Kevin Carson

I’ve followed a fairly crooked path to get where I am.  Back in the early '90s I’d have been what Rod Dreher calls a “crunchy conservative,” heavily influenced by the Nashville agrarians and the Catholic distributists, and so forth.  My affinity for decentralization, localism, and a petty bourgeois society of small ownership, self-management and direct democracy, all caused me to drift leftward.  At the same time, I tended to take neoliberal self-identifications with the “free market” at face value, and consequently to identify all talk of markets, entrepreneurship, the Internet, and network society as loathsome doctrines associated with Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp (much as Thomas Frank and Andrew Keen do today).

Kirkpatrick Sale’s Human Scale was a sort of catalyst for me.  He first drew my attention to just how dependent corporate capitalism is on the interventionist state, with information on such things as the effect of the railroad land grants on the structure of robber baron capitalism, figures on corporate welfare almost equalling corporate profits, and so forth.  Just mining his endnotes for further reading was a grand adventure.  It led me to a lot of reading on false economies of scale and the superior efficiency of most small-scale production, and the role of the state in cartelizing the economy.

In the course of my reading, I came across references to individualist anarchism and particularly Benjamin Tucker’s work.  Tucker argued that the best way to authentic socialism was a genuinely free market in which all state subsidies, state-enforced artificial scarcities, entry barriers, regulatory cartels and artificial property rights were abolished.  In such a free market, unfettered competition would drive artificial scarcity rents down to zero – drive rent down to the value of buildings and improvements, and interest to the bare cost of administration – so that “the natural wage of labor in a free market is its product.”  I also stumbled across Silverman’s anthology on the “American libertarian tradition,” with work by individualist anarchists, libertarian socialists, and libertarian capitalists.  It was this that brought my attention to Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess, whose analysis influenced me heavily (despite the fact that I integrated it into my Tuckerite libertarian socialist framework).

I continued to read work by the New Left historian Gabriel Kolko and Ron Radosh, the Power Elite sociologist G. William Domhoff, and Frances Piven on the essentially corporatist nature of the “progressive” regulatory/welfare state.  I also read the Anarchist FAQ, of which Iain McKay is the primary author, and studied in depth the histories of other anarchist traditions.  As with Rothbard & Co., I had a great deal of affinity with anarcho-communist and syndicalist thinkers, and considered them anarchist comrades, while only selectively and skeptically incorporating their ideas into my framework.

So by the time I emerged from this process, I was firmly on the Left and had settled into a fairly stable individualist anarchist or left-wing free market ideological framework.  I considered myself on the marginal fringes of both the libertarian socialist and free market libertarian movements, and tended to think of more mainstream thinkers in both traditions as comrades who were misguided in some particulars but who I could work with in many others.

As you can imagine, I saw the Seattle demo and subsequent AG movement, which emerged about this time, as a very exciting time.

In the meantime, I began reading Chomsky’s analysis of world politics and American foreign policy – the first book of his I read was Deterring Democracy, and I read most of the others in the year 2000.  I played hunt-the-footnote with him as I did with Kirk Sale, reading William Blum’s Killing Hope and a lot of other material on the continuity between Washington’s role and Nazi Germany’s as the chief anti-insurgent superpower, assorted coups and death squads, and the oceans of blood that were spilled to keep the world safe for corporate power.

In Summer 2001, having discovered the Internet the previous year, I began to gravitate toward Proudhonian mutualist groups like Larry Gambone’s Voluntary Cooperation Movement, as well as participating in debates in more mainstream anarchist venues like Iain McKay’s anarchy list and the A-Infos news list.  My first real work in print, “The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand,” was published by Gambone’s Red Lion Press about the time of the 9/11 attacks.

In 2002, becoming increasingly tired of smug assertions in the Austrian economics discussion venues I frequented that Bohm-Bawerk and Mises had “disproved” the labor theory of value, I began the intensive reading in classical political economy, Marx and the Marxians, and the Austrians and marginalists, that led to Studies in Mutualist Political Economy.  My purpose was to rehabilitate the labor theory of value and the associated socialist theory of exploitation, but to do so within a Tuckerite market framework and in a way that responded to marginalist critiques by Bohm-Bawerk, Jeavons and Marshall.

Around this time, I began to discover that “free market anticapitalism,” of the state as the friend of big business and the enabler of exploitation, was a meme whose time had come.  It was “steam engine time.”  I encountered a number of thinkers like Roderick Long whose analysis was very similar to my own.  We began to coalesce into a conscious movement, eventually culminating in Center for a Stateless Society (about which more below).

Mutualist Political Economy, in developing the thesis of state-enforced monopoly as the source of exploitation, included a lengthy section on historic capitalism (with heavy reliance on Marxist analysis of primitive accumulation) and the crisis tendencies of developed capitalism (with heavy reliance on vol. 3 of Capital and the neo-Marxists at Monthly Review).  As I said tongue-in-cheek in the Preface, it was intended as an analysis of the laws of motion of corporate capitalism, past, present and future.

Reading analysis of the Seattle movement and earlier networked movements of the '90s initially sparked my interest in network culture and organization as a tool of resistance.  I did a lot of reading in the work of David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla at Rand on swarming attacks, netwar, etc., and Rheingold on flash mobs, as a new form of resistance made possible by the Internet.

In the process of writing the parts of Mutualist Political Economy on crisis tendencies of late capitalism, I read intensively from Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman, and R.A. Wilson.  This inspired my next writing project, Organization Theory:  A Libertarian Perspective.  I won’t describe it in any detail here beyond saying the original picture on the tin – that virally popular “head up ass” picture of a guy with necktie and briefcase inserting his head into his own rectum, which I had to replace when a copyright troll claimed “ownership” of it – was a fair indication of the contents.

About the time I finished Organization Theory, at the end of 2008, I was hired as a research associate and commentator at Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS), a left-wing market anarchist think tank.  Starting on 2007 I also made some progress as a freelance writer, selling articles to The Freeman (edited by my good friend Sheldon Richman) and other periodicals.  Writing hasn’t been enough to live on without my work as a hospital orderly, but it’s been enough to pay off my debts and accumulate a nice little pile of F.U. money.

In the process of writing Organization Theory, in turn, I developed even more of an interest in networked culture, and particularly in the open-source/free culture movement.  I became aware for the first time of the micromanufacturing and open-source hardware movements, and the kind  of stuff going on in places like Factor e Farm. It was in this period that I made the acquaintance of Michel Bauwens and began hanging around e-lists like the P2P Foundation’s email discussion list and the Open Manufacturing Google Group.  It brought me into contact with a lot of people whose work influenced me heavily like Sam Rose, Eric Hunting, Vinay Gupta, Athina Karatzogianni and Andy Robinson.

It was this new complex of ideas that became the subject of my next book, The Homebrew Industrial Revolution:  A Low-Overhead Manifesto.  It started with an analysis of the old mass-production economy as a historical dead-end, a state-subsidized dinosaur, and proceeded to describe the forces that would supplant it:  relocalized micromanufacturing with cheap open-source CNC machine tools, and household microenterprises producing for the informal and barter economy.

As with my previous books, ideas I touched on in Homebrew inspired my next writing project.  That would be my next book, The Desktop Regulatory State.  In writing Homebrew, I presupposed – and mentioned in passing – the effect of the desktop revolution on immaterial production, and destroying the material basis of corporate power in the information and cultural realms.  I decided to develop that idea in depth as a book in its own right.

A second contributing current to the Desktop Regulatory State originally came to my attention when “Doocing,” or the firing of bloggers for negative comments about employers.  I synthesized this with my earlier reading of Ronfeldt and Arquilla on netwar, along with Naomi Klein on culture jamming, the Wobblies on open-mouth sabotage, Frank Kernaghan’s “culture jamming” against Kathie Lee Gifford, and networked labor models like the Coalition of Imolakee Workers.  The result of this line of thought appears, in roughly similar form, in several places:  “The Ethics of Labor Struggle:  A Free Market Perspective,” “Open-Mouth Sabotage, Networked Resistance, and Asymmetric Warfare on the Job,” “Chapter Nine – Special Agency Problems of Labor” in Organization Theory, and “Labor Struggle – A Libertarian Model” (Center for a Stateless Society, 2010).

My next book involves putting these two strands together and generalizing them.  The wage-factory system was originally justified by the shift from individually affordable craft tools to enormously expensive, specialized, capital-intensive machinery.  The latter could only be afforded by enormously rich people pooling their resources to buy it and then hiring others to work it.  Administering the costly machinery and the large workforce required large, hierarchical institutions run by professional managers.  In Galbraith’s model of countervailing power, only other large, hierarchical institutions, run by professional managers, could restrain the power of business corporations.  The problem was that these regulatory bodies tended to cluster, in practice, in complexes of allied institutions.

As I pointed out in Homebrew, the desktop revolution had destroyed the rationale for the factory system (for the music studios, giant publishing houses, etc.) in the realms of desktop publishing, garage recording and sound editing, open-source software, etc.  And the micromanufacturing revolution, by lowering the cost of a “factory” by two orders of magnitude, is doing the same for physical production.  We’re going back to individually affordable, general purpose craft tools.  As Tom Coates remarked, in the immaterial realm, the desktop computer has destroyed the gap between what can be produced at work and what can be produced at home.  So there’s no need for “work” any more.

My argument in The Desktop Regulatory State is that the desktop revolution has done the same thing to regulatory state functions.  The desktop computer, network organization with near-zero coordination costs, stigmergic cooperation on the Wikipedia/Al Qaeda/file-sharing model, streaming video, and the possibilities opened up by Web 2.0 for “open-mouth sabotage” against all kinds of corporate malefactors, enable what John Robb calls “superempowered individuals” to take on giant authoritarian institutions on an equal basis.  The desktop revolution has eliminated the barrier between the kinds of “regulation” that can be carried out from an office in a government agency, and what we can do at home.

As you can guess, the emergence or newfound prominence of Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, Occupy and Anonymous, in the middle of my work in writing this book, has been enormously encouraging to me.  I’m beginning to think I may have understated my thesis.  Streaming video, as I argued here, is more effective than a police commission in exposing and punishing evildoers.  And “doxing” operations, like those LulzSec and AntiSec have carried out against HBGary, the BART police and Stratfor, are achieving what the lapdog regulatory state never could.

As I’m fond of saying, the twentieth century was the era of the giant organization.  By the end of the twenty-first, there won’t be enough of them left to bury.  We’ll display their bleeding heads on our battlements.

Besides the sense of hope from living in a time like this, when authoritarian institutions are getting curb-stomped every time I turn on the news, I can’t get over the sense of undeserved grace I have from my writing career.  Before the Internet, I would have been one of millions of (if you’ll pardon the phrase) mute, inglorious Miltons, piling up manuscripts that would moulder away in someone’s attic, and never seeing print except via the occasional cranky letter to the editor.  I’m sure some people like Andrew Keen would consider that a good thing.  A few centuries earlier, I’d have been an illiterate jug-eared Lowland Scots peasant hoeing turnips to pay rent to some lord.

So I’m amazed at my good fortune in being able to “own my own printing press,” and write stuff that’s read by thousands of people.  I’ve been able to contact activists and scholars all over the world, just by Googling their email to comment on something I read.  I’m very lucky to be living in these times.

A path of knowledge

So, Kevin, your ryde looks like a bibliography! Which makes a lot of sense for the man of science. I tried to sift through some of the material, but the sheer mass of it is quite intimidating. I love the Table of Contents of the Desktop State, especially as you seem to merge some ideas on governance-oriented mass collaboration with some interesting ideas from good science fiction (phyla?). I have done some work on the former - I am even the author of a book on the matter, Wikicrazia, which seems to have some influence on the debate in Italy; and I share with Vinay (he wrote about it here) the view that the latter does, at times, contain beautiful foresight and intuition. Stephenson and Sterling being Exhibits A and B.

So I tried going through it. I read quickly chapter 1, then attacked chapter 2 and got about one third through that. Of course I an in no position to give you a review, not yet at least. I am left wondering at this wealth of Internet-enabled scholarly work which seems to flow from someone who is not a professional academician (you say in the book you work in a hospital). How do you do it, how do you find the time and energy for both activities? And if you care so much about social science, how come you did not pursue an adacemic career?

Long Story

Thanks for your interest in the book, Alberto.  I sort of do the “Melville the scrivener” or “Einstein in the patent office” thing:  figure out the minimum time I need at the day job to survive, and then do my real work out in the real world.

I like being an independent scholar for the same reason I like using on-demand publishing and viral marketing:  it bypasses the gatekeepers.  With a library card and Internet connection, open courseware, and ongoing correspondence with scholars in my field all around the world, there are no transaction costs or entry barriers to being a scholar without paying a university $100k to certify you as one.

I did an abortive stint in grad school and found out I had a hard time taking orders or doing assignments that didn’t follow logically from my own self-directed learning.  And I didn’t like the idea of spending ten or twenty years as an academic proletarian working on a stringer basis and showing my belly to the departmental Alpha Males before I could get tenure.


What extraordinary topics you covered in your books! Colossal work. Awesome.

“Doocing” raises my attention because, as an Engagement manager for Edgeryders, I identified several individuals in my network, with relevant very good projects they could have introduced on this platform, but they do not, for fear of being labeled negatively by the authorities.

I had never heard of this term before, “Doocing”, I cannot find any proper translation in French.

“Doocing” appears to be quite “fashionable” — I read is as a form of self-censorship, in a society of silence. No one dared to raise this reality so far. As I fight with this every day in my work. I am glad that someone talks about it.

Regarding what you pointed out in Homebrew, and the fact that “there’s no need for work any more” (according to an old definition of what work should be, and corresponding to “enormously expensive, specialized, capital-intensive machinery“), individuals still have to fight to enforce these concepts. For example, I presented an open government project to what you call an “authoritarian institution”, and they asked with candor, 'What are you going to sell? “, rejecting what concerns social enterprise and consulting work as not being something worthwhile, not considered as “work” at all. I was even denied access to the self-employed program run by this government. And I am just one example among many others. In many areas, individuals struggle to get projects and businesses started. There are barriers to those who are trying to do something coming out of established boundaries.

I really enjoyed your last two paragraphs…

What would you recommend to improve the “authoritarian institutions that are getting curb-stomped every time I turn on the news”? Do you think it is possible to transform them into something that more closely matches aspirations of the people? What steps would you recommend? How should we proceed? It would be most interesting to continue your Edgeryders participation, eventually, through the third campaign, WE THE PEOPLE.

Re: Doocing

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Lyne.  I’m heading out the door soon and won’t have Internet access, so I’ll write a response tomorrow with the thoroughness your comments deserve.


As it happens I’m using the wireless at the brew pub, so I can finish my comment today.

I’ve had my own reasons to worry about Doocing.  I’m sure it’s fairly common for HR departments to Google employees, just to make sure they’re thinking happy thoughts and not damning their corporate overlords to hell on Facebook.  Fortunately, a work at a local hospital in a corporate chain rather than a job at the corporate office, and I get the impression that most of the HR folks are the kind who have email mainly to look at new pictures from their grandkids – if they don’t just have their secretaries print out the email for them so they can read it.  If I’m wrong, it’s too late to worry.  Writing is what I do, and I’m not going to stop.  And just about everything I’ve ever written is radical.

In any case, I figure if they’re keeping tabs on me, the amount of detailed stuff I’ve written on Open-Mouth Sabotage and the Streisand Effect might actually function as a sort of deterrent against hastily giving me the can.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t get blacklisted by my previous employer mainly because they knew I was saving a file of their memos and emails and I was the kind who’d love going to the press.

My guess is that the shift from jobs to work as the primary kind of “employment” will be enforced by the economy itself.  Historically, levels of self-provisioning in the household and production for exchange in the informal economy have risen sharply during economic downturns, as unemployed or underemployed workers have been forced by necessity to minimize cash expenses, maximize the portion of their consumption needs they can meet outside the cash nexus, and turn to income- and risk-pooling arrangements.  Since IMO this downturn is likely structural rather than cyclical, and levels of long-term unemployment are about double those of the early 1980s recession, the incentives are far stronger than in the past.  And the revolution in cheap production technology is continuing – it will surely be an order of magnitude cheaper in a few years.  Put the trends together, and it’s the perfect storm…  Pretty unpleasant for those caught up in the transition, though.

I’d also guess that authoritarian institutions will be reformed either by adapting in competition with networks and self-employment, or by being destroyed.  I believe that in the end hierarchical institutions will be almost entirely supplanted by networks and self-governing communities/enterprises.  In the interim decades, hierarchies will try to incorporate or coopt networks, and gain control over the emerging social form – Andy Robinson (at Cambridge, I think?) has argued on the P2P Foundation’s e-list quite a bit.  Examples include the Nixon Doctrine; Naomi Klein’s “Nike model” of outsourcing actual production to job shops while retaining corporate control of IP, finance and marketing; Enterprise 2.0 theories; and military Fourth Generation Warfare doctrines.  the problem is, real networks almost always run circles around hybrids.

Enterprise 2.0 doctrines, regardless of the liberatory rhetoric about “empowerment” and “self-managed teams” preached by the gurus and consultants, are actually put into practice by pointy-haired MBAs.  So what you wind up with is warmed-over Taylorism coated in Tom Peters’ rhetoric.

Military 4GW doctrines are intended as a way for conventional state militaries to incorporate the advantages of networked war-fighting organizations like Al Qaeda, by using new networked communications technology to free up the boots on the ground and empower them to work autonomously in response to their own real-time intelligence.  But in practice, as implemented by field grade officers at the “middle management” level of the chain of command, the new network technologies are used instead to increase the number of sign-offs required from “middle management” officers at battalion or brigade headquarters – to the extent of actually dictating the specific PowerPoint format of tactical officers’ mission proposals.

So in the end, I believe the state will be “reformed” by being hollowed out and retreating from the social sphere, and corporations will be “reformed” by the state’s imploding ability to provide the subsidies and enforce the cartels and artificial property rights they depend on for survival.  Corporations and state will be “reformed” the way the Roman Empire in the West was “reformed” in the 5th and 6th centuries.  The difference, in this case, is that the German tribes and the Gallic peasants working the villas’ fields have the equivalent of Star Trek matter-energy replicators.

We seem to be in a textbook example of Tainter’s “catabolic collapse” scenario, in which there are no longer social surpluses to repair the decaying infrastructures, and society metabolizes its own muscular, skeletal and nervous tissue until it collapses under its own weight.  The difference – again – is that new small-scale production and networked organization tech are rendering the old, centralized, capital-intensive infrastructures obsolete.  So for the first time the seeds of the Renaissance are sprouting before Rome even finishes falling.

Of course in the interim, the increased pressure of competition from networks may give production workers within the old hierarchies more leverage (their increased power of exit may give them more voice) to force some existing institutions in more libertarian directions.  In such cases, corporate and state apparatuses may dissolve into network forms (wither away) rather than being destroyed from outside.

Pointy-haired boss

Photo: Pointy-haired boss

There has been a long uninterrupted discussion, spreading in several Edgeryders mission reports, about the “pointy-haired boss”, le boss à tête de pioche (in French) ―, especially with Edgeryders participant Michel Filippi. One of his options is similar to yours ―fire them! "In the case of a business, or in the army, once the someone has been identified as being in a “lock” performance and evaluated as harmful, this person is fired”. (ref, one of my mission reports)

Besides replacing them, all means have been sought these past weeks (in our discussions), to try to transform the pointy-hair boss into a participatory boss.

Adapt or die are the 2 possible options for government institutions, if I understood you correctly.

Can there be exceptions to these options? Can it be possible that some fall through the cracks? Can it be that in some places, citizens and employees do not see the day when “adapt” or “die” will become a reality? Some institutions float and drift away in a protected bubble, frozen in time and space, where nothing seems to happen. They constantly postpone to later any possible change.

Today, I was reading about the 3rd mention of open government in a Quebec newspaper. (These are so rare that citizens actually put numbers on them). Mario Asselin wrote: “I do not expect a lot from this second report, since the first report on e-government promptly took the path of the shelves”. (Ref, Gouvernement transparent données accessibles)

Analysis above analysis, report after report, to lead to no change at all, no initiative. During the time analysis in underway, it justifies non-action, and then it is deliberately ignored. The same process can be repeated 2, 3, 4, 5― how many times would be acceptable? ― to fool everyone.

Even with increased pressure, general elections after another, some authoritarians seem not to wither away. They pretend to move in “more libertarian directions”, but it’s just a bluff. Brilliant spin doctors continue to manipulate in order for the same pointy-haired bosses to maintain their behaviour.

The seeds of the Renaissance?!!! How about pockets of Dark Ages? (clinging to certain places.)

A most interesting read. I am currently preparing to write a desertation on decentralisation and development aid and found your post very illuminating.

Many Thanks.

Decentralization and Development

A dissertation on decentralization and development aid sounds fascinating. Someone certainly needs to break the stranglehold the “export-oriented development model” has on development policies in the World Bank and national governments. I’d like to see how your dissertation comes out.

Nice read

Hello Kevin,

Interesting read

Thanks for the follow, was going to follow you back but I can’t - I think there may be a limit?

I’ve been aware of your work for a couple of years and have had a look at both ‘Homebrew Industrial Revolution’ and your drafts of ‘Desktop Regulatory State’ its nice to read the storey of how you came to write these.  I must admit I was initially put off ‘homebrew’ by your beliefs in the need for ‘free-markets’.  Now I’m more familiar with your work and I’ve developed my thinking I don’t find your ideas quite so threatening.

I do think alot about economics - working through ideas of alternative possibilites and various hybrids  - markets, planning, sharing - I wonder how things will end up.  I’m certainly grateful that at this time of turmoil there is also a great new communication tool that levels the playing field a bit with regards to writing the rules for the future.

Anyway nice to make your aquaintance - so to speak (or should that be write).


Thanks, Darren.

Nice to hear from you. The projects you’re involved in are the kinds of things that give me hope for the future. If it makes you feel any better, my idea of the “free market” is simply the sum total of voluntary social interactions, and I’d expect it to include a lot of communalism, cooperatives, gift economies, recuperated enterprises, and all sorts of Kropotkinian stuff.