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"Guild refers to various self-determining circles of trust and merit in professional and socio-cultural domains. Membership is contingent on specific training or apprenticeship processes and testing, to ensure transmission of a body of knowledge and standards of practice. Guilds increased the reliability of fair exchange in contracts for goods or service by asserting high standards of workmanship and holding to an engrained moral "peer pressure" for integrity and honorability. As a scalable "community of practice" the guild system helped to spread, evolve, and maintain advanced productive skill-sets while upholding traditions and characteristics of localities and specialties. There was often an element of enforced "trade secrecy" within a guild membership to secure valuable know-how, and this tendency toward enclosure of knowledge commons contributed to a loss of ground and stature in the face of free-trade capitalism and intellectual property legislation."


From Nathan Schneider, from the Wikipedia:

  • A largely urban phenomenon, the controlling forces in many cities; those not governed by guilds were termed “free” cities
  • The word “guild” derives from “the gold deposited in their common funds”
  • “predecessors of the modern patent and trademark system”
  • “The guilds also maintained funds in order to support infirm or elderly members, as well as widows and orphans of guild members, funeral benefits, and a 'tramping' allowance for those needing to travel to find work.”
  • “Journeymen were able to work for other masters, unlike apprentices, and generally paid by the day and were thus day labourers” - their traveling was a means of spreading innovations across Europe
  • “Two of the most outspoken critics of the guild system were Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith, and all over Europe a tendency to oppose government control over trades in favour of laissez-faire free market systems was growing rapidly and making its way into the political and legal system. The French Revolution saw guilds as a last remnant of feudalism.” - “Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto also criticized the guild system for its rigid gradation of social rank and the relation of oppressor/oppressed entailed by this system.”
  • “Guilds were more like cartels than they were like trade unions”
  • “Thomas W. Malone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology champions a modern variant of the guild structure for modern “e-lancers”, professionals who do mostly telework for multiple employers.”
  • “Groups called guilds exist in online communities such as massively multiplayer online games.”

Progression of members

  1. Apprentice
  2. Journeyman / Fellow
  3. Master

on wikipedia:guild


Governance in the Medieval Guilds

From a study by Tine De Moor on the guilds and commons of the Middle Ages in Europe [1]:


Tine De Moor:

"The corporations were self-regulating for the most part and instead of relying on external bodies to give relief they became self-help groups of a sort, forming autonomous bodies often enjoying good relations with local authorities. The fact that people formed groups is not in itself striking, but that they themselves regulated and controlled the execution of their own rules, including disciplinary matters, is less obviously to be expected.

To make their collective projects work, guilds and commons relied heavily for enforcement mechanisms on group norms, as opposed to formal legal enactments. They designed most of the rules themselves, with or without the involvement of the local powers, and that should not surprise us: sociological research has proved that member involvement in the design of rules offers a better guarantee of success.68 Members supplemented these rules with impressive sets of ‘‘instruments’’ to make their alliances work. I will not be going into detail about such things as fining systems, but in the context of this article it is important to note that members of these corporate institutions, both guilds and commons, developed methods to protect their organizations from the functioning of the free market. They tried to safeguard at least part of the production market against the forces of the free market. It has often been assumed – but as often highly contested – that they tried to achieve a complete monopoly, but in practice it did not necessarily turn out like that.69 Notwithstanding strict written regulations, in practice there were many, and often rather radical, exceptions to the guilds’ regulations that prevented any form of monopoly from being established.

‘‘A world within a world’’

With a large set of rules, commoners and guild members tried to regulate the behaviour of their fellows – to prevent them from free riding – and to control the effect their surroundings could have on the behaviour of the members. They developed a system of market regulation in order to protect their ‘‘own little world’’. Measures were taken by both guilds and commons to achieve a reasonable income for their members and to eliminate the disruptive effects of the market, which was still at an early stage of development when commons and guilds were set up in Europe. Institutions such as guilds could make functioning within those settings less risky, though without losing too many of the advantages the market offered. ‘‘Prudence above all’’, one could say.

We can agree with Prak and Panhuysen that the fact of the guilds’ domination of the markets being incomplete does not necessarily point towards an inefficient monopoly. They might not even have aimed to completely monopolize their trades in the first place.71 As noted by Panhuysen, guilds had a number of strategies to deal with these problems, including strategies designed to give master tailors control over the most profitable parts of their trade, while they were willing to compromise on what were seen as peripheral activities.

One method used by guilds in their attempts to master product markets was to form cartels. The number of conflicts concerning the right to form cartels demonstrates the importance of them to the guilds until the very eve of their abolition. The information about that and the effects it had is limited, but there are indications that the guilds managed to protect the market to a great extent, if not completely.73 The question here is whether it was necessary for the guilds to dominate markets completely. Would that have been an objective of a small-scale organization aimed primarily at securing the income of its members who had particular skills and who, because of their human capital, saw themselves as being distinct from the less well trained ‘‘mob’’ who worked in the rural economy? Was there much advantage to be gained from a putting-out system when one does not have the capital to invest in such a system? It seems that the guild system, and the system of common land, each offered their members the advantages of scale in return for cooperation.

Peasants too tried to limit the influence of the market on their commons and their members. The background here is a continuous struggle to prevent the over-exploitation of the common, although it is usually supposed, primarily by non-historians such as Hardin,74 that commons were traditionally always overgrazed. In fact, regulation of the use of the common and rules to prevent or at least restrict the commercialization of its assets were devised, with two main methods.4

One involved setting stints, or numerical limits, to the amount of resource units per person, and implementing a price mechanism that adjusted prices to the foreseeable pressure on the commons (payment per head of cattle). Depending on the type of resource involved, various types of rules limiting the influence of the market could be found on all European historical commons. In general the amount of produce a commoner was allowed to take was limited to a certain number of resource units. In some cases the surface of the common was expressed i terms of the number of units of cattle the pasture could feed. For example, for the Wijkerzand common in the central Netherlands the total of 180 ‘‘shares’’ and their size in the grazing rights of the common appear to have been laid down in the fifteenth century and have survived until today.

Often the shares of the commoners were limited not by the capacity of the common but by factors directly related to aspects of the prevailing subsistence economy and so unrelated to the wider commercial economy. One such rule was the express prohibition of the sale of produce from the common (wood, or milk from the commons’ cows) outside village borders, which helped protect the most valuable assets of the common against the negative side effects of the free market (commercialization and over-exploitation in the case of the common). But protection of members against the free market is in no sense the same as being against the free market.

Commoners could have participated in the free market regardless of their activities on the common.

Commons developed other mechanisms to offer resources at a uniform price, the intention being to foster greater equality within the organization.

Prices of what could be harvested were uniform and equal for all members, but could be higher for non-members in cases where they were admitted.

That does not mean that prices for products were stable; they were adjusted, not to the prices of the market but to the situation of the common. Evidence can be found of commons that used an ‘‘internal market’’ to regulate the use of their resources, so that when demand for resources (by members) was high and threatened to become too high in comparison with what was available on the common, prices per individual animal were raised to reduce demand for cattle on the common.

The functioning of the guilds can be compared to that. Members of guilds aimed to put their products on the market at uniform prices to promote, though not necessarily of course to achieve, the highest possible average income for those members. Prak, however, notes that the great social differences between members of guilds indicates that there must have been other factors at work to turn that optimal average into a minimum wage.79 Neither guilds nor commons used the law of supply and demand to set or change their prices, but used instead an internal autonomously defined quality standard. Products of the same quality were to be sold for the same price, which created a form of medieval quality label. That not only made trade easier, it also prevented internal conflicts from arising.

Gustafsson considers quality control a key organizing principle of medieval guilds. The variability of quality as determined largely by the individual craftsman’s skill would be changed only with the Industrial Revolution, when the quality of products was made more homogeneous through the use of machines.81 Meanwhile guilds were necessary to solve the ‘‘quality problem’’ for traders in the emerging market economy. Gustafsson sums up several methods used by guilds to control quality: the examination of raw materials, scrutiny and regulation of production processes, setting standards and instituting compliance inspections for end products, and the use of marks to indicate a specific quality. One can assume that by controlling quality themselves, the guilds achieved a competitive advantage over free-market produce, as traders no longer had to control the merchandise so intensively themselves; their guilds did that for them.

The aim of offering the products of the guilds at uniform prices had an effect similar to what happened on the common: those who complied with the rules were assured of an income, probably not the best possible price they might have received in a free market, but certainly a sustained income. Guild members who decided to ignore the quality standard and made goods of a lesser quality offered at lower prices threatened the income of all the suppliers of better quality goods. That straightforward social dilemma was solved by a multitude of rules and sanctions, to prevent free riding by guild members. Richardson describes how the members of guilds were dependent upon each other to achieve that required income level: ‘‘[T]hey had a common theme. Guild members acted to increase their incomes, and their efforts required action in concert. Members had to cooperate. Each had to do his part for the guild to attain his goals.’’

Ignoring the quality standards of the guild can be considered a user strategy equal to overusing the resources of the common, either for personal or commercial use. In both cases members abused the fact that they belonged to a privileged group, such as commoners who would try to put more than their share of cattle on the common, abusing their legitimate presence there. Whether or not the abuse would be discovered depended on the functioning of the commoners’ social control mechanisms. Similarly, guild members could abuse their reputation as members of a respected guild to offer products of poorer quality, with the pretence of guild quality. Records exist of manufacturers who, while guild members, preferred a low-quality-product strategy which conflicted with the general strategy of their guild. Durability, for example, was important in the manufacturing sector because products often needed to be sold over long distances; if a product proved to be of lower quality, that could ruin the reputation of a guild.

To prevent members from free riding, social control played an important role in these institutions. We find evidence that members of commons could be fined if they did not report it when they saw others cheating, such as by putting too many cattle on the common, while guilds often required members to set up shop in the same area in order to encourage socially based control of each other.86 The so-called gradual sanctioning mentioned by Elinor Ostrom in her list of design principles for durable common pool institutions is found in both institutions’ methods of fining free riders.87 In both guilds and commons, the punishment could amount to permanent expulsion from the organization.

Guilds held other trump cards to prevent free riding. Richardson explains that craft guilds combined spiritual and occupational endeavours because ‘‘the former facilitated the success of the latter and vice versa. The reciprocal nature of this relationship linked the ability of guilds to attain spiritual and occupational goals. By combining piety and profit the guilds could overcome free-rider problems and achieve common goals.’’

That kind of bundling of endeavours,

- increased the pain of expulsion. People expelled from guilds with both craft and Christian features lost both business and religious benefits. They lost not only their colleagues but also their church, not only their partners but also their preachers, not only their means of prospering in this life but also their hope of passing through purgatory.

According to Richardson, the advantage of combining religious and economic goals lay in the fact that the religious consequences of defection could not be easily calculated as they might become obvious only in the afterlife, so the religious goals of the guild added an extra tool of enforcement. Richardson concludes that complex guilds, those combining endeavours, deterred shirking better than simple, secular associations and that the complex variants would be more profitable than the simple ones." (


from David de Ugarte:

Criticism: [guilds] were an impediment to the development of the freedom of movement and the homogenisation of the workforce required for the success of industrialisation.

Every guild was really a knowledge community. The entire structure of the community revolved around knowledge transmission. That knowledge was partly technical and specialised, but it was also linked to a particular work ethic, to the construction of a moral discourse from the symbolism of tools and daily life.

Initiation ceremonies of weavers, dyers, stonemasons and blacksmiths in British guilds...were still being performed in the 20th century. The apprentice was identified by the object and tools of his profession, which was represented in the manner of a psychodrama, e.g. by means of a piece of iron being forged, a stone being struck for the first time, or a canvas about to be painted.

Apprentices were not regarded as part of the profession. Only the passage from apprenticeship to fellowship – with the experience of fraternity evoked by the very term – allowed the neophyte to become part of the community. Whereas an apprentice was taught the use of tools and was told about the guild history and myths, a fellow was expected to contribute in a practical way. And in the case of stonemasons, for whom mathematics was a fundamental part of guild knowledge, geometrical demonstrations were also expected, such as the famous "five points of fellowship", which were used to calculate the central point in the layout of a building to be raised.

Itinerancy: When an apprentice was being trained but couldn't be guaranteed a job, instead of being incorporated as a fellow, he was invited to travel, visiting different workshops, for some time. Workshops with pending orders would temporarily accept him, and continue his training while learning new techniques from him. At the end of the itinerancy apprentices would become fellows in their original workshop or else in a workshop sprung from it. This system not only served to optimise workforce distribution, but also to spread innovations within the same guild, homogenising the "state of the art".

Likewise, limiting the maximum number of masters in a given workshop encouraged the geographic spread of the guild, in the same way as the right to segregation previously discussed nowadays encourages sectorial expansion from an economically democratic business.

The statutes and texts of the guilds were a natural mingling of practical questions, such as salaries, with specialised technical knowledge and moral metaphors constructed from daily practice.

Nowadays "professional" does not make us think of someone who has a job linked to a specific group knowledge which he or she has accessed by taking certain vows and undergoing a personal / moral transformation. But it is crucial to understand the logic of social cohesion in the Old Regime. That cohesion logic constituted a clear impediment to the development of the industrial, national world. The identities generated by the guild tradition were dense and inhabited a universe of full meanings and a real community logic which would not take easily to a flat world of abstract markets and homogenisation.

Source: the book, Phyles: Economic Democracy in the Network Century. by David de Ugarte (

Reference: Jorge Francisco Ferro, La masonería operativa, Kier, Buenos Aires, 2008.

Should we re-invent guilds for the 21st century?

Thomas Malone:

"One particularly promising new approach has emerged from our work in MIT's initiative on "Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century. This approach no longer relies exclusively on the "usual suspects of the industrial era -- employers and government -- to provide the benefits associated with a traditional job.

Instead, it relies on a rich ecology of other organizations to look after the needs of mobile workers as they move from assignment to assignment. We call these other organizations "guilds by analogy to the craft associations of the Middle Ages.

Medieval guilds grew out of tradesman's fraternities and mutual assistance clubs. Guilds trained apprentices and helped them find work. They cemented social bonds; guild members worshipped together and marched as a group in town pageants. They also offered loans and schooling, and if misfortune struck, provided an income for members' families.

Existing organizations perform some of these functions today. As much as 30 percent of the base pay of Screen Actors Guild members goes to the benefits fund; in return, members get health benefits, generous pensions and access to professional development programs.

Imagine an extended version of this where members paid a fraction of their income to the guild in the good times in return for a guaranteed minimum income in the bad times. This is a form of unemployment insurance, but with an important difference. Guild members would have an incentive to help their counterparts find work, assisting them to gain skills needed to be productive, exerting social pressure on members they felt weren't trying.

Guilds could also provide places, physical and electronic, for learning and socializing with colleagues. And membership might give people the sense of identity that many of us get today from positions in large organizations. Indeed, in many cases, guilds might replace the employer as the organization to which workers feel the strongest loyalty.

A variety of existing organizations already fill some of these roles and could form the seeds for more comprehensive guilds. For example, many professional societies already offer their members insurance plans, training and opportunities to socialize. And labor unions have long provided portable benefits for workers in industries, like construction and entertainment, where workers move frequently from one employer to the next.

Both unions and professional societies have significant opportunities to increase the range of services they provide and thus become even more important in the future than they are today. Unlike today's unions, however, the guilds of the future need not hold monopoly control over a profession or occupational group. Instead, multiple guilds may often compete to provide the best services at the best price for the same group of workers.

Another promising source for guilds of the future are temporary staffing firms, which offer benefits to temporary workers that resemble those provided by traditional employers: vacation and sick pay, health insurance and pensions, training, career assistance, even stock options.

New organizations could also grow into guilds of the future. For example, Working Today, a New York-based nonprofit, provides low-cost health insurance and a variety of other services to freelance technology workers in Manhattan's Silicon Alley. Today's flexible economy is far more productive and innovative than its plodding counterpart of a generation ago. For workers to enjoy fully the opportunities this new economy presents, they will require institutions to help blunt the greater risks they face.

Guilds represent a promising approach -- applicable today, adaptable for the future -- to meet workers' needs in an increasingly dynamic American economy." (

"This piece by Thomas Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Information Systems and director of the Center for Coordination Science at the Sloan School of Management, and Sloan School Research Associate Robert Laubacher originally appeared in the Boston Globe on August 24, 2000." (

P2P Guilds instead of Phyles?

Poor Richard:

"Various authors have suggested the concept of “phyles” or “tribes” for characterizing horizontal organizational structures in p2p culture. See for example the Las Indias cooperative movement. (

I am not opposed to these , and in the end it is important for peer groups to self-identify with the descriptions they prefer; but I think I prefer the idea of confederated GUILDS and LEAGUES, and perhaps I can make an argument for these terms that will be persuasive to some.

A guild can function just as envisioned for a phyle (from Greek phulē — tribe, clan) but does not carry the same connotation as a tribe, clan, or phyle of having a primary basis in familial kinship, nor the historical reputation (in certain cases) of rebellion against central authority. The subtle but important difference is that a guild is all about practical know-how and about taking care of business– not about ideology or revolution (eh, at least on the surface…).

Typically a guild (German: Gilde) is an association of craftsmen in a particular trade. In the most general sense a guild is simply an organization of persons (peers) with related interests, goals, etc., especially one formed for mutual aid or protection. Historically guilds were any of various medieval associations, as of merchants or artisans, organized to maintain standards and to protect the interests of their members.

- “The earliest types of guild were formed as confraternities of workers. They were organized in a manner something between a trade union, a cartel, and a secret society. They often depended on grants of letters patent by a monarch or other authority to enforce the flow of trade to their self-employed members, and to retain ownership of tools and the supply of materials. A lasting legacy of traditional guilds are the guildhalls constructed and used as meeting places.

- “An important result of the guild framework was the emergence of universities at Bologna, Paris, and Oxford around the year 1200; they originated as guilds of students as at

One point on which I think guilds differ from Las Indias’ conception of phyles (“In Phyles, Community precedes Enterprise” -David Uguarte) is that for guilds, community and enterprise are two sides of one coin. I think this fits well with p2p culture while also being relatively non-confrontational with mainstream corporate/capitalist norms. The ability of guilds and leagues (such as the League of Women Voters) to present a relatively “normal” outward face, may have occasional tactical advantages.

According to Phil Jones,

- “One issue people have with the traditional Guild is that Guilds are demarcated by profession. They aren’t a grouping that implies a multidisciplinary team. Guilds are great for teaching, accrediting and providing a retirement policy but aren’t self-sufficient or “closed” economic loops.”

Guilds, phyles, tribes, etc. . . .each has extensive variation and we can pick and choose features of one or all and remix to suit our purposes. However, I think that overall, p2p relations have more to do with behavior and knowledge than with kinship. Guilds in the form of trade unions and academic institutions also have a rich history of confederation across multiple disciplines and locations, making the guild, IMO, a more appropriate basic raw material to further hack, improvise, and remix.

Michel Bauwens notes that “for lasindias, guilds can be phyles and are in fact the historical example for it .. the Venetian and Florentine guild councils, who originally ruled the cities, had international structures to support themselves, with halfway houses etc … The Hanseatic League is an interesting example. It never did have a constitution or formal membership as far as I know. Cities, guilds and towns just identified with it and co-operated in respect of matters of common interest, like suppressing piracy.”

Another interesting example is the Iroquois League:

- “The Iroquois League, historically the Iroquois Confederacy, is a group of Native Americans (in what is now the United States) and First Nations (in what is now Canada) that consists of six nations: the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora. The Iroquois (also known as the Haudenosaunee or the “People of the Longhouse) have a representative government known as the Grand Council. The Grand Council is the oldest governmental institution still maintaining its original form in North America. The League has been functioning since prior to major European contact. Each tribe sends chiefs to act as representatives and make decisions for the whole nation.” (Wikipedia)

Anyway, I like many (if not all) of the characteristics of leagues and guilds, and I like the anachronistic romance of the words. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Justice League of America. . . these could become the League of Extraordinary Peers and the P2P Justice League. Steal This Film is a film series documenting the movement against intellectual property that was produced by The League of Noble Peers.

We could also have P2P Makers Guilds, P2P Designers Guilds, P2P Programmers Guilds, and P2P Privacy Guilds. Such guilds would not be organizational stovepipes. Peers could affirm their interests and expertise by membership in as many guilds as they may qualify for.

Interestingly, many players of computer and video games have become familiar with guilds and their popularity continues to increase. “In computer and video gaming, a … guild is an organized group of players that regularly play together in a particular (or various) multiplayer games. These games range from groups of a few friends to 1000-person organizations, with a broad range of structures, goals and members… Numerous [guilds] exist for nearly every online game available today” (Wikipedia) In some cases the guilds are internal to the game play and sometimes they are external. Some gaming guilds have their own web sites. I don’t know if these gaming guilders are learning good guilding habits or bad ones from the perspective of p2p culture. My distance from the gaming community has obscured this information from me.

In any case, such guilds and leagues as may be created in the service of p2p culture will be able to confederate in any number of flexible ways. So too can those peer groups who, despite my valiant efforts of persuasion, prefer to call themselves phyles, tribes, clans, pods, schools, gaggles, or ganfaloons…

In many cases peers will be able to join multiple guilds, leagues, phyles, etc. as appropriate to their interests and skills. In p2p culture most such groups, despite their other characteristics, will tend to be the peers of each other and will tend to practice the same cooperative individualism or cooperative autonomy that pertains amongst individual people peers. This will make a flexible and resilient network of peers and peer groups spanning local, regional, national and global topologies." (

Prime Produce, an example of a new guild for today

Nathan Schneider:

"From roughly the turn of the first millennium to the French Revolution, guilds operated as associations of independent craftspeople, setting standards for their lines of work and cultivating lively subcultures around their labor. Like today’s lawyers’ bars and doctors’ associations, they typically held legal monopolies over crafts in particular cities; one guild’s members might forbid non-members to make stone carvings, while another would control the market on locksmithing. Members were also expected to have each other’s backs. In “Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe,” Steven A. Epstein, a historian at the University of Kansas, cites a tenth-century guild that obliged members to rally for mutual defense and vengeance against clients who failed to pay up. “The members also swore an oath of loyalty to each other,” Epstein writes, “promising to bring the body of a deceased member to a chosen burial site and supply half the food for the funeral feast.” At least one of Prime Produce’s ten other initial members told me that Chavez recruited him with a copy of Epstein’s book in hand.

The guild doesn’t have plans for funeral insurance just yet, however, and it won’t be defining itself around a particular trade or industry. Its early joiners include an architect, an accountant, a food-and-beverage vendor, and a painter. As they work toward opening in 2016, their first order of business will be to figure out how to govern themselves. The typical co-working space these days is run by a company to which clients pay rent for use; by contrast, Prime Produce is exploring a model in which many members will be co-owners of a coöperative firm, which will manage the proceeds of their dues and pay rent to the sympathetic investors who own the buildings. Chavez told me that co-ownership can be a way to opt out, at least in part, of the pressures of the broader economy—to reclaim the former meanings of words, even, from before they were conscripted to capitalism. “The word ‘company’ doesn’t need to exist in a market logic,” he said. It used to be, simply, what happens when people come together.

Members of medieval guilds typically progressed in rank from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman—distinctions still used by some trade associations today. Prime Produce will also incorporate three tiers, but based on levels of commitment, rather than on experience and proficiency. As a rite of passage, new members will each receive a pair of slippers to wear while inside the space—a “differentiating mechanism,” Chavez said, between members and visitors.

Prime Produce isn’t alone in looking to old-fashioned guilds as a means of social innovation. Some unions already hearken to them, at least by name, notably in the film industry. The New York Times Magazine recently suggested, too, that Hollywood’s guild-like set-workers’ unions, whose members often bounce from production to production, may represent “the future of work.” Jay Z’s Tidal streaming platform sold itself to consumers as a kind of guild for musicians, and a band of Silicon Valley business writers has organized itself into the Silicon Guild to help amplify each member’s network and steer the conversation about technology.

As we talked on the rooftop, Prime Produce’s founders freely mixed medieval idiom with that of Silicon Alley. Taeyoung cited the computer programming guru Donald Knuth’s dictum, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.” If they decided too much ahead of time, in too much detail, the idea was, they wouldn’t be as flexible, as iterative. Hsu described what Prime Produce is doing as “crafted social innovation” and a form of “slow entrepreneurship.” The guild’s appeal wasn’t just nostalgic to them but a way of navigating an often lonely attention-deficient economy, by cultivating habits of excellence and communizing resources like office space, companionship, and broadband. Adding to the stew of ambition and anachronism, Chavez referred to the old guilds as “catalysts” for a better kind of technological progress. “They blocked innovation that dehumanized work,” he said. “Guilds were always responsible to people first.”

Conventional wisdom holds that guilds in fact stymied efficiency and technological innovation. Epstein’s book sought to correct that narrative, as does the work of the Dutch social historian Maarten Prak. Guilds, Prak told me, “were not opposed to innovation per se, they were opposed to machines taking over.” When factory production replaced craft guilds, “work was transformed from rather boring to hopelessly boring.” Products became cheaper and more uniform, with fewer workers required to make them. But gone, too, was the fingerprint of the craftsman. Prak stressed, however, the importance of what he called “formal anchoring” for medieval guilds—establishing arrangements with local governments—to sustain themselves “for a longer period than the enthusiasm of the founding members.” Before long, to protect their craft, members found themselves needing to get involved in politics.

“It was a sort of deal between small businessmen and the authorities,” Sheilagh Ogilvie, an economic historian at the University of Cambridge who is more critical of the guilds’ legacy than Epstein or Prak, told me. Ogilvie stressed that guilds enforced an exclusionary economy, barring from their trades whomever they happened not to like, which often meant women, Jews, and immigrants. Adam Smith referred to the guilds’ price-fixing practices as “a conspiracy against the public,” and at the start of the French Revolution, they were among the first features of the ancien régime to be dispatched to the institutional guillotine. It was only in the last gasps of the guilds, after they’d lost their monopolies and had been forced to be less discriminatory, that Ogilvie thinks their nuisance was minimized.

Thus far, at least, Prime Produce’s membership has considerable ethnic, gender, and occupational diversity. And rather than making political deals, it will seek leverage in the pooling and collective management of resources, in the synergy of the members’ slippers and their ambitions for good works. Despite various delays and hitches, no one has yet dropped out. “The ingredient that plays a central role in all this is trust,” Qinza Najm, an artist who plans to work in the basement studio, told me." (


... of contemporary neo-guilds:

More Information

some material on guilds from the wiki:


by Robert P. Merges , University of California, Berkeley - School of Law, November 13, 2004

Abstract: This essay draws on recent scholarship concerning the nature and function of medieval guilds. I argue that certain features of these guilds appear in modern institutions that further collective invention ("appropriability institutions"): patent pools, industry-wide standard-setting organizations, informal knowledge exchange among academic scientists, and (in a more limited way) open source software development. In particular, guilds and modern institutions share three features: (1) an "appropriability structure" that makes it profitable for individual entities to develop new technologies and sometimes share them; (2) reliance on group norms, as opposed to formal legal enactments, as an enforcement mechanism; and (3) a balance of competition and cooperation which determines what information is to be shared with the group, and what (if any) individual-proprietary information is not. The current trend toward greater dispersal and atomization of economic activity may increase the importance of such interfirm appropriability institutions. (

Via Nathan Schneider:

An introduction to a journal issue that looks at guilds in cross-cultural context, including Ottoman, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian examples (6)

  • Ogilvie, Sheilagh. ”Can We Rehabilitate the Guilds? A Sceptical Re-Appraisal.“ [3]

“The one universal purpose uniting members of any European craft guild was to obtain charters and ordinances from the political authorities endowing its members with exclusive rights”

“some political scientists have begun to adduce guilds as historical exemplars of ‘social networks’ which generated beneficial ‘social capital’ for the economy as a whole.”

Criticizes the positive scholarship on guilds, especially that of Epstein. “Detailed case studies of what particular guilds actually did, combined with cross-European comparisons on an industry-by-industry basis, indicate strongly that guild rent-seeking and monopolies were a major source of market failure in pre-modern economies.”

  • Ogilvie, Sheilagh. ”The Economics of Guilds.“ Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 4 (Fall 2014). [4]

“Guilds in medieval and early modern Europe offered an effective institutional mechanism whereby two powerful groups, guild members and political elites, could collaborate in capturing a larger slice of the economic pie and redistributing it to themselves at the expense of the rest of the economy.” - “In short, guilds enabled their members and political elites to negotiate a way of extracting rents in the manufacturing and commercial sectors, rents that neither party could have extracted on its own.”

“Archival records are replete with cases of guild members penalized by the public authorities for producing above their guild quota, using prohibited techniques, or employing women.” (175) Followed by examples.

“Across Europe, as we have seen, the same industry could be strongly guilded in some societies, weakly guilded in others, and wholly unguilded in still others. There is no evidence that technological innovation was greater in the strongly guilded ones. On the contrary: in many cases unguilded or weakly guilded industries were at the forefront of inventing, adopting, and diffusing new techniques”

“The historical findings on guilds thus provide strong support for the view that institutions arise and survive for centuries not because they are efficient but because they serve the distributional interests of powerful groups.”

  • Ogilvie, Sheilagh. ”The Use and Abuse of Trust: Social Capital and its Deployment by Early Modern Guilds.“ CESifo Working Paper Series No. 1302 (2005). [5]

“The very features that enable social networks such as guilds to generate trust also enable them to act collusively against the common weal.” (51)