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Thinking Collectively…or How to Get Something Out of Neoliberal Critique Without (Immediately) Overthrowing the Capitalist System

6 July 2017 No Comment

One of the things I find frustrating about discussions of economics in scholarly publishing is the way that discussions that are built around critique of capital models or neoliberalism are dismissed as impractical. Most recently Stuart Lawson’s interesting provocation, Against Capital, got a range of dismissive comments as being irrelevant because it required the overthrow of the capitalist system.

I find this, alongside another kind of response, most commonly from people in the business of scholarly publishing that such criticisms represent a failure to understand the financial realities of publishing, frustrating because they miss the point of critique. The point is to suspend judgement, move away from the default view of a system, and seek to look at it from a different angle. Change a few of the words around and those same people would describe such a text as “innovative” or “a refreshing change in perspective”, but because the discussion is political, or financial, the “realities” are thought  to be set in stone.

In the business setting this often leads incumbent publishers to a kind of spluttering defense of the value they create, while simultaneously complaining that the customer doesn’t appreciate their work. Flip the target slightly and we’d call this “missing the new market opportunity” or “failing to express the value offering clearly”. In the political world it privileges a particular set of economic models that happen to have the characteristic of reducing the power of communities to act collectively.

Lawson’s piece is exactly that, an invitation to consider what might be possible if we work collective. Nothing more, nothing less. Marx (and implicitly Piketty) tells us to seize the means of production not because violent revolution is desirable, but because the concentration of capital prevented communities coming together in new ways to create value for themselves. If you like, Marx was simply proposing disruptive innovation a century or so before Christenson, just he had a limited idea of the kinds of disruption that were feasible.

Today we live in much more interesting times. Capital is arguably more concentrated, particularly in the scholarly communications space, but the means of digital production are accessible at much lower cost than in the industrial past through open source tools and cheap platform technologies. Marx tells us that in the capitalist system labour benefits capital. Lawson’s invitation is to consider how our labour is contributing to capital, and how we might collectively leverage labour to bring more of that capital to serve the interests of our community. I doubt Marx would approve (and neither might Lawson) but this is just shrewd strategic business analysis, finding new opportunities in a crowded market.

What might that look like in practice? And where does the capital currently sit? One answer lies in digital collectives, collaborations and networks that create value for their members. And many of our existing scholarly communities fit this model. In our working paper, A Journal is a Club, we started sketching one form of this but the model is much more general.

The classical economics of clubs and collectives is very old, having been worked out by Buchannan, Olson and others in the 60s. They present a very hard nosed, market economics oriented view of what makes a club or collective sustainable. The return to members must greater than the members investment. The value need not be monetary of course, but it must have greater value to the members than what they put in.

Buchanan and Olson’s models both show the conditions under which this can be sustainable. The club must generate some “more than the sum of its parts” benefit from the resources that members contribute. For collectives this can be access to capacity, buying power, expertise, or the pooling of capital. For any collective this will generally be positive based on simply economic arguments. On the debit side there are costs of coordination and management and friction in access to the club good. Buchanan’s model shows that as the club size grows and competition for access to the collective good rises that the debits crowd out the credit and so there is a natural size limit.

A stable collective is therefore “right-sized” which is a contract to a capital concentration model where growth is always privileged. Collectives can also solve a whole class of problems for which both for-profit entities and pure (governmental) public provision fail as shown by Ostrom. This class of problems includes the management of resources that are hard to exclude people from calling on, but not able to be infinitely shared, including grant funding, expert attention, and (oddly enough) public good will. Many of the most important “goods” in the scholarly enterprise fall into the category of commons or of club goods.

If we look at collectives within the scholarly enterprise, they have largely seized the means of production. They retain control over the systems and infrastructures critical to their functioning, including their income. Many scholarly societies however are no longer functioning collectives, having ceded control of critical systems, including crucial choices over core revenue sources, to third party providers. Other societies have turned into de facto for profit companies as the “club” element of their activities is dominated financially by the revenue raised through internal publishing operations.

But this is all very well. Does it matter for the hard-nosed finance person who has to figure out how to pay for stuff? How does an anti-capitalist neo-liberal critique help the person operating within a capitalist neoliberal system? What I want to suggest is that it can help to focus attention on where value is being created, what assets actually matter, and what are the blocks to realizing value.

Two examples may help to illustrate this. Lingua, the journal owned by Elsevier is at this point more or a failure. It has gone from one of the most important journals in analytical linguistics to no longer being in the field, and seems well on its way to becoming irrelevant. How does a company as competent in its business strategy as Elsevier let this happen? I would argue, as I did at the time that the former editorial board of Lingua resigned to form Glossa that it was a failure to understand the assets.

The neoliberal analysis of Lingua showed an asset generating good revenues, with good analytics and a positive ROI. The capitalist analysis focussed on the fixed assets and trademarks. But it turns out these weren’t what was creating value. What was creating value was the community, built around an editorial board and the good will associated with that. Taking a critical perspective would have meant thinking hard about where the value was and what the real assets were. It would have made for a better business decision.

A more abstract example is the growth of interest in building collectives both for funding and mutual support in scholarly communication. These turn out to be difficult to fund. They should be sustainable, provided sufficiently low coordination costs and good management, but setting them up is hard. A related problem is the way in which we lose technical innovation to commercial players, not because we don’t have the resources, but because we don’t have collective funding mechanisms to support them.

Too often the objection to these is that we don’t have the spare funds to support them. But this is the wrong analysis. These collectives will fund themselves (and those that don’t should be allowed to fail) if they reach the right scale and maintain control over their coordination costs. The problem is not funding, it is capitalization.

And we, the community, do have the capital. It sits in strange places, in property, in university pension funds, in endowments, as well as in the share portfolio accounts of funders. But we always deploy the revenue from that capital, never thinking about how to deploy the capital itself. Why are funder share portfolios not leveraged to invest in reducing future costs of scholarly communications? Why are university endowment funds not more invested in instruments that deliver not just financial returns but returns on the mission of these charitable and public institutions?

That was the question that Lawson’s piece explicitly invited us to ask. Not (necessarily) how the world might be better if we overthrew the capitalist system, but to critically think about where the capital and the power in system really lies, and perhaps to realize just how much of it lies in the hands of our community. If we choose to use it. The anti-capitalist perspective reminds us of the power we potentially yield in a capitalist system if we choose both to think outside the system and then to act purposefully within it.

Acknowledgements: This post is in large part prompted by a discussion that I had with Sam Moore of Lawson’s piece and the responses to it.