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Essay of the Day: Rebirth of Guilds

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
30th November 2012


A return to guilds as an organizing force for the worker of the future will bring with it another medieval institution: a return of ownership of means of production to the individual. In our surveys of distributed workers over the years, we have noted a consistent finding. Workers report that the technology they have in their home offices is more advanced and sophisticated than what their employers provide in the central office.

Dr. Charles Grantham, Norma Owen and Terry Musch have written a five part article series reconsidering the Guilds as an appropriate form for current organisations in the p2p age:

“This series of blogs traces the history of guilds and the modern forces driving their re-emergence: failure of industrial institutions, technology that speeds up learning, a search for intimate community and the de-evolution of power from the central state. Further, the need for social change is discussed along with a prescription of the functions these new guilds can perform, and those they cannot. We conclude this series with a brief discussion of how modern guilds can offer ownership of the means of social preservation to workers of the future.”

Here are some excerpt, the full article is also here:

A Brief History

Guilds, as a from of social organization for craftsman emerged in Europe in the 13th Century, about the same time universities were born. It seems that they originated as a way to provide social support to skilled workers so the economic forces would not exploit them, and to protect their “secret knowledge”.

There remains some argument today as to whether the guilds central purpose was social (protection and networking) or economic (market protection and exclusion).

Guilds have a long history. There is some evidence that they existed in some form as craft associations dating back to the 3rd Century BC in the Roman Empire and likewise in the Han dynasty. Wherever specialized skill and knowledge built up these associations were formed to focus and organize the practice of their craft. They fell from grace and usefulness as the Industrial Revolution took hold in the 19th Century. In a sense, they were replaced by labor unions and cartels.

In retrospect, and with today’s language, you could say they existed to protect and pass on intellectual property that was created before we had patents, copyrights and associated legal systems. They related to the larger economy as they were places where young people went to learn a trade, find work and we would suggest a supportive social network. This is where apprenticeships, journeyman and masters of craft came from. As you will see later, these basic needs haven’t changed, but new forces are driving our modern “artisans of thought” back to answering a basic need.

Industrialization and capitalism supplanted the needs for guilds through concurrent development of public education, work specialization and routinzation of work tasks. Guilds began to lose influence and disappear as a philosophy of “free trade” and liassez-faire economic theory moved to the forefront. No less than Karl Marx criticized guilds for their rigid social structure.

Degrees replaced certifications of “masterpieces”. Time in class, as measured by “credits” replaced, long apprenticeships. Interestingly, mass industrialization also did away with specific towns being known for the type of work done there as factories spread to locations closest to sources of power and raw material—instead of knowledge. A trend, we would suggest is turning around.

Currently, guilds exist, albeit in diminished form, as the Screen Actors Guild and National Association of Realtors, and of course, legal bar associations in the United States as examples. Above all, in today’s world consultants behave very much like the journeyman of old. Traveling, spreading ideas and working with a number of different clients. Most recently we note that online computer gamers have begun to form “player guilds.”

Driving Forces

There are several forces, which are driving the rebirth of guilds as a way of organizing talent pools. While there are a myriad of social, economic and political pressures on the 21st Century global economy. We feel four are of particular interest.

· Failure of industrial institutions

After a nearly 500-year lapse, we are seeing fundamental changes in society once again. We believe the printing press was the primary cause of this transformation in the late 15th century. While fantastic inventions and technologies have come along since then, nothing else has come close.

Until the Internet. And the Internet is prompting social change of the same nature and magnitude as the printing press as we head into the 21st century (Bressler and Grantham, 2000).

Without a doubt those institutions which served humanity well in the industrial era, have reached the end of their useful life. Just as feudalism fell away with the Enlightenment, and royalty with the rise of the modern nation-state, so too are industrial capitalism, tribal governments and supporting establishments.

· Technology speeds up education and continuous learning

The invention and diffusion of radical technology inevitably changes how we live, work, and learn together as a human race. Technology, especially when it influences how we communicate with each other, causes a change in our sense and experience of time and space. This change, in turn, brings about a change in our mental energy (or how we pay attention to things) and this finally results in a change in how we interact with the world—our behavior.

While the Internet is completely changing corporate business models and how customers can connect with companies, none of this comes close to matching the broader human change we are on the verge of seeing. And we believe we have a precedent for this—the world after the introduction of Johan Gutenberg’s printing press. All the way from E-learning to the Occupy Wall Street movement, we are being led to a Fourth Turning in our global society.

· Search for community that is intimate

It is hard to argue against rise of a sense of need for community around the planet. The Arab Spring, ascendancy of an Asian superpower, crisis in the European “Union” and political gridlock in the United States, all have at their root a renewed sense to work together in community—not against each other in power struggles.

Historically (in the West), community structure that existed in the small villages and towns was traditionally centered around a parish church and one or two eating establishments, where people would gather to be with one another and exchange ideas and thoughts. With the concurrent rise of mercantilism, the wealth that was created in these rural areas were sucked into the larger urban areas where wealth focused on the construction of these large structures and monuments.

The basic unit of social organization, and hence community, was organized by the church. However, the church’s penetration into every aspect of community life was not total. Community was based on tradition and it celebrated events that signify the rhythms of agricultural life.

Community was important to people as they entered the industrial age. Community was the social glue that held everything together, gave people hope, and provided them with a psychological anchor in times of trouble. And that’s’ where we are again. Just as the world was getting bigger and people felt connected to a broader world, community became much more local and amorphous than it had been when it was decreed from some central authority. Indeed history does repeat itself.

· Devolution of power

We content that political power is devolving from massively centralized structures to a loosely knit network of community federations. During the Middle Ages, government and religion were intertwined. One could not easily separate the two. It depended on the area of the world in which you lived as to which of these two basic social structures had primacy in your everyday life.
So, the sub-plot of this story is that a major impact of the printing press was the beginning of a movement, which continues even today, of the separation of government and religion in terms of how they regulated every man’s life. The function of both involves the influence and regulation of behavior and what people can and cannot do. Underlying all of this regulation and control lies a belief system that is agreed-upon and shared. So when belief structures change, eventually so does the governance structure. And at this point in human history, these beliefs are changing once again. Government is next.

The change in government in the Middle Ages, or, more accurately, the government structure of society, was generally a move from a feudal form to empires and nation states. Society began to organize itself around shared believes, fears, values, and desires as a group that was significantly larger than what they had been able to experience directly in one day’s travel time.

The underlying value shift that occurred was that people went from protecting the territory and resources surrounding them to focusing on upholding their beliefs and controlling what mattered most to them. So people went from standing at the gates to ward off invaders, to looking further out—hoping their beliefs would be adopted by others so their common culture could grow in size.

What Guilds Could Do

But what if there was a new kind of organization whose purpose was not to produce any specific product, but instead, to meet the human needs of their members, which were not met in any other way?

These guilds could provide a stable home for their members as they moved from job to job. They could, for example, help their members by:

v Ensuring their financial security,

v Providing placement and professional training services,

v Becoming a locus of social interaction and identification.

Guilds appear to be an especially promising way of addressing two challenges. First, by providing insurance and pensions; professional development and placement programs; and access to a social milieu, guilds can allow workers to take advantage of flexible employment relationships–and the potential for greater productivity they offer–without having to face high risks and unattractive social repercussions.

Second, by emphasizing continuous learning for their members and the matching of workers’ skills with available opportunities, the interests of guilds will be closely aligned with those of the companies for which the guilds’ members will work.

This new approach has the potential to radically change the terms of debates that have been central to the industrial age. Today, for instance, collective bargaining is a primary role of many unions, and we typically assume that the interests of unions and management will be in conflict. In a world of flexible networks of one-person companies, however, there would often be no stable centralized management with which unions could bargain, even if they wanted to. An attractive opportunity for unions in the future, therefore, is to move toward fulfilling the needs of their members in the guild-like ways we have described. In general, we believe there are opportunities for many kinds of organizations—professional societies, unions, neighborhoods, colleges, churches, and others–to be creative and proactive in meeting needs that are likely to become increasingly urgent as flexible working arrangements become more common.

At the same time, guilds cannot magically provide better pay or benefits for workers who lack skills or bargaining power. For the same reasons that very low skilled workers are not attractive job candidates, they will also be unattractive candidates for joining guilds. But in guilds based on shared interests such as family ties, place of residence, or religious beliefs, economic considerations would be less important in determining who can join.”

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One Response to “Essay of the Day: Rebirth of Guilds”

  1. Robert David STEELE Vivas Says:

    Cross-posted to Phi Beta Iota. I am working off and on with the idea of integrating education, intelligence, and research. I was just thinking today about apprenticeships combined with the Internet as the better alternative to the schools we have now. But inspired by the above, now I am adding to my thinking, not just guilds, but ecologies of guilds, and a new class of cross-guild person who is valued for a role in helping guilds integrate to reduce true cost, improve design, etcetera.

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