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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Emmanuel Macron: a populist eruption from the liberal centre

The French presidential candidate has been compared with a young Tony Blair.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came to town this week to meet Theresa May and address the London French community, whose votes he was chasing. In our age of extremes, Macron, who is 39, is that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre. A former merchant banker and economy minister in the failing Hollande Socialiste administration, he represents En Marche! (“Forward!”), which is less a party than a movement. His sudden rise would not have been possible in Britain, which is part of the stability and attraction of the parliamentary system but also its frustration.

Don’t be shy

I met Macron on Tuesday afternoon when he took questions from a small group of journalists at Central Hall Westminster. He is small and dapper, with short hair and a strong, straight nose. Because of the collapse of the Socialistes and the struggles of the discredited conservative contender François Fillon, Macron has emerged as the great hope of liberals and perhaps as the candidate to stop Marine Le Pen seizing the presidency. Unlike the Front National leader, Macron is an unashamed liberal globaliser in the model of Nick Clegg or a younger, less tormented Tony Blair. He is a passionate advocate of the EU and of the eurozone and, as a result, is under attack from the Russian media. He has been accused of leading a double life – his wife, whom he met when she was his schoolteacher, is 20 years older than Macron – and of being unwilling to admit that he is gay, or at least bisexual. His response to the Russian attacks was, he said, “to disclose the manipulation and kill the rumours”.

The far right in France has caricatured Macron as being “globalisation personified”, about which he is relaxed. In conversation, he criticised David Cameron’s referendum campaign. “His message was ‘Yes but . . .’ That is not the answer to ‘No’. I defend Europe and the four freedoms of the EU. If you are shy, you are dead.”

Not all relative

On Sunday, I received a text from one of my cousins. “The Lincoln City manager and his brother, the assistant, are called Cowley,” he wrote. “His father looks a bit like your father. Any relation? They are from Essex.” I am also from Essex, born and brought up in Harlow new town, which turned 70 this year. But I had to disappoint my cousin. My father was an only child, as was his father, so it’s highly unlikely that these Cowley brothers are even distant relations of mine.

Toast of the county

I already knew about the brothers, having been alerted to them by my seven-year-old son, who is a sports data enthusiast. Last season, Danny Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, were working as teachers in Essex while coaching Braintree Town at weekends. This season, they have led Lincoln to an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, making them the first non-League team to reach the last eight in more than a century. Lincoln are also at the top of the National League (English football’s semi-professional fifth division) and in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, the premier non-League cup competition. The Cowleys are reported to be subsisting on a diet of toast and Marmite as they rise early each morning obsessively to study videos and analytics and prepare for the next match. They have introduced a new spirit of openness at the previously moribund club: fans watch training sessions and attend press conferences.

It’s nonsense to believe, as some do, that only those who have performed at the highest level have the authority to coach the best. Wenger, Mourinho, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas: none of them were even remotely successful players. Asked once to explain his accomplishments, Mourinho said: “I’ve had more time to study.” More English coaches – so few of whom are working in the Premier League – would do well to follow his example.

It will be fascinating to see how far the Cowley brothers progress in the game. Whatever happens next, they have reanimated interest in the FA Cup and given the resilient yeomen of Essex a small boost.

Ignore the huckster

Boris Johnson accused Tony Blair of “bare-faced effrontery” for having the temerity last week to deliver an anti-Brexit speech, which itself was an act of bare-faced effrontery. Johnson is a huckster and narcissist whose vanities have been grotesquely indulged for far too long by his cheerleaders and paymasters in the media. (A standard question to Johnson when he was mayor of London: “You do want to be prime minister, don’t you?”) No one should take anything Johnson says remotely seriously. Should the same be said of Blair?

Yes, of course he is the author of his own misfortunes and many will never forgive the former Labour prime minister for the Iraq catastrophe. Yet of all the politicians I have spoken to in recent times, Blair was the most intellectually nimble and the most alert to the defining complexities of the present moment. As he demonstrated in his speech, he also understands better than most why, in an age of intensifying ethnic nationalism, the parties of the left are failing across Europe, none more so than the British Labour Party, which looks as far away from power as it did after the 1931 election.

Journey to the centre

As an energetic and charismatic liberal, Macron has been likened to the young Tony Blair. Can he seize the progressive centre, as Blair did, and destabilise the old binary divisions of left and right? “The anti-European and anti-globalisation extremes are winning elections,” he said, in a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. “But we don’t have the same political cycles as the others. It’s time for France to do the opposite.” With that said, he thanked his interlocutors and was hurried off for a meeting with another Essex man, Philip Hammond, pursued not by a bear but by the journalist Robert Peston. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit