To Find Alternatives to Capitalism, Think Small

Why co-ops, regional currencies, and hackerspaces are pointing the way toward a new economic vision.

Three Proposed Governance Hacks for Making Peer Production into a Real Economic and Social System

This post was written by Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation. The original post can be found here.

Capitalism wasn’t always an organic and dominant system. Before it achieved its status as a full mode of production, i.e. as a coherent way to create and diffuse value, as a form of society and civilization, it needed to hack the old society to mold it to its image. Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, explains how early merchants were still dependent on artisans and guild labor for example (the so-called ‘putting out’ system), and could not rely at first on making labor a commodity itself. The situation is not different for the emergent ‘proto’ system of production that is today ‘commons-oriented peer production’, in which communities of contributors, paid or unpaid, create ‘commons’ (shared resources governed by their users) and not commodities. How can this emergent post-capitalist logic, that is already beyond the labor and commodity logic, come into its own ? How do we make peer production into an organic system. With this priority in mind, the P2P Foundation and other similar networks of P2P activists and scholars have put forward a number of hacks.

The key issue is: how do we keep ‘value’ within the sphere of the commons, so that the commons can grow and ‘reproduce’ itself. Or in other words: how can we actually make a living through our contributions ?

A first proposal is the copyfair license, i.e. a reciprocity-based license. Why is this necessary ? Technically, according to the traditional definition of ‘communism’ in the 19th century, the General Public License is a communist license: from each according to their contributions, to each according to their needs’. But the issue in our current political economy is that such a dynamic invariably leads to the domination of the ‘free and shared’-resources based economy by large private players, and additionally, leads to a usage of these shared resources without contributions. While this ‘liberal communism’ (communism at the service of capital and the liberal value of the abstract ‘right toshare’), may not be a problem for non-rival and anti-rival resources such as knowledge and code, it may be seen as more problematic in the world of design, seeds, and other forms of sharing that are more directly linked to physical production. Indeed, once we need to invest in building, machines, raw material and salaries, the private domination of the open economy may be seen as problematic. Thus, a license that would require some form of reciprocity, would have a number of advantages. The requirement that firms that do not contribute, pay a license fee, would create a stream of capital to the sphere of the commons and its communities and ‘Foundations’. Second, and more important, the requirement to define reciprocity, would recreate a ‘moral economy’ that would re-integrate positive social externalities in the market sphere itself.

Our second hack would also involve governance and property dynamics. We propose the creation by commoners of truly ‘open cooperatives’, i.e. coops that do not just work for their own members, but structurally and ‘statutarily’ co-create commons along with livelihoods for the cooperative workers. In this model, the coop would be ‘for-benefit’ in legal orientation, not for-profit (profits would be used for its social goal), multi-stakeholder, but also co-create commons, in the form of both immaterial commons (shared knowledge) but also eventually common material resources (the Allianza Solidaria housing coop in South Quito requires 100 hours of labor of its members that is used to create common parks). These new coops would not end up behaving selfishly on the capital markets just on behalf of their own members, but would create the common good as a natural part of their activities. A similar proposal is the ‘fairshares’ ownership models which divides property in four equal pieces, for founders, funders, workers, and user communities.

Here then is our final and third proposed ‘hack’ of the day: open supply chains and open accounting. Once a ‘ethical enterpreneurial coalition’ is constituted around the copyfair license and/or a social charter establishing common values and a commons orientation, then it becomes more natural to move from competition to coopetition, i.e. the share production and accounting information throughout the network. An example is the Enspiral network of social enterpreneurs in New Zealand, who function transparently within the network. Through this hack, the mutual and ‘stigmergic’ coordination of productive activities, which already has been achieved in the immaterial production of knowledge, code and design, would also start to create post-capitalist ‘mutual coordination’ dynamics in the sphere of actual physical production.

If these three steps were taken concurrently by various actors then ‘peer production’ would substantially move to function as a ‘organic’ system that is able to self-reproduce itself, as the commons contributors would be able to create cooperative livelihoods. We would have moved from a ‘communism of capital’ to a ‘capital for the commons’.