Examination of Michel Bauwens' P2P Foundation

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  • Special Issue: The Global Economic System in the Midst of Profound Change: An Examination of Michel Bauwens’ Foundation for P2P Alternatives. Peer Production in a World that is Benkler’s “Wealth of Networks” Made Concrete. Cook Report on Internet Protocol, Volume XIX, No. 5-6, August-September 2010

Request a full copy from Gordon Cook at [email protected] ; back issue archive


  • Foreword! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 3
  • Introduction!! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 5
  • The High Road or Low Road to P2P?! ! ! ! ! ! p. 8
  • Depression 2.0! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 11
  • Should Our Goal Be Creation of the Resilient Community?! ! p. 11
  • Scale Invariant Infrastructures! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 12
  • The Source of Resilient Community: Security in the
  • Globalized World of 4th Generation War! ! ! ! ! p. 13
  • Despite Free Market Failures We Are Left with
  • Worship of the Market-State! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 15
  • Build Platforms to Foster Local Innovation and
  • Make Ecosystems Stabile! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 16
  • Michael Bauwensʼ Evaluation of Robb! ! ! ! ! p. 18
  • The Interview! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 19
  • Consequences of Changes in Distribution of Knowledge – from Rome to the Present! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 21
  • What I See Emerging: Engineering Abundance versus
  • Managing Scarcity! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 23
  • Open Hardware!! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 28
  • Impact of Economic Meltdown! ! ! ! ! ! ! p, 31
  • Peak Hierarchy! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 32
  • Open Agriculture! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! p. 34
  • The P2P Community Structure and Goals! ! ! ! ! p. 35



Gordon Cook:

How will we organize our world in the face of rapid technology change? The speed of technology change and complexity of a global economy are converging on the institutional infrastructures of finance, government and large corporations which forces that have left them in a state of siege. This two part issue will explore these changes in a way that we hope will bring some focused understanding to what otherwise seems like a world spinning chaotically out of control.

The situation of global business and the political infrastructure that it has built as its foundation within states is most persuasively analyzed by John Seely Brown and his co-authors in the Power of Pull as covered in our June issue. It leads to a situation where, in the aftermath of the crash, it seems as though we have an unholy alliance between the globalized firms and the state. The state is no longer a nation state but has been transformed into a “market state” crafted to support only those citizens that can find places of employment within its narrowly defined boundary. But such an arrangement leaves millions, tens of millions out of the picture and sets up the conditions for what John Robb in his 2007 Brave New War describes as an insecure future of facing the attacks of global guerrillas engaging in fourth generation warfare against cumbersome archaic states that can provide services only to the subset of its citizens that compete in the globalized battle taking place among the different flavors of “market-states.”

We are in a situation where the middle cannot hold.

Ironically for a progressive who used to believe in the power of government to establish the foundation for a decent life on behalf of its citizens, it is the government that is stuck helplessly in the middle. Huge cumbersome and incapable of the agility that is necessary to cope with rapid change.

On one side then we have the big corporations that have co-opted the machinery of big government to serve their narrow issues. On the other side we have the vanishing middle class in the US and other market states in one angry mob and the hungry ill fed ill-housed global masses in another “side”… both looking with anger and resentment at those enfranchised with wealth and power.

We find hope however in the existence of two sets of critics: the three horsemen of the Center for the Study of the Edge who were the focus of our June issue and the group of people gathered around Michel Bauwens who will be the focus of this August September issue.

  • Advice for the “Firm”

In our June issue we looked at John Seely Brown and The Power of Pull – a very powerful riff on the problems of the big corporations also referred to by the authors as the “firm.’ The firm in the 20th century was based on a transportation infrastructure that, while it continuously improved, did so slowly and gradually compared to the continuous and non stop revolutions we have seen from ICT and the global Internet. This meant that the 20th century firm could be based on a model of predictable change and steady growth and that the technology and operational patterns behind the firm were planned in such a way as to achieve operational economies of scale in planning, producing stockpiling and shipping quantities of products needed to give large cumbersome slow moving global companies return on assets that would sustain their operations over time.

However with the introduction of the ICT and internet and now cloud computing, the former more stable drivers of the push-based economics that were based on scalable efficiency of mass production have effectively been replaced. Consequently the firm could no longer produce the same return on assets, in part because the speed of technology change overwhelmed with the learning and operational infrastructure inside the firm needed to make decisions under the older top down, economy-of-scale models.

But now the new ICT infrastructure driving the firm drives it exponentially. There is no longer a breathing space that permits the administrative learning on the part of the firm the time needed to catch up. We have constant disruption. If you have constant technology disruption of the tools the firm uses to do its job while for your day to day operations you are still burdened with the same administrative requirements dependent on stability and predictability, you have no stabile environment on which to build growth. You may want to look for changes in the firm’s way of learning and operation that can leverage its administration to better keep pace with technology disruption.

If the 20th century was one dependent on scalable efficiency, is the 21st century one of how you build systems that worry not about scalable efficiency in production but rather “about scalable peer based learning.” If you can organize the firm to learn faster, you can better keep up with and appropriately use the technology changes. One of the ways you do this is learn from each other within the eco-system like Silicon valley, where learning sloshes across company boundaries.

In the 20th century things moved slowly enough such that you could do business with stocks of somewhat stabile knowledge. But now in a world of peer-based learning you have flows, concentric pools of newly developed and spreading ideas. The question for the firm likely becomes - how do you participate in flows, how do you participate in ways to create new knowledge? How do you start thinking about creation platforms where new knowledge is being created all the time?

(This material from a 2009 Seely Brown talk on cloud computing at http://sprie.stanford.edu/events/recording/5790/1/306)

The advice given is timely and generally sound. It tells the executives who run the firms and make strategy that their only choice is to learn more rapidly and more effectively. It tends not to question the globalized nature of the firm or its size, although it implies that, in the future, the global economic organization of firms may become more one of global federations of smaller and more agile companies operating in loosely construed supply chains rather than as large multi-national corporations. The Power of Pull seems to assume that globalization is sustainable long term. We think that whether or not he is correct remains to be seen.

This issue focuses on a widespread and rapidly growing alternative: the open knowledge commons of the P2P Foundation. There thousands of independent, decentralized actors are connected by their local endeavors and the Wiki constructed by Michel Bauwens and a narrow group of associates.

These people are building an alternative world shaped by open source, local self-reliance and a shared sense of the urgency of exploring and defining sustainable futures. I have a sense that the world described in The Power of Pull and that described by the P2P Foundation have characteristics that could merge. Let’s turn then to the the grass roots alternative.


As the world staggers forward and we see to our great regret that President Obama is not bringing the necessary change but is patching up the old broken system, meta-issues appear to be more and more relevant. That the “Internet changes everything” has been a truism for more than a decade. The web and websites give everyone their own printing press. A decade ago the Clue Train Manifesto noted the symbolic shift in the locus of power. Put productive tools into the hands of ordinary folk in their homes rather than in factories and production will tend to shift toward the edge of people’s homes and away from the large 20th century Alfred Chandler economy-of-scale organizations. What emerges are things like open source software and peer produced ecosystems like Wikipedia and Linux.

In this context, over the past roughly five years a Belgian, Michel Bauwens, has emerged as the chronicler of and organizer of a small but growing global community of people involved in building what they call an open knowledge commons. Michel’s principal web site is actually a huge Wiki: The Foundation for P2P Alternatives.

His motto is We study the impact of Peer to Peer technology and thought on society. See the very extensive page at http://p2pfoundation.net/The_Foundation_for_P2P_Alternatives

He also runs a blog at: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/ The blog is called P2P Foundation: researching documenting and promoting peer to peer practices.

While the subject is very important it has not yet gone mainstream. When I looked for a basic definitional overview of a knowledge commons, I found http://integralvisioning.org/article.php?story=p2ptheory1#_Toc107024681

- “P2P is nothing else than a premise of a new type of civilization that is not exclusively geared towards the profit motive. What I have to convince the user is that 1) a particular type of human relational dynamic is growing very fast across the social fields, and that such combined occurrence is the result of a deep shift in ways of feeling and being. 2) That it has a coherent logic that cannot be fully contained within the present `regime' of society. 3) that it is not an utopia, but, as `an already existing social practice', the seed of a likely major transformation to come. I will not be arguing that there is an 'inevitable evolutionary logic at work', but rather that a new and intentional moral vision, 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.”

The next link is to the same document (more or less, it’s a different version of the same unpublished manuscript from 2006-2007) but it is on the main web site and I would recommend it for further exploration. http://p2pfoundation.net/Manifesto. And if you feel really adventuresome try this http://p2pfoundation.net/Category:Encyclopedia . A more selective mini-version of the Encyclopedia is to be found at http://p2pfoundation.net/P2P_Companion_Concepts . Readers will see the breadth of this subject via the mind map with live links on the web shown on the next two pages.

See: http://www.mindmeister.com/maps/show_public/28717702, for the Mind Map of the P2P Foundation Knowledge Commons

This mind map is the basic architectural description of a huge wiki of more than 10,000 pages.

The High Road or Low Road to P2P?

Given the pace of on going events in the global economy, it is not surprising that while I was preparing this piece on Michel, new information caused me to look at a darker strain of p2p thought. In early June a blog post by Michel

i.e. http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/the-high-road-towards-p2p-is-dying-prepare-yourself-for-the-low-road/2010/06/02

pointed me in the direction of John Robb, a thinker who has answers to questions that have been profoundly troubling to me about what I regard as an ongoing betrayal of his election campaign promises on the part of Barack Obama.

For the past few years I have noted with concern the disappearance of public interest and national interest from the vocabulary of acceptable political discussion. Why have a nation state with a government whose legitimacy is perceived in terms of whether or not it enables life liberty and the pursuit of happiness on the part of its citizens? I have lived my life that this promise is a serious part of what it means to be an American citizen. Robb has a convincing and disturbing answer. Namely, that nation state is in the process of vanishing. It has been subsumed on the one hand by the financial interests of globalization and on the other hand by the local interests of bands of guerrilla tribes.

On June 2, 2010, Michel wrote:

- “I’m a big fan of John Robb, but I must admit I initially thought he was way too pessimistic. Indeed, faced with the 2008 meltdown, John predicted a rapid rise of hollow states, which retain the form, but can no longer function as we expect states to do. As I witness the self-destruction of the Thai state, which refuses a social compromise and free elections to the majority of its working and rural population, even as it is still in a growth phase, and as I witness the attacks of extreme neo-liberalism on what remains of the European welfare state (I’ve just been in Italy, where there is endemic pre-scarcity, and which seems behind Thailand in many infrastructural respects and is in the hands of a predatory faction of capital), I’m now increasingly convinced that he was right, and I too optimistic."

. . .

- I [have] posted two main scenarios. A scenario of deep meltdown and final crisis, leading to resilient local communities, but also another ‘high road’ scenario with a substantial chance for a combination of enlightened policy by Obama. (Indeed, how naive I was to compare him to Roosevelt instead of the Herbert Hoover he turned out to be), I had hoped for popular mobilization, and the interconnecting of new open infrastructures.

What seems to be happening is that mobilization indeed is increasingly happening, and also the quite rapid spread of open and sharing infrastructures, BUT, there is no longer anyone to talk to. The enlightened part of the nation states either do not exist or are too weak, and the global market forces are intent to break what remains of their independence, and hence, what they can do and signify on behalf of their own people. They’re is simply nobody there anymore, the system has exhausted its capabilities to operate outside of the narrow interests of the predatory financial class. Here is what Niall Ferguson has to say on the subject, giving a historical context to sovereign defaults and how it has destroyed empires in the past, in very rapid ways.

1. The end of the high road to P2P

So, without further ado, here is what John Robb is writing on the matter:

(This is no call for despair mind you, it means more urgency to the building of the successor civilization!!)”

COOK Report: [in what follows I have taken Michel’s quotes and amplified them with additional material from Robb.]

Robb: the current sovereign debt crisis is “another battle in a war for dominance between "our" integrated, impersonal global economic system and traditional nation-states. At issue is whether a nation-state serves the interests of the governed or it serves the interests of a global economic system?”

“Who's winning? The global economic system, of course. The 2008 financial crisis, the first real battle of this war (as opposed to the early losses in skirmishes in Russia, Argentina, the Balkans, etc.), generated a very decisive outcome. It was a resounding defeat for nation-states. The current crisis in the EU will almost certainly end with the same results.’

‘When this war ends, and it won't be long, the global economic and financial system will be the victor. Once that occurs, the nation-states of the West will join those of the global south as hollow states: mere shells of states that serve only to enforce the interests of the global economic system. These new states, more market-states than nation-states, will offer citizens a mere vestige of the public goods they offered historically. Incomes will fall to developing world levels (made easy to due highly portable productivity), and wealth will stratify. Regulatory protections will be weak. Civil service pensions will be erased and corruption will reign.

The once dominant militaries of the West will be reduced to a small fraction of their current size, and their focus will be on the maintenance of internal control rather than on external threats. The clear and unambiguous message to every citizen of the West will be:

You are on your own. You are in direct competition with everyone else in the world, and your success or failure is something you alone control.”

“For those that think that this will bring about a surge of peaceful economic vigor, you will be wrong. It will fragment society and lead to perpetual stagnation/depression, endemic violence/ corruption, and squalor. For absent any moral basis (a social compact), stability, or (widely shared) prosperity: new sources of order will emerge to fill the gap left by the hollowing out of the nation-state.

These new sources of order will be first seen in the rise of the criminal entrepreneur, whether they be the suited corporate gangster or the gang tattooed thug. For in the world of hollow states (without a morality that limits behavior) and limitless connectivity to the global economic system, these criminal entrepreneurs quickly become dominant, violently coercing or corrupting everyone in the path to their enrichment.”

“As this occurs, you have a choice.

  • 1. You can stand alone and do nothing. Thereby suffering the predations of this new criminal


  • 2. You can join them and prey on your former compatriots, enriching yourself in the process.
  • 3. Or finally, you can build something new. Resilient communities and independent economic

networks based on freedom, prosperity, and a new moral compact.”

COOK Report: Let’s take a deep breath and journey with Robb through the decline of the nation state to the hollow state But first what then is a hollow state?

Robb: “A hollow state is different from a failed state in that it continues to exist on the international stage. It has all the standard edifices of governance although most are heavily corrupted and in thrall to global corporate/monied elites. It continues to deliver political goods (albeit to a vastly diminished group, usually around the capital) and maintains a military. Further, in sections of the country, there is an appearance of normal life.


Or as Robb put it on January 20 2010 in a post he called: Brands and Hollow Nation-States "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand. Our possibilities are endless."

Desiree Rogers, White House Brand Guru.

“The nation-state, as an organizational form that seized control of the world from the starting gates at the treaties of Westphalia, is losing power across the board -- due to the rise of a much larger, faster, complex, and powerful global system. The result has been a hollowing out of the nation-state through privatization, corruption, and outright abdication (of responsibility). With each passing year, less of the historical nation-state is left. A process accelerated by the financial demise caused by boondoggles from foreign military adventures to propping up massive global subsystems when they get into trouble.”

“Despite this trend, the nation-state isn't going away. It still plays a role in the growing global ecosystem, and nothing has risen to displace it (global ideological homogeneity of nation-state governance dictates this). It will merely adapt to the evolving niche it is relegated to. So, what does the nation-state look like in its residual and adapted form?”

“Naomi Klein has some excellent analysis of what it becomes. It's a very good read, and if you disregard her dated nostalgia for populist movements and progressive government reform -- that legacy thinking is utterly useless, as a strategy for success, given the rise of a dominant and sovereign global system that doesn't have any governing body to appeal to -- the article provides a very incisive analysis of how the nation-state survives after tangible power is gone.”

“Simply, the nation-state becomes a brand. More specifically, it becomes a lifestyle brand, or worse, a lifestyle brand centered on a single person. All of its functions outside of the strategic communications (public relations, information operations, etc.) required to support and extend it are outsourced, auctioned off, or abdicated.”

“So where does that leave you as an individual or a family? You can buy into that brand and get little except a name emblazoned on a t-shirt, since that brand doesn't have the capability to really defend your interests or help you succeed in a harsh/unstable global system. The other option is to build something new. A new resilient tribe to provide you with a real, tangible future that enables you to thrive.’

There is a lot more about John Robb pages 15 to 18.

We continue our excerpting:

Michel has a balanced evaluation of Robb. On June 20 he wrote: I'm not a John Robb expert, having not read the book, but I follow his blog, though with some delay, but I consider him, together with Jeff Vail, I consider him a top thinker on p2p ...

What makes John Robb distinctive is 1) his emphasis on negative p2p developments, the dark side if you like, i.e. p2p-democratization of warfare, insurgent organization, and the means of destruction .... According to him, combined with other developments, this leads to a fatal weakening of the nation state. The meltdown for him is less a crisis of capitalism than actually a victory of the global market forces over the nation state. The result is hollow states, that keep the form, but are no longer able to carry out the duties and functions of the state. So, when people discover that the nation-state is no longer able to solve any of their fundamental issues, they turn to more basic levels of identity and social organization, and they can do this in progressive ways (open localization concerned with equity and world governance), or in reactionary ways (restricted group identity communalism). It’s pretty clear the tea party is the latter, while John Robb, like us here at the P2P Foundation, are in the former. The key distinction is where do you draw the line of concern (who is the in and out group), and how you relate to the out group (solidarity vs. enmity).

Another distinction is the balance between optimism and pessimism and how to factor in the possibility of progressive social forces. My own take is that you can never discount new social movements emerging, and I hope to see at some point, a merger of social mobilization, with constructive p2p communities. I think John Robb totally discounts that form of collective agency, hence he can only see the global market, nation states captured by predatory factions, and in reaction, local resilient communities. It's really like there is nothing in between collapse and resilience. I hope he is wrong, is all I can say, and that a new progressive wave is still in the realm of the possibilities. It all boils down to this: is this the final stage of dislocation of the current global system, as John Robb asserts, or do we still have a possibility of a new growth wave, even amongst the serious problems developing?

But in any case, even if the latter were possible, we still have to go through a deep period of dislocation to de-leverage the former system-wave... and exactly because the global political elite fails to do this (they are to weak vis a vis the global market forces and can't rely on any strong social movements to counter-pressure them), we are in for a prolonged period of chaos, like the thirties in Europe. Short term (say 15 years dislocation) or long term dislocation (think end of Roman Empire), that is the question.

in any case, even if a positive Kondratieff wave was still possible, it would very very soon collide with interlocking global crisis which would make the continuation of capitalism unthinkable in a time frame of more than 50 years. Consequently the problem is, what will replace it, a reactionary power structure of increased exploitation, in a global struggle for dwindling resources amongst overpopulation, food and water and resource depletion and climate change, with scattered pockets of resilient communities ... or a new p2p system centered around open commons of knowledge, code and designs, linked to relocalized and more distributed property formats, with forms of global governance that protects the planet?” Editor: And so With this very lengthy introduction completed herewith --

... The Interview "

End of excerpt from the Introduction.

More Information

  1. Text of the interview: Gordon Cook Interviews Michel Bauwens
  2. Tour of the Rationale, Structure and Maintenance of the Peer to Peer Foundation Wiki‎
  3. Back Issues: http://www.cookreport.com/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=37&Itemid=61
  4. Cook's Collaborative Edge Blog http://gordoncook.net/wp/