Valve Software: free marketeer's dream, or nightmare?

The first anti-cap software company.

Valve Software's chief economist, Yanis Varoufakis, has a post up detailing the strange corporate structure of the company, famous for its string of hits from the Half Life and Portal series to Counterstrike and Team Fortress, as well as its mammoth digital distribution network Steam.

The whole post is fascinating as an introduction to the area of economics known as theory of the firm, but the really interesting part is his description of how the famously hierarchy-free company is actually practicing the free market even within the workplace.

If you work in Valve, you are given a desk with wheels, and told to spend all of your time on projects of your own choice. Obviously at the extremes, there is still control – if "projects of your own choice" means spending every working hour laying down slap bass grooves for your funk garage bank, you'll probably be asked to find employment elsewhere – but the company is serious about what it says. If an engineer on Steam wants to contribute to a marketing piece about Portal 2, they can. The company is fastidious about hiring all-rounders, and an earlier profile of the "Valve method" contains the killer explanation

The first thing you should know here is that Gabe [Newell] is on top, and there are 249 people below him. That’s the whole hierarchy

That number has gone up now – to around 400 people – but the pattern remains the same.

Some might be tempted to describe this collective model of the company as the ultimate example of anarchist organisation in action, but Varoufakis sees it as the exact opposite: a rare entry of free market ideals inside the corporation, which is normally – indeed, according to the arguments of Roland Coase, definitionally – an area characterised by the absence of market principles. 

Varoufakis writes:

Each employee chooses (a) her partners (or team with which she wants to work) and (b) how much time she wants to devote to various competing projects. In making this decision, each Valve employee takes into account not only the attractiveness of projects and teams competing for their time but, also, the decisions of others. The reason is that, especially when insufficiently informed about projects and teams (e.g. when an employee has recently joined Valve), an employee can gather much useful information about projects and teams simple by observing how popular different projects and teams are (a) with others in general, (b) with others whose interests/talents are closer to their own.

Just like in a marketplace, everything in Valve is in flux. People move about (making use of their desk’s wheels), new teams are formed, new projects are concocted. All this information is observable by the naked eye (one notices an empty spot where David’s desk used to be, and then finds out that David moved to the 4th floor to work with Tom, Dick and Harriet), on the company’s intranet, in cross-team meetings where teams inform each other on what they are working on). People learn constantly, both by observing and by doing, the value to them of different projects and teams. These subjective values keep changing, as the time and team formation signals that are emitted by everyone else are updated.

So the perfect anarchist collective is actually the perfect capitalist corporation? Maybe, maybe not. The crucial thing about Valve's "market" is that it doesn't actually use money. Although much of the advantages of a real market can be analogised over to this system, it loses some pretty crucial aspects. If you are bidding with your time and attention, although others may try to win you round, you can't horde your time; can't distort the market; can't turn your holdings into power. Can't, really, do anything except use that time throughout the working day as you see fit. 

Analogising the company to a market economy may show where the efficiency actually stems from, but it doesn't make the methods involved capitalist - they are anything but.

The logo of Valve software.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.