From Exchange to Contributions

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Book: Christian Siefkes. From Exchange to Contributions: Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World. Ed. C. Siefkes, 2007


Fulltext URL: (July 2008 edition)


From the author:

The big text I was working on for the last nine months is ready. It is about the question of the potential of peer production — the way free software is produced. We know that this new mode of production is of great importance in regard to free software — success stories like GNU/Linux, Apache or Wikipedia speak for themselves.

However, is this mode of production only relevant for information goods? Or is there a potential for more, maybe a revolution of the entire sphere of production?

The results of my considerations are now published under the title “From Exchange to Contributions: Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World”. Initially it was intended to be a long article, but due to the complexity of the topic it became a book!

The entire text of the book can be downloaded as a PDF (155 pages). A smaller 2-up version (two pages on one, 77 pages) is also available, on letter or A4 paper.

The text can be modified and copied under the conditions of the Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike-Licence.

A paperback print is also available and costs 9.50 euros — recommendable for all, who want to do their eyes, their printer, or simply me a favor:-)

I will be happy about feedback, critics, and inspired debates. If my book leads to a reflection that a post-capitalist economy is no longer as utopian as might seem, then its ends are achieved."


A new mode of production has emerged in the areas of software and content production. This mode, which is based on sharing and cooperation, has spawned whole mature operating systems such as GNU/Linux as well as innumerable other free software applications; giant knowledge bases such as the Wikipedia; a large free culture movement; and a new, wholly decentralized medium for spreading, analyzing and discussing news and knowledge, the so-called blogosphere.

So far, this new mode of production--peer production--has been limited to certain niches of production, such as information goods. This book discusses whether this limitation is necessary or whether the potential of peer production extends farther. In other words: Is a society possible in which peer production is the primary mode of production? If so, how could such a society be organized?

Is a society possible where production is driven by demand and not by profit? Where there is no need to sell anything and hence no unemployment? Where competition is more a game than a struggle for survival? Where there is no distinction between people with capital and those without? A society where it would be silly to keep your ideas and knowledge secret instead of sharing them; and where scarcity is no longer a precondition of economic success, but a problem to be worked around?

It is, and this book describes how."


Christian Siefkes:

"My approach is a problem-driven one: if people will be faced with this problem, they'll have to deal with it, and I discuss a possible way of dealing with it. If the problem never arises, so much the better--in this case, that part of my book would be unnecessary, which would still leave about 30% that would be useful. However, I don't think that a transition to a post-capitalist society will be possible without dealing with this problem. A society where all demands are satisfied through Selbstentfaltung may be possible, but I doubt that such a society could grow immediately out of capitalism.

In so far as current peer production tends to go, my solution is the same as of current peer production processes: you can take anything, without having to give anything back, as long as you don't take it _away_ from others. That means that you can freely take information and anything else that can be copied freely. Current peer production tends to end here.

The problem that arises next is how to organizing taking when taking does mean taking away: say if I want to take a bicycle, but somebody else wants to take it too -- if there's only one bicycle, and if one of us would take it, she would take it away from the other (she would deny her the possibility of taking it). My problem to this solution is basically: "arrange production, through social agreements, so as to avoid that taking becomes taking away -- i.e. arrange production so as to ensure that there is one bicycle (etc.) for everyone who needs one." People thus enter a joint agreement to help each other produce what each of them needs.

Realizing this common goal requires effort, and the agreement must therefore find a mode for distributing this effort--my proposal here is either to distribute effort evenly among participants (flatrate model), or to distribute it roughly proportionally to the effort it takes to satisfy everyone's wishes ("the more you want, the more you have to give"), plus some further details and possible modifications. The decision to regard effort as "abstract human labor", disregarding the specific useful goods it produces (except that they must of course be useful, i.e. somebody must want them), is therefore the result of an social agreement, it does not happen "behind the back of the producers."

The important thing, I believe, is that people enter a joint agreement to help each other produce what they need--the details of the agreement (how to distribute effort etc.) will be a matter of experimentation. Feel free to propose better solutions for these details, if you know any.

But please stop ignoring the difference between freely copyable and other things: if you take a copy of Linux, nobody else loses a thing, but if you take the last bicycle, other people lose the possibility to take it. That's a difference that must be dealt with, merely wishing it away won't help you.

I don't think the problem in capitalism is that you don't get everything for free. On a deep level, the problem that you have to work in order to consume even exists in any society, since only goods that have been produced can be consumed. Thus work (production) is always a necessary precondition for consumption--maybe not for you personally, but definitely for society as a whole. (Of course, the people doing it may perceive this work not as necessity, but as Selbstentfaltung, as something they're doing voluntarily and with pleasure--that's the best outcome a mode of production can hope to achieve. But it can only be an outcome, not a precondition for a mode of production. Otherwise needs which, for whatever reasons, cannot be satisfied by pure Selbstentfaltung would simply be neglected, and that wouldn't be a good thing.)

The problem in capitalism is that production only takes place if there is _profit._ The goal of all capitalist production is to make profit, i.e. to turn money into more money. So, in order to get the things you need, you cannot just "work a little"--no, you have to convince some capitalist that they need you, i.e. that employing you allows them to make more profit than they would make otherwise. Your mere willingness to work is entirely unimportant--you must be useful for some capitalist, too. But capitalists only need a limited number of personnel, much less than there are people on Earth, so that's the big hurdle which most people fail to overcome (when speaking on a global scale).

The second aspect of this problem is that, as a worker, you don't sell the results of your labor, you sell your _labor power_ (workers, or would-be workers, are people who don't have anything to sell than their labor power--most people haven't). The deal by selling your labor power is: you get paid the value of your labor power (what else?), and the value of your labor power is what you need in order to survive (according to your local community standard of living); in return, you have to give your full labor power (according to the local standard for the length of they work day/week, say, 8 hours a day/40 hours a week). If the production of the goods you need for your standard of living takes 20 hours a week, you still have to work 40 hours--the other 20 hours are the "surplus"--they go to the capitalist, become their profit and are, in fact, the only reason why they employed you in the first place.

In the peer economy, you don't need to be useful for a capitalist, since you can join, without any preconditions, the general agreement to help each other produce what they need. And since work is simply divided up, there is no surplus--if producing your standard of living takes 20 hours a week, you work 20 hours (assuming a proportional model), if you want a higher standard, you have to work a bit more, say 25 hours, etc. (In fact, your workload would probably be even lower, since in capitalism there is much duplication of work and overload work which would be unnecessary in a peer economy.) The general agreement to help each other produce what they want and to divide the necessary work among those that can contribute means that everybody who can has to work a little, but nobody has to work very much. (And if you can't contribute at all, then you don't have to. That's how I describe it, at least, and I believe that rule to be very important, since the goal of dividing up the labor is to allow everyone to get what they want with the least possible effort, not to exclude anybody.)

That's the difference between capitalism and the peer economy. For many people in our society, it would mean the difference between life and death, or at least between having to live in misery or being able to live a good life. And for almost everybody else it, it's the difference between having to work very much (and often with the fear of losing that precious, if unloved job and the advantages it entails) and having to work much less (and without fear of dropping out). And that's not even speaking of the fact that in the peer economy you're part of a equal community of co-producers with a common goal (produce for everyone what that like to have), while in capitalism you must subjugate to the command of some boss whose goal (making profit) has nothing to do with you..." (Oekonux, September 2008)


Contributions to a debate on the main concepts, originally published as a series on


Stefan Meretz:

"Peer Economy. A Transition Concept.

Inside the critical left there is a small group refering to free software and free culture movement being already start points (»germ forms«) for new possibilities beyond commodities, money, market, and state. Such approaches on their part are critized as to be limited to reproducible information goods and being unable to reach the world of physical good.

Christian Siefkes now has presented the »Peer Economy« concept dealing with this central critique of germ form ideas. In his english book »From Exchange to Contributions« Siefkes generalizes the principles of free software and free culture production into the physical world.

Starting point is the consideration, that people have to spend efforts during the production of their living conditions. While capitalism uses the market as an »indirection« to allocate produced goods---although afore it is not clear, if they are needed or can be sold---peer production does not distribute goods, but the effort to produce them. Doing this it will only be produced what is needed---the relationship between needs and products is »direct«.

How can this work? Here the peer principle comes into play. The term »peer production« was introduced by Yochai Benkler in order to describe the open and cooperative type of production of free information goods. Individual people (»peers«) work together on a voluntary basis, in fact from a single reason: they want to do it. They make contributions to a project to bring it to success. Intensity, extent, and duration is determined by each person themself. On the other side peer projects depend on contributions and will do everything to be attractive for participation.

Peer production bases on so called Commons being ressources without owner controlling the usage. As a rule results of peer project are on the other hand part of the commons. Currently this does not apply to physical means of production, they are private property of the peers being contibutors.

Free cooperation is an additional fundament of peer projects. Coercion as a mean to organize the production does not exist, because means of coercion are absent. Participation is voluntary and there are no sanktions when leaving a project. Inside peer projects formal status and its symbols, but also other criteria like gender, origin, age etc. don't play a role. What counts are the contributions one makes. They determine reputation, credit, and confidence one gets.

Now, how can needs of the producers be coordinated with the needs of the consumers? Today peer projects can function, because peers dispose of production means and because non-physical goods being once created can almost arbitrarily be reproduced. This does not apply to the physical world. Peer projects of physical goods have to demand an adequate compensation for the taking of goods requiring each time anew an effort to produce them.

But which contribution is adequate? This question is decided by the project. It weights the contributions using the time duration inversely proportional to its popularity: unpopular tasks only require a small contribution, while popular tasks require a big contribution. This sounds similar to role the economic value is playing in market economy.

The economic value maps complex actions on simple once. However, while always complex actions are manifolds of simple once---resulting in less volume of spending---a generalized peer production tend to function the other way around: Simple tasks no one likes to do will be highly weighted to guarantee its execution, while popular and often highly qualified tasks get a lower weight. The weighting---according to the proposal---is nothing static, but is permanently adjusted. This adjustment is done automatically using an »auctioning system« mediating demand and supply. Thus one hour garbage removal can thoroughly correspond to one week writing computer programs.

Concerning the allocation of the goods peer projects join together and form distribution pools, in order to be able to provide a larger bandwith of useful goods. At the same time the project extent should (but not need to) be straightforward, problems should be handled directly »peer to peer«. Everybody contributing something to a local project can gather goods from the respective distribution pool. Depending on the type of goods the ways of disribution differ, from flat rate allocation to preference weighting.

It is remarkable, that Siefkes concretely discusses a number of critical questions, which are usually avoided by refering to a future »where everything will be solved«: How will limited resources and goods be distributed? What about infrastructures and meta-tasks? How will decisions be made, how conflicts be solved? How will global projects be organized? What about people being not able or willing to make a contribution? Who decides what a »contribution« is? What about migration? Are laws further on necessary?

To my opinion the presented concept is a pragmatic transition model, not a general model of a post-capitalist society. Main limitation is the interlinking of contribution and taking. However, it is well imaginable, that the strict interlinking between contribution and taking during the phase of competition to capitalism will be resolved after its overcoming.

Christian Siefkes has not written his book in terms of a notion critique, but pragmatically oriented at discourses of the english language area."

More extensive review by Stefan Merten at

Additional reviews:

  1. Review by Stefan Meretz: Peer Economy: A Transition Concept. Translation of a German-language article from the Vienna journal Streifzüge, No. 41
  2. Critical review by Stefan Merten:

Stefan Merten

Peer production as a concept:

In the first two chapters Christian describes some basic principles of peer production. He mentions a lot of important concepts like contributions to a project made by volunteers. He explains that these contributions are made because of Selbstentfaltung - though he doesn't use that word - and that the projects maintain internal and external openness.

In the second chapter he also addresses the topic of means of production. Christian explains that in contemporary peer production projects the means of production are usually privately owned or payed for. Christian also mentions forks in peer production projects - which are possible because at least a part of the means of production are available to anybody.

Problems to solve:

Then Christian goes on to explain two problems he sees as important. The first problem is how it can be made sure that the societal needs are met by peer production projects. In fact a question which capitalism unfortunately can not always answer. He states that user needs and producer needs are not the same and that there must be some mediation between them.

The second problem Christian perceives is how to deal with limited resources and goods. He shortly mentions fabbers but as the sole solution dismisses them quickly.

Non-harmful ways to deal with lack of volunteers:

Christian perceives tasks for which there are no volunteers as the basic problem. In fact this can be seen as one of the important problems of peer production - though capitalism has to deal with the lack of workers as well. Christian mentions two important ways to deal with these problems not harming basic peer production principles but are rather expressions of the logic of peer production.

The first way is automation by which unwanted task are simply automated away by moving them to machines. In fact the first peer production project of Free Software is almost completely about automation. Software more or less is a mean to automate tasks away which generally could be done by hand also.

The second way is to raise the fun of some task. This is something which people did throughout history - for instance by singing together while doing hard work. In peer production it would modify a task in a way someone can see it as Selbstentfaltung.

These two ways even complete each other. Automation often shifts the work needed for some task to another realm. This realm often is more likely to be Selbstentfaltung because it employs your creativity.

The first chapters of Christian's book are just fine and they are more or less perfectly aligned with peer production. What is really annoying is that after these chapters he leaves this path and develops a system which in my opinion is structurally equal to capitalism and thus contradicts peer production. The rest of my review deals with this and thus is far more critical."

For the critical parts of the review see here at


A critique from the Other Spiral:

"Because the production of open-source software is the production of public goods (non-excludable and non-rivalrous) it unproblematically benefits everyone who wishes to consume it. While ideas are generally considered to have always been public goods, the development of productive forces has essentially eliminated scarcity in the distribution of open-source software. Open-source software is available for download free of charge, and the cost of its reproduction of trivial. Furthermore the use of the software does not exclude others from its use, and the ease of reproduction ensures that it is non-rivalrous (A point guaranteed in law by the GPL).

The article does not point out that most other forms of production are productive of excludable and rivalrous private goods. It does mention in passing that “In commonism, as in any society, decisions on how to use the available resources will be necessary.” But its superficial mention of this issue fails to acknowledge that this is the fundamental problem of economics. How are the excludable and rivalrous products of society be distributed amongst its members? Will the productions of scarce goods for social consumption simply occur spontaneously through “stigmergy?” I have my doubts!

The author argues that “Peer production, on the other hand, is production for others which is neither based on coercion nor motivated by monetary gain.”

This would only be true under conditions of highly-developed socialist automation, where material goods such as bread, houses, and tables would become so easy to produce that they would effectively be public goods, which is hardly a fait accompli. It is not as though the often back-breaking conditions of agricultural production could instantly be changed by social fiat, and the article itself acknowledges that there are serious limitations to how far worker-oriented automation can progress under capitalism. A transitional regime of production that would develop this worker-oriented automation and an accompanying egalitarian society is still required, despite the promising developments we can see in today’s “benefit-driven production.” While the “commonist” argument recognizes the capitalist situation and has a vision of the benefits of communism, it imagines that these benefits will somehow materialize without a transition stage that confronts us with its own problems. This is because the “commonists” want to pretend that the seemingly intractable problems of 20th century Communism do not need to be addressed and that the promise of the socialist project can be achieved through some kind of spontaneous historical dispensation." (

More Information

Presentation of his book

  1. Towards an Economy of Contributions Part one
  2. Towards an Economy of Contributions Part two

Topical selections from the P2P Foundation blog

  1. Effort Sharing vs. Market Allocation
  2. On the difference between a Peer Economy and a Market Economy
  3. On Money and State Forms in the Peer Economy
  4. On possession, not property, as the basis of the Commons
  5. On Decision Making and Conflict Resolution in Material Peer Production
  6. On Local Associations for Organizing Material Peer Production
  7. On Distribution Pools
  8. On Distributing Effort through Weighting Labor
  9. On Hint-based Stigmergic Systems
  10. Understanding Material Peer Production

Key Resources

The book:

  1. English edition: Christian Siefkes. From Exchange to Contributions: Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World. Edition C. Siefkes, Berlin, 2007. ISBN 978-3-940736-00-0.
  2. German translation: Christian Siefkes. Beitragen statt tauschen. Materielle Produktion nach dem Modell Freier Software. AG SPAK Bücher, Neu-Ulm, 2008. ISBN 978-3-930830-99-2. Full text:

Important links:

  1. Old wiki site from Christian Siefkes, at
  2. Posts tagged as peer-economy from the Keimform Blog (contains articles in German and English).