The Peer-to-Peer Future

December 22nd, 2011  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism  |  9 Comments

Now that the new Jacobin is live, I can point out the essay I’ve been teasing for a while in my posts. It builds on the thought experiment I carried out in my “Anti-Star Trek” post, in which I imagined a fully automated economy where class and profit was based entirely on intellectual property. In the new piece, that hypothetical is just one of four possible futures—two egalitarian utopias and two class-divided dystopias. It’s an attempt to think more systematically about the interaction between automation, ecological and resource limits, and class, and it’s available to read online.

A side issue in the essay, as well as a number of my blog posts, is that I often gesture at things like open source software and other kinds of peer-to-peer (P2P) production, as prefigurations of what labor might look like when freed from its oppressive form as capitalist wage labor. But there are others on the left who see P2P as a negative development, or at least one without much liberatory potential. Take the anonymous Mr. Teacup, whose archives I’ve recently been reading through with great interest. He (I’ll use that pronoun since the alias is male whether or not the blogger is) recently put up a two-part post on “The Peer-Production Illusion”.

The first post argues that “in practice, the open source software movement is compatible with and influenced by capitalism”, which “casts doubt on overly optimistic claims that peer production is intrinsically anti-capitalist.” Teacup shows that much of what looks like voluntary non-waged peer production really isn’t, because most of the work is done by employees of private firms which pay them to work on open source projects. He compares things like the Apache web server software to physical infrastructure: just as capitalists pay taxes that go to build things like roads and sewer systems through the medium of the state, so too firms will collectively fund the development of software that they all use, but from which none of them derives a comparative advantage.

I find little here to disagree with—clearly, P2P isn’t inherently anti-capitalist, and the analogy with physical infrastructure is an astute one. But the second post in the series goes on to to criticize a slightly different view:

The establishment of gift economies, even if they grow profits right now, might contain the seeds of eliminating capitalist production altogether. I’m going to call this the Beachhead Hypothesis: in the vast territory controlled by capitalism, P2P creates autonomous spaces free from exploitative wage labor that can be expanded to encroach further on enemy territory.

I disagree with this hypothesis because I don’t think we took this territory, I think it was created by capitalism.

I believe something quite close to the “Beachhead Hypothesis”, even though I also agree that the P2P space was in many ways created by capitalism. I don’t think this is a contradiction: capitalist relations first arose within a feudal context, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t ultimately point beyond feudalism. The crucial point is that the same set of relations can have a very different meaning depending on the larger social context in which it’s embedded.

While the first “Peer Production Illusion” post argued that much apparently P2P labor was really just capitalist wage labor organized at a supra-firm level, the second post employs a very different line of argument against the Beachhead Hypothesis. Teacup claims that even where “real” peer-production is done by people who aren’t paid for it, it still isn’t promising or liberating. Rather, peer production is actually an integral part of the ideology and practice of neoliberalism, which is built on a “civil society” in which unpaid acts become a source of private profits. Just as the ethic of charity can obscure the need to change structural inequalities, “the altruism of individuals participating in P2P gift economies obscures their role as free labor for capitalism.”

The implication here is that anyone who embraces the P2P ethic is kind of a sap, tricked into doing free labor for the man when they should be demanding a wage for it. Which in a way is true, because the problem with P2P as it exists now is that it is embedded in a society that’s still organized around wage labor. Everyone is still expected to support themselves by working for pay, but capitalists who profit from the work of the P2P economy are evading the fundamental bargain between capital and labor: I, the worker, will do work from which I am alienated and from which someone else profits, and in return you, the capitalist, must pay me a wage.

One response to this is to denounce P2P and other forms of free labor, in an attempt to shore up the wage. This is the direction in which Mr. Teacup seems to tilt. But another answer to this untenable situation is that the problem is not with P2P but with the institution of wage labor itself. If we are all, more and more, producing economic value even when we aren’t at work, this strengthens the case for a “social wage” paid to everyone—i.e., something like my perpetual hobbyhorse, the Unconditional Basic Income. This, indeed, is the direction that post-Autonomists like Hardt and Negri ultimately went. Another way to put this is that the rich need to pay a tax in order to support a piece of social infrastructure that they depend upon: the P2P economy.

But you obviously can’t take that position if you think P2P production is an inseparable part of a neoliberal capitalism that’s even worse than the order that preceded it. The alternative that remains is basically to go back to mid-20th Century social democracy, and to try to restore a real, pure capitalism in which all value-creating labor is rewarded with a wage (although as David Graeber points out, actually-existing capitalism has always depended on lots of labor that doesn’t fit the archetype of contractual wage labor).

A better strategy, I think, would be to learn from those moments when the working class responded to new forms of exploitation not by shoring up the old status quo, but by making a counter-move that advanced the economy forward to yet another new stage. When industrialization threatened traditional craft skills, one response of the labor movement was a craft unionism that tried to preserve the privileges of a small subset of skilled workers. But it was the more radical industrial unions that ultimately helped make possible the social democratic compromise that neoliberalism later undermined—a compromise based on accepting certain kinds of productivity-enhancing, deskilling technological changes in return for a share of the resulting rise in output. Just as craft unions were inadequate to an industrial age, the logic of class struggle in the factory is unlikely to be adequate to a post-industrial context. The question then, isn’t whether P2P is or isn’t capitalist, but whether we can get its capitalist integument to burst asunder.