Peercommony Reconsidered

ZNet Debates logo[This is part of an debate regarding parecon and peercommony between Michael Albert and me. It is a repy to Michael Albert’s Considering Peercommony. All articles can be found on the debate overview page – more will follow.]

Michael formulates various concerns and objections, many of whom are not new to me. I can’t address all of them fully, for lack of space and because many seem to ask for a blueprint of a future, non-capitalist society, which is not something I can or want to give. The meta-rule of all peer/commons-based institutions is that “you have to find your own rules.” Any successful peer project has a history of trial and error. Finding solutions that work for you is an essential part of the game.

But while I cannot describe the exact institutional mechanisms Michael asks me to describe, I’ll give my reasons why I think that people will be able to find and implement them.

Labor as a Problem

Both in parecon and Michael’s objections, the distribution of labor is treated as a big, worrisome problem. How to ensure that all the necessary labor is done? Interestingly, the worries of people who have a good understanding of technology, but lack a critical understanding of capitalism, are usually the opposite. They worry about the rapid disappearance of labor, especially the kind of labor that is “disempowering, … rote and repetitive,” in Michael’s words. I’m involved in the RepRap 3D-printer project, one of the biggest open hardware projects. One topic frequently discussed among the participants is the disappearance of “blue-collar,” physically challenging work, with people worrying about what will become of those that lack the necessary skills to succeed at “white-collar,” non-manual work. Authors like Federico Pistono (“Robots will steal your job, but that’s OK”) are beginning to understand that the ideological notion “Everybody has to work for a living” no longer makes sense. (Though they don’t understand that that notion is at the heart of capitalist ideology and that it didn’t even exist before.)

So, part of my response to Michael’s inquiry about “the institutions that would lead toward diminishing intrinsically unrewarding labor” is that these institutions are already in place. Almost every innovation in capitalism is about reducing labor. True, capitalists don’t care about whether it is rewarding or not, but usually the “rote and repetitive” labor is easiest to automate. Two objections are obvious: First, there are still tons of rote and repetitive labor, much of which has migrated to China and other Asian countries. Second, what will happen after capitalism? Won’t people lose the will or ability to innovate if the capitalist reason for innovation (more profits!) no longer exists?

But before addressing these objections, I would like to come back to Michael’s term “intrinsically unrewarding labor,” since I suspect there is something intrinsically wrong with it. It suggests that labor, or work (I prefer the latter term when not talking specifically about capitalism) must be “intrinsically rewarding” or else people will never do it voluntarily, without coercion or compensation. “Intrinsic” seems to indicate that the task must be rewarding (satisfying, enjoyable, fun, instructive) in itself, regardless of whether or not it it useful for others. But that misses important aspects of what motivates people, since these factors are not everything.

Nobody enjoys working for the wastebasket; almost everybody enjoys feeling needed, feeling appreciated, knowing that one did something useful. Hence the notion that people, unless convinced by “extrinsic” payment, only do things that they “intrinsically” enjoy without taking the needs of others into account, misses the point. Being useful to others is part of what makes tasks enjoyable.

Back to the point of China and Bangladesh, and all the “rote and repetitive” labor that is still an essential part of capitalism. Can we expect that all that labor will be taken over by volunteers who aren’t forced by the need to earn money? Certainly not, but I don’t think the lack of payment is the problem. The actual problem is any kind of work that nobody does unless forced or paid. I don’t think that humanity can get rid of capitalism without getting rid of (at least) most such work.

Does that mean that overcoming capitalism has to remain a pipe dream? Not at all, but it means that reasoning about abstract institutions is not enough. Overcoming capitalism implies overcoming the often rote, boring, or annoying labor that makes it real. How can we produce an encyclopedia without having to pay people to do it? Wikipedia has solved that problem. How can we produce computers or clothes, without having to pay people? We don’t know yet, but we – humanity – will have to find out.

Indeed I suppose that much of this labor will be “stolen by robots” still during the reign of capitalism. Today, it’s mainly a convenience decision whether to employ low-cost labor or whether to utilize machines, and if and when the costs for international shipping raise again (say due to Peak Oil), automation becomes more attractive.

And after capitalism? Won’t the rate of innovation become much slower if market pressures are removed? I suppose it might well become slower overall, since the reduction of human labor will no longer be a general goal, as it is in capitalism. For work which is not a problem – work which enough people do willingly –, there will be no reason to reduce it.

But tasks that don’t attract enough volunteers are a different matter. Here everybody who wants those things done, but doesn’t want to do them themselves, will be interested in figuring out automatic solutions. Or in finding ways of re-organizing them to make them more attractive for yourself, or for others. It is exactly the lack of an “easy way out” – of a huge number of people who desperately need to earn money and therefore accept almost any job – that will be the driving force for further automation and for the re-organization of work to make it more enjoyable and rewarding.

While Michael and many others see work as the big problem, I don’t, for three reasons:

  1. There are enough people, about 7 billion according to latest statistics. Most of these people enjoy working, enjoying doing something useful for others – not permanently, not 40 or more hours per week, but certainly from time to time.
  2. There is not that much to do. “Unemployment,” the lack of work for people who want or (more exactly) have to work, is one of the biggest problems today, as any politician will confirm. Moreover, most of the work done today will be unnecessary after capitalism. Much is just overhead of the market and property system – advertisement, banking, most market research, most police work, many state institutions, armies, weapons production. Much of the remaining work stems from the fact that production takes place in private firms who cannot, or don’t want to, re-use the results of the work done in other firms. In peercommony, building upon the works of others is commonplace and such duplicate effort is unnecessary. Moreover, much of the work formerly done by people has already been taken over by machines, and for even more that should be possible.
  3. People’s interests about what they like to do and their skills and talents about what they are good at (or can learn) vary a lot. Stigmergy, the hint-based task distribution mechanism of peer production, is about bringing together the various tasks that need doing with the manifold preferences of what people enjoy doing.

Making Your Own Rules

Some of Michael’s concerns are rather strange:

Consider a workplace. Its workers establish a schedule by operating as a self managing collective…. they … establish a norm of five hours of work for each participant. Joe says, screw that, I want to work seven hours (or three hours)

Why should anyone mind if others work a bit shorter, or longer? Even modern capitalism isn’t very strict about that. Part-time work is accepted in many companies, and few companies will object to their employees doing unpaid overtime.

I can think of scenarios where the collective would indeed be unwilling to accept certain behaviors. If Joe came for just one or two hours each day, merely played around with the equipment, and never did any useful work, they would probably say: “Stop that. Either help us here or spend your time elsewhere.” On the other hand, if he spent twelve hours in the workplace, every day, they might suggest him to relax and do less, out of fear for his health or his life beyond work. But if he contributes in a useful way, why should anyone mind if he stays a bit longer or leaves early?

[Joe continues] and I want to work late at night so the rest of you have to turn on the lights for me when no one else is here and you have to get by without me when I choose to be elsewhere.

Just leaving the lights on for some hours doesn’t seem a reason for concern, though the situation could be different if they had highly specialized machinery that uses lots of electricity. Finding times for joint meetings, when necessary, is a different matter. The people running a workplace make their own rules and will expect anyone who joins to accept the rules (though they can certainly try to change them, too).

Does being peers imply that the collective cannot say to Joe, “no, working here conveys certain responsibilities, and if you don’t want to abide them, that’s fine, but in that case you can work somewhere else?”

Of course they can. It’s part of what being peers is about. If they weren’t peers, only the bosses would make the rules.

Self-selection and Trust

Another strange idea Michael seems to have gotten is that self-selection means everybody can act out their own desires, regardless of others. That’s not how it works. Voluntary self-selection means that others cannot force me to do something specific, but also that I cannot force them to accept my contributions.

Suppose I want to play shortstop for the local ball team…. I go down and announce my desire and trot out to play.

Becoming part of a team means being accepted by the team. Nobody can force you to play baseball, but neither can you force anyone to play it with you. Non-coercion goes both ways.

Suppose I decided to contribute as a doctor. I enjoy it, and feel it is useful to me, but it would do immense harm to others.

How could it? To be accepted as a doctor, just as for any other task, you have to prove to people that you know what you’re doing, that you deserve their trust. As Michael Bauwens says, peer production is “anti-credentialist,” so you’ll probably do that in a somewhat different way from today. Not by studying for several years and then receiving a degree that certifies you’re worthy. More likely, you’ll be able to gain that trust in a more “hands-on” fashion. You might become a volunteer of a hospital or another already trusted institution, where you’ll learn and improve your skills under the careful supervision of more experienced participants who’ll ensure you can’t do damage.

Stigmergy and Social Self-organization

Michael asks:

How do I know other’s needs, including people who consume my product, produce what I use in my work, or produce what I consume at home? How do I know if I ought to produce item x? … Siefkes … says “participants leave hints … about started or desired activities, encouraging others to follow these hints and take care of the desired tasks.” … Maybe this can work … for some relatively unimportant undertakings whose timeline is entirely flexible being done by people with independent income.

Only somebody who hasn’t much to do with computing would call Linux “relatively unimportant.” Also, free software projects such as Debian, the most influential, almost entirely community-managed Linux distribution, have to adhere to very strict timelines at least in certain regards. Whenever bugs, especially security-critical ones, occur, they must be fixed quickly or the software will fall in disrepute. They manage quite well. Many people prefer free software because they consider it more secure and bug-free than proprietary alternatives, and quantitative studies support this (cf. Wheeler, Delio).

But for harvesting corn? For smelting steel? For flying airplanes and tracking them, for keeping a hospital clean? All in unison. All with inputs and outputs matching up properly?

Stigmergy, the leaving and following of hints, and the voluntary self-selection of people, is indeed at the heart of peer production. I suspect that this is often wrongly perceived as being entirely noncommittal and just following the “pleasure principle” – today I do this, tomorrow that, starting, abandoning, and interrupting activities at will without caring about other’s need.

There is a piece of truth in that since peer production makes it indeed easy to pursue different interests and engage in manifold activities. But otherwise this notion is very misleading, since it ignores the social coordination and organization which peer production entails. Part of the peer philosophy is “passing the baton”: if you start something, you should either finish it or else try to find someone who takes it over:

When you lose interest in a [task], your last duty to it is to hand it off to a competent successor. (Eric Raymond)

People run hospitals and fly airplanes today, why shouldn’t they do so in peercommony? Does Michael believe that the fear of losing one’s job and income is the only thing that motivates people today, and that a society without such fear would never work? In peercommony as in capitalism there are consequences if you don’t do the things you agreed to do. I could respond that peer producers might still be motivated by fear: not of losing your income, but of losing the respect of your peers if you don’t live up to your (voluntary) commitments, of losing coworkers and maybe friends if you have to withdraw from a project.

But I don’t believe that fear is a necessary motivator, or a good one. There are other reasons why people engage, why they enter and fulfill commitments, why they write software and encyclopedia articles and why they will run hospitals and fly airplanes if given the opportunity. I have discussed these reasons before and won’t repeat them here.

How will peer projects providing e.g. health care, transportation, housing, or food, look like and work? They will be self-organized by people who come together to provide these goods, because they consider them important or because it’s an area of engagement they like. Their goal will be to provide goods to those who need them, not to make a profit or earn money (meaningless notions in a peercommony). But saying much more is hardly possible today, since finding the rules and organizational arrangements of successful peer projects is a trial and error process. Nobody could have predicted in advance how the Wikipedia works. Even its founders’ original ideas turned out to be quite wrong. Only by being flexible about them, by constantly modifying them in ways that made the Wikipedia more attractive for contributors and also readers, were they able to make it a success.

Fairness Without Money

The idea that peercommony doesn’t use money to couple consumption to work seems to worry Michael:

If no one has a social responsibility to do a fair share of work to receive a fair share of social product, then … peercommony is saying, please do less than a fair share of work and take more than a fair share of stuff.

Implicit here is the notion that work is bad and to be avoided, while consumption is good and to be maximized. But I doubt that most people would decide to consume excessively and work very little. Maybe they would if work were generally considered a burden, as in capitalism and, apparently, in parecon. But peer production is about organizing work (useful activities) in ways that make it enjoyable, interesting, and fulfilling – which doesn’t mean it cannot be hard, sweaty, and occasionally annoying, too. If work is organized in such a way, the notion of “sharing it fairly” stops making much sense. If it is a normal and enjoyable part of life, why should one complain about somebody who works less, or more, than the average? As long as everyone is satisfied with what they’re doing, there is no problem. Whenever that’s not the case, it’s a problem that should be addressed, but it’s a qualitative, not a quantitative problem.

Fair sharing of stuff, or consumption, is another issue, since the Earth’s resources are limited. This can be measured by the ecological footprint. These days, the average footprint of humanity is 50% higher than what’s sustainable – 2.7 global hectares per person, while only 1.8 are available. The average footprint in highly industrialized countries is even higher – about 5 hectares in Western Europe, 8 hectares in the US.

For people from these countries, a radical reduction of their footprint is necessary for a sustainable and fair world. But why tie people’s consumption, and hence their footprint, to how much they work? Why should a person that works 50% longer than typical (maybe because they like what they’re doing) have a footprint 50% above the sustainable average? That doesn’t make sense.

Maybe another kind of accounting system is needed to ensure that everybody’s footprint stays within fair limits? If so, it couldn’t be based on money and work, but would rather measure the eco-footprint of all the goods they use. I don’t preclude that possibility but I suppose it would be difficult to organize in a fair manner. There are reasons such as illness that can cause a person’s footprint to go above the global average and shouldn’t be held against them. Rather than imposing a strict footprint limit, a hint-based system might be a better solution. It would inform people whether their personal footprint is below or above the fair average, thus guiding (but not forcing) their decisions.

While a drastic reduction of their footprint is required for people in the Western world, I doubt it would mean a drastic reduction of quality of life. US Americans have a footprint 60% higher than in Europe, but hardly an European would believe that the quality of life in the US is 60% higher. And capitalism is an extremely wasteful system – many of the produced things are never sold or hardly used, things are designed to break early and to instill follow-up needs, and production methods are often unnecessarily wasteful (regarding resource usage, not monetary cost). Overcoming capitalism and its wasteful patterns should allow a large reduction of footprint without forcing anybody to abstain from goods they really like.

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