My freshman year of college, I was singled out during macroeconomics class by the professor and asked, "what do you believe in?" He did this in the context that I and another student, an economics major, were the only two who had maintained an A average. It was asked with a genuine curiosity and it followed an inquiry as to my major, sociology. I don't know what he was expecting me to answer, but my answer "I believe we should return to the guild system" was followed by visible surprise and a pronounced belly laugh. He calmed down after a bit and said, "oh, you're serious". He went on to begin a mild debate with me. The medieval guild system was wrought with monopolistic corruption whose practices probably parented methods utilized by modern organized crime. It could be said that it caused all sorts of sorrow, human suffering, stratification, allowed money hoarding, and slowed down progress during the European dark ages. My rebuttal then has held firm in my mind for the past twenty years. These things are true about the historical guild system, but that was in a world ruled by monarchy instead of democracy. I believe the paradigm, the underlying premise, is a fundamental part of our nature and repression of it is actually the cause of the same problems now that occured then.
At the heart of a classic guild structure lies division of labor, specialization. Nothing new, nor has that been lost. As the body of human knowledge has grown and technology advanced it is not just impractical for everyone to do everything for themselves, it's really impossible. Having each of us focus on one profession maximizes efficiency. Groups practicing specialization are just capable of more. A sustainable guild system would have different guilds responsible for different aspects of society.
Modality of training is the most identifiable aspect of guilds. A novice apprentice enters a guild and begins learning from journeymen, masters, and more experienced apprentices. Who better to teach skills than those already skilled in the given profession. They hold the applicable knowledge. As the apprentice advances in skill and knowledge they can hope to progress on to journeyman or master status, and maybe even one day run the entire guild. In a perfect guild world, everybody has only their own self in the way of their own advancement. Some of these modalities of our society have not been entirely lost because in many respects it can't be. The manual trades still maintain the titles. It has, however, been lost in some cases or has morphed into what could be called less functional or more oppressive states. Think of the teacher training a classroom of future workers for something they have only learned themselves academically but never really mastered. Think of the fast food worker trained to do a handful of skills but never trained to do more from that employer- the hopeless no- end job. Think of the mid-career worker with half a lifetime of mastery who finds themselves out of work because the world won't pay for their experience, replacing them with younger, cheaper workers. Or think of the management of a corporate bureaucracy who cannot do the skilled work of laborers they direct. These are not unknown problems, in fact there is a guild-like answer to these issues. It's called a labor union.
Before unions, as any career union member can rattle off very quickly, workers had no rights. An employer could exploit you any way they wanted, pay you however low they wanted, fire you at will and work you to death in some cases. Unions were a necessary remedy to sometimes horrid problems. Once you join a union, you have an advocate for your rights as a worker. It's a very powerful advocate, unions can bring an employer to their knees by withholding labor. If your employer so much as tries to violate your rights, just call the union and they will take care of it. They do take care of it, as long as you pay the dues. If you don't join a union, the union will not help you. In some instances, they will treat you as a second class worker and in other instances you may find a few unionized workers go out of their way to make your life harder- so the stories go. To them, it's totally justified- non-union workers weaken the union. Weaken the union and those horrid conditions could return. The behavior pattern of unions could be said to closely resemble a protection racket. Though not near as sinister, a union and a gang taking protection money follows the same paradigm. Sorry, union people, it does. It is understandable why this happened. At the time the first unions formed, they had to try and gain power from greedy hoarding business owners anyway they could to put an end to the then legitimized crimes. There was a model to follow that would work, and they used it. One really can't blame them. However right or wrong, unions are on the decline, and perhaps that is why some of the labor issues are making a creeping return. Unions are a treatment for a symptom of a deeper problem that the unions themselves actually suffer from by following competitive models. Power distribution.
The union- employer/owner model is a constant stand off of power. Each side has that subtle motivation to thwart the other. Sure, the actual intentions may not be in that direction, but that struggle is always there. This standoff can be eliminated in one fell swoop- make the ownership of production a guild asset. Do away with this separation. Make employer and employee the same thing. Employee owned, employee run. This would not be anarchy- the guild itself has an ingrained power structure that makes perfect sense once you begin learning your discipline from a more experienced person.
The power within a guild would lie primarily with it's masters. A master being an individual who has served a sufficient amount of time learning under other masters so that they have a deep understanding of their skills and has demonstrated a level of proficiency in the guild's skills so that they can safely be trusted to make possibly guild changing decisions. A journeyman would be proficient but still learning. An apprentice still needs much supervision in their work. A good metaphor: an apprentice is reading the book, the journeyman has read the book, and the master is adding chapters to the end of it. So, it follows that a vote taken from an individual guild would have to be weighted. An apprentice, basically a student/ laborer, having equal voting power of a master, a teacher/ manager, is ridiculous. This isn't oppressive because the apprentice need only progress to master to gain that voting power. Say, for simplicity, an apprentice vote counts once, a journeyman's thrice, and a master's six times. This would be rule by the experienced. One would only have power if they truly earned it and proved it to those who came before- the elder's elders. There would still be potential for corruption, but much less than other historical paradigms like rule by the strong, or wealthy, or charismatic.
Power over what? That would depend on the guild and it's purpose. Why do we have accountants in the form of insurers making decisions about medical practices? Why are lawyers deciding fiscal policy? Why are chemists deciding what crops to grow? Why is the most popular public speaker and crowd pleasing personality in charge of the military? This list can go on. If we divide up labor into categories of specialization, it only makes sense to divide up management decision- making in the same manner. Since a group is trusted to perform a set of tasks better than everyone else, it follows that the same group should be trusted with the decisions concerning those tasks. How can this happen without a single manager staff or politician class to organize the decision making and enforcement of rules? That answer will be explored in the next blog: "a functional guild system".