A talk we gave during the cycle of conferences called “La producció col·lectiva a Terrassa. Passat, present i futur”
The Centre d’Estudis Històrics of Terrassa, l’Arxiu Històric Comarcal of Terrassa and l’Ateneu Candela organized the cycle of conferences “La producció col·lectiva a Terrassa. Passat, present i futur”. The conference was broadcast by streaming, and here is the video and the text we discussed.
The purpose of this talk is to trace the relationship between collectivization and the concept of the commons, and discuss the P2P mode of production, analyzing the impact and the consequences for economic and social forms of relationships and organization.
Let’s take a tour to look for the relationship between collectivization, the new commons, and the P2P mode of production. To do so, we’re going to jump back in time. We find ourselves in the Middle Ages. In the ninth and tenth centuries, it was a habitual practice among kings and nobles in the Cantabrian cornice, and as far as the borders of the Muslim kingdoms, to offer land to communities of freed servants.
To grant this right, two kinds of charters were used:
- the “village charter” or “population charter,” which was a contract between the owner of the land and the community
- the “municipal charter,” which also contributed certain legal and self-government privileges, and which needed of the consent of the king.
In both cases, the custom was to give a plot to each family, and the land to the community, which divided it for use during fixed periods among all the members. Besides agriculture, there are records of communities of shepherds in the Pyrenees, and even today, there are still communal grazing systems throughout the peninsula.
In almost all languages, we find a word to refer to communal work. In Asturian, we call it andecha; in Portuguese, mutirão; in Euskera [Basque], auzolan; in Russian, toloka; in Finnish, talkoot; in Norwegian, dugnad… Also for common goods: the comunal or procomún [in Castillian], “iriai” in Japanese, and the “commons” in English, are the basic way to refer to a public non-state good.
However, what turns out to be significant in the story of the communities on the peninsula is that, whether it is communal grazing systems, cultivation of the land, or harvesting of the sea, what’s important is economic organization and the development of a system of social well-being designed to fit the community. We’re talking about a system based on production and cooperation.
These forms, active since the Middle Ages, would resist Modernism with relative strength until the “amortizations” of the first liberalism in power forced them to evolve into modern cooperativism.
Such is the case of Port de la Selva, a town organized around a fishing cooperative. The cooperative owned the ships, nets, factories, stores, refrigerators, and transportation vehicles. And not only the production chain, but also the cafe, theater and meeting room – leisure– and a system of social provision, with insurance against death, accident or loss of boats. As Gerald Brenan described it in The Spanish Labyrinth,
Port de la Selva was a libertarian republic in miniature, and was realizing the ideal of all those towns of Catalonia, Andalusia and Castile itself, which, at different times over the past century, had proclaimed their independence and proceeded to divide up the land and issue their own currency.
So, I don’t think it’s necessary to insist on the relationship between these community models and the communities of the Civil War you’ve worked on in these days. Community production has a “before” and an “after,” which is our “now.” I just want to save three ideas that will serve us later in studying the P2P mode of production, to understand the points of continuity and the changes.
- The classic agrarian commons are based on a series of capital goods (land, fishing or farming implements), which are released for their use, exploitation and maintenance by the community.
- By doing that, we’re really seeing a community that gives itself its own economic organization,
- …and where the wealth that is generated reverts to the community.
But before returning to these three points, we’re going to study the other origin of the new commons: economic and technological development bequeathed to us by the industrial world… and its collapse.
The legacy of industrial capitalism and the crisis of scale
Let’s think about the car.
The great symbol of industrial capitalism is the automobile industry. Applying state-of-the-art technology, intensive capital, a new organization of work (“Taylorism”) and a large-scale approach to both production and market, something incredible at the time was obtained: making the automobile -a sophisticated machine- into a consumer product that was accessible to the masses of the middle class.
What did the car represent for the world back then, which was still fundamentally agrarian?
In the first place, a prodigious, even drastic, increase in productivity. If there’s anything representative of what capitalism has historically meant, it is the development of productivity. And productivity, in the end, is technology. But technology also influences the system through other variables. The most important, maybe, is optimal scale.
What is optimal scale? The optimum size for the use of resources, starting with capital itself, that are used as means of production. Logically, scale is optimal for a particular market size and for a given technology.
If markets do not grow sharply, starting at a certain level of economic development, all the force of technological evolution will tend to reduce the optimum scale of production. Those who continue producing above that scale, using excessive capital, with larger dimensions, simply will accumulate inefficiencies.
That’s why technological development negatively affected the countries of the Soviet bloc first. Why? Because of the way they had developed, and because of the centralized nature of their economy. Both inertia and gigantism were in the DNA of their industrial organization. By the ’70s, the situation was so bad that the USSR had to assure its basic supply by buying grain from the US. The protest movements in Poland, and strikes in Russia, were the product in the ’80s of a shortage that seemed to have no remedy. The centralized system of State property was leaking everywhere. It wasn’t President Reagan who “overthrew” the Soviet bloc, but nor was it the popular protest movements. The Soviet system crumbled after dragging growing inefficiencies for two decades.
But was it different in Europe or the USA?
No, and in fact, it is precisely because of that crisis of scale that big economic changes happened in the ’80s and ’90s. What is usually known neoliberalism.
What is neoliberalism, really? A set of policies oriented towards breathing life into an over-scale of capital. What do Thatcher, Reagan and finally, Clinton do?
- Deregulate, feed the large consortia of the military and aerospace industry, in the case of the two first, and of intellectual property in the third… modify international agreements in favor of big interests… in a word, generate rents from states who compensate for the inefficiencies of Big Businesses
- Expand the size of markets, so over-scaled big businesses would make sense, which was called globalization
- Capital itself was more and more over-scaled. New companies in new sectors require less and less scale, and therefore, less capital. In the ’80s, gigantic funds began to appear, masses of capital that looked for places to go.
They have to to distribute their risks in ever more places. And that means management costs and growing inefficiencies. These are typical symptoms of a problem of over-scaling. So, the neoliberal state helps, through financial deregulation and the opening of borders to capital flows, giving rise to new financial areas that will group sectors and entire regions through securitization, financialization, and a whole new series of financial products that distribute and globalize risks, making them, in the end, as we’ve seen, systemic.
But in the world of the ’90s, other things are happening at the same time.
The Internet and the logic of distributed production
In the first place, the structure of communications changes. We’re going from a decentralized world (the world of the telegraph and of nations) towards a distributed model of communication (the world of the Internet).
Without getting into detail, that new distributed structure makes scale independent from scope. A small Chinese enterprise, such as the one that created the vuvuzela, or that created the EGo, the standard for electronic cigars, can sell throughout the world. Of course, it won’t be able to meet all the demand, but hundreds of other small businesses will emerge that will meet it quickly.
So, at least in part, the opening of commercial barriers in the ’90s will backfire for neoliberalism’s corporate objectives. The result has been a constant increase in commerce based above all, in the emergence of new, smaller-scale, less capital-intensive, agents, at the periphery. It’s what is known as globalization of the small.
The direct consequence has been the greatest reduction of poverty in human history, but also a remarkable growth of inequality and a growing economic instability — why?
Capital, far from adapting to the reduction of scale, has continued increasing it, resorting to “financialization” and “securitization,” separating from the productive system, and regularly creating bubbles to put that surplus of capital in.
From the point of view of the organization of production, what happens is that technological change is drastically reducing the efficient size of scale. But this causes a real problem for capital: the closer to individualized production we are, the less necessary it turns out to be. It begins to accumulate large funds of financial capital that can’t be directly integrated into production. Capital has fewer large projects to invest in, and starts to move more and more quickly, more sensitive to changes in opportunities, as we can see in history of international capital flows.
Its strategy of forcing scale to ensure rents, has had weighty consequences, such as the restriction on intellectual property, the unnecessary “redefinition” of the Internet to make sense of recentralizing infrastructure (Google, Facebook, etc.), and above all, it has been able to to multiply the pressure to capture the State.
That strategy can only lead to the simultaneous destruction of the market and the state, a phenomenon that we call “decomposition,” and which is parallel to the destruction of productive capacity brought about by crises and the wars that precede and accompany them.
And there’s still more.
The Internet isn’t just a communication phenomenon. With free software, whose development and spread are its product direct, a new mode of producing and distributing has appeared. Given the deficiencies of national accounting systems, we can only intuit the true impact that free software has had so far. We only know partial things, such as, for example, the value earned by countries in development through the incorporation of free software to their industries and administrations has exceeded all development aid, both public and private, sent throughout history from the central countries.
What is the production cycle of free software?
In the first place, capital, market and benefit will be completely redefined.
The center of the system is no longer the accumulation of capital, but of the “commons,” a form of capital: knowledge, universal and free access to for anyone.
What goes to market? Maintenance, customizations, private developments… and then they are set free, incorporated to the commons, and available to all.
The market of free software starts with that universal accessibility, which is to say, with the elimination of rents from intellectual property, from position, etc. The only extraordinary benefit that a developer of free software can have, which is minimal and extremely temporary, comes from having innovated and improved something. But it lasts a short time as rent. When you make something good and you release it, you’ll earn prestige, and you’ll get more orders… for a time. These are rents that extinguish themselves. As a medium, the free software market remunerates those who produce in it for the value of their work, with a little extra if they innovated enough to “make a name for themselves.”
The good news is, this cycle isn’t exclusive to free software.
First, there were other intangible goods based on knowledge, from music to novels to textbooks. But in the last three years, more and more projects that seek to build things have taken off.
Ultimately, the value of an object on the market today is mostly design, technology, engineering… all of which are also intangibles.
That’s why we no longer talk about the system of free software production, but of the P2P mode of production, and just as it serves to produce software, it serves to produce material objects and all kinds of services.
In the last three years, industrial manufacturing projects based on the possibilities of high productivity on a small scale from a technical knowledge commons have multiplied. That is: small scale of production, huge scope (because the commons is, by definition, universal).
The “Open Source Ecology” project alone is working on the design of 40 free basic industrial machines: from a wind generator to a tractor to a brick-making machine.
We think that these technologies, while still a bit green, can be a valid basis to confront the effects of the financial crisis in the traditional local productive community, that of the micro and small industrial enterprise, from neighborhood workshops to component factories.
And finally, let’s go back to the traditional communal system. Both the historical model and P2P are based in a different kind of property: the commons.
But, while in historical communities, the subjects of that property, the ones who could exploit and use it, were a concrete community of people physically united in a locality, but now:
- that possibility of use and exploitation is universal
- the work and communities who do so are not necessarily defined by their locale, in a territory, but rather on a network, as can be seen in any free software project or P2P industry
- and what each one does, what anyone provides, reverts directly to everyone through the new knowledge commons, which, by its own nature, is universal.
The P2P mode of production is the heir to a rich communalist tradition that comes out of premodernity. But it is also the child of modernity, and of the incredible development of productivity capitalism has left us. It has its own logic, logic that based on abundance, and not on the scarcity of the old systems of political management, even at the community level. It is a big machine to create public and universal goods without the need for the State. It distributes development and the possibility of producing without confining the people in a territory or assigning them to a community by birth.
Definitely, we can be very proud of the communal ways of the past; now, the P2P mode of production points the way to a future that, surely, old generations libertarian would have loved to have dreamed of.