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On the Historical and Future Connection between Peer Production and an Ethical Economy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
2nd October 2013


“The word ‘commune’ arose in the tenth century from the activities of artisans in Italy that created enclosed spaces to defend themselves and their vernacular peer to peer production from the pillaging of the time by overlords. Commune in the middle ages meant ‘to wall together’ or in other words to create defensive enclosures to protect and enable the emergence of ‘fair trade markets’.

Excerpted from Pat Conaty in a discussion with Marvin Brown:

“The word ‘commune’ arose in the tenth century from the activities of artisans in Italy that created enclosed spaces to defend themselves and their vernacular peer to peer production from the pillaging of the time by overlords. Commune in the middle ages meant ‘to wall together’ or in other words to create defensive enclosures to protect and enable the emergence of ‘fair trade markets’. Then of course there were the three estates, those who fight (nobles), those who pray (clergy) and those who work (serfs). To become free from serfdom, artisanal workers had to build walls to physically protect themselves and indeed peer to peer exchange systems to co-exist and co-develop. They collaborated dynamically to develop equitable markets. To secure the legality to do so, they had to fight to secure town charters.

Second, therefore I don’t think the problem is markets per se. Polanyi in fact separates early vernacular markets marked by local trading from mercantilistic markets involving long-distance trading. To clarity this he was guided by Marx’s distinctions between c-m-c and m-c-m’ (we might describe as fair trade today) and M-C-M’ (obligopolistic capitalism that is destroying people, planet and eviscerating culture like acid). Herman Daly draws out this analysis powerfully in his less well known book, Beyond Growth.
Third, if common artisans invented equitable markets they also understood that productive property is a good thing if limited in scale and so long as it is equitably distributed and all commoners have fair access. For example in the medieval period, a master artisan could only have on shop in a town. So we need to make a similar property scale distinction. Ruskin did this well: between ‘wealth’ for life and well being versus ‘illth’ – ill gotten property. The commonwealth guiding idea here being is that if you can’t use it, you should lose it. In other words commoners and co-operators need access and indeed ownership/use rights to sufficient productive property to guarantee and ensure their democratic autonomy. Beyond this sufficient level, property rights need to be curtailed. Henry George proposed land value taxation to do so and the Tobin tax is similar. But this implies the State. So how to appraise this?
Fourth, so goverance and government. Gustav Landauer contrasted powerfully the ‘political principle’ with the ‘social principle.’ To shrink the domiinance of the former you need to increase the operation and extension of the latter. Martin Buber celebrated this distinction. What this means is that as you develop socially and economically economic democracy, the State can be shrunk to an appropriate scale. JS Mill similarly celebrated and actively promoted economic democracy for this same reason.

Fifth, following this logic, I think we can see that markets need to be designed to be equitable and fair, enclosing space as necessary to preserve and defend the commons including these markets with a small ‘m’. To do this requires an understanding of the social physics of co-operative commonwealth and ways to legally structure and protect co-operative property of all sorts. Mike Lewis and I show in our book a plethora of systems for doing this from community land trusts to interest-free banking like JAK and to social welfare via multi-stakeholder social co-ops.

Sixth, Government is a problem when and where it concludes with mercantilism and monopoly. This is self-evident today post 2008 where no serious attempt has been made to bring oligopolistic banking to democratic account. However government with a ‘small g’ has in the past and can be married positively and practically with markets with a small ‘m’ and property with a ‘small p’.
Seventh, where you can get these public, private and civil society co-actors collaborating, the scope is huge to build Social-Public Partnerships to co-develop co-operative accumulation. Civic Commonwealth requires a new dynamic concept of property. Community Land Trusts do this in that with a CLT, the land is held in common but dwellings built upon the land can be privately owned with a 99 year lease typically and a small ground rent. This exemplifies I think Marvin what Civic Commonwealth and co-operative property (as opposed to standard private property) looks like. The property is co-owned with the land held out of the market by commoners but household able to secure an equitable amount of property on a full repairing lease for their period of residence. So in the CLT system there is a limited amount of private property permitted.

Eighth, the article I sent you all last time on the Co-operative Land Bank shows how this dynamic (We and I) co-ownership system can be co-developed across entire areas of cities and for new towns in a collaborative partnership with local government collaborators. This is the Guild socialist vision in operation and promoted powerfully by GDH Cole, RH Tawney and Bertrand Russell in the 1920s. After escaping from fascism, Polanyi worked with Tawney in London as a fellow Workers Education Association teacher in the 1930s and indeed during the second World War. This collaborative experience fed into his thinking and writing of the Great Transformation. Professor Margie Mendell at Karl Polanyi Institute has provided me recently me her analysis of this link during his period of Polanyi’s life. Of course in Shadow Work and other books, Illich refers back to Polanyi. Similarly Fritz Schumacher refers back to Tawney.

Democratic participation and co-design can be forged effectively in this direction but understanding appropriate scale is essential in relation to the market, the state and the commons. With these insights, we can reforge vernacular culture in the ways Illich so beautifully conveyed. … The current pervasive and myopic focus on income redistribution via the state is one-eyed. Redistributing ownership is key to securing a well-being, provisioning and a steady-state economy beyond growth. Capital is so productive but it is concentrated in the hands of the 1% and that is why the world’s population are on an endless treadmill of work to you drop. Retiring ages are getting longer and working weeks extending despite the massive increases in technological productivity. Guild socialist Bertrand Russell made the case for a 20 hour week based on technical capacity and co-operative redistribution in the 1920s and here we are a century later and we are still going backwards and blind to the ownership question.

Unless we can spread ownership of productive assets, we cannot shorten the working week and get off the growth and debt treadmill. The distributists made this analysis in the 1920s. Ashford is right. Spreading capital ownership in inclusive ways is crucial. A binary income involving wages and dividends is vital but some how we need to make this real and equitable fr all people. Co-operative economic democracy has the solutions here. ” (email August 2013)

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