7. P2P and Social Change
7. P2P and Social Change
7.1.A. Marginal trend or premise of new civilization?
7.1.A. Marginal trend or premise of new civilization?
I hope to have convinced the reader of this essay that Peer to Peer is a fundamental trend, a new and emergent form of social exchange, of the same form, an ‘isomorphism’, that is occurring throughout the human lifeworld, in all areas of social and cultural life, where it operates under a set of similar characteristics. In other words, it has coherence.
How important is it, and what are its political implications? Can it really be said, as I claim, that it is the premise of a new civilizational order? I want to bring out a few historical analogies to illustrate my point.
The first concerns the historical development of capitalism. At some point in the Middle Ages, starting in the 11th to 13th cy. period, cities start to appear again, and commerce takes up. A new class of people specialize in that commerce, and finding some aspects of medieval culture antithetic to their pursuits, start inventing new instruments to create trust across great distances: early forms of contracts, early banking systems etc.. In turn, these new forms of social exchange create new processes of subjectivation, which not only influence the people involved, but in fact the whole culture at large, eventually leading to massive cultural changes such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the great social revolutions (English, French, American, etc..). In this scenario, though the emergent bourgeois class was not directly political, what it did, i.e. its primary business of conducting commerce, inevitably created a political and civilisational chain reaction. This class also had a resource, capital (money), which was greatly needed by the other leading sectors of the population, especially the feudal class and the kings. Even today, for capital, politics is a secondary effect, their enormous power is an effect of what they do in the economic sphere: trading currency and shares, international capital flows, investments of multinational companies, the results of a myriad of small decisions by economic regularity bodies such as the IMF, etc..
Today, I would argue, we witness a similar phenomena. A new class of knowledge workers, in its broad sense already the majority of the working population in the West, and poised to be in the same situation elsewhere in a few decades, are creating new practices and tools that enable them to do what they need to do, i.e. knowledge exchange. As they create these new tools, bringing into being a new format of social exchange, they enable new types of subjectivation, which in turn not only changes themselves, but the world around them. When Marx wrote his Manifesto, there were only 100,000 industrial workers, yet he saw that this new social model was the essence of the new society being born. Similarly, even if today only a few million knowledge workers consciously practice P2P, one can see the birth of a new model of a much larger social consequence. This new model is inherently more productive in creating the new immaterial use value, just as the merchants and capitalists were more effective in the material economy. Thus, they have something of value, i.e. knowledge and innovation, which is needed by the whole society, as even agricultural and industrial production can no longer proceed without their intervention. As this feedback loop is reinforcing itself, the political consequences are equally secondary. By creating new social forms, they, we, are doing politics, in the sense of creating new realities. This does not mean that civil society alone can create a full civilisational change, as, inevitably, political conflicts and new lines of contention arise, that will draw in the adepts of the new modes of being into the political world. We have already seen how it is to a great degree the legal and technical sabotage of the enemies of P2P, which have driven forward its development.
The great issue will be the reform of the state and the global governance system. But the P2P social forces come prepared, with highly efficient modes of organization and knowledge building.
Another analogy I like is the one exposed by Negri in Empire, where he refers to the Christians. The Roman Empire, in a structural course of decline, could not be reformed, but at the same time, within it, the Christians were creating new forms of consciousness and organization, which, when the imperial structure collapsed, was ready to merge with the invading Barbarians and created the new European civilization of the Middle Ages. There are no Barbarians today, only other rising capitalist blocks such as the East Asian one, but they are in the process of creating the very same social configuration, which has created P2P in the West, though it will take a little more time. Civilisational differences will not, in my opinion, preclude the development of cognitive capitalism and the emergence of P2P modes of social exchange.
Finally, let us put our findings in the context of some social scientists.
First, Marcel Mauss, and his notion of ‘total social fact’ ; second, to the notion of Cornelis Castoriadis, that societies are coherent wholes and systems, otherwise they would collapse, animated by a particular kind of ‘social spirit’ that is the result of our social imaginary. Democratic capitalism was prepared by such an imaginary, the result of the religious civil wars and the strong desire to go beyond the feudal adversarial model. But today, even as it is being globalized, its premises are dying at the same time they are being exacerbated. The emergence of P2P is therefore to be considered both as a total social fact, and as the birth of a new social imaginary. P2P is a revolt of the social imaginary about the total fictionalization of our society, about its near-total and growing determination by instrumental reason and efficiency thinking, that is now even infecting our social and personal lives. It is a vivid protest, a longing for a different life, not solely dictated by calculation and the overriding concern for profit and productivity. It is not just protest against the intolerable facets of postmodern life, but always already also a construction of alternatives. Not an utopia, but really existing social practice. And a practice founded on a still unconscious, but coherent set of principles, i.e. a new social imaginary. It is totally coherent, a total social fact.
Habermas has another important notion, which is the ‘principle of organization’ of society, and he distinguishes the primitive, traditional and liberal-capitalist principles of organization. He defines it as the innovations that become possible through ‘new levels of societal learning’. Such a level determines the learning mechanism on which the development of productive forces depend, the range of variation for the interpretative systems that secure identity, amongst others key factors. It would seem clear that P2P is precisely such a new learning mechanism, described in most detail in the book by Pekka Himanen, as well as in the new rules I have identified in this essay. Thus in Habermassian terms, we would have to conclude that P2P is a fourth principle of organization, emerging at this stage, but which could become dominant at a later stage.
We’ll leave the latter open as a hypothesis, since history is an open process, and indeed different logics can co-exist. For example, in democratic capitalism, the two logics of democracy and capitalism are co-existing together, forming a coherent whole, even though its fabric is now in crisis.
My interpretation of P2P is related to the interpretation of Stephan Merten and the Oekonux group in Germany, but whereas they see the principles behind Free Software as indicative as a new mode of social exchange, I have broadened their area of application. Free Software is, in my interpretation, one of the forms of the P2P form of social exchange. While Free Software appears important, especially when taken together with the more liberal Open Source format, it is still more marginal than P2P. When we look at the same phenomena through the P2P lens, the social changes appear much more profound, much more important, than Free Software taking alone. We are much further ahead of the curve if we follow the P2P interpretation.
Nevertheless, when I talk, in such an optimistic and visionary fashion, about the emergence of P2P and it being the premise of a coming fundamental civilisational change, I can of course also see the terrible trends that are affecting our world: fossil energy depletion, global warming, increased inequality inside and between countries, the tearing apart of the social fabric, the increased psychic insecurity affecting the whole world population, the imposition of a permanent war regime that is dismantling civil rights and re-introducing the systematic use of torture and lifelong imprisonment without trial in the heart of the West, the great extinction affecting biodiversity … All these things are happening, and disheartening, even though counter-trends from civil society are also sometimes hopeful. Certainly, it seems that the power structure of Empire, the new form of global sovereignty, is beyond reform, that it just routs around protest and democracy, making dissent marginal and inconsequential, even as 25 million people were protesting an illegitimate war in one single day. Corporate media machines will devote days on end on the trial of a celebrity, but totally ignore massive literacy campaigns in Venezuela, and millions of people demonstrating will deserve just a few seconds of coverage. But historically, it is also when change ‘inside’ the system becomes impossible, that the greatest revolutions occur. The evening before the momentous events of May 68, the columnist Bernard Poirot-Delpech wrote in Le Monde: nothing ever changes, we are bored in this country …
The question of timing is difficult to answer. Objectively, it could take centuries, if we take the historical examples of the transition from ancient slavery to feudalism, or from feudalism to capitalism. Similar to the current situation, both ancient slavery (in the form of the conatus system of production, which freed slaves but bound them to the land, as of the 2nd and 3rd century), and feudalism, had the germs of the new system already within them. However, the precipitation of climatic, economic, political crises affecting the current world system, as well as the general speeding up of cultural change processes, seem to point towards changes that could proceed on a much more faster scale. If I may allow myself a totally unscientific prediction, then I would say that a culmination of systemic crises, and the resulting reform of the global governance system, is about two to four decades away. But in another sense, such predictions are totally immaterial to the task at hand. We need P2P today, in order to make our lives more fulfilling, to realize our social imaginary in our own lifetime, and to develop the set of methodologies that will be needed, that are needed, to help solve the developing crisis. We do not have the luxury of waiting for a dawn to come. A good example of the maturity of the system for change is what happened in Argentina: when the economy totally collapsed, in a matter of months, the country’s population had built a series of P2P-based barter and alternative money systems (the largest in the world to date), and the significant movement of the Piqueteros arose, which, demanded and got from the state a major concession: that state money for the unemployed would not go to individuals, but the movement as a whole to invest in cooperative projects. It all depends on the dialectic between the crises and what the system still can offer. But if the system fails to provide the hope and the realization of a decent life, such an event precipitates the building of alternatives that have many of the aspects of P2P that we described.