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 similar evolution).
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 of producers.
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 non-capitalist society.
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
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 muerte!").
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 case.
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 important confusions.
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." (31may09) (3)
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
3. The need and possibility to find a new word to name a peer
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
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 also weaknesses.
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 problem.
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,
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