Raoul Victor on Naming the Peer Production Society
A name for a peer production-based society ?
This article and compilation by Raoul Victor reflects an on going discussion on the Oekonux mailing list concerning the proper name for a society centered around peer production. Amongst the alternatives discussed are 'graticism' and 'commonism'.
Christian Siefkes wrote (13aug09):
"So we're still faced with two very different futures, which Rosa Luxemburg contrasted as "socialism or barbarism" almost hundred years ago. Though nowadays, seeing that the reopening of the commons is an essential precondition for the positive alternative to appear, we might prefer to call it commonism instead."
The issue of giving a name to a "system" based on peer production principles has been dealt with recently, more or less directly, in the Oekonux list and also in a larger sphere. Especially through the discussions about the Kevin Kelly's article: "The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online", (22may09) 
About this article Stefan Meretz wrote (28may09):
"Btw: Kevin Kelly used the term 'socialism' too – crazy."
And Stefan Merten (4jun09): "Well, really an interesting article. Indeed, very Oekonuxian in spirit."
At another level, Mathieu O'Neil wrote (27may): "In general I have been thinking about what Oekonux is for.
My short answer: Oekonux aims to disseminate the idea that peer production is a valid alternative to capitalism." And Diego Saravia answered asking (27may): "Esclavism, feudalism, capitalism, p2p-ism?"
There are three interesting questions raised by these interventions:
- The meaning of the words "socialism" and "communism" (both words had a similar evolution).
- The pertinence to call socialist or communist a society fully based on peer production principles.
- The need and possibility to find a new word to name such a society.
A few words about these issues.
A whole book could be written (and that has probably been done) about the evolution of the meaning of these words. In short one can say that they appeared as expressions of a dream of a post-capitalist society and ended as synonymous of totalitarian forms of capitalism, state capitalism. Even Hitler used the word socialism for his cause.
At the origin, as a negation of capitalism, the different meanings of these words had in common to be opposed to the two most specific characteristics of capitalism: capital profit as the goal of production and wage-labor as the way to mediate the participation of the majority of producers.
The project, even if often nebulous, was generally identified with a society without classes, without exploiters and exploited, without private property of the means of production, where production would be oriented exclusively towards the satisfaction of human needs and where the participation of the population and the distribution of goods would follow the principle: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs".
Other important characteristics of the original concepts of socialism or communism were the ideas that workers have no fatherland, ("The workers have no country", says The Communist Manifesto; "The International will be the human race", says the famous song), and that in a classless society there would be no State. Marxist and Anarchist could strongly disagree about the need or not of a State apparatus in a period of transition, but they agreed on its absence in a full-developed non-capitalist society.
For many reasons, some relating to weaknesses and defeats of the workers movements, some relating to the manipulation skills of the ruling classes, the understanding of these words evolved dramatically until they could be used to name different forms of state controlled capitalism. It was the opposite of the original meaning.
Instead of production oriented towards humans needs, production remains oriented towards accumulation of capital, even if it is State capital, a huge share of the product being generally devoted to maintaining an unusually important military apparatus and a rich and powerful bureaucracy which controls and possesses collectively the means of production; instead of eliminating the wage system, this is generalized and the level of wages for most of the population is "equalized" to minimums; instead of internationalism and worldwide brotherhood, nationalism is exacerbated till its most absurd extremes ("Patria o muerte!"). Horrors like the Cambodian genocide under the Pol-Pot regime were made in the name of "socialism" or "communism".
Some "critical supporters" of that kind of regime argue that they were/are not really socialist or communist, but "steps towards" them. But historical evidence has violently showed that it has never been the case.
If one sticks to the original definition of socialism and communism , it is obvious that none of them has ever existed or even begun to exist. The identification of these terms with state-capitalist regimes appears then as one the greatest and most poisonous lies of the 20th century.
It must also be underscored that since the beginning of the corruption of the meaning of these terms, there have always been currents of Marxists or anarchists (generally minorities) which remained faithful to the original meanings of these words and permanently denounced the mystifications. Rosa Luxembourg, quoted by Siefkes (above) was one of them.
In any case, it is obvious that nowadays using the words socialism or communism without specifying the meaning given to them is source of important confusions.
Kevin Kelly's article reads:
"When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it's not unreasonable to call that socialism."
If one respects the original meaning of the word "socialism", and if one leaves apart the political aspects of the question, K. Kelly is correct. He could also had called that "communism".
Peer Production has developed in a universe where abundance prevails for most of its products. Digital goods being freely reproducible, the principles of private/excluding property and symmetric exchange are not only useless but also counter-productive. Original socialist/communist principles are also based on the possibility of abundance (of material goods in this case) and are thus basically the same. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs", for example, is a common practice in digital peer production. Peer production has in addition the specific quality of being international, without fatherlands and naturally worldwide oriented since the beginning.
The problem is that the meaning of the word socialism (or communism), for most of the population, is seldom the original one. It rather evokes social-democratic or Stalinists regimes. As Lawrence Lessig puts it in his criticisms to Kelly's article:
"So my argument against Kelly is that it is wrong to use a term (in the context of a Wired essay at least; a philosophy seminar would invoke a completely different set of ethics) that would be so completely misunderstood. We choose our words. We don't choose our meaning." (31may09) 
I understand Kelly's concern as I think it is useful to understand how peer production is the beginning of the concretization of an old dream of exploited and poor classes in history, as were the socialist/communist ideas. Even if for the moment peer production concerns essentially the specific area of digital goods, such a recognition can only be a stimulant to strive for its expansion to the rest of social production. Maybe, one day in the future, the meaning of socialism and communism will be again, in most of the world population's mind, the original one. But that would not be for tomorrow. In the meantime, at a "popular" level, when there is not enough time or place to explain, the use of this words, without precisions, is inevitably confusing.
3. The need and possibility to find a new word to name a peer production "system".
If socialism and communism are problematical, is it necessary to find a new "ism" to name the system which would prevail in a society based on peer production principles? As Christian Siefkes (see above), I think the answer is yes. Even if words may become dangerous by the ambiguities in their meaning, as we have seen, we cannot think without them. "In the beginning was the word". For human beings, a collective project can hardly be devised, worked-out without naming it. A name helps to concentrate the wills, the thoughts, the actions of a movement in a given direction.
The word "commonism", proposed by Christian Siefkes (and Stefan Meretz) refers indeed to one of the most specific and post-capitalistic aspects of Peer Production: to be commons based and commons oriented. It also gives the idea of a continuity with the old dreams. But it is obvious that it echoes the word "communism", especially verbally, and has thus the same disorienting effects.
Since some time, I have been thinking that something like "gratisism" could be a solution. "Gratis is the process of providing goods or services without monetary compensation. It is often referred to in English as 'free of charge'. ", says Wikipedia in English. And it adds: "The term gratis in English comes from the Latin word "gratis" meaning "for thanks". In several languages, including Italian, French, Romanian, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, German, Polish, Bahasa Indonesia and Afrikaans it is the equivalent to "for free".
I think that a word based on "gratis" has interesting advantages, but also weaknesses.
The advantages are of two kinds: theoretical and "communicative". >From a theoretical point of view it has the virtue to puts the emphasis on the overcoming of the kernel of capitalism: the law of exchange value. You don't sell, you don't buy. Without exchange value, the wage system and the accumulation of capital become nonsenses. Use-value, usefulness as the object of production instead of exchange value is highlighted. From a "communicative" point of view, I see three obvious advantages:
1. The word gratis has an immediate meaning for every one. Even if you are not familiar with the web and digital goods, you know that your best relationships with others (friends, love, relatives) are, generally, "gratis".
2. The word "gratisism" is new. It does not suffer from the weight of "the tradition of all dead generations". The continuity with the past is reinvented from a new point of view. 3. Last and... least, the word "gratis" has the same meaning in more than a dozen languages.
But I also see a weakness: "gratisism" may be identified with practices that are "gratis" only apparently. Two of them are particularly frequent and remain totally in a capitalistic logic. One concerns the goods financed by commercial advertising, very present in the web (Google is only one of the most spectacular examples). Here, the good is in reality payed by the buyer of the advertized products. Furthermore, advertising relays on one of the darkest aspects of the 20th century mind manipulation: "A lie repeated a thousand times becomes a truth", (Goebbels). The second false "gratisism" concerns the public services which are sometimes said "gratis" but are in fact payed by the tax payer.
This is not the kind of “graticism” we want. Commercial advertising and taxes are meaningless in a world without money.
I don't know how disorienting that can be, but there is here obviously a problem. But, will we find a perfect term?
One may say that it is a waste of time to try to find a word to name something that can only be the product of the action of billions of people all over the world, that the movement itself will find the most appropriated terms. Which is true. But the problem is that we are also part of that movement.
- Socialism and communism have not always had identical meanings. For example, socialism has some times been associated to a previous step towards communism. During the first World War the word "communist" was used by the left wing of the workers movement to distinguish themselves from the majority of the "socialist" (social-democratic) parties that had called in every country to participate to the war. After the Russian Revolution and the foundation of the Third International, also called the Communist International, the communist parties where in general much closer to the USSR and related regimes than the "socialist". During the "Cold war", the Socialist International regrouped parties associated to the Western (pro USA) bloc against the parties affiliated to the Komintern (Communist International, pro USSR), etc. But the evolution of the meaning of both words suffered an analogous dramatic corruption. To a certain extent, something similar happened to Christianity which started as a "commons based" religion (the first Christians used to put in common their belongings) and evolved into one of the strongest pillars of the inequality-based systems: slavery, feudalism, capitalism.
Hi Mathieu, Stefan Mn, Robin, Nathan and all
ON 15SEP09, MATHIEU WROTE:
"THE PROBLEM FOR ME IS SIMPLE: IF ONE WERE TO SAY THAT A NAME / SLOGAN IS NECESSARY, THE NAME HAS TO SOUND GOOD. I'M SORRY, BUT I CANT FIND AN AESTHETIC / COMMUNICATIONAL PLEASURE / PUNCH IN THE TERM "GRATISIST" - TO ME IT JUST DOES NOT SOUND RIGHT. COMMONIST MAY BE WRONG SUBSTANTIALLY BUT IT HAS A BETTER RING IN MY VIEW. "
RV: I don't think that the "sound" of the word is such an important question. Of course within some limits: a word impossible or too difficult to pronounce, for example, would be a hindrance. But the sound of a term is greatly induced by its content, its meaning and its use.
It remembers me the story of that very young writer who wanted to find a beautiful pseudonym to sign his writings, a pseudonym which "sounds great". But he had the feeling that all the best ones had already been taken: Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante... Shakespeare sounds great not because of the musical composition of its syllables but because Shakespeare wrote great things.
I think that if the meaning of a word is really necessary and useful, its "sound" will improve as it used by more and more people.
MATHIEU DOESN'T GIVE A PRECISE OPINION ABOUT THE NEED OF A NAME FOR A PEER-PRODUCTION-BASED SOCIETY. STEFAN MERTEN DOES: "I AGREE THAT IT WOULD BE VERY USEFUL TO FIND A NAME FOR SUCH A SOCIETY"(6OCT09) ROBIN UPTON IS ALSO VERY CLEAR: "IT IS WORTH SPENDING TIME TO THINK OF SUITABLE NAMES, SINCE THIS DECIDES HOW PEOPLE CATEGORISE STUFF, AND THEREFORE WHICH FRAMES THEY APPLY TO IT."(7OCT09)
Stefan proposes some conditions for such a word:
"We can at least try [to find a word] and may be we can reach some sort of agreement. I think the goal would be to find a term
- which sounds well
- IS NOT TOO WRONG / MISUNDERSTANDABLE
- IS NOT BURDENED WITH HISTORICAL MEANING."
I AGREE WITH THESE CONDITIONS, RELATIVISING THE FIRST ONE AS I ALREADY DID. I WOULD ADD A 4THONE: THE CAPACITY TO BE TRANSLATED EASILY IN OTHER LANGUAGES.
Dealing with the second condition ('is not too wrong') Stefan makes a criticism to the term "gratisism": "However, another important characteristic - production based on Selbstentfaltung - is not caught by gratisism."
It is true that the precise concept of Selbsentaltung is not caught by gratisism. But it may be not so far. Gratisism means that you get products for free, but it also means that you produce for free. Producing for free can be the case for a forced-labor camp, which is here obviously out of scope. Here it means producing "for the pleasure". Pleasure is part of the concept of Selbsentfaltung.
STEFAN MN: "NOT TOO LONG AGO IN OEKONUX WE AGREED ON USING THE TERM "PEER PRODUCTION" AS DESCRIBING THE MORE GENERAL PHENOMENON WE ARE WITNESSING. "
RV: Peer production is a nice term and we were right to adopt it. However I think it has two small weaknesses:
- the meaning of the term is hardly understandable for people not used to the reality of "peer" relations and the term "production" doesn't say much by itself; fortunately the understanding of "peer" will inevitably develop as the "peer" practices expand.
- it is not always easy to translate. For example, in the French Wikipedia it is translated by "travail collaboratif", that is "collaborative work". Collaborative is really vague and work is wrong since producing for pleasure is not work. When I write in French I prefer to use the English term itself.
Stefan Mn: « Contrary to "gratisism" the term "peer production" focuses very much on the production aspect. In a way these both terms complement each other nicely. A combination of both would thus probably not be too wrong (2.) and not burdened with meaning (3.). But I can't think of a term which sounds well (1.): "peergratisism"? "gratispeerism"? "peeratism"? Well, the last one sounds sexy ;-)."
RV: Well, as I already said, I am not convinced that the question of sound is so important. But I find interesting the term "peer-gratisism", because it allows to specify that we are not dealing with gratisism based on financing by advertising, nor by taxes, As Robin puts it: "Familiar words make it easier for people to understand (or to think they understand, which may not be good)."Gratisism is not a familiar word, but "gratis" is. And, familiarly, many gratis products are financed by advertising or taxes. Adding peer to gratisism may help to prevent a misleading understanding.
"I use 'altruism' to describe my work, since this word still has many positive connotations and a suitable etymology."
RV: Altruism is indeed opposite to business, to the capitalist logic and more generally to the commercial practices, since it means giving without waiting for a reward. But as such it tends to be associated to the religious vision of "sacrifice". The idea of giving, producing for pleasure, which is a crucial aspect of peer production, is, or may be absent.
Wikipedia (English) says:
"Altruism is selfless concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and a core aspect of various religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Sikhism, and many others."
Referring to Stefan's conditions, I would say that “altruism” is weak for the second (is not too wrong / misunderstandable) and the third ( is not burdened with historical meaning).
Hi Stefan and all,
Stefan Merten wrote (7oct09):
SM: "Thank you for this vision. Indeed it is a very great vision worth spelling out in more detail. And I share that it is about time to create a more concrete image - see the drawing board initiative."
RV: ;-) The board initiative is a good list of issues. To draw a realistic vision, not based on wishful thinking, of what a post-capitalist society could be is IMHO one of the most useful things we can do today, by these times of expanding historical pessimism.
SM: "What came to my mind when reading this was a comparison with the plan based economies in the states of the so-called real socialism. And also a comparison with market based economies would be interesting. I think it would be interesting to create such a comparison in detail."
RV: Yes, I agree. "Determinatio est negatio". To try to know what something is, consists also in trying to know what it is not.
RV (quoted by SM): "For most of commonly needed products, we could imagine sorts of 'super-markets' (we should say 'super non-markets') where goods are free/gratis."
SM: "In German we once had the nice word play of the "kassenlose Gesellschaft" (society without cash desks) instead of the "klassenlose Gesellschaft" (classless society). Unfortunately this doesn't work in English :-( ."
RV: A nice wordplay indeed. ---
RV (quoted by SM): "The nature and quantities of the products taken (instead of bought) would be instantaneously registered and the data sent by Internet to centers at different levels (villages, local, regional, worldwide)."
SM: "Technically you could solve this in various ways. The important point is that consumption is registered at the point of distribution. That is a very fine-granular method of gathering this data. In fact nowadays it is probably common in shops where the cash desk recognizes exactly the product you are just buying."
Rv: Yes. With the RFID tags (Radio Frequency IDentification) that begins to be made without "cashiers" or any human intervention. In the capitalist reality there are two accountings: one "physical", counting kilograms, liters, meters, etc., that is the use value of things that have been taken; the other is monetary, counting the money obtained by the sales of them, that is their exchange value.
In a full-developped PP based society, in a "gratisist" society, the second one is no use. The new technologies allow to fulfill in real time, without having recourse to the exchange and market mechanisms the function of information which the market defenders pretend only the markets can give. In fact, it is a qualitatively different information, since contrary to the market it doesn't take into account the "solvent" wants, the want of the people who can pay, but the wants of all the consumers. In addition, the gratis-distribution stores could have electronic counters where consumers could permanently express new wants, new ways to improve the products, etc. That data would be, as the data concerning the products taken, collected and processed in real time.
Beyond the accounting aspect, the most interesting here is the fact that the decisions about what and which quantity has to be produced can be made for most of them almost directly by the consumers themselves, according to their wants.
The "final user innovation" takes here all its meaning. In the capitalistic world, where the means of production are in the hands of a minority and the goal of production is profit, the Von Hippel's concept is conceived as a way for corporations to reduce their costs of marketing and R&D, improving their profit. In a PP based society, the end-user's satisfaction is the real and unique goal of production and it is natural that the end-users become, at all levels, the main innovator, the main decision maker. This is particularly important when dealing with the production of means of production (machines, factories, etc.) for which the individual producers are the final users. (See below).
RV (quoted by SM): "Human work needs would also be permanently and instantaneously put at disposal of all human beings. Any person wishing to participate in social production has thus the possibility to choose what she wants to do, or something close to it, as in Free Software. (voluntary self-aggregation)."
SM: "Here is a big difference to Christian's vision which requires people to choose. Of course I prefer your vision :-) ."
RV: I am not sure I understand your sentence. I presume that you refer to Christian's idea that the production of a peer-project is "shared" between the "participants" in the project. Which means that the kind of activity a producer can do is determined by the kind of product she wants. If you need a car (example given by Christian) you need to participate in a "car-producing project" or in a project associated to a "distribution pool" which includes a "car-producing project".
The problem is that the permanent development of the division of labor, the increased complexity of interrelations between producers all over the world makes such a vision unrealistic. Less and less products are made from the beginning to the end in only one place or even one country. Even for simple products, even for agricultural or hand-crafted goods, the seeds, the plugs, the instruments, the electricity, etc. may come from very far and different places.
Globalization, pushed by profitability needs and the lowering of the transportation costs, has pursued that tendency to absurd limits: agricultural products, for example, are often imported from the other side of the planet into places where they could be easily produced. In in a full developed worldwide peer society such absurdities would not have any reason to exist, but the worldwide dimension of cooperation in production will certainly remain and even be developed in many aspects.
In these conditions it is meaningless to link the right to have access to a product to the participation in the production of that specific product.
Christian is aware of the problem. In his book, he writes:
"The larger a distribution pool becomes, the better for the participants, since any additional projects increase their choices, both in regard to the tasks to perform and the produced items to select from. Ideally, a single global distribution pool will emerge, comprising *all* the projects that are interested in pooling. (...) It is important to realize that for most people, contributions will just take the form of doing some of the things they prefer doing. No one will be forced to spend time with activities they don't like, aside from doing their chosen work, except in the unusual case that none of the projects they prefer working with should be ready to accept their contributions." (p. 37-38)
That is not very far from what I say, at least about about the possibility for producers, in a full developed PP based society, to chose the kind of activity they like. In fact, Christian seems to envisage two periods: a first one when an increasing number of projects begin to cooperate through "distribution pools" and distribution pools unify themselves; a second one that starts when "a single global distribution pool will emerge". In the first one, the kind of activity a producer may do is determined by the kind of products she wants to have access to; in the second one producers have an almost complete freedom on choice.
At least we agree on the results for what concerns the last period. But, I do not agree on the basis on which these results are founded, that is the idea that products of a project are shared (even in different manners, "flat rate", "flat allocation") between the participants to the project.
Peer production means to produce for the commons, not for the specific people participating in a specific project. One of the problems with Christian's book is that it is not always very clear when it is supposed to describe a society in transition from capitalism to a full-developed "peer society" and when it is describing that last one.
SM: "And seeing it that way the urge of humans to abolish work can be used far better: If you look at these needs you have a strong urge to automate away these needs or at least make them pleasant. I think it is very important to release this power!"
RV: Yes. And I think that the transformation of the unpleasant productive tasks, that can not be automated, into pleasant ones is not a secondary priority, something that can be postponed in the process of construction of a PP based society. As soon as we have any power on the means of production, it is crucially urgent to try to transform any productive activity in pleasure, a source of Selbsentfaltung. The "sacrifice for the future" ideologies of the countries of the "real socialism" are the opposite of what is needed here. That task should be under the responsibility of the producers themselves, since they are the "end-users" of the means of production.