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.


  1. Dan Miller says:

    December 22nd, 2011 at 3:31 pm (#)

    “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.”

    I loved the post, but I hope you’ll elaborate on this point a bit. I tend to define “work” as “that which you don’t do because you enjoy doing it”. If left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t bother showing up for work at 9 every day, so they have to pay me to ensure that I do so.

    But updating Facebook (or commenting on this blog, for that matter) isn’t like that at all–it’s something I do voluntarily, because I enjoy it. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg et al are making money off of me doing so; but if nobody paid the engineers and web-server-builders and everyone else who works for Facebook, the whole site would fall apart, so keeping it alive takes work, and therefore pay. In this scenario, the only people working are the Facebook employees–the people using it are more like the people who pay to get into a concert or amusement park. Six Flags makes money off me, but that doesn’t mean I’m working for them–in my mind, the same goes for Facebook.

    I realize there are complications to this scenario (for instance, the domestic labor that Mr. Teacup cites), and I am in broad agreement with the idea of a guaranteed minimum income. But Facebook doesn’t seem any more exploitative than any other provider of amusements.

  2. Peter Frase says:

    December 22nd, 2011 at 4:05 pm (#)

    I agree that it’s not right to think about this as exploitation in the traditional capitalist sense. That’s precisely why I find the trend toward peer production, the social factory, etc. to be hopeful though contradictory–I don’t think that what we do on social networking sites is alienated the way factory work is, and that’s a good thing. I underplayed this, perhaps inadvisably, in order to talk more sympathetically about the posts I was critiquing. My word choice may imply that this is a more malevolent act than I actually think it is, but when I say companies are “evading” the traditional capital-labor relation, I mostly just mean that they’ve found a way of doing business that doesn’t require too much alienated labor. Which is great for them, but has unintended bad consequences at the level of society as a whole.

    Facebook still isn’t like an amusement park, though. The value of the amusement park is not a function of the other customers, for the most part–indeed, it would generally be a superior experience if you had the park to yourself! But Facebook is only valuable to people because their friends are there talking and sharing and making things. Of course, the people who keep the infrastructure running are also necessary, but only because people are creating desirable content for their friends, for free. I guess you could use the example of a hip bar instead: the value is very much a function of the customers. And I’m comfortable with that–I don’t think the dilemma posed by Google or Facebook is totally unprecedented, it just takes on a new significance as businesses like these become a bigger part of the economy.

    The underlying issue, for me, is that your ability to dick around on Facebook, whether or not you find it inherently enjoyable to do so, is dependent on you getting money from somewhere to feed and clothe and house and buy an Internet connection for yourself. It’s also dependent on you having free time, either because you have a short work week or because you can play on the Internet while you’re at the office. Facebook benefits from existing in a society where their users have time and are getting paid, either by the state or by private employers, just as they benefit from being based in a country with a reliable electrical grid, clean water, an extensive highway system, etc.

    If you don’t want to think of it in terms of peer production, think of it this way: business needs effective demand, and in some circumstances the only way to create that demand is to take money from people who have too much of it (businesses, rich people) and give it to people who will spend it. This is true for the manufacturers of physical goods, and it’s true for Facebook, since you won’t have much time to “like” anything if you’re begging in the streets. In an economy increasingly dominated by Facebook-like firms, this framing still leads you to the same place–as Gorz said in a quote I’ve used multiple times before, “the distribution of means of payment must correspond to the volume of wealth socially produced and not to the volume of work performed”

  3. Dan Miller says:

    December 22nd, 2011 at 4:20 pm (#)

    Ah, that does clear things up. Thanks–the whole post and links are fascinating!

  4. Sandwichman says:

    December 22nd, 2011 at 9:56 pm (#)

    “The value of the amusement park is not a function of the other customers, for the most part–indeed, it would generally be a superior experience if you had the park to yourself!”

    Apparently you’ve never been to a nearly vacant amusement park, Peter. There’s not much there but an uncanny ennui. (See Eugene Atget photos). The amusement value of an amusement park is so a function of the other customers…

  5. Joe Clement says:

    December 22nd, 2011 at 8:34 pm (#)

    The IWW’s tactics of solidarity and minority unionism (as opposed to collective-bargaining majority-seeking unionism) anticipate the kind of transformation in class-struggle you suggest. There is even an essay they have on their site that’s really about minority unionism, but here called “open-source unionism”. They say they don’t necessary support the article, and post it for information purposes, but I’ve still heard other Wobblies endorse it:

    They’ve been good at responding to the precarity of wage-labor, but they’ve been less apt to deal non- or post-wage work, despite their revolutionary goal of abolishing the wage system. The de-valuing of domestic or informal labor is almost a tradition among Marxists too.

    I think you’re spot on in your turning it back on wage-labor as such. Turning on the P2P production for the way it lends itself to exploitation is not unlike the way the Luddites turned on machinery for disenfranchising workers.

  6. Evan McClanahan says:

    December 23rd, 2011 at 12:25 am (#)

    There’s an article out there, unfortunately lost to link-rot, about this problem from the a programmer’s perspective, how there were a small number of people producing huge amounts of value for numerous companies, but either not getting paid or getting paid relatively little for working what was basically two jobs (their wage earning work & supporting/coordinating their open source project).

    The author also noted that this type of individual was starting to disappear, the best of them hired into the biggest tech companies, where not everyone needs to contribute to the bottom line all the time, the rest of them abandoning their projects, either totally or to a new generation of people who still have the time to work on it (while noting that these new generations were smaller each time).

    I forget the conclusion that he came to, but I don’t recall it being along the same lines as a UBI/BMI/demogrant, but he was just talking in the specific context of the American software industry.

    As someone who has been on both sides of it, I think that Teacup is wrong (as I’ve thought every post of his that I’ve been pointed to has been, egregiously, so I am biased). It isn’t that there is no support for this sort of thing, or that people are only working on the things that they’d be working on anyway for work. Most open source projects are things that their originators find useful or interesting. The few that gain any corporate support are the outliers. Even Linux would likely have been dead in the water had not the UNIX vendors of the time spent more time acting like license pirates than software developers.

    I would predict confidently that if there were to suddenly be a UBI, there’d be an explosion of these sort of projects and likely a vast decline in the number of people who work professionally in software. It isn’t the most fulfilling sort of work.

  7. Ralph Haygood says:

    December 23rd, 2011 at 3:06 am (#)

    I work in software, and I agree entirely: most open-source projects are indeed things their originators find useful or interesting, and if there were a UBI, there would indeed be an explosion of such projects. Open-source software is much bigger than the projects that have been turned into profits by capitalists. Rather than claiming open-source software is subservient to capitalism, it would be more accurate to say capitalism is parasitic on open-source software. Many programmers – including, I suspect, all the best ones – program primarily because we love to program. It’s something like playing with Lego, which many of us spent many hours doing when we were children. Because most of us neither inherited nor married money, we also program for a living, but that’s secondary. Ideally, we’d work entirely on our own projects, so yes, if there were a UBI, there’d be a decline in the number of people working professionally in software.

  8. Mike says:

    December 23rd, 2011 at 1:25 am (#)

    Hi Peter, thanks for this response.

    My first point is relatively minor: when I say that P2P was “created by capitalism,” it’s not merely that it arose under capitalist conditions. If this was my objection, then I would be ruling out all possible alternatives, since all of them would arise under capitalism. My claim is that the P2P form is not a new form of exploitation — it closely resembles other forms of unpaid labor such as domestic work that have historically existed in support of capitalism. The most recent novelty is transferring labor costs — not just social services — on to the voluntary sector, but this hardly seems like ushering in a whole new order.

    The argument that the rise of peer production strengthens the case for a basic income was in the back of my mind while writing these posts. I have a certain sympathy for the idea, and this is related to why I oppose P2P. I’m a bit confused about why you think calling for a basic income because of peer production is very different from denouncing P2P. If the grounds for a basic income are that we are economically productive via peer production that we are not properly compensated for, then this saying that peer production is the same as denouncing it as exploitative, and not autonomous from capitalism.

    The only problem I have is that if you demand a basic income because of P2P contributions, this is no longer unconditional, instead it accepts the neoliberal paradigm of rewarding productivity. On the other hand, demanding that we should be compensated for our contributions via wages has some unexpected effects. The P2P economy is not only a gift economy, it can only be a gift economy — if we were to demand a wage, the whole system would collapse. This is because the P2P economy is parasitic on social life. If Facebook status updates were understood as the product of alienated labor and having financial motivations, no-one would go there. So trolls, spammers, SEO experts, self-promoters and personal branders become the abject categories of the internet. They are corrosive to social life on the internet, and therefore also to the internet companies that profit from it.

    I think of P2P as an expansion of the volunteer sector. So for me, saying that P2P can produce a demand for basic income is like saying that PTA bake sales and teenagers washing cars on the weekend to fund their school’s art program produces a demand for education provided by society. It does, but only if we are dismayed and see those efforts as a sign of a pathological society. Instead, the ethic of volunteerism and civic virtue makes it seem praiseworthy and a sign of a healthy society. P2P ideology has something similar, when it reformats exploitation as new opportunities for personal growth and financial security. We see this in many places, notably in the recent Gen-Y self-help book “Share or Die,” and also in the common advice for programmers to participate in open source projects as a way to build their resume, making it into a kind of unpaid internship.

  9. admin says:

    December 23rd, 2011 at 7:25 am (#)

    I’ll have to give your whole response more serious consideration when I’m not dashing something off at an airport bar, but I totally disagree that the argument P2P –> social wage accepts neoliberal productivity logic. The whole point is that everyone is “productive”, but it’s impossible to measure this value precisely or assign it to individuals, because it’s a property of the social whole.

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