Surely the most striking thing about the promise of the direct economy and P2P production for a generation that has been separated from production by crisis and precariousness is the end of the figure of the consumer.
Requiem for the consumer
There’s not a lot to miss. The “consumer” is an alienated and alienating concept. All sovereignty attributed to the individual as consumer is reduced to choosing between the options on a menu created by others. The whole being of the consumer is located outside of the transformative capacity of the society in which s/he lives. Consumers choose, they don’t make or create. It’s so dehumanized as a concept that it’s not useful to better understand history and historical change. It’s as sterile a way understand the human experience as an industrial park is to describe urban life.
Once the core social concept is accepted, it’s no wonder that the proposed is equally inane and frustrating: the rejection of consumption itself and, therefore, the acceptance of various forms of voluntary poverty, artificial scarcity, and, at its root, a radical fear of the transformative capacity of knowledge. This is a narrative of “self-hate” on a scale of our whole species. Neither the concept of “consumer” nor anti-consumerism help us to understand our world or to give it shape and a future.
Consumption without consumers?
In the new world we see emerging, all those categories disappear. The idea is simple: at its limit, a world based on these productive models is a society where a normal person, seeing a new need, responds by looking for what to contribute to produce what’s needed. This new space of individual responsibility can take many forms: collaborating on a translation, documenting a product, developing code, creating designs, making blueprints and formulas, contributing improvements, or testing results; perhaps, collaborating on crowdfunding or helping publicize a project, perhaps creating results in a workshop or customizing them for others. Many times, it could mean starting to learn on the network itself what’s needed to be able to outline a proposal, looking for others who have enough knowledge to develop it, starting up a conversation with them, and creating a community around it.
Anyone who does any of these things is no longer a consumer, but a direct part–to different degrees–of the process of creation and production of the things they are going to use. They are part of a community in which personal, human relations are established to create new goods. What they make has meaning–they contribute and learn in a framework aimed at results. They are a producer who uses what they produce with others. And this relationship is new: they are an artisan whose workshop is globalized by the network and technology. This is as far as we could imagine from being a “consumer.”
The process in which a commons is formed in P2P production, the way a product emerges in the direct economy, creates an empowered form of conversational community, a community of knowledge oriented towards making, towards creating tangible products and tools.
All products, in all times and systems, “are carriers of worlds”–they create social meaning. What’s different now is that this meaning, the values that give it social content, are made obvious throughout the process to those who are part of it. The community that creates something new discusses “why” and “how” until everyone is satisfied. The community dimension of the new productive forms turns each new product in an act of transformation that is conscious of Nature and of the social surroundings.
This is the polar opposite of consumption oriented by the mass media and adherence to the recentralizers of the Internet. The passive expression of liking or disliking doesn’t work in this kind of relationship between individual and network. Identity is built through choices and learning in conversation on networks oriented towards making, not as the result of a series of buying patterns, or as a mold. Identity is no longer something that objects impose on people; they now discover themselves in the story that communities give to their creations.
From consumers to communards
The small communities behind the large majority of products in the direct economy are basically identical in this regard to the ones who energize and sustain the large networks in which the commons of P2P production is being developed.
In the beginning is the conversation. It is spontaneously transnational: it happens within the borders of a large global language, not within the limits of a city, a State or group of States. In some cases, it’s directly oriented towards the creation of a commons (like free software) and around it, among the same ones who collaborate to create and spread it, small groups form to sell services and projects. In others, the process is the reverse: small businesses are created from communities born of conversations so as to be able to generate income from what they already enjoy as a lifestyle.
In both cases, the result is the same: large conversational networks are the birthplace of small, productive, transnational communities that contribute to the commons, in some cases maintaining large networks of learning and knowledge.
The new egalitarianism and the “forker”
Accustomed to equality in conversation and to working in networks as equals, these transnational groups will naturally tend to experience forms of economic democracy, from cooperativism to networks of freelancers.
And egalitarianism in our time is the direct result of the direct incorporation of knowledge into production. We are in a multispecialist setting where we are all peers by default, because the scale necessary to “fork,” to separate and create a clone, is so small that what really makes a given fork viable is little more than its creators’ personal skills. Including each person, giving him/her an objective and place as a peer, is the only way to grow. And this is all the more drastic the shorter the cycle of the product. Crowdsourcing platforms have more “forks” than free software projects, because objects and hardware have a shorter lifespan than software, for which people expect indefinite updates over time, which demands a certain community stability.
The real possibility of “forking,” which is practically nonexistent in Big Business, would seem to show a certain fragility in this kind of structure, but should really be seen as a source of diversity and innovation, as an evolutionary engine. “Really existing forks” are just mutations. There will be some that, with a change in the surroundings, will provide something different and will live on. But, on its face, a fork doesn’t imply a positive development.
In fact, the majority will disappear or bog down. But what’s important is not forks in themselves, but the way communities try to avoid producing them. There are two strategies that are the most relevant and common: getting rid of hierarchies, and the tendency of the community to accept higher levels of risk than usual in members’ proposals.
The consequences of those strategies represent a radical change. In the first place, they mean that the gigantic hierarchies of the old Big Business and its obsession with specialization (the source of so many inefficiencies of scale) are no longer necessary, but rather, counterproductive. Secondly, accepting greater levels of risk, provided that the projects retain or even attract new valuable members, means applying the opposite logic to what has always operated in the old, industrial cooperativism, which is conservative by nature and easily captured by managerial “vanguards.”
So, in the new productive models oriented towards abundance, not only does the idea of community regain an importance it has not had since preindustrial society, but with it, the practice of a certain egalitarian ideal, born of the importance of knowledge, also returns.
Therefore, it is no wonder that, with a certain frequency, some of communities we’re talking about go futher, and are oriented towards the everyday experience of abundance. Because, in the end, “sharing it all” turns out to be the most stable form of organization for a group of peers.
A new communitarianism is appearing, which keeps the traditional egalitarianism of the holding property, consumption and savings in common, but whose ultimate goal is somewhere else: experiencing the abundance of networks and the commons in everything that one day can offer.