Transformation and ownership

Fourier transform (cc-by-nc:[Es gibt eine deutsche Übersetzung dieses Artikels]

On the Oekonux-Mailinglist there is an interesting debate about the relationship between private ownership and societal change, especially when it comes to commons based production of physical goods. Raoul Victor from France wrote:

The original question is how to deal with the ownership transformation when it concerns material means of production. I insisted on the fact that, at one moment or another (probably many years ahead), this will lead to a general social confrontation with capitalism, where „the workers of the world“ will play a major role, the germs of peer production practices, mainly in the freely reproducible goods domain, having played an important role in the evolution of their consciousness. This confrontation is inevitable because of the nature of capitalism itself.

This is my answer:

Ok, lets turn to the (most) interesting question of transformation. What shapes will the coming conflicts have, when peer production challenges capitalism within the physical sphere? What happens then with ownership?

First, we should see, that the confrontation is already there when we look at information goods, which can easily be copied. Let us assume, that we will win that confrontation in the long run. This will be the first important victory over the proprietary property regime and over private ownership, but compared to physical goods it will be a walkover.

But what exactly has suceeded here? It is the commons over proprietary property, it is common possession over private property. Thus the private ownership was not attacked within its own realm, but a new realm was built beside the old one: The commons challenges the private ownership. Ok, this is not completely true, we also have attacks within the old proprietary regime, say by pirates, but pirates are allies of those building the commons. It is kind of a double attack: undermining the old regime by pirates and building the commons outside the private regime.

Now, what about physical goods? Christians „From exchange to Contributions“ is a must-read in this respect. On a more general level one can say, that peer economy having extended into the physical sphere bases on the same principles as commons based information goods. Thus, we will face similar confrontations. We will have the old movements struggling with the old private property regime on its grounds (wages etc.). However, they are not able to build anything new. The new will be built outside the old relationships of commodity, exchange, money etc. on the basis of commons created around possession (and not property).

How can we establish possession based commons in an ocean of private property, especially when it comes to physical goods, where each piece has to be produced needing a constant flow of recources? Well, more or less in the same way, as we did it in the information field: Build projects being inside free of old relationships (no money, no exchange etc.) and linked to the outside world having small interfaces guaranteeing survival in an alien environment. Concerning information goods this means, that living is earned within the old relationships, say as a programmer in a company (or being an own company, this doesn’t matter), where the free software projects internal self-organization is free of it. More or less. Of course, there are mixed forms (singly/doubly free), however, due to analytical purposes I neglect them. This means, that the interface between the commodity world and the free world goes right through any person participating in commons based peer projects.

The „interface design“ will be different with physical goods. Here, we don’t only have the problem of the survival of the individual and the maintainance of the personal means of production, here we have the requirement of a constant flow of money from the outside world into the project as long as the project or a group of projects maintaining a common distribution pool is not able to provide with the necessary recources themselves. [Remark: „outside“ is meant purely logical, not physical, it can be anywhere.] The goal is to increase the inner area of the projects being free from the outside relationships and minimizing the interface to the commodity world. Again, Christian is writing about the inner relationships being free from exchange, market, money etc. based on effort sharing, so I can skip this here.

There have been some discussions and ideas in the (german part of the) keimform blog concerning the „interface problem“, which I refer to here:

Benni proposes a basic income as a precondition of starting physical peer projects meeting the requirements described above. He developed three conditions for a start: (1) It has to be a field being dominated by monopolist, because monopolists are slow and one can hope to get support from competitors of the monopolist (the MS scheme); (2) it must be a field, which can be organized decentrally with a minimum investment and being able to out-cooperate the monopolist; (3) it must be a field with a vital interest of capitalism, maybe something in the infrastructure sectors.

StefanMz wants to have a wide debate to generate new ideas about how to handle this problem, because there are lots of problems in the detail: How to prevent from commodity logics affecting inner relationships? How to prevent, that products from the inside peer production are not used inside, but sold outside? How to deal with the free rider problem? How to organize the leaving of the project? What about forks? How can be secured, that all means of a project remain in the commons (as common possession) and cannot be sold (as property)? etc.

Christian proposed two money collecting mechanisms to organize such a physical peer production based on his model. First, a person gives money into the project and estimates self, what amount of weighed labor this money represents. Second, bringing money into the project is one of many tasks, where its labor weight is built using the same auction mechanism as it is done for all other tasks.

Ok, let us assume for a while, that we have running commons based peer projects for physical goods, sharing the goods between the projects and project members where ever possible (based on effort or what ever), and using defined interfaces to the commodity world to get money, in order to „import“ productive means which cannot be produced self at this time. Sounds similar to the situation of former state-capitalist countries, but I skip dissussing differences. Let us assume, that this extended germ form of a peer economy successfully challenges capitalism on effiency and satisfying needs. What types of confrontation can emerge?

Discussing this question I want to refer to the five step model, roughly described here and in more detail here:

During steps 1 and 2 (emerging of the germ form and crisis of the old) capitalism and private owners can more or less ignore the germ form of a peer production being completely outside money-commodity-cycles. At step 3 (extending of the germ form becoming an important dimension of development, even for capitalism) some private owners can be interested in extending the commons based production as a mean in the competition with others, especially monopolists. However, there is a difference to information goods, say the case of IBM strongly supporting free software to improve their market position against competitors. While commons based information goods can be used by private owned companies acting as cost reducers, this is different with physical goods: they can only be used inside the commons realm. Thus, here the anti-monopolist effect is weaker than within the information commons. However, a real threat for capitalism does not appear at this stage.

This changes when moving to the 4th step, where the new way of producing, the peer economy, becomes dominant. This process can be done by drying out the markets and replacing them by the non-monetary based forms of the commons based peer production. Thus can lead to some anger, but it doesn’t really touches the old logics: Anybody, who wants, can play capitalism further on using markets that are shrinking. What about private property? Well, the peer economy buys capitalism out consecutively. It takes over means of production when they are no longer useful for profit making. The more they take over, the lower will be the prices. Again, this process of buy-out can lead to some anger, but there is no necessity for a direct confrontation with capitalists on their ground. Well, it may be the case, that workers take over a dying factory and introduce it into the peer economy, but this will not be the general case. Maybe when capilism is collapsing and peer economy is strong enough to absorb lost people and factory. Another potentially bigger danger can be the confrontation with states, but I assume, that the political system changes too, so that such conflicts can be handled piecefully (very optimistic).

This is all fiction, science fiction in the sense to mobilize our imagination where to go. The basic idea is to transform private property into commons based possession for peer production. Not by a violent act, not by a state act, but by a step by step buy-out or maybe by donation. This scenario does not play the old game on the old fundament of commodity, exchange, money etc., but it open up a new play ground by establishing new relationships between the acting people based on their needs.

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