The importance of ownership for peer production

How important is it to own things, in the context of a social agenda that favours collaborative production and peer to peer dynamics?

I see roughly two polarities in the debate. On the one hand, there are those who think that nothing is fundamentally changing until we tackle the ownership structure. This is voiced by Dmytri Kleiner but also by Tere Vaden who explicitely proposes a three-pronged strategy to obtain “Triple-Free” peer production which includes the ownership of the means of production. On the other polarity are those who say it largely doesn’t matter, at least not at this stage, because we have already a pseudo-commons (a nicer word would be quasi-commons), such as Christian Siefkes in his book on the Peer Economy. This means that for all practical purposes we can already use distributed networks, using our brains, computers and the ‘usage of the networks’ as our means of production, and so basically rout around the issue of ownership. I would rather say that these approaches are phase-dependent. Today, in the current balance of social forces and with peer to peer as a germ form, we can indeed do as much as we can from the edges, but I don’t think this means that eventually we will have to tackle the control and ownership of the information infrastructure. Can we save the world from biospheric destruction if the mass media remain in the hands of corporations using them to push for ever increased consumption?

I particularly recommend the essay on collaborative production by Mark Cooper, who asks himself what kind of infrastructure we need for collaborative production and what kinds of policies can achieve it. Reading it has allowed me to update our wiki entries on Property and the triarchy common/public/private goods.

So what comes first: the new modes of production or new types of ownership. This was the topic of a debate on the Oekonux list as well, and we’re reprinting Raoul Victor’s reply. I would say that we are already changing the modes of property (this is what the GPL and Creative Commons are about), as a necessary precondition for peer production, but that we are still operating at the margins.

Raoul Victor on the importance of ownership in social change strategies:

Stefan Merten had written:

> (…)A lesson what we can learn from several historical trials is, that we cannot start from the question of ownership: first conquer the ownership, then build a new society — no, this does not work. We can learn, that ownership is a result of the development of the way to produces our lives and of the productive forces, it was always in history in this sequence.

Raoul responds:

I don’t think this is totally correct. It is true that, at least in the French case, it is during the period of political revolution (1790s), long after the bourgeoisie had begun to establish its mode of production, that the question of ownership was broadly posed:

possessions of the Church and the emigrated nobles were confiscated by the State and sold to the “people”… (in fact to the new bourgeoisie, the rich merchants, bankers and manufacturers who had previously developed and were the only ones who could buy them). But if the bourgeoisie had had the capacity to develop the new production relations before that moment, it was because it had since the beginning the ownership of crucial means of production, merchant ships and commodities, banks and manufactures, for example.

If you consider the transition between slavery and the first forms of feudalism, at the end of the Roman Empire (III-V century), the basic change consisted since the beginning in a question of ownership, that of the slaves (who were also the main “means of production”). The “coloni”, the first form of “serves” were emancipated slaves. They ceased to be the property of their old owners. They remained attached to the land (which was sold with its coloni) but a part of their production became their own property.

That is for the past. But it is the same if you consider the present transition. Free Software was also confronted a question of ownership (copyright/copyleft) since the beginning. “Peer production”, and more generally “peer X” has developed using means of production (software like Linux or Apache, for example) which were “non-proprietary” software, the results of fights to prevent any private appropriation of them.

Production needs to have the “possession” (not in the sense of “private ownership” but in the sense of having the control of something, as for example a primitive man needed to “posses” a “non-proprietary” stone to drive a stake into the land). How could new relations of *production* develop without dealing since the beginning with the question of possession of the means of production, even if it is only in an incipient form?

That being said, it is true that the question can be posed in a more global and definitive form when the new relations of production have developed. This is so because it is only *social practice* which can “convince” the majority of society to accept and develop the new forms of ownership/possession. For example, the bourgeoisie could obtain the support of small peasants, artisans and new wage-earners workers when expropriating the Church and the nobles, because the new production relations appeared to bring in practice more liberty and wealth.”

You can read more of Raoul Victor’s interesting essays here.

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