In Which Our Heroine Reads Too Much Cory Doctorow and Thinks She Understands Economics

Clarissa has raised a very interesting point at her blog with regard to economic models:

The question of an alternative to capitalism is the central question that preoccupies most of philosophers today. If no such alternative exists, then criticizing capitalism is pretty much a waste of time…I’m curious to see if anybody does manage to conceive of the third possibility (capitalism, communism, and … ???).

Now, of course, I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I have given a lot of thought to this very question, and my opinion is this: ultimately, it seems like someone in a society needs to own the means of production:a capitalist system posits that they be owned by individuals*, whereas a communist system posits that they be owned by a collective (whether through the state or through some other, more anarchic means of cooperative ownership). Across the last century or so, various different groups of people  (including Post-War Reform Liberals and Social Democrats, as well as Corporatists and Fascists)  have talked about a ‘Third Way,’ but in practice, their alternative options all lie somewhere on the spectrum between the extremes of laissez-faire (which doesn’t work) and totalitarianism (which also doesn’t work, but in a much more horrible way). And since the means of production need to be owned by someone, it seems logically impossible to devise any sort of model that is anything more than just a variation on a theme.

However, it seems to me that the whole distinction between (hierarchical) private ownership and collective ownership arises only if we assume that there is a distinction between ‘Workers’ and ‘Owners**.’ This has certainly been a reasonable assumption in Western (and lately global) societies over the past two hundred years or so, but it is not necessarily the case. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, industry was small-scale, which meant that workers, in general, could afford to own the tools of their trades, and were, effectively, their own bosses. Now understand, I’m not trying to frame this as any sort of Arcadian ‘golden age’ (I for one would certainly not have wanted to live back then), but it is an historical fact, that with the development of industrial machinery (which costs a lot and generally takes a lot of people to operate), workers in general could no longer afford to own the tools of their own trades, and ultimately had to work for a wage for other people; they had famously ‘lost control of the means of production.’

Now obviously, a modern country cannot get by with it’s industrial output made-up of peasant cobblers in cottages; however, it seems possible that at some point, industrial technology (in the form of ‘fabbers,’ 3D-printers, and other such devices) may develop to the extent where massive amounts of overhead and huge numbers of people are no longer required to run a manufacturing business; where modern manufacturing can be done by ‘mom and pop’ operations working out of a garage. In such an economy, dominated by small businesses, the distinction between bourgeois and proletarian would become a trivial one, and the workers would effectively own their means of production.

We may already be seeing the rise of small businesses, freelancing and self-employment in the service sector. But until this process can be translated to manufacturing, the structural inequalities (and old models for dealing with them) will continue to persist.


*or, in reality, by corporations, which are governed, effectively, by a few individuals; the point is that the ownership is necessarily hierarchical.

**Or Proletariat and Bourgeoisie, if you prefer, though the terms seem to have fallen out of fashion for some reason.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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