Pit Schultz on Thu, 14 Nov 96 22:55 MET

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nettime: Markets as Work - Richard Barbrook

Talk by Richard Barbrook
Hypermedia Research Centre, University of

(Followed by remarks of Manuel Delanda)

Held at the Metaforum 3 conference, 'Under
Construction' Budapest, October 13, 1996

I thought it was very interesting listening to the
debate here, because I did feel a sense of deja-vu
from debating with Richard Dawkins at Ars
Electronica in Linz. In the sense that we're
talking about the same problem. Modernity is a
process which regularly changes the social,
technical, political circumstances within which we
live in. And therefore there is this temptation to
think that new theories are the only way to explain
the most recent changes - like the "paradigm shift"
which Manuel Delanda has been talking about. If we
look at this century, we can see that there has
been a succession of new theories which have come
and gone: Bolshevism, fascism, Keynesianism - and
we're now  witnessing the end game of
post-modernism and neo-liberalism. It is
interesting that - at this very moment of
theoretical exhaustion - we get the importation of
terms from biology, computing and physics into the
social sciences. What I want to do here is to talk
as a social scientist - if we can still use words
like that - about the particularity of social
science and to argue against the mystical
positivism which we heard from Manuel Delanda.
Above all, what I want to stress is that - behind
his hip talk about non-linear equations and
artificial life - there are some very traditional
ideas derived from liberal economics. 

Manuel romanticises the world of small producers
who freely buy and sell to each other in local
markets. There are two points to make about this
fantasy. First, peasant markets were not determined
by supply and demand. This analysis is a completely
ahistorical - as is shown in Edward Thompson's book
called 'Customs in Common'. Markets in pre-modern
times were set by customary prices. For
manufactured goods, prices were controlled by the
guilds. For agricultural goods, there was the
additional sanction of the food riot. Edward
Thompson makes quite clear that - when speculators
did try to withdraw corn from the market to push up
prices - the people would go along, open the
bakeries and sell the bread at what they regarded
as the customary price. Adam Smith's "free" market
- as described in the 'Wealth of Nations' - was a
new phenomenon in the late-eighteenth century.
Sometimes the "free" market even had to be imposed
on the population at the point of soldiers'

The other difficulty with romanticising small
producers is that they cannot tackle the most
fundamental economic problems which we face today.
I don't want to defend corporate apologists like
George Gilder here, but I can't understand how
small peasant markets are going to organise an
infrastructural works programme as large as
building a fibre-optic grid. This is a big social
project. We're talking in England of an expenditure
of around 20 billion. In America, it could cost
around $120 billion. 

These problems with romanticising small producers
are the reason why we need to reject Manuel's
enthusiasm to throw out the old theories. We cannot
ignore the ideas of "dead white males" - as they
are often called in American universities. On the
contrary, we need to read them, understand them and
to deepen their analyses. I am a member of the
Labour party. However I'm not just a leftist, but
also English. England was the first urbanised
bourgeois nation. We English are guilty not only of
inventing liberalism, but also socialism! Therefore
it is important to look at the "dead white males"
who were actually present at the birth of modernity
in England. Interestingly, the key thinkers of this
moment weren't even English! Adam Smith was
Scottish, David Ricardo was Portuguese and Karl
Marx was German. But they all were fascinated by
the dramatically new society which was emerging in
England. Coming from its periphery, they understood
how England represented a dramatic break with
traditional society. 

If you were Adam Smith living in 18th century
Edinburgh, you could visit a pre-modern - almost
pre-feudal - age by going a few hundred kilometres
north to the tribal Highlands. These philosophers
knew personally about the great contrast between
traditional and modern societies. For over two
hundred years, modernity has been an on-going
process of urbanisation, marketisation,
statisation, democratisation, industrialisation,
proletarianisation, globalisation and the rise of
the spectacle. England might have been the first
country to have a majority of its population living
in the cities, but the same process is now going on
in China when peasants pour in from the countryside
to join the modern world.

The Net is the intensification - the speeding up -
of the process of modernity at a much higher social
and technical level. Money and the state are very
recent phenomena. Most people until very recently
lived outside the money-commodity economy. They
were subsistence peasants, sometimes even nomads.
Money was for surpluses, it was what you paid your
taxes with, it was what you traded for luxuries.
Peasants also lived outside the state. The state
came in occasionally to steal money from you, to
take away your sons to fight in wars or to rampage
its troops across your crops. The state was
something external from the people: the tax-
collector and the soldier. Modernity is the process
of our inclusion within the money-commodity economy
and the state. And the Net - contrary to the
Californian ideologues - is intensifying this

What are talking about here? According to the "dead
white males", what was the driving force behind
this process of modernity? No commodity goes to the
market by itself, no machine produces by itself.
Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' starts with a very
interesting analysis of what makes modern society
superior to the tribal way of living up in the
Highlands. According to Smith, this is the division
and distribution of human labour. He starts with
the analogy of the pin factory. Individuals making
pins on their own will not do it very quickly. But,
if you divide and distribute the labour of
manufacturing pins between lots of individuals,
suddenly productivity shoots up. Smith uses an
anti-market analogy - as Braudel would call it - to
explain how markets work. Because, he says, if we
look at the market as a whole, the same process is
going on. Some people make pins, some are peasants,
others are economists and so on. By buying and
selling to each other, they together create
collective labour. This labour theory of value
still has value today. It is not something we
should see just as an explanation of how prices are
determined in a marketplace. As the Russian
economist Isaac Illich Rubin pointed out, the
labour theory of value is also sociologically true.
This is the point which Smith is making. By turning
labour into a commodity, we create the basis for
collective labour - we enable ourselves to work
together across time and space. The thing that gave
the edge to the market was that it allowed people
to move between jobs, to be grouped into larger and
larger conglomerations. The early political
economists were fascinated by this socialisation of
labour. Manuel's analytical division between
markets and anti-markets can be useful in many
ways, but this approach also misses this key point
about the socialisation of labour. 

For instance, the power underpinning corporations
like Microsoft or Netscape is their ability to
employ thousands of workers. These organisations
coordinate collective labour across time and space.
The Net is deepening this process by enabling more
people to work within a global marketplace and to
create global organisations. Let me tell you a
story about a friend of ours called Eva. She runs a
cybercafe in London called Cyberia which has
franchises in places like Dublin, New York, Paris,
Rotterdam, Tokyo and Bangkok. How can she
coordinate a small business across three
continents? IRC-channels turned out to be a very
good way that managers from the different
cybercafes could get together to talk about their
common problems! This is a good example how
economies of scale are now being generated on a
wider scale through the Net. This is why we must
understand that we're still living within the
process of modernity. This is why we cannot abandon
the fundamental analyses of modernity first made in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We still
have to study political economy. We live within a
statised, money-commodity society. These phenomena
have not gone away. 

This is why I find it bizarre that Manuel quotes
the work of Fernand Braudel against any analysis
derived from political economy. Braudel was a
member of the Annales School in France. Far from
being anti-Marxists, these historians were
socialists! Braudel himself says in the book quoted
by Manuel that he supports "socialism from above
and spontaneity from below." Similarly Harry
Braverman was closely associated with 'Monthly
Review', which is an American academic journal run
by self-styled Marxists. Why do Braudel and
Braverman need to use theories from the nineteenth
century? Because the work of political economists
provides you with useful tools for comprehending
empirical reality. The methodology of sociology is
not the same as the methodology of physics or
biology. What I want to stress is that social
events are non-repeatable. It's not just that there
is friction and mess in empirical reality. More
importantly, history is a process of continual
non-repeatable changes, especially since the advent
of modernity. The founders of political economy
witnessed the decline of traditional societies
based on family relations, patriarchy and religious
belief. They understood that the new world of
states and markets was a place of things - a place
where people relate to each other indirectly
through things rather directly through personal
relationships. Above all, by allowing our society
to be organised through things, we've have
unleashed the dynamic process of the continual
socialisation of labour. It is because of this
crucial insight that I think it is important for us
to look again at the writings of those "dead white
males" and the people who have build upon their
work. We need to understand how really existing
capitalism evolves as a process if we want to know
what we can do within this form of society whether
we work for wages, are company owners or even doing
things for free. 

In particular, I'm influenced by the work of a
group of French economists who emerged out of the
radical protests of the '60s. Michel Aglietta,
Alain Lipietz, Robert Boyer and Benjamin
Coriat are the leading members of what is called
the Regulation School. Lipietz is associated with
the Greens, but most of these economists are either
in the French Socialist Party or closely associated
with it. Like Braudel, they believe that the state
has an important role to play within the economy,
but they're also interested in encouraging the
spontaneity of the market and community
involvement. As Social Democrats, they are
advocates of the mixed economy. 

It is interesting to compare their analysis with
the one put forward by Manuel. For the Regulation
School, Venice could not be the founder of modern
capitalism because its wealth was based on trade
between two self-sufficient agricultural entities:
the Ottoman and Holy Roman Empires. Instead they
locate the birth of capitalism in England. This was
the first society where all basic necessities had
to be obtained through people buying and selling
goods and services to each other. They then trace
the process of modernity through nineteenth century
liberalism to the successful development in the
post-war era of Fordism: our contemporary society
of mass production and mass consumption. At the
centre of their analysis is why Fordism in Western
Europe, America and Japan has since entered into a
long period of crisis. Unlike neo-liberals, they're
not just interested in the size of companies, the
regulatory role of the state and the globalisation
of markets. Like Adam Smith, the Regulation School
believe that the continual socialisation of labour
is the key to understanding the process of
modernity - including the crisis of Fordism. 

>From the late-'60s onwards, the rigid hierarchies
of the Fordist factory system became an obstacle to
raising the productivity of labour. By
concentrating the workforce within such large
organisations, it became very difficult to innovate
at great speed. Above all, the factory system
created the conditions for a long period of labour
unrest across the industrialised world. In
response, neo-liberal policies of deregulation and
marketisation were adopted as a way of
redisciplining workers and breaking up the
rigidities of the factory system. The Net is a good