[Le Phalanstère rêvé, Vue du phalanstère. Aquarelle. Au verso, quelques noms d’insectes et autres animaux… La mention “Laurent Pelletier, 1868” ne permet pas de lui attribuer cette aquarelle]
History does not repeat itself but there are cyclical aspects to life from the changing of seasons over the course of a year to the booms and busts associated with modern capitalism. Early to mid-nineteenth century French utopian socialism, Saint-Simonianism and later Fourierism, emerged as a reaction against the disruption and chaos associated with early industrialization and the transition from artisanal craft production to factories and mass-production. Today we are witnessing a somewhat similar reaction to the dislocations of the Great Recession under the rubric of the Makers movement.
The Fourierists are often relegated to footnote status, if they are addressed at all, but Fourier and his followers were a prominent and visible element of the early American socialist movement. Fourier envisioned a radical reorganization of society but decided to start his grand plans on a small level, through the development of what were known as phalanstères. The phalanstères were intended both as workshops and as nuclei of the future society. The capital to buy these properties was procured through a combination of wealthy supporters and the occasional speculator who viewed them as a get-rich-quick scheme.
While the history of Fourierism is fascinating, the main reason for introducing this case is its relation to the rise of what is known as the Maker Movement and the fall of 3rd Ward, a sort of modern day phalanstère. The Maker Movement bears some similarity to Fourierism, the emphasis on craft and artisan production, the idea that production–making–has counter-cultural implications, and a shared collective ethos.
The roots of the Maker Movement can be found in a variety of places–everything from the early counter-cultural days of Burning-Man to the more staid Maker Faire–and perhaps most essentially in the American propensity to “do it yourself” (DIY), often in the face of economic hardship.
I became acquainted with the term through the sort of tech-boosterism that I am generally leery of. One prime example is Chris Anderson’s, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. In his profile of Anderson, Time’s Sam Gustin explains the thesis of the text: “In a nutshell, the term ‘Maker’ refers to a new category of builders who are using open-source methods and the latest technology to bring manufacturing out of its traditional factory context, and into the realm of the personal desktop computer…According to Anderson, who consciously invokes Karl Marx in his book, new technology has ‘democratized the means of production,’ making it possible for anyone to be a builder or ‘maker.’” Ponoko is one example.
The rhetoric of the Maker Movement extends far beyond the IT world, everywhere from urban farms to websites like Etsy. A recent piece on NPR’s Morning Edition described the possibility of using open-source computing to allow buyers to customize their automobiles from a list of basic component parts, sort of like Lego blocks. One small-business owner writing in the Huffington Post notes, “In a world of mass-produced products, modern technology has made it easier than ever for a single individual to create and distribute items that are customizable and unique without having middlemen like manufacturers.” It is a bit strange figuring manufacturers as “middle-men” when the term has historically been associated with managers rather than producers.
Enter 3rd Ward
3rd Ward was the brainchild of Jason Goodman and Jeremy Lovitt who raised the initial capital for the project by throwing underground parties with the assistance of promoter William Etundi. In a short period Goodman and Lovitt became poster-children for the Maker Movement in hipster Williamsburg. Mostafa Heddaya writes: “The haphazard process by which two men, Jason Goodman and Jeremy Lovitt, used illegal parties and cheap Brooklyn leases to cobble together a creative empire is a queasy Horatio Alger tale — a parable, if not of ambitious savoir-faire, then of the hubris of frontier gentrifiers.” Another key player, Matthew Blesso, bought a fifty-percent stake in the company in 2010, ultimately selling his share at a significant margin before the whole thing went bust.
In addition to granting access and equipment to artists, 3rd Ward also moved into the field of education. There evidently was a lot of interest in Williamsburg for the sorts of crafts and skills these artists possessed. Makers could also be teachers. Utopian socialists like Fourier and some of the early anarchists had a similar vision.
Heddaya’s article details some of the unsavory business practices that made the early development and growth of 3rd Ward possible. In particular, he highlights the disquieting notion that rather than early boosters for the arts, these men—Etundi in particular—were actually perpetrating various scams that targeted artists. Setting aside the sordid details, the broader story is financial speculation played a role in undermining the institution as in the phalanstères. But a more basic question lay at the heart of both endeavors, the question of ownership.
When artists and others were asked to “invest” money for “lifetime” access to workshops and equipment, the first question they should have asked themselves is: “what happens to my money if this place goes under?” Related questions include, “who owns this building and this equipment”? And then, “who are the people who make the ultimate decisions?”
The situation in the phalanstères and 3rd Ward point towards the tension between financial speculation and ownership. Or, ownership by outside investors versus ownership by the producers themselves. Workers self-management in whatever form–whether something fairly mainstream like an Employee Stock Ownership Plan or a cooperative or collective form of organization–was never an issue for the phalanstères or 3rd Ward and it should have been the first thing on the table from the beginning.
Self-management is not a panacea. But it does take control away from a managerial class—whether managers of capital or those of the state—and places it in the hands of producers. Power and control implies responsibility and risk, and as the recent bankruptcy of the Mondragón cooperative Fagor makes clear, these ventures can fail. Nonetheless, I suspect the taste in the mouth would be far less bitter for the artists involved if 3rd Ward had failed due to the decisions and actions of the owner-makers themselves.
[3rd Ward bought the farm]