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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Follow-up: P2P, the Two Economies, and Desktop Manufacturing

Some readers have pointed me to a considerable amount of new information on decentralized economics.

1. Joel Schlosberg, of Joel's Humanistic Blog, sent me (as a follow-up to "P2P: New Economic Paradigm?") links to (among other things) Oekonux, a neo-Marxist group that sees open source as the organizing paradigm for a new economy. He also linked to some intriguing articles at Oekonux, including Stefan Merton's "GNU/Linux - Milestone on the Way to the GPL Society."

2. In "P2P," I wrote concerning Michel Bawens' essay "Peer to Peer and Human Evolution,"

I'm not sure I agree with Bauwens' contention that peer-to-peer networks will become the dominant form of economic organization. But to the extent that it's possible to disaggregate the separate stages of production within existing vertically integrated corporations, a good many of those stages (for example, as Bauwens says, the design stage) will be amenable to handling by decentralized peer networks and the gift economy.

Bauwens, in the comments, clarified his position.

...I want to slightly amend your interpretation. I am saying that historically, different intersubjective modes have co-existed (gift economy, authority ranking, market pricing and communal shareholding), but always within a context of a dominant form (the gift economy in the tribal era, the authority ranking model in the feudal era), which informs their own expression.... What I'm saying is, that since the current format is not ecologically or psychically sustainable, we have an opportunity to replace it with a format where P2P is the prime overarching logic. But still: markets, gift economy modes, hierarchy modes will continue to exist.

He went on to quote a newsletter editorial he recently wrote:

I think much revolves about the significance of the Relational Model by Alan Page Fiske, and the consequences we draw from it. Remember, Fiske, in Structures of Social Life, maintains there’s a universal grammar of human relationships. Intersubjective relations can take on four ideal-types: Equality Matching (I have to return something of equal value to this gift to maintain equal status); Authority Ranking (I defer to your authority because you are superior in some way); Market Pricing (I exchange something for similar value), Communal Sharing (I give what I can for this collective resource, it’s for everybody to use).

I make an add-on to this theory, which I’m not sure Fiske is making himself. Which is the following: if historically the four modes have always co-existed, they have done so under the dominant influence of one of them, which ‘informs’ their own expression. For example, the tribal era was dominated by a gift economy, i.e. equality matching; the feudal era by Authority Ranking, the industrial and capitalist era by market pricing.

The key hypothesis of P2P Theory is this: we witness the emergence of a new form of Communal Shareholding, associated with the peer to peer relational dynamic at work in distributed networks, and giving rise to such processes as peer production, peer governance, and peer property modes. Our preferred hypothesis is that we have a major opportunity to move towards a ‘Commons-based civilization within a reformed market and a reformed state’. Alternatives are that the present market form incorporates the P2P dynamic, or that our energy-intensive civilization collapses into Authority Ranking once more.

P2P Theory attempts to describe the emergence of peer to peer as an ‘objective phenomenon’, but, crucially, investiges what subjective/intersubjective political strategies could be used to promote it. Because of the insight of the Relational Model, we do not believe in a marketless or stateless society, but rather, in a political economy influenced primarily by civil society and its commons.

Please note that we are not advocating a Commons-only society, as a counter to both state totalitarianism (the Soviet model), and market totalitarianism (the neoliberal model), but a differentiated society, where the four modes can co-exist and where people are free to choose the intersubjective mode they enter into. In particular, what makes P2P so appealing, is that it is a form of collective life, of intersubjectivity, which builds on, but does not replace individuality or individualism. There is no return to the organic wholism of premodern society, but something entirely new that integrates individual freedom and free cooperation.

A credible strategy for political and social change therefore would combine fourfold substrategies:

1) strategies aimed at strengthening the Commons and P2P modes

2) strategies aimed at strengthening personalized gift economies in areas where market exchange is inappropriate or dysfunctional (elderly care in Japan, LETS systems)

3) a reform towards an equitable market which does not externalize environmental and social costs (natural capitalism approach); reform of the scarcity-based monetary system (a la Bernard Lietaer), multiple currencies for localized markets (open money schemes); multistakeholder framing of market exchange (Decaillot, see above)

4) reform of the state form and change of hierarchical modes using multistakeholdership and peer governance

It is the combination of all of this which could be the basis of a powerful alternative. P2P Theory does not claim at this stage to offer such an integrated and differentiated strategy, but at least investigates its possibility. At the moment what it has more or less successfully done is describe and explain the emergence of peer to peer as the new relational dynamic which is both immanent in the contempary system, but which has strong transcendent aspects (i.e. a potential for systemic change).

3. In the comments on "The Two Economies," Matthew Claxton of Little Iguanodon referred me in the comment thread to material on desktop manufacturing. As he says,

Manufacturing is already, in small ways, breaking out into an open-source model.

"Desktop manufacturing," as a catchall term, includes a wide spectrum of different innovations.

At the most science-fictiony end of the specturm, the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT operates on the philosophy that "reality is information"; and at the point where bits intersect with atoms, via all kinds of nifty stuff like nanotech and von Neumann replicators, you get something like the transporters and replicators on Star Trek. While that may be on the way, it's too far out for me to get my mind around.

At an intermediate stage, with one foot still in the old-fashioned world of meatsphere-style production, he links to a Salon article on desktop manufacturing via 3-D printers. The idea is a printer that, over a period of hours, lays down layer after infinitesimal layer of glue and conductive material, gradually fabricating an electronic device or appliance with circuitry embedded in its frame; or, alternatively, "printing" circuitry onto a sheet. You transmit the specs for an electronic device, and it gets "printed" in 3-D at the destination.

But at the other end of the spectrum, most relevant to what I've written in the past on decentralized production, he links to some sites like Squidlabs, eMachineShop, and Big Blue Saw that will custom machine individual parts to your specs by online order, and ship them to you. As eMachineShop says,

Welcome to eMachineShop - where you can design, price, and order your custom parts online!

eMachineShop is the remarkable new way to get the custom parts you need - the first true online machine shop. Download our free software, draw your part, and click to order - it's easy! Your part will be machined and delivered - at low cost.

With Big Blue Saw, likewise,

you can upload a part and have it shipped to your door in 14-21 days. We use state of the art computer controlled robotic machinery to convert your ideas into a reality.

Of all the material Matthew referred me to, this is the most interesting to me, because it ties in with a lot of other ideas I've been toying with lately. In "P2P," I wrote:

In a decentralized economy, individual stages of production that are currently carried on at a single large site by a vertically integrated corporation may be more economically done in small machine shops (cf. Jane Jacobs' account of the origins of the Japanese bicycle industry, in The Economy of Cities), or in Kirkpatrick Sale's neighborhood repair-recycling centers. In some stages of production, the substitution of lower-tech, partially human powered operations (cf Mumford's discussion of "polytechnic" in The Pentagon of Power) or Sale's and Bookchin's general-purpose production technologies, will be economical when savings on bureaucratic and distribution costs, and overhead, are taken into account.

I dealt with these ideas at much greater length in "On the Superior Efficiency of Small-Scale Organization."

In The Visible Hand, Alfred Chandler idealized the kind of high-tech, capital- and energy-intensive production in which "economies of speed" or "throughput" are used to "transform high fixed costs into low unit costs." But the success of such a model depends on artificially large market areas with a swift and uninterrupted flow of goods through a mass-distribution and -marketing pipeline, reinforced by an advertising-mediated culture of mass-consumption--all of which depends on state-subsidized infrastructure. When those artificial assumptions are removed, and production is in limited runs for small local markets, Mumford's and Sale's industrial model is likely to be more efficient than Chandler's.

The custom machining of parts fits right in with these ideas. What really interests me is the potential for using the kind of thing eMachineShop and Big Blue Saw are doing--but in the context of small machine shops integrated into a local economy.

F.M. Scherer, a specialist on economy of scale, wrote of the false economies involved in higher-tech, more product-specific forms of production than the size of the market would support:

Ball bearing manufacturing provides a good illustration of several product-specific economies. If only a few bearings are to be custom-made, the ring machining will be done on general-purpose lathes by a skilled operator who hand-positions the stock and tools and makes measurements for each cut. With this method, machining a single ring requires from five minutes to more than an hour, depending on the part's size and complexity and the operator's skill. If a sizable batch is to be produced, a more specialized automatic screw machine will be used instead. Once it is loaded with a steel tube, it automatically feeds the tube, sets the tools and adjusts its speed to make the necessary cuts, and spits out machined parts into a hopper at a rate of from eighty to one hundred forty parts per hour. A substantial saving of machine running and operator attendance time per unit is achieved, but setting up the screw machine to perform these operations takes about eight hours. If only one hundred bearing rings are to be made, setup time greatly exceeds total running time, and it may be cheaper to do the job on an ordinary lathe. [Industrial Market Structure and Economic Performance, p. 97]

Now, if production runs sufficient to make the product-specific machinery profitable require government intervention to make distribution artificially cheap and to aggregate artificially large market areas, then it's not really profitable at all when all the costs are internalized. It costs more than it comes to. In this case, again, Sale's model of general-purpose production technology is more efficient. Treating transportation subsidy as a "public good," as Chandler does, because mass distribution and marketing enable these dubious "efficiencies" in manufacturing, is ass-backward. As Peter Drucker said,

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

In a related matter, Oliver Williamson argued in Market and Hierarchy and The Economic Institutions of Capitalism that internalizing separate production stages in a large firm, rather than tying them together contractually on the open market, was a governance structure made necessary by the moral hazard problems involved in "asset specificity." In the absence of asset specificity, he said, firms would reach the point at which internal bureaucratic inefficiencies outweighed the transaction costs of market contracting at a much smaller size. But as we've seen, asset specificity is itself a dependent variable depending on market size--not, as Chandler seemed to believe, a good in its own right. Government policies that promote large market size and artificially increase the division of labor also lead to artificially high asset specificity, and thus make large firm size artificially efficient.


Anonymous Edward said...

This is the exact type of decentralization that I have been very interested in. The P2P Foundation has many great ideas about this. I am pleasantly surprised that you link to them.

I am wondering if you are aware of Transhumanism, specifically anarcho-transhumanism.


That branch of transhumanism isn't as enthusiastic about free markets as you seem to be. However, I think they are an interesting croud you should be aware of.

October 16, 2006 10:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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October 06, 2007 6:16 PM  

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