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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.