The historic potential of peer production


  • Describes the potential of peer production to overcome capitalism
  • Version 0.9 - edited by StefanMeretz (2008-03-18)
  • Version 1.0 - edited by StefanMeretz (2008-04-11)

Development of the productive forces

Humans produce the conditions under which they live by developing the necessary means and performing the metabolism with nature. The changes in this relationship between the human being, the means it uses, and the outside nature (humans themselves are nature) is commonly called historical development of productive forces. This historical development was accompanied and reflected by the development of corresponding social forms, of different forms of societal mediation over time. The relationship between the productive forces and the societal form is a dialectical one. The driving factor is the development of productive forces, however.

So far this may be common knowledge. Now, we have to go into more detail to bring this in the context of the five-step model presented before, and it fits very well. Let's see.

The relationship between the three aspects--human being, means, nature--changes over time not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively. We can understand history (or »pre-history« following Marx) as a succession of epochs, where in each of these epochs one of the three aspects of the development of productive forces is dominant.

The first epoch can be described as the natural epoch, because the focus of producing the living conditions are directly oriented towards the use of outside nature. All ancient societies were agricultural societies. Of course, means are used to ameliorate the land and to dig for treasures of the soil, however, the means were not in the focus of development. The main energy to work on the soil comes from humans (as slaves, serfs, or other types of personal domination) and animals. Crafts were the most developed form of creating means.

This changes dramatically with the introduction of an industrial form of production. Industry overcomes the limitations of crafts, of natural energy sources, and--with the changing societal forms--the societal restrictions like guilds and booths. The free human is the ideal of this epoch--free to sell its labour power in alienated circumstances as we had pointed out in a previous chapter. The big industry represents the means epoch: »The tool or working machine is that part of the machinery with which the industrial revolution of the 18th century started.« [Marx-WorkingMachine]

While social relations during the natural epoch were always dominated by personal sway over subordinated people, the societal mediation during the means epoch got an abstract form. Mainly two opposite classes are bound together via the commodity-money cycle. Each of them are filling different roles, but both subordinated under those alienated goals of making profit on the one hand or selling labour power on the other hand.

Now, we are prepared to understand the deeper sense of the historical sketch given by Karl Marx in the »Grundrisse«:

»Relations of personal dependence (entirely spontaneous at the outset) are the first social forms, in which human productive capacity develops only to a slight extent and at isolated points. Personal independence founded on objective [sachlicher] dependence is the second big form, in which a system of general social metabolism, of universal relations, of all-round needs and universal capacities is formed for the first time. Free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth, is the third stage.« [Marx-ThreeStages]

Here, Marx describes three epochs, two of them we mentioned above. There is one missing: The epoch of the »universal development of individuals«, of the human development as an end in itself--the human epoch. We claim that we live in a transition period, where we can observe germ forms of this upcoming human epoch every day.

Technical developments facilitate peer production

Capitalism improved working with matter and the means employed are material means. Contemporary industry is perfect in producing material things. However, the material period has reached it's intrinsic limitations. What is needed today is the improvement of working with information and creativity. This is not only required for assembly line products, but especially for new modern products. The industry is good at producing well known material products in huge series, where the production logics are algorithmically fixed. However, the creation of something new can not be implemented in fixed algorithms. Creativity and flexible handling of unknown challenges can only come from living human beings.

Moreover, most contemporary products--even material ones--are based on a complex set of information. The information aspect of the products and of the production process becomes dominant during the last several decades. Using flexible production environments from robots to rapid prototyping tools changes can be made very fast. Thus, the production and working with information becomes more and more important. At the same time the digital copy occurred as something historical new. Using computers it allows for lossless reproduction at nearly zero marginal costs. The Internet is nothing but a monster application of digital copy, it is the global backbone of the production and circulation of information.

Material goods, however, differ significantly from information goods. Information can be easily copied while material goods have to be produced piece by piece. The use of material goods is rival while use of information is non-rival. Material goods are used up while information is spread when shared. But most important: The production of information needs human creativity to an extend the old mode of production can not support.

These technical developments are preconditions for peer production. However, peer production is not simply a technical means, it also changes the social relationships of production. Means of production are always technical and social.

Selbstentfaltung--universal development of individuals

Here, something Marx' called the »universal development of individuals« comes into play--or with a special German word »Selbstentfaltung« [1]. The concept of Selbstentfaltung is similar to self-realization, however, it overcomes its limitations. Bourgeois society needs the free individual only in a restricted sense: The individual should be free to sell its labour power or to command alien labour power. However, the restriction comes from the enclosure of the valorisation logic, in which workers and capitalists took opposite functions, but which forms a unique shell for both. Neither of them can escape, both of them have to function according to their »character masks«.

Marx recognised, that the societal relationships are constituted by objective relationships based on the exchange of commodities. This »fetishism« (Marx) is the alienated environment, wherein the individual can self-realize. However, the logics of the commodity framework, of selling and buying, can not be overcome within this environment. The basic logic is exclusion. Within the exclusion structure it is only possible to »self-realize« on the expense of others. The »free« individual is at the same time an isolated one, isolated from others and from whole society. To pull oneself at one owns hairs out of the swamp seems impossible.

The solution to this dilemma is the individual itself, and Selbstentfaltung is the mode. In contrast to self-realization the condition of Selbstentfaltung is not to exclude, but to include others. Selbstentfaltung creates a room of mutual support and enhancement. Having fun and being responsible joins, because responsibility is not a moral add-on, but it is the built-in pre-condition for success. Well known »flow experiences« can be described as a result of Selbstentfaltung. Wikipedia describes this experience very well: »Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterised by a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.« [Wikipedia-FlowExperience]

Selbstentfaltung is not a rare personal property of few people, it is a genuine mode of individual development of all humans. However, it needs a special social environment enhancing the inclusion logic. This environment must minimise alienation and indirection. Capitalism being based on a few abstract principles contradicts this requirement. The fetishism in bourgeois society produces alienated relationships. The use value of a commodity is a subordinated means to realize exchange value on markets. Thus, making more money from money is the alienated and indirect form of producing goods the people need.

Selbstentfaltung on the contrary requires direct relations to the products, to other producers, and to users. The product itself is the primary goal, not generating profit via selling the product as a commodity on markets. The cooperation with other peer producers is essential to get the tasks done, because the peer network is the social environment wherein the individual acts. And the direct relation to users is the way getting feedback and reputation. The better the product, the better the cooperation. And the better the user relations, the more people join the process and the higher the possibility to accomplish the goals of the project. The logic of successively including more people, knowledge, and experiences is a compelling power overcoming the exclusive principles of capitalist society. The core of this inclusion logic is Selbstentfaltung, which can now be defined in a short way: The Selbstentfaltung of the individual is the precondition of the Selbstentfaltung of others--and vice versa.

Due to Selbstentfaltung being primarily oriented in the use of the product, the quality is superior. This follows from the fact, that design and realization of the product is not limited by marketing considerations. While exchange value orientations results in relative quality, the quality orientation in free production modes based on Selbstentfaltung is absolute. Richard Sennet [Sennet-Craftsman] compared these modes with crafts, with »doing something well for its own sake«. In Free Software and free cultural works like Wikipedia he sees this »enduring, basic human impulse« re-emerging, which all people have and can bring out. Internal openness allows for contributions from all sources. People are invited to contribute, user innovation is employed [Hippel-DemocratizingInnovation]. Superior availability is a direct result of external openness. Often, the improvement rate is very high.

Universal development is an end in itself. Selbstentfaltung brings out the best qualities of humans, and at the same time, it is the best mode of living for humans. Individual being and social embedding, the one and the many are no longer opposites. However, Selbstentfaltung contradicts many capitalist principles. Capitalism does not allow for unlimited inclusion, because it is based on exclusion. Capitalism only uses cooperation, in order to reach better competitiveness to better prevail on the expense of others. Efficiency is not oriented in a good living for all, but simply in maximising profit as an end in itself. Thus development and production is oriented in goals raising from a »cybernetic« valorisation cycle, what Marx called »objective [sachlicher] dependence« (cited above), or with another word: alienation.

Using an systemic perspective during the industrial period, alienation is not really a problem, because industrial working with matter can be commanded. And alienation was personally acceptable, because the »objective dependence« was highly outweighed with good wages. But high-tech capitalism is based on working with information. Creativity and individual free development are needed--but they can not be commanded. At the same time huge industrial structures are separated into smaller parts, each of them directly subordinated under the market claims. Class relations which once have been clearly visible dissolve, each single group and each individual has to be an entrepreneur, capitalist and worker at the same time. Alienation is carried to the extremes: Self-valorisation and Selbstentfaltung become antagonist requirements.

The transition to the human epoch

The well known tendencies in contemporary capitalism, generally known as as neo-liberalism, support the potential to overcome capitalism--for the first time in history. This sometimes sounds weird to the traditional left, and it seems, that not much of them are able to see the germ forms of the new. The potential has to be analysed carefully, because there are many traps. One trap is to interpret all the different new phenomenons completely in the framework of neo-liberalism. Then this sometimes gets the form of a »conspiracy«--behind every development seems to be a plan to suppress and subordinate the working class. This view neglects the inner dynamics and dialectics of the ongoing process including the germ forms which contain the potential for something beyond capitalism.

Another trap is to overestimate the new potential at the current step of its unfolding. There is an expectation, that the germ form is already a developed final form representing all the properties we want to have. This view is often accompanied with the assumption or expectation of having »good people« with high level of consciousness within peer production projects like Free Software. However, this is neither true nor are »good people« necessary. It is the strength of peer production, that there are no preconditions before joining a common effort of a peer production project. Normal people can participate.

The third trap is to expect, that the new is free of contradictions. The new has to occur in a pure and innocent form. However, using the five-step model, we can understand, that a qualitatively new form never emerges completely isolated from the old without any useful function for it. In the contrary, the new must have a useful function for the old, because otherwise it can not grow. At the same time it has to contain the potential for a entirely new mode of production--and this is the case with peer production.

Looking on current commons-based peer projects as Free Software, it can be learned, that peer production is not only a question of technical means, but it also changes the social means of production. The maintainer model mentioned above for instance can be viewed as a common governance model beyond democracy--commonly named meritocracy. It bases on reputation and responsibility.

Maintainer and project members are inclusively bound together. While the maintainer is interested in many and good skilled project members, those, on the other hand, are interested in having a good and communicative maintainer integrating all different individuals in the project and organising consensual decisions. A consensus is reached if nobody must object. If a maintainer tend to ignore needs of project members, then they can leave or »fork« the project. A »fork« is a split of a projects by taking all of the given results into a new project, because they are free. However, a fork is always a risk, because it also means the separation of human resources weakening the possibility to reach the intended goal. Thus, all opponents in a conflict have to clearly think about the chances and risks of a fork, and the chances and risks of a consensus, which drives the dynamics of conflict regulation.

This differs significantly from »democratic conflict regulation« by voting and representation. All goals and needs come from the people within the project, and they are focussed around the goal or product to be produced. Alienated influences are absent. Well, this is the ideal situation of a doubly free project. While in a singly free project only the product is free--mostly covered by a free license. Additionally, in a doubly free project the production itself is free. This is the case, when money and alienated goals are completely kept out of the project and all tasks are freely done.

This new type of post-democratic regulation gives us an impression on how to organise a whole society according to the needs of the people. Not only peer production projects with specific productive goals can be done this way, but also infrastructural tasks or meta-projects can be organised this way. [2] This, however, is a quite different transition image than old style types of conqueroring the power to control the (old) means of production. The new conception of a transition bases on changing the productive basis by establishing new social relationship, which are originally free of valorisation and alienation. It is not about taking the old power, but building a new one, which then cooperates-out the old one. This is the fundamental change of the perspective of emancipation the five-step model brought to us.

The human epoch, a society based on the »universal development of individuals« Marx dreamt about, becomes a real opportunity.


[1]The concept of Selbstentfaltung has been used in the Oekonux discussion a lot and also in earlier works for instance in Holzkamp's work (as »generalised action potential«). Since there is no appropriate word in English and also because the concept of Selbstentfaltung used here is somewhat new even in German we decided to use the term in English as well.
[2]In an extensive and hotly debated study [Siefkes-Peerconomy] Christian Siefkes had shown, that peer production can be generalised into the physical world and the whole society can be organised according to the principles of peer-governance on a global level.


[Hippel-DemocratizingInnovation]Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation, MIT Press, 2006
[Marx-WorkingMachine]Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 15, Sec. 1, 1867, online: (2008-03-18)
[Marx-ThreeStages]Karl Marx, The Grundrisse. Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy, Ch. 3, p. 158, 1857, online: (2008-03-18)
[Sennet-Craftsman]Richard Sennet, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008
[Siefkes-Peerconomy]Christian Siefkes, From Exchange to Contributions. Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World, Ed. C. Siefkes, 2007
[Wikipedia-FlowExperience] (2008-03-18)

StefanMerten/Papers/CapitalAndClass/PotentialOfPeerProduction (last edited 2009-06-02 17:01:07 by StefanMerten)

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