Peerconomy - A Critical Review


Before I start with the review of the book From Exchange to Contributions - Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World [Peerconomy] I probably should explain a bit where I come from. I founded the Oekonux project nine years ago and since then enjoyed the very fruitful discussions and the enormous amount of insights generated in this project. These insights were about the subject of peer production and more specific about peer production as a mode of production. Oekonux started with Free Software as the most visible and most developed peer production phenomenon but includes more forms into the scope as they appear. Some examples include Wikipedia and OpenAccess.

When I first heard about the existence Christian's book I was excited and had high expectations. When I started to read about it on the Oekonux mailing list [1] I was a bit disappointed. After starting to criticize the concept I was told "read the book". I finally did this hoping I get answers to my questions. However, my disappointment grew page by page instead.

Finally I had hoped to find answers to some questions during a weekend workshop which presented Christian's system to about 25 persons. I - and some other workshop participants - got none. My disappointment peaked and I think there are really no answers. At this point I decided to write this review and to use at least some of the scribblings on the margins of the book I did while reading it.

[1]See StefanMz' review and the following thread. Numerous other threads after that contain references as well.

But disappointment aside: Christian's book opens the door to a new thinking about peer production. It is an attempt to describe a transition to a peer production based world. This Utopian approach is something which could be interesting to sort out perceived problems of contemporary peer production and to understand even better what goes on, where the problems are, and what could be possible ways to solve them. Since this is a worthwhile goal I created the Oekonux drawing board to collect material for inclusion in some Utopian blueprint.

So though this review is mostly a strong criticism of Christian's book it is meant as a constructive contribution to the general discussion. It is done in the hope it will be fruitful and help others to improve their thinking. I can say that the careful consideration of Christian's ideas helped me to improve my thinking already.

Christian: I won't respond to where your analysis goes wrong, since I have other things to do and this has all been discussed before. Your way of "showing" that "X is Y in disguise" based on apparent similarities between X and Y is like "showing" that "11 is an even number", because it is near to 10 and 10 is even. You miss all the important differences and sometimes you construct similarities which aren't even there (e.g. when you claim that projects by themselves decide on which "price" to "pay" for tasks or to "charge" for projects--that's not how it works).

But I want to correct two places where you misquote me.


Peer production as a concept

In the first two chapters Christian describes some basic principles of peer production. He mentions a lot of important concepts like contributions to a project made by volunteers. He explains that these contributions are made because of Selbstentfaltung - though he doesn't use that word - and that the projects maintain internal and external openness.

In the second chapter he also addresses the topic of means of production. Christian explains that in contemporary peer production projects the means of production are usually privately owned or payed for. Christian also mentions forks in peer production projects - which are possible because at least a part of the means of production are available to anybody.

Problems to solve

Then Christian goes on to explain two problems he sees as important. The first problem is how it can be made sure that the societal needs are met by peer production projects. In fact a question which capitalism unfortunately can not always answer. He states that user needs and producer needs are not the same and that there must be some mediation between them.

The second problem Christian perceives is how to deal with limited resources and goods. He shortly mentions fabbers but as the sole solution dismisses them quickly.

Non-harmful ways to deal with lack of volunteers

Christian perceives tasks for which there are no volunteers as the basic problem. In fact this can be seen as one of the important problems of peer production - though capitalism has to deal with the lack of workers as well. Christian mentions two important ways to deal with these problems not harming basic peer production principles but are rather expressions of the logic of peer production.

The first way is automation by which unwanted task are simply automated away by moving them to machines. In fact the first peer production project of Free Software is almost completely about automation. Software more or less is a mean to automate tasks away which generally could be done by hand also.

The second way is to raise the fun of some task. This is something which people did throughout history - for instance by singing together while doing hard work. In peer production it would modify a task in a way someone can see it as Selbstentfaltung.

These two ways even complete each other. Automation often shifts the work needed for some task to another realm. This realm often is more likely to be Selbstentfaltung because it employs your creativity.

Well done!

The first chapters of Christian's book are just fine and they are more or less perfectly aligned with peer production. What is really annoying is that after these chapters he leaves this path and develops a system which in my opinion is structurally equal to capitalism and thus contradicts peer production. The rest of my review deals with this and thus is far more critical.


Coerced contributions: Abstract labor in disguise

In the beginning of the book Christian correctly points out that peer production lives from contributions. That is indeed a common understanding and in itself not very astonishing: Every production process based on division of labor needs contributions.

However, there is a sharp distinction between the contributions which are done in the division of labor model of capitalism and in peer production projects. In peer production projects the doubly Free contributors contribute because it is Selbstentfaltung to them. They don't need any compensation for this because they are not loosing anything - in the contrary. In capitalism on the other hand contributors are structurally coerced to contribute because they are payed for their contributions and money is what they need for a living. This is exactly the point where concrete work differs from abstract labor and abstract labor becomes subject of exchange. This is an important source of alienation in capitalism and as such the reason for a lot of problems.

Now Christian deals with the problem that there might be tasks in a peer production project which are for some reason not done out of Selbstentfaltung. The simple answer he finds is: Coerce others so they contribute by doing these tasks. Instead of paying them with money Christian suggests exchanging products of the project for the abstract labor done by a coerced contributor.

Unfortunately Christian doesn't contribute an explanation why this should be better than the coercion mechanism of capitalism. He states that this way it is not possible to extract surplus value from the abstract labor. Indeed it is an interesting question where the surplus product - being the base of surplus value in capitalism - goes to in Christian's model. For this we need to check out how surplus product emerges.

Surplus product is generated when a human works longer than needed for her own reproduction. In capitalist labor relationships the surplus product is owned by the capitalist who pays for the abstract labor done while keeping the surplus product. If the capitalist is able to sell the surplus product on the market she realizes the surplus value.

Throughout the book Christian emphasizes that it is important that the coerced contributions are payed for with the "just" amount of products. Of course in a highly sophisticated society with a high degree of division of labor it is hard to determine at which point some labor done turns into surplus labor. In capitalism this is determined by the market prices of the means of living of the worker. In practice the capitalist offers some price for the labor power they buy and competition for workers as well as power relationships between workers and capitalists set the price. Nonetheless capitalists are able to obtain surplus product.

Christian: Leaving aside the fact that there are no "coerced contributions" in my model (but of course, if you don't want to contribute to a project, it's up to the project whether they still want to--and are able to--produce something specifically for you--you aren't forced to do anything, but neither are they), I have to point out that I never talk about "just" or "justice" in my book.

These are abstract concepts which don't make much sense to me--for example, if somebody suffers, it would be "just" if everybody else suffered too. The purpose of effort sharing and similar agreements is not to be "just", but rather to try to make sure that everyone involved can live with the outcome and is, as far as possible, happy with the outcome. I also talk about "fairness", but, while that concept is doubtlessly related to "justice", I don't think it's the same.

I can see no reason why this should be any different in Christian's system. The peer production projects want the ugly tasks done and they offer a payment for it. Nothing in the world prevents them from offering a payment which allows for surplus product. And since surplus product means additional wealth these projects will benefit from extracting surplus product. So why should they not strive for it?

There may be one limitation for the generation of surplus product in Christian's system. In the simple version of the system he explains the coerced contributor may receive only products from this particular project. In fact she should contribute only the amount of labor which is necessary to produce this particular product she strives for. In this instance it may be the case that it is not possible to extract surplus product. But that is nothing which in a sophisticated society is anything likely.

Distribution pools: Markets in disguise

This is something Christian also knows. Because of that he soon invents something he calls distribution pools. Distribution pools are facilities where projects and workers meet. The projects offer products in exchange for abstract labor while the workers are ready to do abstract labor in exchange for products. The direct connection between the labor done and the product exchanged for it is broken in with distribution pools.

If you feel reminded of a capitalist labor market then you share this feeling with me. In fact in a capitalist labor market the very same happens: The producers offer products for labor and the workers offer labor power for products. Neither in Christian's system nor in capitalism there is anything which prevents the producers to extract surplus product.

Weighted hours: Money in disguise

In capitalism there is an additional grease to make the handling of (dead) abstract labor easier: money. Indeed money does not appear in Christian's system. However, that doesn't mean there is no equivalent entity. In fact each system doing an equivalence exchange of labor for products must be based on some scaling system which makes the labor comparable to the product. It should probably be emphasized that labor and products are indeed incommensurable and you can not do an equivalent exchange of incommensurable things.

The approach taken in capitalism as well as in Christian's system is to take the amount of labor needed for a product as the basic equivalence measure. In capitalism money is nothing else than a crystallized form of dead labor. The weighted hours in Christian's system play the same role. In fact Christian starts out with the plain amount of hours needed to produce something [2]. Later he multiplies them by a factor which he wants to base on the preferences of people. The result he calls weighted hours. The weight will come from the societal average preferences of potential workers and is computed by some algorithm.

[2]This simple approach of using the plain amount of hours is usually taken by LETS.

Unfortunately Christian oversimplifies a lot here. Of course people have preferences for what they want to do and what they don't like. But having preferences is one thing and having skills is another thing. In capitalism the skills of a worker play a major role for determining the price of her labor power. In Christian's system this won't be any different. Tasks which need highly skilled labor will have a high weight because there are only a few persons who can do them. Christian addresses this problem by saying that everyone can become skilled over time. This if of course as much as true as in capitalism - including the fact that not everybody can reach an arbitrary skill level.

Also one of the main accomplishments of peer production is lost here. In peer production the individual preferences do count. This is no longer the case if the preferences of an individual vanish in the societal average of preferences. As in capitalism you are better off if you have personal preferences different from the average.

Also it is funny that Christian assumes that each contribution is simply accepted. Why should a project accept labor which did more harm than good? If you destroy the means of productions in your attempt to contribute is this still a contribution? But even if you take it less extreme: Not everyone works as efficient as everyone else. In practice the speed of labor differs widely between different persons even if they have a similar degree of education. Christian does not even mention this problem but those living in his system will find ways. The easiest would be to not accept labor as a contribution and thus do not pay. In capitalism this is the sort of conflicts which keeps labor courts in business.

As a result the weighted labor in Christian's system does not differ from the respective function of money in capitalism. As a next step it is also easy to agree to use a single type of product as the general means of equivalence - let's say gold - and voila: we have the early forms of money.

Meta-projects: Governments in disguise

Christian suggests something which he calls meta-projects. He describes ways how these meta-projects can nest and build a hierarchy. Meta-projects are responsible for infrastructure questions and can somehow coerce projects to obey their decisions.

If you think about it you'll notice that meta-projects are simply governments. They play exactly the same role as governments in capitalism play, they nest as in capitalism and they have power over their subjects. I'm not saying governments are not needed in a peer production society. In my opinion this is something which is hard to say with the perspective of today. In any case I see no need to rename governments to meta-projects.


These disguises show where you end up if you don't think ideas through and push them to the limits. Christian reinvents all the fundaments of capitalism. Giving them funny names like distribution pool changes nothing in the effects they have. It is clear that if you reinvent the instruments and mechanisms of capitalism you end up with capitalism - no matter how much you don't want that.

It is indeed the tragedy of capitalism that there are these mechanisms which do their work behind the back of the people [3]. To stop these mechanisms from being effective you need to remove their fundaments. And the most important fundament is abstract labor and exchange. It starts when you map concrete labor to an abstract number. The abstract numbers are which immediately live a life of their own. I learned that you must prevent this mapping by all means.

[3]Indeed not all these mechanisms are harmful. After all they organized a whole society. For all these considerations it is important to understand where people benefit from capitalist mechanisms and how these benefits can be transferred to a peer production society.

Now you might argue that in every society there are tasks which are not done out of Selbstentfaltung. Even if this is true - if you employ the means of capitalism to solve this then you will end up with capitalism. Each society dealt with that problem and generally there were some explicit governance systems which dealt with that problem. And since any explicit governance system is the result of a political process it is of course better than to let the blind mechanisms of abstract labor rule.


Means of production: Missing

After the first two chapters there is one thing missing: means of production. Ok, that is not completely true. Many times Christian states that to start a project it is sufficient to find a few like-minded people and you are done. However, even if you like to count minds as means of production they are only one part you need as a precondition of production - though bright minds become more important every day. In fact you need usually more before you can produce: machines and preliminary products.

This may be the case when the means of production are common place, easily affordable or part of the general infrastructure. For many existing peer production projects this is the case - as Christian describes it in the first chapters. For instance Free Software today is written on hardware which is part of every day's life of a lot of people and so is the Internet. Free Music is done on the instruments musicians have bought anyway and computers make lots of expensive music equipment superfluous.

While I'm at it I'd also like to make clear that indeed the question about the means of production is probably the most interesting one in this whole discussion. Christian states that the problem is that peer production of physical goods is the challenge. However, peer production of information goods for which you need lots and lots of means of production - think of fundamental research in physics for instance - has the same problem as peer production of physical goods.

In a conversation Christian said that he explicitly ignores the problem of means of production. This can be accepted as a general premise but then most of what Christian talks about is rather useless. In particular producing physical things doesn't work without at least a minimum set of physical means of production.

Christian: That's not true, I said that I ignored (in my book) the question of how to start physical peer production within the context of capitalism, where money is needed to buy means of productions that are still only produced externally, in the capitalistic way. In my book (but not in my Hiddinghausen talks) I ignored such problems of transformation, including this question of how to get the money that's still necessary. In the model I describe, natural resources are commons and everything else is the result of human effort, which can be distributed among the users of the produced goods according to the ways I describe in my book.

Of course, if the upfront efforts necessary for starting a project are very large (a big specialized factory or something), the project organizers may have to find sufficiently many interested users who confirm in advance that they're interested in the results of the project and will use them (contributing back the required effort) if the project manages to produce them--that's one of the ways in which the separation between (supposedly active) producers and (supposedly passive) consumers blurs in peer production. Other ways of dealing with such huge efforts (which, I think, will become rarer and less huge over time, due to the trends of decentralization and more and more powerful small-scale production facilities which we are already experiencing) are addressed in Section 8.2.1 of the book.

But let's imagine for a moment what would happen in Christian's system when expensive means of production are taken into account. Then a non-existing project has two options. The first option is that the volunteers gather the needed means of productions step by step by doing more abstract labor. In a way the project saves weighted hours this way until the point where they have all the machinery and a certain set of preliminary products at hand. Then the project can start producing. Given the enormous amount of abstract labor contained in contemporary means of production - especially if they should allow Selbstentfaltung - this phase may be well longer than a life time. In other words: for many interesting projects this won't happen. But even when it happens the members of the project probably want to have back at least some of the additional abstract labor they spent in advance.

The second option is that the project lends weighted hours somehow. Then the project needs to pay back the weighted hours. For the first option it might be that the project simply covers the advance labor without wanting it back because of love for the project. For the second option this is no longer possible. The project needs to charge additional weighted hours from their customers to pay back the lended amount. This introduces the need to sell products into the whole system because these are the only way to obtain weighted hours. This introduces the need to charge additional weighted hours from customers. This introduces the option to become ruined if the products are not accepted by customers - may be because some competitor sells cheaper. But why should this be any different than in capitalism?

Selbstentfaltung and external openness: Missing

Peer production is characterized by two things: Selbstentfaltung and openness. Selbstentfaltung is key because it leads to improved products making this mode of production stronger than capitalism. But for the emancipatory mind Selbstentfaltung is key, too, because Selbstentfaltung is the best the individual and the society can have. However, in Christian's system Selbstentfaltung can not be expected for the coerced contributors since they need to contribute to get the product.

The other key concept of peer production is openness. One part of it is the external openness which includes that everyone who needs a peer production product can simply take it [4]. In Christian's concept this external openness is also missing because you may get products only under the condition that you pay an amount of weighted hours.

[4]Indeed simply taking is taking it a bit to easy. If you acquire Free Software for instance you have to pay at least the price for the transmission of the digital good to your computer. Though this lowered over the years this is generally not neglectable because these costs are the cost of the reproduction of the information to be used by you. This needs further thinking.

What probably stays in Christian's concept is internal openness meaning that everyone may contribute to a project. However, in peer production internal openness is largely possible because of the external openness which enables other to contribute at all.

So in Christian's concept the most important characteristics of peer production are missing. They are replaced by the functional categories well known from capitalism. It is hard to imagine how this system can be thought of as a transitory system then.

Fill the voids!

In a way the voids in Christian's system are the most interesting thing. They raise the question how they can be filled. Particularly the missing considerations about the means of productions seem to me like the central question to be solved.


New mode of production vs. crisis of the old

Throughout the book Christian reiterates the wish list of any contemporary social democrat / anarchist / green / leftist. Everything which goes wrong in capitalism is mentioned in the book and Christian's system is declared the final resolution to all these problems. Unfortunately rarely there are reasons given why this should be the case. Usually Christian just states that he doesn't find it likely that this or that will go wrong in his system.

This is probably useful if you want to sell the content of the book to those who share Christian's position. But it has nothing to do with the new mode of production Christian says he is describing a transitory model for. Though these problems of contemporary capitalism are of course important - and some are even pressing - a new mode of production does not appear to solve these problems in the first place. A comparison may illustrate what I mean: When capitalism started its expansion step around 1800 it was not it's goal to sort out the problems of the Christian church or the European upper nobility of that time. This new mode of production rather replaced these things - with concepts like the nation state. Though we may find these concepts problematic today at this time they were key for the development of capitalism and most of them were also emancipation steps compared to the feudal mode of production.

Indeed with a new mode of production some problems will probably vanish in a puff of smoke, others will stay and new problems will arise. However, to be useful a reasoning would be needed why the contemporary problems will be resolved. A lot of problems in capitalism arguably result from the effects of alienation leading to a political economy where the economy dictates the political relationships of people. In a peer production based society lots of these problems will vanish in a puff of smoke - simply because the reasons for them are no longer present. But to be serious this needs careful reasoning and not simply wishful thinking.

Abstract labor and it's political correct application

A large part of the book considers how abstract labor in the form of weighted hours may be used to overcome the problems of the crisis of capitalism. This part of course warms the heart of every social democrat / anarchist / green / leftist. And it's easy to understand - because often it is a simple copy of what we know from capitalism and the dreams of those mentioned.

Let's take the health care Christian's considers as one example. He suggests that this is organized by requiring a flat amount from everyone. In capitalism this principle is known as insurance. One more place where I wonder why it is necessary to give simple things complicated names.

Save effort!

The case of a society based on peer production makes only sense if peer production is understood as a mode of production. Capitalism shows how a mode of production in its restructuring step restructures all of society according to its logic. The result of this restructuring is very hard to foresee looking from the previous mode of production. This is not by chance but because a new mode of production changes a society so fundamentally that the new can not be thought at all [5].

[5]Software is also interesting here. In the beginning software really replaced tasks of humans. Before computers were invented humans did all the calculations. Today when computing has developed for some decades now things are possible which at the down of the computer era were not even thinkable.

However, peer production has some basic principles. If you harm these principles too much - as Christian's system does - you end up in describing this with lots and lots of effort. But you don't make much sense by it. It would make more sense to research these basic principles more and check how they can be supported and where the limitations are. The more peer production becomes dominant the limitations will vanish.

[Peerconomy]Christian Siefkes * From Exchange to Contributions - Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World, see for ways to get it

Oekonux/DrawingBoard/PeerconomyReview (last edited 2008-09-07 10:38:19 by StefanMerten)

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