Thoughts on Peer Production and its Implications for Solidarity Economics

Without a viable economic and political model that provides for the “employment” (compensation) of the Open Source Software developers at large, the Peer Production game is very much a playground of the bureaucratic-industrial complex.

We don’t believe the author has actually read the P2P Foundation works, except perhaps superficially, since our analysis is the same as his. We emphatically do not believe that open source itself leads to a commons-oriented society, and have addressed multiple times the issues described in the article below. In fact, rather than bemoaning the inscription of open source in the current dominant political economy, we have been working on the very connection of peer production and the solidarity economy.

In the end, the complaint expressed by Marty Heyman should be addressed to the author himself, and the movement he represents: is it precisely not the solidarity economy enterprises that should be the ‘economic model’ for peer production? That is what we argue in the P2P Foundation, in the name of ‘open cooperativism‘, and the dominance of peer production by extractive capital is what we critique under the name of netarchical capitalism.

What we need is an ‘open’ solidarity economy that produces commons AND livelihoods for the commoners!

Republished from Marty Heyman of Grassroots Economic Organizing:

“There is a fervent hope that, somehow, Peer Production is a democratizing and decentralizing model that will somehow liberate elements of the economy from the grip of Corporate Capitalism. Michael Johnson’s blog entry on this site, Movements Moving Together: 12, points to two reports from workshops held in Germany, also cited on GEO here and here. This much belated response is long overdue. I leave it to you to (re)read the original material and merely share this reaction. Two threads of thought emerge: the idealism and hopium surrounding the peer production development/business model is not supported by the reality of today’s Open Source Software activities and the assets in the “Digital Commons” imply none of the traditional protections and responsibilities of the thins we usually call “the commons.” This Blog Entry only comments on the first. The second is set aside for some other time.

A deeper reading of the primary authors writing for the Peer to Peer Foundation reveals a vision of the Open Source Software community and its accomplishments. The vision is very promising and filled with hope for political, social, economic, and cultural transpformation based on the practice. The model, as described, rests on individual peer-groups of contributors working to a shared technical (and, implicitly, political and economic) vision to create a body of code for the “Digital Commons.” The idealized outcome for this collaborative and quietly subversive activity is to free people and enterprises from the whims and weapons of capitalist corporate developers and to create a democratized and democratizing body of computer software available to all for the betterment of all.

It is a lovely vision.

Unfortunately, it is deeply Utopian and only quite thinly rooted in current actual practice. In the real world, there are two important realities. First, the vast majority of the vibrant and important Open Source Software development is funded by contributions in funding and in the dedication of paid staff by large public and private enterprises (governments and corporations). When we hear that IBM has committed another billion dollars to the development of Linux and related projects, we are hearing the voice of those who, by providing the funding, get to steer the ship. IBM is in the good company of Cisco, various departments and agencies of the US Government (the EU Government, the Israeli Government, the Russian Government, etc.), Intel, Microsoft, and a long list of others. This funding is good as it is key to the ongoing evolution of an as yet immature body of work. This funding is open to scrutiny as it is motivated by specific desires and expectations and is not actually reflective of the more global needs recognized by experts in the community.

The one concrete example I am comfortable reflecting on is the plight of the Samba Team. IBM, Cisco, and others invested heavily in extending Samba’s original Microsoft-compatible file and print-sharing capabilities to take on the Windows System’s Active Directory and related services. The funding was primarily in the form of hired workers assigned to the project under the leadership and guidance of a charismatic IBM project-leader who also was a contributor to the work. At some point, after the project achieved a degree of initial completion, Cisco and IBM lost interest and pulled back the commitment. Key contributors were suddenly no longer funded (employed) and the project continued as a part-time activity, pursued out of loyalty to the original vision. The longer the project goes without the original corporate commitment, the more the individual contributors become absorbed by the jobs and lives they have to adopt to feed and shelter the family.

Samba 4, the code-name for this work, suffers from various known functional defects that have been slow to be addressed as funding has been hard to organize (among other inhibitors). Roadmap items that were not completed (things postponed for future development while rudimentary capabilities were put in place) include several important performance and reliability elements that leave Samba un-competitive and incomplete. The corporate change in priorities leaves a vacuum that various smaller entities are trying to address but it is becoming clear that unless the big funders come back into the project, the Samba Team has become a romantic memory. Progress on the original objectives has been thrown back into the “gift economy”.

But absent the big funders, the “gift economy” is made up of academia, people with free time (and skills) to volunteer, and much smaller enterprises who, for various reasons, pick up the slack as best they can. This has resulted in very uneven results and much disappointment. It is often the case that some important bit of technology has languished without attention and work on it has to be restarted. Crowd-sourced funding can help but that’s not a business model for maintenance and repair of mission-critical elements of the platform of choice for Enterprise server computing (real, virtual, or in the Cloud.) That means the gift economy is a mop-up operation, a default minimum community of care and capability, not the driving force in Open Source Software development. It also means that it is a symptom of government and corporate behaviors, not a driver of their future approaches.

Without a viable economic and political model that provides for the “employment” (compensation) of the Open Source Software developers at large, the Peer Production game is very much a playground of the bureaucratic-industrial complex.”

5 Comments Thoughts on Peer Production and its Implications for Solidarity Economics

  1. AvatarPatrick S

    Hmmmm … while I appreciate Michel’s prefix I have to say that Marty’s post does feel quite telling – particularly his points about people only having a finite amount to contribute to the ‘gift economy’ before the pressures of housing, food, and (especially) child-raising make that very difficult.

    Seeing what I’d call the ‘ephemerality’ of gift economy and civil society projects – that start with a burst of enthusiasm, but then often peter out quite quickly – can be tiring for many of us.

    I guess this all fits under the general rubric of, it’s hard to really imagine and see the outlines of new nascent socio-technical arrangements while they are still very much minority strains within a dominant system. Maybe things look very different in (e.g.) Madrid right now though.

  2. AvatarPatrick S

    … follow-up thoughts connecting the critique of Mardy’s post with the ‘transformative proposals P2P’ video Michel posted in response …

    I’m not an expert on the union movement but :- it seems that part of the recipe for the Labor movements’ strength in its mid-20th C heyday was the right mix of _cultural_ solidarity with the collective mechanisms to also turn that into concentrating funds from union dues to pay professional union organisers – who both represented members but also build the conditions to re-produce the union in future etc. So individual union members didn’t all have to be utopian idealists, everyone contributed to the movement in some way somewhat automatically. I.E. ‘Solidarity’ was more than just singing the Internationale but also about the less glamorous regular collection of union dues.

    I guess the way the ‘contributory accounting’, ‘commonfare’ and their connection to the open coop devt. agency is analogous (though quite different) in Michel’s video.

  3. AvatarMarty Heyman

    Thanks for the re-post. The original can be found at The GEO Newsletter’s Web site.

    The GEO Collective has been struggling with the problem of “The Movement Critiquing Itself” and have proposed a mini-conference at an upcoming US convention to open a dialog parallel to our ongoing mini-conference series “Advancing Development of Worker Co-ops.” It is likely that such an open, conversational, and candid forum of that type among the activist-theorists in this space would help us share, clarify, and coalesce thinking that is currently somewhat scattered (in my opinion).

  4. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Dear Marty, we have been working quite intensively with a network of cooperativists, though mostly from the UK and Canada, about the topic of ‘open cooperativism’ and have reports on the topic from our deep dive workshops. Amongst the mames that may be familiar are Pat Conaty, John Restakis, Margie Mendell, Annemie Naylor etc .. If you are interested, we’d love to connect you with them. Please keep us informed about these planned events in the U.S. , if you can.

    Michel Bauwens

  5. AvatarMarty Heyman

    (Also by email) Thank you for the offer. I was following the links in the article above and was working through my reaction to the “Open Co-operative” concept discussion. (more to come).

    I think that I, personally and as a member of the GEO Collective, would be happy to connect with the European community. I am over once or twice a year for conferences and meetings with our team members from the EU.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.