Peer Production and the Poverty of Networks

Excerpted from Dmytri Kleiner‘s Telekommunist Manifesto:

“A freer internet cannot exist within the present system of capitalist financing. Arguments for the clear technical superiority of distributed technologies over centralized ones have not been the deciding factors in the ultimate development of our global communications infrastructure, which has become more consolidated, regulated and restrictive. The determining factor is, as always, the fact thimmaterial, non-reciprocal production at those whose interests are served by restricting freedom have more wealth at their disposal to relentlessly push toward their ends than is available to resist them. The economic reasons for this are well understood; the numerically small class of capitalists are the beneficiaries of an unfair distribution of productive assets that allows them to capture the wealth produced by the masimmaterial, non-reciprocal production ses of property-less workers.

If we want to have a say in the way communication networks are operated, or if we want to make any social reforms whatsoever, we must start by preventing property owners from turning our immaterial, non-reciprocal production productivity into their accumulated wealth. The wealth they use to impose restrictions on our freedoms is the wealth they have taken from us. Without us they would have no source of wealth. Even the accumulated wealth from centuries of exploitation cannot ultimately save the economic elite if they are unable to continue to capture current wealth. The value of the future is far greater than the value of the past. Our ideas about network topology are ultimately no threat to capitalism, who can always co-opt, sabotage or simply ignore them. Rather, it is our new ways of working together and sharing across national boundaries that have the potential to threaten the capitalist order and bring about a new society.

Often discussions of the productive relations in free software projects and other collaborative projects such as Wikipedia attempt to bottle up commons-based production and trap it within the sphere of immaterial, intangible production, restricting it exclusively to a domain where it cannot affect wealth distribution and therefore play a role in class conflict. Yochai Benkler, Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, coined the term ‘peer production’ to describe the way free software, Wikipedia articles, and similar works are produced. Limiting his analysis to the so-called ‘networked information economy’, the novelty of peer production as understood by Benkler and many others is that property in the commons is entirely ‘non-rivalrous property’ that may be consumed by one person without preventing others from also consuming it at the same time. This non-rivalrous property could include broadcast radio, videos on the internet, or any network transferable or accessible resources like free software. Such property has virtually no reproduction costs. Also, another distinguishing feature of Benkler’s limited concept of peer production is that it is ‘non-reciprocal’, meaning that producers do not receive direct remuneration for what they have produced since their products are available for free. For example, users of free software are not required to compensate the original developers.

There is no denying that Benkler’s wealthy network has a lot to offer. The value of this information commons to its users is fantastic, as evidenced by the millions who, for instance, use free software, Wikipedia, online communications and social networking tools. However, if commons-based peer production is limited exclusively to a commons made of digital property with virtually no reproduction costs, how can the use-value produced be translated into exchange-value? Where is the money to pay for the production of these valuable things? Something with no reproduction costs can have no exchange-value in the context of free exchange. Anybody who wants a copy can obtain one from anybody that has one. But if what they produce has no exchange-value, how can the peer producers be able to acquire the material needs for their own subsistence?

The wealthy network exists within the context of a poor planet. The causes of poverty are not a lack of culture or information, but the direct exploitation of the producing class by the property-owning classes. The source of poverty is not reproduction costs but rather extracted economic rents, surplus value captured by way of forcing producers to accept less than the full product of their labor as their wage by denying them independent access to the means of production. So long as commons-based peer production is applied narrowly to only an information commons, while the capitalist mode of production still dominates the production of material wealth, owners of material property will continue to capture the marginal wealth created as a result of the productivity of the information commons. Whatever exchange value may be derived from the information commons, will always be captured by the owners of real property, which lies outside the commons.

For peer production to have any effect on general material wealth it has to operate within the context of an overall system of goods and services, where the physical means of production and the virtual means of production are both available in the commons for peer production. By establishing a commons-based peer production in the context of an information-only commons, Benkler is creating a trap, ensuring the value created in the peer economy is appropriated by property privilege. We have found Benkler standing on his head, and we will need to redefine peer production to put his head above his feet again.

It is not the production in immaterial, non-reciprocal production that is immaterial. Computers and networks, and developers and their places of work and residence are all very much material and all require material upkeep. What is immaterial is the distribution. Digitized information, source code or cultural works can multiply and zip across global networks in fractions of a second, yet production remains a very material affair. If peer production can only produce immaterial goods such as software, and if producers get nothing in return for such production, then this form of ‘production’ has no right to be called a mode of production at all. First and foremost any mode of production must account for its material inputs or else it will vanish. These inputs must include the subsistence costs of its labor contributors, to, at a minimum, ‘enable the laborers, one with another, to subsist and to perpetuate their race’, in the words of Ricardo.xxiii

Immaterial, non-reciprocal production cannot do so, since to produce free software, free culture or free soup, producers must draw their subsistence from some other source, and therefore immaterial, non-reciprocal production is not a form of production at all, only a special case of distribution within another form of production. Immaterial, non-reciprocal production is no more a mode of production than a charity soup kitchen or socialized medicine. It is simply a super-structural phenomenon that has another mode of production as its base, capitalism.

Rather than placing emphasis on the immaterial distribution of what is produced by current examples of peer production, we may note instead that such production is characterized by independent producers employing a common stock of productive assets. This view of peer production is not categorically limited to immaterial goods. Understood this way, the concept of peer production, where a network of peers apply their labor to a common stock for mutual and individual benefit, certainly resonates with age-old proposed socialist modes of production where a class-less community of workers (‘peers’) produce collaboratively within a property-less (‘commons-based’) society. Unlike the immaterial, non-reciprocal definition, this formulation can account for material inputs, labor specialization and means of capital formation, and also more closely relates to the topology of peer networks from which the term is derived. This definition also more closely describes the production of free software, Wikipedia, and other works commonly offered as being examples of peer production.

Furthermore, this formulation is also better rooted in history, as it describes historical examples of commons-based production, such as the pastoral commons. As the distribution of productive assets is so much at the root of the inequality of wealth and power that perpetuates exploitive systems, a mode of production where productive assets are held in common is clearly a potentially revolutionary one. However, if this form of production is contained to the immaterial, if it can be categorized as immaterial by definition, then its producers cannot capture any of the value they create. This, it is worth noting, is precisely why Ivy League law professors and other elites prefer to maintain this limitation. However, if we can implement ways of independently sharing a common stock of material assets and thereby expand the scope of the commons to include material as well as immaterial goods, then producers who employ these assets in their production can retain a greater portion of their product.

Peer production is distinct from other modes of production. Workers independently employing a common stock of productive assets is a different mode, distinct from both capitalist and collectivist approaches. The capitalist mode of production is exploitive by nature; its fundamental logic is to capture surplus value from labor by denying independent access to the means of production. However, collectivist modes can also be exploitive. For instance in co-operative production, in which producers collectively employ jointly owned productive assets, the distribution of productive assets is likely to be unfair among different co-operatives, allowing one to exploit the other. Larger scale collectivist forms, such as socialist states or very big diversified co-operatives, can be said to eliminate the sort of exploitation that can occur between co-operatives. However, the expanding coordination layers needed to manage these large organizations give rise to a coordinator class, a new class consisting of a techno-administrative elite that has proven in historical examples to have the capacity to be just as parasitic and stifling to workers as a capitalist class.

A community of peer producers can grow without developing layers of coordination because they are self-organizing and produce independently, and as such they do not need any layers of management other than what is needed for the provision of the common stock of productive assets. Thus, coordination is limited to the allocation of the common stock among those who wish to employ it. It is no surprise then that this sort of production has appeared and flourished where the common stock is immaterial property, such as free software, as the low reproduction costs eliminate allocation concerns. Thus what is needed for peer production to be able to incorporate material goods into the common stock is a system for allocating material assets among the independent peers, which imposes only a minimal coordination burden. Venture communism is such a way.

Venture Communism

Venture communism provides a structure for independent producers to share a common stock of productive assets, allowing forms of production formerly associated exclusively with the creation of immaterial value, such as free software, to be extended to the material sphere. Part of the apparatus that allowed the free software community to grow and spread was the creation of copyleft, a type of license that allows for the re-use of the software it covers, so long as the derived works are also licensed under compatible terms. By releasing software under such licenses, the work becomes a collective stock for all free software developers.

The core innovation of copyleft was to turn the copyright system against itself. The chief vehicle of asserting control under copyright is the license a work is released under, which establishes the terms under which others are permitted to use the copyrighted material. Copyleft effectively hijacks the existing apparatus that enforces privilege over intellectual assets, using the authority granted by the copyright license to guarantee access for all, and require that this freedom is passed on. This is consistent with copyright laws, and dependent on them, because without copyright and the institutions that protect it, there could be no copyleft.

Venture communism requires that this same freedom be extended to material productive assets. The chief vehicle for asserting control over productive assets is the firm. Venture communism is therefore based on a corporate form: the venture commune. Employing a venture commune to share material property hijacks the existing apparatus that enforces privilege, to instead protect a common stock of productive assets that is available for use by independent producers.

Legally, a venture commune is a firm, much like the venture capital funds of the capitalist class. However, the venture commune has distinct properties that transform it into an effective vehicle for revolutionary workers’ struggle. The venture commune holds ownership of all productive assets that make up the common stock employed by a diverse and geographically distributed network of collective and independent peer producers. The venture commune does not coordinate production; a community of peer producers produce according to their own needs and desires. The role of the commune is only to manage the common stock, making property, such as the housing and tools they require, available to the peer producers.

The venture commune is the federation of workers’ collectives and individual workers, and is itself owned by each of them, with each member having only one share. In the case that workers are working in a collective or co-operative, ownership is held individually, by the separate people that make up the collective or co-operative. Ownership in a venture commune can only be acquired by contributions of labor, not property. Only by working is a share in the commune earned, not by contributing land, capital or even money; only labor. Property is always held in common by all the members of the commune, with the venture commune equally owned by all its members. Thus, each member may never accumulate a disproportionate share of the proceeds of property. Property can never be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

The function of the venture commune is to acquire material assets that members need for living and working, such as equipment and tools, and allocate them to its members. The commune acquires this property when requested to do so by a member of the commune. The members interested in having this property offer a rental agreement to the commune, giving the terms they wish to have for possession of this property. The commune issues a series of bonds to raise the funds required to acquire the property, which then becomes collateral for the bondholders. The rental agreement is offered as a guarantee that the funds will be available to redeem the bonds.

Should this guarantee not be met, the property can be liquidated with the proceeds going to the bondholders. This series of bonds are sold in a public auction setting. If the bond sale clears, the commune acquires the property, and the rental agreement is executed transferring possession to the renter. The property returns to the commune whenever those renting it no longer require it, or are unable to meet the agreed terms, at which point the commune offers it once again at auction to its members, who bid on new rental terms. If there is no more demand for the asset it is liquidated. After the bonds that were issued to acquire an asset are fully redeemed, it becomes fully owned by the commune.

The remaining rental income the property earns is from then on divided up equally among all members of the commune and paid out to them. Proceeds from liquidated property are likewise divided. Because all the rent collected from property rental is divided up evenly among the members of the commune, those members who pay rent for property that is equal to the amount they would receive in return essentially get to use an equal share of the collectively owned property for free. What they pay in rent for the property is equal to the rent they receive back as a member of the commune. Members renting more than their per-capita share of the collective property will pay more, and presumably be choosing to pay because they are employing the property as a productive asset, and thus earning enough to pay.

Conversely, members using less than their per-capita share receive more in payment than they pay in rent, thus being rewarded for not hoarding property. The main activities of the venture commune, managing bonds and rental agreements, do not impose a high level of coordination and, just like the computer networks that manage the allocation of immaterial goods, are activities that are well suited for computerized automation. Many venture communes could exist, and as they become interrelated, merge together forming larger, and more stable and sustainable communities of commons-based producers.

Any change that can produce a more equitable society is dependent on a prior change in the mode of production that increases the share of wealth retained by the worker. The change in the mode of production must come first. This change cannot be achieved politically, not by vote, or by lobby, or by advocacy, or by revolutionary violence, not as long as the owners of property have more wealth to apply to prevent any change by funding their own candidates, their own lobbyists, their own advocates, and ultimately, developing a greater capacity for counter-revolutionary violence. Society cannot be changed by a strike, not as long as owners of property have more accumulated wealth to sustain themselves during production interruptions. Not even collective bargaining can work, for so long as the owners of property own the product, they set the price of the product and thus any gains in wages are lost to rising prices.

Venture communism should not be understood as a proposal for a new kind of society. It is an organizational form with which to engage in social struggle. Venture communes are not intended to replace labor unions, political parties, NGOs and other potential vehicles of class conflict, but to compliment them, to tilt the economic balance of power in favor of the representatives of workers’ class interest. Without venture communism, these other organized forms are always forced to work against opposition with much deeper pockets, and are thus doomed to endless co-option, failure and retreat. The only way is to stop applying our labor to property owned by non-producers and instead form a common stock of productive assets.

Venture communism is taking control of our own productive process, retaining the entire product of our labor, forming our own capital, and expanding until we have collectively accumulated enough wealth to achieve a greater social influence than those that defend exploitation. This new economic balance allows for change that is far greater than the modest goals of venture communism. A truly free society would have no need for copyleft, or venture communism; these are only practices around which workers can unite towards the realization of their historic role of building a classless society, a society of equals.

Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.”

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