Not a Free Supermarket

ZNet Debates logo[This is my final reply in the debate regarding parecon and peercommony between Michael Albert and me. I wrote it in response to Michael Albert’s Replying to Siefkes Reconsideration. All articles, including Michael’s concluding statement, Lost Opportunity, can be found on the debate overview page.]

Balance and Influence

Michael, you argue that “job complexes” must be carefully “balanced” per exact rules, since otherwise people will have different degrees of influence over the decisions made at their workplace:

But suppose the workplace has a corporate division of labor. I claim that in this case too, we who work there will not all have a fair share of influence.

That may or may not be true, but so what? If I work (or volunteer – the same thing) in a hospital, I might not have much influence over the bedclothes used, unless I’m actively involved with obtaining and maintaining them. Probably I’ll trust the people active in that area to make the right decisions. If not, I could get involved, arguing what should be done and why. I would need plausible arguments, and ideally some kind of track record in regard to that area if I want to be taken seriously, but then I can certainly do it. (And why should I start discussions about something I know nothing about?)

If I feel my input is not taken seriously or my contributions aren’t appreciated, I can leave the hospital, or threaten to leave it. That wouldn’t harm me, since I don’t have to work, but I’d affect the hospital, especially if other volunteers decide to do the same. A project that alienates too many of its volunteers will stagnate and die off because of a lack of participants. Peer production is self-regulating in regard to influence sharing.

No doubt, this leads to all kinds of interesting problems. What happens to the resources of a dying project (hospital ground, building, equipment)? At some time the community where the project is situated will have to get involved, claiming the resources back and handing them over to others willing to do better. And how do we ensure that people actually get a chance to learn and acquire experiences in their areas of interest, rather then being constrained e.g. by gender bias (“men are good at X, women at Y”) or lack of learning facilities? These are important challenges that a peercommony will have to address in a satisfying way in order to allow everybody to live as they prefer and reach their full potential. But the bureaucratic prescriptions of parecon, while well-intended, fail to even recognize the actual problems.

A World Without Money as a Supermarket Where All Prices Are Zero?

This remark might bring us to the heart of the matter:

In peercommony you claim we would all take an appropriate amount from the commons. [But] how do people know what is appropriate? […] If your answer is, as so far, that you think the only thing that is just is that we each take what we want – with no stipulations about how much that can be – please tell me why everyone won’t take everything they can enjoy and benefit from, regardless of how much that is.

If you say we won’t take so much because we are responsible and we care about others […] please tell me what peercommony thinks caring about others means, and how peercommony delivers information that enables us to do it.

You seem to imagine a world without money as a big supermarket where all the prices are zero. If I were to encounter such a supermarket, wouldn’t I grab as many of the cost-free goods piled up in the shelves as I can and bring them into my possession, almost regardless of whether I actually have much use for them? I probably would, if only out of fear that this wonderland scenario cannot last. There must have been some mistake, tomorrow prices will certainly return to their normal, above-zero levels, so lets make most of this mistake before it is too late!

If, however, I could trust that this is not an exceptional, temporary situation, but that all the free goods are here to stay and will be replenished in sufficient quantity before any of them can run out, then my behavior would probably be different. Why should I bother grabbing goods I don’t need, or not yet? I could be confident that they’ll still be there when I need them (if I ever do). I could simply treat the free supermarket as a big storage room, taking out of it what I need when I need it, rather than having to bother with needlessly storing stuff at home.

Still, such a “magic supermarket” scenario sounds highly implausible. I could indulge in every luxury I want, and so could everybody else. There is nothing wrong with luxury, but would the Earth’s resources be up to it? The scenario becomes even more doubtful if we move beyond supermarket goods to include the “big stuff.” Would there be a big villa for everyone, with the mountains right behind, the sea in front, and an attractive city center on the side? What if everyone takes a big car? The streets would be permanently jammed, and the climate would suffer even more than it does today! And who would produce all those magical free goods in the first place?

If you imagine peercommony like a big free supermarket I understand why you consider it unrealistic. But the supermarket scenario is misleading. The crucial point is that it is focused on things, on commodities (though in the form of strangely contradictory “free commodities”), rather than on people and their needs.

Thinking in terms of needs, we get a better picture. I need a home that is warm enough in the winter and not too hot in the summer; food when I’m hungry; new clothes and shoes when the old ones are no longer good or inappropriate for some occasion. I need mobility to move between the places where I live and work, to stay in contact with relatives and friends, to explore new things and places. I need communication for the same reasons and in order to learn what’s going on in the world. I need health care when I’m ill and to prevent me from becoming ill. I need entertainment and cultural activities. I need friends, and love, and social connectedness. And so on.

In a peercommony, things are produced not to fill shelf space in a supermarket (whether free or not) but because there is demand for them. Production is demand-driven, and we may picture society as a common mesh network for production on demand. A mesh because there is no central institution that coordinates or regulates everything, but peer projects that coordinate among themselves.

Common because the projects handling production are commons – everybody may join if they live sufficiently nearby, have the required skills, and are willing to accept the rules the project members have given themselves. (Once you have joined a project, you as well as all the other project members have a say in how the rules evolve, since projects usually decide by rough consensus.) And because the resources they use – natural resources and knowledge – are commons, not exclusively owned and controlled by any single person or institution.

Production is on demand because no reasonable project will produce anything if they cannot expect that it will be wanted and used by somebody. In capitalism, every company tries to push as many of its products into the market as it can sell at a reasonable price. Even if that means that its competitors, who try to do the same, cannot sell their products and go bankrupt. In the market, production is necessarily uncoordinated and antagonistic.

In peercommony, there is no guarantee that producers will coordinate among themselves, but it’s the reasonable thing to do. No project can gain by increasing their “market share” at the cost of others, since there is no market and they don’t sell anything. Producing more than actually needed would simply be wasted effort, and who would reasonably do that?

So I cannot simply “take” what I want, since everything already has an intended user when it is produced. Elsewhere [German] I have proposed a “subscription” model for food production in a peercommony. “Garden farms” are projects that produce food, and each person or household registers with a garden farm in their neighborhood to get food for themselves. You don’t have to pay, and you can get more (e.g. for visitors or celebrations) or less (e.g. while traveling elsewhere) when needed. But the food-producing projects will know the general need in their surroundings. They will produce and share accordingly. Nobody will stay hungry while others feast and throw food away. Maybe occasionally the food situation will be tight for everybody. But more likely there will simply be enough for everybody, especially if we consider that garden farms can share food on larger scales (up to the global level), balancing local deficits with surplus produce from elsewhere. (Next time it may be the other way around.)

Similar approaches are possible for other kinds of goods. Building projects will jointly build and maintain living spaces for everybody in the neighborhood. They will not simply build a singularly huge villa for me just because I ask them to. (Unless, maybe, if I give them a good reason that convinces them that my request makes sense. Maybe if the villa is intended not just for me but as some kind of community hub, and I agree to live in it, maintain it, and keep it open.)

So how do people know, whether, where and how much to engage? “How do I know how much work I should be doing to be caring appropriately about others who benefit from my product?” you ask.

I don’t think “how much” is the most important question. First I’ll have to decide whether and where to engage. That depends on needs. My own actual needs, my anticipated needs, and the actual and anticipated needs of people I know and care about. Maybe even of people I don’t know.

Maybe everything around me runs flawlessly, all the needs I have and can think of are taken care of. Then there is no special reason to engage anywhere at all. That’s fine. If there is no problem, we don’t need a solution. But maybe I nevertheless want to do something. People have not just consumptive, but also productive needs. I can then find out what my productive needs are – what I would like to do – and how to realize them best. Maybe there are some people somewhere – people I might not even know – that have needs that my productive needs can help satisfy? Or maybe there are people already active in my desired field of activity that wouldn’t mind doing something else for a change, or just reducing their amount of work or going idle for some time? Then I can relieve them.

But more likely, at least at first, not everything will run flawlessly. Maybe the vegetables from the garden farm are often stale, or nobody produces marmalade. Maybe the next health facility is too far away, or there aren’t enough mobile caregivers that look after old and ill people. Maybe parents have trouble finding someone who looks after their young children while they are away. Maybe the electric power supply tends to break down in the evenings since there aren’t enough wind turbines installed (nor enough storage that could preserve the solar energy collected during the day). Maybe the software we use for communication among friends and coworkers is buggy and lacks features we would like to have.

Maybe I feel that problem myself, or maybe I notice it because others complain about it. In either case, every such deficit is a hint for me and others who note it where and how to engage. I might not follow the hint, but maybe somebody else will. The more people get a hint – are directly or indirectly affected by a problem –, and the more seriously they take it, the more likely it becomes that somebody will get active on redressing the issue.

Also, if people get several hints they consider equally relevant, they will tend to get active in the area where they consider themselves most fit to make a useful contribution. I might fix the software, since that’s what I’m good at. Another person, who wouldn’t touch program code with a ten-foot pole, might nurse ill people. Somebody else might help building and installing wind turbines. But in case of an urgent crisis, say food shortage, all of us might focus on getting the local garden farms back on track, before returning to our normally preferred areas of engagement. That’s how peer production works.

Ye Olde Hierarchy

But would people in such a distributed productive mesh really produce for others? Isn’t there the risk that each small productive group would only produce for themselves, not caring for others and their needs? I don’t think that’s likely to happen, because peer producers need others. Projects need volunteers that join forces and help, otherwise they’ll shrink and die over time, as the original founders lose interest or time and retire. But many of the volunteers come out of the circle of users of a project, so if you don’t welcome new users, your project won’t prosper.

Also, even when peer producers don’t expect direct reciprocity – you don’t have to pay to play – they know that they’ll get some of form of indirect reciprocity. While they produce and care for others in one area of life, others produce and care for them in other areas. If, however, your project refuses to play nice and share with others, you may well experience a reduced willingness of others to share with you.

Even if people engage for others, as others engage for them, might not their engagement be very uneven? “How do I know how much work I should be doing,” you ask. I don’t think that, in the general case, there is too much need to worry about that. You will simple do what you choose until you conclude it is enough, or get bored, or need time for other activities. Some will do more, others less, but as long as everyone is happy with that, there is no problem.

The risks are in the extremes. Either that, as you probably worry, there could be a “race to the bottom” regarding the amount of work done. If everyone carefully monitors their neighbors and coworkers, trying not to work more than they, then all useful activity would quickly come to a halt, and society would collapse. Less extremely, if everyone shuns work, there would be social stagnation and people would suffer.

True enough, but why would people behave like that? People don’t behave like that when they go for walks, do sports, watch movies, or play games. Nor even do they behave like that when they have babies and raise children (otherwise humanity would have died out) – though that involves, without a doubt, a lot of work. If nobody worked unless paid or forced to, then digital commons such as free software and Wikipedia wouldn’t exist and neither would community spaces, many works of art, and much social/political activism. Maybe if there is other work that is much worse than all these activities, then it really won’t be done. But then we should worry how to modify such work so that people have less reasons to shun it, or how to get it out of our lives (maybe by delegating it to machines), rather than worrying about how to make people do it.

The other extreme is, for me, a more serious concern. Won’t some people work very hard, trying single-handedly to fix something that doesn’t work or to fill a gap? If this occurs, it might not necessarily be a problem, but it can be, if they are unhappy with their situation or risk burn-out. I don’t think there can be general rules to avoid such situations, except a general spirit of taking care of the people around you, offering help when they are unhappy and relieving them when necessary.

Finally, you worry that a new society will “simply reproduce old hierarchies” if it doesn’t take active care to overcome them. Some hierarchies would just disappear. There won’t be rich and poor people any more if nobody needs money. But other hierarchies and distinctions could still persist and will not necessarily disappear overnight. Does everybody have the knowledge and self-confidence necessary to do what they really like to do? Does society allow everyone to freely explore their preferences, to find out what they like to do and how? Or are there still social prejudices and restrictions to the effect that (for example) men will predominantly engage in some activities and women in others or that children will tend to follow in the footsteps of their parents?

For a peercommony to reach its full potential, it’s indeed important to overcome such prejudices and restrictions, to allow everyone to learn about fields that interest them and explore any areas of activity they like. Stigmergy is based on self-selection of people finding the tasks they like do to, and if (for example) women get discouraged when trying to discover whether they like programming and technical tasks, or men get discouraged when trying to discover whether they like caring for small children or ill people, that’s a loss for everybody.

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