Why not just pay someone when needed?

Peers support each otherThis continues the discussion on required vs. facilitated reciprocity that took place on the jox mailing list. Michel Bauwens remained skeptical that stigmergic self-organization is the way to go; he inquired:

what makes you believe that faced with healthcare issues, I will find with certainty a right doctor and equipment willing to take care of me … since I’m facing this kind of issues right now as a peer producer without health insurance, I’d be more than happy to follow your instructions …

As I understand it, his reasoning goes like this:

  1. If I had enough money, then I could afford to pay for health insurance which would allow me to pay for any doctors I need (or I could just pay them directly).
  2. If doctors, like me, need to earn money, they’ll offer me (and everybody else who can afford it) their services in exchange for money, so I can find some suitable doctor willing to treat me if I can offer them my money.

These assumptions, while accurately reflecting the current situation, also indicate what’s wrong with it:

  • Everybody is forced to work, or at least to try to find (paid) work. Not only are people forced to work (or otherwise get income) in order to get the money that grands them access to the services provided by doctors (as well as to most other essential and nonessential goods which our society has to offer). But also, looking at the same problem from the other side, doctors must be forced to work, since otherwise they apparently wouldn’t offer the services we need, so our money wouldn’t do us any good here.
  • Since you must work, and everybody else must too, you are constantly forced to compete against others. You compete for paid work you could do; more general, you compete trying to sell commodities (your labor power is one of them) while others try the same. It may be less apparent that this situation will always produce winners (who find paid work) and losers (who don’t), since it might seem that there could miraculously be enough paid work for everybody, but such a scenario would indeed be “miraculous” and has always been very far from reality.
  • Additionally, in such a situation any peer production (generally unpaid, voluntary, self-organized) is the enemy of those whose livelihood depends on being paid for doing roughly the same. The livelihood of people working for Encyclopædia Britannica and Brockhaus has been endangered by Wikipedia, professional musicians’ livelihoods are endangered by all the free music that is shared (legally or illegally) on the Internet, journalists are endangered by blogs etc.
  • Moreover, automation now becomes your enemy rather than your friend. A lot of jobs have been made superfluous by computers and other machines. If one thinks (like me) that everything which people do should preferably be fun or satisfying for them, then automation of tasks that aren’t is a good thing. But if your livelihood depends on performing some more or less annoying and unpleasant job, then you won’t want it to be taken over by a computer or machine, even if you otherwise wouldn’t mind being rid of it.

Because of these conflicting tendencies, I don’t think that a long-term, more or less peaceful co-existence of peer production and market production is a credible scenario. Market production is totalitarian: if some goods (e.g. health care) are only available on the market (by paying for them), then everybody must remain a market producer (engaging in some form of paid work or else living from the work of others), since how would they otherwise get the necessary money? The only conceivable exception is a market for luxury goods which nobody needs absolutely (i.e. not health care and other essentials).

What are the alternatives? Either turning peer production into a form of market production, yielding some income to those engaged in it. Then ultimately market production would win and the specific characteristics of peer production would be lost. You would have to compete against others in order to keep or gain market share. You would no longer work voluntarily since your income now depends on your continuing to work. You would be forced to keep some secrets from others to prevent them from competing effectively against you. And so on.

The better alternative is to make people’s dependency of income superfluous, so that nobody needs to find paid work in order to live a good life. This means finding answers to all the hard questions: “If we cannot pay doctors to care for us, how else do we get them to do it?” would be one of them. The basic form of the question is the same as in: “If we cannot pay people to write an encyclopedia for us, how else do we get them to do it?” That latter question has already been answered, though finding the right answer was far from easy.

The history of the Nupedia is an instructive example of the trial-and-error process that preceded the successful setup of the Wikipedia – trying to follow the processes of existing encyclopedias too closely was among the biggest sources of mistake, I believe. Similar trial-and-error processes will be needed for all other areas of life. I suppose that trying to follow the example of capitalist enterprises too closely will be a source of many other mistakes and that peer-produced health care, education, furniture production, computer manufacture, or whatever, will look more different from the currently used processes than we can imagine.

Meanwhile, for a long time we’ll remain in some kind of hybrid situation, where many people will be engaged in some kind of peer production, while still needing some kind of paid work (part-time maybe, like me) to get the money necessary to buy what peer production cannot yet provide.

[Next article in series: In what sense are markets “totalitarian”?]

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