The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto

Kevin Carson’s third book manuscript is available in unfinished form — The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto.

Carson writes:

The Homebrew Industrial Revolution is based on a series of research papers on industrial history I did at Center for a Stateless Society.

In writing Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, I found myself most engaged in researching the material on micromanufacturing, household microenterprises, the alternative economy, and the singularity resulting from them.

A major part of the material in The Homebrew Industrial Revolution is drawn from Organization Theory, but was imperfectly tied together and developed there. I attempted to draw these themes together into my first C4SS monograph, and then found myself developing them in a series of followup papers. Those papers gradually took shape in my head as a book.

One theme is the rise and fall of Sloanist mass-production in light of Mumford’s paleotechnic/neotechnic periodization and his theory of the cultural pseudomorph, and the rise of networked manufacturing as (in the words of Michael Piore and Charles Sabel) the rediscovery after more than a century of how to integrate electrical power into industry.

Another 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.

American pilot captured in Vietnam war
Additionally, Carson notes on his blog:

Agility and Resilience are at the heart of the alternative economy’s differences with its conventional predecessor. Its superiorities are summed up by the cover image; a tiny teenage Viet Cong girl leading an enormous American pilot into captivity. I’m obliged to Jerry Brown (via Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker) for the metaphor: guerrillas in black pajamas, starting out with captured Japanese and French arms, with a bicycle-based supply train, kicking the living shit out of the best-trained and highest-technology military force in human history.

But Governor Brown was much more of a fiscal conservative than Governor Reagan, even if he made arguments for austerity that the Republican would never use. (At one point, to get across the idea that a lean organization could outperform a bloated bureaucracy, he offered the example of the Viet Cong.)

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4 thoughts on “The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto

  1. Hey, I'm supper looking forward to this new book, as I have enjoyed the last two. However as a worker at a Worker Owned Cooperative book store in Asheville, N.C. I hope that Kevin will work with one of the Anarchist publishing houses for this book, both to make sure it maximises it's appeal to a broad audience, and equally important to expose the american anarchist publishing houses to a economic perspective that they desperatly need.

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  2. Terrible metaphor. First of all, the Viet Cong were put into power in Hanoi by the Red Chinese w/ Soviet-made weapons. Secondly, even if they had come to power entirely w/ French & Japanese weapons, that still would've been w/ mass-produced weapons made in precisely the sort of capital-intensive high-inventory factories you decry; as it was, the capital-intensive high-inventory production the Viet Cong depended on was in Russia & China. Same goes for the bicycles the Ho Chi Minh Trail started with (soon replaced by trucks, once the Trail was made big enough to handle them), not to mention the Soviet tanks that eventually rolled into Hanoi, and the Soviet SAMs that probably shot down the US pilot shown in your photo. So, _if_ the Viet Cong "kicked the shit" out of the USA, it was because of the very sort of production you're using the example to argue against. (Of course, it was the Viet Cong, not the USA, that got the shit kicked out of it, which is why Hanoi signed the 1972 cease-fire after the Linebacker Raids.)

    Finally, you overlook yet another sort of high-inventory resource the Viet Cong relied upon, and squandered in vast disproportion to the USA: people. The Viet Cong (and Chinese, who had 200K PLA troops in North Vietnam at their peak) mobilized a lot more personnel than the USA to fight the Vietnam War, and accepted more than ten times as many causalties.

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  3. Thanks a lot, Brad.

    Ashville Joe: What you say makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately I prepaid BookSurge/CreateSpace for a publishing package.

    Tim: I think you're overanalyzing the metaphor. I'm simply riffing off of the same popular perception that Jerry Brown appealed to. But a picture from the current 4GW in Afghanistan might be a better fit, if I can find an appropriate image at Wikimedia Common.
    http://c4ss.org/content/1599 http://c4ss.org/content/1655

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  4. I think the automotive industry is a good place to start considering how an industrial society would look without government and in free markets.

    We have the big car makers, who utilize forced obsolescence and government subsidy to maintain their monopolies.

    In an open market the car businesses that would thrive would resemble the companies that produce after market and custom parts for popular cars and trucks. These small companies, with less than a hundred or two people, manufacture products for timeless vehicles like GM clasics with 350 chevy's, Toyota cars with 20r and 22r engines, etc. Vehicles such as these are such popular designs, despite them not being made anymore, that it is quite possible to build almost brand new cars from the ground up, without dealing with Toyota or GM.

    I think it is telling that all of the most reliable car engines are not made anymore by the companies that designed them. The 350 small block V8 is still made by a GM subsidiary in Mexico but such a branch of a company could easily break from its parent and collectivize into an anarchist entity, considering the product they make is so marketable.

    I envision small companies that form to design custom add ons to popular products. Instead of complete redesigns of products that already work well, we would see more groups building on the established base, much more so even than the vibrant market for custom parts today.

    Another example of this, i relation to vehicles, would be the kit car market. Kit cars are modular and customizable and largely produced by small(ish) companies. If the future became unimpeded by monopoly, perhaps the kit car business model would overtake the behemoths that control the markets today.

    Everything would be custom. There would be more diversity. like hot rodders and low rider aficionados, everyone would put their own unique stamp on their cars, because the market would encourage this, as there would be more choice overall.

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