[ox-en] Review of peerconomy book
- From: Stefan Merten <smerten oekonux.de>
- Date: Thu, 04 Sep 2008 20:23:42 +0200
I finally wrote my review of Christian's book. See below and at
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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
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 [#]_ 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.
.. [#] 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 [#]_. 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
.. [#] 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 [#]_. 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.
.. [#] 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
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.
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 [#]_. 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.
.. [#] 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
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
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 [#]_.
.. [#] 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 http://peerconomy.org/wiki/Main_Page#The_Book for
ways to get it
.. _StefanMz' review: http://www.oekonux.org/list-en/archive/msg04024.html
.. _Oekonux drawing board: http://en.wiki.oekonux.org/Oekonux/DrawingBoard
Contact: projekt oekonux.de