Against “Commonism”

I originally wrote this post as a response to Paul Cockshott sharing the article “The Emergence of Benefit-driven Production” on his Facebook wall.  I then adapted it into its current form.

In his famous 2011 speech to Occupy Wall Street in New York, Slavoj Zizek made a statement that was often later quoted by his interviewers:

The only sense in which we are communists is that we care for the commons.  The commons of nature, the commons of what is privatized by intellectual property, the commons of biogenetics; for this, and only for this we should fight.  Communism failed absolutely.

Given Zizek’s thoroughly Leninist prior statement regarding the situation in Greece:

The situation in Greece looks more promising, probably owing to the recent tradition of progressive self-organisation (which disappeared in Spain after the fall of the Franco regime). But even in Greece, the protest movement displays the limits of self-organisation: protesters sustain a space of egalitarian freedom with no central authority to regulate it, a public space where all are allotted the same amount of time to speak and so on. When the protesters started to debate what to do next, how to move beyond mere protest, the majority consensus was that what was needed was not a new party or a direct attempt to take state power, but a movement whose aim is to exert pressure on political parties. This is clearly not enough to impose a reorganisation of social life. To do that, one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness.

I seriously doubt the sincerity of his words at OWS, but it is nevertheless telling that he chose to voice them at such a key historical juncture.  Zizek was articulating the ideology of “commonism,” which arose out of the autonomist thought and open-source movement of the 1990s.  Zizek is fond of using the example of “coffee without caffeine” to describe our current sanitized ideology, so in the same spirit it seems apt to describe commonism as communism without planning.  The socialist critique of capitalism is articulated without the nasty particulars that socialism tripped up on in the 20th century.  Rather than address these problems head-on, the commonists tend to give us an overly-optimistic portrait of how socialism is spontaneously arising out of capitalism, and is just around the corner (luckily we don’t have to figure out how it will work!).  The article “The Emergence of Benefit-driven Production” by Von Christian Siefkes is very much indicative of this intellectual tendency, which is utopian and best, and dishonest at worst.

Von Christian Siefkes combines the work of thinkers as various as Yochai Benkler and Nick Dyer-Witheford in describing how open-source “benefit-driven production” heralds the coming of commonism. The article is interesting, but suffers from the romanticism characteristic of autonomist writing, it lacks a serious analysis both of how the political economy of open-source actually functions, and the limitations of the open-source model in showing the way towards a socialist future. The author very much plays down the important role played by (often corporate sponsored) foundations in the open-source community, and fails to make the vital distinction between the production of public goods, versus that of private goods. It is certainly true that “benefit-driven” production has been an amazing progressive development, and that volunteer work is an integral part of this production system, but the author avoids a proper materialist analysis of open-source production.

A great deal of production of free and open software is done in the producers’ “free time.” Recognizing this fact naturally leads one to ask what these producers are doing in their “unfree time” in order to gain the material use-values of food and shelter which “benefit-driven production” does not provide. The answer is by and large that they are working as wage slaves in the capitalist system producing something else. The only way that the production of free and open software can secure the necessities of life for the producer is if they are “sponsored” in their work by donors (either in the form of individual donors or foundations).

I believe it is fair to say that Linux and all its associated software would not be in the position it is today without the work of paid producers who “anchor” the work of unpaid contributors and help to provide a general direction to their “stigmergy.” This paid work would in turn not have happened without the monetary contributions of IBM, Novell, Red Hat, Oracle, Google, Nokia, Canonical, etc.

For example Ubuntu has become the most popular Linux distribution since its launch 8 years ago. This is largely seen to be the case because of A) its user-friendly orientation and B) its steady funding. Prior to the creation of Ubuntu the notion of creating a user-friendly Linux was often looked upon with outright hostility by elitist members of the Linux community, who argued that it would “encourage stupidity.” This accusation is still often leveled at Ubuntu despite its successes in spreading the use of free and open software. “Stigmergy” was not predisposed to creating a democratic form of Linux. This only occurred after the creation of a well-funded project with a definite direction.

Ubuntu is not the only such example. The popular GNOME, Unity, and KDE desktops, the GTK project, the LibreOffice project and many more fall into this pattern. Even the development of the Linux kernel itself receives corporate support!

This is not to say that “benefit-driven production” requires corporate funding. There is nothing in its structure to suggest that, as the foundations that drive its development often operate at “arm’s length” from their corporate sponsors. The funding could just as easily come from “the associated producers” and this is what truly indicates the progressive character of the “benefit-driven production” model. The current system of free and open software production should be subjected to a critique of its actual political economy, and not romanticized with rose-coloured boosterism that ignores its fundamental contradictions and injustices.

We should not celebrate the fact that the majority of contributors to the development of open-source projects cannot receive the essentials they need to reproduce themselves from their work. Contributions to open-source are not wage labour, but they are still an unsatisfactory solution to the problem of wage labour. The fundamental problems of building socialism remain real problems, and cannot be wished away.

The article also characteristically fails to distinguish between public goods and private goods in production.  To what do these two terms refer?  Wikipedia provides a simple defintion:

Paul A. Samuelson is usually credited as the first economist to develop the theory of public goods. In his classic 1954 paper The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure,[2] he defined a public good, or as he called it in the paper a “collective consumption good”, as follows:

[goods] which all enjoy in common in the sense that each individual’s consumption of such a good leads to no subtractions from any other individual’s consumption of that good

This is the property that has become known as Non-rivalry. In addition a pure public good exhibits a second property called Non-excludability: that is, it is impossible to exclude any individuals from consuming the good.

The opposite of a public good is a private good, which does not possess these properties. A loaf of bread, for example, is a private good: its owner can exclude others from using it, and once it has been consumed, it cannot be used again.

Because the production of open-source software is the production of public goods (non-excludable and non-rivalrous) it unproblematically benefits everyone who wishes to consume it. While ideas are generally considered to have always been public goods, the development of productive forces has essentially eliminated scarcity in the distribution of open-source software.  Open-source software is available for download free of charge, and the cost of its reproduction of trivial.  Furthermore the use of the software does not exclude others from its use, and the ease of reproduction ensures that it is non-rivalrous (A point guaranteed in law by the GPL).

The article does not point out that most other forms of production are productive of excludable and rivalrous private goods. It does mention in passing that “In commonism, as in any society, decisions on how to use the available resources will be necessary.” But its superficial mention of this issue fails to acknowledge that this is the fundamental problem of economics.  How are the excludable and rivalrous products of society be distributed amongst its members? Will the productions of scarce goods for social consumption simply occur spontaneously through “stigmergy?” I have my doubts!

The author argues that “Peer production, on the other hand, is production for others which is neither based on coercion nor motivated by monetary gain.”

This would only be true under conditions of highly-developed socialist automation, where material goods such as bread, houses, and tables would become so easy to produce that they would effectively be public goods, which is hardly a fait accompli.  It is not as though the often back-breaking conditions of agricultural production could instantly be changed by social fiat, and the article itself acknowledges that there are serious limitations to how far worker-oriented automation can progress under capitalism.  A transitional regime of production that would develop this worker-oriented automation and an accompanying egalitarian society is still required, despite the promising developments we can see in today’s “benefit-driven production.”  While the “commonist” argument recognizes the capitalist situation and has a vision of the benefits of communism, it imagines that these benefits will somehow materialize without a transition stage that confronts us with its own problems. This is because the “commonists” want to pretend that the seemingly intractable problems of 20th century Communism do not need to be addressed and that the promise of the socialist project can be achieved through some kind of spontaneous historical dispensation.

Today it is not enough to articulate a moral critique of capitalism.  Nor is it even enough to articulate a systemic critique of capitalism.  The challenges of our day require us to directly confront the history of 20th century socialism and articulate alternatives that allow us to escape the present capitalist morass and realize the commonist dream.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Against “Commonism”

  1. Where I think the P2P people have it right is identifying a new form of production that is a non commodity mode of production. It is embeded within the social relations of the prior forms of production, just as early capitalist production was dependent on the feudal agriculture to supply its raw materials, but that does not mean we should not examine it as a new set of production relations. I think some of them are optimisitic in thinking it can come to dominance without a political revolution to overthrow existing property relations, but perhaps some recongnise this.

  2. Robert

    Yes, a similar critique I think can be made of concepts such as “The Ethical Economy” (Adam Arvidsson)- the argument that new affect-based economies that are driven by a new logic of value which is more wedded to ‘reputation’ and social influence are emerging within, and against, the old logic of value. To a certain degree this is certainly occuring and the fact that open source no longer is limited to software but now includes even the making of tractor parts is interesting and promising. However like you say it is really difficult to imagine, for example, the mining for the metals used to make these parts operating on similar principles.

  3. Thank you both for the thoughtful comments. I will have to try reading Arvidsson’s book.

  4. I agree with your remarks.

    Commons societies did exist in the past; many were relatively stable. The subsistence commons of the English peasantry is probably the most well-known example. But that’s not what Siefkes seems to be talking about. I think the differences are worth thinking about.

    Siefkes emphasizes the commons as an economic construct. But the vast majority of actual commons regimes were and are rooted in communities organized around norms, values, practices, and human relationships. This also applies to the commons Siefkes mentions, like that of free software. It seems to me that his scenario of voluntary production, in which necessary tasks are automated away, diminishes community: removing human interaction forced by necessity, only voluntary relationships remain. Historically, the material sustenance of life provided the limits within which the negotiation of commons institutions was indispensable.

    An emphasis on community implies that the commons must have an inside and an outside. Most commons do not correspond to the pure economic understanding of a commons as an open access resource. Communities produce commons institutions (particular to their history and circumstances) in order to sustain the resources or ecosystem on which they depend. These are not open to all comers. One feature that distinguishes them from capitalist markets is the concern with sustenance and sustainability over profit and growth. Rivalrousness and scarcity is partly constructed by capitalism (e.g. most of the Americas before colonization: groups maintained territories, but land was not scarce in the way that it was once capitalist institutions were introduced). Commons institutions preserve abundance (or at least resist scarcity) through bottom-up mutual monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.

    The centrality of institutions (captured in the the subtitle of Ostrom’s book – “The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action”) suggests to me a potential for hierarchy. Following Benkler, Siefkes describes peer production as non-hierarchical. I am not convinced. Hierarchy goes together with decentralization. Linus is the benevolent dictator; he appoints lieutenants. From Wikipedia’s open editing policy has arisen a hierarchy of editors. Siefke talks about producers, but the vast majority of participants in the free software commons are users at the bottom of the hierarchy, whose individual productive contribution (popularizing the software) are minute. (On the other hand, anti-rival commons tend to centralized monopoly. Indeed the tension between the benefits of monopoly and the potential of forking is an important mechanism regulating free software production.)

    Capitalism depends on commons production. It also progressively encloses it. Much of that commons production, as you describe, in turn depends on capitalism. Liberals idealize a symbiotic relationship: Lawrence Lessig’s hybrid economy or Eric von Hippel’s user innovation. Despite this, and in addition to the clealry important achievements of commons regimes (such as free software), I think the existence and success of actual commons institutions and practices is useful for pointing beyond the horizon of existing capitalism and for fostering alternative values (e.g. collective, egalitarian, sustainable).

  5. Thank you for your comments Geof, you make some good points. I have been doing some reading lately about co-operative based economies (especially those of Yugoslavia under the socialist period), and they certainly bear some similarity to what you describe. Hopefully I will get a chance to post on the subject and hear what you have to say on the matter based on your research.

  6. josh

    While the idea that P2P/ Linux somehow relates to developing a more egalitarian political economy is dumb and confused, I think your contention at the end of this article, that a “transitional socialist state” is necessary to develop actual communism, is wrong.

    You’re setting up a false dillema, that it’s either “some irrelevant technobabble that can only exist in magicland” vs. “a command economy that will somehow represent the interests of workers”.

    The fact that scarcity is a thing certainly doesn’t exclude other forms of economic organization. I’m more than sure people could democratically organize a sustainable society without some nomenklatura. I bet the production of Paris alone could feed every citizen in France.

  7. When I wrote that:

    “A transitional regime of production that would develop this worker-oriented automation and an accompanying egalitarian society is still required, despite the promising developments we can see in today’s ‘benefit-driven production.'”

    I was not arguing for rule by the nomenklatura. You yourself state that “other forms of economic organization” would be required to address scarcity. Whether you had something like Parecon or market socialism in mind, those “other forms of economic organization” involve planning of some sort. Personally I am in favour of a combination of democratic decision making, market mechanisms, and planning. Planning should be subordinated to democracy, not the other way around.

  8. I think you miss what’s important about open source. It’s not that there are free producers who are somehow outside the market in a market society.

    The fact that they have to work at other jobs in order to be able to do the free work that they do only underscores the point the communists and anarchists have been making for centuries: human beings want to create. If work didn’t get in the way, most of these folks would spend all of their free time doing creative labor instead, creative labor from which most of humanity could benefit.

    Do foundations and corporations contribute? Of course. They benefit from all the unpaid labor and free services provided by this community. But in a free association of workers, these creators would still be supported, only this time by their fellow workers.

    Open source is very much one model of how things could be done in a post market society.

  9. I am aware of your point about funding, and I say as much in the article:

    “There is nothing in its structure to suggest that, as the foundations that drive its development often operate at “arm’s length” from their corporate sponsors. The funding could just as easily come from “the associated producers” and this is what truly indicates the progressive character of the “benefit-driven production” model.”

    As for your point about people’s innate desire to create, you are certainly correct about that. However the article I was critiquing suggested that open source would in itself overcome capitalism. People’s innate desire to create has been exploited by capitalism since its birth (And especially since the birth of Hollywood). This is a point that is well addressed in Hesmondhalgh’s “The Cultural Industries,” where he points out that there is a two-tier labour structure in the cultural industries. The small top tier is composed of cultural workers who have “made it” and are well compensated. The much larger bottom tier is formed of cultural workers who work “day jobs” to subsidize their very poorly compensated work in the cultural industries, where they are trying to get their big break. The reason these workers are willing to work for such low wages is precisely because of their intense desire to perform creative labour. This is a structure not so much unlike that of the open-source world.

    As you point out, an end to capitalist alienation would allow these people to realize their desire to perform creative labour to a much greater degree, but that does not mean that “commonism” in itself is adequate to end this alienation. That is the point that I was trying to get at.

  10. Pingback: A critique of the commonist ideology | P2P Foundation

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