Friday, June 1, 2012

History Through a Different Lens

Author's Note: The theory advanced here is painted in extremely broad strokes, since I wanted to tell the story in one easily-digestible blog post. I'll expand on particular issues in future blog posts.
As part of the exploration of the transition that society is facing, it would be well worth our while to understand how we got into this sorry mess in the first place.

I often wondered how a society founded on innovation, self-reliance, and respect for the individual and individual choice above all else morphed into the society we see around us today. I found one plausible explanation in the pages of The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, by Kevin Carson.

When I first started reading The Homebrew Industrial Revolution (THIR), I was expecting a technical treatise. However, before the author got to that, he embarked on a tour of the evolution of society during the Industrial Revolution that is, to put it mildly, considerably at odds with the one we all learned in public school.

As I read, I found myself constantly stopping and researching yet another topic, confirming Carson's take on a particular subject. What I found was that his grasp of the facts was sound, his analysis compelling. I invite readers to perform the same in-depth analysis.

Fundamental to understanding this alternative viewpoint is an understanding of the socialization of costs. Simply stated, when taxes are collected to pay for some good, and the users of that good don't pay the full cost of providing it, those costs have been socialized, or spread across the taxpayer base. This works to the advantage of the consumer of that good and the disadvantage of those who pay for the production of the good but do not consume it. The subsidization of the railroads, the roadway system, airlines and the airway system, energy production and education are just a few examples of socialization of costs that greatly benefitted the centralized, highly-capitalized, mass-production model at the expense of localized craft-type production.

From THIR, I learned that the socialization of costs of transportation, regulation, natural resource and education costs was necessary to make disposable, mass-produced goods from half a continent away competitive with locally crafted, repairable goods.

I also learned that Henry Ford had to more than double his initially-planned hourly wage for workers to convince craftsmen to surrender the autonomy and flexibility of self-directed work for the boring repetitiveness of the assembly line.

I learned that the then-nascent public education system was designed in large part by industrialists who needed a new type of worker, an unquestioning "human resource" who could be moved from one task to another with a minimum of retraining, who would gladly suffer the boredom of hours of repetitive activity on an assembly line, and who would exhibit an unquestioning loyalty and sense of inferiority to those in positions of authority higher on the production chain.

I learned that a secondary purpose of the education model designed by these industrialists was to create good consumers focused on keeping up with their peer group, drawing much of their self-satisfaction from performing their assigned tasks and parading about the latest new toy available for their consumption. John Taylor Gatto's American Education History Tour provides a quick overview of this alternative argument, and his online Underground History of American Education goes into considerably more detail.

I learned that "mass production required large investments in highly specialized equipment and narrowly trained workers," and to provide constant returns on the capital required for those investments, "it became necessary for firms to organize the market so as to avoid fluctuations in demand and create a stable atmosphere for profitable, long-term investment." The natural result of this model is planned obsolescence, the production of disposable goods, and the use of marketing to encourage the replacement of goods on a regular basis, regardless whether those goods were still appropriate for the tasks they were purchased to perform.

And I learned that what we ended up with is a society focused on consumption, an economic model based on the constant replacement of disposable goods, and a populace dedicated to keeping up with the Jones and focused more on quantity than quality.

I've yet to see a better explanation of how we got where we are today. Highly recommended for those who like to study the box from outside. For a much more detailed examination of the viewpoint offered here, I recommend the first two chapters of The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto. Those two chapters, A Wrong Turn, and the Path Not Taken(pdf) and Moloch: The Anatomy of Sloanist Mass-Production Industry(pdf), are available online as is the entire book.

In Carson's introductory material on the website, he notes that one theme of THIR is a comparison between the corporate, global, mass production economy (which he refers to as Sloanism) and the alternative economy that's growing all around us. Many of his arguments concerning the alternative economy will be familiar to those who have read the Tireless Agorist's Phoenix Society series of blog posts.
Another [theme] is the contrast of Sloanism to the leanness, agility and resilience of the alternative economy, with low overhead as the central conceptual principle around which my study of the latter is organized. Large inventories, high capital oulays, and high overhead have the same effect on mass-production industry that shit has on a human body bloated by constipation. The higher the fixed costs required to undertake an activity, the larger the income stream required for a household or firm to service that overhead; the enterprise must either get big or get out, and the household must have multiple sources of full-time wage income to survive.

The alternative economy, on the other hand, operates with almost no fixed costs, so that almost all its revenue is free and clear and it can survive prolonged periods of slow business. Because it’s organized stigmergically, with modular open-source designs, innovation costs are spread over the widest possible product ecologies with a minimum of transaction costs. The alternative economy is breeding the rats in the nests of corporate dinosaurs.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is much more to be said about this alternative view of history and how it impacts both our understanding of the traditional mass-production model and the potential success of the decentralized economy. However, this brief overview should provide considerable food for thought for those willing to think outside the box. I'll admit it took me considerable time to appreciate the conclusions Carson has reached, so you might want to consider his ideas and do a little research on your own.

...and that's all I have to say about that. For now.


  1. The problem isn't whether something is mass produced, the size of the producer or whether something is considered disposable or not.

    The problem is theft, coercion and fraud passed off as education.

    When people cease to believe that they can live off stolen goods, accepting personal responsibility for their lives, most of the abuses mentioned here couldn't exist. And until people become self owners, nothing much can be done about any of this.

    Personally, I like new and innovative products, as often as I can earn the money to pay for them. I also love many old things, well maintained. An old gun can be restored... an old refrigerator, not so much. :)

    Mass production is not the problem, as long as the workers are there voluntarily - or when enough robots are built. But someone is going to have to build the robots, and I highly suspect that's not a cottage industry. :)

    There is room for every kind of production and trade in a truly free market, without theft and coercion from those who think they know better or, frankly, just think they own the world and everyone in it.

  2. And that last was directed at "government" and not you, Dan. Just wanted to make that perfectly clear! :)

  3. Replies
    1. OOps! Sorry... wish there was a way to edit these things. :)

  4. The Luddites disliked the weaving machines, the various scribes lost work when Gutenberg invented the press. The Swiss watchmakers lost jobs when digital watches were marketed. How do you decide when to stop using quill pens and go for iron or gold nibs?, when to stop using pens and start using typewriters?, or word processors? Should we disavow autos and horses and go back to toting our own burdens?

    It's called progress. Automating a press to make wire nails is quite different from teaching a blacksmith's apprentice to make cut nails.

    Buggywhips and whalebone corsets are out of style, and no one seriously chooses to walk from New York to L. A. as a routine mode of transportation.

    Education needs to reflect moral lessons, but not restrictions to progress. Education should encourage freedom and innovation in lieu of regulations and rules.

    Maybe the industrial revolution is like running down hill. There comes a time when you realize that you cannot easily stop or control your pace.

  5. An excellent article below addressing that, anonymous. I think, however, that there is room for both, any, all approaches EXCEPT coercion of one person or group to adopt the practices of another. With freedom, and the truly free market, we can all have what we need and want.
    When it comes to grub, think global
    By Rob Lyons
    Becoming a ‘locavore’ won’t save the planet, make you healthier, revive communities or improve food security

  6. I've come to many of the same conclusions that Carson has, though through a slightly different lens. The legal framework for business shifted dramatically-specifically the concept of limited liability(the corporation.) This effectively socialized regulation of business(from private lawsuits to bureaucrats) and all but removed high level executives from meaningful consequences for their actions.

    IP and patent laws have somewhat earlier roots(1600's), but they were expanded mightily, also, I believe, in an effort to " make disposable, mass-produced goods from half a continent away competitive with locally crafted, repairable goods."

    The 1800's are often referred to-both positively and negatively-as "free market" or to use the term of the time laissez-faire, but the reality is that the period was anything but.

    I've always wondered if it was simply ignorance, or a deliberate act that had Ayn Rand position Dagny Taggart at the head of a railroad-an industry so heavily subsidized, protected, and otherwise nurtured by government that it is doubtful the industry could exist otherwise.