With P2P Towards a Post-Capitalist Society

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= Book: De Wereld Redden. Met P2P naar een post-kapitalische samenleving. Michel Bauwens en Jean Lievens. Houtekiet / Oikos, 2013

This book is based on 12 hours of interview conducted by journalist Jean Lievens with Michel Bauwens, and is divided into six chapters: the Economy of P2P, the Politics of P2P, P2P and Spirituality, the Philosophy of P2P, the P2P Foundation and a Biography of Michel Bauwens. 216 pages | ISBN 978 90 8924 254 9

Please note: the original Flemish title for the book is “De Wereld Redden”, which translates to “Save the World” in English. The working title in English is “With P2P: Towards a Post-Capitalist Society”.

Also note that the following short chapter summaries were written for the purpose of presentation, and are not translated book excerpts. An English translation of the book has not yet been produced.

Status: This book achieved its third printing in a very short time in the Flanders (Flemish) region. French translation is already secured.


English presentation and summary:

Our present-day society is based upon the absurd notion that material resources are abundant and immaterial ideas scarce. We behave as if the planet were infinite, and exploit the earth in ways that endanger the survival of the human species. On the other hand, we build artificial walls around human knowledge to impede and prevent and sharing as much as possible.

The peer-to-peer model, inspired by the open source movement and used by Wikipedia (knowledge), Linux (software) and Wikispeed (design), wants to turn this logic on its head. According to Michel Bauwens, P2P-networks, open source, crowd sourcing, fablabs, micro-factories, hackerspaces, the maker movement, the sharing economy, and urban agriculture (among others) are all new phenomena forming patterns that lead us towards a post-capitalist society, one in which the market will be subsumed to the logic of the commons.

Just as feudalism developed within the womb of the Roman slave society and capitalism then developed within feudalism, we are now witnessing the embryo of a new form of society gestating within capitalism. In order to save the world, we need a re-localisation of production and an extension of global cooperation in the fields of knowledge, code and design.


Save the world is based on a 12-hour interview by former journalist Jean Lievens with Michel Bauwens, and is divided into six chapters:

Chapter 1: The Economy of P2P

For the first time in history, people all over the world can connect with each other and produce common value: a universal encyclopedia (Wikipedia), an operation system (Linux) or the design of a mother board (Arduino). They are building complex systems outside traditional organizations such as companies, government institutions or NGO’s. In addition, they don’t do it for the money, but because they like to do it, because they want to make themselves useful, because they want to solve a problem… Therefore, we are dealing with a new (proto-) mode of production, peer production. It is a hyper productive mode of production because it is based on passionate production and therefore, it has the tendency to outperform traditional businesses. In this chapter, Michel Bauwens places P2P within a historical framework and explains this new form of collaboration, sharing en producing.

Chapter 2, the politics of P2P

How will this transformation towards a new form of society, in which P2P will become the dominant mode of production, take place? What are the social and political forces that will help determine this transition? How will the ‘old world’ resist change and hinder the new emerging world? Will this transition be smooth, or will it be a revolutionary process?

Michel Bauwens considers P2P to be the ideology of a new class of knowledge workers, holding the same appeal that the ideas of socialism had for nineteenth century industrial workers. The first political expressions - from the Swedish Pirate Party and the Greek Potato Movement to the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo - are still in their infancy. In addition, these new political formations need to find progressive partners to collaborate on building a program which defends and promotes the interests of the immaterial and material commons. In this chapter, Bauwens also tackles the role of the state, which needs to transform from that of welfare state to partner state.

Chapter 3: P2P and spirituality

Bauwens explains in this chapter how the transition towards distributed networks will also have great consequences for spiritual development. Spiritual expressions and religious organizational structures cannot be understood outside of the historical and social structures in which they originated and developed. Tribal religious forms like animism and shamanism didn’t have developed hierarchical structures, as they arose within a social framework of egalitarian relationships relying on kinship. The large, organized religions originating in highly hierarchical societies are defined by complex hierarchical structures. There is only one truth to which members must obey. The Protestant reaction was characterized by democratic features reflecting the values of a new urban bourgeoisie, representing mercantilism and a nascent industrial capitalism. “New Age” reflects modern capitalist practices, where even spiritual experiences have become consumer goods. If this is the case, how would peer to peer dynamics change spiritual and religious expression and their organisational forms?

Chapter 4: the Philosophy of P2P

For Michel Bauwens, the P2P-movement is a progressive, integrative emancipation movement. Bauwens rejects methodologies which explain phenomena from only one point of view, and believes that we need to take into account not only the objective but also the subjective elements in their interdependency. At the same time, his integral approach is a form of truth philosophy: according to Bauwens, truth needs to be constructed contributively, and every object needs to be approached from as many angles and perspectives as possible. However, this integral approach also poses dangers, as shown by the reactionary nature of the ideas of Ken Wilber.

Chapter 5: the P2P Foundation

This chapter explains the history and methodology of the P2P Foundation as a new kind of ‘collective organic intellectual’, which is appropriate for the networked age.

Chapter 6: a Biography of Michel Bauwens

This chapter explores the personal history of Michel Bauwens, and relates the story of what led to the creation of the P2P Foundation, as well as the evolution of his thinking about social change and seeing P2P as the leverage for achieving this change.

Appendix; The Story of the book

Michel Bauwens and Jean Lievens met at the Free University of Brussels in the latter half of the nineteen-seventies, where they were active in the student movement. More than three decades later, the ideas of P2P brought them together again. Now in their fifties and confronted with a broken system that threatens the survival of the human species, they consider the transition towards a P2P society to be the way out of the present crisis



Postface, Changing the world together, by Dirk Holemans — Coordinator of the independent think tank Oikos

"Society faces an unprecedented challenge: the 20th century model of production and consumption has been utterly spent. It is no longer possible, on our vulnerable planet, to continue to commercialise and market everything, and, in the process, to exhaust our energy supplies and primary resources. Furthermore, the fact that the global economy is controlled by 150 multinational corporations, which have no care for social equality, runs counter to the ideal of a highly-skilled society where citizens wish to collectively take control of the future.

In this sense we urgently need formidable thinkers who are able to both keenly analyse the current state of affairs and to develop concepts and resources that facilitate the collective construction of a different world. In this book Michel Bauwens vigorously fulfils this task. In the context of the contemporary system of capitalism, which is set within a longer historical evolution, he describes the enormous possibilities of the new peer to peer system. His argument, which is, in turn, provocative and stimulating, is that the way people relate to one another in horizontal networks facilitates a form of self-organisation, without authority, in the creation of common value that is more productive than can be achieved by private companies or official organisations. A good example is Wikipedia, the product of the efforts of millions of citizens across the world that has rendered privately edited encyclopedias redundant.

Michel Bauwens sees a great potential for emancipation in civil society. Indeed, opportunities for collaboration in horizontal networks are more important than ever before thanks to new information and communication technologies. Nevertheless, this cyber-philosopher is not naive: the future will emerge from social struggle and social power relations. Accordingly, Facebook allows people to communicate but also appropriates the use value they create as users, thereby capturing exchange value—in other words: profit. Bauwens poses questions that thus will remain relevant: "Why not create, as a society, a digital cooperative to develop an alternative to Facebook?", or: "Why not consider social media a form of public service?" He does not share the postmodern vision of knowledge workers guaranteeing themselves a career by virtue of their talent and their laptops. Even if a flexible career is aligned with peer production, such a society can only be stable with a guaranteed basic income.

Bauwens challenges the reader by asserting that peer-to-peer is not simply a new mode of production but in fact heralds a revolution in productivity that will change society at every level. This new model of value through cooperative individualism is focused on openness, sharing and collaboration. This vision of a post-capitalist future enables the prospect of a movement away from a model where the market price dominates, as is the case today, towards a model where sharing in-common has more weight. While we are currently working in organisations that operate in a system based on competition, this is a vision of a system in which collaboration is the dominant logic and where, in this context, competition is based on merit.

Bauwens offers us a provocative conceptual framework that outlines the process of transformation towards a post-capitalist system of values and practices, and ultimately to a new socio-economic system. This designates a key role for "social associations for solidarity" which develop and manage the commons, common goods, and which work with existing cooperatives. Such value systems do not simply fall from the sky, rather they emerge from new, concrete, practices. In effect, the internet renders our world open and horizontal, and allows users to autonomously organise themselves. Non-hierarchical collaboration, which was only previously possible at a small scale, can now extend to a global scale through networks and this has many ramifications. Thus, building a commons amongst P2P networks creates a form of socialisation via positive experiences that influence how we think and feel. This can lead to self-perpetuating beneficial cycles: by sharing more and more things (such as carpools) and buying, and therefore owning, fewer products, such activities will become increasingly normal, we will do it more regularly and we will enjoy it.

In short, for Bauwens, the concept of peer-to-peer encompasses much more than technologies and the opportunities they create. In his eyes, it is infused with political substance: we can use it as lever for human emancipation by developing and testing new practices, such as forms of public-commons partnerships to replace current public-private partnerships. This opens up unprecedented possibilities for citizens to variously and collectively participate in projects in which they can individually work towards a sustainable future. However, we must seize the opportunities that now present themselves. A clear understanding of what is at stake presents a straightforward choice: Either we resign ourselves to the appropriation of peer-to-peer networks by the dominant capitalist system (as the total control of everything we do through our digital selves [ombre numérique]), or we seize control of the direction of these networks for ourselves."


Source: The End of Capitalism and the Return of Koinonía. Fernando Suárez Müller (University of Humanistic Studies of Utrecht), November 2014

Fernando Suárez Müller:

"The main alternative to modern capitalism today and the first expression of a really new political economy after World War Two can be found in the idea of “the collaborative commons”, which has several faces. I want to concentrate on some proposals that are quite recent and constitute a basis for current activist movements. I would like to draw attention to three of them: the peer-movement initiated by Michel Bauwens, the convivialist movement started by Alain Caillé and the common-good movement created by Christian Felber. By giving a general description of their ideas it will become clear that, philosophically, it is possible to align these alternatives with the idealist tradition. Their proclamation of the end of capitalism mirrors the claims made by Hegel some two hundred years ago. They can certainly not be aligned with Marxism.

The peer-to-peer term originates in the context of the new exchange possibilities offered by the internet. It denotes the possibility of sharing digital items even to a point that marks the limits of private property (e.g. copyrights). Hegel showed that intellectual and material property are different things, and that intellectual property fades away in the communications people have with each other (7.104). We could say that digital items are material but that they are dealt with as if they were purely intellectual and volatile. The peer-to-peer movement is not a movement that aims to annihilate “intellectual property”, but it wants to defend the right of sharing (digital) information. This is the main reason for the popularity of the P2P Foundation, but it hardly gets to the real scope of the idea.

To Bauwens, as he sees it in his recent book Saving the World (2013) and in many blogs, P2P is a philosophy that stretches over politics, economics and religion. It centres on the possibilities created by the internet to build new local and global communities. The philosophy of Bauwens is an integral philosophy based on complexity theory and forms of holism. Bauwens follows to some extent the work of Ken Wilber, but with many reservations, since he considers Wilber to be a neoconservative.8 P2P also adheres to a network approach to reality that we know from complexity philosophies such as Edgar Morin’s. This means that reductions and simplifications are to be avoided in order to get an approximating picture of the full web of relationships in which things exist (2013, 155). Bauwens is critical of postmodernist approaches which tend to reduce objectivity to subjective interpretations. He believes in the objectivity of truth and acknowledges that it cannot be reduced to the material world. As it is for Plato the world for Bauwens has a spiritual dimension going vertically from the subatomic world to higher forms of being. There is a deeper dimension of reality responsible for the order of things. In Bauwens’ anthropology the spiritual side of man is, from the start, part of a collective (159).

Our economic orientation towards the other cannot be explained using the idea of homo economicus, as this is based on private interests (157). Our longing for the other is a value in itself, and as such is always present in our being. The wrong idea of homo economicus could only originate because people are equipotential. Although we are all equal we have complementary capacities and talents defining who we are. We can only do justice to ourselves and to others if we develop these capabilities and help others develop theirs. The position Bauwens takes presupposes that there is a deeper natural order both of the person and of society (as an association of individuals) to which we should adjust our actions. One aspect of living right is to allow this natural order to realize itself in social circles (communities or associations) based on affinity and complementarity. This very much mirrors the idea of koinonía as described above and it also makes clear why, according to Bauwens, the most basic forms of economics are, as for Hegel, those of giving and sharing. Also the idea that the circles or networks need to be guided by the idea of a common good mirrors the idea of koinonía: “P2P is about organizing our social system in a way in which every individual can freely engage its capacities and talents for the sake of the collective good” (162). Although capitalism to Bauwens was a necessary phase in history that helped to strengthen individualism and freedom, the welfare state was necessary to alleviate social atomism preparing the advent of a community-based society: “The human being wants to be recognised for its participation in social goals of communities, which creates its identity (…). We need a new collectivization (…) based on a free socialization of affinities. This constitutes the fundament of a new society based on peer-to-peer!” (163). The constitution of these communities is based on free choice. The peer-to-peer movement also envisions an economy based on inner motivation, which means that work must be based on free choice. Compared to the slavery of Antiquity and the serfdom of the Middle Ages, the wage labour system of capitalism is definitely progress, but only one in five people work out of intrinsic motivation. P2P is about promoting free participation in a labour society (27). This sounds highly utopian but Bauwens considers this development to be a regulating force in an economy already guiding us towards its realization, although there are many things that can still interfere. An economy based on free cooperation within and between communities is the next logical step in the evolution of society (85). This new economic order does not get rid of the market system, but alters its structure from a mainly competitive domain to a dominantly cooperative space (62). Bauwens also acknowledges the basic necessity of hierarchical structures inside organizations, provided that these are based on meritocratic achievements. Only then can these hierarchies be said to be horizontal (49). The whole production system should become a community-based modular system, which means that different labour communities create the pieces which users can assemble in their own way. This stretches the possibilities of a sharing economy (61). I cannot get into specific details such as the introduction of local monetary user-based systems (with temporary validity) or policy measurements restraining the exponential money growth caused by interests. In his political texts Bauwens advocates a strong participatory democracy or polyarchy based on free communities and common-coalitions (119, 127). This very short analysis of the P2P idea suffices to show that this type of commons philosophy starts from the idea of a community-based society that expands over politics, economics and religion (spirituality). It takes society to be an organic space of sharing, constituted by circles that are networked together creating higher circles. This tends towards the idea of a cascading democracy as developed by Hegel."

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