Recently on the P2P Research email list, Joss Winn raised the question of how P2P might dovetail with communist ideas. That’s a good question, because the principle of abundance is central to both P2P and Marxian communism. Marx’s model of a future communist society (e.g. “Critique of the Gotha Program”) was predicated on the assumption that technology would achieve such high levels of productivity that the law of value would be superceded. To borrow a slogan from the nuclear industry, the idea was that an increasing share of goods would become “too cheap to meter.”
As I responded there, I can think of three aspects of P2P that are relevant to the traditional Marxian model of communism.
The first is stigmergic organization as a way of removing the transaction costs of collective action and permitting collective action to emerge as the sum total of free individual actions without having to be coordinated by large, hierarchical institutions.
The second is the realm of non-rival goods with zero marginal reproduction cost, specifically digital information. This is an example of the law of value being superceded, in Marx’s terminology, as well as of what the Austrians like Carl Menger meant by non-economic goods.
The third, which might also be treated as a weaker subcategory of the second, is the cheapening of producer goods in the physical realm. The effect is to drastically lower the capital outlays and overhead cost of production; make productive organizations smaller, more decentralized and more resilient; and to blur the boundaries between being a worker and owner that originally came about because of the high cost of producer goods in the Industrial Revolution. Because expensive product-specific machines are being progressively replaced with cheap general-purpose tools affordable by individuals and small groups, and because the overhead cost from capital amortization to be serviced is imploding, we’ll see a shift toward networked production model in which there’s little cost to being out of the market for extended periods waiting for new projects, and the employment – vs – unemployment dichotomy will be replaced with constant shifting of free agents between networked projects (something like what Piore and Sabel, in The Second Industrial Divide, described for the construction and clothing industries).
In this area, short of a nanotech revolution in the indeterminate future, I don’t see the law of value or market exchange being superceded. But least it’s a move in the direction of Free. As Chris Anderson put it, “Atoms also want to be free — they’re just not as pushy about it.”?
Daniel Araya was skeptical:
I resonate with alot of what you’re writing here Kevin. I think networked production will change things dramatically. But the only economies in the world right now that are seeing significant economic growth are industrializing ones…. To my mind, the P2P ‘revolution’ looks a lot more like of a bunch of guys on listerves talking about a revolution in the abstract….
For a fully fleshed out P2P revolution to unfold you will need to integrate the education system in some way. Its not going to simply happen spontaneously– at least not in the numbers you would need to make ubiquitous. The feudal age had the church. Modernity had the university. What does peer production have?
My response was that my gut instinct is that the transition will be less about some new institutional basis than about the unsustainability of the old centralized, hierarchical institutions. States are being hollowed out, “intellectual property” is becoming untenable as a method of controlling the value created by human capital, and the imploding cost of garage production machinery means most investment capital is becoming superfluous.
Maria Droujkova, in turn, challenged Daniel’s assumption that the P2P revolution would require some monolithic institutional base: “There may not be a ubiquitous anything anymore, but a tapestry of multiple practices.” She suggested that P2P’s answer to the church and the university might be the Internet, and that the most important transition was the shift from institutions to networks.
Regarding the shift from institutions to networks, I wrote:
Along those lines, the ubiquitous trend I see is taking place in many different ways: as the old corporate and state hierarchies become unsustainable, they’re being forced to decentralize, harden their component units, and increase the initiative of those in last-mile networks.
They try to retain some sort of residual control, in ways that Andy Robinson has commented on [on this list]: i.e. the Nixon Doctrine as a way of pulling back from most direct superpower policing and working instead through proxies, attempts to maintain corporate control of networked manufacturing through ownership of IP, etc. But by progressively outsourcing and delegating functions, they’re putting themselves increasingly in the position of redundant nodes, so that their artificial property rights are the *only* source of control they retain. At some point, the networked producers, having built the new society within the old corporate shell, will decide to “break the corporate integument” and ignore their IP and other property rights.