The Triune Peer Governance of the Digital Commons

Michel Bauwens

In a foundational essay, “The Political Economy of Peer Production” (Bauwens 2006), I defined commons-based peer production in two different ways. The first perspective draws upon Nick Dyer-Whitford’s analysis that peer production consists of:

  • An input phase: Without access to open and free “raw material,”either preexisting or to be created, there can be no free permissionless self-aggregation around common value;
  • A process phase: People who are working together as voluntary contributors outside of the wage-labor dependency system need to develop methods of participatory governance reflecting their equipotential contributions to the commons; and
  • An output phase: Commoners won’t contribute if there can be a private appropriation of their common work; therefore, they use new forms of open licensing guaranteeing universal availability, and thus create an openly accessible commons.

Commons-based peer production can also be defined as the common creation of value using peer governance to manage this process and peer property to protect common value from private appropriation. “Equipotentiality” refers to the equal freedom, opportunity and capability of everyone to contribute to the commons, by matching the needs for commons development with the freely given contributions of passionate labor provided by commoners. This process relies upon a “stigmergic signalling” system1 that facilitates the voluntary and swift allocation of labor to perform needed tasks. One could say that in peer production, the “division of labor” is transformed in a system that is more akin to a “distribution of tasks.”

Peer governance in the narrow sense should be reserved for those aspects of peer production that are strictly outside a hierarchical allocation of tasks, in the sense of a command and control mechanism that governs the production process directly. However, peer governance may embody different forms of hierarchy, such as quality-selection mechanisms that occur later in the production process. Hierarchies that disempower the mechanisms that enable everyone to freely contribute, however, cannot be considered compatible with peer production and peer governance. To complicate matters further, peer production is a hybrid form of governance because in present circumstances it is interdependent with the capitalist economy in which it emerges.

Indeed, in “real-world” practice, we see the emergence of a triune structure governing such collaborative production. At the core is a community consisting of both voluntary contributors and paid employees, which requires a physical infrastructure to facilitate cooperation and sometimes entails entrepreneurial coalitions of corporations and freelance workers.

Volunteers and paid employees contribute knowledge, code and design to the common pool, using a variety of open licenses to ensure the legal defensibility of their commons.2 Peer production projects are successful as long as they can attract either volunteers or corporate contributors willing to use such open licenses. In general, such communities are governed by rules and norms derived from meritocratic philosophies. While any capable person can generally contribute, they have post-production quality control mechanisms that either individually or collectively apply some standards of meritocratic judgment.

This is sometimes called the “maintainer” model of management. The specific rules can be elaborate and in turn create some form of hierarchy, such as the oversight exercised by “admins” and editors in the Wikipedia project. But such governance is not a classic scarcity-based allocation mechanism such as the market, bureaucracy or even a democracy, because contributions (code, text, design, etc.) are generally considered to be nonrival and abundant. Anyone can contribute but some decisions must be made in curating or synthesizing the end product. This can be considered a permissionless process of production, with strong “pluri-archichal” elements. It preserves the possibility of noncooperation or “forking” (in which disaffected participants leave the project to start their own offshoot), while preserving a strong posthoc quality control mechanism, which is needed to guarantee the quality of the end product.

The second aspect of the triune structure of peer production communities, a physical infrastructure of cooperation, is sometimes costly and requires capital investment. Think of the money needed to maintain the servers of the Wikipedia project. In general, such communities create “for-benefit” associations or foundations, which manage and maintain the infrastructure of cooperation, gather donations and perform related functions. These foundations take on the legal form of nonprofits and are generally governed in democratic ways, through elections, sortition (the drawing of lots), rotation and other methods. They are “for-benefit” associations in the sense that they work for the commons and the community of contributors, but do not direct the process of production itself.

Finally, the third player in commons-based peer production are the entrepreneurial coalitions of corporations and freelance workers who either sell their services and labor time, or create added value that can be sold and monetized in the marketplace. Such companies are important for the reproduction of the commoners and the commons, since they may pay many contributors and sustain and finance the for-benefit associations.

Many commons-based peer projects are currently embedded in the mainstream political economy of capitalism. This has resulted in a delicate co-dependency between the communities, which need the capital and monetary income provided by enterprises, and corporations, which need to capture and monetize some of the fruits of the social cooperation.3 This hybrid collaborative economy poses a number of important issues for peer governance.

  • How can the community maintain its independent processes, rules and norms when a substantial number of contributors are paid by companies? In practice, this can lead to open source communities being dominated by single companies, which likely disqualifies them as true commons. But on the other hand, there are also instances of companies adapting to the rules and norms of the community, such as IBM’s respectful relationship to the GNU Linux community.
  • How can the for-benefit association retain its independence and democratic procedures if it is cofinanced by corporations who may exert a self-serving influence? In practice, many foundations such as the one that oversees GNU Linux limit the representation of single companies to avoid such dominance.

As we can see, peer governance creates many issues around the distribution of power, and creates a new form of (class?) “struggle” between peer producing communities and commoners on the one hand, and entrepreneurial and large corporate entities on the other. Even in the best of cases, there are many “internal” tensions among the new types of meritocratic hierarchies emerging within peer communities themselves. A wide variety of solutions are available but democracy and pluriarchy are never a given and so are always an ongoing social challenge.

What is important, and to some extent historically novel, is the rise of equipotential cooperation mechanisms that function beyond the local level; the generalized possibility for stigmergic, horizontal communication among large numbers of people; the legal protections for maintaining commons that open licenses provide; and the choice that commoners always have to fork a collaborative project. These are promising conditions for democratic governance compared with the almost feudal structures prevalent in private corporations relying upon wage dependency.

This is why we may prefer alternatives that can free peer production from over-dependence on the political economy of capital. Instead of a situation in which the commons and peer production must depend on the imperatives of capital accumulation for their own social reproduction, we must find better ways to defend not just the autonomy of peer governance, but an autonomous “circulation of the commons” which favor the social practices that animate and give value to this paradigm of production.

Our proposal in this context is that the commoners themselves create a new type of for-benefit entity to operate in the marketplace. Such an entity would have commoners as its members and would give a priority to the sustainability of the commons and its contributing commoners. It would also subsume the profit mechanism to its social goals. By allying and aligning themselves to each other, such peer-based entities could potentially create a counter-economy, and cultivate a new production logic that could overcome dependency on capital. The name of “Phyles” has been proposed for such entities,4 and specific licenses have been developed for their operation.5 Their logic is to limit the free usage of the commons to only such entities that also contribute to the commons, and to let for-profit companies pay for usage. Such a prohibition of “leaking of value” from the commons to capital could be a mechanism to create a productive feedback loop for the autonomy of the commons.