I am not a Communist

by Henry Farrell on November 8, 2010

Oh dear. “Nick Carr has a point:”:http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2010/11/the_unrevolutio.php

bq. “I am not a Communist,” declared the author-entrepreneur Steven Johnson in a recent column in the business section of the New York Times. Johnson made his disclaimer in the course of celebrating the creativity of “open networks,” the groups of volunteers who gather on the net to share ideas and produce digital goods of one stripe or another. Because they exist outside the marketplace and don’t operate in response to the profit motive, one might think that such collaboratives would represent a threat to traditional markets. After all, what could be more subversive to consumer capitalism than a mass movement of people working without pay to create free stuff for other people? But capitalists shouldn’t worry, says Johnson; they should rejoice. The innovations of the unpaid web-enabled masses may be “conceived in nonmarket environments,” but they ultimately create “new platforms” that “support commercial ventures.” What appears to excite Johnson is not the intrinsic value of volunteerism as an alternative to consumerism, but the way the net allows the efforts of volunteers to be turned into the raw material for profit-making ventures.

bq. Johnson’s view is typical of many of the web’s most enthusiastic promoters, the Corporate Communalists who feel compelled to distance themselves from, if not ignore entirely, the more radical implications of the trends they describe with starry-eyed avidity.

The “Johnson column is here”:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/business/31every.html, and it does have some phrases that are at the least problematic. When Johnson says:

bq. And yet they are as far from the command economies that Marx and Engels helped invent as they are from “greed is good” capitalism. When we champion fourth-quadrant innovation, we are not arguing for top-down bureaucracies and central planning. Stalin would have despised Wikipedia.

at the very least, an awful lot of work is being done by the words “help invent.” The degree to which Marx and Engels might or might not have approved e.g of the methods employed by Russian Communists to come into power is still the topic of vigorous controversy. The degree to which Marx and Engels invented, or ‘helped invent’ the command economy is not. Neither had _any role whatsoever_ in inventing it, except as conveniently dead sources of rhetorical justification to those who came after them. They were themselves extremely vague as to exactly how the economy would work after socialism.

This mischaracterization conducts into a lot of guff about the conflict between Stalin and top-down bureaucracy on the one hand, and decentralized markets on the other, which is really more a rhetorical sleight-of-hand than an argument. It allows Johnson and the people he likes (many, although not all of whom, I like too) as occupying a reasonable middle ground not captured by current concepts &c&c.

Yet even so, I think that Carr is too quick to lump different categories of people in together. He goes on to suggest that Johnson is more or less identical with management consultants like Botsman and Rogers, and business-literature woo-merchants like Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. I think that’s a bit unfair on two fronts. First – that it seems to me that Johnson’s motivation in denying that his arguments have left wing implications is quite different from Tapscott and Williams – it looks to me to be largely defensive rather than offensive. Like “Larry Lessig”:https://crookedtimber.org/2009/07/07/the-left-that-dare-not-speak-its-name/ (whose arguments I still want to write a post about – but probably in the context of our planned seminar on Erik Olin Wright), the bad thinking seems to me to stem from worries that people are going to identify his arguments as Communistic, un-American etc and hence to dismiss them, rather than from stupidity or bad faith. This doesn’t mean that his argument works – it reads to me as an ill-advised effort to conceal the actual politics his position implies (here Carr is quite right) – but I don’t think that this column is the sum of his argument either.

Second, I also think that “the book that he is defending is very good”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1594487715?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1594487715, much better than the column purportedly defending it, and not really advocating the position that Carr suggests. _Contra_ Carr’s imputations, Johnson is far, far more excited about the processes of discovery, and the networks that enable it than the commercial exploitation thereof. The column attempts to shut down inconvenient debates. The book tries to start them up. It is very good indeed on the relationship between intellectual exchange and innovation – a little like Yochai Benkler’s book “which we discussed”:https://crookedtimber.org/category/benkler-seminar/ a number of years ago, but much better suited to an intelligent non-academic general readership.

If some of the metaphors and connections that Johnson draws seem a little bit ambitious, they’re still useful in provoking thought. The book serves in ways as the kind of network that it writes about – it tries to open up connections between apparently disparate phenomena so as to provoke creativity, and it usually succeeds. And Johnson goes much further than the average Gladwell, in his willingness to try to counter the selection bias of the cute anecdote by actually coming up with a listing of major inventions and seeing how well they match up with different models of the innovation process. It’s not the full science – he doesn’t tell us about how he selected his original list, or how exactly they were coded – but it is far, far better than the standard of the genre.

The biggest problem in the book is his failure to consider the literature on how many social networks may _not_ have the happy consequences of bringing different perspectives together and helping spur creativity – he name-checks Ethan Zuckerman, but doesn’t talk at all about his or other researchers’ work on strong tendencies towards homophily within networks and hence towards a reduction of diversity. I hope he takes it up at some point – if social networks systematically work in this way, his arguments are in trouble. My own intuition is that decentralized networks can overcome these tendencies frequently enough to have enormous benefits, but it is only an intuition (and I am not aware of any even vaguely dispositive evidence in its favor). It could very well be wrong.

These criticisms aside, Johnson has written a very good book, and a creative one. I _strongly_ wish he hadn’t written this purported explanation and justification of it, which strikes me as neither good and creative, but instead tendentious, wrong, and cliched. It gets in the way of a very interesting and very useful account of the relationship between networks, social exchange and ideas.

If we take Johnson’s own arguments seriously, red-baiting polarizes debate into largely artificial categories (there are not a lot of Stalinists out there on the left these days, as Johnson surely knows), and suggests that a whole lot of people who have interesting things to say are effectively intellectual untouchables. In other words, it retards just the kinds of intellectual ferment and encounter of different perspectives that Johnson broadly wants to promote. That seems to me to be a problem.



Omega Centauri 11.08.10 at 10:53 pm

I can think of three broad categories of economic activity (or perhaps economic organization). The obvious ones are often simplistically labeled Capitalist, and Communist. But a third type of economic economy is the gifting economy. I do what I can for who I can, and hope to get something from you, but I don’t worry about any formal accounting of value. Within small groups, like say a family the gift economy is often the dominant part. Open source is basically the gifting economy for intellectual property. So I think he is correct to try to distinguish it from either of the more formal systems. It is not new, indeed I find the case that the gift economy predated the others pretty persuasive, but its widespread application to highly technical intellectual goods is new. Actually if you think about the scientific method, that is a sort of gifting economy as well. Scholars, or researchers publish results, which are now available for the world community. In return they get access to the results of other scholars and researchers, and no formal method of trying to balance out contributions and withdrawals is made.

Ideally, some mix of all three methods would be in effect for any truly advanced economy/society.


Brett Bellmore 11.08.10 at 11:03 pm

“Because they exist outside the marketplace and don’t operate in response to the profit motive,”

I’d dispute that “exist outside the marketplace” claim. The free market includes ALL non-coercive transactions, whether or not a profit is involved.


Frank Ashe 11.08.10 at 11:09 pm

Omega (1),

The gifting society is a version of the “capitalist”. There is an implicit reckoning of what you have given and received, and anyone who is a taker (an undeserving one) without giving enough in return will be ostracised. See de Waal’s work on chimpanzees and capuchins for evidence of where our markets may have evolved from.


tomslee 11.08.10 at 11:23 pm

” in the context of our planned seminar on Erik Olin Wright”

EOW’s analysis of social production vs. market production clarifies a lot of digital false dichotomies, and I find it very helpful in thinking through some of these Internet groupiness/sharing issues.

Now off to see if our library is getting “Where Good Ideas Come From”.


CharlieMcMenamin 11.08.10 at 11:37 pm

Brett Bellmore
Erm, the traditional leftist response would go alone these lines:
1. The so called free market actually is coercive in many of its operations – because, yes, everyone is ‘free’ to sleep under a bridge if they so choose, but few with the resources to buy an alternative actually do;
2. More to the point, un-commodified relationships are, by definition, not part of ‘the market place’ . Why do you think Marx spent so much time defining commodity relations?

These points hardly settle the issue, of course, but surely they are at the very least preliminary exchanges one might expect most people to have internalised?


rea 11.08.10 at 11:39 pm

“See de Waal’s work on chimpanzees and capuchins for evidence of where our markets may have evolved from.”

I must confess to some lingering doubts about the claim that primates are genetically predisposed to market capitalism.


Metamorf 11.08.10 at 11:41 pm

I’d dispute “The free market includes ALL non-coercive transactions, whether or not a profit is involved”, since it’s not profit but trade that defines a market. There are non-market non-coercive transactions as well, such as gifts and other socially defined obligations. But market transactions have some comparative virtues, as discussed in this post on social and market norms.


y81 11.08.10 at 11:47 pm

The Marx and Engels point seems pretty minor. The article would read much the same if it said “command economies that Lenin and Stalin created” instead of “command economies that Marx and Engels helped invent.” It’s not as if the article was drawing some subtle distinction between strains of Communist thought, such the “Fourth Quadrant” is consistent with “The Holy Family” but not with “What Is to Be Done?” Also, it’s not clear that “Communism” is better applied to what Marx and Engels proposed rather than to what Lenin and Stalin achieved.

The real question is, does Wikipedia distribute articles on the Bering Sea to paste into your browser over the article on Beria?


bianca steele 11.09.10 at 12:36 am

I might defend what you call Carr’s lumping in Johnson and others with people who write to give advice to management consultants, because there just isn’t anyone else writing about the kinds of things Johnson writes about. Ordinary people who have an interest in this stuff can choose between marketing hype and vague memories of some book on social theory that they read once (or that their buddy read). There’s a real niche that could be filled.


James Conran 11.09.10 at 1:09 am

“the selection bias of the cute anecdote”

That’s nicely put.


Jim Harrison 11.09.10 at 1:20 am

Lumping every kind of economy that involves reciprocity into the market economy bin is pretty crude. The functional definition of property and its legitimate exchange has evolved through a whole series of forms and will presumably evolve further. It seems to me that an obvious model for a non-profit concept of property is afforded by the sciences rather than the stock exchange. In the capitalist economy, I can be said to own a thing if I am entitled to alienate it through gift, inheritance, or sale. In the sciences, by contrast, I only own a thing if I actually give it away, i.e. publish my results. Of course the property in question in the sciences is intellectual property, but as the value of manufactured things and services increasingly depends on the intelligence they embody, products become more and more like ideas. In the long run, certainly, the scientists have to get paid in something beyond recognition and the same is true for the guys who innovated Twitter. But there seem to be ways to do that.


tomslee 11.09.10 at 1:30 am

Judging from the Johnson article alone, his quadrants make little sense to me. One bisector seems to be “individual vs collective” but then he basically says there’s no “individual” anyway, as everyone stands on the shoulders etc etc. The perpendicular bisector seems to be “profit vs love” or “privately owned vs common”, and he lumps all Internet innovation into the “collective, love” quadrant.

Wright’s threefold (state, private, social) organization makes more sense. Johnson’s difficulty with fitting all Internet innovation into a single box goes away once you accept that Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap are different (in that they are social) from Google and Apple (which are not).

It’s his conviction that the Internet is distinctive that prevents him from drawing this line through the middle of it, but it’s a line that needs to be drawn.


tomslee 11.09.10 at 1:31 am

Jim Harrison: “the same is true for the guys who innovated Twitter”

Twitter is now starting to insert ads into its feed streams.


Omega Centauri 11.09.10 at 4:19 am

It seems to me that lumping gifting into the market reduces rather than increases our ability to understand. Certainly a case can be made that egregiously large imbalances in gifting can have repercussions against the parsimonious party. But, the accounting is hardly rigorous, and modest imbalances are accepted without much concern. Also a lot of gifting is done semi anonymously. My fruit tree bears more fruit than I can use, and I bring the excess into work to be shared, and few who accept the fruit know who provided it. The best gifting is that which has minimal accounting and judgement made about it. People gladly trade off “fairness” for a sense of community.

Gifting works especially well, when there is a large asymmetry between the cost to the giver and thebenefit to the taker. My fruit example is one (it will rot, so my marginal cost is minimal ). But, it can be even better in the case of intellectual property where the cost of copying is minimal. Any well functioning corporation has a substantial internal “gifting” intellectual economy going on among the workforce. If I know something that will help one of my colleges discharge his duites better, I step in and ofer to show him how. In return, I don’t expect to get a lot of flak if I ask another co-worker if he can help me with something I don’t understand. In a well functioning organization, this informal networking crosses formal org charts. The key, I think is that people feel that the positive sum outcomes are larger than the zero-sum political games (looking good by making my co-worker look bad).


Nick Carr 11.09.10 at 4:30 am

I have many points, like a compass.


James Wimberley 11.09.10 at 4:54 am

There´s no reason beyond Walrus-and-Carpenter sentimentality to let Marx keep a patent on the term communism, which antedated him; and has others have pointed out, he had no clear ideas how it would work. Centralised allocation of the product of a socialist command production system is a possible type of economic organisation – Russia in 1920, Britain in 1942 perhaps come closest – but it´s unattractive and has no future. I propose to recapture the term, still gilded by its New Testament associations, for the newly booming gift exchange sector. Rough attempt at a typology blogged here a year ago (advert).


Henri Vieuxtemps 11.09.10 at 8:18 am

@3 The gifting society is a version of the “capitalist”. There is an implicit reckoning of what you have given and received, and anyone who is a taker (an undeserving one) without giving enough in return will be ostracised.

I have the impression that what you’re describing is something more like ‘anarcho-mutualist’. Capitalism is defined not by trade, but by private ownership of the means of production and exploitation of labor.


Random lurker 11.09.10 at 9:40 am

@13 Capitalism is defined not by trade, but by private ownership of the means of production and exploitation of labor.
Whereas communism is not common ownership of everything, but common ownership of the means of mass production (presumably through the state).
Hence Johnson is right when he says that he is not a communist.


Random lurker 11.09.10 at 9:41 am

Sorry it was @16


Hidari 11.09.10 at 10:31 am

Despite what is often claimed, and despite Marx’s own obfuscations, there’s not really any doubt about what Marx meant by ‘Communism’ or ‘Socialism’ at least in the early years of its development. Politically he had in mind the Paris Commune (in other words, that all officials should be elected by universal suffrage, instantly recallable, and paid the same wage as the average worker), and economically, something similar to the Obshchina or Mir: that is, communal (but democratic) ownership of land/property.

Marxism has NOTHING in common with ‘command economies’ or similar ‘top down’ ideas, and never had, whatever the Bolsheviks’ claims.


Henri Vieuxtemps 11.09.10 at 10:42 am

@17, well, he seems to be saying is that he’s for open collaboration and against authoritarianism. Private ownership of the means of production entails a fair amount of authoritarianism. To be consistent, he would have to be an anarcho-syndicalist or something.


Pete 11.09.10 at 1:08 pm

Surely the distinctive thing about the internet is that the means of production have become cheap and ubiquitous, which makes the ownership issue much less salient (even if the means of producing the means of production are largely Chinese)


ogmb 11.09.10 at 2:09 pm

I’d dispute that “exist outside the marketplace” claim. The free market includes ALL non-coercive transactions, whether or not a profit is involved.

Except that a gift is not a transaction.


Tim Worstall 11.09.10 at 3:46 pm

“The gifting society is a version of the “capitalist”. There is an implicit reckoning of what you have given and received, and anyone who is a taker (an undeserving one) without giving enough in return will be ostracised.”

The version of the gifting economy with which most English people will be familiar with is the practice of drinking in rounds in pubs.

And there’s most certainly an implicit reckoning and subsequent ostracisation (if not more direct intervention) of takers.


tomslee 11.09.10 at 4:02 pm

social reciprocity, obligation and so on may blur the border between gift and transaction, but it doesn’t make a round of beers capitalist. That way lies the Ridley Fallacy, where the whole of human (and monkey?) history is an illustration of the wonders of free markets.


bianca steele 11.09.10 at 5:18 pm

@14 At this informal level, where information is freely exchanged, you’re not really talking about intellectual property anymore. You’re talking about labor (giving someone substantive help with their own work takes time and effort–I assume you’re not just talking about telling someone where the copier is). Things like skills aren’t intellectual property; they have to do with education.


joar 11.09.10 at 5:34 pm

“… our planned seminar on Erik Olin Wright”

Is there a starting date for that? The earlier CT announcement said “in the fall”.


zamfir 11.09.10 at 5:38 pm

You can make a decent profit arbitraging between pubs by developing a reputation of generosity in cheap pubs and cashing in on that reputation in more expensive ones.

But no matter how I work at that, I still don’t own much of the means of production.


Norwegian Guy 11.09.10 at 5:57 pm

“There is an implicit reckoning of what you have given and received, and anyone who is a taker (an undeserving one) without giving enough in return will be ostracised.”

There is no reason why this would or could not be the case in a non-capitalist economy as well. So I don’t see how this makes gifting “capitalist”. And though the end goal of communism is a society where “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is the rule, I don’t think there have been any societies which have considered themselves to have achieved the communist stage. The Soviet Union and other communist-ruled countries called themselves transition societies and real socialism, and stuff like Stakhanovism are not really compatible with true communism. And I wouldn’t be surprised if beer rounds in Cuba, or in the former Soviet Union, worked the same way as in Britain.

Of course, to divide economies into two categories, where everything have to be either capitalism or communism, is overly crude, and does not capture the real existing diversity of economic activities, what have been a reality in the past, or what could become a reality in the future.


dsquared 11.09.10 at 7:36 pm

The hypothesis that people who don’t buy their round are ostracised is susceptible to a simple empirical test and is false. Everyone has a mate with short arms and deep pockets.


The Raven 11.09.10 at 8:44 pm

Shouldn’t a definition of “capitalism” say something about, you know, capital?


Mal 11.09.10 at 9:02 pm

First off, I am a communist. I agree with a lot of the critiques of collaborative consumption, but the perspective here is too limited. The question isn’t collaborative consumption as a final form, but as a sign of things to come. Look at the way car-sharing changes the way people interact with objects, access rather than possession. This is not, in and of itself, revolutionary, but sure makes it a lot easier to describe how common [property] could work. Collaborative consumption isn’t the multitude’s appropriation of the means of production, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely unrelated.


Rachel Botsman 11.09.10 at 9:13 pm

Leaving the same comment I left Nicholas…
P.S I am not sure he even read the book because its called WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS not WHAT’S YOURS IS MINE ….Influential opinion makers should be weary in the current climate of so quickly lumping everything left or right, capitalist or communist.

Thanks for the post and the posts you prompted. I’m glad for the variety: Most of the charges of naivete that get thrown at the book and the growing movement of collaborative consumption come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Taking the same behavior – sharing – conservatives have mocked the book as a communist manifesto [checkout the comments on my recent CNN post] while liberals have ridiculed the book as a cynical sop to capitalism [e.g. Horning Review]. The fact that the book has attracted criticism from both ends of the political spectrum should be comforting because I’m not sure which charge of naivete stings more: that coming from conservatives who cynically contend that their wealth will “trickle down”(!) or that coming from liberals who evidently think that centuries of economic evolution has no inertia(!). But actually, it’s frustrating. From my perspective, and in this respect I’ll happily admit to being naive! What matters is whether an idea or possibility being put forward represents an improvement. (I just finished reading Kelly’s new book and take the view he posits that progress is creating “just 1 percent more possibilities than you destroy.”) Whether it goes too far, or not far enough, should not be allowed to obscure the merit of the underlying idea.

Of those two possible approaches, it is the approach of critiquing an idea for not going far enough/too far that seems to me to be unhelpful because it serves only to consolidate the views of the converted and antagonize ideological adversaries.

It is in an effort to avoid that result I deliberately targeted the business community. Not to make money (the blurbs on the jacket are from other authors and Craig Newmark, the inside design features a library card that encourages people to share, swap or trade the book, yes, a fun negotiation with the publishers, I am focusing on applying the principles to the public sector etc) but because it is in the mainstream business community (the “management-level types who consume business books”) where change is fundamentally required.

In terms of detail, my reaction to the comment (“….having raised the specter of an anti-consumerist explosion, Botsman and Rogers immediately defuse the revolution they herald”) is to say that it depends on what you mean by “immediately”. In case your comments on What’s Mine is Yours seem to based entirely on the Horning review, the first section of the book takes a heavy swipe at the current unsustainable model of consumerism. Elsewhere, the book devotes considerable attention to non-profit ventures like Landshare, Freecycle and Timebanking that are using technology to facilitate sharing and that collectively represent the nascent (I emphasize nascent) stages of a redefinition of the relationship between citizens and society.

One of the key strands examined in the book is the promise that collaborative consumption will ultimately drive the life-cycle of products to extend in ways that will eventually force companies to drastically reposition the longevity vs. obsolescence fulcrum in the products they produce. Personally, I welcome this promise. If collaborative consumption helps to bring forward the day when a light bulb lasts for 1000 days instead of 500 hours, I’ll be happy. If collaborative consumption helps a new generation of designers to think differently about how shared products can be personalized, upgraded, repaired etc or how products are not required at all to fulfill a need, I will be VERY happy.

On that note, can I make a plea? If we (especially fellow authors) are going to take the time and trouble to write such thoughtful critiques, perhaps we could take the time to engage the person being reviewed. That way, substantive differences would still abound, but we might be less inclined to make the worst assumptions about each others personal motivations. [My email is Rachel@rachelbotsman.com)


Phil 11.09.10 at 11:05 pm

Everyone has a mate with short arms and deep pockets.

Do they? I can’t think who…

oh. Never mind.


Steven Johnson 11.09.10 at 11:08 pm

Henry, thanks so much for this extremely thoughtful post, and for the very kind words you say about the book.

As far as the Times column goes, two quick thoughts. First, I plead guilty on the Marx/Engels line. I had hoped the “helped” in “helped invent” would have some distancing effect, but I agree that it’s a sloppy collapsing of actual history. It’s a line that was ported over from the book, at a point where mentioning Marx and Engels actually made more sense in the context of the final chapter. In the column, it makes a crude connection between Marx’s vision and what eventually happened in his name, which always irritates me when other people do it. So, fair point. I regret the error, as the saying goes.

The larger point that I wanted to make though is a bit more of a defense of what I was trying to do with that article. I was most certainly not trying to position my own political/economic worldview in the “reasonable middle” between left and right. I was trying to say that my worldview (and I think the worldview of some of the people I mention in the piece) is in a very weird place, not at all in the middle but rather somewhere else, somewhere we don’t quite have a word for yet. (I think it was you who used to call this BoingBoing socialism, right?) I was not saying that the “fourth quadrant” was some kind of Clintonian/DLC moderate position — a lighter hand with government intervention, a faith in markets tempered by a realization of their excesses — but rather something altogether different: non-market, non-state.

That’s in part why I said that being called a communist pointed to an “uncomfortable truth” — that there is something truly outside the conventional categories at work here.

Interestingly, the original title the Times suggested for this was “Communist Innovation? No. But Not Capitalist Either.” I thought that was quite good. They ultimately ran “Innovation: It’s Not A Question Of Left Or Right” which put a whole moderate, “reasonable middle” spin on it that was not my intention at all. In fact, when I saw that headline, I almost wrote back to my editors with precisely this concern, and then figured it was probably too late.


Henry 11.10.10 at 1:05 am

Steven – that’s entirely reasonable – and it may be that some of my annoyance was motivated by the feeling that you had laid out a better public case for this whatever-you-want-to-call-it than I’ve seen anyone else do, and that this was partly undercut by the NYT piece . I would still push back on the suggestion (which I suspect may have been a function of the specific question you were addressing rather than a broader claim), that the benefits of this fourth quadrant are primarily market enhancing. They surely _can_ be that – but they can be many other things as well.

More generally – I do think that these arguments point in a quite radical direction if they are really followed through. This direction does not lead toward state control, but towards a kind of non-statist radical egalitarianism. If what you might like to call “cognitive democracy” (that is – a set of political institutions that are aimed at maximizing the benefits of capturing cognitive diversity) are to be properly realized, it implies equal access to debate for a wide variety of different perspectives.

There is a literature in political theory that is feeling its way towards this – in particular, Josiah Ober’s book on “Classical Athens”:http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8742.html, and – quite on point on this – Jack Knight and Jim Johnson’s forthcoming pragmatist theory of democracy. I also think that it’s implied in Lessig’s recent ideas about corruption – the kind of ideal democracy that is present by its absence in his recent arguments is something close to a cognitive democracy. And Cosma Shalizi’s “short paper”:http://arxiv.org/abs/0710.4911 on social media as experiments in cognitive processing is very definitely a step in this direction (I should note that Cosma and I are writing a paper that tries to capture some of these arguments in an evolutionary framework). But no-one has really captured very well what is at stake here, and how exactly it works. Anyway … this comment should probably be turned into a blogpost soon, so I will stop here.


Chris 11.10.10 at 4:57 am

The article would read much the same if it said “command economies that Lenin and Stalin created” instead of “command economies that Marx and Engels helped invent.”

Sure, but if you acknowledge the ideological distance between Marx and Engels on one hand, and Lenin and Stalin on the other, then the bad outcome of the latter’s regime doesn’t per se discredit the former. And then you might have to engage them on the merits! So much more convenient to lump them all together under the umbrella of “communism” (includes dictators pretending to be communist, whether or not they actually gave a rat’s ass about the working man, which dictators generally don’t) and then point to the gulags as irrefutable examples of how that communism stuff never turns out well and therefore we shouldn’t have labor unions or minimum-wage laws or bicycle-sharing programs.


nick s 11.10.10 at 5:46 am

The version of the gifting economy with which most English people will be familiar with is the practice of drinking in rounds in pubs.

Actually, the version of the gifting economy with which most English people will be familiar with in pubs is “and one for yourself” at the end of the night, where no reciprocal benefit can be gained from it, as opposed to the up-front tip of the American bar which is proffered at the start of the night out of fear that you’ll get ignored or stiffed when you go back for your next.


Tim Worstall 11.10.10 at 9:38 am

@38: as someone who made their living for a number of years bartending in both countries I have to say that I’ve never actually received a tip upfront in the US system and yet have had a drink bought for me in the first round of an evening in the English one.


Bill Tozier 11.10.10 at 12:37 pm

Living in a college town preserving one the largest archives of Anarchist literature in the world, I’m embarrassed to say I know very little about that movement, except maybe the Archduke Ferdinand thing, and some stuff about Sacco/Vanzetti.

But I’ve picked up enough snippets of history, here and there, to wonder at the thoroughness of the, I dunno… not just “blackening,” but perhaps erasing of our shared memory of that wide-ranging 19th (and 20th) century movement.

I’m just sayin’, having recently skimmed Voltairine de Cleyre’s essays on unhyphenated anarchism, that I’m surprised how topical—and unremarked—most of Anarchism is.

Then again, I’ve paid so little attention to political history, and less to theory, and was also brought up in the same Cold War post-colonial Social Studies framework SBJ was….

Maybe somebody who knows more can explain whether this collective amnesia might be salient, when we’re discussing the sort of mistakes SBJ has made?

You know, I’m just hoping the professional historians among us here might spell out the right version of who’s what and how to tell. Like a checklist.


Bill Tozier 11.10.10 at 12:40 pm

[And yes, that preceding was one part wry and one part honest. What isn’t?]


Phil 11.10.10 at 2:09 pm

As far as I’m concerned, there’s a right way and a wrong way to read Marx. Wrong is to start with the Communist Manifesto, skip to the end and read the bit about immediate post-revolutionary tasks while keeping Lenin and Trotsky in mind. Right is to start with the Theses on Feuerbach, then get Capital and start reading at chapter 1 of book 1. You’ll rapidly realise this isn’t the author of How To Impose Dictatorial Control Over Society For The Good Of The Proles (But Only In The Short Term… Well, Short-*Ish*, If You Know What I Mean). (Neither’s Lenin, if I’m going to be really honest, but the gulf between Marx’s work and that rather common characterisation is much, much wider.)


bianca steele 11.10.10 at 2:39 pm

Bill Gates’ contribution to that discussion somewhere a while back pointed out that people have other motivations than money–reputation, pride, a wish to contribute–and that these can be used for charitable purposes, as well as to motivate workers to provide something extra. Microsoft, as I think is well known, was for a couple of decades in a position to provide a lot of these, though of course being able to think of yourself as belonging to the best team, not to mention stock options, are not exactly nonmaterial benefits. However, stock options could be thought of as nonmaterial in this way just because they are usually reserved only for management. And you would occasionally see experts complain that it was inappropriate to give them to nonmanagerial staff (though the practice petered out as a result of the dotcom crash, and of the backdating scandals, not because HR argued it was bad). I assume they would not have argued that if they had been steeped in Marxist theory.


MQ 11.10.10 at 2:56 pm

Isn’t part of Marx’s point that capitalist property relations will eventually stand in the way of social productivity? And aren’t we beginning to see exactly this in the intersection between intellectual property laws and various forms of collective innovation? Trying to keep the state / “big government” / politics out of it avoids the necessity of a showdown with IP regulation. The collective innovator may not be interested in big government, but as soon as patents get involved big government will be interested in him.


Henry 11.10.10 at 3:13 pm

Bill – as you were writing that comment I was finishing revisions to a review essay on the topicality of anarchism for _The American Interest_ (which doesn’t usually do this kind of thing, but which asked me to write this). It looks at Benedict Anderson’s 2005 _Under Three Flags_, and Scott’s more recent _The Art of Not Being Governed._ Anderson’s book is very on topic, Scott’s a little less so (but a genuinely great piece of social science).


ogmb 11.12.10 at 12:57 pm

The version of the gifting economy with which most English people will be familiar with is the practice of drinking in rounds in pubs.

The traditional form of drinking rounds is that whoever happens to be employed stands drinks to those who aren’t (and yes, that’s very much an implementation of “from ability to need”). Maybe this form has fallen into disuse with the replacement of the labor spot market by more permanent forms of employment, but looking at current events in the homeland of public houses, chances are it is set make a full comeback.

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