Working for free

by Rob Horning

5 June 2009


Barron YoungSmith’s post at the New Republic’s blog about Craigslist suggests that the site’s founders are motivated by “libertarian ideology” rather than profit—a surprising conclusion if you believe that libertarianism is all about unfettered markets and the triumph of the will and the cash nexus as the expression of the freedom of choice. Conceived instead as deinstitutionalization, libertarianism means dismantling the barriers between people wanting to make small-scale exchanges. YoungSmith quotes Mark Gimein, who summed up the Craigslist philosophy in this Big Money article: “Bad things don’t come from what two individuals decide to do together. They come from the institutions that stand between them.” (If this was the essence of libertarianism, you’d think they would come out in full force for rescinding the legal personhood status of corporations. Maybe some are.) Such a position implies that caveat emptor should be the only law of the land, which is great if you believe that exchanges always take place with both parties on equal footing (or if you believe a Lewis Hyde-style gift economy is coming right around the corner). But this isn’t the case—asymmetrical information is more the rule than the exception, and economic institutions exist in part to combat that, to illuminate otherwise black or gray markets, to make contract enforcement possible and to allow trust to ultimately flourish. It’s not clear whether newspapers were ever a significant institution in this regard however; they just had a de facto monopoly of local information distribution that has since been broken by the internet.

Anyway, YoungSmith’s post prompted two interesting responses about the phenomenon of working for free (whether in the name of some quasi-utopian ideology or not). Kevin Drum suggests the limits to what people will do for free are not set by how dull the work is but by how many people are necessary to complete it:

Sure, some things are just more fun than others, and thus more likely to attract people to do them for free.  But just as important is: how many people does it take?  Once something gets to the point where it only takes a person or three to do it, then there’s a pretty good chance that someone, somewhere will start offering it for free.  Even if it’s something that most sane people think is boring as hell, there’s almost bound to be at least one person who’s obsessed by it.  Like classified advertising.

Behind this theory, I think, is that endeavors requiring fewer people allow those few to make all the salient decisions and claim all the glory for the accomplishments, which goes a long way toward compensating them for not getting paid. When we are cogs in a large machine, we need to be paid to feel recognized, because our individual contribution is lost in the elaborate division of labor and our autonomy is similarly circumscribed. But having control over how the work is done and knowing one is responsible for the final product in its entirety makes work palpably meaningful, which is its own reward, fulfilling a basic aspect of what it means to be human. What Drum is highlighting is the possibility of a return to the ideals of handicraft—of work not organized and integrated by capital—only digitally mediated. From this perspective, the internet takes what are urban populations in the real world and scatters them into an archipelago of workers in small-scale groupings who can nonetheless participate economically on a global scale. Small groups of individuals working more or less voluntarily on projects would ideally permit the social benefits of cooperation to flourish without them being made over “as a free gift to capital,” as Marx puts it. So when we work for free online, our main goal may be to express our freedom from capital, for at least a little while, and experience the restorative essence of performing socially useful work for its own sake. It could be that it’s inherently delightful in the midst of late capitalism to discover a social need that can be fulfilled without capital’s intervention. So it doesn’t take an obsessive freak to fulfill some seemingly dull function, just an anarcho-syndicalist.

Of course, if we are cut off from social recognition, we rely on cash payment to serve as its proxy, as these research findings published in Nature suggest:

Handling or even contemplating money can relieve both physical pain and the distress of social rejection, according to a study by Chinese and American psychologists. But remembering cash one has spent intensifies both types of hurt. The findings suggest that the mere thought of having money makes people feel physically stronger and less dependent on the approval of others to satisfy their needs. “Money activates a general sense of confidence, strength, and efficacy,” the researchers propose.

Bu couldn’t it be that money functions as a consolation for social isolation, which it then reinforces by supplying the illusion of strength and efficacy?

Matt Yglesias seems to be arguing along the same lines:

profit-maximization is not a natural form of human behavior. I think it’s best understood as a very idiosyncratic kind of pursuit. It happens to be one that’s economically rewarded because with money to invest tend to want to invest it with would-be profit-maximizers. Thus, in fields of endeavor where the ability to raise large sums of capital on reasonable terms is a huge advantage, a profit-maximization impulse winds up being a huge advantage.

In other words the profit motive is a product of capitalism, and not what inspires it. And having to think in that economically rationalistic way, far from being natural to humans, may actually be fatiguing and confining. When capital is not necessary to the enterprise, other motives spring to the fore—the need for recognition being primary among them. Yglesias explains:

The startup costs of a decent website are pretty small in the scheme of things. And there are lots of people and institutions—academics looking to bring their research to a wider public, think tanks and advocacy organizations looking to influence the public debate, corporations like Google looking to express their views on policy debates, students trying to get an edge in the job market, authors hoping to promote a book—with perfectly good incentives to run websites that don’t aspire to maximize profits.

“Free competition” turns out to be a way to use the profit motive to inhibit free expression. Ideas aren’t typically or necessarily manufactured in accordance with the dominant modes of production (though arguably capitalism aspires to make it so that only the ideas manufactured corporately—by the entertainment industry, say, or the for-profit press—are recognized as valid). Capital is not necessary to think. So ideas don’t necessarily need to circulate in the ways capitalism requires. The exchange of ideas relies on a different sort of economy, of influence and notoriety. Capitalist society presumes that influence is only meaningful insofar as it can be converted into capital, but perhaps we are now beginning to see signs that money and intellectual influence could possibly move apart again. Perhaps this will only empower the advertising industry even further, as they will have to squawk louder to help paid content drowned out the alternatives.

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