[Repost with permission (ask here) from a series of articles on P2P & Marxism: part 2, read part 1 here]
By Jonathan Clyne
Collaboration has existed before P2P production and many different forms continue to exist side by side with it. It could therefore be easy to dismiss P2P as nothing new under the sun. Yet that would be a mistake. Several things make P2P unique. In order to understand that it is worth comparing with other forms of collaboration.
The most common form of collaboration, outside the private sphere, exists at any workplace. Simply in order to get the work done people must collaborate. Superficially, it would be easy to identify the difference between P2P and other collaboration on the work place by saying that collaboration at a workplace is based upon bosses deciding and ‘creating’ a team. Formally speaking that is true, but in practice, collaboration at most workplaces is, like P2P, more of a bottom up collaboration.
From bosses to psychos
Most workplaces combine a hierarchical structure with strong pressure to ‘perform’ in the face of competition. When somebody else has the power to more or less arbitrarily decide upon your working conditions and your livelihood, you are putting more power into their hands than almost anybody can handle. Especially when they are faced with the stress of having to get results, without which the company will fail.
The bosses boss has the same rights over the boss as the bosses have over their employees. Sometimes all the ones immediately below the top dog are in an even worse position than an ordinarily worker. That is to say from the point of view of being subjected to arbitrary decisions from above. They are seldom in a union and have no collective to fall back on.
This type of hierarchical way of organising work eats up people at all levels. And it attracts some of the worst people. According to one survey, bosses are four times more likely to be psychopaths than your average worker. One out twenty-five bosses are reckoned to be fully-fledged psychopaths, and a much larger proportion show such tendencies. In addition, psychologist Oliver James has also identified two other destructive boss profiles: “The Machiavellian” and “The Narcissist”. The manipulator and the one that cares only about his own image. The hierarchical system rewards the peculiar ‘talents’ of these types, the ability to act without empathy.
Yet despite the hierarchical system, in most cases the employed manage to work together. They find strategies to bypass the system. Collaborating with others is the best thing to do, if you anyway are forced to spend eight hours a day working at an often boring job. The interaction with your workmates and the satisfaction of having achieved something together (apart from your wage) become the mainstay of why you enjoy your work.
If it were not so that workers themselves organise collaboration at workplaces, why is work-to-rule a form of industrial action? If following the rules laid down by bosses actually made things work better it would be loved by bosses. A union that organises mainly knowledge workers, Communication Workers of America, instructed its members how to go about a work-to-rule: “Never use your judgement – ask!” That really says it all. If workers do not work independently of their bosses, things get into a mess.
The bossless P2P and the cooperatives
Nonetheless, it is true that P2P collaboration has a, not inconsiderable, advantage over the day-to-day collaboration that takes place at most workplaces. It does without the top down appointments of the leaders. Although there are no formal bosses, P2P production does have people with more authority than others, people who are more respected and that more people listen too. That make P2P similar to workers cooperatives.
Worker cooperatives are companies owned by the employed, and run by people appointed by them. They are plenty of cooperatives, and the number is growing. According to researchers from Harvard and Rutgers University, such companies perform better. Naturally, they score better in the Trust Index (the principal measure of credibility), respect, fairness, pride, and camaraderie. However, they also have a lower turnover of personnel and, surprisingly, a higher share-value. Recent research shows that cooperatives have also had a much greater survival rate during the recent economic meltdown.
Workers’ cooperatives are not confined to small-scale operations. In the USA, employees own a majority of shares in about 1,500 companies. This includes companies such Publix Super Markets with 152,000 people employed and the engineering/construction company CH2M Hill with 28,400 employed. All in all, some 14 million workers (10% of the workforce) in the USA completely or partially own the companies they work for this. This is close to the 17 million in the so-called fair-use industries.
Of course, this measure of ownership (the Employer Stock Ownership Scheme, ESOP) does not measure the amount of democratically run companies. There are plenty ESOP companies where the employers are in a minority and have little say. However, the 17 million figure in fair-use industries does not really show how many are involved in real P2P production. Both are merely indicative.
Examples of successful workers cooperatives can be multiplied at will. They survive a long time. Britain’s largest department store chain, John Lewis, is a workers’ cooperative. In Pakistan in the nineteen-sixties, Esso established a plant to convert natural gas to the fertilizer urea. In the early nineties, they decided to sell their fertilizer business. 200 of the 300 people employed bought out the plant. Since then Engro, as they call themselves, has grown into a huge business with investments in many different fields. Last year Engro was Pakistan’s largest private investor and the fertilizer plant has become the world’s largest. In the Basque country, the workers cooperative Mondragon has been going strong since 1956. It has over 8o,ooo people working in 256 companies in four areas – finance, industry, retail, and knowledge. In 2009, Mondragon made an agreement with the US union United Steel to set up cooperatives in the USA.
Yet there is still a fundamental difference between worker’s cooperatives and P2P. One such important difference is that working with P2P production is freely chosen compared to worker’s cooperatives. Clearly people prefer to work in a cooperative than working under the thumb of a boss. However, it is unlikely that they would choose to stand at the cash register at John Lewis’ in their spare time. Nor would they volunteer to put together fridges at Mondragon because they have a burning passion for doing so. They do so because they need a wage.
Where one volunteers to work
There are, however, plenty of examples of collaboration that are voluntary that are not considered to be part of P2P production. There are charities, chess clubs, and stamp collectors. However, these voluntary formations, pale in comparison to the two biggest.
The first is the sports movement. For outsiders all one thinks about when thinking about football is the world cup, but there is a huge undergrowth below that, without which the quality of the world cup would be incomparably lower. Take Nykvarn, a local council of some 9,000 inhabitants south of Stockholm. The local football club has some 1200 members. It is the voluntary labour of all these members, parents and children, which keeps the whole thing going. Parents volunteer to be trainers, they turn up on matches on Sundays to cheer and there is a strict rota as to who should provide the coffee and biscuits that are sold to raise money for the team. When a group of parents and children thought that football was becoming too competitive in this club, they simply started another one. In P2P language this would be known as ‘forking’.
The labour movement – history’s biggest collaboration
The biggest and most successful volunteer movement must be the international labour movement. Millions of people, for over a century, gave up a large portion of their spare time to voluntarily collaborate and transform the world. And they succeeded! Without the labour movement, there would be no universal suffrage, no welfare state, and far worse working conditions.
So, if it is not collaboration per se, nor collaboration without bosses, nor voluntary collaboration that distinguishes peer-to-peer production, what does?
P2P is the result and the cause of a new stage in the development of the means of production.
Contrary to what was previously believed, it is now widely accepted that apes use tools. However, it is still disputed whether or not they do so consciously. That is, do they have an idea in their heads about what they want to achieve, before they use tools? With human beings, there is no doubt. In order to produce anything, it is necessary, in one way or another, to do a bit of intellectual labour before your spoon or your semi-conductor is ready.
P2P production begins to appear when two processes begin to interact. One process leads to the proportion of physical work using physical materials declines compared to the amount of intellectual work. Economies of scale and specialisation have been the means for decreasing the amount of work and the amount of raw material needed to produce a single commodity. A few giant factories can practically supply the whole world with laptops today, and instead of big chunky things that one can only barely describe as portable, they have become slim and elegant. It is the intellectual preparation for production, the design, the software, and the marketing that make up most of the work that goes into a laptop.
The other process leads to an increase in the amount of people able to do intellectual work collaboratively. Partly this is due to the rise in education for many decades. But mainly it is the result of a massive cheapening of the means of communication. For every problem, there is at least somebody or a group of people out there with a solution. With cheap communication the problem and the solution can easily meet up.
The development of the means of communication has always been central to the development of the economy. The wheel, ships that sailed the oceans, the postal service, railways, telegraphs, and telephones were all milestones, opening up new vistas and cheapening the production of many things, but the development of computers and the internet trumps them all.
The brain of a computer is a processor that is made of many tiny transistors. In 1961, one transistor cost $ 10. A few years ago, the price was down to $ 0.00015. Since then it has almost certainly sunk again, because, ever since it was formulated in 1965, Moore’s law has been valid – the number of transistors on a chip (which is mainly made of sand) doubles every two years.
What is less known is that for many years the rate of development of two other central components of the internet, bandwidth and storage space, have developed even faster. For example, when it comes to storage, Dropbox, GoogleDrive, and SkyDrive compete with each in offering free storage space on-line. At the moment, SkyDrive is leading with 7 GB, an amount that was considered astronomical a few years ago.
If there are only fifty engineers that through intensive work over years can figure out how to make a new product work, they will have high wages and the company that employs them effectively monopolizes the market for intellectual labour.
However, with P2P, there will be 10,000 people who all contribute a few hours or minutes and that makes things cheap. Somebody who knows everything about everything is very scarce. But given 7 billion people in the world today, there is an infinite amount of intellectual capacity available. The internet has already connected 2 billion of them. Although a bit of an exaggeration, there is a grain of truth in “together we know everything”. A vast pool of knowledge is accumulating in the intellectual “Commons” on the internet. Nobody owns it. It is available, almost instantaneously, and can be developed by anybody with a pc, mobile phone or other device that connects them with the internet.
P2P brings Marx back to the top
In a broader historical sense the development of more and more things that are practically free, because they represent the collective intellectual work of millions, show the problems that capitalism is coming up against. Marx named private property as one of the two main barriers to the development of the means of production under capitalism. In the past, capitalism, pushed by the labour movement, tried to overcome this by developing a strong state sector. It was understood that if education, transport, healthcare, and other things vital for the functioning of the system were not in state hands, everybody would suffer. In order to develop capitalism, the partial abolition of private property had to be accepted.
Now P2P production is reposing the issue. In order for capitalism to develop, it has to reconcile itself to and somehow make money out of the fact that a large part of the means of production has no owner.
P2P production, just like state property in the past, is a sign that the system has outgrown itself. But there is nothing inevitable about progress. Does P2P risk meeting the same fate as state property? At first, it was fought tooth and nail. Then, it was accepted because it was tailored to serve private property, only finally to be cut into shreds and sold off when the system went into crisis and the pressure from the labour movement declined.