End of Capitalism and the Return of Koinonía

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

Full text available on request via michel at p2pfoundation dot net


"After a short analysis of the meaning of the word koinonía, I would like to show that some important modern alternatives to liberal capitalism such as the P2P movement, the convivialist movement and the Common Good movement, show interesting similarities with the platonic and Hegelian traditions from which they could benefit when it comes to elaborating a philosophical justification of their positions. I will not engage in a full account of these alternative movements, since I only want to show some general similarities, but I think that a systematic recycling of the intuitions of Plato and Hegel could help explore new models of economics and politics."



Fernando Suárez Müller:

The financial crisis has not changed the economic structure of our globalized western civilization. Hardly anything has been done about the problem of banks being too big to fail. Basel III is hardly implemented, and even if it were, that would not substantially change the infrastructure of our economy. Bankers are still getting enormous sums of money. The stock exchange is functioning as it always did, as if nothing happened. Have we gone back to business as usual? One thing has substantially changed: the shock of the crisis has scarred the minds of many people, although not the minds of economists. The economists looking for alternative economic models are still a marginal minority. But political economy – the idea that economic science very much depends on fundamental political perspectives which are rooted in basic philosophical ideas – has strongly reappeared, and I believe this will change the future of economic science. Economics has gone back to the womb of philosophy, and from there something new will soon enter the world. What has changed fundamentally after the financial crisis is the fact that capitalism, the system legitimating most aspects of our modern economic science (and corresponding academic positions), has decisively lost its comfort zone.

This situation explains why in Europe some bestselling books that are critical about capitalism have appeared with titles that refer to the major work of Karl Marx although they are certainly not proposing anything approaching communism. In 2008 Cardinal Reinhard Marx, playing with his name, entitled his book – that was destined to stay in the bestselling list of the German public journal Der Spiegel for a long time: Das Kapital. Ein Plädoyer für den Menschen (Capital. A Plea for Humanity). More recently (last year) an academic work appeared first in French and then in English: Le Capital au XXIe siècle by Thomas Piketty is still on the ‘bestseller’ shelves of European libraries. Of course these titles have been used for marketing purposes. Cardinal Reinhard Marx does not develop an alternative to traditional capitalism. He advocates the strengthening of the social state based on the value of solidarity; capital, he writes, should become moral (2010, 225). The voluminous work of Thomas Piketty advocates global taxes on capital, because only taxes can equalize the difference between capital incomes and the economic growth rate which, left as it is, will mechanically lead to an increase of severe economic (and therefore social and democratic) inequality (2013, 835).

These critical works do not really affect the basics of the capitalist system. Their criticism is nevertheless valuable and valid, and clearly points towards limiting free market ideology, and thus comes close to redefining the idea of economic freedom itself. The fact that these authors use the title of Karl Marx’s major work shows that the minds of the reading public have been profoundly changed. Most people in the leading economic nations are becoming aware that an economic system emphasizing individual gain and based on the idea of limitless growth has no future in a world that is fundamentally limited and dependent on ecological stability.

What also seems clear to these authors who use the title of Marx’s major work for marketing purposes is that the Marxist perspective cannot be part of the solution. This is not primarily because soviet communism failed as an economic and political project. It is because Marx’s alternative was just to turn capitalism upside down, simplifying the complexity that tradition brings. In this sense Marx was textually a revolutionary thinker. He did not consider the possibility of anything in capitalism being true or valuable. According to Marx capitalism is only there to make communism possible. His dialectical philosophy of history is in fact a linear teleology build on turnovers. If nothing of capitalism is valuable nothing needs to be preserved. Tradition is simplified and is presented as something that must be rolled over. There is no idea of preservation in Marx, no idea of cumulative truth, no sense of tradition, of retaking or recycling old ideas for new purposes. In a progressivist mind like that of Marx there is no place for any type of conservatism. The main cause of this simplifying vision of tradition and society is the base-superstructure axiom of Marx’s theory. It is this social materialism that makes it necessary to turn everything upside down. If all products of culture mirror the economic (material) structures dominating society then it is clear that eliminating the base will also ruin the building.

Instead of just turning the building upside down we need to recycle it. A reorganization that destroys truths is condemned to implode. Marx’s social materialism amounts firstly to a progressivist view of history, so-called historical materialism, and secondly to a concept of progress by turnovers, so-called dialectical materialism. The new society can only be thought of in terms of discontinuity. Of course the germs of the new must be present in the old. No communism is possible without industrialisation and the appearance of a proletarian class. The conditions making the turnover possible must have come into existence in the old order. However, this does not mean that there is an effort to recycle the old, to emphasize the true structures of the past. This is where the Marxian theory of dialectics differs from Georg Hegel’s more sophisticated version. The version of Marxian dialectics is two-dimensional, whereas the Hegelian is three-dimensional. For Marx there is a structure that generates an opposition turning this structure upside down. For Hegel there is a structure that generates an opposition creating a situation in which the truth of both must combine to form something new. Marx thinks in terms of revolution; Hegel in terms of evolution through synthesis. The purpose of this paper is to show that Hegel offers a better theoretical framework when it comes to understanding current alternatives to capitalism such as “the collaborative commons” characterized by terms like “convivialism”, “peer-to-peer society”, “common good economy”, etc.. I would like to show that in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right Hegel envisions the idea of a society that transcends the economic model of capitalism and reactivates communal energies. I believe that Hegel by this restores the old platonic ideal of koinonía. This term denotes a society in which not individuals but communities play a central role. These different, harmoniously linked, communities would blend into the whole of nature. I will first develop some ideas concerning the subject of abandoning social materialism (that can be thought of in either a capitalist way or a communist way) and rediscovering social idealism (which must not be confused with social constructivism). Hegel envisions the end of capitalism and he does so from an idealist perspective. In a second step I will argue that current alternatives to capitalism are, as I see it, part of a general phenomenon that I call the rediscovery of koinonía."

Rethinking the Commons

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."