P2P Labor Organization

Some time ago, Michel Bauwens asked me to report here on an article I’d written at League of Ordinary Gentlemen on free market labor struggle, and particularly on the P2P angle:  “Labor Roundtable:  Kevin Carson.”  This is my (very) belated attempt to oblige.   As Michel pointed out, the article is pretty U.S.-centric insofar as it discusses the legal regime set up under Wagner and Taft-Hartley, so readers will have to make allowances for translating it into the terms of their own legal systems.  But since the discussion of networked labor struggle and the asymmetric warfare model concerns to a large extent evading the authoritarian strictures of employers and of the corporate state, I suspect a great deal of that model would translate pretty effectively to authoritarian regimes where more conventional labor organization meets with official hostility.

At least five of the six categories of labor struggle I listed in the article are amenable to ideas from the P2P community.  Although many of these basic models of labor struggle predate the network revolution, marrying them with networked organization promises a quantum leap in their effectiveness.

For example, my second, third and fourth headings are the French model of socially-based unionism (“unions derive membership from the unemployed and from individuals in non-union workplaces, as well as members of certified bargaining agents, and offer services like affordable insurance and assorted forms of training“); the guild model (“offering insurance and training, negotiating with employers on behalf of members, and offering reliable certification of skill for prospective employers“); and the countereconomic model  (in which unions “promote self-provisioning in the informal and household economy, promote production for barter between members, offer cheap group housing and subsistence for the unemployed, provide assorted risk- and cost-pooling arrangements…, provide access to cheap micromanufacturing facilities and internet cafes for members, and generally increase the base of independent production in which subsistence needs can be met outside the wage labor relationship“).

Those three considerably overlapping concepts, although they have been proposed since long before the rise of the Worldwide Web or even the Internet, become far more exciting when considered in light of the new potential of networked platforms.   Think of the kinds of unions described in these two headings when you read David de Ugarte’s work on phyles, or John Robb on “Economies as a Software Service.”

The fifth category, “open-mouth sabotage,” is probably as old as wage labor itself.  But when mated to contemporary practices like “culture jamming” (e.g. Frank Kernaghan’s campaign against Kathie Lee Gifford’s sweatshops) and the Streisand Effect, it bears the same relation to traditional Wobbly open mouth campaigns that a supersonic jet bears to the Wright brothers’ first plane.

The sixth category, the networked model of the Imolakee Workers and the Wal-Mart Workers’ Association, and the organization of pressure campaigns based on loose coalitions of community social justice organizations, is essentially the model of the post-Seattle anti-globalization movement.

Put them all together, and they’re an application in the specific field of employment relations of Tom Coates’ observation that the desktop and network revolution make it possible — in an increasing number of information and cultural fields — to produce work of a quality at home that rivals the quality of what one produces in the traditional workplace.

The asymmetric warfare model of networked labor organization, Coates’ paradigm of an individual with a desktop computer at home producing work of a quality that once required a giant record company or publishing house, even the million percent return on investment” in destructive terms for a terror attack by an Al Qaeda cell, all are examples of the “individual superempowerment” which Robb attributes to the availability of distributed infrastructure and networked platforms as force multipliers.

2 Comments P2P Labor Organization

  1. Lori

    I like the cheapness aspect of it, esp. re. cheap housing, but also cheap internet etc. I think I could be sold on this counter-economics thing if less emphasis were placed on the privatizing the economy aspect of it and more emphasis on the cheapening of the economy aspect.

  2. Sandwichman

    Jim Pope’s historical research is extremely valuable to understanding how the commerce clause justification for the Wagner Act laid the constitutional ground work for Taft-Hartley. See “The Thirteenth Amendment Versus the Commerce Clause: Labor and the Shaping of the Post-New Deal Constitutional Order, 1921-1957.” The politically expedient shift in the 1930s from labor’s traditional — albeit unacknowledged by the courts — appeal to the 13th amendment justification for their rights to the commerce clause justification put unions in a strategic cage.

    Also, I think my own research on the faux “political economy” of anti-trade union reactionary rhetoric is relevant to this discussion. The argument was deeply entrenched in popularizations of classical political economy that the aims of trade unionism were contrary to the immutable natural principles of the self-adjusting market. More specifically, the pursuit of higher wages or shorter hours through collective action was held to contravene the workings of the wages-fund doctrine, which was itself “formed from the facts of a perfectly exceptional time, and on the strengths of two truths misapplied, the doctrine of Malthus (on Population) in its most unripe form, and of Ricardo (on Value) in its most abstract.”

    After 1869, when John Stuart Mill recanted the wages-fund doctrine, reactionary anti-union rhetoric simply pivoted on the doctrinal reversal. Where previously union demands had been alleged to contravene the inviolable wages-fund doctrine, the revised claim was that they were based on the kindred and equally fallacious assumption of a “fixed work-fund.”

    In terms of strategies for labor struggle, I would definitely like to mention my own proposal for Labor Commons Unionism, based in part on Elinor Ostrom’s notion of common pool resources, and for a social accounting framework that explicitly treats disposable time as the wealth it is. I’ve outlined that proposal in “Time on the Ledger: Social Accounting for the Good Society.”

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