Is peer production a real mode of production?

(mini-essay dedicated to Cosma Orsi and his scholarship and to the most impressive personal library I have seen in a dozen years …)

In the foundational essay on peer to peer, I call peer to peer a third mode of production (as well as a third mode of property and governance).
The question is: is this correct?

A mode of production classically is viewed as a combination of forces of production, how we extract value from nature (i.e. how exactly we produce what we need to live by transforming nature into human-usable products), and relations of production (how humans are organized in the sense of how is the surplus labour produced and distributed).

How does ‘peer production’ stack up in this sense, especially in the context that it is not a dominant mode, but rather a seed form within the dominant capitalist mode?

So, in peer production, how is value extracted from nature? The answer must be, it is not yet. At this stage, it is a process to create immaterial use value, where there is a self-aggregation of individuals around the creation of a common object or project. The result is the creation of a commons, where everyone can use that use value directly, without passing through the commodity stage. As I argued, following the Circulation of the Common thesis of Nick Dyer-Whiteford, it requires open and free input, participatory process, and commons oriented output. But this is the pure form of commons-oriented peer production as described by Yochai Benkler. Often, in fact in most cases, because such peer production is not sustainable within capitalist society (more precise, the projects are sustainable collectively, but not for the individuals involved), the real process is a mixture of voluntary labour, and paid labour. The minimum requirement however, is that the result is still put in a usable commons, of knowledge, code, or design. In practice, corporate forces gain substantial control over such commons and their governance modalities.

Because we live in a capitalist society, where value is derived from the commodity form (firms buying labour power and selling products at higher value than the cost of that labour power, and its derivate financial forms of surplus value extraction), when there is no commodity, there is no ‘realisation’ of that surplus value in monetary form.

So what we see happening is still that individuals are selling their labour power, and get paid for it, while firms realize the monetization and profit. In the other variant, what I call the sharing economy in contrasts with the commons economy, people create, share and use “use value”, outside the monetary nexus, but they do this on proprietary platforms, where there aggregated attention is then sold as a commodity to the advertising industry.

Another aspect is the following: peer producers often own or have access to their own means of production, i.e. their brains, computers and access to the means of communication, but, they cannot realize the monetary surplus value without selling their labour to the market, especially and precisely because the end result itself, the common code, is no longer a commodity.

So we have a paradox that we have a new modality of creating value, that clearly sustains the workings of the present system of capital, that substantially departs from classic forms, yet at the same time cannot realize any independent value for its own self-reproduction outside that system.

However, this is not new. Within feudalism, there where capitalist modalities, but they were still subsumed to the dominant mode of surplus value extraction under feudality, and similarly, there were colony (early serfs), but it was similarly subsumed under the ‘ancient mode of production’.

In a stimulating book that I’m reading, “Pre-capitalist modes of production”, the authors, Barry Hindess and Paul Q. Hirst, insist that capitalism is not an evolutionary continuation of the capital seed forms within feudalism, and that the feudal mode of production is not an evolutionary continuation of its seed forms within the Roman Empire.

The reason they give is that the state form, the Roman Empire and the feudal states, protected the old dominant form of value extraction, and the new modes of production could only become realized and dominant after the breakup of that old-state form.

What would be required to make peer production evolve from its present seed form, to a full and dominant mode of production?

The key condition is that it must be connected to a modality of material production that ensures the physical reproduction of the peer producers, but without destroying the commons and voluntary aggregation that is at the basis of it. Therefore, any modality of revenue sharing, whereby participants would be rewarded by a part of the market value, is not a solution. Indeed, in this scenario, say paying people for Facebook production, while it would create an income, this would be based on the creation of commodities, and therefore, it would no longer be peer production. Benefits-sharing on the other hand, whereby the entrepreneurs who benefit from the commons send a part of the money back to the collective to sustain the infrastructure of cooperation, does protect and insure of the viability of the commons, but does not insure the sustainability and physical reproduction of the individual participants. Having corporations pay for the labour, while recognizing the commons-based licenses, does create an income, does create and sustain a commons, but keeps labour power as a commodity. The latter is pretty much today’s reality in open source software, and may be the reality tomorrow of open hardware.

One of the possible answers comes from Dmytri Kleiner and is Venture Communism, which I guess I could call a secessionist approach. It may also be related to the emerging solidarity economy. What is the scenario here? As I understand it, a community of commoners, band its productive forces together, but shares its immaterial production only with other commoners, not with for-profit companies, who would have to pay for access to the commons. Its physical value is exchanged in a non-capitalist market (because outside of capital accumulation by for profit companies), preferentially to other common enterprises. Though the property format may vary, it is my understanding that solidarity economics is a substantially similar approach, though it mostly uses classic cooperatives. In both cases, the attempt is made at creating a counter-economy. Our mutualist friend Kevin Carson, sees I think a similar evolution towards small and localized free market players, but who operate in a knowledge commons. Here again, what Kevin has in mind, is not a capital accumulation, but a market operating outside of the support of a ‘distorting’ state, which directs accumulation towards monopolistic players.

The benefit of these approaches is that none of them is passive, and needs not wait for a phase transition to occur first. They all operate within present reality and seek to strengthen alternative modalities that work in parallel with the dominant system, seeking maximum independence from it. The weakness of these approaches is that at present, there is a lack of evidence that this is working in any substantial way. There is I believe one single venture communist company in existence; the solidarity economy as I understand it, is stronger but still weak and probably functions mostly with the capitalist market. The problem of cooperatives and solidarity economics entities is the following I think: do you buy commodities from less efficient alternative enterprises, when more competitive ones are available from classic for-profits. If you choose the former, you are less ‘competitive’ towards consumers, if you choose the latter, you’re on a slippery slope of total adaptation. What is imperative here though in my mind, is to combine production for the market, with the use of commons of knowledge, code and design, as a way to eventually outcooperate and outcompete the pure closed-IP for-profit companies. The fact that Kleiner’s option does in fact not create a full commons, but only a semi-closed one for other VC coops, poses a problem in this regard, since it also undermines the commons logic. It would seem to me that open commons would outcompete semi-closed commons of that nature. Of course, I’m open to empirical refutation of this critique.

A second approach comes from the French-Italian school of cognitive capitalism, expressed for examples in the basic income orientation of Andrea Fumagalli. The idea here is to achieve a deep reform of the capitalist state, whereby instead of individual appropriation of surplus value by for-profit firms, a substantial part of surplus value is collectively appropriated and distributed through the mechanism of the basic income. In this scenario, basic living expenses would be covered, offering a substantial improvement for individual sustainability, and allowing a more sizeable portion of the population to periodically engage. Because this demand is not anti-capitalist as such, but sees itself as a deep reform, it would still operate within the dominant mode of production, but would nevertheless achieve a significant redistribution and be a substantial boost to peer production. Obviously, this second approach is not incompatible with the first set. However, it also raises a number of problems. Such as: 1) would a basic income movement be able to convince the population; 2) how strong would a social movement of that nature need to be to achieve its aims, and if it did achieve this strength, why not push further?; 3) if the basic income is low, does it not serve to depress the wages, while if it is high, is it affordable by the present economic and state forms? While basic income has some traction, it is entirely relative, and it would, it seems to me, need a deep crisis and massive mobilization, before it could be achieved.

A third approach is my own, which is born out of a certain recognition of ignorance. In this approach, we do not know yet, how the phase transition will be achieved, importantly because we are at a early seed form stage. While it is not opposed to the first and second approach, it focuses on the autonomy of the communities. It recognizes that at present, we live in a capitalist society, that no sustainability is possible outside of its market mechanisms, but that commons oriented production is a sufficient social advance, that it needs to be protected and stimulated. It focuses on the continued meshworking and strengthening of open infrastructures, on the protection of the commons from the entrepreneurial coalitions which derive market value from it. In sharing communities, it seeks to strengthen the social strength of user communities against the predations of platform owners. .It posits an ethical preference for those forms of physical production, which are most compatible with it. In other words, commoners would need to choose free software coops above for profit companies, fair trade and social entrepreneurship above shareholder entities. Each commons would seek to make itself as sustainable as possible, first collectively, then for an increasing number of individuals, and seek policy initiatives in that sense. It also supports the first and second approach as a general direction of movement. It also builds as much as it can the new culture of sharing and communing as an alternative, and promotes commons-oriented institutions as policy solutions on every level.

This approach has its own problems. First of all, it is a slow approach. For example, it is now clear that Europe and the U.S. workers face a full onslaught of extreme neoliberalism, with a substantial loss of income levels, welfare and social protections. This capitalist dislocation may be temporary, a cleaning out of the accumulated problems of the previous neoliberal cycle, or may reflect much deeper and ‘endgame’ problems. In any case, while it may be temporarily successful in its attack on living standards, it seems guaranteed to also create deep social instability.

In this context, what seems most important is to create a connection between the new commons culture, and the emerging social movements. Finally, under conditions of such direct attacks by the financial predators and the market state that is substantially under their control, the issue of state power is again on the agenda. If that power cannot be broken yet, it opens the way for mobilizations that could achieve substantial reforms, as it did at the end of previous cycles.

So, what I’m advocating is a fusion of the constructive approach of building open infrastructures and free culture, supporting alternative modalities of physical production wherever possible (the first approach), while finding a connection with progressive social movements around commons-oriented policy platforms, with the aim of achieving a substantial reorientation of the state, or eventually, its replacement by a peer to peer state (a transitional state form that would protect the new form of accumulation around peer production).

In the last analysis, my conviction and approach is the following: at this stage of history, what matters most is creating the culture and social movement that can become the subject of the phase transition. This can only be achieved by a dialogue and them combination of the classic social movements, with the new culture and practice of communing.

2 Comments Is peer production a real mode of production?

  1. AvatarDmytri Kleiner

    Hi Michel, sorry for not responding sooner or in more detail, I simply have not had the time. Your above description of Venture Communism is entirely unfamiliar to me and unrelated to Venture Communism, as I have described it. Readers can find texts about Venture Communism here: they can also take a look at The Telekommunist Manifesto, still a work-in-progress, in draft form here:

  2. AvatarIgnacio de Castro

    “A boundary is not at which something stops, (…) the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing” (Heidegger) and peer-production has irrupted in the capitalist scene as something different, even if sustainability relies on hibridity it allows for its existance and expansion. This slow change is consistent with Alvin Toffler´ “wave” methafor, with revolutions happening as “colliding waves of change”.

    Nice article.

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