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Does peer production represent a radical break with capitalism?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd January 2013


“While practically and empirically the P2P mode of production is still under the sway of capitalism and to a great extent dependent on it (buying computers and other materials and services from it and using its infrastructure), its logic radically contradicts that of capital. I described briefly above major aspects of P2P that accord to Marx’s understanding of communism. All these aspects contradict the logic of capital. Here I will show how the logic of P2P profoundly contradicts the capitalist division of labour, because division of labour is the key component of any mode of production. Let me emphasize that in P2P we have a distribution of labour and not a division of labour (Weber, 2004). The P2P modes of cooperation and the distribution of products make micro (within separate production units) and macro (among different units) capitalist divisions of labor superfluous.”

Jakob Rigi , an Iranian marxist based in Hungary, says yes:

P2P AND THE MICRO CAPITALIST DIVISION OF LABOR

“On the level of the enterprise, capitalist management imposes the technical division of labor on workers. Capitalists (or their managers) bring the workers together under the same roof and place them in particular positions on the line of the division of labor and manage them. Cooperation among workers is a product of capital (Marx, 1976). The invention of machines perfected the technical division of labor, leading to Taylorism in which capital, using scientific methods, established a full despotism over labor (Braverman, 1974). The scholars of post-Fordism argue that post-Fordism has transcended Taylorism by enhancing workers’ skills and involving them in decision making (Amin, 1994). Similar claims have also been made about so-called Japanization (Kaplinsky, 1988). Such claims are at best controversial (Castells, 2010/1996). Many argue that Taylorism is still the dominant form of the organization of the labor process (Tomaney, 1994; Huws, 2003). Regardless of the validity of the Post-Fordist hypothesis, we can safely say that labour is still compartmentalized in closed spaces and is managed despotically by representatives of capital. While small select group of workers may enjoy partial autonomy the total labor processes is centralized by managers who integrate the work of separate workers into a total cooperative work process. Andre Gorz (1999: chapter 2), a proponent of the Post-Fordist hypothesis, says that Post-Fordism has replaced the Taylorist impersonal and mechanized despotism with new forms of personal enslavement. Individual producers do not choose their tasks, or the pace, time and place of their work. In other words the work process is micro-territorialized both spatially and temporally. In this sense the contrast with P2P cooperation cannot be stronger. In P2P cooperation the work processes are globally de-territorialized, in terms of both time and space.

The increasingly complex growth of hierarchical micro-divisions of labor which had been a major factor behind the growth of the productivity of industrial labor has become a barrier to the productivity of cognitive labor. Brook (1975) showed that in a centralized organization the increase of the number of engineers who work on a particular software problem decreases the efficiency by creating unnecessary complexities at an exponential rate. Raymond (2001) demonstrated that this was not true of de-centered networked cooperation of P2P. Here, the increase in the number of workers increases efficiency and improves the product. This hypothesis can be true of all forms of cognitive production.

The network-based online voluntary cooperation subverts the top-down logic of the capitalist management which is also the logic of the capitalist state. However, there is one form of “centralized” control in P2P. The development of each project is ultimately controlled by the individual(s) who launch it on the net. At crossroads, they have the final say, though there is a space for extensive discussions. However, if others are not happy with decisions taken by leadership, they have the right to take the entire project and develop it in the direction they please. Whether this form of “centralization” is an impact of the external capitalist environment, or inherent to P2P production, needs to be examined critically (O’Neil, 2009).

P2P AND MACRO CAPITALIST DIVISION OF LABOR

In the macro capitalist division different units of production are not connected with each other immediately but through the mediation market. Workers exchange their labor for wages and the products of their labor become commodities owned by capitalists and sold in the market. It is only in this way that the labors of immediate producers of various units and branches of production are connected to each other, becoming parts of the total social labor of society. Each unit of production becomes a component of the total capitalist macro division of labor to the extent it produces commodities which are sold (Marx 1978). P2P’s products are principally universal commons.

Although the GPL allows the sale of products, as a matter of common sense, no one pays for a product which is available for free. The commercial use of P2P’s products does not make them commodities because the user does not pay for them and therefore they do not enter the costs of his own commodity. From this follows that the total labor which is globally spent today on different forms of P2P is outside the capitalist social division of labor and circumscribes it. In the current stage the P2P is also circumscribed by the commodity form as major parts of the means of production are commodities and the contributors to P2P must earn money. A fully fledged P2P society is not compatible with money and commodity. The commodity form inherently circumscribes the freedoms that are guaranteed in the GPL (this point can also be reached by using Marx`s theory of value; however, it requires a lengthy argument that I have no space to develop here).

To sum up, the ITP productive forces combined with the de-centered network-based form of cooperation, the absence of wage labor, voluntary contribution, and the commons form of products constitute the main features of the P2P mode of production. Although the P2P mode of production is still an emerging phenomenon, its logic is clearly different from that of capitalism and has been created as a response to the requirements of the new productive forces. Therefore, its historical significance, urgency and novelty can hardly be exaggerated. The capitalist mode of production is a barrier to the realization of the potentialities of knowledge in the era of Internet. It limits human creativity and the development of knowledge workers in general. Therefore, it is no coincidence that a section of knowledge workers have rebelled against capitalist relations of production by lunching P2P. As Söderberg (2008) argues this is a form of class struggle.

THE RELATION OF THE P2P MODE OF PRODUCTION TO CAPITALISM

The new social production consists of islands in the sea of the capitalist mode of production. The relation between the two, as pointed to above, is one of mutual dependence and antagonism. The social production depends on capitalism for acquiring some of the means of production and wages of its contributors, whilst capitalism on the other hand uses the commons of social production for free.

Marxists distinguish between the mode of production and the social formation. The social formation is an integrated socio-economic-ideological/cultural system. It may consist of more than one modes of production. However, one mode of production dominates the others and its imperatives define the overall characteristics of the social formation. In this sense we can speak of feudal and capitalist social formations as distinct from feudal and capitalist modes of production. Although the dominant mode of production dominates other modes of production, it cannot erase their specific logics. The continuous tension and dependency between the dominant mode of production and subordinated ones make social formations dynamic, uneven, and complex phenomena.

The capitalist social formation has gone through three partially overlapping phases: the emerging, the dominant and the declining ones. In the emerging phase (1850-1950) the capitalist mode of production dominated the feudal, domestic and other pre- capitalist modes of production worldwide, extracting labor and value from them (Mandel, 1972: chapter 2 ). In the second phase (1950-1980) the capitalist mode of production eroded the pre-capitalist mode of productions profoundly, and replaced them with the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism expanded both intensively, penetrating new domains of productive activity such as services, and extensively, conquering the whole globe. The third phase (1980- onwards) is characterized by the emergence of the ITP paradigm and the social mode of production within the capitalist social formation. This period has been described in terms such as “Network Society” (Castells, 2010/1997 ), “Empire” (Hardt and Negri, 2000), etc.

Although the P2P mode of production is still under the sway of the capitalist mode of production, its standing vis-à-vis capitalism is different from that of pre-capitalist modes of productions. While in the two first phases capitalism represented the new productive forces, in the third phase P2P is the new and emerging mode of production and capitalism is the declining one. If P2P dominates capitalism we will have the emerging phase of P2P social formation. I do not want to give the impression that the victory of P2P over capitalism is either a smooth evolutionary process or inevitable. It is fully contingent upon the orientations and consequences of the current social struggle, particularly the struggle of P2P communities. As I will deal with this issue in the final section, the following section explores whether the current social production can be generalized to material production.”

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