3.2.B. How far can peer production be extended?

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3.2.B. How far can peer production be extended?

Given that open source is predicated on abundance, how far can it be extended into the material economy, and leave its confinement in the field of pure immaterial production, such as software? One of the great advocates of peer production, Yochai Benkler, who has focused his explanations of its success to the dramatic lowering of transactions costs, squarely places peer production within the limits of immaterial production, but doesn’t see an expansion beyond that, explicitely stating that it will not endanger capitalist markets . I take a much more expansive view, because of the ‘transcending’ factors that I have mentioned repeatedly, and because I believe that human intentionality in favour of participation, will pressure social structures into an expansion of the sphere of peer production. But I do agree that there are limits to this expansion. How can we view such a possibility?

If peer to peer is predicated on abundance, we have to know what it is that is abundant, and what is it that is scarce. Information and knowledge are immaterial goods with zero reproduction costs and they are non-rival goods: if I take your sandwich, you have nothing to eat, it is a rival good, but if I copy a song from your computer to mine, we both have the song. This is why we have to resist the ‘Second Enclosure’ movement, which aims to create artificial scarcity in knowledge goods, while the open source movement and the GPL license creates the opposite: a guaranteed abundant knowledge commons. Many natural raw materials are rival goods, or they are rival ‘generationally’, i.e. they take time to regrow if you take from them. But our productive capacities have become abundant. It is here that we have to take a good look at the current ‘protocol’ of our societies: money for example, to abundantly available for speculative purposes, is too scarce where it is needed . In fact, money is kept artificially scarce . Financial capital is scarce because it is concentrated in too few hands. It is important to see that such scarcity is not objective, but contigent to the present social, political and economic organization of society. In other words, it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, there are various initiatives aimed at creating the possibility of a non-scarcity based monetary system, based on either general reform of the ‘protocol’ of money, or on bottom-up systems of complementary currency systems. The most radical proposals involve p2p-based ‘open money’ systems . One of the historical precedents showing that such reform is not utopian is the existence of ‘brakteaten’ money in Europe between the 12th and 15th centuries, a period of sustained growth within a system on non-accumulable money .

So, let us recast the question with those distinctions in mind: how far can peer production be extended to the sphere of ‘material production’.

The first important aspect of material production is the immaterial design phase. The whole process of design is immaterial and by definition in the sphere of abundance. Making a car today is highly, essentially dependent on the immaterial factors such as design, cooperation of dispersed international teams, marketing and communication. After that, the production of the cars through standardized parts in outsourced production companies, is -- despite the capital requirement -- more of an epiphenomenon. It is therefore not extremely difficult to expect an extension of OS production models, at least in the design and conception phase of even material production. We can envisage a future form of society, as described in the GPL (General Public License) Society scenario of Oekonux , where the intellectual production and design of any material product, is done through P2P processes.

The second important aspect of material production is the high capital cost of such physical production. At present, with a “scarce money" system and the concentration of financial resources, this severly restricts the expansion of P2P modes. However, if we would succeed in created distributed forms of capital, in the context of current financial abundance, it is likely that peer production would expand significantly. More pragmatically, and already ‘realisable’ at present, one could imagine the extension of models such as Zopa, a distributed bank where lenders and borrowers can pool resources. In such user-capitalized models, peer groups would more easily find access to needed capital resources. This is not an utopian scheme, as there are an increasing number of examples. The new generation of viral meshworks, are 'user-constituted' or 'user-capitalized'. Skype did not built an infrastructure, instead it is the spare capacity of the user's computers that creates the network.

An important aspect of any transitional period between the present limits on peer production and a possible future expansion, would be the introduction of the basic income . A basic income would significantly increase the freedom of producers to choose periodically for more intensive involvement in peer production processes. Capitalism is based on dependency: it separated producers from productive resources, so that producers have to sell their labor in exchange for a salary. A basic income, i.e. an income divorced from any linkage to work, and given to every citizen, would be a crucial means to diminish such dependence and to free many more producers to choose for peer production models. There are many justifications and critiques of the basic income scheme, which we will discuss later, but peer production gives a new an added rationale to it: as a means to fund the more efficient peer production and to create an enormous extension of use value creation in society.

Finally, the state, might consider writing out competitive bids for crucial technologies, where non-corporate entities could participate, at least for the design phase. If the state were a neutral, or even commons-friendly institution, it would not systematically favor corporate welfare or state ownership, but would also fund, where appropriate and more productive, peer production modes.


In the above paragraphs, we looked at peer production in its most complete definition: free cooperating producers working on common projects that are freely available to all. Let’s now look to the more limited partial aspects of peer to peer, such as the cooperation enabled by its technological infrastructure and software tools. As such practices brings down transactional costs, we can see how it can enable an extension of gift economy practices (such as Local Exchange Trading Networks), or what Yochai Benkler calls 'the Sharing Economy' and involves the sharing of physical assets such as cars (car pooling in the U.S. got a great boost from the web, for example). It will also enable many sites that bring together supply and demand, whether it is organized by for-profit companies, or by autonomous collectives. As a form of management, open sources methodologies are being taken up 'inside' companies, especially those joining the Open Source bandwagon, such as IBM (at least their own contributions to OS projects have to be managed in a similar fashion). Given the success and quality deliverance of many FLOSS projects, companies will look at how to emulate such processes in their own environment.

In any case, there are now a great variety of areas, where open source modeled methodologies are being used, a case in point being Thinkcycle, " a Web-based industrial-design project that brings together engineers, designers, academics, and professionals from a variety of disciplines" Similar projects are CollabNet and Innocentive .

In conclusion: we have seen how peer production is entirely appropriate for non-rival and abundant knowledge production; that cooperative peer modes of working are being taken up in the traditional for-profit economy; and that forms of sharing are expanding wherever a context of abundant and distributed capital can be achieved. We have also examined the theoretical arguments of why peer production could be expanded even further, given a number of reforms in the political economy. But peer production is not a cure all and will continue to co-exist with other modes of production. In our opinion, it should co-exist within the context of a reformed market, an expansion of reciprocity-based gift economy practices, and a state form that has integrated new forms of peer governance and multistakeholdership.

The continued overuse of biosphere resources, and it seems we annually are consuming 20% than nature's ability to regenerate them, leads to a likely scenario of depletion and scarcity. At some point, it is likely that we will have to switch from a growth economy model, to a 'throughput economy' model, i.e. the steady-state economics described by Herman Daly, where output will not exceed input. Such a no-growth model is incompatible with contemporary capitalism, but might be compatible with 'natural capitalism' models, or gift economy models. Markets by themselves are not predicated on endless growth, only capitalism is.

Even within the sphere of abundant information and knowledge, continued expansion of P2P is not guaranteed. As McKenzie Wark (Wark, 2004) explains, information might be abundant, but in order for it to be accessed and distributed, we need vectors, i.e. the means of production and distribution of information. And these are not in the hands of the producers themselves, but in the hands of a vectoral class. Use value cannot be transformed into exchange value, without their intervention. At the same time, through intellectual property laws, this vectoral class is in the process of trying to make information scarce. For Wark, the key issue is the property form, as it is the property form, and nothing else, which renders resources scarce. However, the natural abundance of information, the peer to peer nature of vectors such as the internet, makes this a particularly hard task for the vectoral class. Unlike the working class in industrial capitalism, knowledge workers can resist and create to numerous interstices, which is where true P2P is thriving. Their natural task is to extend free access to information, to have a commons of vectoral resources; while the natural task of the vectoral class, is to control the vectors, and change the information commons into tightly controlled properties. But at the same time, the vectoral class needs the knowledge workers (or the hacker class, as McKenzie Wark puts it), to produce innovation, and in the present regime, in many cases, the knowledge workers need the vectors to distribute its work. In our own related hypothesis of the emergence of a netarchical class, which enables and exploits the networks of participatory culture, i.e. the needed platforms for collaboration, a similar tension occurs, since for-profit companies will tend to want to achieve dominance and monopoly and rig the platforms in their favor.

This is the reason that relations between P2P and the for-profit model of the enterprise are highly contradictory and rife with tensions. P2P-inspired project teams have to co-exist with a hierarchical framework that seeks only to serve the profit of the shareholders. The authority model of a corporation is essentially a top-down hierarchical even ‘feudal’ model. Since traditionally corporate power was a scarce resource predicated on information control, very few companies are ready to actually implement coherent P2P models and their inherent demand for an information sharing culture, as it threatens the core power structure. By their own nature, companies seek to exploit external resources, at the lowest possible cost, and seek to dump waste products to the environment. They seek to give the lowest possible socially-accepted wage, which is sufficient to attract workers. Mitigating factors are the demands and regulations of the democratic polity, and today in particular the demands of the political consumer; and the strength and scarcity of labor. But essentially, the corporation will be reactive to these demands, not pro-active.

P2P is, as we will argue throughout the different sections of this book, always both ‘within’ and ‘beyond’ the present system. It is within because it is the condition for the functioning of the present system of ‘cognitive capitalism’. But P2P, if it follows its own logic, demands to be extended to the full sphere of material and social life, and demands its transformation from a scarce resource, predicated on private property to an abundant resource. Therefore, ultimately, the answer to the question: can P2P be extended to the material sphere, should have the following reply: only if the material sphere is liberated from its connection to scarce capital, and instead starts functioning on the predicate of over-abundant and non-mediated labor, will it effectively function outside the immaterial sphere. Thus P2P points to the eventual overcoming of the present system of political economy. --Mbauwens 10:15, 16 November 2005 (CET)MB