoyed an enviable track record. The trains ran on time, the postal service was dependable, government broadcasting was of a high quality, the electricity networks kept the lights on, the telephone networks were reliable, the public schools were adequate, and so forth.

In the end, free-market ideology prevailed.

After this rather brutal, unremitting account, it is true that Rifkin points us at the global Commons he perceives aborning as a legitimate source of hope. Let us, in turn, hope that he’s onto something. To quote someone I hold in the deepest contempt, there really is no alternative.

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