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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

Monday, September 14, 2009

Corvus Editions

For some time, my idee fixe has been the household and informal microenterprise, operating with little or no overhead because it produces with used or abandoned equipment, or using the idle capacity of ordinary household capital goods most people already own.

The examples I like to use are the microbakery using an ordinary household oven, the cab service whose main capital equipment is the family car and a cell phone, etc.

An outstanding recent example of this phenomenon is Shawn Wilbur's Corvus Editions, a micropublishing outfit specializing in classic anarchist texts from the nineteenth century and Wilbur's own publications (e.g. LeftLiberty, mentioned in the previous post). Here's their catalog.

Wilbur, in a blog post months ago, described his experiences in a lifetime in the bookselling trade:
My little store was enormously efficient, in the sense that it could weather long periods of low sales, and still generally provide new special order books in the same amount of time as a Big Book Bookstore.

The problem was that, with the state-imposed paperwork burden associated with hiring help, it was preferable—i.e. less complicated—to work sixty-hour weeks. The state-imposed administrative costs involved in the cooperative organization of labor amount to an entry barrier that can only be hurdled by the big guy.

After some time out of the business of independent bookselling and working a number of wage-labor gigs in chain bookstores, he recently announced the formation of Corvus—a micropublishing operation that operates on a print-on-demand basis.

In response to my questions, he also described in greater detail his own virtually zero-overhead business model in a post to the anarchy email list:

In general..., Corvus Editions is a hand-me-down laptop and a computer that should probably have been retired five years ago, and which has more than paid for itself in my previous business, some software, all of which I previously owned and none of which is particularly new or spiffy, a $20 stapler, a $150 laser printer, a handful of external storage devices, an old flatbed scanner, the usual computer-related odds and ends, and the fruits of thousands of hours of archival research and sifting through digital sources (all of which fits on a single portable harddrive.) The online presence did not involve any additional expense, beyond the costs of the free archive, except for a new domain name. My hosting costs, including holding some domain registrations for friendly projects, total around $250/year, but the Corvus site and shop could be hosted for $130.

Because Portland has excellent resources for computer recycling and the like, I suspect a similar operation, minus the archive, using free Linux software tools, could almost certainly be put together for less than $500, including a small starting stock of paper and toner—and perhaps more like $300.

The cost of materials is some 20% of Wilbur's retail price on average, with the rest of the price being compensation free and clear for his labor: “the service of printing, folding, stapling and shipping....” There are no proprietary rents because the pdf files are themselves free for download; Wilbur makes money entirely from the convenience-value of his doing those printing, etc., services for the reader.

Everywhere we turn, we see the same model emerging. In the culture and information industries, desktop production and filesharing have eaten the old proprietary content companies alive; Wilbur's desktop publishing microenterprise is a case in point. Among hardware hackers, it's becoming an almost daily occurrence to see yet another account of an open-source computer numeric controlled XYZ cutting table, multimachine, or RepRap 3-D printer, and the like, with a few hundred more dollars shaved off the already rock-bottom cost of production. The informal and household economy today is achieving the same scale of cost reductions that flexible manufacturing did in Emilia-Romagna a generation ago, but taking it several orders of magnitude further. It's becoming possible to enter the manufacturing world with a Fab Lab requiring capital outlays of a few thousand dollars at most, and with virtually zero overhead cost.

The informal economy, in short, is the rats in the nests of the corporate dinosaurs. The corporate economy will be eaten alive. Good riddance.

9 Comments:

Blogger William said...

Man, between you and Crimethinc dinosaurs just aren't getting much love from anarchists these days.

Is it too much to ask for a metaphor that compares us to velociraptors or something else cool instead of rats? ;)

September 15, 2009 6:54 AM  
Blogger Divided By Zer0 said...

And not a moment too soon. But I doubt that the powers that be will leave things as they are. I fully expect "safety laws" along with stronger IP (ie mandatory) and anything else that can be thought of to be devised in order to kill such movements. I has happened in the past.

Unfortunately it will as always take direct action to resist such attempts or simply hope that the evolution of such productive means is faster than the state's capacity to prevent.

September 15, 2009 8:46 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Hey, Kevin, this is very cool to read about. The interpreters' co-op I'm setting up operates very similarly. We work from home, and meet at coffeehouses. All hardware and software is whatever we already owned. Personally, I use all open-source, and actually wrote my own application to speed up my translating.

What that means is that we have no overhead, except paying a lawyer to help us register with the state and an accountant to crunch the numbers for us.

September 15, 2009 10:39 AM  
Blogger TheMediumDog said...

What would you say, Kevin, to a sceptical note sounded about the scale of these developments (I'm referring to the general p2p/cottage economy/Fab-ing 'movement')?

You're seeing a sweeping upward trend, with a hypothetical continuation of the same (am I wrong?). But one could see it all, maybe, as just a little sector, maybe even a hobby.

The further-out developments (open-source-buildings, open-source-tractor, fab-ing etc) threaten to be taken up just by sturdy individualists, who in different times (non-net) would have done similar things anyway. Many initiatives (open-tutoring etc) suffer from a severe lack of quality. Its early days, but, well...

Filesharing, and freeware, and many internet projects are the big coups. But maybe its a mistake to draw a circle around all these things, call them one thing, and call it an expanding movement. Basic parameters are very different in each.

September 16, 2009 12:17 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

William: What can I say? Dinosaurs, however undeservedly, have become symbolic of things that are non-resilient and doomed to extinction.

Divided by Zero: I'm hoping the latter possibility is the one that will prevail. The state's IP laws are lot like the French generals, fighting the last war, who built the Maginot Line. Another good example is Homeland Security's ponderous formulation of new regulations to prevent any future use of tactics that terrorists were smart enough to understand were one-time only.

Steve: Beautiful! That means, of course, that no matter how low your income and how long the dry spells between work, there's no overhead to service during the dry spells, and every dime that comes in is free and clear in the good times. There's just no way of suppressing that kind of competition, unless you outlaw it by mandating minimum overhead.

Medium Dog: Very provocative devil's advocacy! My guess is that, in the long run, the laws of economics will prevail. There's just no competing with cheap. IMO the rise of cheap CNC machine tools suitable for the home workshop are just a continuation of a much longer-term process--one that began with the first Japanese computerized tools in the '70s that were small enough for something besides mass production. Mass-production industry increasingly deferred or cancelled investment in heavy, capital-intensive, product-specific machinery, because economic conditions over the past 30 years haven't provided the level of predictability (i.e. sufficient sustained demand to run them at capacity and minimize unit costs) that such capital intensive models require. So the old manufacturing corps have shifted an increasing portion of production from the old mass-production core to flexible manufacturing supplier networks, with the mass-production core steadily shrinking and corporations increasingly relegated to ownership of IP. And that means it's increasingly feasible for networked suppliers on the Third Italy or shanzhai model to simply ignore IP and bypass the old corporate nodes.

In today's situation, economic uncertainty--or rather the certainty that there WON'T be enough demand to utilize traditional mass-production industry to capacity--is even worse. And the cost differential in favor of shall shop and desktop production is as great as that of Emilia-Romagna's flexible manufacturers thirty years ago. So I think the same economic forces will continue to work.

To paraphrase somebody or other, it's pretty hard to compete with cheap. As Marcin Jakubowski recently commented, re Lawrence Kincheloe's remarkable job tunnelling through the cost barrier to produce a CNC cutting table for a few hundred $$ at Factor e Farm, the alternatives are getting a professional salary and earning the money in several months' work to buy a proprietary version of the machine for many thousands of dollars--or working a few weeks to produce one at the cost of a few hundred $$. Once those alternatives are starkly presented, how ya gonna keep 'em down on the factory? Even if the number of people who have machining skills and can use CAD files doesn't increase (I sure as hell can't do any of those things), those alternatives will present themselves very clearly, increasingly, to those who do have those skills. If you can outfit yourself with a sophisticated and versatile Fab Lab for $5000 and get most of your consumption needs producing for neighborhood exchange in a 20-hr. work week, why work 40 hrs. for someone whose machinery cost $100,000?

You might be interested in my last C4SS paper (No. 4, I think) on the decline and fall of Sloanism.

September 16, 2009 10:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the rise of these much improved tools for small scale manufacturing is great, but I don't think it's really going to displace large-scale manufacturing so much as create a whole new range of products that wouldn't have been made otherwise. The thing is, some things are just inherently very complex, and inherently require a huge investment to make: computer CPUs for example (or any sufficiently complete ASIC) is going to require a fairly fancy factory to make, of which there really are only a few in the world. On the other hand, FPGAs make it possible for an aspiring hardware designer to try out new designs, and even do small production runs, without a very high overhead.

I also don't think that any of this means a more localized system. Sure, it breaks down the traditional supply chain, but what replaces it is more of a supply web, where anyone can buy anything from anywhere in the world, and your potential market is anyone in the world who wants what you're selling. And I think this will be a wonderful state of affairs, for the alternative would be a much impoverished existence.

September 17, 2009 8:54 PM  
Blogger TheMediumDog said...

Very interesting reply ("Can't argue with cheap" etc). I'll have to think about that.

September 18, 2009 12:18 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Anon: You may be right about niche markets. But I think the boundary between such niche markets and mainstream manufacturing is pretty permeable. Mass customization and repair are the intermediate steps.

That's especially true when decentralized production is small enough in scale to operate below the radar of the patent system, and begin mass customization based on developing (cough illegal cough) modular components for proprietary platforms.

The cost differential between dedicated mass-production machinery and small general-purpose machinery will also create incentives for further shift in the same direction that already created distributed manufacturing networks in Emilia-Romagna (and Toyota's supplier network, etc.).

One reason I expect supply chains to be relocalized is the cost of fuel. 100kGarages is a conscious step in that direction, promoting a supply web between various owners of digital fabbing equipment and digital creators--but explicitly promoting it at the local level, putting creators in contact with a fabber close to where they live.

September 18, 2009 11:00 AM  
Blogger Shawn P. Wilbur said...

Kevin, thanks for the plug. I have mixed emotions about the promises of microenterprise. On the one hand, I'm living the very slow process of finding the connections to make this first, barely embryonic phase of my project a success. I can see several steps ahead, assuming things find a steady trickle of financial response, and I can keep my chin up for awhile. But the thing that really drove me to give this a try was the realization of just how broken the mainstream, centralized publishing and bookselling system had become. At the corporate job, I work with a talented crew of folks, who are constantly tripped up by a system which simply doesn't know how to take advantage of their talents, if they fall outside the current masterplan -- a system which ultimately has to consider those talents as something pretty close to a threat. We've gone through so many phases of work speed-up, and so much emphasis on the precarity of our employment, that it has simply become impossible to take the work demands seriously. And I hear lots of conversations on mass transit and in coffee shops, which suggest that what's badly broken with my employers is badly broken all sorts of places. For the moment, even with the hiccups in service that Corvus has had, as I've ironed out supply chains and such, it is not badly broken, and amounts to a real alternative -- for a very limited audience -- to operations many, many times its size. And that's something...

September 18, 2009 11:58 PM  

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