Dmytri Kleiner's Critique of Peer Production Ideology

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By Dmytri Kleiner:

"Imaging that a “better” copyright system or a “freer” Internet could exist within the present system of economic relations is to misplace the deterministic factors. The intrinsic truth in arguments against copyright and the clear technical superiority of distributed technologies over centralized ones have not been the deciding factors in the ultimate development of our intellectual property system or our global communications infrastructure, both of which have gotten more consolidated, regulated and restrictive. The determining factor is, as always, the fact that those whose interests are served by restricting freedom have more wealth with which to relentlessly push toward their ends then is available to resist them. The economic reasons for this are well understood, this numerically small class of Capitalists are the beneficiaries of an unfair distribution of productive assets that allows then them to capture the wealth produced by the masses of property-less workers. If we want to have a say in the way copyright works (or to abolish it) or to influence the way communication networks are operated, or if we want to make any social reforms whatsoever, we must start by preventing property owners from turning our productivity into their accumulated wealth. The wealth they use to endorse restrictions on our freedoms is the wealth they have taken from us. Without us they would have no source of wealth, even the great accumulated wealth from centuries of exploitation can not ultimately save them if the you are unable to continue to capture current wealth. The value of the future is far greater than the value of the past. Our ideas about intellectual property and network topology are ultimately no threat to Capitalism, who can always co-opt, sabotage or simply ignore them. It is the new ways of working together and sharing that are emerging that have the potential to threaten the capitalist order and bring about a new society.

Often discussions of the productive relations in free software projects and other collaborative projects such as Wikipedia attempt to bottle up commons-based production and trap it within the sphere of “immaterial production,” restricting it exclusively to the domain where it can not affect wealth distribution and thereby play a role in class conflict. Yochai Benkler, Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, coined the term “Peer production” to describe the way free software, Wikipedia articles and similar works are produced. Benkler limits his analysis to the so-called “Networked Information Economy.” The novelty of Peer Production as understood by Benkler and many others is that the property in the commons is entirely non-rivalrous property: Intellectual property and network transferable or accessible resources. Property with virtually no reproduction costs. Also, another distinguishing feature of this limited concept of Peer Production is that the producers in these examples do not receiver enumeration for what they have produced since their products are available for free, for example users of free software do not compensate the original developers. Thus they claim that Peer Production is “Non-reciprocal.”

There is no denying that Benkler’s wealthy network has a lot to offer. The value of this information commons to its users is fantastic, as evident by the millions who employ Free Software, Wikipedia, on-line communications and social networking tools, etc. However, if commons-based peer-production is limited exclusively to a commons made of digital property with virtually no reproduction costs, how can the use-value produced be translated into exchange-value? Where is the money to pay for the production of these valuable things? Something with no reproduction costs can have no exchange-value in a context of free exchange, anybody who wants a copy can obtain one from anybody that has one. But if what they produce has no exchange-value, how can the peer producers be able to acquire the material needs for their own subsistence?

The wealthy network exists within a context of a poor planet. The source of the problem of poverty does not dwell in a lack of culture or information but in the direct exploitation of the producing class by the property-owning classes. The source of poverty is not reproduction costs but rather extracted economic rents, surplus value captured by way of forcing producers to accept less than the full product of their labour as their wage by denying them independent access to the means of production. So long as commons-based peer-production is applied narrowly to only an information commons while the capitalist mode of production still dominates the production of material wealth, owners of material property will continue to capture the marginal wealth created as a result of the productivity of the information commons. Whatever exchange value is derived from the information commons will always be captured by owners of real property, which lies outside the commons. For Peer Production to have any effect on general material wealth it has to operate within the context of a overall system of goods and services, where the physical means of production and the virtual means of production are both available in the commons for peer production. By establishing the idea of commons-based peer-production in the context of an information-only commons, Benkler is creating a trap, ensuring the value created in the peer economy is appropriated by property privilege. We have found Benkler standing on his head, and we will need to redefine Peer Production to put his head above his feet again.

It is not the “production” in “immaterial, non-reciprocal” production that is immaterial. The computers, the networks and the developers and their places of work and residence are all very much material and all require material upkeep. What is immaterial is the distribution. Digitized information, source code or cultural works, can multiply and zip across global networks in fractions of a second, yet production remains a very material affair. If Peer Production can only produce immaterial good, such as software, and the producers get nothing in return for such production, if Peer Production is “immaterial, non-reciprocal” production, then this form of “production” has no right to be called a mode of production at all.

First and foremost any mode of production must account for it’s material inputs or else vanish, these inputs must include the subsistence costs of it’s labour contributors, to at minimum “enable the labourer’s, one with another, to subsist and to perpetuate their race” in the words of Ricardo. “Immaterial, Non-reciprocal” production can not do so, since to produce free software, free culture or free soup the producers must draw their subsistence from some other source, and therefore “immaterial, non-reciprocal” production is not a form of production at all, only a special case of distribution within another form of production. “Immaterial, Non-reciprocal” production is no more a mode of production than a charity soup kitchen or socialized medicine. It is simply a super-structural phenomenon which has another mode of production as its base.

Rather than placing emphasis on the immaterial distribution of what is produced by current examples of Peer Production, we may note instead that such production is characterized by independent producers employing a common stock of productive assets. This view of Peer Production is not categorically limited to immaterial goods. Understood this way, the concept of Peer Production, where a network of peers apply their labour to a common stock for mutual and individual benefit, certainly resonates with age-old proposed socialist modes of production where a class-less community of workers(“peers”) produce collaboratively within a property-less(“commons-based”) society. Unlike the “immaterial, non-reciprocal” definition this formulation can account for its material inputs, its labour specialization, its means of capital formation, etc, and also better describes the productive basis of free software as well as more closely relates to the topology of peer networks from which the term is derived. Further, this formulation also is better rooted in history, as it describes historical examples of commons-based production such as the pastoral commons, cottage agriculture and cottage industry as well. As the distribution of productive assets is so much at the root of the inequality of wealth and power that perpetuates exploitive systems, a mode of production where productive assets are held in common is clearly a potentially revolutionary one if it could take root. However if the form of production can be contained to the immaterial, if it can be categorized as immaterial by definition, then it’s producers can not capture any of the value they create, and thus Harvard Law Professors strive to keep it so defined. However if we can implement ways of independently sharing a common-stock of material assets and thereby expand the scope of the commons to include material as well as immaterial goods, then direct producers who employ these assets in their production can retain a greater portion of their product.

Peer production is distinct from other modes of production. Worker’s independently employing a common-stock of productive assets is a different mode, distinct from both capitalist and collectivist modes. The capitalist mode of production is exploitive by nature, its fundamental logic is to capture surplus value from labour by denying independent access to the means of production. However, collectivist modes can also be exploitive. For instance in Co-operative production, in which producers collectively employ jointly owned productive assets, the distribution of productive assets is likely to be unfair among different co-operatives, allowing one to exploit the other. Larger scale collectivist forms, such as Socialist states or very big diversified co-operatives can be said to eliminate the sort of exploitation that can occur between co-operatives, however, the expanding coordination layers needed to manage these large organizations give rise to a coordinator class, anew class consisting of a techno-administrative elite that has proven in historical examples to have the capacity to be just as parasitic and stifling to workers as a Capitalist class. However the community of Peer producers can grow without developing layers of co-ordination because they are self-organizing and produce independently, and as such they do not need any layers of co-ordination other than that what is needed to provision the common stock of productive assets, thus co-ordination is limited to allocation of the common stock among those who wish to employ it. It is no surprise then, that this sort production has appeared and flourished where the common stock is immaterial property, the low reproduction costs eliminate allocation concerns. Thus what is needed for Peer production to incorporate material goods into the common-stock is a system for the allocation of material assets among the independent peers which imposes only a minimal co-ordination burden. Venture Communism is such a way."