A self-managed workplace in revolutionary Spain

Fields, factories and workshops: or industry combined with agriculture and brain work with manual work is Peter Kropotkin‘s landmark anarchist text laying out possible foundations for anarchist society.



Yochai Benkler
Yale Law School
yochai [dot] benkler [at] yale [dot] edu


Getting Rich off Those Who Work for Free
Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007 By JUSTIN FOX

It might seem very odd to look to a long-dead Russian anarchist for
business advice. But Peter Kropotkin’s big idea–that there are
important human motivations beyond what he called “reckless
individualism”–is very relevant these days. That’s because one of the
most interesting questions in business has become how much work people
will do for free.

Kropotkin was an aristocrat who, after being imprisoned for his
insurrectionist activities, escaped and fled to England in 1876. He
also drew the first good topographic maps of Siberia and wrote a
memoir of his revolutionary days that has become a minor classic. More
to the point, he proposed in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of
Evolution, that the survival of animal species and much of human
progress depended on the tendency to help others.

That I even know of Kropotkin comes courtesy of the Wikipedia entry
for the “gift economy,” the current term of art for this altruistic
approach. Wikipedia is, of course, a prime example of the gift economy
at work. Argue about its inaccuracies all you want, but the volunteer-
authored online encyclopedia is on its way to becoming (if it isn’t
already) the world’s dominant reference resource.

Open-source, volunteer-created computer software like the Linux
operating system and the Firefox Web browser have also established
themselves as significant and lasting economic realities. That’s not
true yet in the worlds of science, news and entertainment: we’re still
figuring out what the role of volunteers will be, but that it will be
much bigger than in the past seems obvious.

“The question for the past decade was, Is this real?” says Yale law
professor Yochai Benkler. “The question for the next half-decade is,
How do you make this damned thing work?” Benkler is a leading prophet
of today’s gift economy, and he fits the part: his bounteous beard
resembles Kropotkin’s. He was treasurer of a kibbutz, a cooperative
farm, in his native Israel. He doesn’t mind being called utopian. But
neither does Benkler dream of a world without capitalism. Instead, he
has become an unlikely business guru, with a shop at the intersection
of Commerce and Cooperation. “It’s very cool,” he says. “I find myself
talking to all sorts of weird hackers one day and chief economists of
major corporations the next day, and they’re all interested in similar

What might those things be? Take the case Benkler makes in his 2006
book, The Wealth of Networks (available, free, at http://www.benkler.org)
for the economic benefits of “peer production” of software and other
information products–from journalism to scientific research to videos
of people mixing Mentos and Diet Coke. Peer production by people who
donate small or large quantities of their time and expertise isn’t
necessarily great at generating the original and the unique, but it’s
very good for improving existing products (like software) and bringing
together dispersed information (Wikipedia). Often better, in Benkler’s
telling, than corporations armed with copyright and patent laws.

Clever entrepreneurs and even established companies can profit from
this volunteerism–but only if they don’t get too greedy. The key,
Benkler says, is “managing the marriage of money and nonmoney without
making nonmoney feel like a sucker.” In software, where IBM and other
companies charge billions of dollars to install and run otherwise free
Linux systems, this seems to be working–in part because Linux
volunteers can make money from their expertise and there’s a clear
understanding of what one can charge for.

In other fields, it’s not so clear. In a critique of Benkler’s work
last summer, business writer Nicholas Carr speculated that Web 2.0
media sites like Digg, Flickr and YouTube are able to rely on
volunteer contributions simply because a market has yet to emerge to
price this “new kind of labor.” He and Benkler then entered into what
has come to be widely known in Web circles as the “Carr-Benkler
wager”: a bet on whether, by 2011, such sites will be driven primarily
by volunteers or by professionals.

It’s tempting for any professional journalist to root for Carr. I
certainly don’t want to be replaced by volunteers. But then, this
magazine couldn’t be produced without the volunteers, such as Yochai
Benkler, who allow us journalists to interview them. Cable TV news
channels are pageants of volunteerism, with much airtime filled by
unpaid guests. The majority of these people aren’t motivated by
Kropotkin’s spirit of mutual aid–they seek fame, an audience for
their ideas, higher fees on the speaking circuit. But for those
minutes on air, they are working for free.

{To read Justin Fox’s daily take on business, go to time-blog.com/

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