You won’t learn about it in business school, hear about it from Wall Street, or see it in Palo Alto. But if you spend time in Bushwick, Brooklyn, or on Rivington Street in Manhattan, you just might detect the outlines of an emerging "indie" capitalism. This new form of capitalism is not just about conventional startups and technology and venture capitalists. If you add up all the trends under way today, I believe we are beginning to see the start of something original, and perhaps wonderful. It may prove to be the economic and social antidote to the failed financial capitalism and crony capitalism that no longer delivers economic value in terms of jobs, income, and taxes to the people of this country.
It’s too early to define the exact shape of this latest iteration of capitalism, but what indie capitalism appears to have is a distinct sensibility. Let’s take a look at a few key features.
Indie capitalism is local, not global, and cares about the community and jobs and says so right up front. Good things come from and are made locally by people you can see and know. The local focus makes indie capitalism intrinsically sustainable—energy is saved as a result of a way of life, not in an effort to reach a distinct and difficult goal.
Indie capitalism is socially, not transactionally, based. It’s not just Internet social, involving 5,000 friends, but personally social. Take Kickstarter, for example, where people fund the music, books, and products that they can watch develop over time. In this model, consumer, investor, audience, fan, helper, and producer conflate. People find and prepare their food the same way they find and prepare their music. And then they share it all.
Making is not a rare act done by a few, but a routine happening.
But before they show and tell, people make. Indie capitalism is, above all, a maker system of economics based on creating new value, not trading old value. It embraces all the strains of maker culture—food, indie music, DIY, craft, 3-D digital fabrication, bio-hacking, app enabling, CAD modeling, robotics, tinkering. Making is not a rare act performed by a few but a routine happening in which just about everyone participates. Making and using tools are part of a meaningful existence. And tools shift from a ritual presence to a practical role in everyday life. Having great tools and making great things begin to replace consumption as an end in itself. Wieden + Kennedy get it with their ads for Chrysler. The "Imported from Detroit"[a] signals the shift in sensibility to "local." And the "The Things We Make, Make Us" tagline for Jeep gets the new make culture: "This has always been a nation of builders. Craftsmen. Men and women for whom straight stitches and clean welds are a matter of personal pride... This, our newest son, was imagined, drawn, carved, stamped, hewn and forged here in America." And Dan Provost, who, with Tom Gerhardt, launched his Glif iPhone camera stand on Kickstarter, perfectly sums up the new outlook: "One thing that has greatly pleased Tom and I about the success of this project is its inherent simplicity: We are just two guys who made something people want to buy, and then we sell it to them. No middle men, no big corporations, no venture capital, no investments. I think beyond the interest in the Glif itself, people like to know where things are coming from, and the story behind it."
Another indie capitalism characteristic is a heightened meaning embedded in materials and products. Making fewer things of higher quality and utility is important. Reusing and sharing really good stuff is valued. The touch and feel of things, from Apple products to vintage Levi’s jeans to beautifully made (but unlabeled) dresses, are important. The entire notion of brand is upended in indie capitalism, superseded by the community surrounding the creation of a product or service. Authenticity is the "brand" in many cases.
A while back, the futurist Paul Saffo predicted a new "creator economy" replacing the industrial and consumer economies. I like the term but prefer "indie capitalism" because it captures more of the social context and values of this new economy. I think it is sufficiently different from the entrepreneurial, startup culture of Stanford/Silicon Valley to warrant its own name. The term feels more 21st century, while "startup" sounds, well, 20th century. It’s socially focused, not technology focused, more designer/artist-centric than engineering-centric. I especially like "indie" because the indie music scene reflects many of the distributive and social structures of this emergent form of capitalism. It’s no accident that Portland and New York have vibrant indie music scenes and are the centers of a rising new indie capitalism.
Making fewer things of higher quality and utility is important.
Occupy Wall Street is the most powerful movement of recent decades, and its questioning of the basics of big corporate global capitalism comes as the voices of mainstream critics question the efficacy and legitimacy of our current economic system. The Harvard Business Review has been running a series of pieces criticizing finance capitalism. Foreign Affairs has been writing about the split between robust global corporate profit-making and negative domestic job-making. Even cable TV financial journalists are publicly talking about the failure of Wall Street to do its traditional job of financing business formation. And cries of crony capitalism can be heard from both the Tea Party as well as Occupy.
I think that rising before us may be the solution to all that. Indie capitalism could be the kind of reinvigorated capitalism that we can all believe in again. To make it really work, we might need a new indie economics (of creativity and innovation), plus a new indie set of political policies.
What do you think?
[OWS Image: Flickr user shehan365]