The Network Economy as New Mutualism

What kinds of economic arrangements does anarchism, as such, want? An old question given new vitality in an age in which networks of autonomous individuals and groups have become more and more relevant and difficult for overlords in capital and in the state to control. In many ways, the new economy of networks, horizontal and decentralized, is the quintessence of the ideas of anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker, who thought that free competition would be “perfect” enough to wipe out profit in exchange, rent on land, and interest on lent credit. That is because monopolization, the source of these kinds of exploitative income, is rendered impossible (or nearly so) by an economy in which a PC and relatively little capital can make each individual her own capitalist business (See Kevin Carson‘s The Homebrew Industrial Revolution and The Desktop Regulatory State). We simply no longer need our overseers. We can employ Josiah Warren’s Cost Principle as a tool for analyzing the network economy and the kinds of hopes we may have for it as libertarians.

Tucker in particular constantly reiterated his position that if the Cost Principle (which he regarded as the definitive principle of socialism and which would necessarily mean the absence of usury) could not be realized by libertarian means, by free competition and the demise of privilege, that it was not to be realized at all. In the individualist anarchist free market, people, credit and resources would move so freely and fluidly, price signals would become so timely and clear, that before long selling goods or services significantly above cost would be rendered impossible. (Few free market libertarians of today share Tucker’s antipathy to “usury,” as such, but many now share his view of capitalism, placing it in opposition to free markets and competition.) It was thus privilege, restrictions on competition of all kinds, that allowed a capitalist/monopolist class to underpay labor and to overcharge for their products. But new technologies and the networked economy they yield are making the monopolies of old impossible by leaving regulatory and legislative attempts to limit competition powerless.

As Yochai Benkler observes of “the effects of [the] networked information economy on individual autonomy,” individuals are more free to operate without the permission of the “powers that be,” outside of the proper channels — be they licensing boards, regulatory bodies, or established corporations. The effects on competition will be sweeping; for where once starting a new business, producing a product, etc., required an appeal to tribute-takers in government and in formalized, capitalist institutions, it has today become easier than ever to evade the reaches of those tollways. Similarly, Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that the emergence of the Internet and “the nature of distributed systems” themselves have brought with them their own culture or ideology. He invokes John Dewey’s notion of “habits of thought” to suggest that our new peer-to-peer reality has changed the way we think about everything from exchange to personal relationships. And we can perceive the ways that technology informs culture (and vice versa) all around us, back through history. The work of the Center for a Stateless Society’s Kevin Carson has demonstrated the effects of a subsidized American car culture on the overall economy, suffusing everything from suburban sprawl to distribution paths for consumer goods. Nothing about the present system was simply a foregone conclusion. Authority has impacted the technological ecosystem at every step of development, suppressed alternatives, and obliged the established economic powers.

Contrast authoritarian capitalism with the decentralized, horizontally-networked and -ordered free market presently materializing, one in which the effective exercise of power through hierarchy is less and less possible. Law professor Butler Shaffer uses the metaphor of “a giant centrifuge” to describe the current trend toward decentralization and away from the pyramidal structures of corporate and government power that we’ve had to date. With “vertically-structured” institutions in decline, being replaced by networks, society is “spinning increased decision-making authority and control into the hands of individuals.” Such was the vision of the individualist anarchists — if everyone had the ability to become a capitalist, that is, had equal access to the means of production, then exploitation would cease to be a significant source of individual wealth. Everyone would have to work for his keep, but since no one could exert the power of the state to create “class laws,” limiting competition, relatively equal exchange would obtain as the general rule. If the individualists criticized vulgar proponents of “laissez faire” for their inconsistencies, then they also (and even more strenuously) excoriated vulgar socialists for prescribing an absolute equality of material conditions, to be reached through the absolute authority of a central state. Remove coercive privilege, they argued, and whatever result prevailed would necessarily be the most just. Theirs was the ultimate “open source” economy, enabling each individual to enter into any economic endeavor she pleased, to contribute in any way, thereby occupying the margins on which capitalist profits rested. The Internet has thrown open those margins to the benefit of individuals and at the expense of established corporations who have used legislative and regulatory means to keep them closed.

The individualists, from Josiah Warren onward, shared amongst one another an enthusiasm for and desire to undertake experimentations within the economic realm, eschewing uniformity and doctrinaire declarations about what a free economy must be. Experimentation of the kinds they esteemed is of course a threat to the status quo, and thus to the organizations that depend upon and hope to perpetuate it. This is among the chief reasons why the propaganda of largeness, vertical integration and hierarchy have all but completely overtaken the conversation surrounding efficiency. Anarchists like Benjamin Tucker certainly were not hostile or opposed to largeness per se, in and of itself, and neither should we anarchists of today be. Still, Tucker gainsaid the claim that large scale production for a modern society would required huge accumulations and concentrations of capital. Anticipating the emancipation and empowerment of individuals that we’re witnessing today, Tucker wrote, “Processes are expected to become cheaper, more compact, and more easily manageable, until they shall come again within the capacity of individuals and small combinations.” He confidently looked forward to a reversal of the centralization and hierarchy he saw in his own day, which has arguably only been compounded in the hundred plus years since.

With the digitization of the economy generally, and its attending vulnerability and breakdown of monopoly rents, intellectual property has become increasingly important for the monopolist class as a safeguard of those rents. Pitted against the development of the new economy, intellectual property will be a last-ditch effort both for entrenched models in domestic economies and for established, developed nations in the global economy. Expansions of technology have made a post-scarcity world of abundance not only possible, but very likely to come to fruition at some stage in the future. Standing in the way, however, is the capitalist attempt to pen in that technology, which as an abstract thing contained in ideas must rely on increasingly draconian intellectual property measures. Scholars such as C. Ford Runge and Edi Defrancesco have done a great service in observing the analogy between the enclosure of common lands and the attempt to subject ideas — specifically “relating to genomics, computer software, and scientific data” — to monopoly ownership standards.

We are now approaching a breaking point, a culmination of long-unfolding trends that will witness the old forces of rigid hierarchy and centrality collide with the dynamism of the networked, freed market. Outcomes, wins and losses, will turn upon the fulcrum of the steps that we take as free, autonomous individuals to leverage and pry ever more open the cracks that we find in the old infrastructure. New currencies (giving life to the mutualistic notions of our anarchist forebears), new organization models, new definitions of liberty and community — all are issuing forth from technological developments of only very recent vintage. Because of its defining flexibility, anarchism is the thing to rise and meet what’s next.

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Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory