Interview with Michel Bauwens on Peer-to-Peer and Marxism

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The interview was conducted by Belgian journalist Jean Lievens, who wrote a review of my p2p teach in at #OWS London.

For a video of the lecture, see: Michel Bauwens OWS London Tent University Teach In on P2P and the Commons

Dutch-language profile by Jean Lievens in on the occasion of the Tent City lecture: Occupy London krijgt bezoek van visionaire Belg.

Orsan Senalp writes:

"We are posting a critically timed and very important interview on P2P-Marxism nexus. Conducted by Jean Lievens with the founder of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives Michel Bauwens on some aspects of his P2P theory and Marxist theory, the interview might be the opening of the greatest debate of coming years. While the rising ‘mode of P2P Production’ and new P2P political processes have obviously overdetermined the massive social change process that came about in 2011, with the contribution of such productive debate we would be able to get much clearer projections on real alternatives to capitalism, and how to make these alternatives happen. In the aftermath of the death of the ‘postmodern condition’ and with the return of the ‘class warfare’ , such debate would level the field for a constructive engagement between marxist, anarchist, and post-marxist critical traditions." (


Jean Lievens:

"Last month I was in London where I attempted a lecture by Michel Bauwens on peer-to-peer dynamics. I wrote an article in Dutch for ‘De Wereld Morgen’, the main online newspaper of ‘civil journalists’ (but it has a professional editorial board and the project is financially supported by the trade unions). Fortunaletly, there is a edited version of the lecture on vimeo.

After the lecture, I contacted Michel for an interview that I want to publish here in the hope to start a constructive discussion on P2P and Marxism.

1. We all know examples of P2P in the immaterial field: Linux, Wikipedia, Arduino. Can you give some examples of P2P in the ‘real’, material world, i.e. in the field of production?

Arduino is already an example touching on material production since the collaboratively designed motherboards are already produced and sold on the market by companies using the Arduino trademark. An example I really like is the Nutrient Dense Project, a collaborative research network of farmers and citizen scientists that directly use nutrient research in their own immediate production. One of the most exciting areas is probably that of so-called open source cars, like the Rallye Motor and the Darpa-funded XC2V marine assault vehicle, the latter which is based on an input of more than 30,000 designs. The StreetScooter, an electric car based on a corporate design commons with over 50 companies participating is perhaps most exciting, since the orders have already rolled in and the car should be driving in German cities by 2013. In the p2pfoundation wiki section on Product Hacking (, we've annotated nearly 300 open hardware projects but they are just the tip of the iceberg. It helps to distinguish the design phase, where crowd sourcing and collaboration are not qualitatively different from software collaboration, from the phase of 'making', which would require an infrastructure for open and distributed manufacturing which is only marginally available. But in the field of making we have exciting developments towards shared material infrastructures such as co-working and hacker spaces, product-service systems for car sharing and many other services, and the miniaturization of production via 3D Printing and Fab Labs, all of which also have open source versions and aspects.

2. You compare the transition from capitalism to P2P with the transition from slavery to feudalism, or with feudalism to capitalism. In both cases there was a mutual change from the top and the bottom. In London you only dwelled on the first one: slaves leaving the system and slave owners turning slaves into serves who were better off than before, but what about the transition from feudalism to capitalism? There was the birth of a new class and the transformation from noblemen to capitalists, but you can hardly say that workers were better off than before. So where is the positive change from the bottom?

A transition from one form of unequal class society to another is always problematic for the value producing classes at the bottom. One can argue that serfhood is an inherently better position than slavery but it was still exploitation and dominance, and many serfs had been free farmers before. The situation with capitalism is not that different, though there was, and is, a lot of hardship, the formal rights of workers are certainly an improvement, and at least for the western working class, there has been for a long while, substantial material improvement. But overall, the systems transitioned because the old system was no longer sustainable and the new one was overall more efficient in creating material riches. It all depends on the social contract and the relative strength of the forces at play. Strong labour movements have tremendously improved the situation of working people, and the situation in the Middle Ages between the 10th and the 13th century was also one of improving living standards. So the record is always mixed and the people themselves usually have a pretty clear picture of what needs to be improved. For example, what worker would want to a return to serfhood as a social condition? Since I have difficulties in imagining a classless society myself, I see peer producers in conflict with netarchical capital about their social condition, rights, and material livelihoods, until the moment that peer producers become the core social layer, and the commons the locus of core value creation. This is not a scientific scenario with a certain and unavoidable ending but rather a description of the field of tension in which peer production develops.

3. To continue this analogy: do you see a new class arising under capitalism, or a sort of ‘enlightened capitalists’ turning to open source (as described in Wikinomics)?

Increasingly the commons is and will be the core of value creation, but value is still essentially captured by market economy, and netarchical capital is the fraction of capital which understands that change and want to profit from it. This means they have both to enable and empower social production, but also subject it to their own control, so that they can capture the value that is generated. The first part forces them to a certain type of strategic behaviour that fosters sharing, while the second requirement forces them to maintain a general context of continued dominance. This is in essence the new social tension of the emerging p2p age, between communities of peer producers and the platform owners. The key for peer producers is to gain control of their own livelihoods and social reproduction, and in my view this can best be done by creating their own cooperative/corporate vehicles, which I call, following Neil Stephenson in the Diamond Age and the suggestions, "Phyllis", i.e. community-supportive entities that allow commoners to sustain their work in the commons, and to substract it from the mainstream economy of profit-maximization.

4. Can you see a parallel between P2P and the cooperative movement born in the eighteenth century (utopian socialism), or with the hippies and the communes in the sixties?

The communal impulse is one of the permanent aspects of humanity, which ebbs and flows according to social conditions, and I think we are witnessing a revival of this impulse. However, there is a big difference, cooperative forms of organization can now work around open design commons and become hyper-innovative, and can obtain economies of scope to outcooperate shareholder-based multinations. Cooperatives and intentional communities are therefore no longer 'dwarfish forms' but actually the vanguard of the new p2p production system. If you combine shared open innovation commons (instead of privatized intellectual property which holds back innovation), with these new product-maximizing and commons-maximizing entities, you can obtain a quantum leap in productivity. This is why netarchical capitalists invest in platforms, and this is why the alternative ethical economy needs to do the same, and if they do, they could replace the for-profit corporation at the heart of our economy.

5. If you say that we need to prepare an alternative to capitalism, is the P2P-movement not a sort of ‘escapism’?

Infinite growth is not possible in a finite environment, and we are now reaching the limits of growth. This means that capitalism is increasingly unable to grow its way out of its problems and that the share of the 1% can only grow through dispossion, and this is what we are now witness in Europe, with Greece an advance example of what is in store for the working populations. So it is not a matter of escapism, the old system is dying and will be replaced, but it could be replaced by something worse, it could regress like in the early centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, or it could reorganize itself to a higher level of achievement and complexity, which is what the p2p approach indicates.

6. You describe #Occupy as an example of peer producing political commons. In what way is this different from historical ‘anarchist’ or ‘communist’ movements like the Paris Commune, Barcelona 1937, or perhaps even the Russian Revolution?

If you observe an occupation, you see a community that is producing its politics autonomously, not following hierarchical or authoritarian political movements with a pre-ordained program; you see for-benefit institutions in charge of the provisioning of the occupiers (food, healthcare), and the creation of an ethical economy around it (such as Occupy's Street Vendor Project). This is prefigurative of a new form of society in which the commons is at the core of value creation; these commons' are maintained by non-profit institutions, and the livelihoods are guaranteed through an ethical economy. Of course there are historical precedents, but what is new is the extraordinary organisational, mobilization and co-learning potential of their networks. Occupy works as an open API with modules, such as 'protest camping', 'general assemblies', which can be used as templates and modified by all, without the need for central leadership. We can now have global coordination and mutual alignment of a multitude of small-group dynamics, and this requires a new type of leadership. The realization of historical moment of Peak Hierarchy, the moment in which distributed networks asymmetrically challenge vertical institutions in a way they could not do before, forces social movements to look for new ways of governance... but these are not given, and have to be discovered experimentally, and of course, there will be valuable lessons to learn from predecessor movements!

8. In order for P2P to really blossom, we need to get rid of intellectual property rights, copyrights, patents, etc. How do you think we can achieve this?

I'm personally not a pure abolitionist, because I believe a lot of artists and creators believe in the necessity of author's rights, so I think we can do number things. Bring back protection to reasonable amounts of time, no more than the original 14 years of protection, or less, the Pirate Party proposes a five-year limit. Next is to offer choice to creators, by popularising choice-based licenses such as the Creative Commons. But the priority is to find new ways to fund creation ... this can be done through collective licensing and other forms of public funding, promoting and sustaining open business models, and ultimately, through a basic income, which recognizes that, every citizen is a value contributor and creator. These goals can be achieved partly through the social innovation that results from peer production communities, who are intensively experiment with open business models, and partly through stronger social and political movements, such as the free culture movement, the Pirate Parties, and other expressions of the new sharing culture.

9. It seems to me that P2P is creating a sort of ‘whole new world’, but without any references or links to the present political system. If Occupy represents an alternative was to engage in politics, what is the link between peer politics and bourgeois democracy and political parties?

That is a very difficult question and results from a paradox. One is the increasing social awareness that our present democracy is a facade, and that the state has been taken over by a predatory financial faction, while classic politicians see no other way out than to succumb to their blackmail. But the other side is that people's freedoms and rights and private and social income is increasingly under pressure, which leads to political and social mobilization as well as effective policy engagement. The first aspect leads to continuous democratic innovation from the new p2p culture, think about the peer governance mechanisms in peer production communities; new inventions such as dynamic voting, and while these mechanisms operate outside the mainstream, they are also embedded in the new forms of value creation, new p2p social institutions, and therefore, poised to grow. The second aspect leads to new political and social forces that work within the present system, such as the emerging Pirate Party. In Brazil, I heard that the vibrant Eixo do Foro cultural movement, which has a functioning counter-economy around music, is also politicising and engaging with local politics. The second leads to what I call diagonal politics, i.e. mutual adaptation between emerging p2p forces and practices, and the old institutional realities. To the degree that this is ineffective, it pushes from the solution coming from the first aspect, i.e. prepares for a more radical and revolutionary re-ordering of our institutions. Tellingly, a Swedish pirate party member once wrote that the Pirate Party is the last chance to avoid revolution. To the degree that the present system refuses adaptation, to that degree they heighten the need and push for more radical transformations.

10. How do you estimate the impact of P2P on the labour movement? Doesn’t it also undermine the bureaucratic structures of workers organisations?

I'm in touch with young labour and union activist who are strong believers in networked labour movements and we also see how the Occupy movement has already radicalized the U.S. labour movement. But ultimately, the old institutional and hierarchical structure of the unions, as well as their increasing inability to protect social achievements within the present regressive system, must also lead to a profound renewal of the labour movement. In a way, the p2p movement is actually an expression of the new dominant layer of cognitive workers, who in the West are the mainstay of productive labour. P2P is their culture and what needs to happen to do productive and useful work. In that sense, the P2P movement is the new labour movement of the 21st century, with the Indignados and Occupy as the first expression of that new labour but also civic, sensibility.

11. You claim that P2P makes a new, ‘higher’ form of society possible. Before, that was not the case because the technology did not exist. Marxists make this claim already for more than 150 years. Do you think they were wrong then, perhaps correct today, or it P2P something ‘completely different’?

I consider Marxism, and the other forms of socialism and anarchism, ultimately as an expression of a dichotomy within the industrial capitalist system, and proposing other logics to manage the industrial model. But P2P is the expression of the evolving class and social dynamics under cognitive capitalism. And while the former was essentially anti-capitalist, and could not really point to a new hyperproductive model of organising production (socialism was a hypothesis, and its real life examples inevitably disappointed, there was no emergent socialism within capitalism and only 'state capitalism' outside of it), what is different for the p2p movement is that it can point out to already existing models that are outcooperating and outcompeting classic capitalist models, i.e. it is already post-capitalist. Marx was right about capitalism, but wrong about socialism and I believe the politically driven model of social change, when not based on an existing prior new productive model, was ill-conceived. The P2P movement is therefore poised to realize what the 19th and 20th century social movements couldn't, because the hyperproductive alternative was not available to them. The politics of P2P flow from an already existing social practice, that is a really key difference." (