Is peer production capitalist exploitation? A reply to Jasper Bernes and David Bollier.

David Bollier has a presentation of the debate on the relation between the commons and the market, which has a great citation of a fairly traditional left critique (see just below), then counterposes the positive interpretation of the commons, using Adam Arvidsson’s (I co-authored later versions with Adam) Crisis of Value essay as a guide for the latter argumentation.

At the P2P Foundation, we have always insisted that peer production (and the commons) is both immanent and transcendent to the market, and once that position is taken, the counterposition of two seemingly contradictory but flawed positions seems counterproductive. Let me add, to avoid misunderstanding, that Adam does not take the naive position regarding the commons, and that we are essentially in agreement, but I feel that David blurs the issue by presenting it that way. In other words, taking a positive stance on the commons and peer production in no way implies being naive about ‘capitalist exploitation’.

So first, the strong ‘left’ quote, from Jasper Bernes:

Essentially, with the Internet, capitalism gifts the masses with a false commons where people can work, off the clock, creating information and relationships that the ruling class can enclose, appropriate, commodify, and sell back to us at a later date. It’s a way of letting the process of primitive accumulation work as a perpetual, and because of the stagnation of the economies in the advanced capitalist countries, vital, supplement to the mechanism of exploitation, and one that should be seen alongside the other forms of primitive accumulation that are occurring right now and are, for sure, much more important: the direct seizure of Iraqi resources, the copyrighting and commodifying of the material of our bodies, and most obviously, the accumulation by dispossession that is occurring in Africa, in China, in Latin America, as capitalism pushes to its limits and attempts to expunge from the earth any trace of commonly-held land.”

I am not aware of the full complexity and richness of JB’s position, but the articles seems to me to ‘reify’ both the internet (the question “is the internet progressive”, seems to me a very ‘wrong’ question, based on seeing the internet as a thing which has independent effects), and capitalism. This in the sense that in reading the blog entry, you have the impression that capitalism is ‘everything’, controls everything, including the internet, which is just seen as a capitalist tool, and leaves no room for human agency, of seeing the internet as a locus of conflict and creation.

Here are my counter-arguments to the traditional left position, which I think are well expressed by JB:

Let us first state, why Jasper Bernes is right: 1) on the micro-level, capitalist entrepreneurs are interested in making a profit, and if they can do so through profiting from participation, they will do so; 2) on the strategic level it is also clear that the system profits from the positive externalities of participation, social innovation, and commons-based peer production, and that contemporary capitalism could not survive without it.

This is as normal as it can be and doesn’t require rocket science to understand.

So, I would like to ask two rhetorical counter-questions and answer them myself:

1) did (some) slave-owners have a self-interest in ‘partially liberating’ their slaves into serfs. Yes, they did, but nevertheless, feudal serfdom does represent a greater measure of freedom and autonomy for the serfs, and I would doubt that any of them wished for a return to full slavery.

2) did (some parts of) the nobility have an interest in supporting/funding merchant or capitalist enterprises? Yes, they did. Nevertheless, and despite the great suffering of the enclosures and especially early capitalist exploitation (which is of course still going on in the larger part of the world), is there any worker that would voluntary return to serfdom, and give up the relatively greater autonomy of the wage condition?

I would suggest that the same holds true today. That is that certain sections of capital understand that it is in their interest to ‘enable and empower participation’, while at the same time attempting (and often succeeding) to control it and profit from it. I have called this new section of capital the ‘netarchical class‘, because they no longer have to rely on intellectual property as such, but they do rely on partial closure of their proprietary platform.

This being said, it is equally important to recognize the separate agency and interests of the peer producers. People want to participate, want autonomy, and participation is a huge social advance.

This is what is wrong is simply putting all these phenomena of the quote on the same level. Invading Iraq and taking away land from farmers cannot be done without violence and coercion, but nobody is holding a gun to free software programmers and YouTube users and creators.

People who work on Flickr, use YouTube and let their documents be searchable by Google, are not just passive tools for exploitation, without any awareness of their self-interest. On the contrary, they are doing this mostly out of their own desires, experience it as a positive human experience, and have a very pragmatic approach to such activities. They are profiting from the capabilities of participatory platforms as much as the platforms are profiting from the partial monetization of the created use value. Especially, commons-based peer production is a mode of production and being which is based on voluntary contribution, participatory governance, and universal availibility of the resulting value. This cybernetic commonism is an age-old dream of humanity, operates with different principles than those of the commodity and wage form, and is experienced by those concerned as a fundamental social advance. The process is integrated overall into capitalism, and commodification occurs at the edges of the commons, but the overall process is very different, and not just in the exclusive interest of business owners.

It is the product of both social struggle (free sofware was not handed out to us by the established powers), and of permanent constructive activity of new life forms and institutional formats. And so are the more individualist forms of sharing taking place in the participatory platforms.

At the same time, this is in the interest of commercial forces and the system. So what is the answer? Neither a naive promotion of user participation, nor a pure rejection of exploitation, but rather a continued effort to strengthen the new life practices, the differential interest of the value creating communities vis a vis platform owners and business partners, and new institutional formats that can strengthen the independent power of the communities.

There is nothing naive in taking such a position.

A very important point is this. If we take the point of view of ‘pure exploitation’, and deplore the profit taking by companies, without a defense of the specificity of the achievement of peer production, then there is only one answer left: we need those profits for the producers themselves. The moment we do that, we have entered the exchange and market logic, crowded out volunteering, and have integrated the process even more into the capitalist logic!! (there is zero chance for the alternative that those user communities would take over the platforms by coercion from below, but rather more chance, as the free software movement has shown, that they can eventually build their own infrastructures of cooperation if need be)

This is why we need a smart and pragmatic production which essentially defends the logic of the commons; seeks to build healthy economic activities ‘around the commons’, but under the maximum control of the peer producting communities (and this depends on the current balance of forces and the general ‘smartness’ of the peer to peer movements, not just on what we would ideally wish for); and seek for a general basic income that makes it possible for more people, and for more time, to enter into the non-alienated logic of peer production. The latter solution is still way off, and has no social basis for the moment, but there are a lot of policy measures that can be constructed or fought for that would strengthen the freedom and the opportunities for participation and peer production in the meantime).

To preserve the social achievement of peer production and participation in general, it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between the sphere of immaterial abundance, where non-reciprocal peer production has already been achieved, from the world of material production needing cost-recovery. That latter world can be cooperative, or can be capitalist, that is a separate issue, but we have to protect open design communities and voluntary commons from scarcity and market-based logics.

We cannot go to the YouTube users and say to them: it’s bad what you are doing, you are exploited and therefore you need to stop sharing, but have to sell your produce instead. What we can tell them is the following: it’s great that you are sharing, but are you aware of all the conditions in which you are doing this, and shouldn’t you own, individually or collectively, your creative works; and have more freedom and control in your sharing? Should’nt you own your own data, and have a say in the rules of the platform?

And to true commons-based peer producers, such as free software programmers, we cannot say: go back to work in a software factory and work for a wage making proprietary software, but rather: how can we construct a commons, which creates value for all, and make it strong enough so that businesses using it, do so without weakening or enclosing the commons that we have created together. And perhaps, are their business formats, and forms of social organization which would be more structurally beneficial to the survival and strength of our commons?

The last thing we want and need to do is the be so mentally colonized by the logic of market exchange that all we can and want to ask is just for a bigger piece of the pie. The key question is: how can we both preserve the social achievements of participation and peer production, and make a living at the same time. Out of the answers to this question will come the new social forms.

And this is exactly what the zillions of peer to peer movements are doing right now (cfr. the 7,000 projects documented at They are doing this without direct confrontation with the system, without agressive posturing against business and capitalism, but from an active awareness of their values and desires (which of course can be very partial, but almost all people know what they want), and the kind of world and institutions they need in order to instantiate more of their values into their life and work environment. By doing so, often through alliances and partnerships with surrounding businesses and enterpreneurs, they are radically changing our world, one commons contribution at the time.