The Great Value-Shift of our Time

July 13, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Michel Bauwens recently spoke at the Harvard Berkman Center to give his big-picture analysis of the economic and social transition now underway.  The hour-long video of his talk provides a clear explanation for why peer production is flourishing and out-competing conventional business models and markets.  It’s all part of an epochal shift in how value is created, argues Bauwens.

Citing major transitions of the past – from nomadic communities to clans; from clans to class-based, pre-capitalist societies; from pre-capitalism to capitalism – Bauwens said, “We’re in a period of history in which a marginal system of value is moving to the center of value-creation.” 

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For those who don’t have an hour to watch the video, below, a review of Michel’s key points: 

Unlike traditional leftist visions of revolution, which require a social movement to seize state power and then install another system, the emerging world of peer production is based on another vision:  build an alternative economy outside the circuits of capitalism, or at least insulated from its exploitation, and then develop its own functionalities and moral authority. 

The point is not so much to displace or smash capitalism, he said, as to make the commons the new, more compelling “attractor” for activities that create value.  Rather than try to use private labor to produce value, which is then captured by privately owned corporations and sold in markets based on artificially created scarcity, the peer production economy proposes a new model:  abundance based on an ethic of sufficiency.

Instead of allocating surplus value through the market or hierarchical systems, the peer production economy creates value through open, voluntary contributions and “massive mutual coordination,” said Bauwens.  The goal is to create commons through social systems and the sharing of resources.

The credibility and power of this paradigm is confirmed by the massive shift of capital towards social sharing – a system that Bauwens calls “netarchical capitalism.”  It’s an open question is whether this new realm will be made subordinate to traditional capital (think Facebook, Google and Uber), or whether it will be able to emancipate itself and assert a new value proposition, independence and cultural logic (think Wikipedia, Loomio, Enspiral). 

A lot will depend on whether new types of “transvestment” can occur – the shifting of investment capital from one mode of value-creation to the new modes of social collaboration, along with adequate legal means of protecting the commons from private appropriation.  

While companies like Airbnb and Uber may be convenient, they are ultimately predatory on social relationships.  They extract value from our social interactions (e.g., personal data) and do not reinvest in the trust and cooperation of social communities.  This often results in massive social precarity as companies obtain benefits – educated workers, attractive communities, or free software code (open source software) – for which they do not necessarily pay anything.  Bauwens calls this a kind of “hyper-neoliberalism.  You don’t even have to pay people any more!”

By contrast, generative commons are emerging that conduct economic transactions in socially mindful, ethical ways.  Bauwens cited Enspiral, the New Zealand “open value network” that built the open source decisionmaking platform Loomio and Co-Budgeting, a platform that lets a virtual community allocate the surplus value that it generates. 

As these new circuits of social support and livelihood emerge, said Bauwens, they are giving rise to new sorts of “neo-nomadic work” among young people acting as designers, programmers and entrepreneurs.  They are shunning the extractive, exploitative economy and embracing new systems for mutualizing finance and social support. 

Of course, for the mainstream press focused on the traditional economic indices – market capitalization and tech billionaires – such experiments in platform co-operativism are decidedly less sexy.  But consider how, after the City of Austin rejected Uber’s demands for minimal public accountability, it created its own nonprofit mobile app for ride-hailing.…

The key challenge ahead, said Bauwens, is finding ways for commoners to make a living from supporting the commons, rather than just volunteering their time.  The model for commons-based peer production has been proven in such open source innovations as the Wikispeed car and the Wikihouse design plans.  But people still need to earn a living and “capital for the commons” still needs to be raised to finance collaborative production.  This is the next frontier. 

Bauwens believes that new schemes for sharing equity may help provide answers.  “Fair shares associations,” for example, could give a one-fourth share of equity to four different groups – the founders of new enterprises, the funders, workers and users. 

Or “double-licensing” schemes could be used that let anyone use and share the knowledge and designs made by a community unless a given user wishes to commercialize that knowledge.  In such cases, they would have to pay a licensing fee or become members of the association.

Another model is the for-benefit association to manage the infrastructure of cooperation, said Bauwens.  It may look like a conventional nonprofit, but it doesn’t think in terms of scarcity and its own institutional boundaries; it thinks in terms of abundance and more readily shares what it has.  

The ultimate vision for a new society, said Bauwens, is one of “stable commons allied to a social economy.”  This would enable civil society to become productive in its own right (and not simply an adjunct to the market and state).  The economy itself can become ethical and generative because it genuinely seeks to support ecosystems and social life (and not simply feed the demands of capital and settle for a tolerable “sustainability.”) 

In such a vision, the state becomes “an enabler of personal autonomy,” and not simply a bureaucratic control system or a service-provider, as today’s market/state functions.

To be sure, peer production does not solve many existing inequalities and social unfairness in the system, especially involving race and gender.  But it does institute a new system of value-creation that transcends the pinched and exploitative logic of conventional capitalism.  That is likely to open up new spaces for a more gender- and race-friendly society than our current system, which is invested in pitting insurgent social movements against each other.

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: new economy, peer-to-peer, the commons