Peer production: a force for radical social change?

By Charles Masquelier

As a firm believer in both the desirability of and possibility for radical social change, I am often confronted with heavy doses of scepticism and doubt on the part of those willing to discuss the matter with me. Questions like ‘So what’s the alternative?’ or comments such as ‘That sounds like a nice idea, but is it not utopian?’ abound. There are many avenues I could take to provide an answer. I could, for example, point out the fact that capitalism is still a system whose development into a dominant economic and social form would have bemused many in the midst of the feudal age. I could also emphasise the frequent waves of disenchantment expressed by individuals in capitalist societies through their recurrent protests, e.g. Alter-globalisation movement and Occupy Wall Street, and the anti-capitalist spirit many of them have embodied. Here, however, I wish to concentrate my attention on another set of tendencies, to be found in the ‘anti-capitalist potential of information technology’ (Wright 2010: 194).

Many of us use or have used an open source software like Mozilla Firefox or Wikipedia. With the former making up 25% of all browser usage in 2014 and the latter attracting around 476 million unique users in 2012, one cannot ignore their significance. In fact, both represent highly successful (and popular!) examples of a phenomenon known as peer production, based on radically different values from those underpinning capitalist relations. Take Wikipedia, for example. This particular site provides free access to millions of articles, written on the basis of ‘voluntary’ and ‘unpaid contributions’ (Wright 2010: 195). Also, instead of a centralised/hierarchical and autocratic internal organisation like the ones found in mainstream capitalist organisations, Wikipedia is organised around democratic, cooperative and egalitarian practices making it possible for all contributors/’workers’ to exert a significant degree of control over the development of the programme. Any of us can in fact make a contribution and edit an article. The culture of free service it offers, alongside its highly democratic and egalitarian organisational structure therefore make Wikipedia a non-negligible counter-cultural force to capitalism.

Similar counter-cultural tendencies can be found in the Firefox search engine, developed by the Mozilla community. Its mission statement is as follows:

At Mozilla, we’re a global community of technologists, thinkers and builders working together to keep the Internet alive and accessible, so people worldwide can be informed contributors and creators of the Web. We believe this act of human collaboration across an open platform is essential to individual growth and our collective future.

Like Wikipedia, the Firefox programme principally aims to provide a free and reliable service by bypassing the conventional proprietary relations found on the capitalist marketplace. On the ‘production’ side, the development of the programme is open to anyone wishing to make a contribution. In terms of the service provided, the Mozilla community is actively engaged in countering some of the exploitative practices found on the web. For example, Firefox was the first search engine to offer an ad blocking service. Thus, based on the key values of ‘openness’ and ‘human collaboration,’ the Mozilla community seeks to provide high quality products with the needs of individuals at the centre of its vision, while maximising the freedom of those who contribute to the development of the programme. It is yet another example of the fact that the provision of a high quality product does not necessitate exploitative, proprietary and autocratic practices.

Above all, though, what these forms of peer production and others – such as the Drupal community, currently under study by various EU institutions including Surrey  – have tended to offer are successful experiments, based on radically different values from those found on the conventional marketplace, with significant political and sociological implications. They in fact seem to have developed what G.D.H. Cole (1917) viewed as a most fundamental basis of socialism, namely the spirit of ‘free and unfettered service’. More recently, though, commentators such as Benkler (2013) have highlighted the strikingly ‘anarchist’ nature of peer production, or, as Barron (2013) put it, its role in ‘counteracting some of [capitalism’s] social pathologies.’

So is capitalism creating its own grave diggers (as Marx himself anticipated)? Who knows! The point I tried to make here, however, is that alternative institutions do not have to develop from strictly utopian ideas forced onto an intolerable social reality. In fact, often, they tend to derive from pre-existing practices, underpinned by specific values, just like capitalism did a couple of centuries ago. Whether these online practices are a taste of things to come cannot, at this stage, be settled with certainty. They nevertheless represent a formidable source of inspiration for anyone disillusioned with the currently dominant economic, political and social forces.


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