Considering Peercommony

This is part of an exploration/debate regarding parecon and peercommony. The first two essays are Summarizing Parecon, by Michael Albert and Summarizing Peercommony by Christian Siefkes. This essay replies to Siefkes summary of peercommony. See Christian Siefkes' reply to Albert's summary of parecon here.

Peercommony, as summarized by Christian Siefkes, has much that resonates with my own thoughts and desires – but also much that may be – but I hope isn’t – contrary. For example, like Siefkes, I don’t want people to “have to accept subordinate positions in a hierarchy” and “follow the orders of management.” I don’t want “actors that are formally equal” but “always merely functional.” I also want everyone interested “in others as human beings,” not to “merely see them as potential trading partners, potential buyers and sellers.” But I think some of the proposals Siefkes makes to attain such results are limited by having focused on only parts of economic life. 

Siefkes notes two “preconditions” of peercommony: (1) “Human labor disappears from production processes, being replaced by automation and joyful doing.” (2) “Everyone has access to resources and means of production.”

Regarding 1, if “human labor” means people doing productive acts for the benefit of others, then condition 1 is neither attainable nor desirable. On the other hand, if “human labor” means people doing alienated labor subordinate to the will of others, then, yes, that that should certainly disappear.

Regarding 2, people should have formal access to means of production, I agree, but we can’t all actually access the means of producing all things. We can’t claim everyone could by their own activity provide themselves with everything they want. 

Regarding both 1 and 2, in any event, we shouldn’t assume that desired outcomes pre-exist. We should describe conditions that ensure that they will exist.

Returning to point 1, Siefkes believes that in a better future “more routine activities can be performed without any human labor.” Agreed, but “more” does not mean “all” or even “nearly all.” 

Siefkes acknowledges “[some] activities tend to be difficult to automate because they require creativity, intuition, or empathy.” He suggests the proportion of disempowering work would tend to decline with an increase in automation. I agree that it could decline, and that it should decline, supposing society promotes that type automation, but even if that occurs, it would not mean the only tasks society needs people to do are rewarding and fulfilling in all their aspects. Our task is to describe the institutions that would lead toward diminishing intrinsically unrewarding labor, among other desirable aims.

Much of the evidence Siefkes offers for possibilities he favors comes from programming, yet, even in programming we see some of the largest and most rapacious corporations in the world, Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, etc. And even if that were not the case, extrapolating from programmers who have other sources of income and who can enjoy doing some programming without it having to enlarge their incomes, to deciding that we should disconnect all production and consumption from each other ignores a host of important variables. Volunteer libraries, fire departments, and clubs of all kinds have long been pursued outside market norms, but this doesn’t imply that all we need for allocation is that people take what they want, and do what they choose. Is peercommony partial? Does it need to go further?

Siefkes asserts that “since everybody [in peercommony] participates voluntarily, nobody can order others around.”  
Consider a workplace. Its workers establish a schedule by operating as a self managing collective. No one bosses anyone else. Collectively they together establish a norm of five hours of work for each participant. Joe says, screw that, I want to work seven hours (or three hours) and I want to work late at night so the rest of you have to turn on the lights for me when no one else is here and you have to get by without me when I choose to be elsewhere. Does being peers imply that the collective cannot say to Joe, “no, working here conveys certain responsibilities, and if you don’t want to abide them, that’s fine, but in that case you can work somewhere else?” 

I worry that peercommony suggests that everyone can do what they want just because they want to – without others having any say – and then magically claims that nonetheless, everybody’s choices will mesh to everyone’s benefit. However, why is doing what you want, without others having a say, even a good thing? And how would this mesh come about? Why will I be happy doing what others are happy for me to decide to do, and vice versa? Especially considering a whole economy, this is the issue of allocation and income distribution.

How do I know other’s needs, including people who consume my product, produce what I use in my work, or produce what I consume at home? How do I know if I ought to produce item x? How do I know how much x? How do I know how long I should work? How do I know how much I should take from the social product? If I want too much, or to work too little, what stops me? At another level, how does society know, overall, which areas of activity need more resources or innovations?

Peercommony, Siefkes says, believes “if somebody contributes something useful, everybody wins.” But this is only true if it it is made so by social relations that ensure that useful for one is useful for all, and vice versa. 

For example, in a typical current firm, if a worker comes up with a technically good idea useful for her if it was implemented, she is unlikely to get any benefit, and, in fact, if the idea would transfer power from those having it to those lacking it, the idea would be torpedoed. Or consider a peerconomy. Suppose I want to play shortstop for the local ball team that the community loves to watch because of the quality of its play. I go down and announce my desire and trot out to play. This is what I want to contribute and I feel it is useful to me to do so. However, it does no good for anyone else because I stink at baseball. Similarly, suppose I decided to contribute as a doctor. I enjoy it, and feel it is useful to me, but it would do immense harm to others. Everybody wouldn’t win. 

However, I do agree that if an economy says that work must be socially valuable to be supported, and if the social product of work is justly allocated, then, yes, contributing something useful will typically benefit everyone. But this must be made real by institutional relations. Peercommony has some nice aims, but not the means. Like Siefkes, I favor the “everybody wins” norm, but to me it implies that we need an economy whose institutions and intrinsic methods of interaction cause the permissible gain of each to occur by way of simultaneously causing the gain of all, and vice versa. 

If I have the “freedom” to choose to be shortstop for a team, then I want to do it. To me, it makes sense for me to be shortstop. It only stops making sense to me if institutions create a context in which I know it is socially worthless, and I know what, instead, I can and should be doing that is socially valuable. Doing what lacks social merit shouldn’t benefit me. I shouldn’t even get that job. Doing what has social merit, however, should benefit me. 

Siefkes says, “a world where producers have to sell what they produce and users have to buy what they want to use, inevitably creates antagonisms.” If this intends to convey that market exchange creates a hostile contradiction between buyer and seller, I agree. Even more so, if it means “people who produce by using society’s means of producing should be responsible and able – by what their institutions require – to coordinate their efforts to the needs of people who consume their output, and, likewise, people who consume output should be responsible and able, by what their institutions require – to coordinate their wants to the circumstances of people who produce their inputs,” I agree. 

But I worry that maybe Siefkes’ words mean, instead, that people should produce what they want, and people should consume what they want, and budgets or other means of formally connecting production and consumption should not exist, though informal voluntary person by person linkage will occur anyway, eliminating disjunctures. In fact, we can’t have or do everything – resources, labor, and even jobs are limited. Choices must be made. Good choices require good information plus good motivations – and thus require institutions that generate and deliver both.

Consumers should be in a position to pay attention to the circumstances and needs of producers as well as all of society, and vice versa, not only so that production and consumption correlate, but so that they accord with evaluations of full personal, social, and environmental costs and benefits as they are cooperatively negotiated by self managing workers and consumers. I wonder how peercommony achieves that. 

A group of peers decides to have a workplace. The peers agree that they should all receive equitable income and all have a fair say in decisions. This happens even currently, for example in many co-ops or occupied factories. Regrettably, such new workplaces also often fail when private ownership, corporate divisions of labor, and market allocation pervert their intentions. I think peercommony says we won’t have those bad institutions, so we will be fine. But peercommony needs to say what takes their place. It shouldn’t just assume that allocation, income distribution, and work relations will be fine because people will make it so – without saying how.

Peercommony seems to rely on “benefit driven production” which in other circles is usually called production for use, not profit. So we get rid of private ownership and profit seeking. Good. But that was achieved in many twentieth century economies and alone was insufficient to attain classlessness, or even a particularly desirable economy. Presumably peercommony’s advocates know that, but do they agree it was because other institutions than public ownership trumped the aim of classlessness. If so, what is peercommony’s replacement for  the offending corporate divisions of labor and markets that trumped classlessness? All I can find is peercommony’s implicit admonition that people should work as they choose and consume what they want. Is that really the heart of peercommony: lots of automation, people treating each other as peers, and people voluntarily operating according to the norm from each according to ability and to each according to need?

Siefkes emphasizes that many types of work have intrinsic reward, which is absolutely true. It does not imply, however, that what needs doing will automatically get done, and what doesn’t need doing, won’t. 

Siefkes emphasizes that people often work so that others can enjoy their product, which is also true. However, that does not explain how anyone will be able to access and assess the needs of others to know what is worth producing, nor explain why people will act on such insights.

The idea that trains will run, planes fly, violins play, electricity flow, and food arrive, all for distant people uninvolved in the actual production, each involving a tremendous number of tasks, and yet each done in the same way a community of programmers who have independent incomes pursues projects that interest them as volunteers generating outputs with no other costs, has made peercommony very incomplete.

Siefkes says, “the more people use the results of a [programming] project, the more potential contributors exist, since many of the people who decide to join forces as occasional or regular contributors are already users of the project they choose to support.” Does peercommony believe this explains how everyone doing what they want will yield appropriate numbers of, and appropriate output from, miners, cleaners, cooks, doctors, teachers, and engineers?

Siefkes says, “if a project doesn’t share with others by co-producing for them, it endangers its opportunity to win new members.” Why? How? 

Peercommony says everyone can get what they want, and can do what they choose. But if so, why shouldn’t I join a project that I like even if it has no benefits for anyone and actually wrecks the environment. Will my social nature prevent me? People’s social nature is not called forth by peercommony’s social norms or structures. Those structures instead tell people to do what we want and take what we desire – sort of like what they tell the very rich, now. I suspect Siefkes is saying, yes, but people will have ways of collectively withholding support from offending projects. Okay, fair enough, but what ways will they have that won’t impose other negative dynamics, and using what information as justification, which arrived how? 

Siefkes then says “participants leave hints … about started or desired activities, encouraging others to follow these hints and take care of the desired tasks.” Maybe this can work as stated for some relatively unimportant undertakings whose timeline is entirely flexible being done by people with independent income. Maybe it is also more or less how the rich hear about a philharmonic orchestra needing help, and give it. But for harvesting corn? For smelting steel? For flying airplanes and tracking them, for keeping a hospital clean? All in unison. All with inputs and outputs matching up properly? 

But – let’s not drop the hint precipitously. Suppose instead that we extend the peercommony idea by saying, participants convey information such that allotments of resources and work accord with the warranted needs of people because the information allows it and rational assessment makes it in everyone’s interest to attain it, and deviations are curbed or steadily corrected. Then, I agree, with Siefkes, if we show how institutions can accomplish this we will have shown something important. This would give substance to the peercommony term: “hints.”

Siefkes says, “all participants follow the hints that interest them most.” I would say, “all participants choose among socially beneficial options they are made aware of, in accord with their own needs and also the social needs that they survey, all in a pattern that emerges as acceptable, worthy, and viable.” But then I have to explain how that happens, writ large, for a whole economy including the information flow, the incentives, the feedback corrections, etc. 

I suspect peercommony started with programmers elaborating conditions they wanted to enjoy for some of their activity, and then, probably reacting to hostility, got stuck in those commitments before getting on to the task of describing institutions that can succeed for a whole economy. For example, peercommony ignores that there is way too little information, unless we enact desirable allocation methods, for people to make sensible choices. 

Siefkes begins to touch on the issues when he asks, “What happens if there are no volunteers for certain tasks, because everyone considers them unpleasant, dangerous, or otherwise unattractive?” However, peercommony apparently answers that onerous “activities that cannot be automated away or reorganized may become candidates for a pool of unpleasant tasks, out of which everybody picks a few now and then if everybody (or everybody who cares) does a small part of such tasks, they can be dealt with without causing much trouble to anybody.” Perhaps a group of peercommony programmers working as volunteers can handle cleaning up their shared office and answering phones and so on, that way – but a whole economy? 

On the consumption side, peercommony says, “Peer production is primarily based … on goods which are jointly developed and maintained by a community and which are shared according to community-defined rules.” But what are those rules and how are they established and made to operate? Can I have six houses, a telescope observatory in my back yard, and travel most of the year? If not, why not? And what stops me? If it is me being responsible, how do I know what is responsible? And what happens if I am not responsible? Do people withhold what I sought? Who does that, with what justification, and how? 

Allocation without means to acquire and share relevant information about the relative personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits of available options and with no mechanisms of accountability for choices would be disastrous. With those attributes, however, allocation can facilitate the heart and soul of what peercommony seeks.

We should all want all the best things in life if having them poses no environmental or social problem and doesn’t entail excess work. The only reason to curb one’s desire for travel, comfort, knowledge, delicious food, and so on, is if there is something else one wants more, or there are offsetting costs that outweigh the real benefits.  

If no one has a social responsibility to do a fair share of work to receive a fair share of social product, then taken at its word, peercommony is saying, please do less than a fair share of work and take more than a fair share of stuff.

With good institutions, Siefkes will be right that “nobody can self-actualize at the cost of others, because the others aren’t stupid and won’t help them do so; and without the support of others, nobody will get very far.” What is missing from peercommony, however, is the large scale, society wide institutions, that will produce and sustain the outcomes peercommony favors.

Siefkes says, “It’s not a viable option for a handful of peer producers to build themselves giant houses with unused parks around them and then let the others worry about how to produce enough food in the remaining areas that may no longer be sufficiently large. Peer production is about finding solutions that work for all.” Peercommony’s task, in that case, is to show what structures facilitate solution that work for the whole economy. I think, to link to the rest of our exchange, that participatory economics provides a worthy, viable institutional framework to make everyone peers. I think participatory economics is peercommony made real.  


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