Christian Siefkes on the difference between capitalism and the peer economy

This is a response to some of the challenges expressed by Stefan Merten, who believes Siefkes book re-introduces capitalist concepts in another form.

Christian Siefkes:

In so far as current peer production tends to go, my solution is the same as of current peer production processes: you can take anything, without having to give anything back, as long as you don’t take it _away_ from others. That means that you can freely take information and anything else that can be copied freely. Current peer production tends to end here.

The problem that arises next is how to organizing taking when taking does mean taking away: say if I want to take a bicycle, but somebody else wants to take it too — if there’s only one bicycle, and if one of us would take it, she would take it away from the other (she would deny her the possibility of taking it). My problem to this solution is basically: “arrange production, through social agreements, so as to avoid that taking becomes taking away — i.e. arrange production so as to ensure that there is one bicycle (etc.) for everyone who needs one.” People thus enter a joint agreement to help each other produce what each of them needs.

Realizing this common goal requires effort, and the agreement must therefore find a mode for distributing this effort–my proposal here is either to distribute effort evenly among participants (flatrate model), or to distribute it roughly proportionally to the effort it takes to satisfy everyone’s wishes (“the more you want, the more you have to give”), plus some further details and possible modifications. The decision to regard effort as “abstract human labor”, disregarding the specific useful goods it produces (except that they must of course be useful, i.e. somebody must want them), is therefore the result of an social agreement, it does not happen “behind the back of the producers.”

The important thing, I believe, is that people enter a joint agreement to help each other produce what they need–the details of the agreement (how to distribute effort etc.) will be a matter of experimentation. Feel free to propose better solutions for these details, if you know any.

But please stop ignoring the difference between freely copyable and other things: if you take a copy of Linux, nobody else loses a thing, but if you take the last bicycle, other people lose the possibility to take it. That’s a difference that must be dealt with, merely wishing it away won’t help you.

I don’t think the problem in capitalism is that you don’t get everything for free. On a deep level, the problem that you have to work in order to consume even exists in any society, since only goods that have been produced can be consumed. Thus work (production) is always a necessary precondition for consumption–maybe not for you personally, but definitely for society as a whole. (Of course, the people doing it may perceive this work not as necessity, but as Selbstentfaltung, as something they’re doing voluntarily and with pleasure–that’s the best outcome a mode of production can hope to achieve. But it can only be an outcome, not a precondition for a mode of production. Otherwise needs which, for whatever reasons, cannot be satisfied by pure Selbstentfaltung would simply be neglected, and that wouldn’t be a good thing.)

The problem in capitalism is that production only takes place if there is _profit._ The goal of all capitalist production is to make profit, i.e. to turn money into more money. So, in order to get the things you need, you cannot just “work a little”–no, you have to convince some capitalist that they need you, i.e. that employing you allows them to make more profit than they would make otherwise. Your mere willingness to work is entirely unimportant–you must be useful for some capitalist, too. But capitalists only need a limited number of personnel, much less than there are people on Earth, so that’s the big hurdle which most people fail to overcome (when speaking on a global scale).

The second aspect of this problem is that, as a worker, you don’t sell the results of your labor, you sell your _labor power_ (workers, or would-be workers, are people who don’t have anything to sell than their labor power–most people haven’t). The deal by selling your labor power is: you get paid the value of your labor power (what else?), and the value of your labor power is what you need in order to survive (according to your local community standard of living); in return, you have to give your full labor power (according to the local standard for the length of they work day/week, say, 8 hours a day/40 hours a week). If the production of the goods you need for your standard of living takes 20 hours a week, you still have to work 40 hours–the other 20 hours are the “surplus”–they go to the capitalist, become their profit and are, in fact, the only reason why they employed you in the first place.

In the peer economy, you don’t need to be useful for a capitalist, since you can join, without any preconditions, the general agreement to help each other produce what they need. And since work is simply divided up, there is no surplus–if producing your standard of living takes 20 hours a week, you work 20 hours (assuming a proportional model), if you want a higher standard, you have to work a bit more, say 25 hours, etc. (In fact, your workload would probably be even lower, since in capitalism there is much duplication of work and overload work which would be unnecessary in a peer economy.) The general agreement to help each other produce what they want and to divide the necessary work among those that can contribute means that everybody who can has to work a little, but nobody has to work very much. (And if you can’t contribute at all, then you don’t have to. That’s how I describe it, at least, and I believe that rule to be very important, since the goal of dividing up the labor is to allow everyone to get what they want with the least possible effort, not to exclude anybody.)

That’s the difference between capitalism and the peer economy. For many people in our society, it would mean the difference between life and death, or at least between having to live in misery or being able to live a good life. And for almost everybody else it, it’s the difference between having to work very much (and often with the fear of losing that precious, if unloved job and the advantages it entails) and having to work much less (and without fear of dropping out). And that’s not even speaking of the fact that in the peer economy you’re part of a equal community of co-producers with a common goal (produce for everyone what that like to have), while in capitalism you must subjugate to the command of some boss whose goal (making profit) has nothing to do with you...”

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