Kevin Carson on peer production as a crisis of capitalism

Kevin Carson is continuing his work on Organization theory , and has published added drafts and excerpts for chapter 13 and 15.

I have always liked Kevin’s work because, though it is libertarian and in his own words, ‘free market fundamentalist’, his brand of mutualism is not based on a justification of the exploitation of the weak by the strong, but on small producers freely associating in open markets. His fundamentalism is really a misnomer as he consistently has shown an open mind, despite his virulence against the exploitation-justifying ‘royal libertarians’. Of course, we also have differences, but the common ground is very interesting and fruitful as well.

Chapter 13 is about the dissolution of the state in civil society and I do not have access to it yet (computer issues), so I hope to discuss it later.

But he also publishes major excerpts on peer production in blog format, part of his chapter 15.

In this contribution, he recaps a lot of my own arguments, but links it to other dialogues we have had, both inside and outside the p2pfoundation blog (of course, some contributors were arguing independently, not as a response to me).

He specifically tackles the coordination problem between open design and actual physical production, citing a possible scenario by Dave Pollard, which I find unsatisfactory, because it seems to ignore the human transactional costs. See here and please do tell us here what you think about this scenario.

Kevin then critically engages with the Crisis of Value thesis (also formulated by Adam Arvidsson), which states that the largest fraction of immterial production cannot be monetized and that this requires a fundamental social re-organization.

However, he also argues that we are forgetting some aspects of this crisis.

Here just below is the crux of the argument, but I really recommend reading the whole discussion, which also includes contributions by Karim Lakhani, Franz Nahrada, Vinay Gupta, and others. It’s a marvelous and clear recap of the kind of things we have been discussing here.

One minor point, in one quote Carson says I give a “few” examples of physical production based on open design, but I would no longer consider this list to be small, see here for an extensive listing, part of our Open Design for Physical Production section, which also features many of the interventions that Carson refers to.

Kevin Carson:

In addition, capitalism faces a crisis of realization in another regard that Bauwens does not directly address. For over two centuries, as Immanuel Wallerstein observed, the system of capitalist production based on wage labor has depended on the ability to externalize many of its reproduction functions on the non-monetized informal and household economies, and on organic social institutions like the family which were outside the cash nexus.

Historically, capital has relied upon its superior bargaining power to set the boundary between the money and social economies to its own advantage. The household and informal economies have been allowed to function to the extent that they bear reproduction costs that would otherwise have to be internalized in wages; but they have been suppressed (as in the Enclosures) when they threaten to increase in size and importance to the point of offering a basis for independence from wage labor.

The rapid growth of technologies for home production in the twentieth century, based on small-scale electrically powered machinery and new forms of intensive cultivation, have led to a major shift in the comparative efficiencies of large- and small-scale production. The comparative efficiencies of the two systems were pointed out, as we have seen, by Ralph Borsodi almost eighty years ago, and have continued since.

The result is a singularity, of sorts, in which it is becoming impossible for capital to prevent a shift in the supply of an increasing proportion of the necessities of life from mass produced goods purchased with wages, to small-scale production in the informal and household sector. The upshot is likely to be something like Vinay Gupta’s “Unplugged” movement, in which the possibilities for low-cost, comfortable subsistence off the grid result in exactly the same situation, the fear of which motivated the propertied classes in carrying out the Enclosures: a situation in which the majority of the public can take wage labor or leave it, if it takes it at all, the average person works only on his own terms when he needs supplemental income for luxury goods and the like, and (even if he considers supplemental income necessary in the long run for his optimal standard of living) can afford in the short run to quit work and live off his own resources for prolonged periods of time. It will, in short, be the kind of society Wakefield lamented in the colonial world of cheap and abundant land: a society in which labor is hard to get on any terms, and almost impossible to hire at a low enough wage to produce significant profit.”

My last comment:

Reading this, I wonder if this scenario is not too optimistic, I see too little sign of such a social economy emerging which really allows people to live alongside the cash system, without really needing it? Or am I misreading that argument?

4 Comments Kevin Carson on peer production as a crisis of capitalism

  1. AvatarZbigniew Lukasiak

    A high paid professional could work 1/4th of what he works now and earn the money that a low paid worker earns for his full time work. So he could work 4 times less and live, but this is rather not popular. This proves that it is not a question if we can live more “alongside the cash system” – it is the question why we don’t want to. The rivalry of mimetic desire could be an answer here – and it also shows what can happen next when it will be less obvious what should be the object of rivalry. Now it is still money – and it is still self-reinforcing meme, but there are cracks in the system, and for example fame (or equivalently attention) seems to raise to the leading position.

  2. Kevin CarsonKevin Carson

    Thanks for the link, Michel. There’s definitely an element of inertia and lag time involved in the adoption of what’s technically feasible.

    I believe the actual adoption of what’s technically possible, in terms of an unplugged lifestyle, is likely to increase exponentially when it is perceived as an alternative: i.e., when it reaches an (undefined) threshold at which the mainstream public becomes aware of its existence.

    When most people know of a neighbor or relative who’s demonstrating the economic and lifestyle advantages of doing something in the informal/household economy, and put it in contrast to their own increasingly precarious prospects with the housing crash, Peak Oil, the threat of downsizing, etc., I think such ideas will reach the takeoff point.

    As Amory Lovins et al argued in regard to the energy-efficient technologies in Natural Capitalism, there’s a threshold to be reached before people start becoming aware of stuff that’s even highly in their economic interest.

    Part of the inertia comes from “matrix reality.” Take food production, for example. People hear USDA/agribusiness propaganda their whole lives about the efficiency of corporate farming, division of labor, etc. Once you actually do the math and compare the amount of labor it takes to grow your own tomatoes to the amount of labor to buy them from the supermarket, it’s something of a Damascus Road experience. But people have to reach a certain threshold before they believe their own “lying eyes” instead of the propaganda.

  3. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Thanks Kevin, with this timeline caveat, it makes sense to me.


    Your remark reminds me of shumpei kumon’s distinction betweeh the Power, the Money, and the Wisdom Game, as respective objects of mimetic desire. In the first premodern model, you need to apply force to gain power, which brings money and reputation/fame; in modernity/capitalism, money becomes the primary object, which brings power and reputation; but in the Wisdom Game, which starts with the era of mass media but becomes a quantitative jumpstep more important in the internet era, it is reputation that becomes the direct vehicle of mimetic desire, and it is that which creates influence, and power, and eventually financial reward. But again right now, this system in incorporated in the money logic still, but we can imagine it becoming dominant, with money being just one of the subsystems to reward reputation.

  4. Pingback: Factor E Farm Weblog » Blog Archive » On Progress

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