Peer production

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From Wikipedia:

Peer production (also known as mass collaboration) is a way of producing goods and services that relies on self-organizing communities of individuals. In such communities, the labor of many people is coordinated towards a shared outcome. Peer production is a process taking advantage of new collaborative possibilities afforded by the internet and has become a widespread mode of labor. Free and open source software and open source hardware are two examples of peer production. One of the earliest instances of networked peer production is Project Gutenberg, a project in which volunteers make out-of-copyright works available online. Other non-profit examples include Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia (which has been described as "one of the most classic examples" of the peer production concept), Linux, a computer operating system, and Mozilla, a browser. Peer production occurs in a socio-technical system which allows thousands of individuals to effectively cooperate to create a non-exclusive given outcome (under commons and other forms of shared property). Implanting the principle of open collaboration, participants of peer production projects can join and leave at will (more on openness). These collective efforts are informal and non-unionized. Peer production is a collaborative effort with no limit to the amount of discussion or changes that can be made to the deliverable. However, as in the case of Wikipedia, a large amount, in fact the majority, of this collaborative effort is maintained by very few devoted and active individuals (also called longtail production).

Sometimes we use the term commons-based peer production, proposed by Yochay Benkler in 2001. On this wiki we make a distinction between commons-based peer production (CBPP) and peer production.

  • CBPP is mediated by centralized platforms (ex. such as Wikipedia), as when Benkler published his studies blockchain and other p2p infrastructures didn't exist. Peer production is mediated by infrastructure that is under the nondominium property regime. The difference is significant, since the nondominium infrastructure is capture resistant.
  • Also, Benkler spoke about digital social production, he did not extend his theory to material production. Peer production, as used by Sensorica encompass all production, including material
  • Benkler presented CBPP as entirely bypassing the market. Sensorica's use of peer production includes market transactions, but it also includes other modes of distribution and dissemination.

A good example of peer production of digital services is Bitcoin. It can be seen as a permissionless distributed network of agents (miners, blockchain developers, clients and other service providers that rely on the main network) that provides a global and very secure token exchange service. Some argue that this service amounts to a "store of value", others consider it as a currency. Bitcoin, with its underlying blockchain technology has ushered a new age in peer production, with the emergence of the DAO (decentralized autonomous organizations) movement. The scale and high level of reliability of the Bitcoin service suggests that peer production can lead to very high quality outcomes. The longevity of the Bitcoin network and its adoption over time also suggests that peer production can be very transformative. This seems to be very puzzling for skeptics who have criticized peer production for some of its unreliable or mediocre outcomes.

Sensorica, with the OVN model aims at extending the success of the Bitcoin network into the material realm. The reader must note that although there are significant ideological differences among various implementations of peer production, the OVN model discussed here, which originates in the commons movement, and the libertarian-leaning Bitcoin model are part of a larger family of economic models. See also the 4th Sector.

Intrinsic factors such as the desire for mastery, autonomy, and purpose, sometimes overshadow purely financial incentives in p2p processes. In other words, money is not a determinant factor in peer production, which can be seen as an escape, i.e. providing the possibility of peer production to reproduce itself outside of capitalism and socialism, building new driving forces that are not monetary in nature and that do not depend on markets for distribution and dissemination.

Evolution/adaptation of peer production within the current economic system

Defined neither by the motor of profit, nor by central planning: to allocate resources and make decisions, it does not use market and pricing mechanisms, or managerial commands, but instead uses social relations. Peer production is a significant part of the mainstream economy, even if it is not much advertised as such in mainstream economic literature.

This was imported from a page on the P2P wiki

The following is an excerpt from a key essay by Graham Seaman. The original title is The Two Economies Or: Why the washing machine question is the wrong question. [1]:

Within capitalism, material goods are typically made:

  • by people working for a wage
  • for others who own the means of production
  • in order to create profit
  • by selling the product

The co-ordination between producers is indirect, through the market, using price (money) as a signalling mechanism.

Production of free software and other free goods can be contrasted point by point with this list; non-material goods can be produced by people:

  • working because they chose to
  • using their own means of production
  • in order to create something useful or pleasurable
  • which anyone can use

The co-ordination between producers is direct, mediated only by technology.

In traditional Marxist terms, two societies described like this would have different modes of production. But in this case there is only one society, and while almost the whole of society produces in the first way, only a tiny, though growing, part produces in the second.

Note: The mode of production described above for free software was studied by Yochai Benkler and was named commons-based peer production.

This is not an unusual situation: there have been few times in history when a 'pure' mode of production, unmixed with fragments of other modes, existed. Some of these fragments are remnants of the past: personal slavery in parts of Northern Europe during the middle ages, or villages with communally allocated and rotated land in isolated parts of Southern Europe today. These fragments can often survive for long periods, integrated into the overall system and partially changed from their original form, but stable. Others are abortive glimpses of a future believed possible which turns out not to be so, such as the numerous experiments in communal working and living from the nineteenth century to the 60s and 70s of the last century, again often surviving for long periods. But the most interesting possibility is the fragment which turns out to be the replacement for the dominant mode of production.

This leads to two major groups of questions:

Firstly, what are the effects of the coexistence of two modes of production now? How does the dependence of free software producers on the capitalist economy affect free software production? And what effect, if any, does free software production have on the surrounding capitalist mode of production?

Secondly, is it possible for the free software mode of production to be generalized to the whole of society? And if so, how?

Obviously, these are questions without definitive answers. Even those parts of the question which are purely empirical would need a major research program to answer properly. But that doesn't mean that it is pointless to try to suggest possible answers. One possible starting point is to look to the past, to one of the best documented changes: the break-up of the feudal system in pre-revolutionary England.

The End of the Guilds

Manufacturing in late mediaeval society was contained within the guild system, and organised through the hierarchy of apprentices, journeymen and masters. To have a trade it was necessary to have been an apprentice; once apprenticeship had been completed (normally after 7 years) an apprentice could expect his master to register him as a full guild member, with the freedom to practise the trade as an independent journeyman. Naturally journeymen would expect to become masters in their turn. Knowledge of the trade was part of the mystery of the guild, shared vertically within the guild but kept a secret from outsiders, and guild boundaries were rigourously enforced. Guild inspectors would check not only the quality of the goods produced but also adherence to proper employment procedures and encroachment on the territory of other guilds: a shoemaker in the shoemakers guild should not encroach on the work of cobblers, who repaired old shoes, nor should he tan his own leather, the mystery of the tanners' guild. The system was intended to maintain the maximum possible quality of the output: the quality of tanned leather was guaranteed by the tanners' own inspectors, the true experts on tanning, and a shoemaker who set himself up as an amateur tanner as well had no such expertise.

By the late 16th century this system was still firmly in place. To some extent it was cross-cut by the patents of monopoly granted by the state, which effectively gave guild privileges to small groups of individuals (though even these were limited to 7 years, the time for a group of apprentices to pass through the system and potentially be able to set up a new guild); but the right of the state to grant such patents was fiercely (and often successfully) resisted by the guilds.

What the guilds could not do was cope with the increasing number of journeymen with no hope of becoming masters in their own guilds. In the big cities desperate journeymen began to abandon their own trades and set up as small manufacturers. These small manufacturers, though persecuted, managed to survive outside the guild system and the mediaeval hierarchy of rights and obligations, and in spite of the many caught by guild inspectors and fined or even imprisoned, by the mid-17th century parts of London were dominated by them. Since they were outside the guild system their employees were not apprentices in the old sense, but workers for a wage: this was already a fragment of a new mode of production.

Now two systems co-existed: one still dominant, the other small and struggling, and blocked at every turn by the regulations of the old system. John Lilburne, one of the leading spokesmen for the Levellers, the Republican left-wing, was a typical example: originally apprenticed as a clothier, he became a Protestant. Book publishing and distribution was a monopoly of the Stationers', and when he attempted to bring in Protestant texts from Holland he was caught by inspectors for the Stationers' Company and imprisoned. Once freed, he became a successful small brewer until the outbreak of the Civil War. After two and a half year's fighting, he attempted to use his knowledge of cloth as a cloth-exporter; but the monopoly on cloth export belonged to the Merchant Adventurers, not the clothiers themselves. Abandoning this, he became a soap-maker ... Just to survive, people like John Lilburne were forced to work outside, and against, the guilds.

Other Leveller supporters worked in brewing, tanning, glass-making, felt-making, hat-making, sack-cloth and linen-weaving, dyeing, silk-spinning, soap-boiling, nearly all embroiled in continual struggles with the guilds. It was natural that their watchword became 'freedom': freedom from the guilds, freedom from the state-imposed monopolies, freedom for trade, freedom of conscience.

So we have a first requirement: the new mode of production is not something arbitrary, willed into existence, but a product of the old system: in this case the guild system which was structurally unable to provide positions for all its apprentices.

Next, the new system began to infect the old. Here the route was simple: for the new mode of production to expand, it needed capital, and capital was already available. Merchant trading was a normal part of the mediaeval economy; once again, monopolised by merchant guilds. But given new possible sources of profit why should they care whether the products they traded had been produced under normal guild regulations or not? From reselling non-guild products it was a small step to financing their production, although in the end the restrictions on doing this on a large scale were too great, and the major new capitalist industries were not based on the original ones in the warrens of London, but in the North, away from any guild control at all. Once these large-scale industries had become established, the guild system was effectively doomed: the number of apprentices who could be integrated into the guild system with it's progression of stages was tiny compared with the mass of labourers required for the new manufactories. Some in the old system attempted to compete by taking on large numbers of apprentices against their own rules, or by employing journeymen who had not completed apprenticeships, but the result was that the guilds simply became empty ceremonial shells of their former selves, gradually to disappear over the next two centuries.

It is noticeable that the change from guild production to capitalist production was in its early stages not driven by technological change, but by the inability of the guild system to cope with expanding markets. The changes, and the causes of the spread of the new system, were social. New technologies - in particular the use of steam-power in production - only became important a century later.

All this suggests some possible properties needed for a new mode of production to spread:

  • A new mode of production appears in a leading part of the economy, which may not be the main basis for the old system: here, manufacture, not agriculture.
  • A new mode of production is not purely willed into existence, but is a natural outgrowth of the old.
  • The new mode of production initially depends on the old one, firstly as a source of knowledge and skills, and secondly as the source of all goods which it cannot create itself.
  • The two modes of production must be able to coexist while the new one grows.
  • The new mode of production must be able to infect and weaken the old.
  • At a certain point the new mode of production must be able to offer possibilities which the old one cannot.
  • The new mode of production must be able to spread to all important fields, but this does not need to be immediate -- full integration of agriculture within capitalism is still an ongoing process in most countries.

The statement that 'free software is the kernel of a new mode of production' often leads to the question 'how can you make washing-machines in the same way'? This depends on your assumptions about what that way consists of: is the primary fact technological, the fact that reduced costs for computers have made software effectively a public good; or is it social, and the fact that people are working together in a new way that is primary?

If it is the first, then production of material goods in the same way needs them to be 'dematerialized': we must wait for the invention of matter transmitters before it becomes possible.

If the second, then it is possible to give a more optimistic answer: once working by free software principles has spread far enough throughout the economy that it reaches the people who make washing machines, they will know how to do it. In every revolution of the last hundred years, people have begun to take control of their own work. If the revolution has been defeated, their control has been taken away. If the revolution has won, their control has been taken away. But the possibility is there, and has been shown repeatedly, even though it rarely appears in history books. What free software has proved that is new is the possibility of this style of work on a large scale, sustained over a long period of time.

But in either case, to expect a solution to the 'washing machine question' now would require magic; a sudden jump, whether technological or social, which is not likely to happen." (

Sensorica's OVN response to Graham

See more about the Open Value Network (OVN) model. Sensorica is a pilot project for material peer production that uses the OVN model.

Graham Seaman provides a good historical example of how new modes of production get established. He also provides a good synthesis of conditions required for a new mode of production to replace the old. Graham's conclusion is wrong, in our opinion, which is based on 12 years of experience practising material peer production within the Sensorica OVN.

Graham states that a new mode of production can be introduced by

  • a new technology - change in means of production, reduced costs of production
  • a new cultural aspect - social, people are working together in a new way

In reality, it is both at the same time, in the sense that new means of production are introduced by a new technology and these means are first put into practice by people who already share some fringe cultural aspects.

Graham is skeptical of the first, concluding that in order to apply the free software way of production, which we now call digital peer production,

"then production of material goods in the same way needs them to be 'dematerialized': we must wait for the invention of matter transmitters before it becomes possible".

If we analyze open source hardware production, we can distinguish between 3 phases, design & prototyping, with iterations between the two, and fabrication (of the artifact that has reached maturity in design). Nowadays, open source hardware is deigned with DIY (do-it-yourslef) in mind, i.e. lowering the technical barriers for fabrication while making use of digital fabrication technologies, such as CNC and 3D printing. The design phase can be virtualized, using collaborative CAD programs and online collaborative repositories of models (represented as CAD files), with version management capabilities (and more). Prototyping is often done by individual contributors using their own means (basement labs with minimal electronics and mechanical prototyping equipment, 3D printing) or in makerspaces, fablabs or hackerspaces. These physical collaborative spaces are products of the same open culture that has produced these methodologies for open source development, first for software and after for hardware. These spaces can be considered as part of the physical infrastructure of (material) peer production. They are open access, similar to online open source projects, and horizontally governed, they encourage collaboration among members, they encourage transparency by providing public access to their projects and processes, they do not emphasize profit-making activities while encouraging commons-driven activities. These physical spaces can also act as local fabrication facilities.

We are not too far from the "matter transmitter", since most of the work is done on a computer and in collaboration mediated by the Internet, and the fabrication can be done almost magically from a CAD file, using digital fabrication.

Let's now address Graham's conditions for material peer production to replace industrial manufacturing

  • A new mode of production appears in a leading part of the economy, which may not be the main basis for the old system: here, manufacture, not agriculture.

This is true for digital peer production, open source software for example. Once the practice was structured it spread into other areas such as publications (Wikipedia), digital services (Bitcoin), etc. When this new open and collaborative mode of production spread to hardware, it did it with 3D printing (RepRap online community) and shortly after with drones (DIY Drones online community), two bleeding edge and disruptive technologies. These technologies already existed, they were protected by patents and were prohibitively expensive, but meanwhile other support technologies had evolved to the point of disrupting. Once the patents expired, engineers and hobbyists that embraced the open culture seized the opportunity and designed consumer grade machines at only a fraction of the cost, generating hype around 3D printers and drones.

  • A new mode of production is not purely willed into existence, but is a natural outgrowth of the old.

I guess here we can cite the phenomena of alienation. People are looking for a meaningful work, purpose, they want to belong to a real community, not just be an employee in a company, they want to be in control of their creation, etc. This creates a capacity of innovation and production outside of industrial production, which floods into peer production, including material peer production. Thus, people engage in open source hardware development and DIY production for the same reasons they engage in open source software projects.

Moreover, peer production can be seen as a response two major contradictions in the current system:

  1. Ecological externalities: Capital accumulation through various stages of the capitalist historical process has been partly based on the capacity to externalize ecological costs. As ecological problems deepen, there are both louder and stronger calls and demands to internalize ecological cost and to apply ecological governance to capital enterprises. Likewise, as ‘nature’ as a source of endless bounty becomes less and less a reality, and resources become more scare, extraction shifts focus from extraction from ‘nature’ to extraction from industrial (close loop) metabolisms. This works in tandem with the re-internalization of ecological costs.
  2. Wealth and power stratification: In a neo-liberal world that privileges highly mobile capital investors or venture capitalist, a transnational capitalist class (TCC) is able to influence political processes, where the end result is increasing social stratification between the policy empowered and policy disempowered, hence between the have’s and have-nots. In classic Marxist terms this can be considered part of the crisis of oversupply, a deflationary processes, accompanied by a superstructure that legitimizes capitalist led policy. In both cases stratification as a phenomenon owes its existence to a plutocratic (government by the wealthy) policy process.

Michel Bauwens talks about cosmo-localism : shifting from a world typified by material abundance and immaterial scarcity; to a world increasingly typified by material scarcities yet immaterial abundance. The advent of a global digital knowledge commons and p2p infrastructure has a profound and destabilizing effect on typical forms of capital enterprise. A process that can be termed ‘cosmo-localization’ arises, where emerging localized enterprises draw on freely available global digital resources, and can peer finance and produce goods (Ramos, 2010). This subverts the established industrial capital means by which citizens and communities satisfy their needs, allowing them to sidestep reliance on large-scale capital enterprises in favor of local Maker communities and enterprises. The two contradictions discussed (ecological and social) provide a mandate for the third (cosmo-localization). Within conditions of ecological crisis, resource costs increase, which then necessitates a more intelligent use of existing resources drawing on a wealth of models, and via network enabled sharing platforms and peer communities.

Reference: The Futures of Power in the Network Era, Jose M. Ramos, Queensland University of Technology, Australia

See more on Power.

  • The new mode of production initially depends on the old one, firstly as a source of knowledge and skills, and secondly as the source of all goods which it cannot create itself.

This is true for material peer production. First, the most important skills are acquired in academia, such as electrical and mechanical engineering. But increasingly we see self-thought individuals engaging in very complex open source hardware projects. They acquire technical skills online or by collaborating with peers in makerspaces, fablabd and hackerspaces. These physical spaces, as we mentioned earlier are loci of prototyping and local fabrication, also play an important role in education. In fact, during the early days of 3D printing colleges and universities were at least 3 years behind makerspaces in educational programs. University students were coming to the Sensorica lab to learn: event at Concordia University, Daniel (self-thought from Sensorica) teaching about 3D printing. Second, most basic components used in open source hardware are produced by companies, industrial manufacturing. Increasingly, we are seeing more and more DIY basic components. For example, it is possible today to build an electric motor from scratch by using 3D printed parts, magnets and coupe wire. Moreover, in order to run a makerspace one needs to pay rent to a landlord which operates under the mainstream economic model, and purchase instruments and equipment from hardware stores. But most importantly, peer production is largely dependent on the mainstream economic system to reproduce itself, as it cannot feed al the agents that engage in it. Thus, most agents involved gain their subsistence from gobs in companies. This is also about to change and the leading tendencies are in web3. First, people created cryptocurrencies and tied them to specific processes to give them value. They in turn used these cryptocurrencies to fund their own activities, which constitutes a bootstrapping ability via new monetary currencies that are entirely under the control of these communities. Although this constitutes a good start, it still relies largely on markets and monetary currency, which is still under the logic of the industrial capitalist economy. More creatively, we've seen the use of the same blockchain technology to create tokens that represent no-monetary currencies, that can code for credentials, entitlements, access to services and processes (governance for example). All these new forms of currencies provide new channels for access and are able to incentivize economic activity while bypassing markets and the monetary system. We are seeing here the beginning of a complete detachment of peer production from the dominant economic logic. In our opinion, it may take another decade or two before peer production can reproduce itself, independently from the current economy, which building and implementing its own social support structures, institutions and social governance.

  • The two modes of production must be able to coexist while the new one grows.

Open source DIY hardware has a place in the current economy. For example, during COVID when industrial production was paralyzed, material peer production was pushed to the front stage, as it was the only viable mode of production. NGOs who serve the developing world have recently prized open source DIY hardware for its low cost, modularity, versatility and especially for the low technical skills required to maintain/repair or upgrade. Thus, although open source hardware can lower costs and disrupt certain industries (ex. 3D printing), there is a niche for material peer production, especially in areas where industrial manufacturing cannot reach, such as remote areas, disaster areas, low income areas or in very low volume markets.

  • The new mode of production must be able to infect and weaken the old.

The new mode of production is building its own infrastructure that reduces costs while boosting creativity. Corporations are increasingly tempted to use these new tools and in doing so they adopt the new methods proposed by the open culture. For example many companies are now using platforms like Github for managing their software production. While doing that, they also get the benefit from existing code, which comes under open licenses, forcing them to open their code as well. Thus, private companies get "infected" by open source and get infused with values (sharing, transparency and openness) and methods (agile development, collaborative work) from the open culture. The same tools that have been developed for online collaboration on software development have their equivalent for collaborative hardware development. Moreover, it turns out that disruptive innovation is more likely to come from the open source culture than from academia and private R&D labs. Today, every serious tech company has an open innovation strategy, which is borrowed from the open source culture. Moreover, every serious high tech company has built infrastructure to support open communities, to involve the crowd (crowdsourcing) in various processes. In other words, companies are opening up their processes.

  • At a certain point the new mode of production must be able to offer possibilities which the old one cannot.

The new mode of production, i.e. material peer production as described by the OVN model, is global by nature, capable to address global problems. More precisely, it is glocal, which means that it connects very well the global scale with the local scale. Hardware artifacts are designed as abstractions by delocalized online communities, using modular architectures (proper to the open culture), shared standards and ubiquitous materials, easy to modify, upgrade and adapt. These models are then customized by local makers, who further share their adaptations with the global community, for others to reuse or remix. This stands in contrast with industrial mass production, one-size-fits-all. Therefore, with less efforts global problems can be addressed with efficient local action, which provides us with the ability to address global concerns such as pollution, natural catastrophes or pandemics. When it comes to response time, in a dynamic modern world, as we've seen during COVID, makers were the first to respond with PPE equipment fabricated in local makerspaces, before the global supply chain could be repurposed for the need. Thus, material peer production seems to be better suited for a global and dynamic society.

  • The new mode of production must be able to spread to all important fields, but this does not need to be immediate.

Evidently peer production is spreading into finance (Bitcoin), and all type of digital services. Moreover, for the past decade we've seen peer production in biotech, as genes production and gene therapy planning has become computer assisted, almost like 3D printing. Biohacking labs have emerged in this area, in parallel to makerspaces and fablabs. In the area of services, it is just a matter of time for platforms like Uber to be replaced with dApps on blockchain infrastructure. One just needs to survey the ecosystem of DAOs, which are applied today to almost all spheres of human activities.

Stefan Meretz's patterns of peer production

Imported from P2P Foundation wiki

"Taken from a weekly series of articles to appear in the journal Critical Studies in Peer Production (CSPP). In the series I try to describe analytical patterns developed by the Oekonux Project since over ten years of research on Free Software and commons-based peer production.

In this text I will try to give some introduction to the main ideas which have been developed since the foundation of the Oekonux project in 1999. There is no fixed set of thoughts and personally I have my own perspective on Oekonux ideas.

Why is the Oekonux project so relevant for debates around commons-based peer production? There are two reasons. First, Oekonux developed many of the ideas many researchers are so familiar with many years before they reached a wider audience. Oekonux was founded as a project of reflection around Free Software, but from the beginning the question of generalizing observations about Free Software to other realms of immaterial as well as material goods was present. When Yochai Benkler (2006) coined the term commons-based peer production it only condensed a debate years old into a catchy notion, but the insights itself were not very new and sound very familiar to Oekonux participants. Consequently the term has been adopted by the Oekonux project.

Second, Oekonux participants have gone much further than others in questioning the accepted way of thinking. New theses have been developed which did not only reject traditional discourse patterns in computer sciences, sociology, and economics, but also in emancipatory political and theoretical approaches. Stefan Merten, the founder of Oekonux who comes from an anarchist-marxist background, provocatively rejects “leftist and other capitalist ideologies” (Merten 2011) for the analysis of peer production. This sounds quite post-modern, but was meant differently: All means of emancipation are going to be developed right in front of our eyes, but we also have to grasp them theoretically. Traditional leftist patterns are not able to do that, because they adhere to the given mode of production for whose analysis they are made.

This was an enormous provocation to many people, traditionalists on all sides. And there have been many cultural and political clashes within the project. But there also have been a core of people, who continuously drove the Oekonux approach further. In the following I try to describe some Oekonux patterns, which of course represent my interpretation of the Oekonux debate. When I use the past when talking about Oekonux, it is not because the project does no longer exists. It still exists, and the Critical Studies in Peer Production journal is not the only spin-off of the project, there have been many others, so that the focus decentralizes to diverse projects inspired by Oekonux.

In an interview with Joanne Richardson Stefan Merten (2001) described Oekonux as a project to evaluate Free Software with respect to its “potential for a different society beyond labor, money, exchange”. Here, he gives the keywords Oekonux thinking was built around. I will take and extend them to illustrate why and how the main ideas contradict traditional leftist thinking so much, especially when Oekonux started in 1999 (Merten 1999)." (


"The Oekonux project seeks to establish a new basis for analyzing a new historical phenomenon: the emergence of peer production, starting with the creation of Free Software. If the initial hypotheses of Free Software being the germ form of a new mode of production beyond capitalism is valid, it would be necessary to develop new epistemological patterns to be able to analyze it adequately. This requires understanding and criticizing old analytical notions as historical products of the outlived capitalist way of producing our livelihood, including those which aim to be in opposition to capitalism. In this paper I present ten patterns which have emerged from the debates of the Oekonux Project. They demonstrate what it means to go beyond traditional affirmative and traditional oppositional or “leftist” patterns of analysis. Although taken from the debates in the Oekonux Project, these have never yet been presented in such a condensed way. Obviously not all patterns will be shared by all the participants of these debates, because in the end these are my personal conclusions drawn from over ten years of discussion."

Michel Bauwens:

A word of caution. The text by Stefan Meretz is useful to understand the post-capitalist patterns that are inherent in peer production, however, it also abstracts from its embeddedness in present society and the way these aspects are instrumentalized by the present society and economic system, and create hybrid mechanisms of mutual adaptation. It also skirts around the central question of the self-reproduction of the means of production.

Pattern 1: Beyond Exchange

"Free Software, or more generally, commons-based peer production is not about exchange. Giving and taking are not coupled with each other. From today’s perspective this might not be surprising, but at the beginning of the Oekonux project it was. Still today traditional Leftist approaches are based on the assumption that someone is only allowed to get something, if s/he is willing and able to give something back, because if everybody is only taking then society would perish. This position could reference to a painful Socialist (and Christian) tradition saying that the one who does not want to work, should not eat. However, Free Software clearly showed that developers do not need to be forced to do what they love to do (cf. pattern 5).

One important approach which tried to grasp the new developments of Free Software, although sticking with old thinking, was the “gift economy” approach. However it is not coincidental that the correct term should be “gift exchange economy”: The giver can expect to get something back, because it is a moral duty in societies based on the exchange of gifts. This kind of personal reciprocal duty does not exist in Free Software. Even if a developer says that s/he wants to “give something back”, then this giving is not a precondition to receive something. In general, commons-based peer production is based on unconditional voluntary contributions.

From a Leftist perspective, uncoupled giving and taking could only be possible in a mythical land in a distant future called Communism – if at all. But never today, because before communism is possible, an unfriendly interphase called Socialism sticking with the exchange dogma is necessary (cf. pattern 8). Historically, “real existing Socialism” trying to implement this necessity failed, which will happen with all Socialist approaches accepting the exchange dogma.

If one does not want to give up exchange, then capitalism is the only option." (

Pattern 2: Beyond Scarcity

"It is a common misconception that material things are scarce while immaterial things are not. It seems justified to keep material goods as commodities while immaterial goods are required to be free. However, this assumption turns a social property into a natural one. No produced good is scarce by nature. Scarcity is a result of goods being produced as commodities, thus scarcity is a social aspect of a commodity created for a market. In the digital era this is obvious for immaterial goods, as we can clearly see the measures to artificially make the good scarce. Such measures include laws (based on so-called “intellectual property”) and technical barriers to prevent free access to the good. It seems to be less obvious for material goods, because we are used to the non-accessibility of material goods unless we have paid for them. But the measures are the same: law and technical barriers, accompanied by continuous destruction of goods to keep the commodities rare enough to obtain a suitable price on markets.

Furthermore it seems obvious that we all depend on material goods which may not be available in sufficient amount. Even immaterial goods depend on a material infrastructure, at least our brains (in the case of knowledge), which also need to be fed. This is definitely true, however, it has nothing to do with a “natural scarcity”. Since all goods we need are to be produced, the only question is, how they are to be produced in a societal sense. The commodity form is one option, the commons form another. Commodities must be produced in a scarce manner to realize their price on the market. The commons good can be produced according to the needs of the people using the given productive capacity. There might be current limitations, but limits always have been subject to human creativity to overcome them.

Maybe some limitations may never be overcome, but this again is no reason to make goods artificially scarce. In these rare cases social agreements can be used to organize responsible use of the limited resource or good. The commons movement learned that both rival as well as non-rival goods can be produced as commons, but they require different social treatment. While non-rival goods are agreed to be freely accessible to prevent under-use, it makes sense to avoid over-use for rival goods by finding appropriate rules or measures either to organize sustainable use or to extend collective production and thus availability of the rival good.

Scarcity is a social phenomenon which is unavoidable if goods are produced as commodities. Often scarcity is confused with limitations which can be overcome by human efforts and creativity." (

Pattern 3: Beyond Commodity

"In her studies Elinor Ostrom found, that “neither the state nor the market” is a successful means for commons management (1990). Based on traditional economics she analyzed the practices of natural commons and finally simply proved liberal dogmatics wrong. Markets are not a good way to allocate resources, and the State is not a good way to re-distribute wealth and manage the destructive results of markets. Best results occur if the people organize themselves according to their needs, experiences and creativity and treat resources and goods not as commodities, but as common pool resources.

This is exactly what happens in Free Software. Interestingly it took many years to understand that Free Software is a commons and that it is basically identical to what Elinor Ostrom and others were talking about much earlier. One weak aspect of the traditional commons research and the early phase of Free Software was that a clear notion of a commodity and a non-commodity did not exist. It was the Oekonux Project which clearly said: Free Software is not a commodity. This dictum is closely related to the insight that Free Software is not exchanged (cf. pattern 1).

Critics from the left argued that being a non-commodity is limited to the realm of immaterial goods like software. From their viewpoint Free Software is only an “anomaly” (Nuss, Heinrich 2002), while “normal” goods in capitalism have to be commodities. This assumption, however, is closely linked to the acceptance of the scarcity dogma (cf. pattern 2). Moreover, it treats capitalism as a kind of normal or natural mode of production under conditions of “natural scarcity” (as they think). This view completely turns real relations upside down. Capitalism could only establish itself by enclosing the commons, by depriving the people from their traditional access to resources in order to transform them into workers. This enclosure of the commons is an ongoing process. Capitalism can only exist if it continuously separates people from resources by making them artificially scarce. A commodity – as nice as it may appear in the shopping malls – is a result of an ongoing violent process of enclosure and dispossession.

The same process occurs in software. Proprietary software is a way of dispossessing the scientific and development community from their knowledge, experiences, and creativity. Free Software was first a defensive act of maintaining common goods common. However, since software is at the forefront of the development of productive forces it quickly turned into a creative process of overcoming the limitations and alienations of proprietary software. In a special field Free Software established a new mode of production which is going to spread into other realms (cf. pattern 10).

Goods which are not made artificially scarce and are not subject to exchange are not commodities, but commons." (

Pattern 4: Beyond Money

"Since money only makes sense for commodities, a non-commodity (cf. pattern 3) implies that there is no money involved. Thus Free Software is beyond money. On the other hand, there is obviously a lot of money around Free Software: developers are paid, companies spend money, new companies are formed around Free Software. This has confused a lot of people, even on the left. They stick to an either-or thinking, being unable to think these observations as a contradictory process of parallel development in a societal period of transition (cf. pattern 10).

Money is not a neutral tool, money can occur in different social settings. It can be wage money, invested money (capital), profit, cash money etc. Different functions have to be analyzed differently. In Free Software there is no commodity form involved, so money in the narrow sense of selling a commodity for a price does not exist. However, Eric Raymond explained how to make money using a non-commodity: by combining it with a scarce good. In a capitalist society where only a few goods had broken out of the commodity realm, it is beyond question that all other goods continue to exist as commodities. They are kept scarce and they are combined with a priceless good. Using a perspective of valorization this is nothing new (e.g. spreading gifts to attract customers). Using a perspective of recognizing a germ form this way a new mode of production starts to develop within the still existing old model.

But why do companies give money if this money is not an investment in the traditional sense, but a kind of a donation, e.g. to pay Free Software developers? Why did IBM put one billion dollars into Free Software? Because they were forced to do so. Economically speaking they have to devalue one business area to save the other profit-making areas. They have to burn money to create a costly environment for their sales (e.g. server hardware). As the enclosure of the commons is a precondition for capitalism, the other way around is also true. Extending the commons in a field currently dominated by commodities means that this field is replaced by free goods.

However, the “four freedoms” of Free Software – use, study, change, redistribute – (Free Software Foundation, 1996) do not speak about “free” in the sense of “gratuitous”. The slogan “free as in freedom, not in free beer” is legion. This is completely fine and does not contradict the “beyond money” dictum, because the four freedoms do not say anything about money. The four freedoms are about free availability, are about abundance. Thus, the absence of money is an indirect effect. Abundant and thus non-scarce goods cannot be a commodity (cf. pattern 2) and cannot make any money. However, making money is not forbidden per se.

There have been a lot of attempts to integrate the non-exchange, non-commodity, commons-based free circulation of Free Software into the traditional economic paradigm, which is based on exchange and commodity. The most prominent one was the “attention economy” saying that the producers do not exchange goods, but attention (Goldhaber, 1997). They concluded that attention is the new currency. But this was only a desperate attempt do cling to old terms which neither worked properly nor delivered any new insights and thus was not relevant. Various other similar attempts are skipped here.

Being beyond money directly results from not being a commodity." (

Pattern 5: Beyond Labor

"Free Software and commons in general is beyond labor. This can only be understood if you grasp labor as a productive activity specific to a certain historical form of society. Selling labor power – i.e. the ability to work – to some capitalist who uses it to produce more value than the labor power is worth, is unique in history. This has two important consequences.

First, it turns productive activity – which has always been used by people to produce their livelihood – into alienated labor. This alienation is not imposed by personal domination, but by structural coercion. In capitalism humans can only survive if they pay for their livelihood, which compels people to make money. Making money can be either done by selling their own labor power or by buying and valorizing the labor power of others. The result is a distorted process where structural requirements prescribe what a person has to do (cf. pattern 6).

Second, it creates the homo economicus, the isolated individual seeking for maximization of his/her own utility – if necessary even at the expense of others. Traditional economists then assert that the homo economicus is the archetype of a human being, which confuses the specific historical result with a natural presupposition.

Instead of labor, Free Software is based on Selbstentfaltung. The German notion of Selbstentfaltung is not easy to translate. On the one hand it starts from “scratching an itch” (Eric Raymond), “doing what you really really want” (Fritjof Bergmann), and “having a lot of fun” (the Free Software developer). On the other hand it integrates other fellow developers to strive for the best solution possible. This also means high engagement, passion, and effort, not just picking the low hanging fruits. It includes a positive reciprocity with others striving for the same goal in a way, that the Selbstentfaltung of the one is the precondition of the Selbstentfaltung of the others. Not by chance this is reminiscent of the Communist Manifesto where the “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx, Engels 1848). However, in Free Software it is not a goal of a future society, but it is an inalienable feature of the beginning new mode of production on the way to that new free society.

Instead of selling one’s energy for alienated purposes, usually called labor, Free Software is based on Selbstentfaltung which is the free development of all the productive forces of the people." (

Pattern 6: Beyond Classes

"Capitalism is a society of separations. Buying vs. selling, producing vs. consuming, labor vs. capital, concrete vs. abstract labor, use value vs. exchange value, private production vs. social distribution etc. Capitalist development is driven by the contradictions between these separated parts. Among them, labor and capital is only one contradiction, but it seems to be the most relevant one. A person seems to be defined by being a labor seller or a labor buyer, a worker or capitalist. However, in fact labor and capital are not properties of individuals, but opposite societal functions like all other separations capitalism generates.

Therefore, it is not true that only one side of the various separations represents the general or progressive one. On the contrary, both parts of a separation depend on each other. Labor produces capital, and capital creates labor. It is an alienated cycle of a permanent reproduction of the capitalist forms. Thus, both sides of these separations, e.g. labor and capital, are necessary functions of capitalism. The so called antagonism of labor and capital is in fact a purely immanent mode of historical development of capitalism. The working class does not represent emancipation, by no means.

Free Software and peer production in general is not recreating classes, it is rather beyond that mode. It represents a germ form (cf. pattern 10) of a new mode of production which generally is not based on separations, but on integrating different personal needs, behavior and wishes as a powerful source of development. Exploitation does not exist, because selling and buying of labor does not exist and money can only play a role in retro games about antiquated societies called “capitalism”.

Selbstentfaltung as a free developing human being is the source of societal transition towards a free society, not the class adherence." (

Pattern 7: Beyond Exclusion

"One of the most basic separations capitalism generates is the separation of those who are inside and those who are not. This inside/outside pattern is not a class separation (cf. pattern 6) and it is not only one big separation. It is a structural mechanism of inclusion and exclusion along all possible lines of society: job-owner vs. jobless, rich vs. poor, men vs. women, people of color vs. white people, bosses vs. subordinated, owners of means of production vs. non-owners, members of social security vs. non-members etc. It has to be recognized as a basic structural principle of capitalism: An inclusion of the one side implies an exclusion of the other side. For the individual this means that any personal progress is realized at the expense of others who stagnate or regress.

In general the commons are beyond the mechanism of exclusion. In Free Software, for example, the more active people join a project the faster and the better a goal can be achieved. Here, the relationship between people is not structured by inclusion-exclusion mechanisms, but by an inclusive reciprocity (Meretz 2012). The maintainer of a project tries to include as many active people as possible, strives for a creative atmosphere, and tries to solve conflicts in a way, that as many people as possible can follow the “rough consensus” and the “running code”.

If a consensus is not possible the best solution is then a fork: a risky but valid option to test different directions of development. If you look at existing forks (e.g. between KDE and GNOME), then many of them are working closely together or maintain an atmosphere of cooperation. Yes, there are other examples of fights against one another. But these non-productive forks are mainly due to alienated interests playing an important role. Oracle tried to implement a command and control regime after having bought OpenOffice as part of the Sun package. The fork to LibreOffice by many important developers was an act of self-defense and self-determination to maintain their environment of Selbstentfaltung. They don’t want to go back into the old “labor mode” of development (cf. pattern 5)." (

While capitalism is structurally based on exclusion mechanisms, commons-based peer production generally creates and advances inclusion."

Pattern 8: Beyond Socialism

"Socialism, as defined by Karl Marx in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” (Marx, 1875) is a commodity-producing society ruled by the working class. Historically this was realized by the so called “real existing Socialism”. There have been many critiques of real socialist countries (lacking democracy, etc.) from within the left. Nevertheless, a good part of the left shares the assumption that an interphase between a free society (which may be called communism) and capitalism is unavoidable. The general concept is that the working class holding the power can reconstruct the whole economy according to their interests which represent the majority of the society. In short: power comes first, then a new mode of production will follow, in order to build a really free society. This concept has failed historically.

The reason for this failure is not due to internal tactical differences and shortcomings. Instead it is due to the unrealistic concept of qualitative historical transformation. Never in history was the question of power placed first, it was always the new mode of production which emerged from the old way of producing which prepared the historical transition. Capitalism initially developed from craftsmanship in medieval towns, then integrated manufactures, finally leading to the system of big industry. The question of power was solved “on the way”. This does not diminish the role of revolutions, but revolutions only realize and enhance what was already developing. The revolutions of the Arab Spring do not create anything new, but try to realize the potentials of a normal democratic bourgeois society.

This analysis of historical developments (discussed in more detail in pattern 10) has to be applied to the current situation. Historical transition can not be realized by taking over political power – be it by parliament or by street actions – but by developing a new mode of production. The criteria for being “new” can be derived from the negation of the old mode of production: instead of commodities: commons production, instead of exchange and mediation by money: free distribution, instead of labor: Selbstentfaltung, instead of exclusion mechanisms: potential inclusion of all people. However, care needs to be taken since not all developments of capitalism are to be abolished. Rather some continue – though in a transcended form.

Commons-based peer production transcends capitalism as well as commodity-based socialism." (

Pattern 9: Beyond Politics

"Since commons-based peer production is mainly about constructing a new mode of production, it is basically a non-political movement. Here, politics is understood as addressing the state and its institutions to demand changes in some desired direction. Such politics are based on interests which in capitalism are generally positioned against each other. If a society is structured along inclusion-exclusion patterns (see pattern 7), then it is necessary to organize common but partial interests in order to realize them at the expense of the common partial interests of others. In this sense commons are beyond politics, because they basically do not operate in the realm of interests but of needs.

It is important to distinguish between needs and interests. Needs have to be organized in the form of interests, if the usual mode of realization is the exclusion of the interests of others. Commons on the other hand are based on the variety of needs of their participants, which act as a source of creativity. The mediation of these different needs is part of the process of peer production. Thus, it is not necessary that participants additionally organize their needs as interests and try to implement them politically. Instead, they achieve this directly.

One aspect which makes this clear is the question of hierarchies. Usually hierarchies are part of capitalist commodity production. Therefore, a common left topic was to reject any hierarchies to avoid domination. This ignores the fact that hierarchies as such do not generate domination, but rather the function hierarchies have in a given context. In a company hierarchies express different interests, for example the interests of workers and of the management (cf. pattern 5). However, in a peer production project a hierarchy may express different levels of expertise or different responsibilities, which are shared by those who accept someone in a leading position. Being a maintainer does not mean following different interests at the expense of project members. Such a project would not prosper. On the contrary, a maintainer is keen to integrate as many active and competent members as possible. This does not avoid conflicts, but conflicts are solved on the common base of the project’s goals.

Commons-based peer production does not require to articulate people’s needs in the form of opposing interests and thus is beyond politics." (

Pattern 10: Germ Form

"Last but not least, the most important pattern is the germ form or five-step-model (Holzkamp, 1983). It is a model to understand the concurrent existence of phenomena with different qualities. When discussing peer production the debate is often dominated by two groups: those who are in favor of peer production and who try to prove peer production is anti-capitalist and those who see peer production only as a modernization of capitalism. The challenge is to think it as both. The germ form model accomplishes this by viewing the emergence and development of commons-based peer production as a process of its own contradictory unfolding in time.

Normally applying the five-step-model is a retrospective procedure where the result of the analyzed development is well known. By mentally assuming the result of a transition towards a free society based on commons-based peer-production the emergence of this result can be reconstructed using the model. Here is a very rough sketch of the five steps applied to the case of peer production.

1. Germ form: A new function appears. In this phase the new function must not be understood as a rich germ or a seed enclosing all properties of the final entity which only has to grow. Rather in this phase the germ form shows only principles of the new, but it is not the new itself. Thus, commons-based peer production is not the new itself, but the qualitatively new aspect it shows is the need-oriented mediation between peers (based on Selbstentfaltung, see pattern 5). During this phase this is visible only on a local level.

2. Crisis: Only if the overall old system falls into a crisis can the germ form leave its niche. The capitalist way of societal production and mediation via commodities, markets, capital, and state has brought mankind into a deep crisis. It has entered a phase of successive degradation and exhaustion of historically accumulated system resources. The recurring financial crisis makes this obvious to everyone.

3. Function shift: The new function leaves its germ form status in the niche and gains relevance for the reproduction of the old system. The former germ form is now double-faced: On the one hand it can be used for the sake of the old system, on the other hand its own logic is and remains incompatible with the logic of the dominant old system. Peer production is usable for purposes of cost-saving and creating new environments for commercial activities, but it rests upon non-commodity development within its own activities (cf. pattern 3). Cooptation and absorption into normal commodity producing cycles are possible (De Angelis, 2007), and only if peer production is able to defend its own commons-based principles and abilities to create networks on this ground will the next step be reached. Free Software as one example of peer production quite clearly is at this stage.

4. Dominance shift: The new function becomes prevalent. The old function does not disappear immediately, but steps back as the previously dominant function to marginal domains. Commons-based peer production has reached a network density on a global level, so that input-output links are closed to self-contained loops. Separated private production with subsequent market mediation using money is no longer required. Need-based societal mediation organizes production and distribution. The entire system has now qualitatively changed its character.

5. Restructuring: The direction of development, the backbone structures, and the basic functional logics have changed. This process embraces more and more societal fields which refocus towards the new need-based mode of societal mediation. The state is stripped down, new institutions emerge, which no longer have a uniform State character, but are means of collective Selbstentfaltung (cf. pattern 5). New contradictions may come up, a new cycle of development may begin.

This is only an epistemological model, not a scheme for immediate action. The main advantage is the possibility to escape unfruitful either-or debates. It allows for thinking the emergence of a new mode of production being useful for the old system while maintaining its transcending function towards a free society as concurrent phenomena.

The germ form model adapted in the Oekonux context is a dialectical conceptualization of historical transition." (


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Goldhaber, M.H. (1997), The Attention Economy and the Net, in: First Monday, Vol. 2, No. 4, URL: (2011-10-10)

Holzkamp, K. (1983), Grundlegung der Psychologie, Frankfurt/Main, New York: Campus.

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Aspects of Peer production practice

Remixed from the P2P wiki| Peer production.

Peer production carries with it many different fundamental innovations, that are starkly different from traditional business practice. Here are a number of these practices, contrasted with the practices of the market and the business firm:

  1. Anti-Credentialism: refers to the inclusiveness of peer production. What matters is the ability to carry out a particular task, not any formal a priori credential ( ≠ credentialism).
  2. Anti-Rivalry: sharing the created goods does not diminish the value of the good, but actually enhances it ( ≠ rivalry).
  3. Communal Validation: the quality control is not a 'a priori' condition of participation, but a post-hoc control process, usually community-driven ( ≠ hierarchical control).
  4. Distribution of Tasks: there are no roles and jobs to be performed, only specific tasks to be carried out ( ≠ division of labor).
  5. Equipotentiality: people are judged on the particular aspects of their being that is involved in the execution of a particular task ( ≠ people ranking).
  6. For Benefit: (Benefit Sharing; Benefit-Driven Production). The production aims to create use value or 'benefits' for its user community, not profits for shareholders ( ≠ for-profit).
  7. Forking: the freedom to copy and modify includes the possibility to take the project into a different direction ( ≠ one authorized version).
  8. Granularity: refers to the effort to create the smallest possible modules (see Modularity infra), so that the treshold of participation for carrying out tasks is lowered to the lowest possible extent.
  9. Holoptism; transparency is the default state of information about the project; all additions can be seen and verified and are sourced ( ≠ panoptism).
  10. Modularity: tasks, products and services are organized as modules, that fit with other modules in a puzzle that is continuously re-assembled; anybody can contribute to any module.
  11. Negotiated Coordination: conflicts are resolved through an ongoing and mediated dialogue, not by fiat and top-down decisions ( ≠ centralized and hierarchical decision-making).
  12. Permissionlessness: one does not need permission to contribute to the commons( ≠ permission culture).
  13. Produsage: there is no strict separation between production and consumption, and users can produce solutions ( ≠ production for consumption).
  14. Stigmergy: there is a signalling language that permits system needs to be broadcast and matched to contributions.

See also