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Networked and Distributed Communities

Networked and Distributed Communities
Kevin Carson’s Final Rejoinders

This final set of rejoinders to the other participants’ second replies to me, where they made them, is not meant in any way to be comprehensive. It touches only on a few points I especially wanted to address. And anyone who responds to me after this will have the last word.

In his response to my rejoinder, Shawn Wilbur stated what he perceived to be our central area of disagreement:

At base, Kevin and I disagree about the possibility of, as I put it, “a truly anarchic space, outside the legal order and beyond the realm of permissions and prohibitions.” That’s a serious disagreement, since it amounts, for me, to a disagreement about the possibility of anarchy. If I was, as Kevin suggests, implicitly acknowledging any “set of rules” governing property that would amount to a rather complete failure of my project.

I do not see the “possibility of anarchy” as hinging on the existence of an “anarchic space, outside the legal order,” or precluding the existence of a set of rules. On the contrary, I believe that the emergence of consensual rules is the natural outcome of any situation in which we deal with one another directly, as equals, with nobody in a position to unilaterally impose a set of rules by force.

Will Schnack continues to argue his case against absentee ownership of physical capital.

Mutualism came from the socialist movement, which was not just wanting to disperse wealth a bit, as in the widest definitions of socialism (in which individualist anarchism falls into as well), but which had a program for doing so: sharing productive and distributive property….

In regard to occupancy and use, employers are its antithesis….

Carson misses the fact that the relationship of the worker and the boss is the same rental relationship as that of the tenant and landlord, a relationship of rent. The boss rents their tools, their trademarks, their state-granted licenses, etc. to the worker, and in exchange they gain a profit from their labor. Profit is just a specific form of rent, which is why occupancy and use/possession, as defined by left anarchists, forbids it.

Ironically, in the process of making this argument he makes my counter-argument for me:

It is my view that a consistent mutualism would forbid wage employment, not by decree, but by the laws of supply and demand. That is, I believe cooperatives to be the best employers of them all, and I believe this to be objectively so, because I define objectivity by consensus. A thing is interpreted as objectively true when all parties capable of understanding agree on what is occurring. This is the method of objective science. Cooperatives, by involving the members in the decisions that affect their lives, can come to objectively better decisions. This is so, because the nature of interpreting objectivity requires consensus. That said, cooperatives have a competitive advantage over unilateral employer-domination. Further, the lack of cooperatives can be attributed to the monopoly on credit, which mutualism seeks to dissolve.

Indeed. To repeat, I share the view of wage labor, on the part of mutualists and other socialists, as undesirable. It is undesirable on thick libertarian grounds — a society in which people view a position of subordination during a major part of their waking hours as normal is not conducive to a liberty-maintaining culture — as well as on the grounds of individual human agency and flourishing. But as Will suggests, the best way to minimize the wage relationship and workplace subordination is to eliminate the monopolies that reduce the bargaining power of labor and raise barriers to self-employment (whether individual or cooperative).

As Franz Oppenheimer argued, wage labor can only be the dominant or “normal” model for organizing production only when privilege erects artificial barriers to competition from self-employment. And even in the remaining marginal cases where wage labor continues to exist, it will take on a more de facto cooperative character because of workers’ increased power of exit.

But if Will’s statement that mutualism would not ban wage employment by decree means anything in concrete terms, it means that absentee ownership of means of production would not be prohibited as such. Indeed the defining characteristic of wage labor is ownership of the means of production by someone other than those utilizing them.

Otherwise we are left with an explicit rule — such as that proposed by David Ellerman — that workers will always be the owners/residual claimants of the firm and that direction over human labor-power will always be inalienable. Whatever the merits of that position, it directly contradicts a position of not ruling out wage labor by decree. And in any event, it falls outside the scope of this debate, which was to be focused on Ingalls’s and Tucker’s occupancy-and-use as a doctrine specifically governing ownership of land. That doctrine was based on the unique nature of land, as recognized in classical political economy, and as opposed to physical capital (which is physically reproducible and elastic in supply in ways that land is not).

Finally, William Gillis expresses frustration on a number of fronts based either on my excessive agreeableness or perceived “ducking” of issues that he was hoping to provoke a response on.

I actually don’t think the case for occupancy-and-use extends merely to land. Factories are the classical example and one could easily imagine a factory that’s effectively a portable commodity. A factory that is highly specialized and costly to replicate, but that’s the sort of thing you could place on your desk. I’m sure Kevin can think of a few modern inventions that fit such descriptions. With sufficient costliness to such factories it may well be generally considered offensive and abhorrent for an owner to abandon one such factory for years at a time. Sure, issues of easement and the like don’t apply, but there are still valid issues surrounding abandonment.

A lot of things are easy to imagine, but I think the dominant technological trend in the real world is towards both small-scale and cheapness, as well as industrial ecosystems with modularity of components.

Nevertheless I do recognize the legitimacy of arguments — such as Jason Lee Byas’s in his reply article — for low thresholds of abandonment for movable or capital goods. Although his specific example was a bicycle left for months in a vacant lot, I think there’s a strong argument for applying the same principle to situations like the boarded-up factories in Argentina in 2002.

Even so, as I noted above in reply to Will Schnack, I see that as something outside the original scope of this debate, which involved occupancy-and-use as a land doctrine.

In the era of hyper distributed sousveillance and “the internet of things” this is surely a pressing concern. A context in which everything on earth is owned is a plausible one.

I admit I’m not sure what this means. I don’t see how we get from the internet of things to universal appropriation of everything on earth as a plausible proposition. But as I said earlier in response to Will, if technological changes make it more feasible to meet minimal thresholds of alteration or use (terraforming millions of acres with cheap robots and cyborgs plugging in to planet-wide production networks were the cases I recall him using), I have no problem with ad hoc changes in the rules in response to changes in technology in order to maintain the spirit of occupancy and use (i.e. prevent large-scale engrossment or concentration of ownership). I don’t know how to state this any more plainly.

Will goes on to challenge my blanket refusal to recognize the legitimacy of rent and interest.

…Kevin largely ducks the second part of my one-two punch: my openness to rent, interest and other Lockean horrors. One of my major points with reputation markets is that they provide a firmer foundation and pressure release valve such that concerns about capital accumulation from a given “system of rules” can be to some degree ignored. Rent and interest are in many contexts useful.

Kevin has largely stayed in the good graces of the stodgy reds who biblethump the Anarchist FAQ, but I think they’re being unreasonable on this, and I was hoping for some kind of commitment from Kevin in this public venue. I know it’s unfriendly to press the point, but I hope my friend will excuse my sadistic streak; I want to hear Mr. Mutualist say on record that rent and interest can be okay and shouldn’t be inherently prohibited as such!

Mr. Mutualist has said on the record many times, starting long ago, that interest shouldn’t be inherently prohibited as such. My argument has consistently been that of Greene and Tucker: That while artificial scarcity rents on the supply of credit are undesirable, there is no need for prohibition; rather, free competition in the supply of credit will eliminate the monopoly component of gross interest. As for the voluntary use of interest or rent as an allocation mechanism within a network (I presume the rent refers to a price mechanism for shifting the allocation of particular shares of land within a network of people who collectively own it, like furlong strips in a village open field), I don’t see that as something to prohibit if the members of that network see it as serving a useful purpose. I suppose it hinges on how voluntary the network or community actually is; the closer the rent or interest rules approach a universally applied code of “libertarian law” applied at a meta level, the more apt I am to object.

Whether I am continuing to “duck” the issue, or have damned myself in the eyes of thumpers of An Anarchist FAQ, is for someone else to judge.

Will also continues to object to my idea that basic property principles will be applied through pragmatic rules of thumb.

I’m pessimistic about the capacity for such rules of thumb to dynamically update with the speed and nuance necessary in truly shifting conditions — as may well become quite common in a world of accelerated technological development and feedbacking socio-cultural complexity as any anarchistic society would see.

I think he reads more into my choice of terminology than is there. By “rules of thumb” I in fact meant the adoption of nuanced rules for application of the basic principles of occupancy-and-use — rules which would be able to “dynamically update” in response to “shifting conditions” precisely because of the kinds of change and complexity that no general set of rules can anticipate. And I argued for such rules of thumb specifically in response to those who complained of the lack of objective application rules that could be deduced of necessity from the principles themselves. I’m not sure why Will takes my choice of the term “rules of thumb” has any particular implications for speed and nuance.

And finally, he once again raises the question of the nature of the “communities” that will be adopting various rule-sets.

I’m demanding that we recognize a more anarchistic approach would be to not have any such clear cut things as “communities” so much as networks of individuals in complicated meshes that don’t map into discrete sets of “communities”, individuals who will always be engaged in a tug of war between differing interests and strategies. My point in addressing the innate arbitrariness or context-dependency of community norms is to motivate the need for greater fluidity…

…My critique is that in these debates we’ve [been] implicitly accepting either a polycentric legal system that gravitates towards a single set of laws, or a singular “the community” that settles on such rules of thumb. I would like to tear into that assumption, which I think is perhaps as problematic as assuming the emergence of a single universal currency. I don’t doubt that some rough approximation of broad rules or norms will hold sway in most plausible anarchist societies, but they will be so highly dependent upon context that we should really be talking about how free people might best process said context.

Instead of starting our analysis by talking about “community norms” and ignoring how they might arise, I think we should be beginning from the roots of individuals and their autonomous actions with regard to each other.

I have no objection to this. One of my main areas of research the past few years has been on networked and distributed communities, with rule-sets evolving in response to the needs of a fluid membership, as support platforms (see draft Chapter Five, Fundamental Infrastructures: Networked Support Platforms, of my forthcoming book The Desktop Regulatory State). But once again, I must refer to the original topic for debate in this symposium: Occupancy-and-use ownership rules for land. I start from the assumption of a set of rules applying specifically to land, based on its unique characteristics; and this carries with it the assumption that the set of rules defining trespass, theft, rightful occupancy, and so on, governs a community of interacting individuals occupying parcels of land in a geographically contiguous area. Although a network of individuals distributed over a non-contiguous area may well own parcels of land which are non-contiguous, the likelihood is that traditional cases of disputed ownership of land involving trespass, theft, squatter’s rights, and so forth, will occur among members of a geographically defined community, and will be settled by rules governing that geographically defined community.

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