Political Turn of Peer Production Theory

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George Dafermos:

"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)

==The Struggle of the Commoners in the Realm of the Economy

George Dafermos:

"We discussed the strategies that peer production theorists have developed for the transition towards a commons-based economy. As we saw, they place particular emphasis on the alliances that the commoners will have to build in order to be able to antagonize capital. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that these alliances constitute the core of the commoners’ strategy against the status quo. In this section we will examine the issues, that are practical as much as they are conceptual, raised by that strategy of alliances and we will try to explore, from the perspective of Heteropolitics, how it contributes to a re-conceptualization of the political and the common in tandem.

To begin with, the strategy proposed by peer production theorists revolves around two main axes. To put it simply, it is made up of two sub-strategies. One of them pertains to the realm of the economy and the alliances that the commoners must engage in with other economic agents in order to establish peer production as the dominant mode of production. The other strategy (i.e. the ‘partner state’) focuses on the state, putting weight on the alliances that the commoners must build with other social and political forces in order to invade state institutions and then deeply transform them from within. For the sake of clarity, let us look first at the issues raised by that strategy in the realm of the economy.

Let us recall the key elements of the commoners’ strategy in the realm of the economy.

As we explained in section 3.2, the strategy puts much weight on the creation of a structure of alliances with the new cooperative movement and commons-friendly entrepreneurs. The rationale underlying that strategy -that is, the reason why alliances are of such importance- comes down to the fact that the commons ecosystem depends on the capitalist economy for its reproduction. To put it simply, peer producers have livelihood needs, which under current conditions they cannot meet through the sphere of the commons. Like all human beings, they too need food, clothing and shelter to sustain themselves. In capitalist societies, however, these goods are not available through the commons sphere. Τhey are commodities and as such, one needs money to procure them through the capitalist market. In other words, the problem, as matters stand today, is that peer producers ‘are not nourished by their own product’ (Victor 2003), that is, they ‘cannot live on their own produce’ (Seaman 2003). And so, insofar as they cannot meet their (basic, at least) needs through the commons, they remain dependent on the capitalists and their commodities. But that, of course, implies that they also need money, since the capitalists do not usually give their products away for free.

The problem, in short, is that peer producers cannot sustain themselves through the commons ecosystem. They need goods that are not available through the commons sphere, which means that they need money in order to procure those goods through the market. Under these circumstances, therefore, neither the commons (as an economic ecosystem) nor the commoners (as individual producers) can be considered self-sustainable. But if the commoners are dependent on the capitalist system for their sustainability, then how could they aspire to transcend it?

Undoubtedly, for as long as the commoners remain locked in this situation, it would be absurd to harbor any hopes of transcending capitalism. That is, in the last instance, the reason why the theorists of peer production have come up with a strategy that is designed to expand the commons sphere as well as to strengthen the sustainability of the commoners in the here and now. The strategy, as we have seen, proposes that peer producer communities partner up with businesses that synergize with the digital commons ecosystem and have therefore an economic interest in its sustainability. P2PF theorists call these economic agents ‘generative entrepreneurs’ to highlight the fact that they take from the commons, but they also give back to them. In specific, they reciprocate in three ways. They release their own products under free/open-source licenses. Second, they provide funding to non-profit infrastructural organizations like the Linux Foundation, which enable the infrastructure of collaboration underpinning peer production. And, thirdly, they provide paid employment for peer producers. In this way, these capitalist entrepreneurs make a key contribution to the commons. By distributing their products under free/open licenses, they expand the commons sphere. At the same time, by providing paid work for peer producers, they strengthen their economic sustainability. That is basically the sense in which they constitute strategic allies of the commoners movement: they contribute to the expansion of the commons sphere and create livelihoods for peer producers, strengthening thereby their sustainability.

The limits of the above strategy are more than obvious. No matter what peer production theorists call them, it does not change the fact that these entrepreneurs are nonetheless capitalists. So, by relying on these businesses in order to sustain themselves, peer producers remain in effect dependent on capitalist firms, which are in the hands of others. That means they remain dependent on organizational entities which are not controlled by them, but by corporate hierarchies of managers and other professional experts. This strategy, then, though it strengthens their sustainability here and now, does not really enhance their autonomy. Consequently, its main weakness is that it does not help the commoners to organize themselves autonomously.

Peer production theorists are not blind to this problem. As they admit themselves, the fact that peer producers can make ends meet by getting a job at a commons-friendly company does not mean that they do not need to develop their own autonomous organizations. On the contrary, a point that Bauwens et al. (2019: 18) emphasize time and again is that peer producers must ‘build their [own] vehicles to create livelihoods while producing the commons.’ In practical terms, they encourage peer producers to set up their own jointly owned and democratically controlled organizations, that is, to organize themselves into cooperatives. By following that course of action, as they write, peer producers will enhance their autonomy: they will no longer depend on a capitalist employer for putting food on the table. In parallel, they will be able to ‘reinvest the surplus in the well-being of themselves and the overall commons system they coproduce’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 18). In a nutshell, the development of commons-oriented cooperatives can ‘create the conditions for...commoners to emancipate themselves [from wage labour] and earn their livelihood through their contributions’ to the commons (Bauwens et al. 2019: 17).

Certainly, by organizing themselves into cooperatives, peer producers will enhance their autonomy. That is for sure. Thanks to their collective ownership and control of the enterprise of which they are working members, cooperators are by definition more autonomous than wage workers vis-à-vis capital. This is all well and good, but does it actually lead to a post-capitalist transition? Many doubt so. For Marxists such as Jakob Rigi (2014), the development of commons-oriented cooperatives may be part of the solution, but it is definitely not a panacea. In order to create the conditions for a postcapitalist transition process, a much ‘broader revolutionary peer produced movement that aims at replacing capitalism with peer production’ is required (Rigi 2014: 402). Rigi agrees that commons-oriented cooperatives can play an important role in that revolutionary movement, but only with the qualification that they ‘work against the market and money and break with them’ (Rigi 2014: 397). From his point of view, therefore, peer producers must do more than just organize themselves into cooperatives; these ‘cooperatives must be revolutionary’ as well. This requires of them, as we said, to ‘reduce their relations to [the capitalist market] to an absolutely unavoidable necessary minimum’ (Rigi 2014: 390). Ideally then, these cooperatives do not sell their products and services as the capitalists do with their commodities. Rather, they make them available to their local communities through commons-based, cooperative models. In the opposite case, as Rigi (2014: 398) warns, ‘they must adopt the logic of capital or will go bankrupt.’

The views of Rigi echo a well-known critique of cooperatives, which is as old as the cooperative movement itself (see e.g. Webb & Webb 1921). According to that critique, cooperatives are plagued by a host of constraints. A big part of the problem is that ‘over time a democratic, worker-owned firm will tend to fall into decay’ (Cheney 1999: 17). That happens presumably because, by operating under the pressure of the logic of the market, cooperatives are destined to lose their social dynamism, degenerating thus into business entities that are hardly distinguishable from capitalist firms. P2PF theorists are well aware of that danger. In fact, they share the concern that cooperatives run the risk of degenerating into conventional firms, given the tension between the individualistic self-interest of the cooperatives and their political goals. As they write, ‘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’ (Pazaitis et al. 2017a). In their opinion, however, these problems can be mitigated by edging cooperatives onto the path of the commons. As they argue, by becoming actively engaged in the production of the commons, cooperatives become part of the commons ecosystem (Bauwens et al. 2019). At an immediate and practical level therefore, their production process results in the expansion of the commons sphere. And that is what sets them apart from traditional cooperatives and capitalist firms alike. By producing commons rather than commodities, these cooperatives strengthen here and now ‘the counter-hegemonic movement’ of commoners and the development of ‘a commons-oriented counter-economy’ that could challenge the hegemony of capital (Pazaitis et al. 2017a).

However, in contrast to the P2PF theorists who believe that this strategy is appropriate in the context of a commons transition, its critics, such as Rigi (2014), find it still lacking. The problem, they claim, is that regardless of whether they are commons-producing or not, cooperatives whose sustainability depends on the capitalist market are bound to be assimilated in the system. And that, in their opinion, is precisely the weakness of the strategy proposed by P2PF theorists. As Rigi (2014: 402) comments, ‘Bauwens and Kostakis’ cooperatives aim at defeating capitalism on its own ground, namely the market.’ Inevitably, ‘therefore, in order to be profitable they must compete with other similar enterprises, whether cooperatives or capitalist enterprises,’ which means that ‘they must adopt the logic of capital or go bankrupt’ (Rigi 2014: 398). On that basis, Rigi (2014: 398) concludes that ‘Bauwens and Kostakis’ project is not a road towards subversion of capitalism and building an alternative economy but a way to access capitalism.’ In short, that strategy ‘is doomed to failure’ (Rigi 2014: 402). Unless those cooperatives find a way to cut themselves off from the capitalist market, sooner or later they will be absorbed into it.

The issue of co-optation becomes all the more pressing once we take into account the fact that we are not talking about something that is just likely to pop up in the future. Co-optation is a problem that is rearing its ugly head in the bosom of peer producers’ community today. The case of the RepRap 3D printer is paradigmatic. The RepRap project (http://reprap.org) was launched in 2005 by Dr. Adrian Bowyer, an academic at Bath University in the UK, with the aim of developing an open-source 3D printer that could replicate itself by reproducing its own components. Ultimately, though, by creating a small-sized, affordable, home-brewed manufacturing device for most of the objects people use in daily life, the real objective of the project was not technological, but political. And that was none other than transcending capitalism. According to its founder, RepRap would render capitalism superfluous by allowing ‘the revolutionary ownership, by the proletariat, of the means of production’ (Bowyer 2004). And it would do so ‘without all that messy and dangerous revolution stuff’ (Bowyer 2004). The spread of RepRap technology would simply suffice to liberate ordinary people from their dependency on the capitalist market. And so Bowyer envisioned that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own redundancy. Besides, as he stated in an interview with The Guardian in 2006, ‘if people can make anything for themselves, what’s the point in going to the shops?’ (Bowyer quoted in Randerson 2006).

In order to develop that subversive technology, Bowyer leveraged the Internet for distributed collaboration. He open-sourced the design of the 3D printer and its technical specifications so that others could experiment with it and improve it (Dafermos 2015).

That strategy proved quite successful, leading to the formation of a global community of RepRap developers who shared modifications and improvements. Five years later, the community had about five thousand members and was still growing fast (de Bruijn 2010). It did not take long until some of them took the initiative to launch their own start-ups for selling RepRap 3D printers and plastic filament on the market. In the beginning, that was not considered a problem at all. On the contrary, RepRap developers thought that ‘their ideals had to be realised through the market, or not at all...Paradoxically, the undoing of [capitalist] markets and firms’ would ‘come about through a co-existence with the same’ (Söderberg 2014: 14). Using the market was essentially their strategy for liberating end users. By bringing 3D printers to the homes of ordinary Joes and Janes, it was hoped that these start-ups would set them free. In that sense, the market constituted the gateway of liberation. However, the contradictions of that strategy soon became obvious. ‘A turning point came in 2012 when Makerbot Industries’ -a start-up launched by some of RepRap’s core developers, including Bowyer himself- ‘announced that it no longer allowed the community to access the design of its latest products’ (Söderberg 2014: 16). But it was not just Makerbot. The ‘ecosystem’ of those start-ups as a whole adopted a modus operandi that clashed with the original norms of the RepRap developer community. In order to strategically position themselves on the market as ‘an obligatory passage point for hobbyists wanting to build a RepRap 3D printer’ (Söderberg 2014: 14), these startups ended up using methods that are indistinguishable from those employed by cognitive capitalists. Characteristically, one of them is the enclosure of plastic filament, which has been strategically adopted by RepRap start-ups to lock-in customers, obliging them to buy their plastic filament from official vendors (Söderberg 2014: 14). Naturally, the effect that this ‘degeneration’ of business practices had on the original principles and values of the RepRap community was detrimental. As is documented by Johan Söderberg (2014: 16) in his study of RepRap, tensions in the community grew ‘in proportion to the growth of a consumer market in 3D printers.’ And so, within a few years, the original vision of the project was replaced by ‘a norm of free-for-all, enrichez-vous’ (Söderberg 2014: 16). As a result of that change in attitude, the RepRap community eventually broke down. More precisely, it splintered into factions. It goes without saying that its rhetoric changed as well. No one in the community talks anymore about bringing down capitalism (Söderberg 2014).

What lessons can be drawn from the experience of the RepRap community? As we saw, the members of the community set up their own start-ups, which, however, soon degenerated into conventional companies. To put it in terms of peer production theory, this is a case in which a peer producer community developed its own commons-friendly, generative enterprises in order to pursue its political goals. But apparently, that was not enough. Despite their original aims, these start-ups detached themselves from the commons-producing community in which they were initially embedded. They succumbed to the individualistic self-interest of the enterprise, that is, the profit-motive, which eventually clashed with the political goals of the community surrounding them. In a word, they were co-opted. And realistically speaking, there is no reason to assume that things would have turned out differently if ceteris paribus they had been legally set up as cooperatives. At the end of the day, the danger of cooptation is indeed so great that, as Rigi (2014: 402) warns, commoners’ strategy of organizing themselves into commonsfriendly cooperatives is inevitably going to be ‘hazardous, unstable, ridden with problems and riven by contradictions.’ Granted, but what is the alternative for the commoners and peer producers? Are their organizations doomed to degenerate into conventional businesses insofar as they have dealings with the market?

Obviously, in the ideal case, the associated peer producers would not need to have any dealings at all with the capitalist market. That would not be necessary because they would satisfy their needs through the cooperative economy and the commons sphere. But if that was indeed possible, the situation at hand, from the perspective of the commoners and peer producers, would be entirely different. Unfortunately, though, this possibility does not exist at present. The fact of the matter is that they need things which they cannot procure from the cooperative ecosystem or through the commons. And that, in the last instance, compels them to have dealings with the market. It is obvious, therefore, that their ‘unplugging’ from the matrix of the capitalist economy presupposes the strengthening of the existing cooperative economy and the expansion of the range of goods that are available through it as well as through the commons sphere. In parallel, however, with the implementation of that strategic effort, it is reasonable that peer producers are still going to have needs that they cannot meet through the commons sphere or the cooperative economy. Consequently, they will still be needing to transact with capitalist firms. It should be taken for granted, therefore, that they will continue to have dealings with the market, at least for some time. In consideration of this fact, the issue of decisive importance, according to the theorists of peer production, is whether the entrepreneurial action of the associated peer producers, despite all the issues raised by their incorporation into the capitalist market economy, has the effect of expanding the commons sphere and the counter-economy. Under the given conditions, this is, they claim, the most one can realistically aim for.

From the point of view of peer production theorists such as Bauwens and Kostakis, insofar as the operation of peer producer cooperatives results in the expansion of the commons sphere and the cooperative economy, they are a step in the right direction. That is, they argue, a realistic perspective on the contribution that commons-oriented cooperatives can make to the economic struggle of peer producers against capital here and now. The setting-up of commons-producing cooperatives, as they write, is ‘not based on utopian desires,’ but on a ‘realistic picture…of transition strategies that strengthen the commons sphere in a hostile environment’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 69). In other words, the development of these cooperatives is a ‘struggle, in which commoners develop their strategies to gain strength within capitalism...for a subsequent rearrangement of power, leading to system change’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 68). The above strategy is not foreign to activists and theorists engaged in the anti-capitalist struggle. The idea itself of developing cooperatives in the mid-19th century was a strategy of struggle for increasing the power of the workers within capitalism ‘for a subsequent re-arrangement of power, leading to system change’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 68). However, the strategy of cooperative organization proposed by peer production theorists is deemed insufficient by militants and thinkers who favor a more ‘maximalistic’ program. As in the past, the strategies that captivate the imagination of revolutionaries today tend to be those that demand radical change here and now, that is, strategies that do not accept the compromises that dealing with the capitalist market entails. The common ground of those strategies, as Gibson-Graham (2003) point out, is the conception of the economy as a monolithic, homogeneous field, as a territory that is controlled and dominated fully by the logic of capital. In other words, the economy is considered a realm in which there is nothing worth salvaging. However, that way of looking at things is not necessarily correct. According to Gibson-Graham (2003: 157), it is ‘blinded by a vision of the economy as singular and capitalist. If we see the economy as always and already diverse, then the project of replacement is transformed into a project of strengthening already existing non-capitalist economic processes and building new non-capitalist enterprises.’

We could not agree more with Gibson-Graham (2003). There is without a doubt more than just one economy; capitalism is not the only game in town. In consideration of the fact that the ecosystem of cooperative business organizations constitutes an existing alternative economy, it is obvious that its expansion, by ‘strengthening already existing non-capitalist economic processes and building new non-capitalist enterprises’ (GibsonGraham 2003: 157), represents a realistic strategy for what can be done under present circumstances. Undoubtedly, to be on the market will seem as a ‘pact with the devil’ to some. But as De Angelis (2017: 370) writes, this is actually ‘the starting point of commons in contemporary capitalism,’ whether one likes it or not. In order to be able to sustain themselves and engage in the production of the commons, peer producers have ‘to deal with several aspects of existing...markets and the circuits they reproduce:’ they ‘need them to various extents, and fight against them on other occasions’ (De Angelis 2017: 312). From one point of view, it looks as if the commoners and peer producers ‘both struggle against capital and then make pacts with it’ (De Angelis 2017: 336). That way of acting might seem contradictory at first glance, but as De Angelis (2017: 336) underlines, in this way the commons ecosystem tries to ‘construct its force to fool capitalism.’ Consequently, the key issue for the commoners’ movement is how to make their interactions with the market the basis upon which the commons can develop further (De Angelis 2017: 274). The expansion of the commons sphere is a goal that the strategy of setting up commons-producing cooperatives seems to be capable of accomplishing here and now. To the extent that, by organizing themselves into such cooperatives, peer producers set into motion a ‘process of growing commons powers vis-à-vis capital’ (De Angelis 2017: 358), this strategy is clearly aligned with the goal of gaining strength within capitalism ‘for a subsequent re-arrangement of power, leading to system change’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 68)." (http://heteropolitics.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Digital-Commons.pdf)

The political struggle of the commoners’ movement

George Dafermos:

"We discussed the strategy by which P2PF theorists aspire to strengthen commoners’ power in the realm of political institutions -which they refer to as the Partner State. As we saw, the content of that concept has undergone significant modifications over time. In the space of less than ten years, the concept has turned from an appeal to public policy-makers for the development of a cooperative economy into a full-fledged hegemonic strategy for taking over the State. In specific, the partner state strategy rests on the construction of a structure of alliances with social and political forces that become united through their support of a commons agenda and their opposition to the capitalist enclosures of today.

In practical terms, the partner state strategy comes down to setting up citizen platforms, such as Barcelona en Comú (that governed Barcelona from 2015 until 2019), which aspire to take over the administrative machinery of the city, with the aim of implementing radical reforms in the direction of commonification. The focus on modern metropolises is accounted for by pragmatic reasons. Given the ability of ‘city administrations’ to ‘shape the conditions for generative models of production and exchange’ in the metropolitan field, P2PF theorists reckon that ‘the city-context’ is therefore ‘mature for a commons transition’ (Bauwens et al. 2019: 65). In their view, then, the question of who runs the city is at the epicentre of the political conflict between the commoners and the capitalists.

As we remarked in sections 3.3.5–3.3.9, the strength of citizen platforms lies in their capacity to mobilize a wide spectrum of actors in favor of the commons. Who are these actors? To begin with, one constituent part of citizen platforms is left-leaning political parties, both old and new, such as SYRIZA in Greece or the various Pirate Parties that have sprung up in several European countries. According to commons theorists, what unites these political parties under the banner of a citizen platform is their opposition to neoliberal capitalism and their affinity for a commons-friendly political agenda. At the same time, citizen platforms incorporate civil society actors and activists from the milieu of social movements. These include movements, such as the Free Culture Movement, the Free Software Movement and the Open Access Movement, which champion the rights of commoners in fields as diverse as art, technology and science. Furthermore, citizen platforms are made up of emerging urban, metropolitan and municipalist movements, which agitate against the capitalist enclosure of urban-public space, the transformation of the city into a commodity (occurring, for example, through practices of gentrification) and the devastating effect of the ‘politics of austerity’ on the lives of city dwellers.

The significance of that strategy is obvious. It would not be possible for the commoners to challenge the hegemony of Capital without the active support of other social and political forces. Citizen platforms, like Barcelona en Comú, create what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (2014) call ‘chains of equivalence’ between different social movements and struggles. That is, they create relations and bonds of solidarity and camaraderie between them, thereby allowing them to develop shared goals and a common perspective on what is to be done. To put it another way, citizen platforms are an organizational medium for turning ‘the subjects of movements into commoners’ and radicalizing commoners at the same time (De Angelis 2017: 371). On the one hand, they serve the purpose of radicalizing the commoners and peer producers, transforming them thus into anti-capitalists. On the other hand, they aim to turn the gaze of anti-capitalist activists towards the vision of a commons-based society, imbuing them with the conviction that the anti-capitalist struggle is, as a matter of fact, inseparable from the commoners’ struggle. In that way, we could say that citizen platforms have the potential to accomplish what Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford (2010) refer to as ‘the circulation of the common(s),’ that is, the linking up of all the various social struggles and movements that militate in favor of the commons in some domain of human activity. Yet, despite its strengths, the partner state strategy has a major weakness. It remains entrapped in the realm of the politics of hegemony, failing to perceive that this strategy has been disputed in practice by the experience of the last fifty years. As several students of social movements have pointed out, the so-called ‘new social movements’ of the post1968 period, such as the Squatters Movement in Holland and the Autonomen in Germany, are paradigmatic of a model of social self-management that contrasts sharply with the hierarchical logic of the organization of the State (Katsiaficas 2006). These social movements reject the notion of top-down representation by political parties and trade unions. And more generally, they are opposed to all forms of hierarchical authority and the logic of representation. That, however, does not hold only for the movements of the past. We encounter the same negative attitude towards hierarchical authority and representation in the ‘newest social movements’ of the 1990s and 2000s, such as the Reclaim the Streets movement and the Indymedia network of activist media collectives (Day 2004; 2005, Kioupkiolis 2011: 125-136). The same could be said of the social movements that emerged in the 2010s, such as the Indignados and the Occupy movement, which also reject the political strategy of hegemony. What does that mean? Let us remind ourselves that hegemony is a strategy based on alliances for the capture of the State (cf. Report 1. The Political, chapters 1.14-1.17, for a definition of hegemony that is more extensive than the one we use here). That is its core characteristic: that is how Gramsci conceived it and how it has been utilized by subsequent thinkers, such as Laclau and Mouffe (in their landmark work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy [1985], which remains hugely influential to this day). Most importantly, that is also how it has been used by left-wing political parties and governments around the world, viz. as a strategy for taking over the State.

However, both new and newest social movements reject that hegemonic goal. In general, they are not interested in participating in systemic institutions and have no intention to engage in the struggle for state power. Instead, they are focused on the construction of their own autonomous institutions, which are governed under direct-democratic models based on the principle of direct participation of all members. At the same time, it is their conviction that society does not need the mediation of political parties for managing its affairs. That is something society can do on its own by means of open, horizontal, collective processes of debate and decision-making. It goes without saying that these social movements do not have much sympathy for strategies of struggle which aspire to occupy the State. The practical critique of the politics of hegemony by new and newest social movements, whether one likes it or not, is a fact that peer production theory should take seriously into account. That is not only dictated by the experience of the social movements of the past fifty years, but also by the very mode of governance of peer production projects: let us not forget that the majority of peer production projects are being managed collectively by their developers through open, collective, horizontal processes. From that vantage point, the very mode of organization and governance of peer producer communities constitutes a practical critique of hegemony.

That said, we will not go as far as to claim that commoners and peer producers reject all state structures and institutions as a matter of principle. In contrast to the aforementioned social movements, which are defined by their autonomy from political parties and their conscious abstention from systemic institutions, commoners do not regard the state as inherently authoritarian and oppressive. On the contrary, in the past few years, commoners have begun to develop a conception of the State as a particularly important terrain of social antagonism. According to that conception (which is largely influenced by Nicos Poulantzas’ theory of the State [1978]), the State is the crystallization of a correlation of forces between rival classes (Bollier 2016, Linera 2015). To put it simply, society is made up of classes with conflicting interests, which are pitted against each other. In a sense, the same holds true for the State, which is not a homogeneous entity, but the condensation of a correlation of forces between competing classes, that is, the outcome of a balance of social forces. However, that balance is intrinsically unstable, given the antagonistic relation of social forces within the State. Hence, social antagonism is always present within the State, as rival classes fight each other to shift the correlation of forces in their favor.

At the same time, the State represents a monopoly of a broad range of common resources and goods, which include natural commons like forests and beaches, but also things such as taxes, educational certifications, national narratives, dominant ideas, common sense and the moral principles by which individuals lead their lives. But although these commons are supposed to belong to the entire society, the manner in which they are actually managed is anything but democratic. Society is cut off from their management, which is exclusively in the hands of political operatives, state functionaries and other professional experts. In that way, the state monopolizes the managerial process of the common goods, which it is responsible to provide to society at large. As Alvaro Garcia Linera (2015) writes, the main visible function of the State is the oligarchic management of the commons, which it has been entrusted with by society. The conclusion to which the conception of the State as the crystallization of a correlation of forces between competing classes leads to is obvious. The State should not be abandoned to the class enemy. The critique of the oligarchic management of the commons by the State reinforces that conclusion. In fact, it provides a compelling reason as to why commoners should become actively engaged in the struggle for state power.

That is the only way forward should they wish to open up and democratize the managerial process of the plethora of commons that are controlled by the State. In that way, what can be accomplished is the commonification of the State, that is, its transformation into a structure based on open, horizontal, collective processes of decision-making in which anyone can participate. Therefore, the ultimate objective of the commoners’ movement is not the occupation of the State, but its commonification through the adoption of open, horizontal, collective processes for the management of state-controlled common goods.

What is missing from the theory and the strategy of the partner state is a reflection on the limitations of the strategy itself. It is evident that the hegemonic strategy of occupying local state power through citizen platforms must be combined with a posthegemonic strategy in order to achieve the desired democratization of participation in institutional organs and processes of managing the commons (also, see chapters 1.17- 1.24 in Report 1. The Political). The way it is formulated today, the partner state strategy puts emphasis on the relevance of a hegemonic strategy for taking over the state to the commoners’ struggle. What it does not sufficiently emphasize is that this strategy is not an end in itself, but a means for radically democratizing the State through the debureaucratization and collectivization of the processes related to the plethora of statemanaged common goods, such as public health and sanitation, public education, public infrastructures (e.g. public roads and parks), the forests and the beaches. In that way, by putting the spotlight on the commonification of state structures and processes related to the management of state-controlled common goods (rather than on the capture of state power), it becomes obvious that the ultimate goal of the commoners’ strategy is not the substitution of one hegemonic class with another, but the subversion of what Michel Foucault (2010) calls the governmentality of the State, that is, the very logic and mode of state governance, through the democratization of citizen participation in the managerial process of state-controlled commons.

One of the most important lessons we can draw from the digital commons pertains to their mode of governance. Peer production projects like Linux, which thrive on the contributions of thousands of developers, have evolved a governance model which, in all its variations, is based on horizontal, open, collective processes of debate and decision-making. Of course, this should not be construed as implying that there is no authority whatsoever in peer producer communities. Surely, there are leaders in these communities. But their authority ‘is persuasive, not legal or technical and certainly not determinative’ (Benkler 2006: 105). What is of utmost importance is that peer producer communities have crafted a mode of governance which consciously and intentionally strives to mitigate the development of hierarchical structures. As several researchers have pointed out, peer producers’ aversion to hierarchical control and authority goes a long way towards explaining why they have an affinity for open, horizontal, collective processes of decision-making (Dafermos 2012). By virtue of their mode of governance, digital commons communities are prefigurative of a new model of political governance, in which the exercise of authority is decoupled from its characteristic command prerogatives, which give authority figures in bureaucratic-disciplinary organizations the ability to give commands to their subordinates in the organizational hierarchy. Peer production projects rely on open, collective, horizontal processes, which effectively distribute the capacity of participation in decision-making across the entire community, thereby democratizing it. In a sense, the result of investing decision-making authority into a horizontal, open, collective process in which anyone can participate is that this authority becomes a kind of commons: something that is shared by all community members.

Let us recapitulate. Reflecting on the experience and the Zeitgeist-grabbing potential of the new municipalist movement -that is, citizen platforms like Barcelona en Comú- led theorists of the digital commons to modify their theory of the partner state, expanding thus its scope into a full-fledged hegemonic strategy for taking over the state at the city level. In essence, the partner state is a strategy based on the development of a structure of political alliances in the metropolitan field with anti-capitalist and pro-commons forces, encompassing actors as diverse as metropolitan social movements and left-leaning political parties.

The political turn of peer production theory to what is basically a hegemonic strategy for taking over the state is very important for two main reasons. Firstly, it is conceptually important. P2PF theorists’ recent reworking and reformulation of the concept of the partner state updates the theory of hegemony and the related strategies in a way that ingenuously harmonizes it with the political aspirations of the commoners’ movement.

Secondly, it is practically important. By taking into account the success of Barcelona en Comú -that is, the fact that it succeeded in laying hold of the administrative machinery of the city of Barcelona by uniting a large part of civil society around a commons agenda- and the growing momentum of the new municipalist movement which acts as a catalyst for the formation of citizen platforms in increasingly more cities around the world, it becomes obvious that the partner state strategy proposed by P2PF theorists is highly relevant in the present circumstances. The fact that it is grounded in the real world makes it even stronger and more potent, increasing thus its potential to bear fruit. At the same time, 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 the direction of commonification. In its present form, it does not address sufficiently the question of what is to be done once the objective of the occupation of the state has been attained, that is, how the state apparatus must be reconfigured in order to function as an instrument of commonification. By paying more attention to the occupation of the state than on its transformation, the theory of the partner state runs the risk of degenerating into yet another statist ideology. However, the real promise that lies at the heart of the commoners’ movement is the transformation of state power into a commons rather than its fetishization as the scepter of the new hegemons." (http://heteropolitics.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Digital-Commons.pdf)