Commons based peer production: an introduction

cultural pioneersCultural attempts like Creative Commons are one step towards a commons based peer produtcion. Creator: Sweet Chili Arts. Creative Commons LizenzvertragThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

Commons-based peer production starts from the premise of a double-sided mutualization of the economy, i.e. the mutualization of immaterial resources such as knowledge, code, and design; and the mutualization of the means of production. It believes the current political economy has an inappropriate core DNA, since it combines a false belief in the infinity of material resources (pseudo-abundance), with the belief that immaterial resources which are abundant, should be maintained artificially scarce either through legal means (legal repression against the sharing of knowledge) or through outright technological sabotage of the sharing technologies.

Commons-oriented peer production can be defined as any process whereby individuals can freely and openly contribute to a common pool (of knowledge, code, and design), necessarily coupled to forms of participatory governance (since there is no relation of dependence between free contributors); and thereby create a common pool of knowledge that is itself open to new contributions. Hence we get, by analogy with the circulation of capital, a 'circulation of the commons', that insures the reproduction of the commons itself.  On the side of 'immaterial production' (which of course itself rests on a material infrastructure), this model has been rapidly emerging in the fields of the production of free software (open source software), open design, and open hardware. This type of peer production allows for massive parallel development of immaterial knowledge and an open flow of technical, social and technical evolution. An example of it would be the open agricultural communities such as AdaBio Construction in France, which share the design of agricultural machine designs for eco-agriculture, and similar projects in the Anglo-Saxon world, such as the Slow Tools project, Farm Hack, the Open Tech Collaborative, and Open Source Ecology.

This type of projects is of great interest from the point of view of sustainability, a steady state economy,  degrowth or other ecological economics approaches. Why? First of all, putting the design in an open community instead of a closed corporate R&D community removes any compulsion for exclusionary scarcity engineering and planned obsolescence. Open design projects invariably design for maximum quality, sustainability, modularity, biodegradability and more. Open design communities design for relocalized distributed manufacturing. The development of 3D Printing and similar distributed manufacturing technologies allows for a new philosophy of production, based on the principle, "what is heavy is near, what is light is far". Since we know that globalized transportation is three times the cost of producing a good, this has enormous implications. Seen from this 'physical' point of view, peer production replaces 'economies of scale' (producing cheap goods through mass production), and its inherent 'push' model of mass marketing and mass consumption, with 'economies of scope', i.e. doing more with the same, at the same time insuring that any innovation is globally available. Cheap manufacturing technologies allow independence from centralized financial capital.

Peer production models can be associated with the mutualization of physical infrastructures, such as is now happening with the so-called sharing economy, which allows for the shared use of idle resources. Imagine coupling the open source design of transportation vehicles (such as open source cars like the Tabby and WikiSpeed), with car-sharing schemes, which eliminate 80% of the needed energy and raw material needed for similar mileage. It is this combined shared use of both immaterial AND material resources which is the absolute condition for a steady-state or degrowth economy.

The current governance model of 'really existing' peer production communities combines

  1. contributory communities of producers which operate through the self-allocation of skill and effort, i.e. great individual freedom, and participatory models of governance for quality control and conflict resolution;
  2. democratic organizations which do not command the production but enable the cooperation through infrastructure, licensing schemes, etc ... usually in the form of Foundations (Gnome Foundation, Perl Foundation, etc...)
  3. an entrepreneurial coalition of companies which add market value to the commons

At present, peer production is only a proto-mode of production which is subsumed to the political economy of capital, as was historically the case for the other emergent modes of production which first existed under the domination of a former dominant model.
Indeed, within capitalism, the contributors to the common pools cannot insure their own self-reproduction and need to find work as laborers or market-dependent entrepreneurs. This key weakness of the present form of peer production could be transformed on the condition that the peer producers and commoners would create their own cooperative vehicles, so that the 'surplus value' stays within the sphere of the commons and can insure the self-reproduction of the commons-workers.

Thus, we argue for new forms of open cooperativism, where open production is combined with cooperative institutional forms. Peer property and peer governance are necessary requirements for an autonomous mode of peer production which can insure its own self-reproduction. We have proposed the use of reciprocity-based open licenses, such as the 'peer production license', that would create 'ethical coalitions' around the common pools of knowledge, where profit is subsumed to the social good (such as in the model of 'solidarity coops') and can therefore serve the continued expansion of the sphere of the commons. Within such coalitions, through the adoption of such practices as open book accounting and open supply chains, an ever larger degree of mutual coordination of production could take place, gradually replacing both market pricing and top-down central planning as necessary allocation mechanisms. The full flowering of this new  mode of production would require a material commons of machinery, for which solutions has been proposed, and are experimented, as well.

Finally, with the decline of 'material labor' in the Western countries, peer production is the condition for a reconstitution of new social and political movements that could create progressive coalitions for commons-based political transformation of civil society, the market and the state.

Expanding peer production from the sphere of the micro-economy to that of the macro-economy and as a new civilizational model would require the vision of a civil society that consists of citizens freely participating in productive commons, of an ethical economy of commons-oriented cooperative producer associations (the Solidarity Economy), and of a Partner State, 'which enables and empowers social production', i.e. helps build, protect and manage the necessary collective civic infrastructures without which such massive human cooperation would not be possible. Indeed, even if commons by itself are inclusive through their open membership, they do not solve the existing inequalities outside of their own particular  commons. Thus, meta-governance is needed to create a field of opportunity so that every citizen can contribute to the commons of their choice, and be rewarded for it. The emergence of a commons-based society and economy, requires a civilization of care and solidarity, which can only be constituted politically, by the struggles and demands of new social movements which reflect the new relations of production and the intersubjectivities which co-arise with the emergence of commons-based peer production.

The main challenges for human equality and emancipation, given the emergence of a progressive Partner State, will be cultural, for example, many free software communities are male-dominated, not because of structural bias, but because of the cultural limitations of their members, as well as the structural social inequalities which exist outside of their own commons. Transforming this will be the task of the peer to peer 'polis' of the emerging future.

Please note: This is the original text of the abridged German print version which was published in Böll.Thema 1/2014: Seitenwechsel – Die Ökonomien des Gemeinsamen

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