The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
A Critical Political Economic Framework for Peer Production’s Relation to Capitalism image
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This article examines the relation between peer production and capitalism on a systemic and theoretical level. One problem with understanding peer production as an alternative and potentially competing mode of production in relation to capitalism is that the main bulk of economic theory deals only with capitalism. Alternative economic theories from an emerging theoretical P2P movement have done important pioneer work on commons-based peer production, and in discussing its sustainability as a mode of production both on a systemic and individual level (for the peer producers) within capitalism. This article argues that the disadvantages of the P2P movement’s theoretical framework, compared to a Marxist one, have their roots in an evolutionist motif, and the article aims to situate peer production more clearly in relation to the workings of capital, and in relation to a Marxist understanding of the potential for political agencies and counter-powers to emerge from capital’s outside.

peer production, p2p movement, mode of production, critical political economy, marxism

by Arwid Lund

This article examines the relation between peer production and capitalism on a systemic and theoretical level. One problem with understanding peer production as an alternative and possibly competing mode of production in relation to capitalism is that the main bulk of economic theory deals only with capitalism. Neo-classical theory sees the outside of capitalism as an externality without value (Lehdonvirta and Castronova, 2014: 143). Alternative economic theories from an emerging theoretical P2P movement have done important pioneer work on commons-based peer production as something of positive value in its own right, and in discussing its sustainability as a mode of production both on a systemic and individual level (for the peer producers) within capitalism. It has introduced ideas regarding new licences, venture communes, (platform) cooperatives and alternative currencies (Bauwens, 2009, 2012; Bauwens and Kostakis, 2014; Kostakis and Bauwens, 2014; Kleiner, 2010; Terranova and Fumagalli, 2015; Scholz, 2016). But the perspective lacks some of Marxism’s insights into the history of political economy and the workings of capitalism.

The disadvantages of the P2P movement’s theoretical framework, compared to a Marxist one, have their roots in an evolutionist motif. Tiziana Terranova holds that peer production investigates the possibility of creating a commons-based economy with its mode of production, but not necessarily antagonistically in relation to capital. She stresses that the evolutionary idea is central to what she calls the P2P principles:

The evolutionist motif is preferred to antagonism and is used to sustain the possibility of thinking of the economy as an ecological system, that would allow for, at least at first, the coexistence of different forms of productive organisation and social cooperation valorisation that can coexist side by side, at least until the day when the success of P2P will render other forms of economic organisation obsolete. (Terranova 2010: 157)

This article’s aim is to contribute to the theoretical and political understanding of capitalism’s productive outsides by answering the question of how the P2P idea of evolution can be radically informed by wider social anthropological theories and Marxism.

A rather eclectic theoretical framework will be applied, motivated by the outside to capital being, to some degree, a blind spot also within Marxism. The theories of social anthropologists Karl Polanyi and David Graeber will complement the P2P movement’s positive understandings of capitalism’s outside, whereas a broad sample of Marxist theoreticians will be drawn upon to understand the outside’s conditions in relation to a contradictory and crisis-prone capitalism. An eclectic perspective is always problematic, as each and every theory rests upon its own assumptions, but could also be useful if carefully applied within an explorative analysis of two diametrically different and interacting entities: capitalism and its potentially competing, commons-based and peer-organised productive outside.

Peer production

Commercial companies exploit the productive force of the long tail (Anderson, 2007) of user-generated content within commercially-governed crowdsourcing. The article’s argument is that this does not qualify as peer production.

Dulong de Rosnay and Musiani use the parameter of centralisation and decentralisation when they develop a typology of peer production, but they include “crowdsourced, user-generated content ‘enclosed’ by corporations” in the concept of peer production (Dulong de Rosnay and Musiani, 2015). Such a wide understanding of peer production differs from Benkler’s original definition of peer production as “radically decentralised, collaborative and nonproprietary; based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market or managerial commands” (Benkler, 2006: 60). Brian Brown has called Flickr a quasi-commons (Brown, 2012: 146) and could equally well have called the platform quasi-peer production. Capitalism’s private property regime radically differs from the commons form of ownership. Hess and Ostrom describe ownership as a bundle of rights where the control of certain rights can be distributed in different ways. Private property gathers almost all of the rights in one owner’s hand, whereas the rights are distributed more generously in the commons: Some rights are common to all participants, other rights—often superordinate ones—are controlled by smaller groups of participants. The rights can be more or less (de)-centralised (Hess and Ostrom, 2003: 119-122, 2007a: 52-53, b: 5).

Bauwens chooses to call the Web 2.0 platforms “sharing economies”, because no common product is produced on them (Bauwens, 2009: 125–126), meaning that they differ from peer production in their lack of horizontality and in the sense that their commercial end products are controlled by the company, rather than the users or participants. Peer production is based on voluntary and horizontal co-operation between peers in commons. The self-organisation does not exclude hierarchies and rights control on different levels (heterarchies—or multiple participant constellations—rather than strict hierarchies characterise Wikipedia); it is enough that the conditions for self-organisation exist in the last instance. Peer production is built on the commons form of ownership, being neither public nor private (Bauwens, 2009: 122–127; Gye 2007a, b; Kostakis, 2010). A theoretical distinction between commercial crowdsourcing and peer production could thus be based on two parameters: different forms of power (centralised or de-centralised) and different forms of production and products (use values or exchange values).

Peer production has spread in the production of software and encyclopaedias, but also to citizen journalism, open data sources, and product design ( 20140312). There are some inroads into the tangible world with 3D printers and Fab Labs (Siefkes, 2012; Anderson, 2013; Maxigas, 2012). Crowdfunding and alternative currencies are also combined with peer production in an attempt to expand the emerging new mode of production (Terranova and Fumagalli, 2015: 151–152).

Capitalism’s inside and outside

Zygmunt Bauman asserts that it is the unquenchable thirst for creative destruction and mandatory but always incomplete modernisation that distinguishes capitalist modernity from all other historical forms of human coexistence (Bauman, 2000: 28). Karl Polanyi claims that the economy prior to capitalism was embedded in social and cultural life. Pre-capitalist societies were organised by different principles for reciprocal and re-distributional economising in which gain was not prominent (Polanyi, 2001: 49, 57): “Custom and law, magic and religion cooperated in inducing the individual to comply with rules of behavior which, eventually, ensured his functioning in the economic system” (Polanyi, 2001: 57).

Polanyi’s insights correlate with the ideas of the critical Soviet scholar and Marxist Evgeny Pashukanis, who criticised and historicised the legal form. Pashukanis engaged with the sociological roots of the legal form to demonstrate “the relative and historically limited nature of the fundamental juridical concepts” (Head, 2008: 170). The regulation of society could assume a legal character under certain conditions, but the legal form was not a trans-historical phenomenon. Collective life among animals was regulated, but not by law, and amongst “primitive peoples” seeds of law existed but the “greater part of their relations are regulated extra-legally, by religious observances for instance” (Pashukanis, 1983: 79). And in capitalist society, many services like the postal and rail services, with their timetables, could not in their entirety be related to “the sphere of legal regulation”, and are “regulated in a different manner connected to the ordering and structuring practices and needs of various institutional settings” (Pashukanis, 1983: 79). The social anthropologist David Graeber sees the extra-legal regulations as a communist baseline. Communism is the foundation of all sociality, communism makes society possible. The communist principle is the rule as long as people do not look upon each other as enemies, the need is sufficiently big and the cost reasonable. To share with each other is central in hard times, as well as in festive times (Graeber, 2011: 96–99).

According to Polanyi, markets were social and historical constructions deviating from past history. The transition from isolated markets to a market economy, from regulated to self-regulated markets, is a central transformation in history. The dissociation of the economy from social life to a special sphere where it is assigned a characteristic economic motive, is described as a “singular departure” (Polanyi, 2001: 74). This singular departure of the unregulated and generalised market is complemented by the singular development of the legal form in its support.

To Polanyi, the people and the natural milieus that society consists of are the substance of society, which is subordinated in capitalism to the formal market economy and its abstract laws. Capitalism is characterised by having a substantial and informal outside in relation to the formal market economy. Market capitalism cannot survive without its substantial economic outside, but only some of people’s exchanges with their natural and social life follow a formal economic logic (Fleischer, 2012: 19). Theoretically, this broader perspective on the economy opens up our understanding of capitalism and the alternatives to it. The substantial and informal outside can be a passive outside, or challenge the power of the formal economy with the aim of once again embedding it within social and cultural life. Projects like Wikipedia with its voluntary participants driven by a whole range of motives other than economic gain, within a project that is regulated by rules of thumb, netiquette, principles of reciprocity and combinations of networked and hierarchical organisation, contribute to new forms of social and cultural embeddedness of economic productivity, mainly outside of the market and legal form.

The outside to capital can also be portrayed as alternative social practices and struggles based in alternative forms of valorisation. The autonomist Marxist Massimo De Angelis speaks of value practices and claims that individuals are “singular agents” that bear both capitalist value practices and alternative value practices. Social interactions in the market turn dominant meanings of the capitalist value system into a programme that constitutes part of disciplinary processes and create norms for social cooperation. These value practices enter into conflict with other value practices and value struggles emerge and constitute an “ongoing tension in the social body” (De Angelis, 2007: 29–30).

Capitalism’s inside, when analysing peer production as an outside to capital, is defined as concrete labour subordinated under the logic of abstract labour, producing its opposite: capital (Marx, 1973: 305). Capitalism’s outside is defined as consisting of concrete labour separated from abstract labour, but organised in some other social form. Marx stressed that the socially-determined production of individuals should always be the point of departure in political economy and not the isolated individual of the bourgeois Robinsonades (Marx 1973: 83, 1857). In Capital, he clearly stated that all the different use values and their corresponding forms of concrete labour were classified according to the “order, genus, species, and variety to which they belong in the social division of labour”, and he stressed that the production of commodities was not a necessary condition for this “division of labours” (Marx, 1867: 49).

De Angelis’ alternative forms of valorisation (2007), together with the wider economic theories of social anthropological character, offer a way to move beyond neo-classical economic theory and capitalism for the peer producers. The theories empower the idea of differently organised forms of social production, as well as different coexisting forms of value practices in a society dominated by capitalism.

Peer production: Useful or socially necessary?

There is a difference between useful productive activities and socially necessary productive activities. The first suggests an activity that is useful for the producer, while the second points to a social phenomenon on a social level where the useful activity has been socially constructed as necessary.[1]

The Marxian value theory connects the first category to a produced use value, and the second to the exchange value, or commodity, on the market. It is not the input of labour per se that creates value; value is a social relation and is decided socially amongst people. The value theory of Karl Marx is, therefore, not a theory of labour, but a theory of the “modern socialisation of necessity” (Fleischer, 2012: 22).[2] The argument put forward here is that the socialisation of necessity is not necessarily dependent on the market exchange, but can be constructed within the gift economy of commons-based peer production. This argument finds support in Moishe Postone’s claim of a trans-historical form of social necessity in Marx’s understanding of work (Postone, 1993: 381): “some form of social production is a necessary precondition of human social existence. The form and extent of this transhistorical, ‘natural’, social necessity can be historically modified” (Postone, 1993: 382).

In capitalism, all socially necessary products have a value and are sold as commodities in exchange for money. De Angelis contends that when value systems harden into value programmes, these latter impose patterns of behaviour regarded as necessary (De Angelis, 2007: 28). The question then becomes whether peer production’s value system can harden into a value programme that imposes patterns of behaviour regarded as necessary. Looked upon in this way, the Marxian value theory provides peer producers with a crucial question: Should peer production be only useful in a limited sense, or strive to be socially necessary? In the first alternative, peer production is positioned as a complement that can be instrumentally used by capitalism; in the latter it competes with capitalism and has the potential to function as an alternative germ of a commons-based economy, built on socially necessary use values.

It could lead to a value struggle with capital, if projects like Wikipedia strive to be seen as socially (or as “commonsly”) necessary.[3] It would open up for a critical political economic discussion of peer production’s relations to capitalism. A commons-based value programme would create a new “space” for the socialisation of necessity in between the state and the market. But the question above not only indicates how capitalism and commons-based peer production potentially could clash with each other, it also points out how they potentially can co-operate. Sylvère Lotringer comments on the multi-facetted social subject of the multitude:

Capitalism itself is revolutionary because it keeps fomenting inequality and provoking unrest. It also keeps providing its own kind of “communism” both as a vaccine, preventing further escalation, and an incentive to go beyond its own limitations. The multitude responds to both and can go either way, absorbing the shocks or multiplying the fractures that will occur in unpredictable ways. (Lotringer, 2004: 18)

The multitude is an individualisation of the universal and generic, the people and the state, and to a certain extent defies any clear distinction between the private and the public (Virno, 2011: 28, 30–31), therefore, both opening up for commons-based peer production and a deepening commodification. The communist potential that is (re)produced and exploited by capital today is the radical individualism that is inscribed in the communist motto: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, with more horizontal, flexible and creative and immaterial (non-tangible) modes of producing within post-Fordist capitalism. This potential is part of processes that also could function as a vaccine against the transcendence of capitalism (that would involve a real emancipation with accentuated horizontal, flexible and free forms of creativity). But the communist potential in today’s creative labour can also be part of contemporary processes that strengthen the incentive and potential to go beyond capitalism, which in the case of peer production translates into a self-confident understanding as a socially necessary and more fully emancipatory mode of production outside of capital.

Peer Production Projects (PPP) that want to succeed in imposing value programmes could either continue to collect money through crowdfunding of donations and strategic use of wage labour, or go forward with expanding the voluntary and unpaid activities as socially or commonsly necessary activities to new sectors in society. The problem with the second alternative is that the peer producers cannot secure their livelihood as such under capitalism, and it risks functioning as a useful complement for capitalism to exploit. Pragmatically the first alternative seems to be a necessary precondition for the second alternative: capitalism of communism (or commons) paves the way for communism or commonwealth.

The crucial question for peer production to succeed in becoming socially necessary is whether it simultaneously can become a resilient and increasingly independent social power. Making a strategic pact with capitalism, combining voluntary work with wage work within commons-based peer production, makes it easier for peer producers to secure their livelihood, at the same time as it could foster views of the project as socially necessary (with more obligations and rights), albeit in a capitalist sense. But alliances with abstract labour also risk harming the alternative mode of producing of the PPPs, and deepening the commodification of the alternative. The social necessity of peer production could risk being informed, controlled and exploited by capital. Capitalism’s value form structures the sphere of production, as well as that of distribution. Capitalism’s historically particular form of labour has an abstract form that can be measured by the amount of socially necessary labour time. It introduces a social mechanism that dominates the mode of producing use values in a negative way and is uncontrolled by the producers themselves and not in their interest. Abstract labour is characterised by abstract standards and a logic of run-away growth for un-social private or partial economic interests (Postone, 1993: 17, 45-68, 312, 314). Postone’s claim that abstract labour transforms the mode of producing of concrete labour must be remembered when making tactical pacts.

In the case of Swedish Wikipedia, it can be argued that the editing community takes into careful consideration the trade-offs involved in using wage labour, being against wage labour within the editing process that is paid for by the Wikimedia Foundation, but accepting professionals from different state agencies to be involved in it, as well as consenting to commercial editing that is not blatantly partial (Lund 2015a, b).

The concept of being socially necessary comes from the Marxian theory of value and it helps us to understand the possibilities and dangers involved in developing tactics and strategies for a successful expansion of peer production’s alternative processes of self-valorisation in society. Marxism tells us about the structural conditions for alternative value struggles under capitalism.

Re-negotiations and struggles around value production’s inside/outside

Capital is a process where economic growth has become an end in itself, and where value, understood as a social relation, expresses this growth within the accumulation of capital. People make themselves, their actions and their products exchangeable in these processes (Fleischer, 2012: 22, 25–26). Roswitha Scholz points to the paradox that “individuals of capitalist enterprise” are integrated in a social network at the same time as they are engaged in non-social production where the socialisation is mediated by the market. “[P]eople appear asocial and society appears to be constituted by things, which are mediated by the abstract quantity of value” (Scholz, 2014: 126–127). The result is alienation, but this alienation looks different in the reproductive sphere, which is dissociated from the value production (Scholz, 2014: 127). Fleischer uses the value dissociation theory developed by Scholz to theorise how capital strategically adapts and transforms the value-producing system’s inside and outside.

Value’s growth as a historical process is undistinguishable from the parallel evolution of norms regarding what is not exchangeable. A capitalist society is accordingly a society where this demarcation line between an inside and outside is under constant renegotiation. Some activities are “dissociated” from value (Fleischer, 2012: 25–26).

Scholz contends that value and value dissociation stand in a dialectical relation to each other, but value production occurs on the micro level within the macro field of the value dissociation processes. The patriarchal gender system is active within the dissociation processes and is, thus, central to capitalist value production (Scholz, 2014: 128–129).

Liberal economic doctrines idealise a constant expansion of market logic; neo-classic theory ultimately sees the outside to capitalism as an externality and market failure (without value). The outside is caused by the market, rather than already existing. Fleischer contends instead, based in the Marxist tradition of Wertkritik, that capitalism can never be total in its character (Fleischer, 2012: 25; Lehdonvirta and Castronova, 2014: 143).

Rosa Luxemburg stressed that capitalism needed a “non-capitalist social strata as a market for its surplus value, as a source of supply for its means of production and as a reservoir of labour power for its wage system”, but because of that, all “forms of production based upon a natural economy are of no use to capital” (Luxemburg, 1951: 368). Dependent outsides, rather than independent ones, could serve capital’s purposes. The natural economies that Luxemburg spoke of were self-sufficient and focused on the internal needs of the communities and, thus, did not produce surpluses of any kind. The problem with them from capital’s perspective was the lack of demand for external products and that they were not poised to work in ways that made it possible to acquire them in any reasonable scale. “Capitalism must therefore always and everywhere fight a battle of annihilation against every historical form of natural economy” (Luxemburg, 1951: 368–369).

Capital’s need to transform and shape its outside according to its needs leads to different forms of violence and sometimes (when capital needs an outside to be an inside) to a continuously and ongoing form of what Marx called primitive accumulation. De Angelis and others claims that primitive accumulation has a contemporary and ongoing role where the dissociation of people from the means of production can take many forms (De Angelis, 2008: 28–31). In recent times, David Harvey has pointed out that capital needs new realms of accumulation to ride out its own crises (Fuchs, 2014: 166).

During the 20th Century, the outside to capital gradually became politically empowered. State regulations grew in importance after the Great Depression of the 1930s, the fundamental role of ecology was articulated by the environmental movement in the 1960s, and feminism focused on unpaid reproductive work and its importance for capitalism. Bio-politics and the connected bio-economy are today given more importance in academia than yesterday. Contemporary Marxism is informed by the experiences of these social struggles. But neo-liberal restoration has succeeded, through re-negotiations and struggles around value, non-value, exchange and use value, in creating new demarcation lines between the substantial and formal economy. Markets with their conflict-ridden and crises-prone developments have expanded, and earlier outsides have been manipulated and transformed into insides.

Luxemburg’s notion of non-dependent natural economies outside of capital provides a more dynamic perspective on peer production than the externality perspective of neoclassical theory. Scholz and Luxemburg enable an understanding of the potential for different political agencies and counter-powers to emerge from the outside of capital. From Scholz’s theories we can take away the importance of expanding the norms of what is not exchangeable, from 20th-Century history we can take the importance of peer production developing strategic alliances with the state, and from Luxemburg the insight that peer production threatens capitalism according to its degree of self-sufficiency as natural economy.

Changing outsides: Capitalist value production and the social worker’s alternative valorisations

Since the 1970s, the leading segments of the world economy have become increasingly dependent on new information and communication technology (ICT) and a kind of labour organisation emphasising flexibility, decentralised responsibility in work teams, and just-in-time production. Post-modernism and post-structuralism have advanced in academia since the 1980s with an increased interest in the importance of language and culture in the social sciences and humanities. The Frankfurt School’s cultural industry has morphed into something quite different, today often requiring the active communicative participation of people. Autonomist Marxists, influenced by Marx’s writings about a general intellect and Michel Foucault’s thoughts of the growing importance of bio-politics, describe today’s situation in terms of social life being value-producing and productive in itself, within what Paolo Virno has called communism of capital (Virno, 1996, 2004: 110, 2007). The argument assumes that the demarcation line between the substantial and formal economy—between value production and social life—is drawn afterwards in the cases when social life is appropriated by capital (Hardt and Negri, 2009; Negri, 2008: 29).

Fleischer offers a critique of Hardt and Negri’s assumptions that value today is impossible to calculate due to the fact that its sum is the totally qualitative general intellect, meaning that turning the labour force into a commodity no longer plays a decisive role when all social activities can be counted as immaterial (non-tangible) labour; that the exploitation of surplus value no longer occurs in production but afterwards; and that capital, therefore, takes on a parasitic role (Fleischer, 2014a, b). This theory implies that value once was possible to calculate, but Wertkritik assumes that value is a social relation between the commodities and no historical actor has ever been able to measure how much value exists in a commodity, even if value has always been a quantitative relation upheld by the market. The market actors do not care about the amount of labour time being put into the commodity; they care about prices, but in that process they help to “measure” what Marx called abstract labour. Fleischer contends that it becomes harder to claim that capitalism has mutated under post-Fordism with this theoretical point of view (Fleischer, 2014a).

On the other hand, if value is a social relation, and it is not work that constitutes the value, but the social construction (valorisation) in the market between people, this valorisation could take new forms outside of the market, especially within contemporary capitalism’s focus on communication, culture and affects. De Angelis claims the existence of an outside to capital’s valorisations.[4] The outside does not have to be, but can be a fixed place, and does not necessarily have a fixed identity, but the values of the outside are grounded in material practices “for the reproduction of life and its needs”. The alternative value practices include the emergence of discourse, needs and practices of objectivation that are limited in space and time (due to a lack of resources), and phenomena that are unable to “mature into the cyclical time of norm creation” but nevertheless are active social forces (De Angelis, 2007: 32). Therefore, how peer production is looked upon by outsiders (readers and donors of money in the case of Wikipedia), as well as insiders, is important. If peer producers increasingly identify with being socially necessary, the telos of their value practices would contribute to an alternative value programme and the development of proper value struggles.

The interesting thing about autonomist Marxism is that the tradition turns the understanding of the capital relation upside down. It is no longer capital that is the main actor, but rather the working class within cycles of struggles. Desire, play and class composition explain the historical changes of the working class (Negri, 1988: 209–210, 212–214, 218, 220). The cycle of struggle theory gains relevance from the last decade’s developments in cognitive capitalism. Carlo Vercellone maintains that capitalist production’s dependency on the general intellect signals a third step in the history of the division of labour, and enables a direct transition to communism (Vercellone, 2007: 15). The qualitative change in capital’s organic composition due to the general intellect of the social brain turns the subordination of living labour under dead labour (constant capital) upside down. Vercellone calls this “the tendential fall of the capital’s control of the division of labour” (Vercellone, 2007: 18). When intellectual and scientific work becomes the dominant productive force, knowledge re-socialises everything, which eventually becomes an unsustainable problem for capital. The cognitive social worker is still dependent on the wage, but has an autonomy in the immediate labour process that resembles that of the craftsman under an earlier period of labour’s formal subsumption under capital. As a consequence, capitalism can be expected to become more brutal and extra-economic in its operations to maintain control over an increasingly autonomous immediate labour process (Vercellone, 2007: 20–22, 31–32).

The rising independence and strength of some privileged parts of the social worker have consequences for PPPs. It seems plausible that the cognitive type of social worker is drawn to peer production, and that the social worker as peer producer only is indirectly connected to the class system of capitalism. The political-awareness processes within peer production not only stem from capitalism’s class relations, but also from productive activities outside of capitalism. Vercellone’s argument implies an increasingly strengthened position for peer production, as capital becomes more dependent on more independent social workers, free software, open knowledge and open data for its production. Successful PPPs can force capital to find new niches for its value production, but these niches are increasingly found within the activities connected to the general intellect, and are increasingly populated by the cognitive social worker, and could therefore be increasingly harder to control for capital.

Fleischer’s (2014a) critique of understanding non-commodified and unpaid labour force activities as value producing (in a capitalist sense) is important in yet another way. The activities of Facebook users or peer producers would then not strengthen capitalism on a systemic level with the production of new surplus value. This could eventually be a problem for capital.

An undogmatic use of Marxism, combining parts of Wertkritik and autonomist Marxism, helps us to see the contours of a new political and potentially anti-capitalist subject, with knowledge and skills that capital is increasingly dependent on. Emergent forms of more independently organised outsides (PPPs), point to the potential for several simultaneously existing and competing modes of production within historical social formations.

The outside’s modes of production and historical materialism

New emerging and anticipatory modes of production can exist outside and in parallel with a hegemonic mode of production. History has shown us that the outside’s modes of production can expand at the expense of the hegemonic mode of production. Mihailo Markovic stresses that the bourgeois revolution that overthrew the aristocracy from political power did so after a long period of capitalist expansion and growth within the feudal economic sector (Markovic, 1991: 542).

There exists a dynamic coexistence of modes of productions before, during and after historical transition processes between different hegemonic modes of production. Raymond Williams saw emerging, dominant and residual cultural systems coexisting in such a dynamic and historical interplay (Williams, 1977: 121–127). These cultural systems or modes of production are in different stages of their development and, therefore, have different forms of influence and power over the totality. Fredric Jameson holds that no historical society has existed in the form of a pure mode of production. Old and residual modes of production have been relegated to dependent positions within the new hegemonic mode of production, together with “anticipatory tendencies which are potentially inconsistent with the existing system but have not yet generated an autonomous space of their own” (Jameson, 1989: 80).

Louis Althusser understands Marx’s concept social formation as a superior concept in relation to the concept of mode of production. Every social formation is a concrete historical society based on a hegemonic mode of production, which means that there always exist at least two modes of production in a social formation. The modes of production that are not hegemonic are dominated and have their origin in earlier social formations or within emerging social formations (Althusser, 2014: 17–18). Althusser held that you had to understand the relation between the dominating and dominated modes of production, which were always antagonistic, if you wanted to understand the relation between productive forces and social relations of production (Althusser, 2014: 20). Often, it is a question of contradictions “between the productive forces of the whole set of modes of production in that social formation, on the one hand, and, on the other, the relations of production of the mode of production currently dominant” (Althusser, 2014: 20).

It is unclear why Althusser maintains that the productive forces of all the modes of production are active, whereas only the social relations of the dominant mode of production are active. This perspective, though not forgetting that it is the social relations of the hegemonic mode of production that dominates the distribution of societal wealth, seems too unilateral and one-sided, but Althusser is also onto something.

In a famous passage, Marx writes that, first, no social order ends without all its productive forces having been developed; second, a higher form of social relations of production never emerges before the material conditions for them are in place or in the process of formation (Marx, 1859). The statement borders on determinism, but only just: the transition occurs when and if all the conditions are realised. Marx also describes necessary conditions, not sufficient condition, and the necessary conditions are constructed in social contexts and in social struggles. The conclusion is that no actual transition period will be without social struggles and conflicts. No matter how gradual, slow and symbiotic the period is to begin with, the later phases of the transition period will see increased conflicts when the social relations of production start to hamper, rather than stimulate the productive forces’ development (Marx, 1859). Vested class interests, social privileges and power relations are involved.

But Marx’s formulation needs to be complemented with a theoretical stress on the politicised struggles between hegemonic and alternative social relations of production in the later phases of the transition period. Althusser’s position could then be revised so that contradictions between all productive forces and social relations of production are involved in the conflicts between dominating and dominated modes of production.

It is, therefore, argued that the emphasis of Williams, Jameson and later Richard Barbrook, with his theory of a cyber-communism slowly superseding capitalism in evolving syntheses of the “gift and commodity” (Barbrook, 2000: 33, 2005), on the synchronous and non-antagonistic interplay between different modes of production in an open and dialectical way within a historical moment or social formation (Jameson, 1989: 81) is only valid outside of, or in the early phases of, an actual transition period between different modes of production.

The Marxist tradition, thus, on the one hand, acknowledges hybrid developments and tactical alliances and, on the other hand, is theoretically clear about the necessary social struggles that at one point will be needed to complete the transition period. This tactical openness regarding coexisting modes of production from different origins, dependencies and strengths, and long-term strategic clear-sightedness has the potential to further empower a P2P movement, where Benkler only talks of coexisting modes of productions, and Bauwens and Kostakis seem to think that capitalism will eventually fade away in an ethical market economy where the corporate and solidarity economy converge, albeit under the political pressure of strong social movements (Benkler, 2006; Kostakis and Bauwens, 2014: 65-68).

In this context, something has to be said about Marxist crisis theory and, after that, it will be time to discuss peer production as an anti-capitalist project.

Marxian crisis theory: Its inside and outside

Marxism contains a tradition of both technological and social determinism. Ernest Mandel thought that dead labour, constant capital’s share of total capital, and therefore the organic composition of capital, increased in the 1970s. According to the theory of value, this results in a depressed rate of profit, and for Mandel capital’s final crisis was coming (Mandel, 1982: 46, 49–50, 59–57; Dyer-Witheford, 1999: 43–44). But, Marx identified many counter-acting factors in relation to the law of the falling rate of profit, and Andrew Kliman has convincingly argued that the regular crises of capitalism will not necessarily result in a final crisis. It is not only profit that decides the rate of profit, but also the amount of capital value being advanced, which, in turn, depends on how much capital value was destroyed in the last crisis. The peak of the rate of profit that follows a crisis is likely higher than the prior peak and more frequent crises leave less time for the law to work (Kliman, 2012: 25).

There is, thus, no predetermined end to capitalism, but many recurrent crises. Capital’s expansion outside of the factory walls, understood as the expansion of the capital relation into social life’s virtuosic social interactions, also counteracts an increase in the organic composition (Dyer-Witheford, 1999: 45). Social life, affects and communication are today the outsides, together with the recurrent crises, that inhibit capital’s final crisis.

This Marxian framework generates crucial questions regarding how an organised outside to value production can coexist and increasingly influence a capitalism recurrently in crisis with a constant need to commodify the digital sphere that is increasingly mediating contemporary social life. Clashes seem inevitable in the future, especially if peer producers should self-valorise themselves and their project as socially necessary, but the forms of conflicts remain an open question and the radicalisation of peer producers could be tempered by the fact that digital goods do not cease to exist freely even if they become commodities in another context.

Strategies for anti-capitalist peer production

Peer production projects can be, and have been, analysed as a variety of the autonomist Marxists’ idea of an exodus from capitalist society (Virno, 1996a; Söderberg, 2008). But the exodus perspective was weakly represented in a study of Swedish Wikipedia. The encyclopaedia was understood by several informants as an oasis of trustworthy and ad-free information and knowledge. But, more than inspiring a critique of capitalism, the strong ideological positions in the study stressed Wikipedia’s potential to improve life within capitalism with its neutral information. And regarding peer production being a challenger of capitalism, the study concluded that the identified ideological formation capitalism of communism attributed strength and a higher productivity to Wikipedia compared with capitalism and, thus, raised the issue of outcompeting capitalism, but that it was the weakest and most latent of three ideological formations that were identified (Lund, 2015a).

On the other hand, struggles against the market’s normalisation processes often give capital energy and pulse. De Angelis names it “the claustrophobic dialectic that needs to be overcome”: exoduses, lines of flights, emergences and ruptures with norms and values are moments of creative acts that are taken back to the measure of capital under capitalism (De Angelis, 2007: 3). Thus, not all struggles against capitalism have progressive results.

We are, therefore, confronted with a situation where peer production’s relation to a crises-prone capitalism could lead to conflicts, and necessarily will do so if an actual transition period is embarked upon, but where, simultaneously, not all struggles are progressive in their results. Here, time is of crucial importance. The P2P movement’s downplaying of antagonism could hold some strategic value in the short run, especially as long as capital’s co-optation processes cannot be counteracted. But Marxism’s more antagonistic view, on the relation between capitalism’s inside and outside, will likely be of crucial importance in the medium and long run of things. The political tactic and strategy would also have to adapt to different PPPs in different sectors of the political economy. A different tactic could be needed in relation to peer production within FOSS, which is placed in a central sector of cognitive capitalism, whereas encyclopaedias are not. Today 40% of all developers within FOSS are paid wages (Dafermos and Söderberg, 2009: 60, 63–64; Bauwens, 2009: 123–124) and open licences, rather than copyleft licences, are often used, which calls for a more critical approach taking the increasingly socially necessary function of free and open software programming seriously before its existence and development as an alternative is stalled, rather than radicalised.

In the case of Wikipedia, the exodus to capital’s organised outside in the form of peer production can gain further strength if it does not—for now—take on a fully anti-capitalist approach. Non-commercial PPPs, predominantly financed by popular donations and administered by non-profit foundations, offer a livelihood under capitalism when they employ people. These projects increase the resilience of both peer production and peer producers, without contributing to value production, and foster attitudes and self-valorisations of peer producers as being socially necessary (in a capitalist sense). But importantly, the financial model, with many small and popular donations, comes with a twist. It requires some kind of non-commerciality for the donations to keep coming (Lund and Venäläinen, 2016). Such PPPs cannot exclusively rely on wage labour; there has to be voluntary and unpaid production going on. The challenge for peer production projects will be to keep attracting voluntary newcomers at the same time as they employ the right numbers of people for the strategically best functions.[5]

Following Postone’s (Postone, 1993: 17, 45-68, 312, 314) critique of abstract wage labour, peer production has to handle wage labour with care, scepticism, and within an overall perspective of abolishing it at some point. Peer production as an employer turns the inside of capital—the capital relation—into an instrument for strengthening an outside of only use-value production, but the strategy has its clear limits. Wage labour within peer production is parasitic and dependent on capital’s value production and it is, therefore, negatively affected by its crises.

A hybrid strategy alternating between copyleft licences and the peer production licences (PPL) that Bauwens and Kostakis suggest to prevent the Linux commons from becoming a “company commons” (Bauwens and Kostakis, 2014: 356–357) could give both flexibility and optimise the resilience of peer production. PPL regulates that PPPs get paid for their products by commercial actors, whereas they give them for free to peers in associated co-operatives, like Kleiner’s venture communes (Kleiner, 2010). Such a strategy would help in creating an economic buffer without direct connection to capital’s financial system.

But Bauwens and Kostakis’ proclaimed paradox that a communist sharing licence without restrictions on sharing results in an accentuated capitalist practice (Bauwens and Kostakis, 2014: 357) is only partly true. The copyleft licence does have restrictions and demands that commercial actors share derivative commercial products freely. This virus character of the copyleft licence can potentially be used as an offensive tool for a commonification of capitalism. In this process, it could try to turn liberalism’s positive notion of competition against capitalism itself, implying that open knowledge creates better competition and markets, meanwhile strengthening the commons.

Having said this, it is true that the copyleft licence is seldom practically implemented in relation to capital interests. Wikipedians do not prioritise controlling whether commercial actors comply with the licence and open up derivative commercial products (Lund, 2015a). The reason for not totally letting go of the copyleft licence is the risk that the strategy proposed by Bauwens and Kostakis (2014: 358) fails to expand the counter-economy, at the same time as the virus character of the copyleft licence cannot be used or politicised. For the time being, this calls for a mixed approach and strategy.

Finally, peer production alone cannot make a social revolution. Peer production can be understood as commons-based communistic islands, rather than Hardt and Negri’s ubiquitously present “common”, and it does not exist everywhere in society and will require a social revolution to become generalised. Alliances have to be struck between anti-capitalist activists, hackers and peer producers (Rigi, 2013: 404, 412–414). Alliances could also be struck with the remnants of the welfare state and different forms of co-operatives.

Concluding remarks

A wider social anthropological perspective and Marxist frame give contours to peer production’s potential as an anti-capitalist social power. In this, they strengthen the P2P movement’s positive view of the externalities but also add realism to the struggles that lie ahead for a peer production that actually challenges capitalism.

The Marxian concept of being socially necessary helps the P2P movement to identify the possibilities and dangers involved in expanding peer production’s alternative processes of self-valorisation in society. With a pragmatic strategy, involving wage labour, the resilience and socially necessary character of the peer production (in a capitalist sense) will strengthen, rendering the peer producers more self-aware and in continuation either more radically opposed to or in favour of capital.

Scholz and Luxemburg provide us with a wider understanding of the potential for different political agencies and counter-powers to emerge from the outside of capital. From Scholz’s theories we can take away the importance of expanding the norms of what is not exchangeable, from 20th-Century history we can take the importance of peer production developing strategic alliances with the state, and from Luxemburg the insight that peer production threatens capitalism the more self-sufficient it becomes.

Combining parts of Wertkritik and autonomist Marxism, helps us to see the contours of a new political and potentially anti-capitalist subject, with knowledge and skills that capital is increasingly dependent on. Marxism’s tactically nuanced view of coexisting modes of production supports hybrid strategies alternating between different licences by the P2P movement, but stresses the necessary social struggles involved in actual transition periods, and in relation to capitalism’s recurrent crises—especially if peer producers self-valorise themselves and their project as socially necessary in increasingly independent ways. This theoretical clear-sightedness has the potential to prepare and empower a peer production that will have to show, with each new crisis, that it is more stable, effective and socially resilient than capitalism.


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[1] A concept is needed for activities perceived as socially useful by their producers, but that still have not achieved that status on a social level.

[2] Author’s translation from Swedish.

[3] Commonsly is obviously a play with words. The deeper meaning being that the social could be re-constructed bottom-up through a multitude of commons, and commons-based PPPs forming ever more interacting and encompassing networks in society.

[4] Autonomist Marxist collective and the magazine Endnotes stresses, in opposition to Hardt and Negri, that the labour process that capital claims as its own equals capital’s immediate production process (defined by the capital relation and wage form), and not the entirety of social life (Endnotes 2013, p.100).

[5] Critical theory could do some practical work identifying which alliances with capital serve the ends of peer production (Lund 2015a).

Arwid Lund, Uppsala University