[ox-en] A name for a peer-production-based society?
- From: Raoul <raoulv club-internet.fr>
- Date: Wed, 02 Sep 2009 01:14:40 +0200
A name for a peer-production-based society ?
Christian Siefkes wrote (13aug09):
"So we're still faced with two very different futures, which Rosa
Luxemburg contrasted as "socialism or barbarism" almost hundred years
ago. Though nowadays, seeing that the reopening of the commons is an
essential precondition for the positive alternative to appear, we might
prefer to call it commonism instead."
The issue of giving a name to a "system" based on peer production
principles has been dealt with recently, more or less directly, in the
Oekonux list and also in a larger sphere. Especially through the
discussions about the Kevin Kelly's article: "The New Socialism: Global
Collectivist Society Is Coming Online", (22may09) (1)
About this article Stefan Meretz wrote (28may09):
"Btw: Kevin Kelly used the term 'socialism' too – crazy."
And Stefan Merten (4jun09): "Well, really an interesting article.
Indeed, very Oekonuxian in spirit."
At another level, Mathieu O'Neil wrote (27may): "In general I have been
thinking about what Oekonux is for. My short answer: Oekonux aims to
disseminate the idea that peer production is a valid alternative to
capitalism." And Diego Saravia answered asking (27may): "Esclavism,
feudalism, capitalism, p2p-ism?"
There are three interesting questions raised by these interventions:
1 The meaning of the words "socialism" and "communism" (both words had a
2 The pertinence to call socialist or communist a society fully based on
peer production principles.
3 The need and possibility to find a new word to name such a society.
A few words about these issues.
1. The meaning of the words "socialism" and "communism"
A whole book could be written (and that has probably been done) about
the evolution of the meaning of these words. In short one can say that
they appeared as expressions of a dream of a post-capitalist society and
ended as synonymous of totalitarian forms of capitalism, state capitalism.
Even Hitler used the word socialism for his cause.
At the origin, as a negation of capitalism, the different meanings of
these words had in common to be opposed to the two most specific
characteristics of capitalism: capital profit as the goal of production
and wage-labor as the way to mediate the participation of the majority
The project, even if often nebulous, was generally identified with a
society without classes, without exploiters and exploited, without
private property of the means of production, where production would be
oriented exclusively towards the satisfaction of human needs and where
the participation of the population and the distribution of goods would
follow the principle: "From each according to his ability, to each
according to his needs".
Other important characteristics of the original concepts of socialism or
communism were the ideas that workers have no fatherland, ("The workers
have no country", says The Communist Manifesto; "The International will
be the human race", says the famous song), and that in a classless
society there would be no State. Marxist and Anarchist could strongly
disagree about the need or not of a State apparatus in a period of
transition, but they agreed on its absence in a full-developed
For many reasons, some relating to weaknesses and defeats of the workers
movements, some relating to the manipulation skills of the ruling
classes, the understanding of these words evolved dramatically until
they could be used to name different forms of state controlled
capitalism. (2) It was the opposite of the original meaning.
Instead of production oriented towards humans needs, production remains
oriented towards accumulation of capital, even if it is State capital, a
huge share of the product being generally devoted to maintaining an
unusually important military apparatus and a rich and powerful
bureaucracy which controls and possesses collectively the means of
production; instead of eliminating the wage system, this is generalized
and the level of wages for most of the population is "equalized" to
minimums; instead of internationalism and worldwide brotherhood,
nationalism is exacerbated till its most absurd extremes ("Patria o
Horrors like the Cambodian genocide under the Pol-Pot regime were made
in the name of "socialism" or "communism".
Some "critical supporters" of that kind of regime argue that they
were/are not really socialist or communist, but "steps towards" them.
But historical evidence has violently showed that it has never been the
If one sticks to the original definition of socialism and communism , it
is obvious that none of them has ever existed or even begun to exist.
The identification of these terms with state-capitalist regimes appears
then as one the greatest and most poisonous lies of the 20th century.
It must also be underscored that since the beginning of the corruption
of the meaning of these terms, there have always been currents of
Marxists or anarchists (generally minorities) which remained faithful to
the original meanings of these words and permanently denounced the
mystifications. Rosa Luxembourg, quoted by Siefkes (above) was one of them.
In any case, it is obvious that nowadays using the words socialism or
communism without specifying the meaning given to them is source of
2. The pertinence to call socialist or communist a society fully based
on peer production principles.
Kevin Kelly's article reads:
"When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a
common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute
labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it's not
unreasonable to call that socialism."
If one respects the original meaning of the word "socialism", and if one
leaves apart the political aspects of the question, K. Kelly is correct.
He could also had called that "communism".
Peer Production has developed in a universe where abundance prevails for
most of its products. Digital goods being freely reproducible, the
principles of private/excluding property and symmetric exchange are not
only useless but also counter-productive. Original socialist/communist
principles are also based on the possibility of abundance (of material
goods in this case) and are thus basically the same. "From each
according to his ability, to each according to his needs", for example,
is a common practice in digital peer production. Peer production has in
addition the specific quality of being international, without
fatherlands and naturally worldwide oriented since the beginning.
The problem is that the meaning of the word socialism (or communism),
for most of the population, is seldom the original one. It rather evokes
social-democratic or Stalinists regimes. As Lawrence Lessig puts it in
his criticisms to Kelly's article:
"So my argument against Kelly is that it is wrong to use a term (in the
context of a Wired essay at least; a philosophy seminar would invoke a
completely different set of ethics) that would be so completely
misunderstood. We choose our words. We don't choose our meaning."
I understand Kelly's concern as I think it is useful to understand how
peer production is the beginning of the concretization of an old dream
of exploited and poor classes in history, as were the
socialist/communist ideas. Even if for the moment peer production
concerns essentially the specific area of digital goods, such a
recognition can only be a stimulant to strive for its expansion to the
rest of social production. Maybe, one day in the future, the meaning of
socialism and communism will be again, in most of the world population's
mind, the original one. But that would not be for tomorrow. In the
meantime, at a "popular" level, when there is not enough time or place
to explain, the use of this words, without precisions, is inevitably
3. The need and possibility to find a new word to name a peer production
If socialism and communism are problematical, is it necessary to find a
new "ism" to name the system which would prevail in a society based on
peer production principles?
As Christian Siefkes (see above), I think the answer is yes. Even if
words may become dangerous by the ambiguities in their meaning, as we
have seen, we cannot think without them. "In the beginning was the
word". For human beings, a collective project can hardly be devised,
worked-out without naming it. A name helps to concentrate the wills, the
thoughts, the actions of a movement in a given direction.
The word "commonism", proposed by Christian Siefkes (and Stefan Meretz
(4)) refers indeed to one of the most specific and post-capitalistic
aspects of Peer Production: to be commons based and commons oriented. It
also gives the idea of a continuity with the old dreams. But it is
obvious that it echoes the word "communism", especially verbally, and
has thus the same disorienting effects.
Since some time, I have been thinking that something like "gratisism"
could be a solution.
"Gratis is the process of providing goods or services without monetary
compensation. It is often referred to in English as 'free of charge'. ",
says Wikipedia in English. And it adds: "The term gratis in English
comes from the Latin word "gratis" meaning "for thanks". In several
languages, including Italian, French, Romanian, Swedish, Spanish,
Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, German, Polish, Bahasa Indonesia
and Afrikaans it is the equivalent to "for free". (5)
I think that a word based on "gratis" has interesting advantages, but
The advantages are of two kinds: theoretical and "communicative". From a
theoretical point of view it has the virtue to puts the emphasis on the
overcoming of the kernel of capitalism: the law of exchange value. You
don't sell, you don't buy. Without exchange value, the wage system and
the accumulation of capital become nonsenses. Use-value, usefulness as
the object of production instead of exchange value is highlighted.
From a "communicative" point of view, I see three obvious advantages:
1. The word gratis has an immediate meaning for every one. Even if you
are not familiar with the web and digital goods, you know that your best
relationships with others (friends, love, relatives) are, generally,
"gratis". 2. The word "gratisism" is new. It does not suffer from the
weight of "the tradition of all dead generations". The continuity with
the past is reinvented from a new point of view. 3. Last and... least,
the word "gratis" has the same meaning in more than a dozen languages.
But I also see a weakness: "gratisism" may be identified with practices
that are "gratis" only apparently. Two of them are particularly frequent
and remain totally in a capitalistic logic. One concerns the goods
financed by commercial advertising, very present in the web (Google is
only one of the most spectacular examples). Here, the good is in reality
payed by the buyer of the advertized products. Furthermore, advertising
relays on one of the darkest aspects of the 20th century mind
manipulation: "A lie repeated a thousand times becomes a truth",
(Goebbels). The second false "gratisism" concerns the public services
which are sometimes said "gratis" but are in fact payed by the tax payer.
This is not the kind of “graticism” we want. Commercial advertising and
taxes are meaningless in a world without money.
I don't know how disorienting that can be, but there is here obviously a
But, will we find a perfect term?
One may say that it is a waste of time to try to find a word to name
something that can only be the product of the action of billions of
people all over the world, that the movement itself will find the most
appropriated terms. Which is true. But the problem is that we are also
part of that movement.
2. Socialism and communism have not always had identical meanings. For
example, socialism has some times been associated to a previous step
towards communism. During the first World War the word "communist" was
used by the left wing of the workers movement to distinguish themselves
from the majority of the "socialist" (social-democratic) parties that
had called in every country to participate to the war. After the Russian
Revolution and the foundation of the Third International, also called
the Communist International, the communist parties where in general much
closer to the USSR and related regimes than the "socialist". During the
"Cold war", the Socialist International regrouped parties associated to
the Western (pro USA) bloc against the parties affiliated to the
Komintern (Communist International, pro USSR), etc. But the evolution of
the meaning of both words suffered an analogous dramatic corruption.
To a certain extent, something similar happened to Christianity which
started as a "commons based" religion (first christian used to put in
common their belongings) and evolved into one of the strongest pillars
of the inequality-based systems: slavery, feudalism, capitalism.
Contact: projekt oekonux.de