We need to talk about crowdfunding

Currently, there are three pitches sitting in my email inbox from people I read and respect – they know who they are – for various forms of crowdsourced funding for their projects. The amounts asked are small, but I have no doubt the requests will expand exponentially over the next few years until everyone I know is asking everyone else I know for money, maybe myself included.

The emails are exuberant, joyful – but they are also presuming on non-monetary forms of connection, of solidarity, in their pitch. Yet they are also, however well-intentioned, an individualisation of such solidarity, an appeal for this or that project. Some of it is a little too full on, my friends, a little OTT.

Yeah, uh, time to get a handle on this. Because we’ve seen it before. It is the intoxicating magic of capital, whereby something comes out of nothing. You have an idea, and suddenly it is a project and then it’s crowdsourced, and suddenly it’s an enterprise.

The process recapitulates exactly the formation of the business firm in thirteenth century Venice (and for this see Jane Gleeson-White’s peerless Double Entry). With the invention of the firm, a series of individual deals became a unified thing, a real abstraction known as a company.

A debt became both debt and asset via double-entry book-keeping, and a whole different way of thinking, of being came into the world. These early capitalists had the same intoxication as today’s kickstarters – read The Merchant of Prato, and you hear of merchants spending thirty-six hours writing business letters, the same as wired hackers today, grooving on new forms of possibility.

And very good it was too, if we are any sort of materialists, for the firm and the abstract commodity to come into the world. But the process colonising Left intellectual life is regressive, petty-bourgeoisifying. That’s true even though nothing is being offered in terms of shares etc. Instead, people are beginning to compete against each other using forms of affective capital – choosing which project you most support.

So we need to think about this. Personally I think a collective project with multiple authors that asked for money for an ongoing project of writing and publishing, with transparency and accountability, would be much, much better than the current process by which high-profile activists are spruiking. And I think those people should think about what they are doing, and the more complex consequences of it.


Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Everyone’s ragging on Guy’s ‘thirteenth century’ error but nobody’s called him on “there’s three pitches”. Come on Guy: there ARE three pitches.

  2. What kind of projects? Your lack of specifics regarding the projects leaves a massive hole in your piece. Coming from a music angle. This form of funding is so far the most interesting way to get a recording project done since the labels bloated themselves into irrelevance. There are records being made that would not have been made. A great example is a legendary Band Mother’s Finest. Every label that has offered to produce a new record wanted ownership of the back catalogue they had nothing to do with. So now the record gets made on the artists terms without having to sell the farm.
    Most crowd funding I see is a set goal. Physical product of actual value in exchange for ones support. It is pretty transparent. Don’t hit your goal? No cashing in. Simple.
    I am at this very moment setting up a crowdfunding campaign without kickstarter or the like. The hoops PayPal make one go through to get this type of pre approved payments is all about transparency.

    1. I interpreted the article as specifically about crowdfunding political activism, or at least ideologically streamlined venues for political speech, like Overland itself.

      Most people would agree that a credible political action fits within a coherent suite of positions on diverse political questions.

      The balkanising tendency of crowdfunding – the “individualisation of solidarity” to which Rundle is referring – militates against the need to qualify, prioritise, and make consistent the various kinds of political speech or action that could be funded.

      As for music: when the project is an artistic product, qualification is a matter of taste, and as agreement and consistency on matters of taste is of secondary importance, these concerns mostly fall away.

  3. On the music side, I crowdfunded a debut album recently and I happily support other people’s projects if they’re of interest. It was reassuring to see that projects are vetted. Mostly they work as a way of pre-selling to people who want the project to succeed. With so many record labels unable to support new work, it’s just part of the reality of releasing original music in Australia. People who count themselves as progressive or on the Left would be putting themselves at a disadvantage if they didn’t make use of it, I’d say.

  4. The link back to double-entry bookkeeping is inspired, but I don’t think an entirely negative association. Capital is a great pollinator of ideas, particularly when freed from corporate interests.
    The hard left critique of crowd-funding and social enterprises is invigorating, but you’re often left with a dream of the collective state.
    I’m not sure how the noble vision of the ‘collective project’ at the conclusion is fundamentally different to many crowd-funding projects. Though the fact that the argument based on a proposal that’s never described in the piece makes it difficult to know what the contrast really is.

  5. Crowdfunding essentially benefits those who are skilled at viral marketing and mobilising their personal/professional social networks. People who’ve already achieved fame in one sphere, for example, possess an enormous competitive advantage over those who haven’t. In this sense, crowdfunding does not present a ‘level-playing field’, but rather a transfer of power from older corporate bureaucratically-organised gatekeeping systems (such as record companies) to those individual players who possess forms of social capital and/or marketing savvy. While this transfer may seem more democratic on one level, these individual players also are reliant on telecommunications infrastructure owned by massive multinational corporations (to say nothing of the way crowdfunding explicitly commodifies social capital or encourages everyone to become an entrepreneur). I think the suggestion here is not that crowdfunding should never be used, but rather that we both need to be sceptical of the triumphalist narrative surrounding it and question how it can best support a progressive or radical vision of collective action.

  6. Crowdfunding is definitely worth talking about, but I’m not entirely convinced by your argument Guy, which seems to be leaning towards it being negative? Perhaps it’s that you’re not really explaining what kind of projects you’re talking about, as someone else mentioned earlier.

    I’ve contributed to three crowdfunded projects in the last twelve months. Two of them involved people I knew, and all three were quite clearly collaborative projects. I judged that I’d like to see them made and was glad to be able to contribute to making them happen.

    At the same time, I also subscribe to Overland, Crikey and New Matilda, etc – which are effectively crowdfundied, right?

    I think we also have to consider that there are a number of artists/activists who don’t make a living doing what they do, who can’t source production funding, or a book deal, or a recording contract, and that crowdfunding may be the only viable way a project can be made.

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