Pattern 1: Beyond Exchange
This is part 1 of 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. Please visit the introducing part for the background.
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.
I’d like to make some points:
I absolutely agree with your last conclusion.
But I don’t think that a society without reciprocity is able to survive. Thus if Free Software production is supposed to be a model for a more comprehensive social transformation I’d suggest a more general view and I wouldn’t dismiss reciprocity together with exchange.
Unconditional gifts as a standard (not only something occurring in special situations) are only possible for immaterial goods. If you „give away“ your code, i.e. allowing other people to use it, it’s not lost for you. So you can easily give it away without expecting any service in return. I think this is very similar to the open access regime as one special mode of commons regulation.
But I’ll only give away my food, if I can trust, that I’ll get some in case I need it, although not necessarily from the same person I gave it to. So giving away material, substractable things as a gift, depends on a society I can trust in, this is the point. This is, what I’d call societal reciprocity or – as you called it in another context – structural solidarity and what I think is essential for a post-capitalist system.
And finally: Is it really without any reward that you share your software? Are the users really only „passive users“ only „beneficiaries“, or do they contribute in their way? Aren’t they your „testers“, those who give evidence that what you produce is working and it is of relevance for others? Isn’t it much more motivating for you to know that a lot of people use your software and appreciate what you are doing? Telling you their problems, thus stimulating new ideas? Strengthening your idea of free software, and joining in struggles against intellectual property and copyright if necessary?
More generally, what I want to say is, aren’t those accepting and using a gift as well part of and contributing to a commons? And doesn’t this mutual relation make givers and receivers more trusting, creating a new perception of how social relations might look like? And possibly motivating receivers to turn into givers, or better contributors, in another situation and for another resource?
So, what I think is, there is reciprocity in a broad sense also within the free software community and there is no need to exclude it by definition, even if it may not be essential there.
I absolutely agree with you, and I don’t think, that your remarks contradict my thesis. Your comment invites me to reflect on reciprocity. I think, we have to distinguish two types of reciprocity.
First, there is personal reciprocity as personal relationship of mutual connectedness. This might occur as »exchange«, but also other forms are possible. Generally speaking it is intersubjectivity.
Second, there is reciprocity on a societal level, where in average the society is a general infrastructure caring for my livelihood (that capitalism fails in doing so for all people is obvious). This is a kind of mediated reciprocity, where I do not need to personally know each other person re/producing things I need, as I do not need to know other persons I maintain or produce something for them. As you proposed, societal reciprocity is a good term.
Thus, there is always reciprocity, it can not be abandoned. The remaining question is how reciprocity is structured. In a free society my livelihood is cared for without any duty to give something back. On the personal level this freedom appears as independence from strutural intersubjective duty. Then you are free to shape your personal reciprocity, because nobody can compel you to do something you don’t want to do. In less free societies this coercion exists (be it based on exchange or moral duties as explained).
So yes, you are right, it depends on the society you can trust in. But given a free society you can trust, then personal reciprocity is free, too. Then unconditional giving is the standard, no matter what type of good it is. Under the given situation of exchange dominance the situation in Free Software is special due to the immaterial nature of the good which can easily be copied (given a material copy machine exists!). But in a free society the special situation of Free Software (or other praticies around non-rival goods) has become the general one.
In Free Software the most important reward is to have a good time developing software, to do what you really really want. Expressing one’s personal potences is satisfying in itself. Of course, positive feedback, new ideas, critiques etc. are valuable, too. But you are not doing what you do, in order to receive that! That’s the important point.
In a free society doing what you really really want does no longer have the character of a gift, because everybody is doing so. It is no longer anything special, it has become normal.
I agree with nearly all you say ;-), except maybe that the situation of material and immaterial goods would be the same in our utopian society, I think it can’t, simply because the one are limited and the other are not. But anyway, I didn’t want to contradict, but only to amend something in order to avoid misunderstandings.