P2P Essay of the Day: Ten Peer Production Patterns (1-5) – Part 1

We will present the 10 peer production patterns described by Stefan Meretz. We will split the list, presenting the first half in this post and the last 5 patterns in the upcoming days.

About this essay, the P2PF Curator -Michel Bauwens- says:

A word of caution. The text by Stefan Meretz is useful to understand the post-capitalist patterns that are inherent in peer production, however, it also abstracts from its embeddedness in present society and the way these aspects are instrumentalized by the present society and economic system, and create hybrid mechanisms of mutual adaptation. It also skirts around the central question of the self-reproduction of the means of production.

To introduce the essay we will need to read the presentation by its author, Stefan Meretz:

Why is the Oekonux project so relevant for debates around commons-based peer production? There are two reasons. First, Oekonux developed many of the ideas many researchers are so familiar with many years before they reached a wider audience. Oekonux was founded as a project of reflection around Free Software, but from the beginning the question of generalizing observations about Free Software to other realms of immaterial as well as material goods was present. When Yochai Benkler (2006) coined the term commons-based peer production it only condensed a debate years old into a catchy notion, but the insights itself were not very new and sound very familiar to Oekonux participants. Consequently the term has been adopted by the Oekonux project.

Second, Oekonux participants have gone much further than others in questioning the accepted way of thinking. New theses have been developed which did not only reject traditional discourse patterns in computer sciences, sociology, and economics, but also in emancipatory political and theoretical approaches. Stefan Merten, the founder of Oekonux who comes from an anarchist-marxist background, provocatively rejects “leftist and other capitalist ideologies” (Merten 2011) for the analysis of peer production. This sounds quite post-modern, but was meant differently: All means of emancipation are going to be developed right in front of our eyes, but we also have to grasp them theoretically. Traditional leftist patterns are not able to do that, because they adhere to the given mode of production for whose analysis they are made.

In the following I try to describe some Oekonux patterns, which of course represent my interpretation of the Oekonux debate. When I use the past when talking about Oekonux, it is not because the project does no longer exists. It still exists, and the Critical Studies in Peer Production journal is not the only spin-off of the project, there have been many others, so that the focus decentralizes to diverse projects inspired by Oekonux.

About Oekonux project

The Oekonux project seeks to establish a new basis for analyzing a new historical phenomenon: the emergence of peer production, starting with the creation of Free Software. If the initial hypotheses of Free Software being the germ form of a new mode of production beyond capitalism is valid, it would be necessary to develop new epistemological patterns to be able to analyze it adequately. This requires understanding and criticizing old analytical notions as historical products of the outlived capitalist way of producing our livelihood, including those which aim to be in opposition to capitalism. In this paper I present ten patterns which have emerged from the debates of the Oekonux Project.

The patterns: 1-5

Pattern 1: Beyond Exchange

Stefan Meretz:
“Free Software, or more generally, commons-based peer production is not about exchange. Giving and taking are not coupled with each other. From today’s perspective this might not be surprising, but at the beginning of the Oekonux project it was. Still today traditional Leftist approaches are based on the assumption that someone is only allowed to get something, if s/he is willing and able to give something back, because if everybody is only taking then society would perish. This position could reference to a painful Socialist (and Christian) tradition saying that the one who does not want to work, should not eat. However, Free Software clearly showed that developers do not need to be forced to do what they love to do (cf. pattern 5).

One important approach which tried to grasp the new developments of Free Software, although sticking with old thinking, was the “gift economy” approach. However it is not coincidental that the correct term should be “gift exchange economy”: The giver can expect to get something back, because it is a moral duty in societies based on the exchange of gifts. This kind of personal reciprocal duty does not exist in Free Software. Even if a developer says that s/he wants to “give something back”, then this giving is not a precondition to receive something. In general, commons-based peer production is based on unconditional voluntary contributions.

From a Leftist perspective, uncoupled giving and taking could only be possible in a mythical land in a distant future called Communism – if at all. But never today, because before communism is possible, an unfriendly interphase called Socialism sticking with the exchange dogma is necessary (cf. pattern 8). Historically, “real existing Socialism” trying to implement this necessity failed, which will happen with all Socialist approaches accepting the exchange dogma.

If one does not want to give up exchange, then capitalism is the only option.”

Pattern 2: Beyond Scarcity

Stefan Meretz:
“It is a common misconception that material things are scarce while immaterial things are not. It seems justified to keep material goods as commodities while immaterial goods are required to be free. However, this assumption turns a social property into a natural one. No produced good is scarce by nature. Scarcity is a result of goods being produced as commodities, thus scarcity is a social aspect of a commodity created for a market. In the digital era this is obvious for immaterial goods, as we can clearly see the measures to artificially make the good scarce. Such measures include laws (based on so-called “intellectual property”) and technical barriers to prevent free access to the good. It seems to be less obvious for material goods, because we are used to the non-accessibility of material goods unless we have paid for them. But the measures are the same: law and technical barriers, accompanied by continuous destruction of goods to keep the commodities rare enough to obtain a suitable price on markets.

Furthermore it seems obvious that we all depend on material goods which may not be available in sufficient amount.
Even immaterial goods depend on a material infrastructure, at least our brains (in the case of knowledge), which also need to be fed. This is definitely true, however, it has nothing to do with a “natural scarcity”. Since all goods we need are to be produced, the only question is, how they are to be produced in a societal sense. The commodity form is one option, the commons form another. Commodities must be produced in a scarce manner to realize their price on the market. The commons good can be produced according to the needs of the people using the given productive capacity. There might be current limitations, but limits always have been subject to human creativity to overcome them.

Maybe some limitations may never be overcome, but this again is no reason to make goods artificially scarce. In these rare cases social agreements can be used to organize responsible use of the limited resource or good. The commons movement learned that both rival as well as non-rival goods can be produced as commons, but they require different social treatment. While non-rival goods are agreed to be freely accessible to prevent under-use, it makes sense to avoid over-use for rival goods by finding appropriate rules or measures either to organize sustainable use or to extend collective production and thus availability of the rival good.
Scarcity is a social phenomenon which is unavoidable if goods are produced as commodities. Often scarcity is confused with limitations which can be overcome by human efforts and creativity.”

Pattern 3: Beyond Commodity

Stefan Meretz:
“In her studies Elinor Ostrom found, that “neither the state nor the market” is a successful means for commons management (1990). Based on traditional economics she analyzed the practices of natural commons and finally simply proved liberal dogmatics wrong. Markets are not a good way to allocate resources, and the State is not a good way to re-distribute wealth and manage the destructive results of markets. Best results occur if the people organize themselves according to their needs, experiences and creativity and treat resources and goods not as commodities, but as common pool resources.

This is exactly what happens in Free Software. Interestingly it took many years to understand that Free Software is a commons and that it is basically identical to what Elinor Ostrom and others were talking about much earlier. One weak aspect of the traditional commons research and the early phase of Free Software was that a clear notion of a commodity and a non-commodity did not exist. It was the Oekonux Project which clearly said: Free Software is not a commodity. This dictum is closely related to the insight that Free Software is not exchanged (cf. pattern 1).

Critics from the left argued that being a non-commodity is limited to the realm of immaterial goods like software. From their viewpoint Free Software is only an “anomaly” (Nuss, Heinrich 2002), while “normal” goods in capitalism have to be commodities. This assumption, however, is closely linked to the acceptance of the scarcity dogma (cf. pattern 2). Moreover, it treats capitalism as a kind of normal or natural mode of production under conditions of “natural scarcity” (as they think). This view completely turns real relations upside down. Capitalism could only establish itself by enclosing the commons, by depriving the people from their traditional access to resources in order to transform them into workers. This enclosure of the commons is an ongoing process. Capitalism can only exist if it continuously separates people from resources by making them artificially scarce. A commodity – as nice as it may appear in the shopping malls – is a result of an ongoing violent process of enclosure and dispossession.

The same process occurs in software. Proprietary software is a way of dispossessing the scientific and development community from their knowledge, experiences, and creativity. Free Software was first a defensive act of maintaining common goods common. However, since software is at the forefront of the development of productive forces it quickly turned into a creative process of overcoming the limitations and alienations of proprietary software. In a special field Free Software established a new mode of production which is going to spread into other realms (cf. pattern 10).
Goods which are not made artificially scarce and are not subject to exchange are not commodities, but commons.”

Pattern 4: Beyond Money

Stefan Meretz:
“Since money only makes sense for commodities, a non-commodity (cf. pattern 3) implies that there is no money involved. Thus Free Software is beyond money. On the other hand, there is obviously a lot of money around Free Software: developers are paid, companies spend money, new companies are formed around Free Software. This has confused a lot of people, even on the left. They stick to an either-or thinking, being unable to think these observations as a contradictory process of parallel development in a societal period of transition (cf. pattern 10).
Money is not a neutral tool, money can occur in different social settings. It can be wage money, invested money (capital), profit, cash money etc. Different functions have to be analyzed differently. In Free Software there is no commodity form involved, so money in the narrow sense of selling a commodity for a price does not exist. However, Eric Raymond explained how to make money using a non-commodity: by combining it with a scarce good. In a capitalist society where only a few goods had broken out of the commodity realm, it is beyond question that all other goods continue to exist as commodities. They are kept scarce and they are combined with a priceless good. Using a perspective of valorization this is nothing new (e.g. spreading gifts to attract customers). Using a perspective of recognizing a germ form this way a new mode of production starts to develop within the still existing old model.

But why do companies give money if this money is not an investment in the traditional sense, but a kind of a donation, e.g. to pay Free Software developers? Why did IBM put one billion dollars into Free Software? Because they were forced to do so. Economically speaking they have to devalue one business area to save the other profit-making areas. They have to burn money to create a costly environment for their sales (e.g. server hardware). As the enclosure of the commons is a precondition for capitalism, the other way around is also true. Extending the commons in a field currently dominated by commodities means that this field is replaced by free goods.

However, the “four freedoms” of Free Software – use, study, change, redistribute – (Free Software Foundation, 1996) do not speak about “free” in the sense of “gratuitous”. The slogan “free as in freedom, not in free beer” is legion. This is completely fine and does not contradict the “beyond money” dictum, because the four freedoms do not say anything about money. The four freedoms are about free availability, are about abundance. Thus, the absence of money is an indirect effect. Abundant and thus non-scarce goods cannot be a commodity (cf. pattern 2) and cannot make any money. However, making money is not forbidden per se.

There have been a lot of attempts to integrate the non-exchange, non-commodity, commons-based free circulation of Free Software into the traditional economic paradigm, which is based on exchange and commodity. The most prominent one was the “attention economy” saying that the producers do not exchange goods, but attention (Goldhaber, 1997). They concluded that attention is the new currency. But this was only a desperate attempt do cling to old terms which neither worked properly nor delivered any new insights and thus was not relevant. Various other similar attempts are skipped here.

Being beyond money directly results from not being a commodity.”

Pattern 5: Beyond Labor

Stefan Meretz:
“Free Software and commons in general is beyond labor. This can only be understood if you grasp labor as a productive activity specific to a certain historical form of society. Selling labor power – i.e. the ability to work – to some capitalist who uses it to produce more value than the labor power is worth, is unique in history. This has two important consequences.
First, it turns productive activity – which has always been used by people to produce their livelihood – into alienated labor. This alienation is not imposed by personal domination, but by structural coercion. In capitalism humans can only survive if they pay for their livelihood, which compels people to make money. Making money can be either done by selling their own labor power or by buying and valorizing the labor power of others. The result is a distorted process where structural requirements prescribe what a person has to do (cf. pattern 6).

Second, it creates the homo economicus, the isolated individual seeking for maximization of his/her own utility – if necessary even at the expense of others. Traditional economists then assert that the homo economicus is the archetype of a human being, which confuses the specific historical result with a natural presupposition.

Instead of labor, Free Software is based on Selbstentfaltung. The German notion of Selbstentfaltung is not easy to translate. On the one hand it starts from “scratching an itch” (Eric Raymond), “doing what you really really want” (Fritjof Bergmann), and “having a lot of fun” (the Free Software developer). On the other hand it integrates other fellow developers to strive for the best solution possible. This also means high engagement, passion, and effort, not just picking the low hanging fruits. It includes a positive reciprocity with others striving for the same goal in a way, that the Selbstentfaltung of the one is the precondition of the Selbstentfaltung of the others. Not by chance this is reminiscent of the Communist Manifesto where the “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx, Engels 1848). However, in Free Software it is not a goal of a future society, but it is an inalienable feature of the beginning new mode of production on the way to that new free society.
Instead of selling one’s energy for alienated purposes, usually called labor, Free Software is based on Selbstentfaltung which is the free development of all the productive forces of the people.”

2 Comments P2P Essay of the Day: Ten Peer Production Patterns (1-5) – Part 1

  1. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » P2P Essay of the Day: Ten Peer Production Patterns (6-10) – Part 2

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