1.3 What does a P2P Economy look like?

The original Greek etymology of the word “economy” describes the management of household resources. How can we extend the care-oriented interactions we find in healthy homes to the larger economy, where networked communities steward the resources of our common home, planet Earth?

Any economy is informed by its prevailing value system. The dominant one, for example, prioritizes absentee profit maximization while simultaneously deeming carework and environmental stewardship as externalities. But what is value anyway?

We offer that “value” is a process, a coordination mechanism which guides our collective behaviour. It can be divided in three key stages: production (meaningful contributions to fulfill an end), recording (the tracking and recording of contributions to be assessed according to different criteria and interests) and actualization (where value becomes manifest and justifies the preceding actions). This process is informed by different political economies. In capitalism, production is proprietary, hierarchical and profit-driven; recording is opaque, abstract and quantitative; and actualization only occurs in markets. By contrast, in fully P2P systems, production is collectively owned, horizontal and guided by social value; recording is transparent, distributed and pluralistic; and actualization is evident in the act of sharing and the creation of social relations which benefit the Commons.

Together, this latter process is known as Commons-Based Peer Production (CBPP), a term coined by legal scholar Yochai Benkler which describes a way of creating and distributing value. P2P infrastructures allow people to communicate, self-organize and, ultimately, co-create value in the form of digital commons of knowledge, software, and design. Think of the Wikipedia, free and open-source projects such as Linux, the Apache HTTP Server, Mozilla Firefox or WordPress, and open design communities such as Wikihouse, RepRap and Farm Hack.

Commons based peer production produces new ecosystems of value creation and can be seen in at least three institutions: 1) the productive community, 2) the commons-oriented entrepreneurial coalition(s), and 3) the for-benefit association.

The productive community consists of all the contributors to a project, and how they coordinate their work. Members of this institution may be paid or volunteer their contributions, motivated by some interest in the practical value of this production. All of them produce the shareable resource.

The commons-oriented entrepreneurial coalition attempts to secure either profits or livelihoods by creating added value for the market, based on common resources. Contributors can be paid by the participating enterprises. Digital commons themselves can be outside the market, because they are abundant and not scarce. For example, the WordPress web platform is an open-source software commons available to anyone, but some businesses, such as Automattic, a company closely tied to its development, provides employment for people working on its development and creating added value products and services.

Crucially important in the relation among the entrepreneurs, the community, and the commons on which they depend, is whether their relation is generative or extractive. These terms are polar extremes, but in reality all entities will present some degrees of each. Good examples of the difference between extractive and generative relations are industrial agriculture and permaculture. In the former, the soil becomes poorer and less healthy, while in the latter it becomes richer and healthier. When communities share the same environment (a town, valley or bioregion) they can increase their resilience by pooling resources into meta-economic networks, that integrate diverse local initiatives.

Adapted from “The Architecture of Ownership” by Marjorie Kelly.

A third institution is the for-benefit association. Many commons-based peer production ecosystems not only consist of productive communities and entrepreneurial coalitions, but also have independent governance institutions to support the infrastructure of cooperation and empower the capacity for commons-based peer production.

These institutions, often nonprofit organizations, do not direct the commons-based peer production process itself. For example, the Wikimedia Foundation, as the for-benefit association of Wikipedia, does not coerce the production of Wikipedia producers; nor do the free and open-source software foundations that often manage the infrastructure and networks of the projects coerce the efforts of their contributors.

In contrast, traditional non-governmental and nonprofit organizations operate from a viewpoint of scarcity. They identify problems, search for resources, and allocate those resources hierarchically to solve those issues. For-benefit associations operate from a point of view of abundance; they recognize problems and issues, but believe that there are enough contributors who want to help solve them. They maintain an infrastructure of cooperation that allows contributive communities and entrepreneurial coalitions to engage in commons-based peer production processes that provide solutions to the problems at hand. Not only do they protect these commons, but may also help manage conflicts between participants and stakeholders, fundraise, and assist the general capacity-building necessary for the commons (for example, through education or certification).

Think of this as an ecosystem of value creation. Vibrant economies, based on commons, are actively cared for and preserved for future generations. By nature, these types of economies are:

  • Free: open, shareable, with equitable access
  • Fair: in social solidarity with all humankind, inclusive of varieties in race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and citizenship status.
  • Sustainable: acknowledging our integral role as responsible stewards and restorers, not dominators and destructors, of nature.

To make such an ecosystem viable, commoners must apply the logics of Commons-based Peer Production to distributed physical manufacturing while simultaneously creating their own entrepreneurial vehicles: Open Cooperatives. We examine these two key elements of the Commons Transition in the following sections.

Any economy is informed by its prevailing value system. The dominant one prioritizes absentee profit maximization while simultaneously deeming carework and environmental stewardship as externalities. Commons-based peer production highlights new ecosystems of value creation comprised of three institutions: the productive community, the commons-oriented entrepreneurial coalition(s), and the for-benefit association.