Peer Production: a New Economic Dawn?

I keep claiming that peer production is a new mode of production in the Marxist sense. This provoked Tom to be really annoying by asking intelligent, pertinent and challenging questions.

(nb: I earlier explored the history of peer production in Wikileaks, Karl Marx and You)

So was the Internet created by Big Government or Big Capital? The answer is: Neither.

Peer networks break from the conventions of states and corporations in several crucial respects. They lack the traditional economic incentives of the private sector: almost all of the key technology standards are not owned by any one individual or organization, and a vast majority of contributors to open-source projects do not receive direct compensation for their work. (The Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler has called this phenomenon “commons-based peer production.”) And yet because peer networks are decentralized, they don’t suffer from the sclerosis of government bureaucracies.

— Steven Johnson in the New York TImes

Of course the bare collection of historical influences are true, but the implications (that we should see this as prefigurative and ‘good’) and conclusions aren’t.

1. ‘We’ built everything. All modes of production are collaborative. By their nature ‘Big Government’ and ‘Big Capital’ create nothing directly, they simply prompt or take ownership.

2. The volunteerism that created the basic and less basic algorithms and protocols of the internet is nothing new; altruism is not innately good, nor does it necessarily have good outcomes.

3. Academic work has always been a state of exception, where the normal modes of exploitation are suspended somewhat. It is a recognition that extreme profit-motives always have a negative effect on the pursuit of knowledge. Affirming the academy may be useful at a time when it is being penetrated by market/government ideologies, but even modern academia has more to do with the monastery than the commune.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t radicalize the concept of the internet, I just think this argument doesn’t go far enough, and celebrates values that are essentially post-war consensus (under attack, but never that good).

— Tom Coles

I want to begin my restricting my claim. I don’t hold to a vulgar historical materialism, where a parade of modes of production emerge from technological progress, each more productive than the last, each overturning the last. I’m not sure that even Marx really believed in such a thing, and we certainly shouldn’t.

It is also important to consider that we are dealing here with universals in dialectical conflict, that is, with things that don’t exist in pure form. Every real capitalist economy has contained vital elements of both slavery and feudalism, for example, but for analytical purposes we still consider some idealised form of manufacturing-based capitalism, with real-world workplaces being a reflection of both the class tensions within capitalism and the historical tension between universal feudalism and universal capitalism.

Therefore I actually take post-Fordism as evidence for, not against, my claim that peer production is a new mode of production. It is a concrete manifestation of the tension between universal capitalism and universal peer production. In a world ruled ever-more by Marx’s general intellect, capitalist workplaces have been forced to adapt.

Zizek has made two important observations on this subject: firstly that Marx did not anticipate that the general intellect could be privatised (an oversight that shows pretty clearly the weakness of vulgar historical materialism!) and secondly that if the general intellect is privatised, a form of rentier capitalism can continue to exist.

Marx’s universal capitalism is about exploiting workers to extract their surplus labour. It is about the M->C->M’ process, where money invested begets fresh money to be reinvested. Which workers did Bill Gate exploit to the tune of $65bn? He simply doesn’t have enough employees for that to add up.

The explanation is simple; since the 1990s, information goods have no marginal cost worth speaking of. Their reproduction requires no capital and no labour – only their original creation involves an investment at all. The money Gates earns is best understood as rent extracted by fencing off a section of the intellectual commons.

It’s trivial to show that peer production itself is unprecedented in nature. Never before have tens of thousands of highly-skilled people collaborated on an international scale to create market-leading goods that they then simply give away. Analysis has shown it’s not even a potlatch-esque status game; the biggest motivation for most creators is personal mastery and enjoyment. This is only possible because the nature of the good is radically different to those that went before

Something similar is starting to happen to physical goods, thanks to 3D printing and just-in-time manufacturing. Increasingly, ongoing labour costs are being removed from the equation.

We are living in the midst of the biggest explosion of information production humanity has ever seen, and what is most stunning is just how little money is being extracted from the process. If all the new production of the last 40 years could be effectively monetised, there would be no crisis.

However we rarely see peer production in its pure form. Just as with capitalism and feudalism we see two sets of tensions.

Firstly a tension between the two universal forms of production, capitalist manufacturing and peer production. This manifests itself in new economic activities – both the Bill Gates rentier manifestation, and the Red Hat-style building of capitalist businesses on the principle of giving away goods. These are two different compromise positions between the universals.

Secondly a class tension, between those empowered by each economic form. There is an extremely heated class struggle between the owners of information goods, especially those with older business models, and the world of peer production. Our side in this struggle has a full array of class organisations, all the way from political groupings (Pirate Party, Free Software Foundation) through to anarchic terrorist groups (Anonymous).

There is no guarantee that either of these conflicts will resolve in our favour, it is simply too early to know the balance of forces. The great white hope is a world of pure peer-production, structured by free sharing of everything and ad-hoc direct democracy. The terrible danger is a rentier economy enforced by a total surveillance state.

  1. I enjoyed the article but am a little puzzled at the usage of the phrase, ‘Great white hope’. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t this coined by writer Jack London regarding the battle for the heavyweight boxing championship, and the desire on the parts of whites for a defeat of black champ Jack Johnson?
    How is this allusion relevant here?

    • emitchell
    • January 26th, 2013

    I am intrigued that you believe the “great white hope” is a world of pure peer-production, as I believe that commons-based peer production is actually more detrimental to the worker. Further, I’m not sure I agree with your claim that very little money is being extracted from the process of peer production. In fact, I believe that this new mode of social production sees a few large corporations accruing revenue from the free labor of many. Indeed, as Facebook sells its users’ internet behavior to advertising sites, Facebook generates profit from the individual’s private actions, while the individual receives no compensation. Economies built out of commons-based peer production become economies such as Google – where profiles are made on each individual and sold to advertisers. In these forms of production, formal organizations or select individuals commoditize and extract value from the free labor of many workers. Tiziana Terranova expands on this in her piece “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Here, she explains how social production uses the work and creativity of countless laborers and gives ownership to a select few. It is “collectively produced but selectively compensated.”
    Further, this unique kind of social production in which a select few commoditize the free labor of many has also begun to blend the public and private lives of workers, which can negatively impact the provider of such free labor by intruding upon his personal life and altering his relationships to other people. While many scholars celebrate the new blending of public and private lives, this blurring of boundaries may in fact negatively impact the worker. Daniel Kreiss, Megan Finn, and Fred Turner discuss this relationship in their piece “The Limits of Peer Production: Some Reminders from Max Weber for the Network Society.” As Kreiss et. al. discuss, it takes formerly private social pleasures or interactions such as online gaming, and turns them into forms of labor. Social interactions can be compensated with monetary value – thereby exchanging personal relationships for business transactions.
    Further, I believe the Internet may actually enhance the class tension you allude to. While some scholars suggest that the internet and thus networked social production is inherently more egalitarian, it is hardly fair to deem the internet “neutral.” In the same way that proponents of social production argue that bureaucracies uniquely support the promotion of those with credentialed capital, the internet, too, favors those with technological capital. Further, even those with technological know-how who contribute to peer production sites such as Wikipedia are not acting in total freedom, but are rather under the direction of the site’s designer. The gatekeepers of websites and of software become the most powerful class.

    Link to the Kreiss article:
    Link to the Terranova piece:

    • mohkohn
    • January 27th, 2013

    Thanks for the thoughtful response :)

    A great white hope, incidentally, is a desperately hoped-for thing that will probably fail.

    I think you are quite right that there are new sources of profit in formerly private activities, and that in some ways the commodity system is penetrating even deeper into our lives.

    On the other hand the amount of exchange value heading back to investors seems small to me compared to the scale of the explosion in use-value production.

    I think that the nightmare scenario you describe is one possible outcome of all this.

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