From the Communism of Capital to a Capital for the Commons

Michel Bauwens:

The labor/p2p/commons movements today are faced with a paradox.

Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens

On the one hand we have a re-emergence of the cooperative movement and worked-owned enterprises, but they suffer from structural weaknesses. Cooperative entities work for their own members, are reluctant to accept new cooperators that would share existing profits and benefits, and are practitioners of the same proprietary knowledge and artificial scarcities as their capitalist counterparts. Even though they are internally democratic, they often participate in the same dynamics of capitalist competition which undermines their own cooperative values.

On the other hand, we have an emergent field of open and commons-oriented peer production in fields such as free software, open design and open hardware, which do create common pools of knowledge for the whole of humanity, but at the same time, are dominated by both start-ups and large multinational enterprises using the same commons.

Thus, we need a new convergence or synthesis, a ‘open cooperativism’, that combines both commons-oriented open peer production models, with common ownership and governance models such as those of the cooperatives and the solidarity economic models. What follows is a more detailed argument on how such transition could be achieved.

The Main Argument

Today we have a paradox, the more communistic the sharing license we use in the peer production of free software or open hardware, the more capitalistic the practice, with for example the Linux commons becoming a corporate commons enriching IBM and the like … it works in a certain way, and seems acceptable to most free software developers, but is it the only way?

Indeed, the General Public License and its variants, allow anyone to use and modify the software code (or design), as long as the changes are also put back in the common pool under the same conditions for further users. This is in fact technically ‘communism’ as defined by Marx: from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs, but which then paradoxically allows multinationals to use the free software code for profit and capital accumulation. The result is that we do have an accumulation of immaterial commons, based on open input, participatory process, and commons-oriented output, but that it is subsumed to capital accumulation. It is at present not possible, or not easy, to have social reproduction (i.e. livelihoods) within the sphere of the commons. Hence the free software and culture movements, however important they are as new social forces and expression new social demands, are also in essence ‘liberal’. This is not only acknowledged by its leaders such as Richard Stallman, but also by anthropological studies like those of Gabriella Coleman. Not so tongue-in-cheek we could say they are liberal-communist and communist-liberal movements, which create a ‘communism of capital’.

Is there an alternative ? We believe there is, and this would be to replace non-reciprocal licenses, i.e. they do not demand a direct reciprocity from its users, to one based on reciprocity. Call it a switch from ‘communist’, to ‘socialist’ licenses’.

This is the choice of the Peer Production License as designed and proposed by Dmytri Kleiner; it is not to be confused with the Creative Commons non commercial license, as the logic is different.

The logic of the CC-NC is to offer protection to individuals reluctant to share, as they do not wish a commercialization of their work that would not reward them for their labor. Thus the Creative Commons ‘non-commercial’ license stops the further economic development based on this open and shared knowledge, and keeps it entirely in the not-for-profit sphere.


Dmytri Kleiner

The logic of the PPL is to allow commercialization, but on the basis of a demand for reciprocity. It is designed to enable and empower a counter-hegemonic reciprocal economy that combines commons that are open to all that contribute, while charging a license fee for the the for-profit companies who want to use without contributing. Not that much changes for the multinationals in practice, they can still use the code if they contribute, as IBM does with Linux, and for those who don’t , they would pay a license fee, a practice they are used to. It’s practical effect would be to direct a stream of income from capital to the commons, but its main effect would be ideological, or if you like, value-driven.

The entrepreneurial coalitions that are linked around a PPL commons would be explicitly oriented towards their contributions to the commons, and the alternative value system that it represents. From the point of view of the peer producers or commoners, i.e. the communities of contributors to the common pool, it would allow them to create their own cooperative entities, in which profit would be subsumed to the social goal of sustaining the commons and the commoners. Even the participating for-profit companies would consciously contribute under a new logic. It links the commons to a entrepreneurial coalition of ethical market entities (coops and other models) and keeps the surplus value entirely within the sphere of commoners/cooperators instead of leaking out to the multinationals. In other words, through this convergence or rather combination of a commons model for the abundant immaterial resources, and a reciprocity-based model for the ‘scarce’ material resources, the issue of livelihoods and social reproduction would be solved, and surplus value is kept inside the commons sphere itself. It is the cooperatives that would, through their cooperative accumulation, fund the production of immaterial commons, because they would pay and reward the peer producers associated with them.

In this way, peer production would move from a proto-mode of production, unable to perpetuate itself on its own outside capitalism, to a autonomous and real mode of production. It creates a counter-economy that can be the basis for reconstituting a ‘counter-hegemony’ with a for-benefit circulation of value, which allied to pro-commons social movements, could be the basis of the political and social transformation of the political economy. Hence we move from a situation in which the communism of capital is dominant, to a situation in which we have a ‘capital for the commons’, increasingly insuring the self-reproduction of the peer production mode.

The PPL is used experimentally by Guerrilla Translation! and is being discussed in various places, such as for example, in France, in the open agricultural machining and design communities.


There is also a specific potential, inside the commons-oriented ethical economy, such as the application of open book accounting and open supply chains, would allow a different value circulation, whereby the stigmergic mutual coordination that already works at scale for immaterial cooperation and production, would move to the coordination of physical production, creating post-market dynamics of allocation in the physical sphere. Replacing both the market allocation through the price signal, and central planning, this new system of material production would allow for massive mutual coordination instead, enabling a new form of ‘resource-based economics’

Finally, this whole system can be strengthened by creating commons-based venture funding, so as to create material commons, as proposed by Dmytri Kleiner. In this way, the machine park itself is taken out of the sphere of capital accumulation. In this proposed system, cooperatives needing capital for machinery, would post a bond, and the other coops in the system would fund the bond, and buy the machine for a commons in which both funders and users would be members. The interest paid on these loans would create a fund that would gradually be able to pay an increasing income to their members, constituting a new kind of basis income.

The new open cooperativism is substantially different from the older form. In the older form, internal economic democracy is accompanied by participation in market dynamics on behalf of the members, using capitalist competition. Hence a unwillingness to share profits and benefits with outsiders. There is no creation of the commons. We need a different model in which the cooperatives produce commons, and are statutorily oriented towards the creation of the common good, with multi-stakeholders forms of governance which include workers, users-consumers, investors and the concerned communities.

Today we have a paradox that open communities of peer producers are oriented towards the start-up model and are subsumed to the profit model, while the cooperatives remain closed, use IP, and do not create commons. In the new model of open cooperativism, a merger should occur between the open peer production of commons, and the cooperative production of value. The new open cooperativism integrates externalities, practices economic democracy, produces commons for the common good, and socializes its knowledge. The circulation of the common is combined with the process of cooperative accumulation, on behalf of the commons and its contributors. In the beginning, the immaterial commons field, following the logic of free contributions and universal use for everyone who needs it, would co-exist with a cooperative model for physical production, based on reciprocity. But as the cooperative model becomes more and more hyper-productive and is able to create sustainable abundance in material goods, the two logics would merge.

7 Comments From the Communism of Capital to a Capital for the Commons

  1. Avatarwilli uebelherr

    Dear Friends,

    I will deal with the text by Michel Bauwens:

    From the Communism of Capital to a Capital for the Commons

    It’s not about licenses. GPL, AGPL. PPL or all these strange blossoms. Knowledge is always world heritage. We do not need licenses. And we also do not accept licenses. I am talking about the basics. They ultimately determine what we do and how we think.

    Capital accumulation and monetary system

    Michel Bauwens is a supporter of the market-fetishism and speculative monetary system. Therefore, the capital accumulation is at the center of his thinking. He sees the future of the cooperative economy secured when it builds its own accumulation sphere. He uses terms such as profits, benefits and accumulation as positive goals for cooperative economies naturally. He places himself in competition with the actors of the capitalist systems.

    The basis for him is of course the same. He himself is not a part of the creative and productive people. We can do much writing and speaking. The paper is patient. Microphones as well.

    Karl Marx has given us an important sentence: “Being determines consciousness” (Das Sein bestimmt das Bewusstsein). If we never knew practical work, then we do not know what has to be done. Then we worry about the accumulation of capital, private or cooperative, we will focus our attention on the market and the money system. A speculative value figure.

    Then we have nothing else in our lives. In order to change this, we have to push back the empty rhetoric and turn our attention to the real issues. Berthold Brecht wrote in a song: “The chatter does not fill our bellies. It brings forth no food.” (Das Geschwätz macht uns nicht satt. Es bringt kein Essen her).

    Models of the economy

    For me there are two economic models that are associated with the poles of egoism or communism.

    a) the egoistic, capitalist model
    It rests on two pillars with uni-directional connection
    – The capital, fixed or variable. The elites.
    – The work. The slaves.

    b) The Communist, Community model
    It rests on three pillars with bi-directional connection
    – The nature, our base
    – Our work, our time
    – Our relations, our cooperation

    In the model b) appears no money. It also does not exist in the economy. It exists only in the distribution system. This is immediately understandable for people who live in reality. For people who exist in virtual spaces, it is difficult.

    The only component that we bring in in the economic sphere is our time. This applies both to our preparations and our practical activity. The nature gives us the energy that our body needs. Freely. Free of charge. In abundance. If we do not destroy it.

    We always have time. It is our life. For this we need no bank and no state or otherwise any illusionary construction. And we do not need any accumulation. Time is always available to us. We can make good use of it or waste it. We decide for ourselves.

    a view from a distance

    The question of whether IBM or HP or Cisco and many others use our ideas is not interesting for us. We are interested only for how we produce what we need. Or think we need it. The responsibility lies with ourselves.

    It is up to us to deal with nonsense. Disposable plastic packaging. Burning of natural resources. Parasitic existences in offices, administrative, military and other rubbish.

    We can however also apply reason and rationality. Then we immediately see that 90% of that, with what people are concerned today in the industrial centers is absolute nonsense.

    With free regards, Willi Uebelherr
    Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
    [email protected]

  2. Avatarsidelines

    AFAIK a CC-NC licensed entity can be commercially utilitized, if a separate commercial contract is entered into with the creator. How is PPL different from that? Will the difference be that PPL includes a general, preset and automatic reciprocity rule i.e. a rule that replaces and forbids individually bargained commercial contracts? If so a huge specification problem must be solved. For example, if IBM wants to use the PPL licensed software X in IBM’s business product Y, what is the exact amount of reciprocal contribution that PPL require from IBM? What algorithm, or if not algorithm what human institution or process, will provide a detailed, legally useful answer to that? In the case of CC-NC with contracts on top those details are provided through contractual bargaining.

  3. AvatarAlan Avans

    It is familiar indeed. Dmytri’s Venture Communism and an Open Capital (“Commons Capital”?) are very much complementary. I take it that the design differences have to do with the nature of application interface with the external abode of abomination from which we all seek to separate ourselves.

    In addition to watching the corporate poaching of the intellectual commons, I’ve observed that the number of open source participants far outnumber actual contributors. In addition there are entirely too many copy-cat projects and the attendant duplication of effort, not the mention some of the same silly “I got there first” fussing that happens among publishing academics and perishing academics alike.

    There’s little that can be done about that of course. But it would help to demand far more skin in the game from everyone concerned:some type of embedded (and possibly rolling) capital call* that comes with any level of participation in a P2P program, Project, System or Structure.

    *provided that the geo-spatial, socio-spatial and info-spatial variables are aligned meaningfully enough to generate a single contractual function such a “capital call” need not be purely financial. Such a call could take the form of a call on labor, participation in an event, organization of a event or allocation of productive capacity etc.

  4. AvatarRob Myers

    “AFAIK a CC-NC licensed entity can be commercially utilitized, if a separate commercial contract is entered into with the creator. How is PPL different from that?”

    Yes it’s only binding if you’re a downstream user. You can relicense your own work however you like (except exclusively).

    This is no impediment to capital, which by definition has the resources to buy the rights back up the derivation chain. And indeed NC is often used to advertise work that can be used commercially under a separate license.

    NC content can circulate freely on commercial networks and be reproduced and produced at commercial printing/recording/etc. facilities using commercially produced and/or owned hardware on commercially produced media as long as an individual is using those services or facilities.

    Again, this is no impediment to capital. It is however an impediment to individuals making a living. The PPL makes a good show of addressing this, and like the UK Tories I think that co-operatives are a spiffing way of unloading risk onto society, but under the PPL their products can still be corporately exploited without any return of value from that use and with that use going against the spirit of the license rather than furthering its aims.

    I do agree with this fta:

    “as the cooperative model becomes more and more hyper-productive and is able to create sustainable abundance in material goods, the two logics would merge”

    but I don’t feel a copyright license is an effective means for a shotgun wedding between the two. At all.

  5. AvatarMatthias Bussels

    Dear Mr. Bauwens

    Interesting read! I am grateful for you and Mr. Kostakis for providing such an insightful paper.

    I’m a bit fresh on the licensing subject, but careful reading got me through its basic tenets.
    I am wondering though, whether you argument would hold for any (economic) sector in which p2p and co-operatives can be found (which, presumably, are not bound to sectoral limitations, and are therefore ubiquitous)? I have a strong belief that your message is most directly targeted at intangibe commodities such as information, knowledge, culture, … that drive the application and development of tangible resources (land, minerals, … or more generally: natural resources). Directly related to that is my incessant questioning of how such modes of production establish a sense of ‘sufficiency’ (in order to remain within earth’s boundaries). In essence, it’s a question of access, boundaries, and social relations. But I digress…

    I am involved in a Flemish co-operative that acquires agricultural land in order to sublet it to organic farmers ( In doing so, through its co-operative functioning, it opens up the management of land to the broader public, effectively creating a ‘land commons’. The value it creates is, as we see it, property of the broader society as well. Food security, careful and sustainable land management, food sovereignty, … In that sense, the ‘products the co-operative helps generate, it’s value’, remain outside of the market sphere and they can be viewed as ‘commons’ to the shareholders of the co-operative.

    I was wondering (many things, but for the sake of maintaining some kind of focus in this case, I was predominantly concerned as to) how I can position that co-operative in your discussion/frame of thought, and whether our functioning can be seen as effectively creating a commons with regard to land management and food production. Would you care to comment?

    Have a nice day!

    Matthias Bussels

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.