Post-scarcity economy

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Post-scarcity is a theoretical economy in which most goods can be produced in great abundance with minimal human labor needed, so that they become available to all very cheaply or even freely.[1][2] Post-scarcity is not generally taken to mean that scarcity has been eliminated for all consumer goods and services, instead it is often taken to mean that all people can easily have their basic survival needs met along with some significant proportion of their desires for goods and services,[3] with writers on the topic often emphasizing that certain commodities are likely to remain scarce in a post-scarcity society.[4][5][6][7]

The post-scarcity model[edit]

Speculative technology[edit]

Today, futurists who speak of "post-scarcity" frequently imagine an economy based on advances in automated manufacturing technologies,[4] often including the idea of self-replicating machines,[8] which make it much easier for society to produce nearly all goods in great abundance, given raw materials and energy. More speculative forms of nanotechnology (such as molecular assemblers or nanofactories, which have been discussed as possibilities but do not yet exist) raise the possibility of devices that can automatically manufacture any specified goods given the correct instructions and the necessary raw materials and energy,[9] and so many nanotechnology enthusiasts have suggested it will usher in a post-scarcity world.[10][11] In the more near-term future, the increasing automatization of physical labor using robots is often discussed as means of creating a post-scarcity economy.[12][13] Increasingly versatile forms of rapid prototyping machines, and a hypothetical self-replicating version of such a machine known as a RepRap, have also been predicted to help create the abundance of goods needed for a post-scarcity economy.[14] Advocates of self-replicating machines such as Adrian Bowyer, the creator of the RepRap project, argue that once a self-replicating machine is designed, then since anyone who owns one can make more copies to sell (and would also be free to ask for a lower price than other sellers), market competition will naturally drive the cost of such machines down to the bare minimum needed to make a profit,[15][16] in this case just above the cost of the physical materials and energy that must be fed into the machine as input, and the same should go for any other goods that the machine can build.

Even with fully automated production, limitations on the number of goods produced would arise from the availability of raw materials and energy, as well as ecological damage associated with manufacturing technologies.[4] Advocates of technological abundance often argue for more extensive use of renewable energy and greater recycling in order to prevent future drops in availability of energy and raw materials, and reduce ecological damage.[4] Solar energy in particular is often emphasized, as the cost of solar panels continues to drop [4] (and could drop far more with automated production by self-replicating machines), and advocates point out the total solar power striking the Earth's surface annually exceeds our civilization's current annual power usage by a factor of thousands.[17][18] Advocates also sometimes argue that the energy and raw materials available could be greatly expanded if we looked to resources beyond the Earth. For example, asteroid mining is sometimes discussed as a way of greatly reducing scarcity for many useful metals such as Nickel.[19] While early asteroid mining might involve manned missions, advocates hope that eventually humanity could have automated mining done by self-replicating machines.[19][20] If this were done, then the only capital expenditure would be a single self-replicating unit (whether robotic or nanotechnological), after which the number of units could replicate at no further cost, limited only by the available raw materials needed to build more.[20]

Digital abundance[edit]

Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU project, has cited the eventual creation of a post-scarcity society as one of his motivations:[21]

In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting. There will be no need to be able to make a living from programming.

Socialism and communism[edit]

Karl Marx, in a section of his Grundrisse that came to be know as the "Fragment on Machines",[22][23] argued that the transition to a post-capitalist society combined with advances in automation would allow for significant reduction in labor needed to produce necessary goods, eventually reaching a point where all people would have significant leisure time to pursue science, arts, and creative activities, a state some later commentators labeled as "post-scarcity".[24] Marx argued that capitalism depends on exploiting the surplus labor of workers, but that a post-capitalist society would allow for

The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.[25]

Marx's concept of a post-capitalist communist society involves the free distribution of goods made possible by the abundance provided by automation.[26] The fully developed communist economic system is postulated to develop from a preceding socialist system. Marx held the view that socialism—a system based on social ownership of the means of production—would enable progress toward the development of fully developed communism by further advancing productive technology. Under socialism, with its increasing levels of automation, an increasing proportion of goods would be distributed freely.[27]

Marx did not believe the elimination of most physical labor through technological advancements alone in a capitalist society, because he believed capitalism contained within it certain tendencies which countered increasing automation and prevented it from developing beyond a limited point, so that manual industrial labor could not be eliminated until the overthrow of capitalism.[28] Some commentators on Marx have argued that at the time he wrote the Grundrisse, he thought that the collapse of capitalism due to advancing automation was inevitable despite these counter-tendencies, but that by the time of his major work Capital: Critique of Political Economy he had abandoned this view, and came to believe that capitalism could continually renew itself unless overthrown.[29][30][31]


Science fiction[edit]

The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Over three novels, Robinson charts the terraforming of Mars as a human colony and the establishment of a post-scarcity society.[32]

The Culture novels by Iain M Banks are centered on a post-scarcity economy[32][33] where technology is advanced to such a degree that all production is automated,[34] and there is no use for money or private property.[35] Humans in the Culture are free to pursue their own interests in an open and tolerant society. The society has been described by some commentators as "communist-bloc"[36] or "anarcho-communist".[37] Banks' close friend and fellow science fiction writer Ken MacLeod has said that The Culture can be seen as a realization of Marx's communism, but adds that "however friendly he was to the radical left, Iain had little interest in relating the long-range possibility of utopia to radical politics in the here and now. As he saw it, what mattered was to keep the utopian possibility open by continuing technological progress, especially space development, and in the meantime to support whatever policies and politics in the real world were rational and humane."[38]

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom features a moneyless society where material goods are no longer scarce, and everyone is granted basic rights that in our present age are mostly considered luxuries.

The Rapture of the Nerds a post-scarcity society about "disruptive" technology.[32] The Rapture of the Nerds is a derogatory term for the Technological Singularity coined by SF author Ken MacLeod. There is also a 2012 SF novel about the technological singularity called The Rapture of the Nerds — (written by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross).

Con Blomberg's 1959 short story "Sales Talk" depicts a post-scarcity society in which society incentivizes consumption to reduce the burden of overproduction.[32]

The 24th century human society of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has been labeled a post-scarcity society due to the ability of the fictional "replicator" technology to synthesize a wide variety of goods nearly instantaneously,[39] along with dialogue such as Captain Picard's statement that "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity."[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sadler, Philip (2010), Sustainable Growth in a Post-Scarcity World: Consumption, Demand, and the Poverty Penalty, Surrey, England: Gower Applied Business Research, p. 7, ISBN 978-0-566-09158-2 
  2. ^ Robert Chernomas. (1984). "Keynes on Post-Scarcity Society." In: Journal of Economic Issues, 18(4).
  3. ^ Burnham, Karen (22 June 2015), Space: A Playground for Postcapitalist Posthumans, Strange Horizons, archived from the original on 2015-11-14, By post-scarcity economics, we're generally talking about a system where all the resources necessary to fulfill the basic needs (and a good chunk of the desires) of the population are available. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Frase, Peter (Winter 2012), Four Futures (5), Jacobin, archived from the original on 2015-11-13 
  5. ^ Sadler, Philip (2010), Sustainable Growth in a Post-Scarcity World: Consumption, Demand, and the Poverty Penalty, Surrey, England: Gower Applied Business Research, p. 57, ISBN 978-0-566-09158-2 
  6. ^ Das, Abhimanyu; Anders, Charlie Jane (30 September 2014), Post-Scarcity Societies (That Still Have Scarcity), io9, archived from the original on 2015-11-14 
  7. ^ Engines of Creation (full text online, see also Engines of Creation) - Drexler, Eric K., Anchor Books, 1986. See the first paragraph of the section "The Positive-Sum Society" in Chapter 6.
  8. ^ Peters, Michael A.; Marginson, Simon; Murphy, Peter (2009), Creativity and the Global Knowledge Economy, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., p. 11, ISBN 978-1-4331-0425-1 
  9. ^ Engines of Creation (full text online, see also Engines of Creation) - Drexler, Eric K., Anchor Books, 1986
  10. ^ Sparrow, Rob (2007), "Negotiating the nanodivides", in Hodge, Graeme A.; Bowman, Diana; Ludlow, Karinne, New Global Frontiers in Regulation: The Age of Nanotechnology, Cheltenham, England: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, p. 98, ISBN 978-1-84720-518-6 
  11. ^ Barfield, Thomas (2 September 2010), Get ready for a world of nanotechnology, Guardian US, archived from the original on 2015-11-11 
  12. ^ Wohlsen, Marcus (8 August 2014), "When Robots Take All the Work, What'll Be Left for Us to Do?", Wired, archived from the original on 2015-11-10 
  13. ^ Merchant, Brian (18 March 2015), Fully automated luxury communism, Guardian US, archived from the original on 2015-11-10 
  14. ^ Peters, Michael A.; Marginson, Simon; Murphy, Peter (2009), Creativity and the Global Knowledge Economy, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., pp. 75-76, ISBN 978-1-4331-0425-1 
  15. ^ Gordon, Stephen; Bowyer, Adrian (22 April 2005). "An Interview With Dr. Adrian Bowyer". Archived from the original on 11 November 2015. Retrieved 11 November 2015. 
  16. ^ Biever, Celeste (18 March 2005), 3D printer to churn out copies of itself, New Scientist, archived from the original on 2015-11-11 
  17. ^ Diamandis, Peter H. (2012), Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, New York, New York: Free Press, p. 6, ISBN 978-1-4516-1421-3 
  18. ^ Engines of Creation (full text online, see also Engines of Creation) - Drexler, Eric K., Anchor Books, 1986. See the section "The Limits to Resources" in Chapter 10.
  19. ^ a b Thomson, Iain (24 January 2013), Asteroid mining and a post-scarcity economy, The Register, archived from the original on 2015-11-16 
  20. ^ a b Engines of Creation (full text online, see also Engines of Creation) - Drexler, Eric K., Anchor Books, 1986. See the section "Abundance" in Chapter 6.
  21. ^ GNU Manifesto (full text online, see also GNU Manifesto) - Stallman, Richard; Dr. Dobb's Journal, March 1985
  22. ^ Barbour, Charles (2012). The Marx Machine: Politics, Polemics, Ideology. Lexington Books. p. 118. ISBN 978-0-7391-1046-1. 
  23. ^ The section known as the "Fragment on Machines" can be read online here.
  24. ^ Jessop and Wheatley, Bob and Russell (1999). Karl Marx's Social and Political Thought, Volume 8. Routledge. p. 9. ISBN 0-415-19330-3. Marx in the Grundrisse speaks of a time when systematic automation will be developed to the point where direct human labor power will be a source of wealth. The preconditions will be created by capitalism itself. It will be an age of true mastery of nature, a post-scarcity age, when men can turn from alienating and dehumanizing labor to the free use of leisure in the pursuit of the sciences and arts. 
  25. ^ Marx, Karl (1973). Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). Translated by Nicolaus, Martin. Penguin Books. p. 706. ISBN 0-14-044575-7. 
  26. ^ Wood, John Cunningham (1996). Karl Marx’s Economics: Critical Assessments I. Routledge. p. 248-249. ISBN 978-0415087148. Affluence and increased provision of free goods would reduce alienation in the work process and, in combination with (1), the alienation of man’s ‘species-life’. Greater leisure would create opportunities for creative and artistic activity outside of work. 
  27. ^ Wood, John Cunningham (1996). Karl Marx’s Economics: Critical Assessments I. Routledge. p. 248. ISBN 978-0415087148. In particular, this economy would possess (1) social ownership and control of industry by the ‘associated producers’ and (2) a sufficiently high level of economic development to enable substantial progress toward ‘full communism’ and thereby some combination of the following: super affluence; distribution of an increasing proportion of commodities as if they were free goods; an increase in the proportion of collective goods... 
  28. ^ Marx, Karl (1973). "Foreword". Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). Translated by Nicolaus, Martin. Foreword by Martin Nicolaus. Penguin Books. pp. 51-52. ISBN 0-14-044575-7. 
  29. ^ Tomba, Massimiliano (2013). Marx's Temporalities. Koninklijke Brill NV. p. 76. ISBN 978-90-04-23678-3. 
  30. ^ Bellofiore, Riccardo; Starosta, Guido; Thomas, Peter D. (2013). In Marx's Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse. Koninklijke Brill NV. p. 9. ISBN 978-90-04-23676-9. 
  31. ^ Easterling, Stuart (November–December 2003). "Marx's theory of economic crisis". International Socialist Review (32). Archived from the original on 2015-11-11. 
  32. ^ a b c d Walter, Damien (11 October 2012), Dear Ed Miliband … seek your future in post-scarcity SF, Guardian US, archived from the original on 2015-11-14 
  33. ^ Parsons, Michael; Banks, Iain M (16 November 2012), Interview: Iain M Banks talks 'The Hydrogen Sonata' with, Wired UK, archived from the original on 2015-11-14, It is my vision of what you do when you are in that post-scarcity society, you can completely indulge myself. The Culture has no unemployment problem, no one has to work, so all work is a form of play. 
  34. ^ Banks, Iain M. "A Few Notes on the Culture". Retrieved 2015-11-23.  Link is to an archived copy of the site that Banks linked to on his own website.
  35. ^ Roberts, Jude; Banks, Iain M. (3 November 2014), A Few Questions About the Culture: An Interview with Iain Banks, Strange Horizons, archived from the original on 2015-11-23, This is not say that Libertarianism can't represent a progressive force, in the right circumstances, and I don't doubt there will be significant areas where I would agree with Libertarianism. But, really; which bit of not having private property, and the absence of money in the Culture novels, have these people missed? 
  36. ^ Cramer & Hartwell, Kathryn & David G. (10 July 2007). The Space Opera Renaissance. Orb Books. p. 298. ISBN 978-0765306180. Iain M. Banks and his brother-in-arms, Ken MacLeod, both take a Marxist line: Banks with his communist-bloc 'Culture' novels, and MacLeod with his 'hard-left libertarian' factions. 
  37. ^ Poole, Steven (8 February 2008), Culture clashes, The Guardian, archived from the original on 2015-11-23 
  38. ^ Liptak, Andrew (19 December 2014), Iain M. Banks’ Culture Novels, Kirkus Reviews, archived from the original on 2015-11-23 
  39. ^ Fung, Brian; Peterson, Andrea; Tsukayama, Hayley; Saadia, Manu; Salmon, Felix (7 July 2015), What the economics of Star Trek can teach us about the real world, The Washington Post, archived from the original on 2015-11-16 
  40. ^ Baxter, Stephen (2007), "The Cold Equations: Extraterrestrial Liberty in Science Fiction", in Cockell, Charles S., The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth, Springer Publishing, p. 26, ISBN 978-3-319-09566-0 

External links[edit]