P2P Foundation

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Can Consumers Collectively Own 'Producers'?

In today's world we have for the most part - a strict separation of production and consumption, which together constitute "the market". The incentive for a market economy is a division of labor. Some are good at organizing, others are good at doing various "jobs". The enterprising spirits who are good at organizing become producers or purveyors of commerce, meaning, distributors of things produced. The less enterprising who yet need some resources to survive contribute by selling their manual or mental skills and services, receiving a compensation, which then enables them to buy the necessities of life and more from the enterprising types who have organized productive activity.

A driver behind this set-up is that both producers and distributors are able to charge a fee for their activity, which is generally termed a "profit". That fee or profit is an incentive to organize and take the risks associated with commerce - productive and distributive activities.

Profit is also a source of contention. In the long term it tends to separate people into classes - the monied and the less fortunate workers or consumers. In its extreme manifestation, this distribution of labor has brought us multinational corporations centered majorly on profit and only in a secondary way on providing goods/services. Consumers, who buy those goods and services originally were the masses of workers who had some part in producing. Increasingly, the corporations can mechanize production, leaving their consumers without resources to buy what they need.

This is the background to a proposal of Patrick (AGNUcius) to stimulate consumer ownership of productive activities, which would allow to bring some balance back into the commercial equation. Consumers who need the products or services of a productive entity could band together and own that entity.

To get an idea of what AGNUcius proposes, here some quotes from comments on a different conversation about hosting in the context of p2p systems:

The solution I propose - to insure ownership flows as the organization grows - is to understand all "price above cost" (or what is commonly called "profit") is a plea for growth from the user who paid it, and must be handled as an investment from that user toward more space and tools.

As those investments vest to the user who paid them, ownership of the space and tools needed for effective hosting are shared among the participants in a self-balancing manner.

Users who pay more than cost slowly gain ownership.
Users who pay exactly cost retain current ownership.
Users who pay less than cost slowly lose ownership.


I wish I could say I see more of this - especially in the agriculture sector considering the current world food crisis.

What I see instead is massive agribusiness owners consolidating ever more control while small farmers continue to struggle and finally succumb to the debt they attempt to hold by themselves.

If bunches of consumers (say about 1000 per bunch) could "get together" to buy small, organically diverse farms with the expected return being product instead of profit (notice only consumers would settle for product instead of profit), then those consumers would collectively hold that debt - and would have a very good chance of paying it off. In some cases they might just be able to fund it directly without even taking out a loan.

In doing this, the consumers would be their own 'hosts'. The people working on the farm would likely also be consumers from it, and could pay their costs from part of their labor while also receiving a very good wage.

and again:

In a 'normal' business the owners are working against the consumers in that they are attempting to keep the price of the goods above the costs of production. In other words, they are trying to "make profit".

Keep in mind that wages paid for work are calculated as a cost and are on the opposite side of the equation from profit.

But when the consumers of a product are the owners of the sources of those products (in just the right amount*) - in other words, when the business is "consumer owned" - there is no desire and indeed no possibility of keeping price above cost.

In this bizarro economy profit is 'undefined'. The product is available "at cost" and is not even 'sold' in the traditional sense because those that intend to use the product own it even before it is produced.

As an example, imagine a small group of nut-lovers own an almond tree. If they hire someone to care for the tree and to harvest and store the nuts they would pay those wages as a cost of production, but they can't pay profit unless they were to pay it to themselves. So they get the product "at cost" and they own it even before it is produced.

(*) A consumer has "Just the right amount" of source ownership when it is sufficient to produce exactly the amount of product he desires before the next round of production.

In a different conversation titled Quality of Experience, AGNUcius brought up the possibility of users owning a means of transportation they might frequently use:

What would happen to the quality of experience if the very community intending to utilize the product/service/institution could somehow get together and fund it for themselves?

For instance, what would happen if all the potential passengers of a train were organized enough to invest toward building the tracks and purchasing the train, and were therefore collective legal property owners of that entire transportation system - with nobody else to answer to?

Any passengers that had paid more would have more "vote weight", and those that cared less about control had paid less, but all the initial costs had been 100% funded by potential consumers/customers.

The 'recurring' operational costs could be gathered as ticket fees similar to what occurs now with one difference: whenever a passenger (whether he is currently a partial owner or not) paid a price above cost for a ticket (such as when in a bidding war against other potential passengers), then that amount (what is generally called 'profit') would be treated as an investment from and for that very same passenger. Every little bit of profit becomes a sort of incremental funding that eventually 'vests' to the very same user that paid it. I also mention some organizational problems that are easily overlooked in our desire to shift ownership to consumers:

My view, expressed in that same conversation, was that in order to make such an arrangement work, one would need a clear contract to guard against the agreement falling apart in case one or more of the owners do not want to continue for whatever reason:

The major problem I see is one of constancy of intent. It may be easy to get such a group together, even on the spur of the moment, but in the long run, one of the people says they need the money back which they invested (they found something more exciting to do with it) or they had a falling out with another one of the people who they co-own the car with. I think this is called the "human factor" and it's perhaps the major obstacle against owning things in common with others.

So a pretty strong agreement would have to be made to guard the group from destruction in case one or more of the human elements that are part of it change their mind. People for instance should be able to leave but not to have their investment returned to them, unless they bring a "replacement" investor/member agreeable to the group.

It's ok to co-own capital in other words, but it is also important to treat the agreement itself as an entity entitled to protection from possible destructive actions of the single investors/members, and to make that protection explicit in the form of a clear contractual relationship.

The larger a co-owned venture, the more there will be a different kind of problems, this time organizational in nature, which any entrepreneur has to routinely solve. In a co-ownership arrangement, I could imagine that the "firm hand" of the entrepreneur who makes sure things function smoothly might be missing. The more people are needed to run the enterprise, the less these people feel part of it. They become merely employees and although that is not a bad thing in itself, a company with employees also needs direction. Of course a director can be employed as well, and can be instructed how to run things. We are coming back to the need for a clear contract that spells out the rights and duties of investors/users/members on the one hand and employees/managers on the other.

AGNUcius agrees a contract would be needed and after some more discussion (which you can read up going to the 'Quality of Experience' post he adds:

My vision is for the contract to be applicable to *any* physical sources that any users choose to share. This universality is important for the higher goal of eventually using the coupons/titles as a form of currency across disciplines.

All production requires physical sources. Anytime someone uses a term such as "immaterial production" there is a chance someone (maybe even the author) is accidentally thinking physical sources are not needed or are a "marginal" in cost that needs no consideration. That thinking is faulty.

Here are some example applications and associated physical sources the contract could cover:

A Social Networking Website: The initial and recurring costs of the computer hardware, electricity, rent or cost plus tax of the land and building house the computers, cooling...

A Restaurant: The rent or cost plus taxes for the land and building, electricity, gas, water, ingredients for the recipes...

A Farm: The rent or cost plus taxes for the land and buildings, cost of implements such as tractors and tools, fuel, seed, eggs, spores, housing for some of the animals & plants & mushrooms...

A Clothing Production: Land and buildings, tools such as a loom, spinning wheels, heavier sewing machines...

There is no situation needing co-ownership that is exempt.


... but treating profit as user investment is absolutely essential to insuring the enterprise continues to remain in the hands of the users. If we do not specify the destination of profit (profit is the same as "price above cost"), the originators will retain control even as the number of users increases to slowly become well-meaning dictators. Democracy will cease to be direct and product will no longer be approaching "at cost" for all users.

So here we go - we've got the problem set out in reasonable detail.

Where do we go from here?

Are there volunteers who would like to wrap their minds around the problem of a simple contract defining the relationship of co-owners?

Are there basic questions or ideas why it would or wouldn't be proper to explore that avenue of bringing production closer to consumption?

Any comments are welcome.

Views: 308

Comment by Eric Hunting on August 9, 2008 at 1:33
This reminds me of the work of economist Louis Kelso -the inventor of the Employee Stock Ownership Program or ESOP- who proposed a companion concept; the Consumer Stock Ownership Program or CSOP. These were part of a larger program he called the Capital Homesteading Act. A contemporary of Buckminster Fuller who purportedly was involved in the Old Man River City project, Kelso was a proponent of what he called a Third Way of economics that used the tools of capitalism to achieve the socioeconomic egalitarianism of socialism without its centralized structures of bureaucratic control. There is much information on this at the Center for Economic and Social Justice, a Washington organization that has been promoting Kelso's theories for decades. I've been quite interested in his concept of Community Investment Corporations as the basis of eco-community development.

Comment by Michel Bauwens on August 9, 2008 at 7:47
thanks for that very interesting info.

just done, alternative approaches to markets and capitalism:

Resources on transforming markets:

- Market, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Market (and its equity aspects)

- Markets without capitalism, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Markets_without_Capitalism

- Non-capitalist markets, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Non-capitalist_Markets (and the view of Gesell)

- Reforming Markets, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Reforming_Markets

- Market Socialism, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Market_Socialism and Self-managed market socialism

- Market aspects of open source, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Open_Source_-_Market_Aspects

- Open Market, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Open_Market

- Market 3.0, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Market_3.0

Resources on transforming capitalism:

- P2P Capitalism, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/P2P_Capitalism

- Cooperative Capitalism, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Cooperative_Capitalism

- Natural Capitalism, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Natural_Capitalism

- Capitalism 3.0, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Capitalism_3.0

- Open Capital, http://www.p2pfoundation.net/Open_Capital (and the Open Capitalist Project)

- Patient, cooperative, and good capital

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