Episode 164 - Market Anarchy!
Published April 23, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: Kevin Carson. Are we living through the end of capitalism? What will replace what has been the dominant economic system of the planet for the last several hundred years? We're joined this episode by Kevin Carson of the Center For A Stateless Society, to talk about the future of economics, markets and work. What will the society of the future look like? Plus a little bonus discussion of one of the earliest Internet philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson. Recorded 4/19/2015.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Kevin on Patreon
Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism
Desktop Regulatory State (Kevin's ongoing book project)
The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto (another of Kevin's books)
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #164. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us today is our guest from the Center for a Stateless Society and a couple of other blogs, Kevin Carson. Kevin, thanks for joining us.
Kevin Carson: Thanks for having me.
MJ: To start off, could you give our listeners a little bit about your background?
KC: Well, I’m a freelance writer and a senior fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society, where I write news commentary and research papers. The Center for a Stateless Society is, in an “elevator speech,” a left-wing market anarchist think tank that includes quite a bunch of different tendencies, but pretty much all left-leaning and not the stereotypical right-wing anti-capitalism that people think of pretty often when they hear “market anarchist.” Our tendency and my own focus in most of my writing career has been to point out the ways that the corporate capitalist economy depends on state protection and state subsidies for its very existence, and the anti-capitalism directions that a genuine free market would go in. Other than that, I’ve got three books currently published. The first one was Studies in a Mutualist Political Economy, which was an attempt to revive individualist anarchist economic thought and rehabilitate the labor theory of value. The second was Organization Theory, a critique of hierarchy and bureaucracy from an anarchist’s perspective, and the third was Homebrew Industrial Revolution, which was a general study on ephemeralization and decentralization of technology and the liberating effects of that. I’m currently working on a book called Desktop Regulatory State, which examines the same general tendencies and information technology and the way that networks are supplanting hierarchies.
MJ: How did you hook up with the Center for a Stateless Society?
KC: I’d gotten some attention from the left-libertarian movement, which was kind of a left-wing offshoot of Murray Rothbard’s libertarianism, heavily influenced by Sam Konkin and the Agorist movement. I got an invitation to write for them when they were first being formed.
MJ: I think when most people hear the term “anarchist,” they think of someone throwing a molotov cocktail or something like that. How would you describe someone who has sort of an anarchist point of view to, say, a suburban soccer mom or just someone that thinks that is so far disconnected from—not really regular life, but… I don’t want to demean it or anything, but… I’m struggling here with how to quite define what I’m asking.
KC: I think Pyotr Kropotkin’s definition of anarchism and his article for Britannica in 1911 was about as well as it could be defined. It’s a political philosophy that wants to replace top-down coordination and imposition of order by the government with voluntary associations horizontally organized between human beings; replace authority with cooperation.
MJ: So, the book you’re working on now, is that currently a blog? I mean, I’m looking at your site now, DesktopRegulatoryState.wordpress.com. Are you publishing it on the blog then?
KC: Well, that’s just the current draft of it. Any time I alter the drafts, I update the blog automatically. I intend it to come out as a hard copy book I’m going to put out through the same publisher that does my other books. But in the meantime, it’s kind of an example of the Eric Raymond thing: update early and update often, and many eyeballs makes for shallow bugs.
MJ: As an author on the internet then, have you used any of the—you’ve talked a little bit about networks—crowdfunding or things like that to support your work?
KC: Well, I have a Patreon account. I get a couple hundred dollars a month through that. And I get paid for writing my commentary at C4SS. And then just royalties from books I have in print.
MJ: As someone interested in networks and more of a bottom-up approach, what do you think of the crowdfunding movement?
KC: I think it’s really great. It doesn’t, by any means, give me enough money to support myself independently, but it reduces my dependence on wage labor, gives me a little bit of breathing space, and I think that’s what it does for most people. It lets independent creators, whether they’re authors, musicians, artists, or whatever, to get some financial support for their work without depending on gatekeepers at the old legacy publishers or record companies.
MJ: That brings up an interesting question: we’ve talked a lot about the way that technology and automation is somewhat getting rid of jobs faster than they’re being created. A lot of the standard economists seem to think that that’s not happening yet, but there seems to be a lot more commentary among futurists that that technological unemployment is actually happening. Do you have a take on that?
KC: Yeah, I do. I think what the technology itself does is simply reduce the total amount of labor time needed to produce our standard of living, which, if this were a capitalist economy dominated by monopoly corporations, that would be a good thing. Unfortunately, we’ve got a system where the state inclusion with capital enables the corporations to enclose these new means of technology and collect rents from the increased productivity instead of that productivity being internalized by the people who actually produce. When you look at the example of a small subsistence farmer, if they figure out a way to grow the same amount of corn with half the amount of labor, they don’t say, “Oh god, this is awful! I’ve just put myself out of half of my work!” because they internalize the full productivity of the innovation themselves. But when you allow corporate owners to use intellectual property, like patents, to enclose the productivity as a source of rent instead of passing it along to the worker and the consumer, you have all these people that are entirely dependent on this thing called a job for their income, rather than on the necessary amount of work it takes to produce something—they get screwed over. I think what we need to do is take away all these enclosures, all these artificial property rights, so that the cost of living falls in proportion to increases in productivity, and then we need to fairly distribute the necessary labor time leftover. If you clean out all of the waste production that’s subsidized by the government, and all the embedded rents from intellectual property and other artificial property rights enforced by the state, it would probably take about 10 or 15 hours a week for the average person to turn enough money to purchase their current standard of living. I think that’s what we need to head for, is an economy where 10 or 15 hours of labor a week is enough and nobody else is skimming off the top.
MJ: Do you think that the way society has changed now—it seems like, I know for me, I used to work for AT&T, and I still talk to a number of my coworkers over there, and what I notice immediately whenever they talk about the economy is just this massive ever-present fear that they’re going to be outsourced. I know the company actually does cultivate that environment in order to get more labor out of the people that they have working there. It seems like companies, in general, have been keeping everybody focused on the short term fear of losing their job, and your average person it seems like does not step back to take a look at the big economic picture. I know reading futurism from the ‘50s or the ‘40s, or the 1930s, they were all speculating that by this time we’d all be working 15 to 20-hour weeks tops, and all the rest of that time would be devoted to leisure. And yet that doesn’t seem to have materialized. Do you think that bigger picture is not something that most people are thinking about?
KC: It’s hard to say. The system is pretty good at creating the illusion that it’s natural, or inevitable, or that it’s the only rational way of doing things. But I think a lot of people are dissatisfied and feel a fear in their bones that they’re getting shafted somehow, even if they don’t know exactly how. There’s a lot of resentment out there, I think there’s also a tendency to grope towards these alternatives just out of sheer necessity simply because so many people are underemployed or chronically unemployed, and the new technologies are out there for producing a larger share of your needs with low overhead or low capital outlay machinery. That’s always what’s happened in deep cyclical downturns: there’s been a partial shift of production from wage labor to self-production for use in the household. And right now we’re not in a steep cyclical downturn, we’re in a permanent systemic crisis. So, there’s a considerable shift like that just out of necessity, and fortunately it’s occurring at a time when the technological means of doing that are much more available than ever before.
MJ: Do you think that’s something that most people are ready to kind of avail themselves of? We were talking with Mike Gilliland and Euvie Ivanova from the Future Thinkers podcast, and one of the real differences that I saw between their experience of things—they’re sort of digital nomads and have been traveling a lot to places where the cost of living is cheaper, and they are moving in circles where a lot of people are very entrepreneurial. I know within my own social network—I don’t know if Matt’s experience is the same way—but a lot of people seem to have this attitude where they just want to show up at a job, do what they’re told, and then turn off and go home. They’re not really interested in learning anything about how IT systems work, for example. I work in IT, I know a lot of people who don’t seem to even really want to know how their computer works. Do you think most people have the skills or even the motivation to pursue those skills that they would need in that more bottom-up networked economy?
KC: Well, even if there is a plurality of people who have that attitude, and I think there probably is, it’s an eroding plurality; and at the same time there’s a pretty sharp increase at the margin—an exponential increase—in people that are interested in learning how to do things, and there’s a pretty broad margin of people that are just doing seemingly simple stuff, like growing bigger gardens than they used to, or starting vegetable gardens, or participating in ride-sharing, and that sort of thing that weren’t doing it before. I think the economic incentives are just going to keep pushing in that direction and getting stronger. Whether most people want it that way or not, we’re headed for steadily dropping levels of total employment and average labor hours. It’s becoming more expensive to do things in the old way, and the new ways of doing things are getting cheaper and cheaper. Eventually we’re going to hit that tipping point, or the “100th monkey effect” or whatever you want to call it.
MJ: Kevin, I wanted to ask you: I know from following you on Twitter, that you read Robert Anton Wilson—I think you do, anyway; I think that’s how I actually found you—how did you discover Robert Anton Wilson?
KC: I think the first book of his I read was around the turn of the century, the Illuminatas! trilogy. I’m not sure, I can’t really even remember what first directed my attention to him, except that I was really exploring and reading widely about anarchism in the late ‘90s, and it was at some point in that process he came across my path.
MJ: Yeah, I was just going back and forth I think with Tom as far as what books we both first discovered. One of the things I founded interesting about Robert Anton Wilson: at one point he had a very engaged community of fans on the internet, and also that a lot of the people that I was reading as thinkers about the internet were actually familiar with him.
KC: Yeah, I guess the single biggest influence he had on me was just the things he says that dovetail with James Scott and David Graeber about the way power influences communication. The way Wilson put it was that no one ever tells the truth to a man with a gun or to a man who has the authority to fire you. There are a lot of anarchist thinkers that have applied that principle more broadly to say that “power, authority always distorts communications in very perverse and destructive ways.”
MJ: Yeah, I know in Matt’s and I’s discussions, and a couple of times particularly when we don’t have guests, I frequently use Upton Sinclair’s quote about “If someone’s financial well-being depends on their not understanding something, they don’t.” I found that particularly true in the telecommunications space. Having worked for AT&T, I got to be really interested in that space.
KC: And to a large extent, people and authority are in a position where they can’t get inside our heads because of those distorting effects of power just because there’s a basic separation between the people doing the work and the people making the decisions that there’s no way of getting around. So, the greatest part of paperwork within a bureaucracy comes from attempts by the people at the top to circumvent this lack of knowledge about what’s going on below them. I work in a hospital and it’s amazing just how much of nursing paperwork is checkoffs, that “Yes, I did this, yes, I did that.” And the problem is that management doesn’t trust nurses to do any of this stuff without someone looking over their shoulder, but they trust them to fill out the paperwork saying they did it, and each new layer of paperwork is just another attempt to get around the fact that they have no direct way of verifying that they’ve done any of the other stuff. Whereas in a self-managed workplace, the people making the decisions and doing the coordination are the same people doing the work. I mean, when you make a sandwich for yourself, you don’t have to supervise yourself to keep you from sneaking in subpar meat or something like that and screwing yourself over, because you have an interest in common with yourself, right? But any time you have an authority relation, where one party is sucking off the surplus produced by the other party, there’s a basic conflict of interest there where you can’t trust them to use their own judgement.
MJ: I think that brings up a big point in networks lately, is it seems like they’re still struggling with trust. I know on the internet right now it seems like there’s a lot of issues around IT security, and a lot of companies have been hacked, and things like that. And there seems to be some interesting work going on with things like Bitcoin, and I’m constantly hearing about the blockchain as sort of a mechanism to quantify trust a little bit more. Do you think that technologies like that are really what’s needed to make some of this more networked economy stuff take off?
KC: Well, I can see that having its function in anonymous or one-off transactions. There’s a lot of other stuff that’s older, all kinds of reputational mechanisms. We see proprietary or capitalist versions of that with the rating systems like Yelp or Angie’s List, or whatever, or Google ratings. I think that’s generally what we’re going to see a lot more of, is networked reputational mechanisms of all kinds; a network certification system, new networked guilds for precarious labor that provide quality certification and training and so forth. It all falls under the general heading—I forget who coined the term just right offhand, but I made a chapter title out of it for Desktop Regulatory State—”The Assurance Commons.” That really is a type of social commons, is the general pool of information about the quality of people’s work, their reputation, and so forth. It’s something that predates the state, that used to be just the norm, that we had horizontal mechanisms for determining what somebody’s reputation for good work was, or whether they could be trusted if we hired them to do a job. The state superseded that and preempted it, and replaced it with a vertical system where everything has to be legible to the state from above, even though it’s obviously not from the reasons we already discussed. The ordinary citizen has internalized that perspective so much that we try to see things through the state’s eyes and say, “Well, who will prevent this person from doing whatever? Who will prevent them from putting chalk dust in the milk?” and all of this. The answer in the free cities of the Middle Ages 600 years ago would’ve been, “Well, we’ll prevent them from doing that because of all of these horizontal mechanisms we have within the corporation of the city,” guilds and so forth.
MJ: I guess that brings up an interesting point: on the internet, there does seem to be a culture that at times is somewhat accepting of a level of the griefer, the people that kind of do poison the well. I know I had a friend who used to play online games, and he’d get a bunch of people on his team to get in a vehicle with him and he would drive the vehicle over the cliff. You know, something like that seems like it’s funny once, but it’s not fun to play with long term. I’m curious as to how you, in your work, have handled the idea of the griefer. It seems like, beyond a certain point, some of those horizontal networks haven’t exactly scaled, and maybe that is historically why the state took on some of those roles. Have you seen evidence that contributes to ways that those horizontal networks can scale farther now than they used to? Because at a certain point, once someone is kind of anonymous… Just look at the commentary on the internet sometimes, the comments—people can get kind of nasty, or kind of mean. I’m curious as to how you would handle that phenomenon in the work that you do.
KC: Well, part of it is you just need good filtering mechanisms to shut out people that are basically worthless to deal with. I’ve seen a lot of horrible stuff recently, especially from Gamergate trolls, they’re the first example I would think of. You just need more stuff like Block Bot or individuals blocking them as fast as they create egg accounts to troll you. But you also need to take advantage as much as possible of existing reputational systems. Don’t go to a local business until you’ve checked out the online reviews for it or whatever. And dealing with anybody outside of reputational networks—just engaging in one-off transactions with someone you’ve never heard of without checking their reputations; it’s clearly let the buyer beware. People, to a considerable extent, still have that old mindset, where they assume the state will protect them, and it’s a unfounded confidence.
MJ: So, would you say you’re more an optimistic or a pessimist when it comes to these technologies and their impact on the future of society?
KC: I’m definitely an optimist.
MJ: What do you see the shape of that future society looking like now? How would we get from now to these more horizontal distributed networks?
KC: What was the term Jim Kunstler used, “long emergency”? I mean, I see it as a fairly long transition—a generation, maybe two, before it’s primarily a network society of small scale physical production rather than what we have now. And in some local areas, it’s going to be more of a genuine crisis than others. It’s going to be a lot like his model of peak oil, where the overall transition may be fairly gradual and smooth, but there will be severe spikes in particular localities, and abrupt discontinuities in some areas, but the overall process will be gradual. That’s kind of the way I see things: just hitting in a general transition from hierarchies to networks with P2P desktop production replacing corporate production in the information industries, like music software, publishing, and so forth, and a gradual shift from centralized corporate manufacturing to small scale garage production with micromachinery for local markets. And the crisis of capitalism is creating strong incentives for this. With peak oil, at some point diesel fuel is going to be $15 a gallon in today’s money. You can remember in 2008 when fuel hit $4.50 a gallon, there were 20% of the airline routes being shut down and around 20% of truckers were on the verge of just abandoning their rigs because they were losing money on it. You extrapolate that to even higher fuel prices 10 or 15 years from now, and there’s going to be a lot of crumbling in corporate distribution and supply chains, and there’s going to be a strong incentive for small scale garage manufacturing to fill in the gaps in those supply chains by custom machining components, and replacement parts, and stuff like that, and then expanding to producing entire commodities.
MJ: What advice would you give to people for leaning into that change?
KC: Cut down on debt as much as possible. Avail yourself of cheap productive technology where you can do stuff for yourself whenever it’s feasible, and in your means, and in your learning curve to do so. And above all, just form horizontal connections with people, and form networks of people that you trust that are willing to help each other to negotiate the crisis.
MJ: Well Kevin, thanks so much for joining us today.
KC: Well, thanks for having me.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We hope to see you again in the future…
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.