Sunday, April 10, 2011


[updated below][and again]

Since it was a nice day to go to the park, I dropped in on the annual Anarchist Bookfair, feeling even more out of place than ever now that I am charging my time to government research contracts (previous visits described here and here). "Anarchist" ought to indicate a state of mind, a constant rebelligon against any kind of fixed, stagnant order whatsoever, including political labels. The first duty of an anarchist should be to violate whatever expectations are raised by the term "anarchist". Instead, it seems to be yet another counter-cultural tribe, people seeking an identity as radicals or punks or something, and devoted not to changing the world but supporting a bohemian lifestyle.

Alright, that is not really fair to the fair. One of the panelists, Cindy Milstein, who spoke on "horizontalism" (good new word), seemed like a normal person, and thus serious. And there are a good number of people involved in radical labor unionism and seemed like genuine working class types. And many of the people there are actual activists, who are trying to do their best to fix the world. That's better than my complaining (and jeeze, I'm noticing how many posts I make involve me encountering some vaguely promising group, meeting, movement, or book, and then kvetching about how it doesn't meet my expectations exactly. That must get tedious for the reader).

All this opposition to "capitalism" seems misguided. Capitalism has its flaws but it's not an institution, it's a fucking force of nature. Or rather, it's a set of social practices that harnesses a fundamental force of nature (self-interest, aka greed) in ways that are astonishingly powerful for both good and ill, and ultimately promise to end in civilizational self-destruction. Tackling it head-on as an enemy seems like a stupid move, and fits in with my image above of these anarchists as more about attitude than actual change.

I suppose that it's due to a generally technophobic atmosphere (somewhat refreshing actually compared to the normal Bay Area vibe) that I heard nothing there of the most successful subversion of capitalism in our time -- the free software movement. They successfully created an entirely new mode of production, one in which the work product is not owned but freely available to all. And this new mode of production is not confined to some obscure vegan food co-op but has produced the software that powers the communication infrastructure of the entire planet (Linux, Apache, and much else), not to mention one of the most visited and useful sites on the Internet (Wikipedia). No capital, no capitalists, no ownership, no cash nexus. That seems more radical than anything I saw at the fair.

[update: you know, the above is entirely too negative, based largely on me being uncomfortable in a crowd of bohos. But I'm uncomfortable in any kind of crowd whatsoever, so discount all that. On looking over some of the literature I took home, particularly the catalog from PM Press, one of the more solid-seeming institutions that were displaying there, I'm actually quite glad that this subculture exists and is active and self-sustaining and keeping certain parts of the human spirit alive. If it's often self-indulgent and more interested in itself than the world, well, what group isn't?

But I'm keeping the title since Google says it's an original coinage and I kinda like it.]

[update again: on looking over some videos from radical speakers, I've decided it's something like a church -- people don't listen to these guys for information or for critical analysis, they listen to have their faith renewed. The faith is that we are in the grip of the devil (capitalism) but a savior will appear any day now (in the form of working class solidarity) and bring about heaven (a classless society). I'm hardly the first person to make that kind of observation, but it suddenly clicked just now. Like many other forms of spiritual fervor, I feel somewhat drawn in but my resistance to being swept up is much stronger. And it makes me feel somewhat jerkish for criticizing it, since people's spirituality is their own business.]


Anton Sherwood said...

Oh, Wikipedia certainly has capital.

The rhetorical problem with capitalism is that the establishment, including the establishment Left, has incentives to obscure the distinction between free markets and crony-capitalism. (see also

mtraven said...

Wikipedia has money, but they have no investors demanding return on it. They're a nonprofit.

Capitalism has to answer for itself as it actually exists, not as some theoretical model. Just like communism.

Anton Sherwood said...

Are you saying that subsidies, trade barriers, cartel licensing and so on — the corruptions of capitalism — can never be abolished or reduced, and therefore it is nonsense if we free-market idealists pretend that they can?

Capital ≠ money.

mtraven said...

? Don't think I said a word about what might happen in some unforeseen future.

You are entitled to work towards your ideal, just like communists are entitled to their ideal of a classless cooperative society. If I want to live in an economic fantasy I'll take The Dispossessed over Atlas Shrugged any day, but tastes vary.

scw said...

The equation of self-interest with greed is not correct. Greed or avarice, understood as one of the cardinal sins, arises from the violation of the commandment "thou shalt not covet." It is coveting thy neighbour's house, wife, servant, maid, ox, ass, or anything that is his, which is condemned - not having, or seeking to have comparable possessions by one's own honest effort and fair trading. A businessman who sells his product or service to willing buyers does not, ipso facto, covet the belongings of his neighbor or commit the sin of avarice.

Just because a corporation is legally non-profit does not mean that it doesn't make money. It is true that such an entity does not pay dividends to stockholders, but any number of people may be making handsome amounts of money from it. Universities, for example, are non-profits. In 2008, thirty university presidents were reported to have received annual salaries and benefits in excess of $1 million. Hospitals are mostly non-profits, and non-profit hospital administrators are another very well-compensated class. See, for example:

Mr. Sherwood is right in distinguishing market capitalism and what he calls crony capitalism (state capitalism). The two exist alongside each other and should not be confused.

Where you write "capitalism has to answer for itself as it actually exists," you might as well have written "the family Canidae has to answer for itself as it actually exists," while failing to distinguish between domestic dogs and jackals.

scw said...

Further, as to Wikipedia having "no capital," this is nonsense. Capital, or equity, is commonly defined as the difference between an entity's total assets and total liabilities - i.e., its net worth.

Non-profit corporations are required to file Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service annually.These forms are public documents, easily found online. While they do not provide complete information, they do indicate the filers' assets net of their liabilities. The Wikimedia Foundation's net assets at the end of its fiscal year 2009, as indicated on its Form 990 filed 4/29/2010, were $8,231,767.

One definition of profit is the increase in net worth from the end of one reporting period to the end of the next reporting period. These data are also found on the Wikimedia Foundation's 2009 Form 990. Its net assets at the previous fiscal year's end were $5,178,168. Subtracting this amount from $8,231,767 yields a net increase (profit) for the year of $3,053,599.

While this does not place it in the range of the Fortune 500, the Wikimedia Foundation is assuredly the equivalent of a handsomely profitable small business - the more so because it pays no taxes. The founder reportedly gets a speaker's fee in excess of $75,000. Nice work if you can get it!

mtraven said...

Quibbling over terminology is stupid. Wikimedia has no investors demanding a return on their invested capital, which was the point.

Furthermore, Wikipedia is and open-source project which is distinct from the Wikimedia Foundation. If the foundation went out of business tomorrow, the Wikipedia content would still exist, it would be in the public domain under an open license, people would continue to contribute to it, and it would no doubt be hosted by somebody else. The distributed production and ownership of public goods is a new thing -- and that was the larger point.

scw said...

Wikipedia serves largely as a vehicle for Jimmy Wales's self-promotion. See:

He is, to say the least, a man who is "doing well by doing good," or at any rate what is perceived as good.

There is little to distinguish your dithyrambs over Wikipedia and the free software phenomenon from the attitudinizing you quite rightly detect in others when it comes to their particular hobby-horses.

scw said...

For some reason the URL of the Guardian article got cut off. It should continue, following the slash after 25, with the words "wikipedia.internet"

The author of the Guardian article refers to "evangelist glurge" about Wikipedia, describing the sorts of cloying effusions you have posted here about it. Apparently they are becoming clich├ęs of latter-day secular piety.

mtraven said...

It's pretty amusing to have you quoting the Guardian and an MIT hacker to me.

There's elements of truth to Finklestein's position, but pretty small elements. I've complained myself about the way open-source generates actual money for people at the center of the network, but not the multitudes who do the work. But the fact that Jimmy Wales gets high speaker fees doesn't change the fact that tens of thousands of people contribute to Wikipedia, without being paid or coerced to do so, and it's become an amazingly widely-used resource. That's not gush, it's just the facts.

scw said...

The core of Wikipedia appears to have been the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is in the public domain. It is still the basis of most of Wikipedia's historical and literary articles about subjects more than a century old. That's fine, and somewhat convenient, but I can always go to the original source on my bookshelf.

I do not have the academic background to judge Wikipedia's coverage of the physical sciences - but I am reasonably sure that the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica more accurately reflected the best scientific knowledge of a century ago than Wikipedia's articles reflect the best scientific knowledge of the present day. Its articles on current events and popular culture seem to be frequently, and often mischievously, altered and "edited." Altogether, though it is occasionally useful, it is an overrated resource.

Nothing happens in this world unless it pays off for someone. It is true that tens of thousands of people contribute to Wikipedia without being paid or coerced to do so. Millions of people in like fashion contribute to Christian churches, of which you have so often expressed your low opinion, without being paid or coerced to do so - and, in truth, their contributions have often served to feather the nest of an Aimee Semple McPherson or a Jim Bakker. Is there any reason not to be as sceptical of one sort of "evangelist glurge" as of another?

Non-profits, charities, churches, or mutual associations have been historically favorable vehicles for cheats precisely because they have no stockholders vigilantly enquiring after the use of their funds. That is why the capital of such an organization is so often diverted to purposes other than its well-meaning and naive donors intended.

TGGP said...

"I'm hardly the first person to make that kind of observation, but it suddenly clicked just now."
Nor the last. A footnote in James Scott's "The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia":
"It is impossible to read the Communist Manifesto without being struck by how much it owes, normatively and structurally, to Christian eschatological thinking: a debased world of oppression and sin, a deepening crisis, a final clash between good and evil, the triump of the good, the perfect society, and the end of history. In this context, the appeal of socialism to the Western working class must have rested, in some part, on how neatly it tracked the millenarian narrative of Christianity they were already familiar with."
I quote some more along those lines here.

mtraven said...

Scott's name and books were in the air at this gathering. Almost bought one but I have no more room for physical books at home, so will use that great socialist institution the library.