Peer-to-peer revolution — Challenging traditional capitalist business models

ID-10018651One could have long arguments over the exact definition of socialism if it?s posed as an abstract future-construction. However such a discussion will acquire different quality if we are to base it upon real processes which we can observe in the present reality which are already undermining and (or even outplacing in certain conditions) the established models.

Why not start with Wikipedia and other examples of so-called peer production that are challenging traditional hierarchical capitalist business models? Wikipedia is a profoundly anti-capitalist and even communist way of producing and distributing knowledge. It is based on the principle to each according to need, from each according to ability. The contributors or editors are not paid and the users are not charged, which again flies in the face of all capitalist logic. Furthermore, Wikipedia is egalitarian produced on the basis of horizontal reciprocities rather than hierarchical control.

Another famous example of peer-production is Linux. Thanks to the Internet Linux was build by thousands of computer programmers worldwide, most of them working for companies such as Microsoft, IBM and others, who collectively and voluntarily build a new and — according to many better and more stable computer operating system that today is used by major corporations like BMW and is massively used in countries like China.

Open-source production could (and probably will) revolutionise businesses worldwide, but these developments are hardly discussed by the left. The early defenders of open sources and peer production were ? and often still are — branded by the establishment as the new communists. In fact, there is a group on Facebook called Telekommunisten.

Of course, as with every new technology, capitalism tries to use these new developments into their advantage. A couple of years ago Google started an on-line encyclopaedia project trying to out-compete Wikipedia by introducing the concept of monetary rewards depending on the amount of visits of the page you made. The result was a complete and total failure. Hardly anyone can actually remember it.

Internet and peer production, by themselves will, not automatically create the conditions for a superior system that will destroy or replace capitalism, as some of the theoreticians of peer production argue. But we must consider them as an important bridge to a future society and the demands of the peer movement surely deserve the attention of the international left as many points seem worth being integrated in a socialist programme.

These examples teach us important lessons. It shows money and material gains are not the main motivators of scientists, intellectuals and high skilled technicians. Once their material needs are met, they are driven by curiosity, the challenge of solving problems, the joy of working collectively on a project, of contributing to a better world, etc.

Jean Lievens

1 thought on “Peer-to-peer revolution — Challenging traditional capitalist business models”

  1. My main criticism here is that the ideas presented above verge on the Utopian approach to socialism.

    This is probably inevitable, imposed by the question itself. It has always been tempting to try to describe the future society we are fighting for, to describe the perfect society where free men and women will interact harmoniously and live in a state of permanent bliss.

    Utopias in fact have had an important contribution to make in the development of ideas concerning the structure of society. From the Republic of Plato to the Utopia of Thomas More, from Fourier?s Phalansteres to Huxley?s Island, or in William Morris? News from Nowhere, we have such a yearning of a future vision. However much these texts contributed to the understanding of social structures, they had no direct influence in the way history developed. I am not suggesting that Jean Lievens is describing another Utopia in that tradition. Nevertheless, in his attempt to answer the question ‘What is Socialism?’ — this is how I understand the idea behind such a text — he seems to approach socialism as a specific form of social organisation to be designed and implemented.

    JL introduces his thesis with the description of the development of Wikipedia and Linux as examples of non-capitalist forms of production. This, however, is not a new phenomenon, as the author seems to imply. Bernard Shaw has pointed out that ?communist? forms of production can be found within the capitalist system. In his Intelligent Woman?s Guide to Socialism he cites roads as such an example. In fact, Shaw?s choice is probably more relevant in this discussion than Wikipedia or Linux, in the sense that in roads we have a conscious decision by society to offer freely to its citizens their use (some roads have at times been handed over to private companies to construct in exchange for allowing them to collect tolls from the users, but this is still an exception to the general pattern; some goods seem somehow to defy capitalist norms since the early days of the system).

    In contrast, Wikipedia is a project based on volunteers and donations. Its amazing success does show that people are willing to work just for the joy of it rather than necessarily requiring material rewards to do so. It is however not much different than what groups of people have been always doing: study circles, book societies, charities, sports clubs etc. have always based their existence on voluntary work. The difference of course is the sheer size to which Wikipedia managed to grow.

    I am not going to analyse at length the somewhat different case of Linux or the significance of the behavioural experiments JL describes here — What is important is that all those cases give the lie to the simplistic capitalist assumption that material self-interest is the only drive in human nature. Once basic needs are satisfied, other factors come into play that complicate things.

    To put it in another way:

    It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

    The point here is that modern capitalism is creating conditions that create a different social reality that does not any more correspond to the traditional capitalist norms. This reality creates the conditions for the development of a different consciousness, one that is compatible with a socialist society.


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