Capital(ism) for the Commons?

Michel Bauwens answered to the critique of Stefan Meretz on Peer Production License. Jakob Rigi from Hungary enters the debate commenting on both positions. They are documented in the following. My answer on both, Michel and Jakob, is using italics.

Michel Bauwens: Responding to Stefan Meretz’s critique of the Peer Production License

Stefan Meretz produced a critique of the Peer Production License, or more generically, Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses, in the Keimform blog, to which I promised to respond.

Unfortunately, the critique is rather weak and misleading, so our responses will be rather short and inserted inline. Our responses are in bold and b-quote [remark: bold is skipped since blockquote is sufficient to identifiy the comment]

For context, I support the PPL, not in its full detail, but as a first of a kind, Commons-Based Reciprocity License (the concept is from Primavera de Filippi and Miguel Veira).

The key argument is the following: the present fully-sharing open licenses which allow unrestricted commercial exploitation create a ‘communism of capital’, i.e. a sphere of open knowledge, code and design, which is subsumed to the present dominant political economy. But what we need is an autonomous sphere of peer production, in which commoners and peer producers can create their own livelyhood, while staying in the sphere of the commons. In other words, we need a ‘capital for the commons’. The best way to achieve that is to converge the sphere of immaterial commons contributions, with a sphere of cooperative accumulation through which the surplus value can stay within the sphere of commons/cooperative production.

These are clear words: Michel Bauwens wants to create capital for the commons. He wants to capitalize the commons, or, in other words: He wants to integrate the commons into capitalism. From my point of view, this will destroy the social logic of the commons, this will subsume the commons to alien requirements and finally will subvert commoning. Then the commons are no longer „beyond market and state“ (Elinor Ostrom). A capitalized „commons“ is no longer a commons.

This is why we need a new type of licensing. So, without further ado, Stefan Meretz writes:

At first one has to understand the nature licenses have under the given conditions. Licenses are permissions, thus contracts, “granted by a party (‘licensor’) to another party (‘licensee’) as an element of an agreement between those parties”. It bases on the precondition of excluding all other people by the “rightholder”. The power of exclusion given by law can be converted into a “permission for all” by way of tricky constructions combined with the obligation to put derived works under the GPL as well (copyleft principle). Herein is nothing communist. The logic of exclusion is partially reversed and therefore new spaces of commons oriented practices can be created. Better than nothing. The license itself only protects these practices against proprietary destructions. From my point of view this can not be more under the given conditions. The outer world is ruled by the logics of valuation and exclusion, and every free zone to self-determine other practices has to be wrested from these dominant logics. Embryonic forms, precisely.

This first critique is rather weak. Indeed, I am not talking about the legal, contractual basis of the GPL and similar licenses, but on the social logic that they enable, which is: it allows anybody to contribute, and it allows anybody to use. This is both consistent with Marx’s defintion of communism, and with the definition I use, that of communal shareholding by Alan Page Fiske. This logic of course only exists in the realm of abundant digital information, but it exists within the sphere of the political economy of capital. To deny this on the grounds of legal technicalities seems to me a feeble argument.

First, I am not talking of legal aspects either, but about the social logic a legal entity (like a license) creates. Second, ignoring the societal frame by defining communism from individual actions („allowing anybody to use“) is the same false approach as conventional economist do with the homo oeconomicus („maximizing individual use“). There is no „communism of capital“, there is only exploitation of the commons by the capital, and this is different. The „communism of capital“ is the strawman which should be bashed by the PPL. It is a propagandistic trick.

The second part of the thesis “…the more capitalistic the practice” fails as well. There is no comparative of “capitalistic”. If you replace “capitalistic” with “commodity-based”, then is becomes even clearer: Something is a commodity or not. Free software, for instance, isn’t a commodity. It can be appropriated and used by everyone, even by big corporations. However, they cannot transform the free software into a commodity, since this is prevented by the GPL. But they can use the software in order to realize their business models in another fields. This free use is a thorn in Bauwens side. He wants the commons to only be commercially used by those who have contributed beforehand.

This is also very weak, since I am not saying and never said, that the GPL turns free software into a commodity. But what I’m saying, and what nobody can deny, is that non-commodified free software is subsumed to the capitalist economy that uses it. There is a thriving commercial company of products and services which is using and is based on GPL-generated code, as there is on open design. 75% of Linux developers are paid by commercial companies operating in the capitalist marketplace.

I did not write, that Michel is arguing „that the GPL turns free software into a commodity“. The contrary is true, I wrote: „Free software … isn’t a commodity … since this is prevented by the GPL“. But more important: Yes, companies are exploiting free software and other commons, it’s capitalism, my dear. Michels conclusion is, that we should compete on the same field as capital: We should exploit the commons as well. However, this will destroy the social logic of the commons. Michel wants to subsume the commons to the logic of exploitation and valuation. It is important to understand the difference between „using the results of the commons“ (by the capital) and „implementing the logics of valuation and exploitation into the commons“. The first keeps the social logic of the commons apart from the social logic of capital, while the second sooner or later subverts commoning. Or even more clear: The PPL replaces the logic of inclusion (commons) with the logic of exclusion (capital).

From my perspective the presentation of the GPL as “communist” is wrong, but this attribution has the function to propagate a milder license variant which then is called “socialist”: the PPL (Peer-Production-License). This license only grants external access to the resources to those who are using them non-commercially, while internally unlimited exploitation is allowed. The divide intern/extern usually refers to a firm. If external parties want to use the resources commercially, then they have to pay a license fee or make other contributions.

The GPL effectively enables a social logic of unlimited use, including by multinational companies. The peer production license restricts it. From my point of view this makes it a stronger and not a milder license. Let me point out that I do not take the PPL as perfect, but as a new kind of Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses, whose detailed modalities can very well differ from the original PPL. Such licenses fully allow commercial exploitation, but ask for reciprocity. Think of a traditional indigenous community using a GPL of similar. This means any commercial entity can use the knowledge and commercialize it, without any benefit or profit-sharing with the creators of the knowledge. A CBRL would simply ask for reciprocity and would allow these traditional communities to generate autonomous living and livelyhoods, something which is harder to do with the GPL.

Yes, a PPL or any lisence of the same type enforces reciprocity, but this reciprocity is exchange. Enforced exchange, especially equivalent exchange, is the basic social logic within capitalism. The PPL reproduces that. The commons is different. The commons base on contributions and not on exchange. Coercing the commons under the regime of exchange will have a destructive effect.

Is only exchange reciprocal? In order to justify the PPL the argument of reciprocity is claimed. The “communist” GPL is non-reciprocal, while the “socialist” PPL demands reciprocity. The word reciprocity nicely blurs what is actually meant: exchange. In fact, the GPL breaks the logic of exchange, while the PPL requires and enforces it — namely not only the exchange logic itself, but the societally valid form of equivalent exchange. Someone who wants to keep “the surplus value into the commons sphere” has to act that way, whereby “commons sphere” is a euphemism for an ordinary company.

This is the first valid critique. Indeed, the PPL / CBRL would indeed limit the non-reciprocity for for-profit entities, but no, Stefan is wrong, it does not demand equivalent exchange, but only some form of negotiated reciprocity. The important aspect is to generate a flow of realized value, necessary for social reproduction, from the sphere of capital accumulation to the sphere of the commons. The second aspect is organizational. It promotes the self-organisation of an ethical economy, and makes those who want to join it, conscious of that fact, including for-profit companies which can decide to ally with the ethical enterpreneurial coalition.

Michel asserts, that PPL will not demand equivalent exchange, but negociated exchange. First of all: It is exchange and thus the core capitalist logic. Then, as I would assume, in the long run the negociated exchange levels to equivalence: Some pays more, some less. But this is by no means different to ordinary markets. On markets exchange can always be negociated. However, what counts is the average proceeds of sale. With PPL this type of negociated exchange takes place in (former) commons and replace the inclusive logics of contributions. Then commoning dies out. Maybe, some personal ethical preferences can avoid worst cases, but in the long run ineluctable requirements of the market prevail. Alternative economy of the 1980’s has shown this effect in-depth.

The notion of reciprocity is misused in an ideologically blurring way. Licenses are never reciprocal, only people can behave that way. Thus, the question can only be whether licenses encourage reciprocity between people or not, and if so, in what way. Then the evaluation of GPL and PPL looks completely different.The GPL creates and promotes direct reciprocity between people, because no exchange and also no compelled contribution stands between people.

This is absolutely wrong, the GPL doesn’t demand nor create direct reciprocity between people. It is entirely possible to use GPL material without any reciprocity, as the overwhelming majority of its users actually do. But the GPL requires what anthropologist call ‘general reciprocity’, i.e. at the collective level, a minimum of contributions is needed to sustain the system. But there is absolutely no requirement for direct reciprocity. The reciprocity is between the individual and the system as a whole. A coder or wikipedia contributor cannot expect any return from any particular individual but only expects the benefits of the whole system, which depend only on a general flow of contributions.

Yes, GPL does not demand direct reciprocity, people can act freely. Nobody and nothing can force them to do anything. That’s why GPL is a free license and PPL is not. If at all, this freedom is a „communist“ quality. Yes, a free society depends on the general flow of contributions, but if this flow is guaranteed, then it is guaranteed for all people. In PPL’s compelled exchange you have to be potent enough to fulfill the requirements of direct reciprocity aka exchange. If not, you are out (for the commercial case to make money). Reciprocity is not a good thing per se — especially if reciprocity is not free choice or if direct reciprocity means exchange.

By contrast, the PPL limits direct reciprocity by putting exchange or compulsory contributions between people if they want to use resources commercially. But what is commercial? It is the same discussion which has taken place around the NC module of the Creative Commons Licenses. There the insight is: The NC module undermines sharing, and the same applies to the PPL (although trying to dissociate from the CC-NC).

The PPL only limits non-recicprocal use by for-profit companies. It does not prohibit commercial exploitation but actually encourages it, while the Non-Commercial CC license actually prohibits it. The NC does not undermine sharing, but commercialisation. The PPL encourages and allows both sharing and commercialisation.

The same holds true for GPL: It encourages and allows both sharing and commercialisation. The difference is, that GPL requires to publish derived results under the same license, while PPL allows for re-proprietarization. You can buy out the commons with PPL.

To sharpen the point: Both licenses support reciprocal behavior of people. With respect to GPL it is positive reciprocity, because in this case it only counts how people behave socially and which rules they agree upon in a self-determined way, in order to bring all participants together. Concerning the PPL it is negative reciprocity, since a portion of people are subjugated to the alien form of exchange of equivalents (money) and are excluded from the cooperation to this end. Thus, the GPL is rather in accordance with the commons idea of self-determining own rules than the PPL.

From the above refutations follow that this conclusion is entirely erroneous. In fact, there is only self-determination of the contributory process in the GPL context, but full alienation to capital in the surrounding commercial sphere. By contrast the PPL not only allows full self-determination in the contributory sphere, but requires self-management in the cooperative sphere of self-reproduction, something which is much more difficult with the GPL, since it subsumes livelyhoods to capital accumulation.

Alienation of capital in the commercial sphere — can this be our problem? Market logic always means alienation, since you to have to fulfill external requirements, and if not, you are out. PPL opens commons to this alienation.

This is the end of my response to the first part of the critique by Stefan Meretz. The critique in no way refutes any of the premises for the need of the PPL or similar Commos-Based Reciprocity Licenses.

If you want to help the commons flourish you have to save them from market as well as from state logics. PPL breaks this balance and therefore threatens the social logics of commons aka commoning. PPL is a door opener to capitalizing the commons and integrates them in exploitive and exclusive logics of capitalism.

Jakob Rigi: Few Comments on the Exchange Between Stefan Meretz and Michel Bauwens (from commoning mailinglist)

This debate can only be correctly assessed in the light of following thesis: the symbolic goods and services have no value (exchange value). Therefore, their prices are rent which are extracted from value produced elsewhere. For the sake of precision symbolic goods are defined here as ones that can be transformed into codes that can be digitally copied, stored and distributed.

In german debates this was discussed as the „universal good hypothesis“ years ago, where I made some contributions, but there is only one article in english: Information goods as genuine societal goods. However, the PPL is exspecially made for material commons, not only symbolic goods. This intention should be taken seriously since Copyleft lisences like the GPL are not really applicable in this field.

The producers of value which is metamorphosed into rent are workers who produce commodities other than the symbolic ones. Currently (and overwhelmingly) this rent is appropriated by rentier capitalists, though some top and exceptional symbolic workers have their fair share of it (think for example of Salman Rushdi or Andy Warhol, or any bestselling author, or a scientist who is a patent holder). This rent that has the same source as ground rent we call information or knowledge rent. Marx himself did not deal with knowledge rent. Recently the concept has been developed by some Marxists (see for example, Perelman, 2002, 2003, Zeller, 2008, Texeira & Rotta, 2012, Harvey, 2012, Rigi & Prey, forthcoming). A circle of so called autonomist Marxists, particularly Vercellone, has also developed a concept of rent, though a very misleading one (see Varcellone, 2010, Negri, 2010, Hardt, 2010). By establishing a binary opposition between rent and profit, forgetting that rent and profit share a deeper identity by being two different forms of surplus value, they erroneously claim that we are witnessing the transformation to a type of economy which is driven by rent seeking than profit making.

PPL is based on Dmitry Kleiner’s Copyfarleft. I agree with much of Stefan Meretz critique of Copyfarleft and its theoretical underpinnings. However, a major gap in Meretz critique is the lack of sufficient attention to Marx’s theory of rent and subsequently information rent. Kleiner’s Copyfarleft is intended to make symbolic workers a rentier class who instead of the current capitalist rentiers will extract knowledge rent from the surplus value produced by none symbolic workers. The same is true of Bauwens‘ PPL.

From the PPL perspective, this is not a problem. Adherents of this license do not ask, where the value comes from, they only ask, how to appropriate it (like all other capitalists as usual).

From the point of view of commons GPL remains the most radical license. Although it does not prevent certain capitalist from using knowledge under it, this does not influence the total surplus value extracted by the total social capital but only its distribution among capitalists.

However, this is also true for PPL. PPL only acts on the level of distribution.

In my view GPL is a communist license, because, it is not merely about distribution, but the distribution of means of production, it facilitate a communist form cooperation, I build on your code, the next person builds on the code I have improved, etc. Actually, Linux was potentially present in GPL. Yes, GPL is a license, a juridical form, but this juridical form refers to and mediates a communist relation of production, though in embryonic form.

As stated above, in my view a legal entity can never be „communist“, it only can promote inclusive actions of the people leading to a free society (you may call communism or whatever).

GPL is also far more radical than Keimform license. Meretz argues that they have omitted the copyleft clause because it is restricting and exclusionary.

Keimform license was only made for one special goal: for the re-use of keimform articles. We decided to let all articles flow as wide as possible, even if they are used in commercial contexts. May any corporation make a huge profit of it, if the content is spreaded around the world. The keimform license (of public domain type) is not intended to be used in other contexts. Maybe this is simply a misunderstanding.

He also argues that the exclusionary aspect of GPL (copyleft clause) makes it un-communistic. I am surprized to hear this argument from Meretz, because , otherwise he has a good grasp of dialectics. If we understand exclusion as the binary opposite of inclusion in the fashion of the Sussarian linguistic, or the formal logic, yes then exclusion is always the opposite of inclusion. But if we understand it in a dialectical sense, in certain circumstances exclusion is the very essence of inclusion. That is the case of a communist revolution. We exclude the possibility of exploitation, yet we include the former exploiters into the communist society and give them equal access to its resources as to anyone else. We make exploitation illegal, exclude it, but thereby include everyone in an egalitarian form of sociality. Copyleft clause works in the same way, though in a different sphere. By demanding that all offshoots of commons under GPL should remain also commons (excluding those who want to privatise them) it guarantees the growth and continuity of commons. On contrary, Keimform license leads to exclusion, though not always, by being too inclusive, i.e permitting the capitalist to use commons and privatize and commoditize derivatives. GPL does not prohibit the sale of commons, but, on the other hand, it permits its distribution on the net. It is quite reasonable to think that someone will put an information under GPL on the net and it is quite reasonable to think that no one will pay for information that is available on the net for free.

Nothing to say against it. Again: You can’t compare keimform public domain license with GPL.

As currently the production of commons takes place in a capitalist context, there is a certain symbiosis/tension between its production and that of commodities. Capital uses commons of information and has always used it. A license from the point of view of commoners or communists is a means through which they extract the maximum concession from capital for the benefit of commons. Bauwens’/Kleiner’s licenses replicate the logic of rent by commoditizing commons, asking capital to transfer to them part of surplus value it extracts from none symbolic workers. Keimform license, on the other hand, permits capital to privatise and commoditize commons. GPL/copyleft permits capital to use commons conditioned upon that it reciprocates by contributing to commons. As you see in GPL there is an exchange/reciprocity between commons and capital but the logic of this reciprocity is determined by commons not commodity. We give commons and receive back commons . The relation between commons and capital is assimilated into the logic of commons. It is obvious that this alone cannot subvert the capitalist mode of production as such a subversion needs a social revolution that abolishes capital altogether, but extracts from capital major concessions. First, it forces capital to contribution to commons. This concession consist of that capital producing commons and importantly, make these concession in the language of commons. Hence, we have the accumulation of commons. Here, the transfers between capital and commons (their relation) is taking the form of commons. The relation between capital and commons is assimilated into commons not commodity. Therefore, Bauwens is mistaken to claim that GPL promotes the interests of capital. On contrary, GPL is the best license that promotes the accumulation of commons of knowledge in a capitalist context. On contrary, in Kleiner’s and Bauwens‘ licenses the relation between capital and commons is assimilated into the logic of capital (value/money). And as Meretz shows the logic of capital and value also will dominate the so called peer producing cooperatives too.

Agree with that, although, we can debate on the question what „social revolution“ can mean.


Hardt, Michael. 2010. The Common in Communism. In Costas Douzinas & Salvoj Zixek. (eds.) The Idea of Communism, pp. 131-144.

Negri, Antonio. 2010. Postface: A Reflection on Income in the “Great Crisis” of 2007 and Beyond. In Andrea Fugamalli and Sandro Mezzardo (eds.) Crisis in the Global Economy, pp. 263-272. Semiotext(e).

Perelman, Michael. 2002. Steal This Idea. New York: Palgrave.

Perelman, Michael. 2003. The Political Economy of Intellectual Property. Monthly Review 54 (8).

Rigi, Jakob & Prey, Robert. Forthcoming. Value, Rent and the Political Economy of Social Media. Information Society.

Texeira, Rodriogo & Rotta, Toma . 2012. Valueless Knowledge –Commodities and Financialization. Reviews of Political Economics. Xx(x)? 1-20.

Vercellone, Carlo. 2010. The Crisis of the Law of Value and the Becoming –Rent of Profit. In Fugamalli & Mezzardo 2010 , above, pp. 85-118.

Zeller, Christian. 2008.From the Gene to the Globe: Exploring Rent Based on Intellectual Property Monopolies. Review of International Political Economy 15(1): 86-115.

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