Parallel Visions of Peer Production

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Special issue of Capital and Class. Edited by Phoebe Moore and Athina Karatzogianni. Spring 2009.


Editorial at


"This special issue engages with the work of academics and practitioners working in the areas of new media, politics, the global political economy, business, international copyright law, information technology and computer science, digital media, sociology and cybercultural movements, as well as with the new forms of organisations and discussions emerging in organisational-theory-related fields. The peer-to-peer politico-economic model of production is currently having a great impact on business, media and global politics to the extent that social-democratic movements have taken notice of the potential of the new technoscape for social change, just as governments are engaging more and more with the financial benefits, challenges and threats of these informal communities and skills-development environments. Specifically, and relating the title of this issue, the peer-to-peer model is about passionate production. One of the most relevant examples of peer-to-peer production is constituted by the open-source ( and free software movements ( These forms of egoless programming facilitate and enable communities to build on each other's code, software and applications with remarkable results that can be used freely and improved upon by anyone. The networked environment through which these communities operate enables the development of technology that competes with that of multinational corporations like Microsoft. Distributed using a powerful, simple organisational model, free software facilitates local economies, harnessing innovation and allocating scarce resources in a sustainable fashion.

New economies of production?

A range of new economies can be theorised through the lens of peer-to-peer production networks, which are becoming increasingly influential in their defiance of the status quo in market based economies. In his piece 'The ethical economy', Adam Arvidsson notes a new economy that has been taking an 'ethical' dimension, in particular in the realm of informational capitalism, and looks into the way in which resistance to capital emerges from new forms of cooperation within capitalist organisation, provocatively asking, who decides whether ethics can exist within capitalism? Arvidsson looks at Marx's concept of the 'General Intellect', or the idea that as capitalism develops, cooperation expands simultaneously with the expansion of capitalism in the subsumption of everyday lives, and cooperation becomes a source of value in itself. This shared sense of value could lead to the re-politicisation of capitalism.

In the subsequent piece, 'Knowledge-based society, peer production and the common good', Cosma Orsi looks at the new economy of reciprocity in his account of its alternative approach to production and distribution. Beyond merely accepting the logic of having to correct market failures, as a liberal egalitarian welfare model proposes, Orsi claims that the primary aim of the political economy of reciprocity is to bring the notions of mutual cooperation for the common good back into the very heart of economic rationality. Orsi calls for a model of development according to according to which a more fundamental role should be given to civil society, rather than its being geared around the market--state pair. Such a model entails the existence of a market economy within which profit-oriented enterprises operate; a non-market economy within which governmental agencies have the mandate to Fairly redistribute both social power and material resources; and finally, an economic domain of reciprocal solidarity which is social and associative. Apparently, in order to implement such an approach to wealth creation, it will he necessary that political, social and economic institutions should not assign the prius logico to utilitarian economic rationality. Rather, they should endorse a model of development for which concepts such as economic efficiency, profit and competitiveness would cease to be the sole guiding stars of economic activity.

Organisation and labour struggle?

This section looks at the people involved in peer-to-peer and open-source software. George Dafermos and Johan Soderberg, in their piece 'The hacker movement as a continuation of labour struggle', make an inquiry into peer production based on large free/opensource software projects such as GNU/Linux, Apache, Mozilla and FreeBSD. Not only are free software developers producing computer technology, but in the process they are also constructing an alternative model for labour organisation. The authors argue that this practice has the potential to abolish the theoretical as well as the historical basis of alienated work.

Steffen Boehm and Chris Land capture this argument in 'No measure for culture? Value in the new economy' through an exploration of the articulation of the value of investment in culture and the arts, through a critical discourse analysis of policy documents, reports and commentary since 1997. They argue that, in this period, discourses around the value of culture have moved from a focus on the direct economic contributions of the culture industries to their indirect economic benefits. Indirect benefits are discussed under three main headings: creativity and innovation, employability, and social inclusion. These in turn are analysed in terms of three forms of capital: human, social and cultural. The paper concludes with an analysis of this discourse.

In the final article of the section, Phoebe Moore and Paul A. Taylor look at the potential for open source to become an alternative arena for production--one that overcomes values inherent in post-Fordist capitalism, in particular those that proselytise individual self-improvement as being linked to employability and learning. In their piece, 'Exploitation of the self in community-based software production: Workers' freedoms or firm foundations?', Moore and Taylor ask whether the specific ingredients of peer-to-peer production lead to worker organisation in ways that challenge dominant paradigms of capital. Using a series of interviews with programmers, they demonstrate that peer-to-peer production does not overcome the restrictive elements of capitalism, such as competition and exploitation of the surplus value of labour, since although many peer-to-peer programmers participate in peer-to-peer communities for no remuneration at all, they may do so for the sake of re-entry into the labour market as employed programmers, often within the mainstream monopoly, Microsoft.

Social change

In his paper 'Class and capital in peer production', Michael Bauwens engages with the meaning of peer-to-peer for social change, new life practices and post-capitalist/post-democratic politics in relation to the emerging ethical economy. Following a review of the basic concepts, Bauwens addresses the political implications of peer production, in particular in terms of class and what it means in terms of social change strategies. Can the forces associated with the new life and economic practices of peer production, governance and property be the motor of a change towards a post-capitalist, post-democratic and post-ownership-based form of political economy and human civilisation? The essay also examines how the emerging ethical economy of esteem is related to monetisation strategies, thereby creating a crisis of value.

In 'Cyberconflict at the edge of chaos: Cryptohierarchies and self-organisation in the open-source movement', Athina Karatzogianni and George Michaelides argue that open source and peer-to-peer technologies, by encouraging personalised free access and the production of news, information and more software for the user, citizen and consumer, are creating the impression that another direct, networked, empowered and democratic society is possible. Nevertheless, despite significant efforts and progress towards proprietary systems, the claims for the revolutionary potential of these practices that have been made in the broader global political landscape by political theorists and activists alike, ought to be looked at more soberly. This paper examines open source and peer-to-peer environments, looking at issues of cryptohierarchies, conflict, control and group polarisation in an effort to understand whether equality, direct participation, decentralisation and autonomy are part of the actual everyday life of these communities, or just part of their organisational philosophies.

In the same vein, in 'A definition and criticism of cybercommunism', Tere Vaden and Juha Suoranta discuss the conditions of restraint and freedom in open-source communities and provide empirical examples to support their thesis that new ethics or modes of knowledge production have initiated but also reasserted the very old-fashioned trends of profit-making and the colonialisation of knowledge. Whether celebrators of flux or prophets of cybercommunism, hackers still need to eat, and they need electricity for their machines of immaterial labour. If we analyse the current trends in some of the crown jewels of the free/open-source movement, such as GNU/Linux development and Wikipedia, we quickly notice that not only is a new ethics or mode of knowledge production initiated but also very old-fashioned trends of profit-making and the colonialisation of knowledge are reasserted. Consequently, for a more full definition and a more precise critique of cybercommunism, we need to pay attention to the various levels of freedom with which self-organising knowledge is conditioned."