Cyber-Commoners, Peer Producers and the Project of a Post-Capitalist Transition
* Article: Digital Commons Cyber-commoners, peer producers and the project of a post-capitalist transition. By George Dafermos. HETEROPOLITICS: Refiguring the Common and the Political. European Research Council, ERC-COG-2016-724692, July 2020
- 1 Description
- 2 Excerpts
- 3 Discussion
"The aim of Heteropolitics is to engage in theoretical reflection on the concept of the political in tandem with that of community. Why are we interested in these concepts? In the space of the last three decades, the notion of what a community is has been largely redefined by the emergence of a new type of communities on the Internet. Unlike the location-based communities that predated the modern mediascape, the communities homesteading the virtual frontier are distributed across space. Their members communicate and coordinate their activities through the Internet and so their physical whereabouts can be anywhere in the ‘real world.’ Liberated from the geographical constraints of the past, the members of online communities are typically scattered all over the planet, connected only by the strands of the Internet. Consequently, communities of that kind are virtual in the sense that participation in them is mediated through electronic devices like Internet-enabled personal computers and mobile phones. One of the most interesting things about online communities is how they manage their common affairs. A point consistently raised by early studies of communities in cyberspace is that they develop their own autonomous structures and institutions of governance, which, in the majority of cases, are based on direct-democratic and antihierarchical models (e.g. Rheingold 1993). Bluntly, when they need to make a decision, they do it collectively based on the direct participation of all members, without anyone having the authority to tell others what to do. Subsequent studies, especially those that focused on online communities of free/open-source software (FOSS) developers and users, pointed out that they are also characterized by an alternative mode of production and property, which is diametrically opposed to the principles governing the dominant system of commodity production (e.g. Benkler 2002a, Raymond 1999, Weber 2005). As these studies remarked, communities of FOSS developers are actively engaged in the production of the digital commons, that is, they are the creators of shareable goods (like software that anyone can freely download and use), which community members produce and manage collectively. In so doing, commons-producing cyber-communities are paradigmatic of a new mode of production, which theorists of the digital commons define as ‘commons-based peer production.’ Evolving rapidly, this mode of production, they claim, has the potential to transcend capitalism, becoming thus the base of a new post-capitalist society (e.g. Bauwens 2005; 2009; 2012, Bauwens et al. 2019).
Based on what we have said so far, it must be obvious that commons-producing communities on the Internet redefine not only the notion of what a community is, but also the political, understood as a deliberate process of social self-construction, self-management and collective debate over institutions and social relations (see Report 1. The Political). As we mentioned, communities of FOSS developers built their own institutions of governance from the ground up. Most importantly, the development of these institutions is not the work of a few enlightened individuals, but the result of collective debate over the kind of institutions and social relations that the community of FOSS developers and users deliberately wishes to create. As such, it is intrinsically political.
This is why this Report delves more deeply into the literature of the digital commons: it attempts to elucidate the way in which the communities spearheading the development of the digital commons are constitutive of an alternative paradigm for the organization of economic, social and political life, which is claimed to have the potential to change the world.
The main argument in this Report reflects in a sense the trajectory of development of the digital commons literature over time. Its epicentre is the thesis that the digital commons are paradigmatic of a mode of production that has the potential to become dominant in the digital economy, paving thus the way for the institution of a new post-capitalist society. To probe into this thesis, the Report reviews the development of the literature on the digital commons over time. To begin with, it traces the origins of that thesis in the pioneering work of Yochai Benkler (2002a; 2002b; 2006) which, in a sense, represents the birth of this literature field. The concept of ‘commons-based peer production’ appears for the first time in a 2002 article by Benkler, as well as the thesis that ‘peer production’ –which is how Benkler defines the mode of production characteristic of the digital commons– has the potential to hegemonize the digital economy. Our discussion of Benkler’s work brings to light the historical conditions underlying it: the growing visibility of the phenomenon of distributed free/open-source software development on the Internet by online communities. To put it simply, what Benkler theorized as a new mode of production, governance and property, which can antagonize the capitalist mode of production, is the community-driven development model of free/open-source software.
Subsequently, the Review looks at how Benkler’s thesis evolved over time. It discusses how it was radicalized through the work of Project Oekonux and Michel Bauwens/P2P Foundation. Both Oekonux and Bauwens ‘gave teeth’ to Benkler’s thesis. By laying emphasis on the ‘transcendent’ character of peer production, they argued that it has the potential to usher in a post-capitalist society organized on the basis of the principles of the commons. In a nutshell, they both argued that peer production holds a revolutionary promise, forming the seed of a new mode of production that has the potential to become the organizational model of a post-capitalist society. To elucidate the assumptions on which their argument rests, the Review delves deeply into the analysis by which both Oekonux and Bauwens/P2P Foundation substantiate 6 their expanded thesis. This, as the Report clearly shows, is basically an analysis of the transformative effects of distributed networks and peer production on the economy. It is an analysis of how commoners and peer producers antagonize the capitalists in the economic field, which underscores their potential to become the leading force in the digital economy. But from this point on, their analysis shades into a crude theory of techno-economic determinism. Oekonux and Bauwens assume that the hegemony of peer producers in the economy will spiral into the realm of social and political life. They argue that the economic leadership of peer producers will translate into social and political leadership, as their domination over the economic base of society will (somehow) provide them with the means to remold political institutions and shape them anew. That is, in a way, a logical leap that, as we point out in the Report, the theorists of peer production eventually came face-to-face with.
Thus, in contrast to their prior work, the recent work of Bauwens and his colleagues at the P2P Foundation is characterized by a rejection of crudely deterministic theories of social change that downplay the centrality of political struggle in the transition process to a new social order (see e.g. Bauwens et al. 2019). This signals an important political turn in peer production theory, which enriches the theory and expands its scope. In a sense, the emphasis on the political turns peer production theory into a weapon of political struggle. This is reflected in the concept of the ‘partner state’ (Bauwens et al. 2019), which has evolved into a full-fledged strategy for taking over the machinery of the State. The Report discusses how the partner state strategy has been re-conceptualized on the basis of the experience of citizen platforms like Barcelona en Comú. In the recent work of digital commons theorists, the partner state is synonymous with citizen platforms, which unite a large part of civil society around a commons agenda and run for public office with the aim of taking over the administrative apparatus of the State at citylevel. In the concluding sections (3.4.1.-3.4.3), we reflect on the findings of this Report. Our main argument is that the political turn of peer production theorists to what is basically a hegemonic strategy for taking over the local State has indeed the potential to strengthen the struggle of commoners against the hegemony of Capital in the realm of systemic political institutions. It is a step in the right direction: commoners must act politically. Their struggle is not only economic, but also political. In that respect, the conclusions of this Report give support to peer production theorists’ revamped strategy: the economic struggle of the commoners and peer producers must be reinforced by their political praxis. However, despite its strengths, this strategy has one major weakness: it remains entrapped in the politics of hegemony. That is to say, the main weakness of the partner state strategy rests on the absence of a post-hegemonic vision that could serve as a roadmap for the transformation of state structures in accordance with the principles of the commons and peer production. In its present form, the proposed strategy of Bauwens et al. does not deal sufficiently with the question of what is to be done once the objective of the occupation of the administrative apparatus of the city has been attained. This question could be addressed by a post-hegemonic strategy focusing on the transformation of state power through open, collective and horizontal processes, which effectively distribute the capacity of participation in decision-making across the entire community, thereby democratizing it (See Report 1. The Political, sections 1.16-1.27). In short, the task of a post-hegemonic strategy would be to make state power a kind of commons: a resource shared by all community members, who collectively define the terms of its sharing. Viewed from that perspective, the real promise that lies at the heart of the commoners’ struggle in the political field is not the occupation of state power, but its transformation into a commons.
As the readers of the reports authored by the Heteropolitics project can see, there is a considerable overlap between this Report and Report 2. The Common (see particularly Report 2. The Common, chapter 2.3). They both share the same interest in the compelling argument made in the literature of the digital commons about the transformative potential of peer production. Most importantly, they arrive at the same conclusions with regard to the updated strategy proposed by Bauwens et al. Both reports support the view that it can be a valuable tool in the political struggle of the commoners, provided that it is reinforced by a post-hegemonic strategy focusing on the transformation of state power through open, collective and horizontal processes.
Aside, however, from highlighting the political turn of peer production theorists and drawing attention to the limitations of the hegemonic strategies which they champion, the content of the two reports differs remarkably. The review of the literature in this report in far more extensive and places more emphasis on the historical conditions underlying its specific trajectory of evolution. It brings to light the historical setting in which the development of this stream of the literature has been embedded. Furthermore, this Report discusses in greater detail the analysis by which peer production theorists substantiate their thesis that peer production has the potential to become the leading mode of production in the contemporary world. In short, this Report and Report 2. The Common come to the same conclusions about the updated strategy proposed by Bauwens and his fellow theorists. Their revamped strategy has strengths as well as limitations and both Reports highlight them. But the ‘route’ which the two reports follow to arrive at these conclusions is quite different." (http://heteropolitics.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Digital-Commons.pdf)
"The coming of the new millennium, however, signaled the emergence of a new type of commons on the Internet, which are remarkably different from the traditional commons of nature. To begin with, the ‘new commons’ are virtual, which means that they can only be accessed through electronic devices like internet-enabled personal computers and mobile phones. Due to their digital form, which enables their reproduction at negligible cost, they are also ‘non-rival:’ that is, their ‘consumption by one person does not make them any less available for consumption by another’ (Benkler 2006: 36) and so they can be used over and over again without the fear of depletion of supply. Lastly, the digital commons are the fruit of the labour of communities which reside in cyberspace. In contrast to the environmental commons, which are typically managed by local (and usually small) communities, the digital commons are connected with online communities that can be truly huge with thousands of members all over the world (Schweik & English 2007).
In light of these differences, it is obvious that the digital commons diverge from the commons of nature in politically crucial respects (See Report 2. The Common, sections 2.2, 2.3). However, what, more than anything else, sets the digital commons politically apart from the traditional commons is their mode of production. According to the leading theorists of the digital commons, this mode of production –which they define as commons-based peer production (e.g. Bauwens 2009, Benkler 2006)– is antagonistic towards the capitalist mode of production, having in fact ‘the potential to succeed capitalism as the core value and organizational model of a post-capitalist society’ (Bauwens 2012). In specific, they claim that the mode of production of the digital commons is bound to expand and dominate the economy, paving thus the way for the institution of a new society (see, e.g., Bauwens 2005). From the perspective of the theory, then, the digital commons are nothing less than the foundation of a new political project." (http://heteropolitics.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Digital-Commons.pdf)
"The antithesis between the immanent and the transcendent characteristics of peer production was, as we have seen, of decisive importance in the development of Oekonux’s theory. The same is true of Bauwens’ work, which, from a methodological point of view, also constitutes a dialectical synthesis of these antitheses. Thus, by following a similar (dialectical) method with Oekonux, he had already by the early 2000s come to the same conclusion that Just as serfdom arose within the slave-based mode of production of antiquity, and capitalism within dominant feudal structures, so does peer production arise and emerge within capitalism -but not without ‘transcendent’ aspects that hold an emancipatory promise and form the seed of a possible new mode of production that may emerge as the dominant logic of a new type of political economy (Bauwens 2009: 122-123; emphasis added).
It goes without saying that what, for Bauwens, as for Oekonux, creates the objective conditions for a paradigm shift is ‘the inevitable crisis of...capitalism,’ which could ‘lead to a potential system transition, making peer-to-peer production the dominant logic’ (Bauwens 2009: 137).
Of course, Bauwens was not the only thinker who shared that common ground with Oekonux. The same could be said of several other participants in the project. For instance, Johan Söderberg’s Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software Movement (2008) is also based on a dialectical analysis of FOSS, which supports the view that its model of production carries seeds of a post-capitalist society. The reason why the case of Bauwens merits particular attention is because of his decisive effect on the development of the theory since the mid-2000s. (In fact, the only other theorist who can be said to have exerted such a catalytic influence on the literature is Benkler). So, paradoxically, although Oekonux has fallen into obscurity, its main thesis that peer production is the germ of a post-capitalist society has actually become widely known through Bauwens. In that sense, he is the most important continuator of the work of Oekonux. That said, Bauwens did not just assimilate and reiterate its theses. As we shall see, he fleshed out the implications of the Oekonuxian analysis and fully developed its conclusions, leaving thus his mark on it.
From the mid-2000s onwards, Bauwens’ work has been closely connected with the socalled Peer-to-Peer Foundation (P2PF).8 That was basically an online mailing list that he started in 2005 with the aim of sharing his reflections. However, it soon attracted a lot of sympathizers from around the world, thereby encouraging Bauwens to add a wiki (http://wiki.p2pfoundation.net) with a view to developing an open repository of knowledge related to peer production. His collaborative approach towards the development of the repository appealed to many researchers and activists, who formed, in a sense, a research group around him and the P2PF. As a result of this ‘mutation’ of the P2PF into a veritable think-tank, Bauwens acquired several key collaborators. Of them, no-one has played a more important role than Tallinn University of Technology Professor Vasilis Kostakis, who has been Bauwens’ main co-author since the early 2010s. In the context of his collaboration with Bauwens and the P2PF, in 2012 Kostakis founded the P2P Lab. Made up of his postgraduate and doctoral students from Tallinn, the P2P Lab has since been the research branch of the P2PF (Bauwens & Pantazis 2018).
Strengthened by that group of competent researchers, the P2PF evolved into a distinctive school of thought on the topic of peer production. And like all schools of thought, so the P2F is characterized by specific theses. As one would expect, its main thesis is that peer production has the ‘potential to succeed capitalism as the core value and organizational model of a post-capitalist society’ (Bauwens 2012). The analysis, though, through which Bauwens and his collaborators substantiate that thesis is equally emblematic. This is essentially an analysis of the transformative effect of distributed networks and peer production on the economy, which lays particular emphasis on the breaking-up of the capitalist class into factions with differentiated and even antagonistic interests. Having little to do with ideological differences of any kind, this split, as the P2PF theorists remark, is due to the fact that increasingly more capitalists adopt ‘strategies of adaptation’ to distributed networks, as a result of which they have ‘an objective interest in promoting the infrastructures of cooperation that make participation and peer production possible’ (Bauwens 2009: 135). That is the case with many software companies that utilize FOSS as an input to their own production process.
What is most important is that they do not only take from the FOSS community, but also contribute to it. As is standard practice for all professionals who incorporate ‘copylefted’ software in their products, these companies release their own products under free/opensource licenses, as well, enriching thereby the common pool of FOSS. A characteristic example is Google’s Android mobile operating system, which is based on Linux and is distributed under a dual free/open-source license. In addition to sharing their products with FOSS communities, some of these companies also provide employment for FOSS developers, reinforcing thereby their economic sustainability. In this way, Bauwens and his collaborators argue that these agents of capital practically become allies of peer producers. And so, a ‘generative relationship’ can develop between the two of them. Obviously, this is a point of great strategic importance, for it suggests that the scaling-up of peer production does not presuppose a head-on collision with the entire capitalist class. On the contrary, the conclusion that Bauwens and his collaborators draw from this analysis is that the construction of alliances with ‘generative entrepreneurs’ constitutes an indispensable part of the economic struggle of peer producers (Bauwens et al. 2019, Bauwens & Kostakis 2015, Kostakis & Bauwens 2014). In their view, in fact, only by creating a supportive network of such alliances, which will allow them to transform the correlation of forces in the matrix of the economy, will peer producers ever become the leading force in it.
That does not mean, however, that alliances are a panacea. On the contrary, Bauwens and his collaborators highlight several points of rupture with capital, upon which there can be no reconciliation. As we will see in more detail in section 3.2.4, one of the main points of rupture concerns the practices of ‘enclosure and commodification of the immaterial: knowledge, culture, DNA, airwaves, even ideas,’ which are characteristic of the modus operandi of the class of cognitive capitalists (Kostakis & Bauwens 2014: 20). Obviously, as Kostakis and Bauwens point out, it is impossible to reconcile the practices or the interests of peer producers with those of cognitive capitalists. Consequently, they are at loggerheads with each other. Another point of rupture with Capital has to do with the exploitation of user communities by the proprietary platforms of the so-called ‘sharing economy.’ The main problem in this case is that the activities of users produce value, which is appropriated exclusively by the platform owners and administrators. This ‘extraction of value’ from user communities, as Kostakis and Bauwens (2014: 23) write, creates a highly antagonistic relation ‘since the value creators are not rewarded’. Obviously then, in the context of that relation, there can be no space for the construction of alliances.
According to Bauwens et al. (2019: 35), the adversaries of peer producers are those agents of Capital that are bound up with ‘extractive’ business models, that is, those who ‘impoverish the natural and community resources they use.’ Against that kind of capitalists, the economic struggle of peer producers assumes a decidedly antagonistic form of confrontation. Characteristically, they have developed strategies (which we will discuss in section 3.2.3) in order to force free-riding capitalists to ‘reciprocate.’ Yet, the antagonistic character of the relation between peer producers and capital is nowhere more pronounced than in the case of their struggle against the platform capitalists of the so-called sharing economy. As we shall see in sections 3.2.6–3.2.7, the way in which peer producers antagonize these proprietary platforms is by organizing themselves into commons-oriented ‘platform cooperatives.’ From the perspective of Bauwens et al., this is a crucial strategy for their struggle: by setting up platform cooperatives for their livelihoods, peer producers break their bonds of dependence on the capitalist economy.
At the same time, they become cooperators and that unites them with the present-day Cooperative Movement. Thus, their ‘mutation’ into agents of the cooperative economy opens up the possibility for the construction of a strong alliance with the New Cooperative Movement, which, as the P2PF theorists argue, is bound to play a very important role in the struggle of peer producers for economic hegemony.
Summarizing the analysis of Bauwens and his collaborators in a few paragraphs would only be possible at the expense of downplaying many crucial details. As of the time of writing this Report, it is undoubtedly the most thorough analysis of the struggle of peer producers for economic hegemony. As such, it calls for an elaborate discussion. Prior to delving more deeply into the content of that analysis, however, we deemed it useful to underline some of its characteristics, which will allow us to better understand it. From what we have said so far, it must be obvious that an important aspect of this analysis lies in the distinction it makes between allies and enemies. In effect, what the analysis does is separate the friends from the foes. That is the main question for P2PF theorists: who is on the side of peer producers and who is against them? Hence, their analysis divides economic agents into two antagonistic camps. On the one side, there is the ‘ethical economy’ of peer producers along with commons-friendly ‘generative entrepreneurs.’ On the other side, there are only enemies. In that sense, the analysis of P2PF theorists is political par excellence.
However, the political character of the analysis of P2PF theorists does not consist solely in the distinction between allies and enemies. We should not forget that the theorists of peer production are simultaneously the chief proponents of the project of a postcapitalist society of the commons, whose institution presupposes the demise of the existing regime. Obviously, this project is their conscious choice and position. And like any project for a new society, this project, too, expresses a political stance and leads to a political action. Animated by that project, then, the analysis of P2PF theorists does not only aim to interpret the given historical reality. Rather, its ultimate goal is to transform it towards a specific direction. As Bauwens (2005) says, ‘the aim of peer to peer theory is to give a theoretical underpinning to the transformative practices of these movements [of commoners and peer producers]. It is an attempt to create a radical understanding that a new kind of society, based on the centrality of the Commons...is in the realm of human possibility.’ Of course, as he clarifies immediately afterwards, ‘a crucial element of such a peer to peer theory would be the development of tactics and strategy for such transformative practice’ (Bauwens 2005; emphasis added).
To put it another way, we should not forget that the struggle of peer producers is a struggle in which theorists are actively engaged. Their role in that struggle is not purely theoretical in the traditional sense of the term. In fact, the involvement of peer production theorists is more akin to that of an intellectual vanguard of the movement centered on ‘the development of tactics and strategy’ (Bauwens 2005). That is something we should keep at the back of our mind when we discuss their analysis of peer producers’ struggle for economic hegemony in the next section of the report. It is important to remember that for theorists such as Bauwens and his collaborators at the P2PF, the theory of peer production is not just a scientific analysis; it is also the ideology and the strategy uniting the commoners and giving a sense of direction to their struggles.
Having clarified that point, let us now look at the analysis of the digital commons theorists and how it substantiates their thesis that peer production has the ‘potential to succeed capitalism as the core value and organizational model of a post-capitalist society’ (Bauwens 2012)." (http://heteropolitics.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Digital-Commons.pdf)
"One of the most important contributions of the P2PF theorists to the debates on the sharing economy is the emphasis they put on the potentially subversive character of platform cooperatives as means of organization for the transition towards postcapitalism. For Bauwens and his colleagues from the P2PF, the importance of platform cooperatives goes well beyond the question of humanizing the labour conditions of platform workers and redistributing the wealth of the sharing economy. Such platforms, in their view, can give a strong impetus to the further development of peer production in the online realm, catalyzing new structures of peer governance and peer property.
Platform cooperatives, in short, can be instrumentalized as agents of the new paradigm of value creation constituted by commons-based peer production. To perform this transformative role, however, platform cooperatives must be oriented towards the commons. As Bauwens and his colleagues clarify, a negative feature of traditional cooperatives is that they are not actively engaged in the production of the commons (Bauwens & Kostakis 2014, Pazaitis et al. 2017a). As they explain, the problem is that cooperatives that work within the capitalist marketplace tend to gradually adopt competitive mentalities, and even when they do not, they chiefly operate for the benefit of their own members. They usually have to rely on the patent and copyright system to protect their collective ownership and may often self-enclose around their local or national membership (Pazaitis et al. 2017a).
From this point of view, cooperatives are not likely to evolve into a vehicle for the transcendence of capitalism if their products do not differ from those of their competitors in terms of their property character. To fulfill that purpose, in addition to democratizing the workplace and the management of production, cooperatives must be agents of democratization of the access to the fruits of production. To put it simply, cooperatives should not produce closed/proprietary products as the capitalists do. On the contrary, what they produce should be a commons. By producing commons, cooperatives do not only affirm their social relevance, but they also strengthen the ‘counter-hegemonic movement’ of commoners and the development of ‘a commonsoriented counter-economy’ that could challenge the rule of capital (Pazaitis et al. 2017a). That is why peer production theorists insist on the significance of the commons in the context of the development of platform cooperatives. By edging platform cooperatives on the path of the commons, they aspire to engender the enabling conditions for the diffusion of peer production and the expansion of the commons-based economy.
We should not forget that under existing conditions, peer producers and commoners are dependent upon the capitalist system for their sustainability. For most of them, ‘commoning,’ to use a term popularized by historian Peter Linebaugh (2008), is an activity in which they are engaged without any form of remuneration. A small minority makes a living by working at capitalist firms like IBM or Google, which profit by incorporating the digital commons into their own products and services. The fact that the majority of commoners find it impossible to sustain themselves directly through their engagement with the commons is extremely pertinent, as it implies that the commons ecosystem is not autonomous from the capitalist system, upon which it depends for its reproduction. For Bauwens and his colleagues, this is a strategic weakness that can and must be addressed through the development of commons-oriented platform cooperatives, which they call ‘open cooperatives’ (Bauwens & Kostakis 2014; 2016, Pazaitis et al. 2017a). By making it possible for commoners and peer producers to capture the value of their platform-mediated productive activities, such open cooperatives will help to ‘emancipate [peer production] from the confines of the dominant system,’ rendering it a[n autonomous] system of value creation that can antagonize Capital (Pazaitis et al. 2017a). For the digital commons theorists, that is precisely where the subversive potential of platform cooperatives lies." (http://heteropolitics.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Digital-Commons.pdf)
"In any case, the manner in which the concept of the Partner State has been theorized since the early 2010s signals a shift of emphasis in the digital commons literature towards the political. We should keep in mind that the Partner State strategy constitutes a rather recent addition to the arsenal of commoners and peer producers. Prior to the 2010s, there was hardly any mention of the role of political struggle in the analysis by which the theorists of the digital commons substantiated the argument that peer production has the potential to transcend capitalism. Presumably, commoners did not need to worry too much about politics, as, in the view of the theorists, the decisive terrain of struggle was that of the economy (see e.g. Bauwens 2009: 135-137). Of course, as one would expect, peer production theorists have been fiercely criticized for downplaying the role of political struggle in the process of social transformation. Indicatively, Kioupkiolis reproaches them for downplaying the importance of political struggles by putting forward a technocratic vision of social change in which technological, legal and entrepreneurial fixes are the main catalysts of historical transformation (see Report 2. The Common). For political theorists such as Kioupkiolis, the problem with the early work of peer production theorists rests on its affinity with that well-known axiom of Marxism, which, by holding that the ‘superstructure’ of political institutions is merely a reflection of the ‘economic base,’ has been construed as implying that political struggles are insignificant in comparison to economic struggles.
On their part, peer production theorists have tried to fend off that critique by arguing that ‘a critical mass of initiatives needs to be operating before political action can be summoned and relevant institutions can be designed’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 64). Be that as it may, the experience of the first decade of the 21st century convinced them that it is not possible to ‘change society merely by producing open code and design’ (Bauwens & Kostakis 2015). Because obviously, if the economy was all that mattered, then the phenomenal success of the Linux operating system, which has been established for some time now as the undisputed market leader for operating systems, would have resulted in the demise of capitalism in the software industry. On top of that, the rise of new municipalist movements in the mid-2010s made them rethink their Partner State strategy. As a result of that re-conceptualization of their strategy on the basis of the experiences of Barcelona en Comú and the Bologna Regulation, the recent (post-2015) work of peer production theorists is characterized by a rejection of crudely deterministic theories of social change that downplay the centrality of political struggle in the transition process to a new social order.
Quite simply, as Pazaitis and Drechsler (forthcoming) clarify, ‘a change of production alone cannot really transform society...the relationship between economics and politics is not linear, i.e. a radical change in the former is not necessarily followed by corresponding ones in the latter.’ On the contrary, ‘things can go many ways’ (Pazaitis & Drechsler, forthcoming). In fact, as Bauwens et al. (2019: 29) point out in their last book, ‘there have been many historical opportunities for such a transition, but capitalism has demonstrated high resilience as an economic system, adaptability as a cultural framework, and brutal force as a political apparatus.’ Consequently, then, the struggle of peer producers against the capitalists in the digital economy does not suffice to bring out radical social change. In order to really transform society, there is no other way: commoners must also struggle politically. For that reason, therefore, commoners should not underestimate the potential role of ‘the state as the agent for social reform and change’ (Pazaitis & Drechsler, forthcoming). That is precisely what gives the edge to the Partner State strategy: it constitutes a form of struggle through which state power can be put at the service of the commoners (Bauwens et al. 2019).
The re-appropriation of the State as an instrument of ‘revolutionary reforms’ is not an easy task. It would be absurd to propose that commoners can achieve it by themselves. Anyway, they do not need to. The Partner State is a form of struggle that presupposes the formation of alliances and coalitions among different types of political actors. As we underlined in our discussion of Barcelona en Comú, commons-oriented citizen platforms have proven to be capable of integrating political actors as diverse as social movements and traditional political parties. Their inherently pluralistic character consequently implies that they could serve as mobilization strategies for ‘the emergence of majoritarian coalitions in which the commons would be a binding element’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 66-67). As Bauwens et al. (2019: 66-67) believe, ‘the acceptance of a commons agenda could be the basis for new progressive coalitions with already existing political forces’ like the Pirates, the Greens and the contemporary New Left. In parallel, it could be the ‘substratum’ of commons-oriented municipal coalitions with social movements and civil society actors.
In this way, by establishing an alliance between all these political forces through a commons agenda, the commoners’ struggle takes on a pluralistic and mass character. Fueled by the momentum of such an alliance, their struggle becomes more diffuse and generalized, transcending thereby their hitherto particularistic interests. The escalation of the commoners’ struggle, therefore, hinges on the formation of alliances with other agents. At this point, the strength of the Partner State strategy becomes clearly visible: its emphasis on the construction of alliances as a fundamental principle makes it a hegemonic political strategy, which has the potential to unite a wide spectrum of social agents in support of the commons. At the same time, the Partner State approach does not simply establish an alliance between heterogeneous political actors but modifies the very identity of the participants in that alliance. Consequently, to the extent that the commonification of urban resources becomes a binding element in a municipal coalition, the various political actors engaging in it are effectively transformed into commoners. Even if they do not call themselves by that name, the fact that the commons have become a core part of their vision for the city speaks for itself. Of course, they are still Greens, municipalists or whatever they called themselves upon entering the alliance. But as the alliance itself is based on a commons agenda, the political identity of the actors engaged in it is infused with the values and principles of the commons. Hence, the social agents who participate in a commons-oriented municipal coalition, even if they do not identify themselves as commoners, effectively act as agents of a commons transition.
Let us recapitulate the main points of the foregoing analysis. According to peer production theorists, the struggle of commoners is not confined to the sphere of the digital economy, but extends to the field of political institutions, both systemic and nonsystemic. More specifically, commoners build their own autonomous institutions of governance, such as the Chambers and the Assemblies of the Commons. In this case, they antagonize the status quo by developing alternatives to systemic institutions, which allow them to organize themselves collectively (Bauwens & Kostakis 2015, Bauwens et al. 2019, Kostakis & Bauwens 2014).
In addition to setting up their own autonomous institutions, commoners antagonize systemic institutions from within. They organize themselves into citizen platforms such as Barcelona en Comú, which run for public office with the aim of taking municipal power into their own hands. Most importantly, in those cases where citizen platforms do succeed in taking control of the administrative apparatus of the city, they proceed to implement ‘revolutionary reforms,’ such as the commonification of urban resources. In that way, therefore, we could say that commoners recuperate systemic institutions from below. This strategy of re-appropriation of the State by the commoners is what peer production theorists call the Partner State (Bauwens et al. 2019, Pazaitis & Drechsler forthcoming).
However, the significance of the Partner State strategy does not rest solely on repurposing the State into an instrument of commonification. What is actually at stake here is the shape of the future. As peer production theorists underline, there is absolutely no guarantee of radical social change (Bauwens et al. 2019, Benkler 2006: 17-18). Hence, even if peer production becomes the dominant mode of production in the digital economy, there is no certainty that it will trigger a commons transition across the whole of society. But if ‘things can go many ways,’ as Pazaitis and Drechsler (forthcoming) put it, political action is then obviously necessary. In order to transform society, commoners must act politically. And that is precisely what they are trying to do through their participation in commons-oriented citizen platforms like Barcelona en Comú (Bauwens et al. 2019).
From one point of view, the Partner State strategy looks like a continuation of the economic struggle of commoners with other means. But it is actually much more than that, for the reason that the expansion of the scope of commoners’ struggle beyond the economic field implies the opening-up of their struggle to the whole of civil society. To put it another way, to the extent that the struggle of commoners remains confined to the economic field, it is condemned to marginality. That much is certain, according to peer production theorists. Quite simply, it is not possible to scale up peer production from the ‘micro-level’ to a ‘full social form’ without taking up the struggle in the terrain of politics. At the end of the day, a commons transition rests on the possibility of taking control of state power. As Bauwens et al. (2019: 42) tell us, ‘it is an illusion that such a development of the commons forces can be done with a hostile state.’ In the context of this struggle, institutions of municipal governance are of paramount importance. As ‘the city context appears more mature for a commons transition’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 65), the commoners organize themselves into citizen platforms like Barcelona en Comú with the purpose of taking control of municipal power.
In walking this path, commoners are not alone. The strength of citizen platforms lies in their capacity to mobilize a wide spectrum of actors in support of the commons. It is no coincidence that citizen platforms are invariably constituted by a coalition of forces: they do in fact constitute a strategy for organizing broad coalitions of social agents in the urban metropolises of the world today. By definition, therefore, citizen platforms are metropolitan alliances, which encompass actors as diverse as metropolitan movements and left-leaning political parties. The diversity and broadness of their social and political base constitute the real source of their strength. By virtue of uniting all these social agents, citizen platforms can accomplish more things than any of them, acting on their own, could. But aside from opening up the possibility of radical social change at the local level, the pluralism that lies at the base of citizen platforms makes them an ideal vehicle for a hegemonic strategy of the commoners’ movement. That is, above all, what confers upon citizen platforms their enormous strategic significance in the context of the commoners’ struggle: they are a prototype for the construction of a metropolitan alliance that is capable of uniting a large part of civil society around a commons agenda.
That is, in short, how the commoners antagonize the status quo in the realm of political institutions: they are engaged in setting up citizen platforms, which try to unite civil society in support of a commons agenda. These commons-oriented citizen platforms run for public office. Τheir plan is to take the apparatus of municipal governance into their hands and then put it to work in the service of their agenda. By means of that hegemonic strategy, as peer production theorists tell us, the ‘commoners could evolve to become the new ruling class’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 53). That is to say, the commoners can become the leading and dominant class to the extent that they succeed in setting up a structure of alliances, which will allow them to mobilize a critical mass of metropolitan actors against the injustices of neoliberal capitalism and the hierarchies of the bourgeois State. In section 3.3, following up on our discussion in section 3.2 of how commoners antagonize capital in the economic field, we looked at the form of their struggle on the institutional level. At this point, therefore, we have a complete picture of how commoners antagonize the status quo, according to peer production theorists. As we can see, their economic and political struggles have a common denominator, which lies in their strategy. Clearly, the commoners’ struggles, both economic and political, are based on a strategy of alliances with other forces. In the context of their economic struggle, as we discussed in section 3.2, their strategy is based primarily on the construction of a strong alliance with the new cooperative movement and commons-friendly entrepreneurs. Similarly, the strategy of their struggle in the institutional field is centered on the development of an anti-capitalist alliance with new municipalist/metropolitan movements and left-leaning political parties. In both cases, therefore, the creation of a structure of alliances plays a decisive role. Ultimately, commoners’ struggle against capitalism is inseparable from the practical implementation of that strategy of alliances." (http://heteropolitics.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Digital-Commons.pdf)
Summing up: Antagonisms and the struggle for hegemony
"In sections 3.2.1–3.2.8, we attempted to lay bare the rationale underlying the thesis that peer production has the potential to become hegemonic in the information economy. As we saw, digital commons theorists draw this conclusion from their analysis of how distributed networks (in general) and commons-based peer production (in specific) establish an antagonistic relation of forces among the various categories of economic agents in the digital economy. The mode of peer production, as they write, ‘should be seen as a challenge to capitalism and as a function of struggle and a balancing of forces’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 68). Their analysis is at the same time theoretical and strategic: it aims to ‘size up’ its opponents and develop strategies against them. Section 3.2 provided a synopsis of its main points.
First of all, according to this analysis, peer production communities are antagonistic towards several categories of economic agents:
(1) traditional technology companies based on ‘closed’ production models
(2) generative entrepreneurs (that is, businesses based on open innovation models)
(3) cognitive capitalists who depend on restrictive intellectual property rights
(4) netarchical capitalists (i.e., ‘sharing economy’ platforms)
(5) Bitcoin-type of distributed capitalists
By analyzing how these models are antagonized by peer production in the digital economy, we ascertained that some of them (e.g. the open innovation model) constitute strategies of adaptation to this antagonism, which succeed to some extent to harmonize the interests of the for-profit enterprises adopting them with those of the commoners. For example, traditional technology companies are antagonized by the mode of peer production. But as their production process is closed to actors outside the firm, they cannot tap into the productive potential of distributed networks and peer production communities. As a result, they can compete neither against them nor against rival capitalists that adopt crowdsourcing and open innovation models. Under these conditions, the only way they can survive is through the adoption of similar open innovation models, following thus the example of their competitors. Ultimately, by means of this strategy of adaptation, these entrepreneurs find a way to synergize with peer production communities. And so, they turn from competitors into potential allies of commoners and peer producers.
Such a business alliance, however, does not seem to be possible with any of the three categories of cognitive capitalists. In its classical form, cognitive capital is synonymous with the enclosure of the commons of knowledge and culture, which effectively precludes any type of generative relationship with commoners from ever developing. Although it is a powerful enemy with a strong influence upon the State, it is being undermined from within by economic agents which represent a more highly developed form of cognitive capital. As a consequence, the rapid development of these new variants -that is, the netarchical capitalists who own the platforms of the sharing economy, as well as the new generation of Bitcoin capitalists- marks the end of cognitive capitalism (as we knew it). In the final analysis then, the development of a synergistic relationship between peer production communities and cognitive capitalists of any type seems hardly feasible. But if that is so, how can commoners and peer producers antagonize the sharing economy platforms controlled by the netarchical capitalists? From a vantage point that is simultaneously theoretical and practical, peer production theorists find the answer in the development of cooperative platforms. As is in fact happening, in order to escape from exploitation, commoners are organizing themselves into ‘open’ (i.e. commonsproducing) cooperative platforms. That is how they antagonize in practice the capitalist platforms: by setting up their own jointly owned and democratically controlled platforms, which support the creation of dignified livelihoods for commoners. By enabling them to break their bonds of dependence with the capitalist economy, this type of platform cooperatives strengthens the autonomy of commons-based peer production from Capital (Pazaitis et al. 2017a).
In addition to antagonizing platform capitalists through the development of commons-oriented platform cooperatives, commoners are also antagonistic towards Bitcoin capitalists. The form of their struggle against Bitcoin, we could say (using Bauwens and Kostakis’ characterization), is prefigurative in the sense that commoners create practical alternatives to Bitcoin, which demonstrate that another trajectory of economic and technological development is possible. As Bauwens et al. (2019: 69) put it, this approach ‘stresses struggle through the construction of alternatives.’ In other words, commoners develop competing technologies, which show that digital currencies can be used in ways that contrast sharply with how the capitalists of the ‘Bitcoin universe’ have so far been using them. As peer production theorists remark, commoners develop and use digital currencies which, unlike Bitcoin, cannot be used as instruments of speculation and individual enrichment. A well-known example is the ECO, the digital currency used by tens of local exchange groups in Catalonia. As we mentioned in section 4.8 on ‘distributed capitalism,’ unlike Bitcoin, the ECO cannot be converted into regular currencies, which makes speculation impossible. Furthermore, it is locally grounded, which means that it is adapted to the specific needs of the local communities using it (Dafermos 2017).
In a similar vein, commoners demonstrate how the blockchain (one of Bitcoin’s core components) can be used to enable practices like open-value accounting, which, as we have seen, are supportive of peer production communities, promoting their ‘value sovereignty’ and enabling them to determine their own value standards, that is, what type of contributions are valuable to them and how to reward them (Troncoso & Utratel 2019). In sum, both commoners and Bitcoin capitalists make use of distributed networks and digital currencies to fulfill their purposes. But whereas Bitcoin capitalists put digital currencies into an anti-social use driven exclusively by the profit-motive, commoners appropriate them as enabling infrastructures for the collaborative organization of peer production projects. Let us draw the conclusions from the above analysis. Traditional technology companies are rapidly becoming obsolete due to their closed production models. They constitute a dwindling figure in the capitalist economy, whose only chance of survival rests on their capacity to open up their production process through the adoption of crowdsoucing and open innovation models. And so, by virtue of this transformation, they are led to the development of a generative relationship with peer production communities, which reconciles their hitherto antagonistic interests, making them allies. To put it bluntly, the model of traditional technology companies is bound to be eclipsed by the combined forces of peer production communities and business enterprises based on open innovation models. Similarly, as a result of its own anachronistic character, the classical (IP-dependent) model of cognitive capital is giving way to more evolved models that antagonize it from within.
However, the new variants of cognitive capital remain closely anchored in extractive business models. And so, there is no space for reconciliation between them and peer production communities. To antagonize them, commoners organize themselves into commons-oriented cooperatives and generative enterprises, which create dignified livelihoods for commoners, thereby strengthening the autonomy of peer production from the capitalist economy. In parallel, they develop strategies of transvestment, which are aimed at transferring value from the capitalist economy into the commons-based economy. And, lastly, as one would have good reason to expect from a mode of production that emerged in the field of technology, commoners antagonize Capital through the construction of alternatives to capitalist technologies. That is, in a nutshell, how the potential of peer production to become hegemonic in the realm of the information economy has been theorized in the literature.
There is, however, an important element in the analysis of peer production theorists that we have not yet touched upon. In the space of the last decade, they have become increasingly aware of the limitations attendant upon any commons transition strategy that does not take seriously into account the role of institutions. ‘In order to transcend capitalism,’ as Bauwens and Kostakis (2015) have come to realize, it is not enough ‘to create a sustainable ecosystem consisting of ethical markets, commoners and cooperatives.’ The reason is because that ecosystem, in spite of its productive superiority, ‘might not survive a hostile capitalist market and state without necessary changes at the macro-economic level’ (Bauwens & Kostakis 2015). The problem, in other words, is that ‘as long as we live in an unequal class-based society’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 52), in which capital holds sway over public institutions, there is always the danger that ‘the state can favour capitalist development, expropriations and repression and its own mediations can leave the commons playing a relatively subordinated role, that of reducing the cost of social reproduction to the state and capital’ (De Angelis 2017: 303). As a matter of fact, therefore, peer-to-peer economic relations can be undermined...[and] distorted by the extraeconomic means of a political context designed to maintain profit-driven relations of production into power. This subversion can arguably become a state policy, and the subsequent outcome is the full absorption of the Commons as well as of the underpinning peer-to-peer relations into the dominant mode of production (Kostakis & Stavroulakis 2013).
Consequently, the sustainability of the commons ecosystem presupposes de facto the development of supportive institutions ‘on the macro-economic level’ (Bauwens & Kostakis 2015). From the early 2010s onwards, as we shall see, the work of peer production theorists has been characterized by an acute awareness of the strategic role that such institutions could play in the struggle of commoners and peer producers against the hegemony of Capital. That is the subject of the next section of the report.
The struggle for political power and the hegemonic strategy of the commoners’ movement
In section 3.2 we discussed how digital commons theorists substantiate the thesis that peer production has the potential to become the dominant mode of production in the digital economy, thereby transcending capitalism. As we remarked in section 3.2.9, peer production theorists have become increasingly more emphatic over the past few years about the importance of supportive institutions ‘on the macro-economic level,’ which have taken on a strategic role in their commons transition proposals as a countervailing force against the influence of capital over systemic institutions.
In this section, we will discuss the character and the form of these institutions, laying particular emphasis on how they are integrated into ‘the development of tactics and strategy’ (Bauwens 2005) for the struggle of commoners and peer producers against capital. As we shall see, the forms of the struggle undertaken by their movement pass through both systemic and non-systemic institutions. On the one side, the commoners movement is engaged in the development of autonomous alternative institutions, such as the so-called Assemblies and Chambers of Commons, which focus on the economic interests of peer producers and commons-friendly entrepreneurs (Bauwens et al. 2019). On the other side, the struggle of commoners passes through systemic institutions. Characteristically, commoners organize themselves in ‘citizen platforms’ (such as Barcelona en Comú, which governed the city of Barcelona from 2015 until 2019), which aspire to take control of local power in order to implement ‘revolutionary reforms,’ such as the commonification of urban resources (Bauwens et al. 2019).
State institutions, as peer production theorists have come to emphasize in recent years, constitute a terrain of struggle of decisive importance. Realizing their significance, they developed the theory of the ‘Partner State,’ which, as we shall see, has evolved into a full-blown hegemonic strategy of the commoner class. That is to say, the concept of the Partner State has been ‘weaponized’ over time, turning into a strategy of alliances with other forces on the institutional level, which, according to P2PF theorists, is key to setting off a post-capitalist transition.
But prior to discussing the emergence of the Partner State concept in the work of peer production theorists and how it evolved into a hegemonic strategy of the commoners movement, let us look at the non-systemic institutions that the community of commoners and peer producers developed over the last decade in order to promote its interests.
A characteristic example of the kind of non-systemic institutions that the movement of commoners and peer producers has been busy with over the last decade are the so-called Chambers and Assemblies of Commons. The idea of setting up a ‘Chamber of Commons’ was originally proposed by David Ronfeldt in 2012 as a commons-oriented alternative to Chambers of Commerce. By emulating the function of the latter, Chambers of Commons would cater for the interests of commons-friendly entrepreneurs. The idea drew the attention of Bauwens, prompting him to propagandize it through the P2PF. Underscoring the significance of such institutions to the nascent commoners’ movement, Bauwens (2013) supplemented Ronfeldt’s proposal with the concept of the ‘Assembly of Commons.’ In the same way that Chambers of Commons could represent the interests of the regional ecosystem of commons-friendly entrepreneurs, Assemblies of Commons could function as a direct-democratic forum for local communities of commoners. As a result of that agitation, in 2015 a group of sympathizers in Chicago were mobilized to set up a Chamber of Commons in their city (Troncoso 2015), while ‘several Assemblies of Commons begun to emerge...in Lille, Toulouse, Brest and several other big cities in France’ (Bauwens & Ramos 2016). Concurrently, various groups began to experiment with the organization of such Assemblies in other cities, such as Gent (Belgium), Melbourne (Australia), Berlin (Germany), London (UK) and Amsterdam (Netherlands; Wiki des Communs 2018). These molecular processes in the milieu of the commoners’ movement intensified in the following year with the organization of the first meeting of the European Commons Assembly in Brussels on 15-17 November 2016, which drew about a hundred activists from all over the world, including some sympathetic members of the European Parliament.
Since then, various commons activists, such as P2PF director Stacco Troncoso, have propagandized the idea at big events and conferences, like the 4th European Social & Solidarity Economy Congress in Athens in June 2017, the international summit ‘Fearless Cities’ in Barcelona in June 2017 and the Transeuropa Festival in Madrid in October 2017.
Nevertheless, the development of autonomous institutions like the Chambers and Assemblies of the Commons does not constitute the only ‘macro-economic’ strategy by which peer production theorists and commons activists aspire to strengthen the ecosystem of peer production communities and commons-friendly entrepreneurs.
Hacking the State
Systemic institutions of political power constitute another important terrain of struggle in which the commoners are actively engaged. To begin with, commoners participate in parliamentary struggles through new political parties, such as the Pirate Party, which is a running candidate in the national elections for government in several European countries. Although the content of its program varies from country to country, the fact that its basic political demand invariably revolves around the right of citizens to copy digital files and share them via the Internet resonates with the feelings of the commoners’ community. This common ground, in the view of peer production theorists, makes the ‘Pirates’ an obvious ally of the commoners in their struggle against cognitive capitalists (Bauwens et al. 2019).
At the same time, and even more subversively, commoners struggle to ‘hack’ the institutions of state power from within with the aim of transforming them into ‘partner institutions.’ On this point, it is instructive to look at how the terrain of that struggle -that is, the State- has been theorized in the digital commons literature. In general, the State is conceived as a datum of present reality, something akin to a necessary evil (Bauwens et al. 2019, Benkler 2006: 20-28, Pazaitis & Drechsler forthcoming; cf. Bollier 2016).
Bauwens et al.’s recently published Peer-to-Peer: The Commons Manifesto (2019) is paradigmatic of this conception of the State. In the book, Bauwens et al. (2019: 58) expound the view that infrastructural organizations like the Linux Foundation ‘operate as mini-states of the CBPP ecosystems.’ This is not to say that they have the powers or the functions usually ascribed to modern governments. The characterization ‘mini-states’ simply indicates that they ‘enable the infrastructure of collaboration’ undergirding peer production. As we mentioned in section 3.2.3, infrastructural organizations like the Linux Foundation constitute a crucial supportive structure for the commons-based ecosystem of value creation. Thus, given their significance in the framework of peer production projects, Bauwens and his collaborators deduce that the scaling-up of the commons ecosystem into ‘a full social form’ requires the formation of similarly enabling institutions at the state-level, which would ideally ‘empower and enable the direct creation of value by civil society...by creating and sustaining infrastructures for CBPP ecosystems’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 58-59). That is what they call the ‘Partner State:’ a systemic institution, which enables the expansion of the mode of peer production by strengthening the capacity of citizen participation in commons-oriented projects." (http://heteropolitics.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Digital-Commons.pdf)