Critical Political Economic Framework for Peer Production’s Relation to Capitalism

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* Article: A Critical Political Economic Framework for Peer Production’s Relation to Capitalism. By Arwid Lund. Journal of Peer Production, Issue #10: Peer Production and Work, 2017



Arwid Lund:


"This article examines the relation between peer production and capitalism on a systemic and theoretical level. One problem with understanding peer production as an alternative and potentially competing mode of production in relation to capitalism is that the main bulk of economic theory deals only with capitalism. Alternative economic theories from an emerging theoretical P2P movement have done important pioneer work on commons-based peer production, and in discussing its sustainability as a mode of production both on a systemic and individual level (for the peer producers) within capitalism. This article argues that the disadvantages of the P2P movement’s theoretical framework, compared to a Marxist one, have their roots in an evolutionist motif, and the article aims to situate peer production more clearly in relation to the workings of capital, and in relation to a Marxist understanding of the potential for political agencies and counter-powers to emerge from capital’s outside." (


"A rather eclectic theoretical framework will be applied, motivated by the outside to capital being, to some degree, a blind spot also within Marxism. The theories of social anthropologists Karl Polanyi and David Graeber will complement the P2P movement’s positive understandings of capitalism’s outside, whereas a broad sample of Marxist theoreticians will be drawn upon to understand the outside’s conditions in relation to a contradictory and crisis-prone capitalism. An eclectic perspective is always problematic, as each and every theory rests upon its own assumptions, but could also be useful if carefully applied within an explorative analysis of two diametrically different and interacting entities: capitalism and its potentially competing, commons-based and peer-organised productive outside."



Arwid Lund:

"Peer production projects can be, and have been, analysed as a variety of the autonomist Marxists’ idea of an exodus from capitalist society (Virno, 1996a; Söderberg, 2008). But the exodus perspective was weakly represented in a study of Swedish Wikipedia. The encyclopaedia was understood by several informants as an oasis of trustworthy and ad-free information and knowledge. But, more than inspiring a critique of capitalism, the strong ideological positions in the study stressed Wikipedia’s potential to improve life within capitalism with its neutral information. And regarding peer production being a challenger of capitalism, the study concluded that the identified ideological formation capitalism of communism attributed strength and a higher productivity to Wikipedia compared with capitalism and, thus, raised the issue of outcompeting capitalism, but that it was the weakest and most latent of three ideological formations that were identified (Lund, 2015a).

On the other hand, struggles against the market’s normalisation processes often give capital energy and pulse. De Angelis names it “the claustrophobic dialectic that needs to be overcome”: exoduses, lines of flights, emergences and ruptures with norms and values are moments of creative acts that are taken back to the measure of capital under capitalism (De Angelis, 2007: 3). Thus, not all struggles against capitalism have progressive results.

We are, therefore, confronted with a situation where peer production’s relation to a crises-prone capitalism could lead to conflicts, and necessarily will do so if an actual transition period is embarked upon, but where, simultaneously, not all struggles are progressive in their results. Here, time is of crucial importance. The P2P movement’s downplaying of antagonism could hold some strategic value in the short run, especially as long as capital’s co-optation processes cannot be counteracted. But Marxism’s more antagonistic view, on the relation between capitalism’s inside and outside, will likely be of crucial importance in the medium and long run of things. The political tactic and strategy would also have to adapt to different PPPs in different sectors of the political economy. A different tactic could be needed in relation to peer production within FOSS, which is placed in a central sector of cognitive capitalism, whereas encyclopaedias are not. Today 40% of all developers within FOSS are paid wages (Dafermos and Söderberg, 2009: 60, 63–64; Bauwens, 2009: 123–124) and open licences, rather than copyleft licences, are often used, which calls for a more critical approach taking the increasingly socially necessary function of free and open software programming seriously before its existence and development as an alternative is stalled, rather than radicalised.

In the case of Wikipedia, the exodus to capital’s organised outside in the form of peer production can gain further strength if it does not—for now—take on a fully anti-capitalist approach. Non-commercial PPPs, predominantly financed by popular donations and administered by non-profit foundations, offer a livelihood under capitalism when they employ people. These projects increase the resilience of both peer production and peer producers, without contributing to value production, and foster attitudes and self-valorisations of peer producers as being socially necessary (in a capitalist sense). But importantly, the financial model, with many small and popular donations, comes with a twist. It requires some kind of non-commerciality for the donations to keep coming (Lund and Venäläinen, 2016). Such PPPs cannot exclusively rely on wage labour; there has to be voluntary and unpaid production going on. The challenge for peer production projects will be to keep attracting voluntary newcomers at the same time as they employ the right numbers of people for the strategically best functions.

Following Postone’s (Postone, 1993: 17, 45-68, 312, 314) critique of abstract wage labour, peer production has to handle wage labour with care, scepticism, and within an overall perspective of abolishing it at some point. Peer production as an employer turns the inside of capital—the capital relation—into an instrument for strengthening an outside of only use-value production, but the strategy has its clear limits. Wage labour within peer production is parasitic and dependent on capital’s value production and it is, therefore, negatively affected by its crises.

A hybrid strategy alternating between copyleft licences and the peer production licences (PPL) that Bauwens and Kostakis suggest to prevent the Linux commons from becoming a “company commons” (Bauwens and Kostakis, 2014: 356–357) could give both flexibility and optimise the resilience of peer production. PPL regulates that PPPs get paid for their products by commercial actors, whereas they give them for free to peers in associated co-operatives, like Kleiner’s venture communes (Kleiner, 2010). Such a strategy would help in creating an economic buffer without direct connection to capital’s financial system.

But Bauwens and Kostakis’ proclaimed paradox that a communist sharing licence without restrictions on sharing results in an accentuated capitalist practice (Bauwens and Kostakis, 2014: 357) is only partly true. The copyleft licence does have restrictions and demands that commercial actors share derivative commercial products freely. This virus character of the copyleft licence can potentially be used as an offensive tool for a commonification of capitalism. In this process, it could try to turn liberalism’s positive notion of competition against capitalism itself, implying that open knowledge creates better competition and markets, meanwhile strengthening the commons.

Having said this, it is true that the copyleft licence is seldom practically implemented in relation to capital interests. Wikipedians do not prioritise controlling whether commercial actors comply with the licence and open up derivative commercial products (Lund, 2015a). The reason for not totally letting go of the copyleft licence is the risk that the strategy proposed by Bauwens and Kostakis (2014: 358) fails to expand the counter-economy, at the same time as the virus character of the copyleft licence cannot be used or politicised. For the time being, this calls for a mixed approach and strategy.

Finally, peer production alone cannot make a social revolution. Peer production can be understood as commons-based communistic islands, rather than Hardt and Negri’s ubiquitously present “common”, and it does not exist everywhere in society and will require a social revolution to become generalised. Alliances have to be struck between anti-capitalist activists, hackers and peer producers (Rigi, 2013: 404, 412–414). Alliances could also be struck with the remnants of the welfare state and different forms of co-operatives.


A wider social anthropological perspective and Marxist frame give contours to peer production’s potential as an anti-capitalist social power. In this, they strengthen the P2P movement’s positive view of the externalities but also add realism to the struggles that lie ahead for a peer production that actually challenges capitalism.

The Marxian concept of being socially necessary helps the P2P movement to identify the possibilities and dangers involved in expanding peer production’s alternative processes of self-valorisation in society. With a pragmatic strategy, involving wage labour, the resilience and socially necessary character of the peer production (in a capitalist sense) will strengthen, rendering the peer producers more self-aware and in continuation either more radically opposed to or in favour of capital.

Scholz and Luxemburg provide us with a wider understanding of the potential for different political agencies and counter-powers to emerge from the outside of capital. From Scholz’s theories we can take away the importance of expanding the norms of what is not exchangeable, from 20th-Century history we can take the importance of peer production developing strategic alliances with the state, and from Luxemburg the insight that peer production threatens capitalism the more self-sufficient it becomes.

Combining parts of Wertkritik and autonomist Marxism, helps us to see the contours of a new political and potentially anti-capitalist subject, with knowledge and skills that capital is increasingly dependent on. Marxism’s tactically nuanced view of coexisting modes of production supports hybrid strategies alternating between different licences by the P2P movement, but stresses the necessary social struggles involved in actual transition periods, and in relation to capitalism’s recurrent crises—especially if peer producers self-valorise themselves and their project as socially necessary in increasingly independent ways. This theoretical clear-sightedness has the potential to prepare and empower a peer production that will have to show, with each new crisis, that it is more stable, effective and socially resilient than capitalism."