Commons-based Political Production

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Brian Holmes on commons-based `political production'



Brian Holmes that peer production does not only produce use value in terms of knowledge and software, but also a new `politics'.

"Benkler identifies four attributes of the networked information economy that favor commons-based peer production. First, information must be freely available an inexhaustible raw material for products which, in their turn, will become inexhaustible raw materials for further productions. Second, potential collaborators must be able to easily identify the specific project that inspires them to contribute their creativity and labor. Third, the cost of production equipment must be low, as is now the case for things like computers and related media devices. Fourth, it must be possible to broadly distribute the results, for instance, over a telecommunications net. Under these conditions, quite complex tasks can be imagined, divided into small modules, and thrown out into the public realm where individuals will self-identify their competency to meet any given challenge. The only remaining requirement for large-scale production of cultural and informational goods is to be able to perform quality checks and integrate all the individual modules with relatively low effort into a completed whole - but these tasks, it turns out, can often be done on a distributed basis as well. The fact that all of this is possible, and actually happening today, allows Benkler to contradict Ronald Coase's classic theory, which identifies the firm, with its hierarchical command structure, and the market, functioning through the individual's quest for the lowest price, as the only two viable ways to organize human production. In other words, in the cultural and informational domain there is an alternative mode of production, functioning outside the norms of the state-capitalist economy as we know it, but without any rhetorical need to proclaim a clean break or an absolute division between them. One could apply exactly the same ideas to the growing phenomenon of networked political protests.

It is clear that mass access to email and the possibility to create personal web pages - both of which have been quite necessary to the world expansion of liberal capitalism - almost immediately made possible, not only a greater awareness of globalization and its effects, but also the self-organization of dissenting movements on a world scale. And the scope of the projects that have been realized in this sense has been tremendous.

Just reflect for a moment on what all the major "counter-globalization" campaigns have involved: collaborative research on the political, social, cultural, and ecological issues at stake; various levels of coordination between a wide range of already constituted groups, concerning the preliminary forms of mobilization; worldwide dissemination, through every possible channel, of the research and the preliminary positions; travel of tens or hundreds of thousands of single persons and autonomous groups to a given place; self-organization of a meeting and sleeping place; intellectual and political cooperation on some form of counter-summit; the creation of artistic and cultural events in the spirit of the movements; a minimal agreement, worked out beforehand or in the heat of the moment, on the specific forms and places of the symbolic and direct actions to be undertaken; legal and medical coordination in order to ensure the demonstrators' security; the installation of communications systems allowing for the transmission of precise yet exceedingly diverse coverage of the events; a social, legal, and political follow-up of the aftermath; and a subsequent analysis of the new situation that results from each confrontation. In this sense one could say that, just like the projects of commons-based peer production, these mobilization begin and end with the fabrication of publicly available texts.

For example, the People's Summit held in Quebec City in April 2001 began long in advance, with many different studies of the probably consequences of the future agreement on the Free Trade Area of the Americas. These studies led to the drafting of a remarkable document, "Alternatives for the Americas," which is a counter treaty of great precision, drafted through a process of knowledge exchange and political coordination on the scale of the American hemisphere. Finally, as a direct consequence of the massive demonstration that took place during the official summit, the working draft of the FTAA treaty was made public for the first time; until then it had not even been available to elected representatives of the American peoples, but only to executive negotiating teams and, of course, corporate "advisers." And yet between the fundamental landmarks represented by these text publications, how many face-to-face debates took place, how many exchanges of ideas and thoughts, how many moments of solitary or collective creation, how many acts of courage or solidarity? And how many emotions, images, memories, and desires were created and shared during those days of action?"

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See our entry on the Commons