3.4.C. P2P and the Commons

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3.4.C. P2P and the Commons

Eric Raymond's landmark description of the Open Source model, i.e. ‘Cathedral and the Bazaar’ (Raymond, 2001), compares the different methodologies to produce software. Corporate software production methods are called ‘the Cathedral’, i.e. a big planned and bureaucratic project, while open source is coined a ‘bazaar’, a free process of cooperation involving many participants, but the concept also implies connotations with the free market idea. An argument to the contrary may be that the internet and many open source projects own their existence to the public sector, which financed internet research and the salaries of participating scientists. And the so-called ‘bazaar’ is at best a very indirect way to make money, since most of the use value generated by peer production does not easily translate into exchange value, which is most cases is derived from services and not from the ‘peer product’ itself! Moreover, in actual practice, the building of Cathedrals were massive collective projects, initiated by the Church but drawing on popular fervor, a competition in gift giving, and lots of volunteer labor!!! When we define P2P processes as a form of Communal Shareholding, the process is a lot less confused. What people are doing is voluntarily and cooperatively constructing a commons, according to the ‘communist principle’ (described by Marx in his definition of the last phase of history): ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’. Recognition of this non-recirprocal aspect of peer production is crucial to understand the specifities of this new mode.

Since the famous opinion storm generated by Bill Gates charge that copyright reformers were ‘communists’ , it is important to stress specifically what we are talking about when we use the concept of communism as related to P2P. Let’s therefore not confuse the utopian definition of Marx, to be realized at the ‘end of history’ after a transitionary socialist phase still marked with recipropicity, with the actual practices of the Soviet Union, which were centralized, authoritarian and totalitarian, one of the more pernicious forms of social domination. Using Fiske’s grammar of relationships, we could say that the Soviet system or ‘really existing socialism’, consisted of the following combination: 1) property belonged to the state, but was in fact controlled by an elite social fraction, the nomenclatura, and did not function as common property; 2) the economic practices were a combined form of equality matching and market pricing, though the monetary prices were most frequently determined not by an open market, but by political and planning authorities; 3) there was no free participation but obligatory hierarchical cooperation; 4) socially, there was a very strong element of authority ranking, with one’s status largely determined by one’s function in the nomenclatura. The reason of course is that these systems arose in a context of social and material scarcity and deprivation, inevitably given rise to a process of monopolization of power for the control of scarce resources.

In contrast, Marx’s definition was predicated on abundance in the material world. If P2P emerges according to this very definition, it is because of a sufficient material base, which allows the types of volunteer labor P2P thrives on (and pays the wages of a substantial part of them), as well as the abundance inherent in the informational sphere of non-rival goods with near-zero transaction costs.

But since peer to peer is not a ideology nor utopian project, but an actual social practice which responds to true social needs, it can be practiced by anyone, despite one’s formal personal philosophy and eventual ideological blinders . Thus the paradox is that American libertarians call it a market, while the European digital left calls it a ‘really existing anarcho-communist practice’ (Gorz, 2003), though they are speaking of the same process. The libertarian theorists associated with the Open Source movement, can argue that there is a continuity and linkage between FLOSS philosophy and traditional liberal thought on property and community, while neo- and post-Marxist interpreters will stress how it transcends the norms of property and commodification. Since peer to peer involves both an application of freedom and of equality, it has the potential to attract supporters of both the left and the right, to the extent that they are faithful to their respective ideals.

Lawrence Lessig’s apparently tongue-in-cheek suggestion (in reply to Bill Gates equating copyright reforms with communism), to call the P2P movement’s advocates ‘Common-ists’, not a bad concept at all. Commonism is in fact a growing movement for the protection and expansion for the existing physical commons; for the creation and expansion of an expanded Information Commons and public domain; and against the deepening of intellectual property restrictions which disable the continued existence of the 'free culture development', which is a condition for the further development of P2P. How does the new 'informational commons' differ from the traditional 'physical' commons. The physical commons is about scarce 'rival' goods, and creates, under certain conditions, problems of abuse (the 'Tragedy of the Commons') and fair 'entitlements', necessitating regulation, problems which are much less acute, if not non-existent, in the sphere of overabundant information resources, though of course free and easy access to networks is by no means assured for the totality of the world population. The traditional commons, which still exists in the South amongst the native populations, is essentially 'local' and distinguishes itself by this community focus, which is contrasted from both centralized state property and resource management, and private property. They are 'limited access commons' in the sense that they are reserved for particular local communities (like pasture systems or irrigation systems). It is 'territorial' and driven by location-specific actors. However, given the severity of the ecological crises, the local Commons are also moving towards a global context. There are also important 'open access' commons which are open to all and either national (highway systems) or global in scope (air, oceans). They are in the process of becoming more and more dominated by scarcity paradigms however, due to the degradation of the resources of the biosphere. This means that from non-regulated, because of their initial abundance, they are moving towards being regulated physical commons. It has been suggested by Commons-advocate Peter Barnes that the best way to manage such physical commons, might be through ‘trusts’, a legal form that carries with it the obligation to preserve that capital, which can be financial, or physical, ensuring that the next generations have access to at least the same resource base. In addition, traditional physical Commons can be usefully divided around two significant axis: open vs. limited access, and non-regulated vs. regulated. This is also an issue which fails to arise with nonrival goods associated with an Information Commons (unless the goal is political and censorship is desired).

What distinguishes these Commons from markets is the property regime, and they arise mostly in situations where network externalities make them the preferable option (the more they are used, the more value they obtain, and the more useful they become). In technical terms: "they have increasing returns to scale on the demand side". The initial investment may be very high, and not of interest to any private investor, i.e. roads, but once they are build, their value increases by usage and the additional cost by user becomes marginal. The Information Commons is by contrast global in its essence and from the start, organized around affinity groups. These may sometimes have a local aspect (Wikicities) but are always open to worldwide participation. Information Commons projects are driven by cyber-collectives.

I would think it likely that in a future civilisational model, both gift economy and Commons-based models would be complementary. P2P will function most easily where there is a sphere of abundance, in the sphere of non-rival goods, while gift economy models may bean alternative model to manage scarcity, in the sphere of rival goods and resources. As my own preliminary ideal in this research project, I envision the future civilization to have a core of P2P processes, surrounded by a layer of gift and fair trade applications, and with a market that operates based upon the principles of 'natural capitalism', as outlined by authors such as Hazel Henderson, David Korten and Paul Hawken, i.e. a market which has integrated 'externalities' (environmental and social costs) to arrive at true costing. We may also want to look at the now forgotten tradition of 'markets without capitalism', a tradition that was stronger before World War II . Yochai Benkler has perhaps done the most serious work in delineating the respective optimal usage of 'sharing' vs. market economies.

All this moreover with the continued use, and perhaps even strengthening of existing public institutions which intervene whenever the 3 above do not arrive at adequate solutions in terms of the public good.