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Peer production, the guilds, and the washing machine

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st January 2008


This is not a new article, but a transcript of a marvellous talk by Graham Seaman in 2002 (at the Oekonux conference). I have added it to our selection of key peer to peer essays, which I believe everyone should read to understand the various key aspects of peer production and governance.

Graham’s is a key intervention to the issue of whether peer production is possible in the physical world, an issue which I’m closely monitoring here. Here are only some excerpts, particularly the part that sheds light of the historical comparison with the end of the guild system. Read it, it’s a gem.

Introduction

Within capitalism, material goods are typically made:

* by people working for a wage
* for others who own the means of production
* in order to create profit
* by selling the product

The co-ordination between producers is indirect, through the market, using money as a signalling mechanism.

Production of free software and other free goods can be contrasted point by point with this list; non-material goods can be produced by people:

* working because they chose to
* using their own means of production
* in order to create something useful or pleasurable
* which anyone can use

The co-ordination between producers is direct, mediated only by technology.

In traditional marxist terms, two societies described like this would have different modes of production. But in this case there is only one society, and while almost the whole of society produces in the first way, only a tiny, though growing, part produces in the second.

This is not an unusual situation: there have been few times in history when a ‘pure’ mode of production, unmixed with fragments of other modes, existed. Some of these fragments are remnants of the past: personal slavery in parts of Northern Europe during the middle ages, or villages with communally allocated and rotated land in isolated parts of Southern Europe today. These fragments can often survive for long periods, integrated into the overall system and partially changed from their original form, but stable. Others are abortive glimpses of a future believed possible which turns out not to be so, such as the numerous experiments in communal working and living from the nineteenth century to the 60s and 70s of the last century, again often surviving for long periods. But the most interesting possibility is the fragment which turns out to be the replacement for the dominant mode of production.

This leads to two major groups of questions:

Firstly, what are the effects of the coexistence of two modes of production now? How does the dependence of free software producers on the capitalist economy affect free software production? And what effect, if any, does free software production have on the surrounding capitalist mode of production?

Secondly, is it possible for the free software mode of production to be generalised to the whole of society? And if so, how?

Obviously, these are questions without definitive answers. Even those parts of the question which are purely empirical would need a major research program to answer properly. But that doesn’t mean that it is pointless to try to suggest possible answers. One possible starting point is to look to the past, to one of the best documented changes: the break-up of the feudal system in pre-revolutionary England.

The End of the Guilds

Manufacturing in late mediaeval society was contained within the guild system, and organised through the hierarchy of apprentices, journeymen and masters. To have a trade it was necessary to have been an apprentice; once apprenticeship had been completed (normally after 7 years) an apprentice could expect his master to register him as a full guild member, with the freedom to practise the trade as an independent journeyman. Naturally journeymen would expect to become masters in their turn. Knowledge of the trade was part of the mystery of the guild, shared vertically within the guild but kept a secret from outsiders, and guild boundaries were rigourously enforced. Guild inspectors would check not only the quality of the goods produced but also adherence to proper employment procedures and encroachment on the territory of other guilds: a shoemaker in the shoemakers guild should not encroach on the work of cobblers, who repaired old shoes, nor should he tan his own leather, the mystery of the tanners’ guild. The system was intended to maintain the maximum possible quality of the output: the quality of tanned leather was guaranteed by the tanners’ own inspectors, the true experts on tanning, and a shoemaker who set himself up as an amateur tanner as well had no such expertise.

By the late 16th century this system was still firmly in place. To some extent it was cross-cut by the patents of monopoly granted by the state, which effectively gave guild privileges to small groups of individuals (though even these were limited to 7 years, the time for a group of apprentices to pass through the system and potentially be able to set up a new guild); but the right of the state to grant such patents was fiercely (and often successfully) resisted by the guilds.

What the guilds could not do was cope with the increasing number of journeymen with no hope of becoming masters in their own guilds. In the big cities desperate journeymen began to abandon their own trades and set up as small manufacturers. These small manufacturers, though persecuted, managed to survive outside the guild system and the mediaeval hierarchy of rights and obligations, and in spite of the many caught by guild inspectors and fined or even imprisoned, by the mid-17th century parts of London were dominated by them. Since they were outside the guild system their employees were not apprentices in the old sense, but workers for a wage: this was already a fragment of a new mode of production.

Now two systems co-existed: one still dominant, the other small and struggling, and blocked at every turn by the regulations of the old system. John Lilburne, one of the leading spokesmen for the Levellers, the Republican left-wing, was a typical example: originally apprenticed as a clothier, he became a Protestant. Book publishing and distribution was a monopoly of the Stationers’, and when he attempted to bring in Protestant texts from Holland he was caught by inspectors for the Stationers’ Company and imprisoned. Once freed, he became a successful small brewer until the outbreak of the Civil War. After two and a half year’s fighting, he attempted to use his knowledge of cloth as a cloth-exporter; but the monopoly on cloth export belonged to the Merchant Adventurers, not the clothiers themselves. Abandoning this, he became a soap-maker … Just to survive, people like John Lilburne were forced to work outside, and against, the guilds.

Other Leveller supporters worked in brewing, tanning, glass-making, felt-making, hat-making, sack-cloth and linen-weaving, dyeing, silk-spinning, soap-boiling, nearly all embroiled in continual struggles with the guilds. It was natural that their watchword became ‘freedom’: freedom from the guilds, freedom from the state-imposed monopolies, freedom for trade, freedom of conscience.

So we have a first requirement: the new mode of production is not something arbitrary, willed into existence, but a product of the old system: in this case the guild system which was structurally unable to provide positions for all its apprentices.

Next, the new system began to infect the old. Here the route was simple: for the new mode of production to expand, it needed capital, and capital was already available. Merchant trading was a normal part of the mediaeval economy; once again, monopolised by merchant guilds. But given new possible sources of profit why should they care whether the products they traded had been produced under normal guild regulations or not? From reselling non-guild products it was a small step to financing their production, although in the end the restrictions on doing this on a large scale were too great, and the major new capitalist industries were not based on the original ones in the warrens of London, but in the North, away from any guild control at all. Once these large-scale industries had become established, the guild system was effectively doomed: the number of apprentices who could be integrated into the guild system with it’s progression of stages was tiny compared with the mass of labourers required for the new manufactories. Some in the old system attempted to compete by taking on large numbers of apprentices against their own rules, or by employing journeymen who had not completed apprenticeships, but the result was that the guilds simply became empty ceremonial shells of their former selves, gradually to disappear over the next two centuries.

It is noticeable that the change from guild production to capitalist production was in its early stages not driven by technological change, but by the inability of the guild system to cope with expanding markets. The changes, and the casuses of the spread of the new system, were social. New technologies – in particular the use of steam-power in production – only became important a century later.

All this suggests some possible properties needed for a new mode of production to spread:

* A new mode of production appears in a leading part of the economy, which may not be the main basis for the old system: here, manufacture, not agriculture.

* A new mode of production is not purely willed into existence, but is a natural outgrowth of the old.

* The new mode of production initially depends on the old one, firstly as a source of knowledge and skills, and secondly as the source of all goods which it cannot create itself.

* The two modes of production must be able to coexist while the new one grows.

* The new mode of production must be able to infect and weaken the old.

* At a certain point the new mode of production must be able to offer possibilities which the old one cannot.

* The new mode of production must be able to spread to all important fields, but this does not need to be immediate — full integration of agriculture within capitalism is still an ongoing process in most countries.

The statement that ‘free software is the kernel of a new mode of production’ often leads to the question ‘how can you make washing-machines in the same way’? This depends on your assumptions about what that way consists of: is the primary fact technological, the fact that reduced costs for computers have made software effectively a public good; or is it social, and the fact that people are working together in a new way that is primary?

If it is the first, then production of material goods in the same way needs them to be ‘dematerialized’: we must wait for the invention of matter transmitters before it becomes possible.

If the second, then it is possible to give a more optimistic answer: once working by free software principles has spread far enough throughout the economy that it reaches the people who make washing machines, they will know how to do it. In every revolution of the last hundred years, people have begun to take control of their own work. If the revolution has been defeated, their control has been taken away. If the revolution has won, their control has been taken away. But the possibility is there, and has been shown repeatedly, even though it rarely appears in history books. What free software has proved that is new is the possibility of this style of work on a large scale, sustained over a long period of time.

But in either case, to expect a solution to the ‘washing machine question’ now would require magic; a sudden jump, whether technological or social, which is not likely to happen.

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2 Responses to “Peer production, the guilds, and the washing machine”

  1. Florent Says:

    “If it is the first, then production of material goods in the same way needs them to be ‘dematerialized’: we must wait for the invention of matter transmitters before it becomes possible.”

    3D printers seem to be coming sooner than expected. Plus, the open electronics movement (ex: http://www.openpattern.org, http://www3.elphel.com/ …) may be an early proof of these changes in the hardware field. Nowadays one can create an electronic board and let it made (ex: http://www.expresspcb.com/). And this is a very early stage… Is it really that far away ?

    This video may be of interest:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Spr5PWiuRaY

  2. Atle Says:

    “In traditional marxist terms, two societies described like this would have different modes of production. But in this case there is only one society, and while almost the whole of society produces in the first way, only a tiny, though growing, part produces in the second.”

    Marx was actually writing about the emerging and dominant mode of production. Especially in his native Germany the feudal mode of production was dominant for a very long time. And even in the UK where the capitalist mode of production and proletarianzation had gone very far, there were still remnants of the old society. Even today capitalist penetration is not total, and we still have several modes of production existing side by side with the capitalist one. In fact, feudalist and family modes of production have made a resurgence quite recently and is very complementary to neo-liberal globalization.

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