4.2.B. Equality, Hierarchy, Freedom

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4.2.B. Equality, Hierarchy, Freedom

How do P2P processes integrate ‘values’ and ‘social relation’-typologies such as equality, hierarchy, and freedom?

Cornelis Castoriadis gives an interpretation of Aristoteles on this issue: equality is actually present in all types of society, but it is always ‘according to a criteria’. (this is so because a society is implicitly a form of exchange, and thus in need of comparative standards for such exchange). It is over the criteria of exchange that social and political forces are fighting. Is power to be distributed according to the merit accorded to birth, according to military exploits, according to commercial savvy shown in economic life, to intelligence? This distribution then inherently creates a conflict with the egalitarian demands that is equally constitutive of politics and society. The distribution itself creates an exclusion and resulting demands of participation .

In the modern sense, equality is defined mostly as an equal right to participation in the political process, and as an ‘equality of opportunity’, based on merit, in the economic sphere.

Similarly, hierarchy was based in premodern societies based on ‘authority ranking’ which depended on fixed social roles, and on the competition within these narrowly defined spheres (warriors competing amongst themselves, Brahmins competing through their knowledge of sacred scripture). The command and control hierarchy is fixed amongst the levels, somewhat flexible within the levels. In modern society, theoretically, hierarchy in power is derived from electoral choice in case of political power, through economic success in case of economic power. In theory, it is extremely flexible, based on ‘merit’, but in practice various processes of monopolization prohibit the full flowering of such meritocracy.

World-systems theorist Immanuel Walllerstein defines three important political traditions according to their position regarding equality/hierarchy. Conservatives want to conserve existing hierarchical relations, as they were at a certain point in time; liberals are in favor of a selective meritocracy and stress the formalized and institutionalized selection criteria; democrats are in favor of maximum inclusion, without formal testing. Thus, in the early modern system, conservatives were against elections, liberals were for selective census-based elections, democrats for general suffrage.

How does peer to peer fit in this scheme? P2P is a democratic process of full inclusion based on the idea of equipotency. It believes that expertise cannot be located beforehand, and thus general and open participation is the rule. But selection immediately sets in as well, since the equipotency is immediately verified by the work on the project. Thus there is a selection before the project, and a hierarchy of networks is created, where everyone finds his place according to demonstrated potential. Within the project, a hierarchy is also immediately created depending on expertise, engagement, and the capacity to generate trust. But in both cases the hierarchies are fluid, not fixed, and always depend on concrete context, the precise task at hand. It’s the model of the improvising jazz band, where everyone can in turn be the solo-ist or the trendsetter. Reputation is generated, but constantly on the move. Peer to peer is not anti-hierarchy or even anti-authority, but it is against fixed hierarchies and ‘authoritarianism’, the latter defined as the tendency to monopolize power, with a will to perpetuate itself and deprive others of resources that it wants for itself. P2P is for equality of participation, for a natural and flexible hierarchy based on real merit and communal consensus. That P2P recognizes differences in potential, and thus natural hierarchy, does not preclude it from treating participating partners as equal persons. In fact research from within the synergistic tradition, which studies the practicalities of cooperation, has verified a remarkable fact. In free and synergistic cooperation, those groups function best, which treats its members ‘as if’ they were equals. Therefore, the recognized hierarchy in reputation, talent, engagement, etc.. does not preclude, but if requires an egalitarian environment to blossom.

Some authors, like David Ronfeldt and John Arquila of the Rand Corporation, claim we are moving to a ‘cyberocracy’, where power is determined by the access to the networks. While there is indeed a digital divide that can exclude participation, it is important to stress the flexibility inherent in P2P networks, which undermines the idea of ‘fixed and monopolistic cyberocracies’. Another author, Alexander Bard in Netocracy, argues that capitalism is already dead, and that we are already rules by a hierarchy of knowledge-based networks. At this stage, these are not very convincing arguments, but there is one scenario in which they can become possible. It has been described by Jeremy Rifkin in ‘The Age of Access’. But this scenario of ‘information feudalism’ is predicated on the destruction of P2P networks. Cognitive capitalism in indeed in the process of trying to increase its monopolistic rents on patented digital materials, a strategy which is undermined by the filesharing and information sharing on the P2P networks. If the industry succeeds in its civil war against its consumers, by integrating Digital Rights Management hardware in our very computers, and outlaws sharing through legal attacks and imprisonment, then such a scenario is possible. At that time we would have only private networks for which a license has to be paid, with heavily restrictive usage rules, and no ownership whatsoever for the consumer. This is indeed a scenario of exclusion for all those who will not be able to afford access to the networks. Just as in the feudal structure, where 'serf'-farmers did not own the land they were working on, we will not own any immaterial product anymore, we'll just have severely restricted usage rights, and certainly not the right to share. But we are far from that situation still, and personally, I do not think it is a likely scenario.

At this moment, P2P is ‘winning’ because its solutions are inherently more productive and democratic, and it is hard to see any social force, be it the large corporations, permanently sabotaging the very technological developments that it needs to survive. More likely, barring a scenario of a collapse of civilization and a return to barbarity, it is more likely to see a social system evolve that incorporates this new level of complexity and participation.

One element I have yet to mention is the freedom aspect, which seems obvious. P2P is predicated on the maximum freedom. The freedom to join and participate, to fully express oneself and one’s potential, the freedom to change course at any point in time, the freedom to quit. Within the common projects, freedom is constrained through communal validation and consensus (i.e. the freedom of others). But individuals can always leave, fork to a new project, create their own. The challenge is to find affinities, to create a common sphere with at least a few others and to create effective use value. Unlike in representative democracy, it is not a model based on a majority imposing its will on a minority.

Despite the fact that Peer to Peer reverses a number of value hierarchies introduced by the Enlightenment, in particular the epistemologies and ontologies of modernity, it is a continuation and partial realization of the emancipatory project. It is in the definition of Wallerstein, an eminently democratic project. Peer to peer partly reflects postmodernity, and partly transcends it.