Cosma Orsi interviews Michel Bauwens on P2P Politics
Questions by Cosma Orsi.
Q: Your recent reflections gravitates around an alternative paradigm of production that you have named P2P political economy. What is this concept all about?
My main argument is that we have the development of a new set of technological affordances, which changes the conditions in which the production of social value can take place, and that this fundamentally challenges the supremacy of the classic for-profit mode of production. This time, not because the workers have undertaken any conscious challenge to it, but because it enables the direct social production of use value, through new life practices that are largely outside the control of capital, and with means of production which have been socialized to a very significant degree. These new processes are post-capitalist rather than capitalist, in the sense that they no longer need any specific role of capital for their reproduction.
The key characteristic of our new technological infrastructure, i.e. distributed networks, is that they allow individuals to freely engage and relate to each other around common projects. This has a multitude of important effects. By dramatically lowering the thresholds of participation in such common projects, a much wider range of motivations, instead of just monetary ones, have become productive.
Amongst the newly enabled social processes, the first in importance is therefore the ability to produce complex artefacts in common, without recourse to either a for-profit or state-based form of social organization; second, the ability to scale small groups dynamics on a global scale, below the scale where hierarchical simplification would be needed, and so the possibility to replace hierarchical allocation by the bottom-up coordination through a multitude of small groups and individuals; third, the ability in the context of production of non-rival and ‘immaterial’ goods, to share them without any loss of usage or value by the sharer, so that a non-reciprocal logic of voluntary contributions, coupled with universal availability, not only becomes possible, but even a natural requirement which does not impose any substantial extra cost to the system. This is why I focus on the ‘peer to peer’ logic as a ‘non-reciprocal’ form of generalized exchange, which does not need any reciprocity. It is a form of communal shareholding which should clearly be distinguished from any reciprocity-based gift economy. It works in the immaterial sphere of non-rival goods, but because every physical production is also the result of an immaterial design, it also has a big impact on the totality of productive processes.
In short, we now have commons-based peer production as a third mode of production, self-organization of such peer projects as a third mode of peer governance, and peer property as new mode of protecting that common from private appropriation.
The political economy of the common is no longer based on the circulation of capital, but on the circulation of the common. The precondition for such social cooperation is the pre-existence, or self-creation, of open and free raw material, i.e. material for which no permission or payment has to be given; the raw material is processed through new techniques, which have lowered the threshold of participation to such a degree that every form of motivation becomes productive, including especially the non-monetary ones, and finally, the output takes the form of a commons, through a new type of licenses, which act as a legal guarantee against private appropriation; this in turn creates a new layer of open and free raw material which can serve for the next phase of social cooperation, in a virtuous cycle of common creation.
Q: The political economy you advocate is radically different from the actual economic orthodoxy especially with respect to its ontological basis (human nature). What is your understanding of human nature and society?
The political economy of capital is based on the assumption of individuality, i.e. the existence of atomized, unrelated individuals in need of socialization through institutions. And these individuals are generally divorced from the means of production. This rational economic man has never existed, but has been the ideological basis of economic practices and public policies. It’s only basis of truth is that capitalism attempts to create such a situation, and generally disintegrates traditional human ties; and also that, before widespread connectivity, human linkages were more limited in time and space.
The new situation is based on a recognition and realization of relationality as the basis of human civilization, i.e. the recognition that we are always already related in various peer groups, many of them chosen on the basis of affinity. Our identity is constructed through our engagement and contributions through common projects. Cooperation is primary, and competition happens through the ideological choices we have to make between ‘projects’ we adhere to, or else we start our own. The new cooperative individualism also coincides through the new structural conditions of important sections of the knowledge workers, who have easy access to the computers and networks they need to create value, because these have been socialized to such an extent that they are no longer in the monopolistic hands of capital. But peer production is by no means limited to such knowledge workers, it becomes rather a generalized social practice, an ‘aspect’ of everyones life.
I’m not a technological determinist, but see technology itself as already the result of changes in consciousness of its designers, and the newly designed affordances then in turn starts to change broader layers of the population. Peer to peer is the combined result of a change in ontology, i.e. the shift we just discussed from individuality to relationality (and not a return to premodern community-based wholism); of a change in epistemology towards participative knowing, i.e. a refusal of the subject-object split of modernity, as well as the radical split between experts and laypeople, and a rejection of the distinction between producers and consumers; instead, we experience a shift towards a demand for co-creation and co-design, towards produsers, i.e. production without manufacturing by the users themselves, and an ascendancy of professional amateurs that are no longer subjected to credentialist demands of institutional validation. Peer production is based on the elimination of permission-asking and a shift to the self-selection of tasks, the continued probabilistic production of the continuously improved but never finished common artefacts, and quality control through communal validation of the self-same community of peers, through intelligently designed collective choice systems. Finally, there is a new axiology, i.e. set of values, in which sharing becomes the default option, and the demand for meaningful, passionate, self-unfolding and non-alienated work becomes a primary psycho-social reality for growing numbers of the population, especially our educated and networked youth. The key new value is not just the demand for ‘equality’ of the industrial working class, but a recognition of the equipotentiality of all productive individuals. This means that all human beings are considered to be better or worse in a range of skills, with none of the skills being a measure of superiority over any other skill. The key then becomes designing production as a series of granular projects that can be self-selected for equipotential matching between the task and the self-assessing individual, which is only a posteriori validated by the community of peers. In other words, the motto is: “Let hundred flowers bloom, and only select the best bouquet afterwards!!”
The new social imaginary is conscious of the invisible infrastructures which determine the scope of freedom in human relationships, and attempt to overcome any contradiction between self-interest and altruism by designing directly for congruence between individual and collective interests, making the social an ethical surplus deriving from open collaboration.
I see humanity evolving from a civilization based on exchange, to one based on ‘contributions’.
Q: Do you see peer production as a way of re-empowering a worn-out civil society that has been dispossessed of much of its creativity as a result of three centuries of capitalistic exploitation?
Yes, peer to peer practices are a sign of the rebirth, and the coming to prominence, of civil society as the primary actor of social life. Look at our language: civil society organizations are either called non-profit, or non-governmental, implying that they are derivative from either corporations or the state. But the new breed of institutions that are managing peer production, such as the Wikimedia or the Mozilla Foundations, call themselves with the positive moniker of for-benefit, implying a positive identity and practice. Peer production is the mode of production, governance and property arising out of civil society, and it has to be clearly distinguished, from the private or public alternatives. Peer production is not state production, peer governance is neither bureaucracy nor representative democracy, and peer property is inclusive common property, not collective public property. The key concern of peer governance is to eliminate permission seeking, to abolish credentialism, to avoid democratic negotiation where possible, to forego market pricing but most of all: to avoid the emergence of a collective individual which arises out of the community, crystallizes, and then turns against it or appropriates the common resources to its own benefit. Peer production is post-capitalist, but it does not necessarily abolish the market, rather it subsumes it as a subsystem for allocating scarce goods according to the price mechanism; it does not abolish the state, but expects the state to become a partner which empowers and enables the infrastructure of participation, through which the direct social production of value can occur. I call this the Partner State approach.
Q: One of your main concern is to make crystal clear that P2P approach is not an utopia. Rather it arises from a new and intentional moral vision, that ‘holds the potential for a major breakthrough in social evolution, leading to the possibility of a new political, economic, and cultural 'formation' with a new coherent logic’. What you mean when you refer to a new and intentional moral vision?
Many approach social change through idealism, desiring a new type of human being, which quickly degenerates in a moralistic and therefore authoritarian approach, based on a vision of how people should behave. By contrast, my own approach is naturalistic. Let’s first of all observe what kind of peer to peer practices are already emerging? From this empirical basis, we can ask ourselves the question: which of these practices exemplifies our ethical values, exemplify more freedom and equality, yet are efficient in creating social value? And from this naturally flows a practice of emancipation, which works mainly through interconnection and design. How can we interconnect the new life practices so that they can learn from each other and become stronger? How can we, once we understand the pattern language of the successes, generalize them through value-conscious design, stimulating a potential that is already there by lowering transaction and coordination costs, and discouraging negative behaviour’s by making them more ‘expensive’ to choose? This is a very realistic approach of ‘attainable micro-utopias’, but which, through their interconnection, can in the long term change the very basis of our civilization.
Q: One of the most attention-grabbing point of your reasoning is that peer production embodies a concept of property (rights) substantially different from the one entailed by capitalism. Peer production is, in fact, geared around a legal infrastructure tailored for and aimed at the creation of what you called Information Commons. Can you explain what the technicalities of this alternative form of property are?
Every social form needs a technique for social reproduction, and in the case of peer production it is crucial that it is protected from private appropriation. Peer property is common property, not private nor public property. Private property is exclusionary, simply put: what is mine, is not yours. Public property is both of all of us, but also crucially from none of us. The latter is a consequence of its representational format. We choose, democratically, or it is chosen for us, that a collective body represents the sovereignty over that property, so that it can in fact exclude. The collective therefore potentially excludes the individual. But common property takes a novel position, it is both from you and me, and we cannot exclude each other from using it. So peer property stands for the universal availability of what has been commonly constructed.
However, it comes in two slightly different formats, one appropriate for the sharing economy and one appropriate for the commons economy. In the sharing economy, the individual or small group produces an artefact, over which it retains sovereignty, but it can decide over various modalities of sharing. A typical example of this are the Creative Commons licences, which say: you can use my creative output, under such and such conditions. The other format is used for commons-based peer production, where it is clear that large collectives are building a common artefact. In this case the basic rule is that, though your attribution and therefore ownership is recognized, it is in fact part of a common pool, which takes precedence. You can use it, copy it, modify it, but every modification is also automatically part of the same common pool. Typical example is the General Public License used by the free software community.
There is a third case, where corporations attempt to integrate various aspects of peer production in their own value and production chains, or attempt to monetize common production. Such cases, though they may involve sharing or distributed production, do not constitute peer property, but may have various dangerous clauses, such as claiming that all your creative output is in fact property of the platform. This is a new type of enclosure.
Q: P2P not only refers to the economy but also to a radically different form of governance. With respect to this latter issue, you have claim that at the heart of peer governance lies the idea of multitude and absolute democracy. To back-up your argument you make explicit reference to authors such as Toni Negri, Miguel Benasayag, and John Holloway. In what sense P2P can bring about such a tall order? And above all, as any reference to democracy cannot avoid dealing with the issue of participation, could you explain what notion of participation underpins your normative claim?
Peer production stands for autonomy in cooperation, an economy consisting of free contributions. This mode of production is in stark contrast with the traditional notion of the capitalist economy, where a theoretical political economy, the freedom to regularly choose your representatives in the political sphere, is coupled with a working sphere that is hierarchical and even feudal, i.e. the submission of the division of labour to the owners of capital With peer production, the co-producers do directly participate in the decision making process. Those that do the work, decide about it, that is the central principle. This is done by eliminating permission to the greatest possible extent, i.e. relying on self-selection, in the context of a probabilistic production process, coupled with meritocratic adhocacries in the small groups(changing configurations of leadership according to context), and processes of communal validation after the production. When you are operating in a sphere of abundance, of non-rival goods that can be reproduced by all at marginal cost, then there is no need for either a market, a hierarchy, or even a democracy, in order to allocate resources, since they are freely allocated by the individuals themselves, who are the productive resources of the system. This is the strength of peer production, but also its weakness. For example, the work for both Linux and Wikipedia can be self-regulated, but the infrastructure of cooperation is still costly, and therefore, a new type of for-benefit organizations, following formal democratic rules, usually takes care of it. As soon as you need to allocate resources, you need formal mechanisms in order to mitigate the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’, and this will best take a representational form. Therefore, in my view, which may differ from the authors you cite, peer production is only complementary to democracy, not a replacement for it. However, we can expect that the range of realities where peer governance will apply, will increase over time. The space of non-representationality will likely become more important than the sphere of representationality. We can also imagine that in a society where such voluntary contributions become dominant, the pressure will be such that the democratic institutions will be really democratic, and not just under the influence of the corporate interests which now dominate the state form.
Q: In your writing you have dedicated much time in making a clear distinction between P2P economic process and other form of economic organization such as the gift economy. In this regard, you maintain that P2P production methods are not a gift economy based on equal sharing, but a form of communal shareholding based on participation. Why this distinction is so crucial to your argument?
The distinction is crucial in the context of what anthropologists call the crowding out phenomenom, i.e. one social logic can push out another one.
The gift economy is a system of reciprocity and symmetry. The one that gives creates prestige for him/herself, and an obligation in the receiver, who will want to restore the equality of the relationship through giving something in return. It’s a system based on personal relations. It was the basis of the tribal systems of production. The market on the other hand, is a system of exchange, of equal value against equal value, of impersonal relations. Communal shareholding relies differently on the ‘kindness of strangers’, it expands the sphere of social cooperation to people we don’t know, but also work on the common project, and are therefore willing to share.
Communal shareholding is based on the logic: you give what you can to the commons, from which anybody can take according to need. You do not get anything specific back, but indirectly of course, you get many different benefits: knowledge, relationships, reputation. But even those that do not really participate, still benefit from using the whole commons. Such voluntary contributions arise out of a convergence of individual and common interest, and a wide range of different motivations. For example, when you start sharing revenues, with some contributors obtaining monetary rewards and not others, this in fact discourages further voluntary contributions, because the inequality it introduces. Market mechanisms are really destructive to a commons, so if there is an ecology of businesses creating added value to the commons in order to create a market for their scarce goods, they need to practice ‘benefit sharing’, i.e. a general support to the commons as a whole, rather than inequality inducing rewards.
My issue with the gift economy is more ideological. It is used by free market apologists to sustain their vision of rational economic man, which only gives because he/she receives, but peer production belongs to a different logic. I think it is good for humanity to have a fuller vision of human motivation, and understand under which conditions such non-reciprocal engagement is possible, a research that would be obscured by an insistence on the notion of a gift economy.
Now, an important point is this: non-reciprocal peer production only works for non-rival goods that can be shared without loss; in the material world of scarcity and rival goods, we do need either exchange-based or reciprocity based mechanisms. Non-reciprocal open design communities need to be coupled with market-based built only capitalism, or other forms of allocation.
Q: You have argued that while hierarchy is predicated on creating sameness through identification and exclusion, and is associated with the abstract universalism of the Enlightenment, P2P is ‘about unity-in-diversity, it is concrete 'post-Enlightenment' universalism predicated on common projects.’ Is this a way for saying that peer production is sustained - and legitimized - by a conception of (social) justice able to stand the challenges inherent to the post-modern era?
The key ontological principle of peer to peer relationality is “equipotentiality”. This is a vision of humanity of all of us being a wide variety of combinations of different skills and endeavours, with different levels of excellence for each, but none of these skills being inferior or superior in the abstract. This means that I can recognize you for your contribution in a common project, and you can recognize me for a different contribution to the same or to another project. We overcome our fragmentation and isolation through the construction of our identities through the common projects we are engaged with, building a great cosmic “mash-up” which enriches our universe through free contributions. In our encounter with other human beings we both look for difference, and for affinity. The difference is what enriches us and what is common unites us. We know from each other that we contribute to widely different projects. Each person therefore needs to be honoured for his/her unique mix of skills and contributions, and deserves a general income for his contribution to social wealth, which he produces through the very fact of being alive and to be always-already related. The general unconditional income is coupled with a minimal request for contributions to the common good, so as to make society sustainable, and by a wide variety of reputation and wealth acknowledgement systems which allow us to recognize the extraordinary contributions of each according to context and to develop appropriate rewards for it.
Q: Your proposal is gaining moment. You managed to organised several university workshops here in Europe [notably in France at the Sorbonne University and Nottingham Trent University] to discuss at academic level this paradigm. Furthermore, there is a growing interest on the part of commercial enterprises in understanding P2P processes, as shown by the fact that your time is now divided up between implementing the theoretical aspect and delivering seminars for commercial enterprises. How do you explain this interests on the part of market enterprises, and in light of such a growing interest, what kind of future do you envisage, say in the next 20 or 30 years, for peer production?
Market players understand that the use of peer production principles is a competitive advantage. I formulate this as the ‘law of asymmetric competition’. It states that if a for-profit company, using wage labour and proprietary IP, is facing competition from a for-benefit institution that can draw on a large circle of volunteers and uses open ownership formats, the former will tend to eventually lose out to the latter. The reason is that peer production filters out any but the most productive motivation, i.e. intrinsic positive motivation stemming from passion, and strives for absolute quality, i.e. producing the very best common artefact, never finished but continuously upgraded, while its private competitor will only strive for relative quality, i.e. being better than the competition. From this follows a derivative: any for-profit company, or public authority for that matter, that adopts open/free, participatory and commons-oriented practices will tend to gain competitive advantages compared to those that do not do so. This drives the adoption of peer to peer practices in the market sphere, and strengthens the overall peer to peer logic in society. The process is very similar to how slavery changed to feudalism, and feudalism to capitalism: by a mutual reconfiguration of both the elite and the producing classes. Marx’s vision was a historical anomaly which we now know has never been confirmed.
So the image of change is the following: peer to peer develops as a germ form in the margins of the market, and is increasingly adopted, until it eventually achieves some kind of parity. At some point in time the old meta-system enters into crisis, and the already existing new subsystem becomes the new meta-system.
The best scenario is that the enlightened sections of the elite first recognize that there needs to be a new global compact to save the earth from biospheric destruction, say a form of green capitalism, but to succeed, it necessarily will adopt many p2p features, and in any case, such change can only come through a revival of popular power to drive the system to such reform, which in itself will strengthen participatory politics. This in turn creates the space for the germ form to grow to a level of equivalency – think of the situation before the French Revolution with the absolute monarchs arbitraging between a rising bourgeoisie and a declining feudal order. At some point, frustration that the advantages of the new form are being frustated through the old form of social organization, may then lead to a tipping point, in which the new subsystem becomes dominant. This scenario has of course nothing automatic, it depends on the pressures of the populations driven by the effects of climate catastrophes, and in the second phase, in the power of peer producers. My hopes are driven by the following conviction: that to maintain a infinite growth system within a finite environment cannot in any case be a sustainable form of society. The question then becomes: what will replace it? It will either be a new system of hyper-exploitation, based on a return to authoritarianism, similar to the period of disintegration following the decline of the Roman Empire; or it can transform to a higher level of complexity, which in my view is the peer to peer based civilization. Can we really envisage that humanity chooses for some kind of collective suicide, and not for the obvious way out? Of course we can envisage it, but our energies should better be directed to create the desired future, and to consider it as a ‘conditional inevitability’. In this context, a reconfiguration of some market forces to a position of netarchical capitalism, their transformation into ‘enablers and empowerers of the direct social production of value’, as we see already happening, seems like a good bet. Such forces are both partially allies of peer producers, but of course they also have different interests. Can we compare it again to the end of the Roman empire. It was certainly better to be a serf than a slave, and at the same time, for former slaveholders, it was a way to externalise the cost of fully feeding their slaves, by making them responsible for their own livelihood. Mutual interest of both the elite and the producing classes led to a reconfiguration of the class system into the new equilibrium of feudalism.
Q: Some American authors, such as Eric Raymond, but also ‘common-ists’ such as Lawrence Lessig (Lessig,2004), through his arguments for a Creative Commons, remain suspicious about P2P processes as they claim that are still embedded into a market logic. How you respond to these critics?
Eric Raymond is a libertarian, and though a supporter of the business-friendly form of free software, i.e. open source, is not a friend of the idea of the commons, which he equates with collectivism. But I believe this is because of his ideological blinders as a libertarian, since he in practice cooperates with the free software commons. Lawrence Lessig is a liberal, his form of the commons is the individually-oriented Creative Commons, which allows for individuals to decide on a degree of sharing, but is not focused on created complex commonly owned artefacts as only the General Public License can. He is a genuine liberal who believes in the positive values of classic liberalism. He does not have a clear vision of peer to peer processes as a social dynamic. Yochai Benkler does however.
Overall, of all the authors who write about peer to peer, they are either business people who see new monetary opportunities, as with Don Tapscott’s Wikinomics; or left liberals who see it as a new positive adjunct to the market; finally, there are cynical leftists who only see how it is being used by capital, and do not see its emancipatory potential, in other words, they have already given capitalism the victory. In contrast, I belong to the strand who sees peer production as both immanent in the system, while it retains its transcendent, liberatory potential. One is the condition for the other. The Oekonux (Linux Economy) group is similar in its approach. Its immanence is not a proof of its weakness, but of its strength. It is not a anticapitalist strain within the industrial system, but already a postcapitalist, postmonetary logic, a new productive life practice that has the potential to replace the current system. The market, the hierarchy, and even democracy are but means to allocate scarce resources, but peer governance is the direct voluntary self-allocation of resources, divorced from monetary motives. What we need to do is to develop a literacy of participation, evolve the self-consciousness of sharing and commons-based communities, of distributed and ‘crowdsourced’ labour, so that they can intelligently engage with platform owners and businesses associated with their commons. The new lines of tension are between these communities and the corporate institutions they are engaging with, but at the same time, the joint world of peer production still needs to protect itself against the retrograde forces of proprietary ownership and artificial scarcities that impede sharing and commons-production. Ultimately, we will also need to tackle the peer production of infrastructures themselves, but we are not at this stage yet.
Q: Moving away from these critics, I would like to end this interview placing the emphasis upon two rather bold claims: the first one is that peer production is potentially able to change the nature of capitalism and the second that it has the potentiality of solving the free rider problem. Both brave claims, indeed…
Global capitalism is facing the same conundrum as ancient Rome: a crisis of extensive accumulation, because it can no longer externalize environmental costs. But switching to intensive growth in the immaterial world creates a crisis of value. Indeed, marginal reproduction costs for non-rival immaterial goods destroys the logic of scarcity which is the basis of the market. So marketization, monetization, moves to the margins of the new commons. Direct social production of value rises exponentially, but its monetization only linearly at its margins. Furthermore, anything that needs to be produced physically, has to be designed ‘immaterially’first, through processes that are not fundamentally different from software and knowledge creation. It is therefore only a matter of time that open design communities striving for absolute quality, start making designs that will eventually be better than those that can be produced by for profit companies. Accepting that the primary processes of social innovation will take place outside the sphere of capital, will necessarily need to new social structures. Just as the Roman slaveholders were faced with the fact that a turn to intensive growth could only happen by freeing the slaves, so capital is faced with the fact that the experience economy won’t be capitalist in its core. A change of the core logic of the system seems inevitable, though it is of course difficult to predict the precise nature of the new social contract around the primacy of the peer to peer logic.
The free rider problem is only a major problem in the physical commons, where it is a matter of smart governance and regulation; in the immaterial sphere, though there are problems with spamming, trolling and the like, free riding by itself is not a key problem. On the contrary, it is the very nature of a peer to peer system that it makes every form of usage a productive resource for the system as a whole. Whereas for centralized and decentralized systems more usage is problematic, because it uses up more resources, peer to peer design creates the opposite dynamic. Every peer is turned into a resource of the system.
The new proprietary platforms exist because of design choices, they have decentralized and centralized setups that are expensive to maintain, and therefore require centralized capital. However, it is my conviction that these constraints could eventually be designed away in fully distributed infrastructures. Eventually, we already see it happening, other productive machinery than just the computer, will also know the same process of miniaturisation, of lowering capital requirements, and this will introduce distributed dynamics in the sphere of physical production. The key issue will then become: how do we combine the non-reciprocal peer to peer logic of immaterial production, with the need for reciprocity in the physical production of scarce material goods. When we have the answer to that question, we will have the maturity to shift to a full peer to peer based political economy and civilization. There are already a number of thinkers, such as Christian Siefkes in his book on the Peer Economy, thoroughly thinking about how a shift from a economy of exchange to an economy of contributions, could occur. But at the P2P Foundation, we prefer a continued empirical analysis of what is actually happening on the ground, through the self-creativity of peer groups grappling with the challenges of sustainability.