From the Theory of Peer Production to the Production of Peer Production Theory

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  • Article: From the theory of peer production to the production of peer production theory. By Michel Bauwens. Journal of Peer Production, Issue #1: Productive Negation, 2012



The object of this article is to give an interpretation of the ideological positioning of various movements and intellectual groupings and individuals within the ‘left field’ of peer to peer theory production. What we understand under the concept of “the Production of Peer Production Theory” are the various attempts to make sense of peer production, both in terms of its place in the current dominant economic system of capitalism, and in terms of its future potential. The author, as founder of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives, has an obvious stake in this, but we aim for a fair synthesis. By contrasting the various positions, we also hope to clarify the P2P Foundation’s own particular interpretation and its political positioning. Part One: A critical survey of peer theory producing individuals and collectives

Main Text

Michel Bauwens:

Amongst the movements discussed below are the following:

§ progressive liberal interpretations such as those of Yochai Benkler, who discusses ‘commons-based peer production’ in his classic treatment, The Wealth of Networks

§ the work of the Oekonux community, which shows diversity but we choose Stefan Meretz’s summary of the ‘patterns of peer production’, as an exemplary treatment

§ the work of Dmytri Kleiner, mutualist and self-styled ‘venture communist’, in his book-length essay, the Telekommunisten Manifesto

§ the work of authors like Massimo De Angelis and George Caffentzis (respectively editors of The Commoner and Midnight Notes) and their stress on the anti-capitalist common

This is of course insufficient to describe the whole field. For example, we will not discuss the interpretations of post-autonomist interpretations such as those of Toni Negri and Michael Hardt in their trilogy, Empire – Multitudes – Commonwealth.

1. Yochai Benkler: peer production as an adjunct to the market

Yochai Benkler is firmly rooted in the progressive wing of the liberal tradition (left or social ‘liberalism’) with strong personal roots in the ‘socialist-communally’ inspired Kibbutzim movement in Israel.

We would characterize the main argument as stating that the deep lowering of transaction/coordination/communication costs, creates the possibility for a new mode of production next to the market and the firm, which produces value through ‘social allocation’.However, for Benkler, the new modality exists ‘in addition’ and in complementary with market dynamics. At no point is there a suggestion that peer production may be the core of a radically transformed social order, which would no longer be orientated around a capitalist logic. However, Yochai Benkler does believe peer production brings with it many social innovations that favour positive values and practices such as liberty, equality and diversity, and therefore merits support and promotion. Yochai Benkler has a strong ethically grounded point of view with priority concerns for human rights and how they are enabled through digital technology. We would characterize Yochai Benkler’s vision as a reformist or meliorist approach, seeking to improve and balance some of the negative aspects of capitalism through increased peer production dynamics.

2. Oekonux: free software as a germ form that is prefigurative of a peer production society

The commonality of this initially German-born online community with participants like Stefan Merten, Stefan Meretz and Christian Siefkes is that free software production is a full mode of production that is born within capitalism but destined to supersede it, based on a understanding of germ form theory. Stefan Meretz’s article for CSPP, describing ten patterns of peer production, is in our opinion paradigmatic for the broad consensus at work in a otherwise diverse and international intellectual community. The description of Meretz considers free software as a full mode of production, prefigurative of a wider transformation of the current capitalist mode of production. In that article, the author models the non-capitalist characteristics of peer production in a rather abstract way, considering peer production as an autonomous mode of value creation within capitalism, without much consideration of how it is concretely embedded in market society. While this aspect is occasionally discussed, it is not discussed in the article, but we feel it is symptomatic of a general issue with Oekonux theorizing on this matter.

In our interpretation and critique of the Oekonux positioning, while recognizing that the post-capitalist patterns are real characteristics of peer production communities, they are not sufficient to consider current peer production as a real autonomous mode of production.

Our main counter-argument is this: under capitalist conditions, peer production is not capable of self-reproduction and therefore not a full mode of production or value creation. We make an important distinction between the self-reproduction capability of a peer production project as a whole, and the social reproduction at the individual level. The reason is that there is no real universal possiblity for the reproduction of the human life of peer producers under capitalist conditions.

On the collective level, we can see that peer production occurs when a pool of voluntary contributors can create commons-oriented value, under conditions of participatory governance, i.e. through the social, and not market or hierarchical, allocation of productive resources. This can occur on a collective level, but only if we abstract from the need for the social reproduction of the individuals who contribute. Therefore, peer production can only happen if the individual peer producers obtain livelyhoods outside the commons. Typically for the embeddedness of current peer production n the market economy, while the value will be created in the commons, by contributing to a commons of knowledge, software code, or design, contributors will need a livelyhood from outside the commons. Either through public subsidies, independent market activities, or through reception of salaries. In other words, generally speaking, while value is created in the commons, it is captured outside the commons, in the capitalist marketplace, and it is only this external funding of the individual contributors, which allows peer production to occur on a long-term basis. Because of this dependency (which is of course a co-dependency since the capitalist market also needs the positive externalities of the social cooperation that occurs in peer production), there is no autonomous social reproduction within the commons itself, and at most, peer production is a proto-mode of production. Because of this evacuation of the core fact of mutual dependency, Oekonux theorizing offers no practical path for advancement of peer production and it tends to ignore the ‘corruption’ of peer production under capitalist conditions.

3. Dmytri Kleiner’s Venture Communism

Dmytri Kleiner’s approach is rooted in market-accepting but anti-capitalist mutualism and in a continued close reading of 19th century political economy, which includes, but is not excluvely based on Marx as it also makes a diverse use of Ricardo and the anarchist economic approaches of the era.

Kleiner offers the most radical critique of peer production as it currently exists, and in particular of the Oekonux approach. For Kleiner, but we believe he is wrong in this, not only is free software not peer production, which is impossible under capitalist conditions, but is a mere mode of distribution undertaken in the interest of capitalism itself. For Kleiner, peer production can only occur if commoners also own the common stock of production.

Kleiner proposes that peer producers would create common stock cooperatives, and use a specific licence, the Peer Production or Copyfarleft license, to protect their shared innovation commons from private appropriation by capitalist forces. Hence, Kleiner proposes a semi-free non-commercial license, which, while it may slow down the expansion of the particular commons using it, has the key advantage of creating a real counter-economy, in which the various open innovation commons are linked with a concrete counter-economy, which would include new peer to peer funding solutions (i.e. venture communism).

Our paradoxical position is that while we disagree with Kleiner’s analysis, we do agree that his solutions offer a way forward which is compatible with the P2P Foundation approach. Our contrasting peer production IS a proto-mode of production, which means that indeed value is created in a radically different way in peer production, but that it’s lack of self-reproduction capabilities makes it dependent on capitalism. And Kleiner’s strategy is exactly what can make it independent and capable of self-reproduction since its combination with common-stock physical production entities, would guarantee the self-reproduction capability of individuals and collectives contributing to the commons. The key is to create non-capitalist, post-capitalist, anti-capitalist production entities that are owned by the commoners and peer producers themselves.

For us, despite a mistaken premise, Kleiner avoids the passeist implications of the Oekonux approach, offering a concrete way forward. Like with the P2P Foundation’s approach, Kleiner also recognizes the continuation of the politics of class, as long as we live in a class-based society. Even with really existing peer production practices, we can never really be beyond it, under the current social and economic conditions.

4. George Caffentzis and the Anti-capitalist commons

According to authors like George Caffentzis and Massimo de Angelis, there are two kinds of commons, i.e. anti-capitalist commons which exist to produce value in a different way, and which function against capitalism, and commons which are used by capital for its own self-reproduction and act in favour of capitalism, and therefore, against the interests of the commoners and peer producers. Politically, pro-capitalist commons are represented by the neo-Hardinian school of Elinor Ostrom and other researchers of IASC, who are criticised for their lack of anti-capitalism.

According to the P2P Foundation approach, while the basic premise of the existence of capitalism-compatible commons is correct, the making of a radical dichotomy, based on the necessity to struggle against capitalist commons, is absolutely counter-productive.

Our critique shows the specificity of the approach of the P2P Foundation, that peer producing commons are complex social processes which contain within themselves aspects that can be both compatible with capitalism, and contain germs that can transforms the commons in a post-capitalist reality. Our approach stresses that it is more productive to focus on the post-capitalist potential of peer production, and make them real and concrete, than to fight against commons that are compatible with commons. In our opinion, these aspects cannot be radically separated. For example, a free software commons can be beneficial both to humanity, the participating worker-contributors and generate a capitalist-compatible market economy around it. It makes no sense to call for a fight against these contributors, it makes only sense to undertake efforts to make the commons more autonomous from profit-maximizing entities and the system as a whole. This can be done through strategies such as those proposed by Kleiner and the P2P Foundation.

Part Two: The P2P Foundation

Like Oekonux, the P2P Foundation is a collective marked by diversity, but it also has dominant personalities and themes, with a substantial influence of the author of this article, who is also the initiator and founder of the initiative. So, when I make claims here below, and above, on the ‘P2P Foundation’s approach, they are my own approach, not necessarily the approach of every participant in our community and knowledge commons.

In the interpretation of the P2P Foundation, social change occurs because proto-modes of production, which are initially embedded in a dominant economic system, and benefit that system, become gradually more efficient, and capable of self-reproduction, and therefore create the conditions for a phase transition to occur, in which the new emergent mode of production, achieves its independence over the formerly dominant model. In the transition phase, multiple hybrid expressions are unavoidable, and crucially, it is only because the older domimant model needs the new emergent model for its own survival, that it can emerge and grow and eventually replace the older domimant model.

For the P2P Foundation, an integration needs to occur between the new prototype model, i.e. the field of peer production proper, as it emerges in multiple social fields and attempts to become more autonomous; the social mobilization of progressive social forces (i.e. politics and even ‘revolution’ are crucial remaining aspects of social evolution), and political/policy oriented movements that are capable of creating new institutions.

The P2P Foundation aims first of all to be knowledge commons and observatory of these multiple movements and practices, and by showing what exists, offer new possiblities of mutual alignment. The second aim is to create a community of interpreters and P2P theory producers who can increase mutual sense-making around the knowledge commons. In other words, our aim is ‘peer produce theory about peer production’. Through this activity of observation, dialogue, theory building, we hope to stimulate new and better p2p practices and to offer collective learnig.


§ we differ from the Benklerite approach because we believe peer production has the potential to succeed capitalism as the core value and organisational model of a post-capitalist society

§ we differ from Oekonux by stressing the lack of autonomy of peer production under current conditions we differ from the Telekommunisten approach by stressing it a proto-mode of production

§ we differ from the Caffentzis approach by stressing a post-capitalist approach centered on the autonomy and self-reproduction needs of peer producers, rather than guided by a core hostility to capitalism

But, the P2P Foundation also has an integrative and integral approach, this means that despite differences, we seek commonality around aspects of our friends and allies that we may differ from in other aspects.

This means that it is also important to recognize that,

§ we agree with Benkler and similar approaches that peer production improves on the current conditions of capitalism, i.e. we generally support the spread of commons and p2p-oriented practices

§ we agree with Oekonux that peer production carries within itself the seeds of a post-capitalist value system

§ we agree with Kleiner’s proposal for a peer-based counter-economy

§ we agree with Caffentzis that we need a preferential treatment towards autonomous commons approaches that create a counter-logic within the present system

The P2P Foundation is not a political and social movement, only a collaborative to create increased understanding of the emancipatory potential of peer production, and to promote the knowledge and insight in what works for augmenting the potential for a phase transition towards a peer-production based society and economy. What we aim for is to offer a continuously evolving knowledge base, and to offer for debate a synthetic interpretation of the evolution towards more broader acceptance and practice of p2p-modes of production.

Our interpretive synthesis is evolving itself. Originally, we were probably closer to an Oekonuxian understanding, but an increased experience with the embeddedness of current peer production within capitalism has generated a greater sympathy for the positioning of Dmytri Kleiner.