The Economy of Contribution

This post offers a translation of the entry for ‘the economy of contribution‘ given in the Glossary on the Ars Industrialis website. I am not a skilled translator but I trust that this work offers something useful to those with an interest in such things. The economy of contribution forms a central trope of Bernard Stiegler’s critique of political economy and represents one of the tenets of his activist work with the association Ars Industrialis.

An ‘economy of contribution’, according to the definition given below, is not a radical break with the system of capitalism-in the vein of the historical attempts to create communism-rather it is a system that works within and alongside the contemporary market economy. This resonates with some of the theorisations of peer-to-peer as a political economic system (see, for example, my interview with Michel Bauwens). The aim of an economy of contribution is thus to use and adapt new technical affordances to facilitate different, perhaps broader, means of creating and sharing value.

There is not a great deal of literature available in English by Stiegler, or Ars Industrialis, that develops the concept of the economy of contribution (but see: For a New Critique of Political Economy in particular) and from the literature available it seems, to me, that it is a concept in progress-it is in the process of development within the writings and activist activities of both Stiegler and Ars Industrialis. Thus, it is an interesting provocation to both those with an interest in the study and critique of political economy and, of course, those interested in Stiegler’s work.

What follows is the translated ‘Glossary’ entry. It contains clarifications of translations, or the original French, in square brackets. It also includes five endnotes, four of which come from the original entry, although [2] has been adapted to point to the English translation of The Decadence of Industrial Democracies. The first note [1] contains some of my notes concerning what might be meant by ‘disintrestedness’.

NB. (04/12/12) Translator of a significant amount of Stiegler’s work Daniel Ross has very kindly given me some feedback on the translation and I have corrected it accordingly. In particular, I incorrectly translated the second paragraph of the section headed The economy of contribution (function and calculation), where it is important to note, following Dan, that “Stiegler is correcting capitalism’s error of mistakenly founding itself on an alleged general equilibrium of private decisions”. Also, Dan suggests that désintéressement may refer more to ‘selflessness’ than ‘disinterestedness’ – I’ve left my note in, however, because I find it an interesting juxtaposition.

The Economy of Contribution

The economy of contribution is principally characterised by three traits:

  1. Economic actors are no longer separated as producers on one side and consumers on the other
  2. The value produced by contributors is not totally monetisable, it is a ‘positive externality’
  3. It is as much an economy of existence (as the production of ‘savoir vivre‘) as it is an economy of subsistence

The economy of contribution takes place, in the manner of a general economy, alongside the market, public and gift economies: Through regulation by prices, public decision making and by the principle of reciprocity, the economy of contribution replaces regulation by the interactions of participation (both quantitative and qualitative) within an activity. However, the economy of contribution does not exclude alternative means of production and exchange, but rather combines with them, accommodating the rules of monetary exchange, and is concerned with investment decisions, especially those which lead to the production of public goods. Gifting is one such possible modality of participation.

The contributor is neither the consumer, the taxpayer or the (co-)sponsor. Whereas the market economy is interested in the producer in terms of profit maximisation, and the consumer in terms of desirability [ophélimité] or as a function of utility; the public economy occupies itself with the functions of redistribution and bailing out market failures; and the gift economy is embedded in a circular relationship between gift-giving and gift-receiving (making-to-receive [donner-recevoir-rendre]); the economy of contribution raises the alternative figure of the contributor, who is characterised by participation in chosen activities, the creation of social value and an interest in selflessness [désintéressement 1].

The mobilisation of resources [in an economy of contribution] takes into account four main features:

  1. The production model, which must deal with finite natural resources and the cumulative nature of resources related to cognitive activity. This dimension leads to a redefinition of the system of production and the installation of this system in a psycho-techno-social milieu.
  2. The relationship between the function of contribution and the consolidation of solidarity, beyond the safety net of the welfare state. It is important here to link protection and creativity within a dynamic form of solidarity, requiring the ipso facto revision of the system of redistribution.
  3. The requirement to establish a new system of scale. This raises the question of measurement, and presupposes the development of a new basis of calculation and new accounting standards.
  4. The territorialisation function of contribution which implies a redefinition of the effects of agglomeration [centralisation?] and a reassessment of public policy.

The economy of contribution is situated in an general ecosystem of production and circulation of wealth that can be described through a ‘general organology'[2]. It is the source of collective creative practice and new measures of scale, at a time when digital technologies have intensified the exchange of information.

The economy of contribution (function and measurement)

The function of contribution is to the economy of contribution what the functions of production, embodied as supply and demand, as instruments, are for neoclassical [economic] theory: it shows how resources are allocated between different possible uses, between different activities, and between different participants. However the nature of contribution [as an economic function] guides us away from the economic fetishes [l’éconisme] of the self-fulfilling preference curves for consumers and supply curves for producers of mainstream economic theory.

For the same reasons, it [contribution] should not be confused with the process of adjustment of quantities and prices in different markets, and is therefore not reducible to the conditions of formation of a purported ‘general equilibrium’ [modeling prices for a whole economy] – before becoming a calculable model – of private decisions.

Conjugation within its market and nonmarket activities also makes [contribution] irreducible to a single conversion into a monetary equivalent that gives shape to the market as the cost of work with regard to production and desire with regard to consumption. On the contrary, the function of contribution introduces us to the construction of a general economy, where the mobilisation of resources and productive services is carried out according to objectives agreed in a deliberative manner, thus in terms of societal development. Contribution refers to both a microeconomic dimension, as a modality of the actions of participants in organizations, and a macroeconomic dimension, as a principle of political economy-oriented collective creation and societal value, and hence as a condition of terminating the economic cycle.

Microeconomic guidance of the function of contribution can facilitate an enriched form of economic analysis, highlighting the links with innovation, creating new activities and externalities.

The economy of contribution and the internet

The hyperconsumerist essence of the concept of the creative economy, supported by the work of John Howkins (which is closest to what has been called “cognitive capitalism”[3]), must be surpassed by societies and territories of contribution based on collaborative cultural technologies. If the Internet makes possible an apparently contributory economy – typified by free and open source software – it is because it is a technical environment in which the recipients are put in the position of senders: it is dialogical[4]. The Web (2.0 or 3.0) therefore contributes to an economy of contribution as it is:

    1. an infrastructure: systems for sharing and publishing knowledge online (such as: CMS, wikis);
    2. mechanisms for desire: in the classical industrial system, consumption drives desire – which, however, deteriorates and decays tendentiously and inevitably into drives[5] – while in the case of Web 2.0, desire operates around personal creativity and work shared in online spaces (YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Wikis in general);
    3. digital technology which empowers and enables the development of the economic model (in the same way that the tourism boom was made possible by advances in transportation technology, web technologies allow the appropriation of read / write content).

But the rapid success of the internet will only be a truly economic success (in both senses of the term) if it makes itself the subject of a public industrial policy, moving beyond the spectacular dynamics of new industrial enterprises emerging in this contributory milieu, currently dominated by search engines and social networks.


1. Disinterestedness, here, may refer to the aesthetics proposed by Kant, wherein disinterest is a level of perception that facilitates ‘true’ judgement: ‘A state of mind in which no biases are present, no memories or beliefs make any affect on the aesthetic pleasure you get from viewing a piece of art or an object'(Aesthetics in ‘Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology‘, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Perhaps, then, an ‘interest in disinterest’ might be aesthetic values derived principally in affective registers. This would fit with the three traits of the economy of contribution defined at the beginning (trans.)

2. See Stiegler’s description of a ‘general organology’ in The Decadence of Industrial Democracies (trans.).

3. Cf. Christian Azaïs, Antonella Corsani, Patrick Dieuaide, eds., Vers un capitalisme cognitif. Entre mutations du travail et territoires, with a preface by Bernard Paulré and a postface by Christan Palloix, L’Harmattan, 2001. In this collection, see in particular Pascal Jollivet, “Les NTIC et l’affirmation du travail coopératif réticulaire”, pp. 45-63. Cf. also Le capitalisme cognitif. La nouvelle grande transformation, Yann Moullier Boutang, Amsterdam, 2007.

4. For this concept cf. the Glossary entry on Associated/Disassociated Milieu (in French -trans.).

5. For more, cf. the Glossary entry on desire (and drives) (in French -trans.).

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5 thoughts on “The Economy of Contribution”

  1. Over on the technophilia repost of this entry, my colleague Patrick Crogan offers this excellent response:

    Thanks Sam for the translation of this. A ‘concept in progress’… Yes, but moreso the sketchiness is with the program of action to implement the concept. As an articulation of the activist mode of Ars Industrialis it ‘works’ inasmuch as it sketches out negatively how a transformation of the current state of things (conceptual divisions between economy, culture, the political, the ‘global’ and other spatial/territorial divisions, etc.) could or should proceed. It implies discursive, critical, pedagogical/institutional as well as regulatory, legislative, change via this negative definition of another kind of ‘general economy’. At this level it is coherent and consistent with the way the AI manifesto outlines its rationale for its critical cultural politics/activism.

    The program to go with such an envisaged alteration in the default goings on of contemporary global capitalism is never going to be easy to map out coherently, via affirmative negation or otherwise. AI’s multiple engagements with the public, government, business, the academy, etc might add up to a sketch of it, but one which is particular to their context, and inevitably piecemeal, semi-strategic/ semi-opportunist. The implied need to act on many levels, and to take into account the dependance on work in other areas — eg. action on the production of creative, contributory platforms/systems, depending on changes at macro-economic levels via regulatory reform, itself driven by public pressure or critical redefinitions of value/production etc, arising perhaps from disciplinary work or ‘impactful’ engagements in public space,etc. — leads to a level of complexity that severely challenges the program maker.

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