Prophets and Advocates of Peer Production

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* Article: Prophets and Advocates of Peer Production. By George Dafermos. Chapter 7: The Handbook of Peer Production. Wiley, 2020

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George Dafermos:

"Since the beginning of the 21st century, peer production has been theorized by various thinkers as an alternative model of production, governance and property which can antagonize and subvert capitalism. And without doubt it has come a long way since then: from being a theory that only a handful of academics and intellectuals were interested in twenty years ago, it has managed to find mainstream appeal, becoming a material force for social, economic and political change. It is important to realize that this did not happen automatically by itself. Various actors played a decisive role: scholars such as Yochai Benkler helped to popularize the notion in the academic world, while intellectuals-cumactivists such as Michel Bauwens were pivotal in framing it in ways that appealed to activists, progressive entrepreneurs and policy makers around the world. If one were to write a history of peer production theory, these actors would figure prominently in it as the key advocates of peer production in the beginning of the 21st century and as the “prophets,” so to speak, of a new mode of production founded on its principles.

This chapter of the Handbook retraces the history of these attempts at theorizing and disseminating peer production. It looks at how the theory spread through the advocacy work of its leading proponents and discusses the differences in their approaches. In parallel, it explores the effect they have had so far on the academic, economic and political world." (


Section 3. 2000s: Emergence of Peer Production Theory

George Dafermos:

"The theory of peer production emerged in the new millennium. Israeli-American law scholar Yochai Benkler has been commonly credited with coining the term, which is first introduced in a paper he published in the Yale Law Journal in 2002. In that paper, titled “Coase’s Penguin or Linux and the Nature of the Firm,” Benkler detects in the development model of Linux the emergence of a “third mode of production” on the Internet, which is distinct from both markets and firms, as neither the motivation of participants, nor the coordination of their work, is achieved through “market prices or managerial commands.” Here, Benkler argues for the first time that the development of free and open source software (F/OSS) projects like Linux cannot be accounted for by financial incentives: the majority of participants are volunteers, who are mobilized, above all, by intrinsic motivations such as creativity and self-fulfillment at work. The other main point that he makes in this article concerns the anti-hierarchical organizational structure of these projects. For Benkler, the reason why Linux is paradigmatic of the model of “peer production” is precisely because its developers self-select the tasks they perform and coordinate their work without bureaucrats and bosses. Benkler continued to work on these ideas and four years later he published his magnum opus, The Wealth of Networks (2006), in which he expanded on his definition of peer production, clarifying its characteristics and analyzing its various types and forms. The influence of the Wealth of Networks was enormous: it remains to this day the most influential writing on peer production.

It established Benkler as a leading theorist of commons-oriented peer production and played an important role in establishing peer production, distributed networks and the digital commons as a promising research field in the social sciences, thereby giving many academic researchers an incentive to engage with the subject. However, Benkler was not the only prominent figure in the early years of the development of the theory. Equally influential was the work of Belgian intellectual Michel Bauwens on the other side of the Atlantic, who had already from the early 2000s began to theorize “peer-to-peer” as a new template for society, economy and politics (see, for example, Bauwens, 2002). The views of those two thinkers had much in common. Bauwens’ theories were based on a similar analysis of Linux and F/OSS as an alternative mode of production, governance and property (Bauwens, 2002, 2005). Like Benkler, Bauwens argued that peer production is a mode of production that is neither directed to market exchange, nor governed by bureaucrats and managers. He, too, emphasized that it is inseparable from a commons-based property regime.

The only substantial point on which his views differed from Benkler’s was with regard to peer production's transcendent character: they shared the conviction that the phenomenon of peer production was bound to spread beyond the confines of the software industry, but Bauwens went even further, arguing that peer production has “the potential to succeed capitalism as the core value and organizational model of a post-capitalist society” (Bauwens, 2012). Aside from this crucial point, the differences between their theories do not so much lie in their content, as in their “targeting” and mode of diffusion. Benkler’s work was very well-received by the academic community, but Bauwens’ discourse appealed to a different audience. As an Internet-age intellectual, Bauwens was an active participant in online mailing lists and discussion forums related to peer production theory. His passionate and provocative contributions to these debates influenced many “netizens” much more than Benkler’s dense academic prose."T (

The P2P Foundation

George Dafermos:

"In 2005, Bauwens founded the P2P Foundation (P2PF). In the beginning, this basically consisted in an online mailing list devoted to the discussion of peer production. It became very popular and attracted a lot of sympathizers and followers from all over the world. Within a short time, Bauwens added a wiki, which he and his numerous online collaborators began to develop into an all-encompassing online repository of knowledge on the topic of peer production. Bauwens’ collaborative style and his open-source approach towards the documentation and development of peer production theory appealed to many researchers and thinkers who formed, in a sense, an online research group around him and the P2PF. Much of the work of that group had an activist bent, attracting many radicals who were interested in exploring peer production as a weapon in the struggle against the capitalist system. Reflecting the aspirations of the actors in its network, the P2PF soon began to evolve into a think-tank for the theory of peer production, advocating social, economic and political change. In the context of its advocacy, it also began to get involved in the organization of events and conferences. The first one was in 2007 when Bauwens co-organized a workshop with Andreas Wittel, out of which came the inspiration for a special issue of Capital & Class titled “Parallel Visions of Peer Production.” Based on the contributions of the participants of this workshop, it was published in 2009 (Moore & Karatzogianni, 2009). This was the first time that an established scientific periodical had devoted an entire issue to peer production." (


George Dafermos:

"The P2PF was not alone in theorizing peer production from a radical perspective at the time. A project that was heavily involved throughout this period in the development of peer production theory was Oekonux. The project was launched in 1999 in Germany by Stefan Merten and a small group of activists and intellectuals who were interested in exploring the subversive potential of this model. Its main thesis was that the development of Linux and F/OSS is prefigurative of a mode of production without the alienation that is characteristic of wage labor, which can transcend capitalism, leading to a free “society beyond labor, money, exchange” (Merten interviewed in Richardson, 2001). In this “GPL society,” there would be no coercion and people would engage in productive projects out of intrinsic motivation: this would allow their “self-unfolding”, while benefiting society as a whole. Based on an analysis of peer production’s transcendent potential that was largely influenced by the work of Karl Marx, Oekonux theorized peer production as a “germ form,” thus hypothesizing that the peer production model could gradually become hegemonic, superseding capitalism (for a more extensive discussion of Oekonux theories, see Merten, 2000, 2009; Merten & Meretz, 2009; Meretz, 2012; Richardson, 2001; Euler, 2016) Oekonux members interacted mainly through two mailing lists: one for German speakers and another for discussions in English. In the beginning, most of the members of the group were from Germany, but because of the open and outward-looking character of the project, that soon changed. From 2001 until 2009, Oekonux organized four important international conferences: in 2001 in Dortmund, in 2002 in Berlin, in 2004 in Vienna and in 2009 in Manchester.10 These conferences were unique in that they were the first (and only) ones to focus exclusively on the exploration of F/OSS and peer production as a mode of production for the transition to post-capitalism. Their unique character attracted thinkers from all over the world, such as Graham Seaman (2003; 2004), Christian Siefkes (2007; 2009), Johan Söderberg (2008), and Raoul Victor (2003; 2004; 2009) who made significant contributions to the project. Michel Bauwens was also involved in the project and as a longtime member of the mailing list, he played an active role in the Oekonux debates. In fact, the ideas of Oekonux resonated so well with his own that in 2009 he co-organized the fourth and final Oekonux conference on “Free Software and Beyond: The World of Peer Production” in Manchester, highlighting the affinity between the theories and aspirations of the P2PF and Oekonux. This synergy between the two projects attracted the interest of many people from the network of the P2PF, thereby helping the propagation of Oekonux theories." (

Section 4. Post-2010: Peer Production Theory Moves into the Mainstream

George Dafermos:

"Until 2010, the number of academics focusing on peer production was quite limited. That changed in the 2010s with the development of increasingly more research groups in various universities around the world. Benkler and his colleagues from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society (which Benkler co-directs) at Harvard have been very active11 and helped to establish peer production as a serious research field in the social sciences. Equally extensive and influential has been the work of the P2P lab of researchers led by Vasilis Kostakis at the Tallinn University of Technology12 and of the research group on the digital commons (“Dimmons”) led by Mayo Fuster Morell at the Open University of Catalonia.

From a more general point of view, the 2010s was the decade in which the theory of peer production matured and began to have a wider impact. The P2PF played a crucial role in this process. Bauwens has been very actively writing and publishing articles, organizing events and conferences and promoting the P2PF as a think-tank, to which commons-friendly policy makers, ethical entrepreneurs and activist organizations can turn for advice. In parallel with the P2PF, he also contributed to the development of like-minded projects that shared the P2PF’s objective to agitate for the commons and peer production, such as the Commons Strategies Group (CSG), which he founded in 2009, with the American commons theorist David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, a German author and activist. CSG organized two large international conferences in Berlin in 2010 and 2013, with two hundred speakers from all over the world, and published two important anthologies in 2013 and 2015 (Bollier & Helfrich, 2013, 2015).

The P2P Lab

George Dafermos:

"Bauwens’ influence was also instrumental in the development of the P2P Lab, which constitutes the research branch of the P2PF (Bauwens & Pantazis, 2018). This was founded in 2012 by Vasilis Kostakis, a core member of the P2PF and one of the most active academic researchers in its network, who has been Bauwens’ main theoretical collaborator since then.

The P2P Lab is a research collective made up of Kostakis and his postgraduate and PhD students from Tallinn University of Technology. The group has been a rich source of publications in academic journals, helping to spread the theories of the P2PF to the community of social scientists. At the same time, it has been P2PF's main vehicle for participating in various scientific research projects (such as P2P Value, Phygital and Cosmolocalism) which function as a platform for the advocacy of peer production.

Policy Influence of the P2P Foundation

George Dafermos:

During this period, the work of Bauwens and the P2PF began to have a strong influence on public policy actors. In 2013, Bauwens was invited to become the research director of FLOK Society Project, a government-supported activist-research project in Ecuador, with the aim of developing a set of policy proposals for the transformation of the country through peer production and the commons. Bauwens recruited the core team of researchers, with whom he worked closely for about a year in Ecuador. In the summer of 2014, FLOK Society organized a large international conference in Quito, with hundreds of participants from all over the world, which attracted a lot of media attention. Funded by three ministries of the Ecuadorian government, it was the first time that peer production theorists had ever worked in such close proximity to political decision-makers: that in itself was a strong signal that the theory was becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world of politics.

That actually seemed to be true in some parts of the world in the mid-2010s, as in the case of Greece where Bauwens’ theories and the example of FLOK Society had caught the attention of some Syriza party members and work-groups, who invited Bauwens and FLOK researchers George Dafermos and John Restakis to Athens in the autumn of 2014 for a series of seminars (Bauwens, 2014). This marked the beginning of a period of close collaboration, which continued for several months, between Syriza’s work-groups and Bauwens’ team of colleagues from FLOK Society and the P2PF. It is indicative of its legacy that Syriza’s official “Government Program”, which was released in 2015, refers to commons-based peer production as a pillar of the productive transformation of the Greek economy (Syriza, 2015).

With a view to reinforcing their advocacy of the commons and peer production, in 2014 Bauwens and his colleagues launched Commons Transitions as a think-tank focused on research and consulting.19 In 2017, Bauwens followed up on this work with another FLOKlike project.

This time he went to the city of Ghent in Belgium, where he spent three months with his colleague from the P2P Lab, Vasilis Niaros, in order to lead a research project, which had the support of the mayor and the political coalition of the city, on the “commons city of the future” (Bauwens & Onzia, 2017a, 2017b). The emphasis on the city as a locus of policy intervention has a strategic significance in the work of Bauwens and his P2PF colleagues since the mid-2010s, reflecting the growing political momentum of new municipalist movements in various European cities (such as the Barcelona en Comú citizen platform that governed Barcelona from 2015 to 2019), which aspire to bring about radical change by taking control of their local government (Utratel & Troncoso, 2017). Most importantly, reaching out to these new political forces has been quite a fruitful endeavor, judging by the fact that the “cornerstone of new municipalism,” as some participants and researchers of Barcelona en Comú have remarked, “is a reinvigorated notion of the commons, as proposed by ... Yochai Benkler, ... Michel Bauwens and organisations like Commons Transition” (Calafati & McInroy, 2017).

One of the main concepts that the above projects emphasized in their advocacy of peer production to public policy actors was that of the so-called “Partner State,” which is a proposal for the development of a commons-friendly government (at both local and national levels) that enables community organizations to participate in the management and provision of public goods. Practically speaking, the concept denotes a local or national government that is supportive of cooperative organizations by developing policies and regulatory frameworks that enable them to play an important role in the economy.20 Through their advocacy of the “Partner State,” research projects like FLOK Society infused peer production theory with a theory of the State, in the context of which cooperatives are actively involved in the management and provision of public goods and services. At the same time, the emphasis of their work on cooperatives brought Bauwens and his colleagues in touch with actors from the new cooperative movement, who were receptive to the idea that their goals synergize well with those of the commoners and peer producers. From a theoretical point of view, this dialogue between peer theorists and cooperators led to the development of the concept of “open cooperativism” (Bauwens & Kostakis, 2014, 2015; Conaty & Bollier, 2014; Pazaitis et al., 2017): the concept, which is basically a proposal for cooperatives to become more actively engaged in the production of the commons, has been at the epicenter of Bauwens' recent work (e.g. Bauwens & Pantazis, 2018). At a more practical level, it resulted in influencing cooperative projects, like the famous Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC) in Catalonia, to become vocal proponents of the commons and peer production (See, for example, Catalan Integral Cooperative, 2015, Dafermos, 2017 and Duran interviewed in Bauwens et al., 2014).

Oekonux after 2010

Unlike the P2PF, which evolved into the most important hub for the theory of peer production, Oekonux did not fare well in this decade. For no particular reason, discussion on its mailing lists had dwindled since the end of the 2000s. And so, by 2013, the project was officially over.22 The radical perspective of its work, however, continued to have a strong influence on researchers and activists engaged in the development of the theory, playing a very important role in the development of other activist-research projects, such as the online Journal of Peer Production (JoPP) which released its inaugural issue in 2011.23 The initiative was proposed at the fourth Oekonux conference in 2009 in Manchester by newcomer Mathieu O’Neil, who was inspired by the conference, and was supported by Athina Karatzogianni, Michel Bauwens, George Dafermos, Stefan Merten, Christian Siefkes, and Johan Söderberg (later joined by Nathaniel Tkacz and Maurizio Teli). This group of people had met each other through Oekonux and were, to various degrees, attuned to its theories (O'Neil, 2012a). This was a key event in the propagation of peer production as an object of interest: since 2011 when the inaugural issue came out, no other scientific periodical has featured as many theoretical and empirical investigations of peer production as the JoPP.

In the beginning, the journal was closely associated to Oekonux, with the journal website and mailing list hosted on the Oekonux server.

However, in 2012, “a series of serious disagreements” between lead editor Mathieu O’Neil and Stefan Merten, who administered the Oekonux infrastructure, “about the way the journal should operate” led O’Neil and some core members of the journal’s editorial board to the decision to “fork” the project (O’Neil, 2012b). In the context of this process, the journal ‘migrated’ to a server run by the P2PF and, in parallel, its name was changed from Critical Studies in Peer Production (CSPP) to the Journal of Peer Production (O’Neil, 2012b). This move was received positively for the most part by the rest of the members of the journal’s editorial group, who gave their support to the new project. A few months later, the Journal of Peer Production (JoPP) released its first issue, and the CSPP release was rebranded as JoPP

  1. 0. Since then, the JoPP has published twelve other issues that span a wide range of subjects

related to peer production. What is more, in contrast to traditional academic journals, the project has been organized in accordance with commons-based peer production principles: JoPP articles are freely shareable,25 and the original submissions and reviews of scientific articles are also made public. Moreover, the JoPP exemplifies a truly democratic and transparent governance model, based on decision-making through dialogue on the project’s publicly archived mailing list, to which anyone can subscribe.

Conclusion about the 2010s

George Dafermos:

"To recap: in this period, peer production theory had a visible impact on the academia, leading to the development of various research projects and groups around the world, such as the P2P Lab. Influenced by the radical core of the theory, many of these projects (like the JoPP) had a decidedly activist bent. Moreover, the theory began to have a wider effect outside academia. Through projects like FLOK Society which combined research and advocacy work, peer theorists embarked on a dialogue with public policy actors in various countries like Ecuador, Greece and Belgium. At the same time, by reaching out to the new cooperative movement, peer theorists managed to successfully create a collaborative link between peer producers and cooperators."



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