Stefan Merten on Peer Production and the monetary economy

For more context to these remarks, see the recap page on the Benkler/Lessig/Bauwens/Kleiner debate.

With some delay, Stefan Merten of the Oekonux group, which aims to extend Free Software principles to the core of the economy, chimes in on our earlier debate on the same topic:
1. How the Oekonux vision of the GPL society differs from the ideals of the worker’s movement

Much of the worker movement’s vision about a society were about how to
distribute work. This is also true for the anarchists directions
though many of them distributed agricultural work rather than
industrial work.

The problem is that all these movements had work in mind – not
productive Selbstentfaltung. And in a way this is clear: The
activities necessary to operate (early) industrial machinery are not
only alienated because they are paid. They are also alienated because
they require only a very small part of the human and thus give little
room for Selbstentfaltung. This is the concept of work as pain and it
is not by chance that payment is necessary to compensate for this
pain. Also the notion of a “common stock for mutual and individual
benefit” to me sounds like this work as pain concept.

Insofar I don’t think GPL society resonates well with worker
movement’s ideas. To me one of the big advantages of the Oekonux
debate is to discover that with the contemporary means of production
for the first time in history productive Selbstentfaltung has the
potential to overcome this industrial work-as-pain concept on a level
of the whole society. IMHO *this* is one of the main differences
between worker movement idea(l)s and the Oekonux debate.

2. How should the peer-produced use value be changed into exchange value?

Well, IMHO this use value is not meant to be translated into exchange
value so this question sounds a bit strange to me. Things are useful –
that’s all. And personally I’d wish this could be said about every
product I buy…

3. How can the peer producers be able to acquire the material needs for
their own subsistence?

Well, I think this is a wrong question. This question implies that
every activity useful for society as a whole ultimately needs to be
paid. That’s of course wrong. *Lots* of useful activity in capitalism
is not paid (if people now think women movement they are right). I
think instead of extending exchange logic to for instance raising kids
I think we need to reverse the tendency to put everything under the
command of exchange.

But even if you accept this question the useful Free Products are also
useful for the producers of Free Products. So Free Products reduce the
need to buy also for producers therefore reducing the need for money.

4. Response to the Kleiner argument: “The source of poverty is not reproduction costs, but rather extracted economic rents, forcing the producers to accept less than the full product of their labour as their wage by denying them independent access to the means of production.”

Now this is of course pure worker movement: “Unjust” “exploitation”.
Today I think this is simply not the field where capitalism can be
overcome. The argument is simply the antithesis and as such stays
fully in the exchange based society and only wants to change the
distribution. What we need is the synthesis, however.

5. Kleiner: “owners of material property, namely land and capital, will continue to capture the marginal wealth created as a result of the productivity of the information commons.

That’s something which puzzles lots of leftists indeed. However, if it
would be the case that the ancien regime *must not* benefit from the
new productive forces then we would have not capitalism in the first
place: The feudal lords benefitted in several ways from the beginnings
of capitalism. Nonetheless they were washed away after a while.

6. Kleiner: Whatever exchange value is derived from the information commons will always be captured by owners of real property, which lays outside the commons.

I don’t think it makes sense to distinguish “real” or “unreal”
property. Property is always a concept based on force to maintain it.
In this regard the differences between intellectual and material
property are only marginal here.

7. Kleiner: By establishing the idea of commons-based peer-production in the context of an information-only commons, Benkler is giving the peer-to-peer economy, or the competitive sector, yet anther way to create wealth for appropriation by the property privilege economy, or the monopoly sectors.ซ

And what’s wrong with it? The concepts of Selbstentfaltung and Free
Production play on a different playground than this one. They
undermine capitalist superiority on its very power base: The ability
to organize interesting production processes.

8. What is abundant, what is not?

I’d like to remind of Steven Weber’s point about what is abundant in
Free Software and what is limited (where he talks about gift economy).
Of course the computing resources are abundant – but that’s *not* the
key resource needed for the production of Free Software. Indeed though
Free Software certainly flourished through the Internet it existed
before – listen to Richard Stallman when he talks about sending tapes
around. What actually is limited is the availability of bright
developers. Existing Free Software is abundant but non-existing Free
Software needs limited resources.

What really protects from the tragedy of the commons is the
impossibility to extract alienated value from the common good.
Abundance is one such example. If a good is abundant then it can not
be overused. And it also doesn’t make sense to sell it. Distributed
fabbers could be helpful here because they give the power to produce a
wide range of goods to lots of people.

The *production* of Free Software is actually based on
a rival good: the brain and time of experts. Only the reproduction of
existing Free Software is abundant. I think we need to take this into
account more thoroughly.

9. On Scarcity

An exchange based economy needs to make goods
scarce. Scarcity is something which is produced by a society and
namely by an exchange based one. Only in an exchange based society it
can happen that people die from hunger whereas in general there are
plenty of food resources available. Or need to live in paper boxes
while there are unused flats nearby.

10. On a non-capitalist exchange economy

I think capitalism is the best exchange based economy we can
think of. (Real existing) socialism tried to create an exchange based
economy without capitalism and we witnessed its ultimate failure.

IMHO the flaws of exchange based economies can not be cheated away
somehow. They are deeply built into the nature of exchange as an
economic principle.

Michel Bauwens responds: I find Stefan Merten’s response very interesting and agree withmuch of it. I see two points of difference in our respective interpretation of peer production:

1) I think we can have exchange regimes, fair trade, social trade, natural
capitalism, living economies, divorced from infinite accumulation and generalized wage

2) I think that peer production does rely on a abundance of intellect. Free
software and other modes of peer production does not rely exclusively on bright
developers, but on a wide variety of equipotential contributors, who can self-select
the granular and modular tasks, and whose contributions are then communally validated. But there is a vast amount of excess creative capacity that can be used in abundance.

1 Comment Stefan Merten on Peer Production and the monetary economy

  1. AvatarDmytri Kleiner

    With Appologies Stefen I thank you for your comments, but they betray a lack of understanding of even the basics of political economy.

    Socialism is not a means “of distributing work” but an analysis of the means by which the product of labour is justly or injustly appropriated, calling for worker-control (rather than “capitalist” control) of means of production. In otherwords “commons based production.” (wether peer production or collectivist production dependends on the particular tendency of socialism)

    This lack of understanding renders the rest of the response incomprehensible. The statement that “capitalism is the best exchange based economy we can think of” illustrates clearly that Stefan, sadly, is unfamiliar with the even meaning of the term “Capitalism”, or the economic fact that capital can not, in the context of a free market, capture any return that is greater than its cost, thus “capitalism” depends and can only depend on capture of the surplus value of forcibly alienated labour and private capture of community created value by way of economic rents. In otherwords, a Capitalist class can only exist as far as it supported by violence. That has been the meaning of the word “Capitalism” since it was introduced into political discususion by Thomas Hodgskin. Capitalism doesn’t, as Stefan seems to believe, refer to free market exchange, and is actually incompatible with it.

    The portions of Stefan’s response that are not undermined by misunderstanding of economic concepts, seem to address a complete misunderstanding of what I am proposing, I should correct this, but that will have to wait for another time.

    I am sorry for the terse response, if I had more time I would try and explain a little more, but frankly I am a little surprised that I would need to start with economics 101 in responding to someone like Stefan Merten who apparently has been inlvovled in the subject for quite some time and should have an understanding of the basics by now. Perhaps that is a cop-out, and maybe in the future I will explain at more length. Thanks once again to both Stefan and Michel for responding to my arguments. No doubt we will interact more in the future.

    Incase anyone is interested, Deutschlandradio Kultur will be airing a short feature on Venture Communism and Telekommunisten tomorrow (Nov 1st) at around 8:15am Berlin Time (CET), which would be 2:15am Toronto/ Montreal time (in otherwords late tonight for those in EST).

    An Internet Stream can be accessed here:


    Radio Frequency in Berlin is 89.6 (ukw) or 990 (mw) for other locations please check


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