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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, January 11, 2010

The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto

This will be my third book, based on the series of papers on industrial history I did at Center for a Stateless Society. The current manuscript, which is far from finished, is available as an ebook at my new Wordpress blog dedicated to the project.

From the Preface (itself still decidedly unfinished):

In researching and writing my last book Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, I was probably more engaged and enthusiastic about working on material related to micromanufacturing, the microenterprise, the informal economy, and the singularity resulting from them, than on just about any other part of the book. When the book went to press, I didn't feel that I was done writing about those things. As I completed that book, I was focused on several themes that, while they recurred throughout the book, were imperfectly tied together and developed.

In my first paper as research associate at Center for a Stateless Society, I attempted to tie these themes together and develop them in greater detail in the form of a short monograph. I soon found that it wasn't going to stop there, as I elaborated on the same theme in a series of C4SS papers on industrial history. And as I wrote those papers, I began to see them as the building blocks for a stand-alone book.

One of the implicit themes which I have attempted to develop since Organization Theory, and which is central to this book, is the central role of fixed costs—initial capital outlays and other overhead—in economics. The higher the fixed costs of an enterprise, the larger the income stream required to service them. That's as true for the household microenterprise, and for the “enterprise” of the household itself, as for more conventional businesses. Regulations that impose artificial capitalization and other overhead costs, the purchase of unnecessarily expensive equipment of a sort that requires large batch production to amortize, the use of stand-alone buildings, etc., increase the size of the minimum revenue stream required to stay in business, and effectively rule out part-time or intermittent self-employment. When such restrictions impose artificially high fixed costs on the means of basic subsistence (housing and feeding oneself, etc.), their effect is to make cheap and comfortable subsistence impossible, and to mandate ongoing external sources of income just to survive. As Charles Johnson argued,

If it is true (as Kevin has argued, and as I argued in Scratching By) that, absent the state, most ordinary workers would experience a dramatic decline in the fixed costs of living, including (among other things) considerably better access to individual ownership of small plots of land, no income or property tax to pay, and no zoning, licensing, or other government restraints on small-scale neighborhood home-based crafts, cottage industry, or light farming/heavy gardening, I think you’d see a lot more people in a position to begin edging out or to drop out of low-income wage labor entirely—in favor of making a modest living in the informal sector, by growing their own food, or both...

On the other hand, innovation in the technologies of small-scale production and of daily living reduce the worker's need for a continuing income stream. It enables the microenterprise to function intermittently and to enter the market incrementally, with no overhead to be serviced when business is slow. The result is enterprises that are lean and agile, and can survive long periods of slow business, at virtually no cost; likewise, such increased efficiencies, by minimizing the ongoing income stream required for comfortable subsistence, have the same liberating effect on ordinary people that access to land on the common did for their ancestors three hundred years ago.

The more I thought about it, the more central the concept of overhead became to my analysis of the two competing economies. Along with setup time, fixed costs and overhead are central to the difference between agility and its lack. Hence the subtitle of this book: “A Low Overhead Manifesto.”

Agility and Resilience are at the heart of the alternative economy's differences with its conventional predecessor. Its superiorities are summed up by the cover image; a tiny teenage Viet Cong girl leading an enormous American pilot into captivity. I'm obliged to Jerry Brown (via Reason magazine's Jesse Walker) for the metaphor: guerrillas in black pajamas, starting out with captured Japanese and French arms, with a bicycle-based supply train, kicking the living shit out of the best-trained and highest-technology military force in human history.

But Governor Brown was much more of a fiscal conservative than Governor Reagan, even if he made arguments for austerity that the Republican would never use. (At one point, to get across the idea that a lean organization could outperform a bloated bureaucracy, he offered the example of the Viet Cong.)


Anonymous JoeM said...


I look forward to reading this book. So write faster!

January 11, 2010 5:42 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks, JoeM. Of course you can read the ebook version while you're waiting.

January 11, 2010 5:51 PM  
Blogger AnarchoJesse said...

I look forward to expanding my Carson Collection in my own personal library. Keep up the good work.

January 11, 2010 6:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you check whether the above image is copyrighted this time Kevin.

Awesome to hear you are writing your next book on this topic. I have really enjoyed and learned a lot from your C4SS papers.


January 12, 2010 1:42 AM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

Kevin, you're a tough man to keep up with -- but it's so worth trying! I'm looking forward to this one. Good luck!


January 12, 2010 4:06 AM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

Kevin, you're a tough man to keep up with -- but it's so worth trying! I'm looking forward to this one. Good luck!


January 12, 2010 4:07 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks, AnarchoJesse, Anon, and Sheldon.

I was careful to select the image from WikiMedia commons this time.

January 12, 2010 9:14 AM  
Anonymous James said...

Looks good, I'm looking forward to reading it.
Keep up the good work!

January 12, 2010 9:39 AM  
Anonymous rj said...

Excellent, I shall purchase a copy upon publication. Any idea when this might be?

January 12, 2010 4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your use of that photo reflect as rather _impoverished_ understanding of history, albeit somewhat mitigated by the fact that such impoverished understanding is widespread.

See again what happened in April 1975 (they didn't win the war with humble guerrillas, and those weren't bicycles they were using...[Hmm, BTW, you ever hear of the Boat People? Re-education camps? Just wonderin'....])

January 12, 2010 7:18 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks rj and James. I'm guessing it'll be done within a couple months--probably sooner.

Anon: Fair enough. But the April 1975 reference sounds a bit like the American version of the German's 1918 betrayal myth: the victory won on the battlefield was given away by traitorous politicians. I suspect the course of the war in the '60s, in which guerrillas were very much involved, had something to do with what happened in 1975.

In any case, I have no great love for the NLF or Ho Chi Minh (you have heard of Operation Phoenix and the overthrow of Diem, right--just wonderin'). But their success against the best-equipped and -trained conventional army in the world is a pretty good metaphor for decentralized efforts beating bloated bureaucracies. And that image is a striking representation of the metaphor.

But if I could find a suitable image from Afghanistan in WikiMedia, I'd be just as happy to use what I describe here as a metaphor:

January 12, 2010 10:41 PM  
Blogger Micah J. Glasser said...

Kevin, I really look forward to reading everything you write. I think you are a first class thinker and you have had a lot of impact on my own thinking. Keep up all the good work.

January 13, 2010 7:48 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks much, Micah.

January 13, 2010 11:11 AM  
Anonymous rj said...

I understand your point regarding the cover photo although part of me wonders whether it might alienate distributists or others on the decentralist Right who, although anti-imperialist, may not react well to an American GI being taken prisoner.

That said, being a Brit, I can't claim to know how non-neocon conservative Americans would react to it.

January 13, 2010 4:07 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

By Bakunin's beard, another book! Kevin, you are a one man institute. Will check out the e-version for sure.

January 13, 2010 4:50 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks a lot, Larry.

rj: The reaction I'm looking for is Linda Blair's pea soup scene.

Seriously, though, while I didn't buy arguments that the head-up-ass cover image detracted from OT, I think such arguments are more credible in this case. I may go with my original idea of the RepRap 3D printer as a cover image, and maybe just put the Vietcong picture on the back cover or something.

January 13, 2010 9:44 PM  
Anonymous goldhorder said...

The picture is fantastic. It should be your cover. The audience you are looking to sell to is not the pro-war flag waving crowd. They wouldn't read your book if they were literate. LOL.

January 14, 2010 11:14 PM  
Anonymous Darian said...

Kevin, It's great to hear that another book is in the works. I have a lot of catching up to do on your previous writing.

Regarding the picture: it might give people the wrong idea of the revolution the title mentions. You know, and I know that your revolution isn't about authoritarians leading people away at gunpoint, but people unfamiliar with your work might not know that. The provocative picture can get the attention of more readers, and it might prejudice them against you. So there is a tradeoff that you have to choose what side to come down on. You could use the image as a front cover and have an explanation on the back cover, or use the image elsewhere in the book.

Anyway, keep it coming!

January 15, 2010 11:08 AM  
Anonymous js said...

Yes, it depends on what audience you are hoping for.

If it is the man on the street (even in a very blue state) then the image on the cover is too commie.

If it is a libertarian coming from the right, I think your work could appeal to A FEW of them a lot, but the cover is too commie, it will just disgust.

It might appeal to some on the hard left, whom might actually end up liking your work as well.

But ultimately, the very title "a LOW overhead manifesto", should refute anyone who might think this is a book about the non-existent benefits of authoritarian communism. And of course noone familiar with your work could think so (well we'll leave out a few crazy people here). But I do think the image would be better on the back cover.

January 15, 2010 12:18 PM  
Anonymous js said...

By the way regardless of what you do with the cover, the actual topic of the book could not be more awesome. Almost a user's manual for building the new society within the shell of the old. Plus I love economic analysis of things like fixed cost (I have odd taste :)). This book is going to Rock the Casbah.

January 15, 2010 1:19 PM  

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