From the Communism of Capital to a Capital for the Commons

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Michel Bauwens:

The labor/p2p/commons movements today are faced with a paradox.

On the one hand we have a re-emergence of the cooperative movement and worked-owned enterprises, but they suffer from structural weaknesses. Cooperative entities work for their own members, are reluctant to accept new cooperators that would share existing profits and benefits, and are practicioners of the same proprietary knowledge and artificial scarcities as their capitalist counterparts. Even though they are internally democratic, they often participate in the same dynamics of capitalist competition which undermines their own cooperative values.

On the other hand, we have an emergent field of open and commons-oriented peer production in fields such as free software, open design and open hardware, which do create common pools of knowledge for the whole of humanity, but at the same time, are dominated by both start-ups and large multinational enterprises using the same commons.

Thus, we need a new convergence or synthesis, a ‘open cooperativism’, that combines both commons-oriented open peer production models, with common ownership and governance models such as those of the cooperatives and the solidarity economic models. What follows is a more detailed argument on how such transition could be achieved.

The Main Argument

Today we have a paradox, the more communistic the sharing license we use in the peer production of free software or open hardware, the more capitalistic the practice, with for example the Linux commons becoming a corporate commons enriching IBM and the like … it works in a certain way, and seems acceptable to most free software developers, but is it the only way?

Indeed, the General Public License and its variants, allow anyone to use and modify the software code (or design), as long as the changes are also put back in the common pool under the same conditions for further users. This is in fact technically ‘communism’ as defined by Marx: from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs, but which then paradoxically allows multinationals to use the free software code for profit and capital accumulation. The result is that we do have an accumulation of immaterial commons, based on open input, participatory process, and commons-oriented output, but that it is subsumed to capital accumulation. It is at present not possible, or not easy, to have social reproduction (i.e. livelihoods) within the sphere of the commons. Hence the free software and culture movements, however important they are as new social forces and expression new social demands, are also in essence ‘liberal’. This is not only acknowledged by its leaders such as Richard Stallman, but also by anthropological studies like those of Gabriela Coleman. Not so tongue-in-cheek we could say they are liberal-communist and communist-liberal movements, which create a ‘communism of capital’.

Is there an alternative ? We believe there is, and this would be to replace non-reciprocal licenses, i.e. they do not demand a direct reciprocity from its users, to one based on reciprocity. Call it a switch from ‘communist’, to ‘socialist’ licenses’.

This is the choice of the Peer Production License as designed and proposed by Dmytri Kleiner; it is not to be confused with the Creative Commons non commercial license, as the logic is different.

The logic of the CC-NC is to offer protection to individuals reluctant to share, as they do not wish a commercialization of their work that would not reward them for their labor. Thus the Creative Commons ‘non-commercial’ license stops the further economic development based on this open and shared knowledge, and keeps it entirely in the not-for-profit sphere.

The logic of the PPL is to allow commercialization, but on the basis of a demand for reciprocity. It is designed to enable and empower a counter-hegemonic reciprocal economy that combines commons that are open to all that contribute, while charging a license fee for the the for-profit companies who want to use without contributing. Not that much changes for the multinationals in practice, they can still use the code if they contribute, as IBM does with Linux, and for those who don’t , they would pay a license fee, a practice they are used to. It’s practical effect would be to direct a stream of income from capital to the commons, but its main effect would be ideological, or if you like, value-driven.

The enterpreneurial coalitions that are linked around a PPL commons would be explicitely oriented towards their contributions to the commons, and the alternative value system that it represents. From the point of view of the peer producers or commoners, i.e. the communities of contributors to the common pool, it would allow them to create their own cooperative entities, in which profit would be subsumed to the social goal of sustaining the commons and the commoners. Even the participating for-profit companies would consciously contribute under a new logic. It links the commons to a enterpreneurial coalition of ethical market entities (coops and other models) and keeps the surplus value entirely within the sphere of commoners/cooperators instead of leaking out to the multinationals. In other words, through this convergence or rather combination of a commons model for the abundant immaterial resources, and a reciprocity-based model for the ‘scarce’ material resources, the issue of livelihoods and social reproduction would be solved, and surplus value is kept inside the commons sphere itself. It is the cooperatives that would, through their cooperative accumulation, fund the production of immaterial commons, because they would pay and reward the peer producers associated with them. In this way, peer production would move from a proto-mode of production, unable to perpetuate itself on its own outside capitalism, to a autonomous and real mode of production. It creates a counter-economy that can be the basis for reconstituting a ‘counter-hegemony’ with a for-benefit circulation of value, which allied to pro-commons social movements, could be the basis of the political and social transformation of the political economy. Hence we move from a situation in which the communism of capital is dominant, to a situation in which we have a ‘capital for the commons’, increasingly insuring the self-reproduction of the peer production mode.

The PPL is used experimentally by Guerilla Translations! and is being discussed in various places, such as for example, in France, in the open agricultural machining and design communities.

There is also a specific potential, inside the commons-oriented ethical economy, such as the application of open book accounting and open supply chains, would allow a different value circulation, whereby the stigmergic mutual coordination that already works at scale for immaterial cooperation and production, would move to the coordination of physical production, creating post-market dynamics of allocation in the physical sphere. Replacing both the market allocation through the price signal, and central planning, this new system of material production would allow for massive mutual coordination instead, enabling a new form of ‘resource-based economics’

Finally, this whole system can be strengthened by creating commons-based venture funding, so as to create material commons, as proposed by Dmytri Kleiner. In this way, the machine park itself is taken out of the sphere of capital accumulation. In this proposed system, cooperatives needing capital for machinery, would post a bond, and the other coops in the system would fund the bond, and buy the machine for a commons in which both funders and users would be members. The interest paid on these loans would create a fund that would gradually be able to pay an increasing income to their members, constituting a new kind of basis income.

The new open cooperativism is substantially different from the older form. In the older form, internal economic democracy is accompanied by participation in market dynamics on behalf of the members, using capitalist competition. Hence a unwillingness to share profits and benefits with outsiders. There is no creation of the commons. We need a different model in which the cooperatives produce commons, and are statutorily oriented towards the creation of the common good, with multi-stakeholders forms of governance which include workers, users-consumers, investors and the concerned communities.

Today we have a paradox that open communities of peer producers are oriented towards the start-up model and are subsumed to the profit model, while the cooperatives remain closed, use IP, and do not create commons. In the new model of open cooperativism, a merger should occur between the open peer production of commons, and the cooperative production of value. The new open cooperativism integrates externalities, practices economic democracy, produces commons for the common good, and socializes its knowledge. The circulation of the common is combined with the process of cooperative accumulation, on behalf of the commons and its contributors. In the beginning, the immaterial commons field, following the logic of free contributions and universal use for everyone who needs it, would co-exist with a cooperative model for physical production, based on reciprocity. But as the cooperative model becomes more and more hyper-productive and is able to create sustainable abundance in material goods, the two logics would merge.

More Information

For an expanded, integrated version, see the article:

* Article: From the Communism of Capital to Capital for the Commons: Towards an Open Co-operativism. By Michel Bauwens, Vasilis Kostakis. Triple C, Vol 12, No 1 (2014)



Two prominent social progressive movements are faced with a few contradictions and a paradox. On the one side, we have a re-emergence of the co-operative movement and worker-owned enterprises which suffer from certain structural weaknesses. On the other, we have an emergent field of open and Commons-oriented peer production initiatives which create common pools of knowledge for the whole of humanity, but are dominated by start-ups and large multinational enterprises using the same Commons. Thus we have a paradox: the more communist the sharing license used in the peer production of free software or open hardware, the more capitalist the practice. To tackle this paradox and the aforementioned contradictions, we tentatively suggest a new convergence that would combine both Commons-oriented open peer production models with common ownership and governance models, such as those of the co-operatives and the solidarity economic models."