Community Workshops as the Neighborhood Path to Distributed Peer Production

These are excerpts from Chapter Fifteen of Kevin Carson’s draft for a book on Organizational Theory.

Kevin Carson:

“Networked peer production dovetails both with Jane Jacobs’ model of the Japanese bicycle factory, and with Kirkpatrick Sale’s community repair, recycling, and remanufacturing shops, which we discussed in Chapter Fourteen.

Along the same lines, Colin Ward suggests

the pooling of equipment in a neighborhood group. Suppose that each member of the group had a powerful and robust basic tool, while the group as a whole had, for example, a bench drill, lathes and a saw bench to relieve the members from the attempt to cope with work which required these machines with inadequate tools of their own, or wasted their resources on under-used individually-owned plant. This in turn demands some kind of building to house the machinery: the Community Workshop.

But is the Community Workshop idea nothing more than an aspect of the leisure industry, a compensation for the tedium of work? [Ward, Anarchy in Action, p. 94.]

Ward suggests, rather, that the Community Workshop will bridge the growing gap between the worlds of work and leisure.

The paradoxes of contemporary capitalism mean that there are vast numbers of what one American economist calls no-people: the army of the unemployed who are either unwanted by, or who consciously reject, the meaningless mechanical slavery of contemporary industrial production. Could they make a livelihood for themselves today in the community workshop? If the workshop is conceived merely as a social service for ‘creative leisure’ the answer is that it would probably be against the rules…. But if the workshop were conceived on more imaginative lines than any existing venture of this kind, its potentialities could become a source of livelihood in the truest sense. In several of the New Towns in Britain, for example, it has been found necessary and desirable to build groups of small workshops for individuals and small businesses engaged in such work as repairing electrical equipment or car bodies, woodworking and the manufacture of small components. The Community Workshop would be enhanced by its cluster of separate workplaces for ‘gainful’ work. Couldn’t the workshop become the community factory, providing work or a place for work for anyone in the locality who wanted to work that way, not as an optional extra to the economy of the affluent society which rejects an increasing proportion of its members, but as one of the prerequisites of the worker-controlled economy of the future? Keith Paton…, in a far-sighted pamphlet addressed to members of the Claimants’ Union, urged them not to compete for meaningless jobs in the economy which has thrown them out as redundant, but to use their skills to serve their own community. (One of the characteristics of the affluent world is that it denies its poor the opportunity to feed, clothe, or house themselves, or to meet their own and their families’ needs, except from grudgingly doled-out welfare payments). He explains that: When we talk of ‘doing our own thing’ we are not advocating going back to doing everything by hand. This would have been the only option in the thirties. But since then electrical power and ‘affluence’ have brought a spread of intermediate machines, some of them very sophisticated, to ordinary working class communities. Even if they do not own them (as many claimants do not) the possibility exists of borrowing them from neighbours, relatives, ex-workmates. Knitting and sewing machines, power tools and other do-it-yourself equipment comes in this category. Garages can be converted into little workshops, home-brew kits are popular, parts and machinery can be taken from old cars and other gadgets. If they saw their opportunity, trained metallurgists and mechanics could get into advanced scrap technology, recycling the metal wastes of the consumer society for things which could be used again regardless of whether they would fetch anything in a shop. Many hobby enthusiasts could begin to see their interests in a new light. ‘We do,’ he affirms, ‘need each other and the enormous pool of energy and morale that lies untapped in every ghetto, city district and estate. [Keith Paton, The Right to Work or the Right to Live? (Stoke-on-Trent, 1972), in Ward, Anarchy in Action, pp. 108-109.]

Karl Hess also discussed community workshops–or as he called them, “shared machine shops”–in Community Technology.

The machine shop should have enough basic tools, both hand and power, to make the building of demonstration models or test facilities a practical and everyday activity…. [T]he shop might be… stocked with cast-off industrial tools, with tools bought from government surplus through the local school system… Work can, of course, be done as well in home shops or in commercial shops of people who like the community technology approach…. Thinking of such a shared workshop in an inner city, you can think of its use… for the maintenance of appliances and other household goods whose replacement might represent a real economic burden in the neighborhood…. …[T]here might be similar projects that the machine shop could undertake beyond the building of demonstration models and other regular community technology tasks. The machine shop could regularly redesign cast-off items into useful ones. Discarded refrigerators, for instance, suggest an infinity of new uses, from fish tanks, after removing doors, to numerous small parts as each discarded one is stripped for its components, which include small compressors, copper tubing, heat transfer arrays, and so on. The same goes for washing machines…. Similar in spirit to the shared machine shop could be a shared warehouse. Everyone knows the agony of having to throw something away even though instinct says that someday it will be needed…. A community decision to share a space in which discarded materials can be stored, categorized, and made easily available is a decision to use an otherwise wasted resource…. The shared warehouse… should collect a trove of bits and pieces of building materials…. There always seems to be a bundle of wood at the end of any project that is too good to burn, too junky to sell, and too insignificant to store. Put a lot of those bundles together and the picture changes to more and more practical possibilities of building materials for the public space. Spare parts are fair game for the community warehouse. Thus it can serve as a parts cabinet for the community technology experimenter…. A problem common to many communities is the plight of more resources leaving than coming back in…. The shared work space and the shared warehouse space involve a community in taking a first look at this problem at a homely and nonideological level. [Karl Hess, Community Technology (New York, Cambridge, Hagerstown, Philadelphia, San Francisco, London, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Sydney: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979), pp. 96-98.]

This last is reminiscent of Jane Jacobs’ observations on the development of local, diversified economies through the discovery of creative uses for locally generated waste and byproducts, and the use of such innovative technologies to replace imports.

E. F. Schumacher recounted his experiences with the Scott Bader Commonwealth, encouraging (often successfully) the worker-owners to undertake such ventures as a community auto repair shop, communally owned tools and other support for household gardening, a community woodworking shop for building and repairing furniture, and so forth. The effect of such measures was to take off some of the pressure to earn wages, so that workers might scale back their work hours. [E. F. Schumacher, Good Work, pp. 80-83.]”

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