Peer Economy. A Transition Concept.

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by Stefan Meretz (original)

Inside the critical left there is a small group referring to free software and free culture movement being already start points (»germ forms«) for new possibilities beyond commodities, money, market, and state. Such approaches on their part are criticized as to be limited to reproducible information goods and being unable to reach the world of physical good.

Christian Siefkes now has presented the »Peer Economy« concept dealing with this central critique of germ form ideas. In his English book »From Exchange to Contributions« Siefkes generalizes the principles of free software and free culture production into the physical world.

Starting point is the consideration, that people have to spend efforts during the production of their living conditions. While capitalism uses the market as an »indirection« to allocate produced goods---although in advance it is not clear, if they are needed or can be sold---peer production does not distribute goods, but the effort to produce them. Doing this it will only be produced what is needed---the relationship between needs and products is »direct«.

How can this work? Here the peer principle comes into play. The term »peer production« was introduced by Yochai Benkler in order to describe the open and cooperative type of production of free information goods. Individual people (»peers«) work together on a voluntary basis, in fact from a single reason: they want to do it. They make contributions to a project to bring it to success. Intensity, extent, and duration is determined by each person themself. On the other side peer projects depend on contributions and will do everything to be attractive for participation.

Peer production bases on so called Commons being resources without owner controlling the usage. As a rule results of peer project are on the other hand part of the commons. Currently this does not apply to physical means of production, they are private property of the peers being contributors.

Free cooperation is an additional fundament of peer projects. Coercion as a mean to organize the production does not exist, because means of coercion are absent. Participation is voluntary and there are no sanctions when leaving a project. Inside peer projects formal status and its symbols, but also other criteria like gender, origin, age etc. don't play a role. What counts are the contributions one makes. They determine reputation, credit, and confidence one gets.

Now, how can needs of the producers be coordinated with the needs of the consumers? Today peer projects can function, because peers dispose of production means and because non-physical goods being once created can almost arbitrarily be reproduced. This does not apply to the physical world. Peer projects of physical goods have to demand an adequate compensation for the taking of goods requiring each time anew an effort to produce them.

But which contribution is adequate? This question is decided by the project. It weights the contributions using the time duration inversely proportional to its popularity: unpopular tasks only require a small contribution, while popular tasks require a big contribution. This sounds similar to role the economic value is playing in market economy.

The economic value maps complex actions on simple once. However, while always complex actions are manifolds of simple once---resulting in less volume of spending---a generalized peer production tend to function the other way around: Simple tasks no one likes to do will be highly weighted to guarantee its execution, while popular and often highly qualified tasks get a lower weight. The weighting---according to the proposal---is nothing static, but is permanently adjusted. This adjustment is done automatically using an »auctioning system« mediating demand and supply. Thus one hour garbage removal can thoroughly correspond to one week writing computer programs.

Concerning the allocation of the goods peer projects join together and form distribution pools, in order to be able to provide a larger bandwidth of useful goods. At the same time the project extent should (but not need to) be straightforward, problems should be handled directly »peer to peer«. Everybody contributing something to a local project can gather goods from the respective distribution pool. Depending on the type of goods the ways of distribution differ, from flat rate allocation to preference weighting.

It is remarkable, that Siefkes concretely discusses a number of critical questions, which are usually avoided by referring to a future »where everything will be solved«: How will limited resources and goods be distributed? What about infrastructures and meta-tasks? How will decisions be made, how conflicts be solved? How will global projects be organized? What about people being not able or willing to make a contribution? Who decides what a »contribution« is? What about migration? Are laws further on necessary?

To my opinion the presented concept is a pragmatic transition model, not a general model of a post-capitalist society. Main limitation is the interlinking of contribution and taking. However, it is well imaginable, that the strict interlinking between contribution and taking during the phase of competition to capitalism will be resolved after its overcoming.

Christian Siefkes has not written his book in terms of a notion critique, but pragmatically oriented at discourses of the English language area. As the text is released under a free license a German translation should be possible soon. A set book!

Christian Siefkes, From Exchange to Contributions. Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World, Berlin, Edition C. Siefkes, 2007, 9.50 Euro, Web: