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The place of the Journal of Peer Production in academic research

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
22nd July 2012


Through the analysis of the forms, operations, and contradictions of peer producing communities in contemporary capitalist society, the journal aims to open up new perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change.

The following is excerpted from Mathieu O’Neil, in the introduction to the first issue of the journal:

“The journal has been created to further the study and critical discussion of the concept of peer-to-peer. What is meant by that term is precisely one of the questions we wish to investigate here. Provisionally, we define “peer” or “collaborative” production as a mode of commons-based and oriented production where participation is voluntary and predicated on the self-selection of tasks. Starting from this ideal type, we set out to scrutinise the inconsistencies and contradictions of peer production. Our aim is to add a new kind of forum for discussing the concerns, aspirations and fears that have been fermenting on the Internet for close to a decade. The journal format will hopefully allow for a more sustained and focused investigation of these topics, while increasing their visibility in academia and in offline society. The genesis of the Journal of Peer Production occurred at the Fourth Oekonux conference in Manchester in 2009.

The journal intends to position itself between the grassroots initiatives and discussions taking place on the Internet, driven by practitioners and activists, and the debates taking place in academia. We are thus obliged to say something about the match, and mismatch, between the concept of peer production and the academic world to which this journal, ultimately, belongs. Right away then we must confront a very large question: the state of the contemporary critical intellectual landscape. This scene has been brilliantly mapped by a French sociologist, Razmig Keucheyan, in his recently published book, Hémisphère gauche. Une cartographie des nouvelles pensées critiques. Drawing on Perry Anderson, Keucheyan makes two key points: First, the “New Left” must recognise that it was beaten by the neo-liberal counter-offensive, and, consequently, that it is now speaking from a position of defeat. Second, a useful comparison can be drawn between the leading critical intellectuals of the early 20th century and their counterparts today. Rosa Luxemburg, Trotski, Lenin, Lukacs, Korsch and Gramsci combined incisive political analysis with actual leadership of political organisations. In present-day Europe, some intellectuals are associated with far-left micro-parties such as the late Daniel Bensaïd in France, or Alex Callinicos in the United Kingdom; in Latin America, one can think of Álvaro García Linera, vice-president of Bolivia since 2006, and of Subcomandante Marcos of the Mexican Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN). But the overwhelming majority of critical intellectuals, in contrast to the earlier era, are to be found in the ranks of academia. Keucheyan concludes: “This does not mean that contemporary critical intellectuals are not engaged, or that they are less radical than classical marxists. But, aside from their engagement, they are academics, which cannot fail to influence the kind of theories they produce” (Keucheyan 2010: 28).

The emergence of a mode of peer production seems to provide a counter-point to what has just been said. The production of technical innovations and artifacts has in this case shifted outside established institutions and firms; to the extent that the practitioners are reflecting over what they do, the production of ideas and texts has also moved outside the academic building. No one personifies this better than Richard Stallman. His ideals of autonomy, creativity, sharing, and cooperation have been advanced through the creation of GNU software, the General Public Licence (or “copyleft”) and the Free Software Foundation. Those achievements have been coupled with an independent production of ideas, manifestos, forecasts and strategic plans. Arguably, the positive scenario for the future articulated by Richard Stallman is inseparable from his position as a free thinker vis-à-vis academia. It is doubtful that it would otherwise have been possible for him to put in writing the dream with which the GNU Manifesto ends: “In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting. There will be no need to be able to make a living from programming.” (Stallman, 1985).

The social scientist is bound to react to such techno-utopianism with a wry smile. Hearing the science-fiction references in the quote above, he or she will instinctively proceed to criticise the hidden assumptions of a logocentric, western and patriarchal hacker culture. We invite scholars to develop such critiques as part of the mission of this journal. Having said that, we are also concerned that the trained reflexes of the professional academic, which often overlap with an anxiety not to be perceived as naïve, are complicit with the ironic, post-ideological hegemonic order of the day. In contrast, the faith shown by Richard Stallman and like-minded people in what they are doing has been rewarded with a range of successes. The creation of peer production projects such as Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia and the many offshoots of GNU/Linux are some cases in point. Those accomplishments stand out all the more as the traditional left is struggling to come up with an adequate response to the mounting crisis of the capitalist system. Post-1989, the space for thinking and debating alternatives to neo-liberal and/or keynesian capitalism is steadily shrinking, even within the left. It is in this light that investigations into the peer production model become urgent.

Inquiries of the sort have been pioneered by Oekonux and the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives (P2P Foundation). These projects have been involved in theory development, free software production and community organising. This hands-on experience has contributed to a conceptual creativity rarely found elsewhere. The Oekonux project, originally launched in 1999 in Germany, has been at the forefront of critical theorising about peer production. In the view of Oekonux members and sympathisers, the Marxist critique of the capitalist mode of production (the proletariat wresting control of state planning from the bourgeoisie) has been surpassed by a “peer production” critique (the multitude re-organises the capitalist relation of production along voluntary lines, favouring horizontal cooperation and the free distribution of commons). Accordingly, peer production presents itself as the negation of capitalism in the same way that the future is the negation of the present. The proponents of the P2P Foundation share many of the same concerns and diagnoses, but do so without being as closely linked to the Marxist legacy. The differences and commonalities of these two approaches are further explored in the invited comments and debate sections of this issue. The Journal of Peer Production encourages the broadest possible debate, including as many and as different positions as possible. Nothing less will do when taking the full measure of the complexity of social life and of the plurality of economies, modes of production, markets, and networks; something which, at the end of the day, is a prerequisite for developing a concrete political vision of peer production. What seems most useful at this point in time is to document best practice and anti-discrimination measures in peer production projects; to document the successes and failures of projects; and to determine to what extent the institutionalisation of those processes is possible and desirable.

Those ideas are reflected in the small contribution which the Journal of Peer Production strives to make to reform academic publishing. It goes without saying that this is an Open Access Journal. But the peer review process has problems that cut much deeper. We therefore set out to experiment with this process, hoping to end up with something better. Taking a cue from Wikipedia, the journal publishes the reviewers’ reports and original article submissions. Our ambition is to make the process of reviewing papers more transparent. By opening up the process in this way, the work of reviewers is valorised, and good reviewing practices are encouraged. We nevertheless uphold the anonymity of participants during the review process, in order to ensure fair and fearless reviewing and avoid ad hominem attacks. Another feature of the journal is the signaling system which aims to reduce the strict separation between the acceptance and rejection of submitted articles. In this way, papers which do not perfectly accord with the requirements of editors can nevertheless be published, whilst the reputation of the journal is protected. Whether these experiments are paying off is something that readers will have to decide for themselves whilst perusing this inaugural issue.”

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