Interview with Michel Bauwens at Sydney Blockchain Workshops dec 2015

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A conversation with Michel Bauwens, Sydney, Thursday 10 December 2015 (shorthand notes)


The following text is a wrap-up of shorthand notes taken during a 3 hour conversation with Michel Bauwens that happened in Sydney at the Blockchain Workshops held on 10-11 December 2015.

We covered a lot of ground: from Michel's personal journey, to a critique of the existing and emerging paradigms, to a call to action to do serious work to lay out the argument for the thermodynamic efficiency of P2P production, and to launch a journal of the commons economics.

Conversation transcript

On the old system not understanding Peer-to-Peer:

What’s happening with P2P is that within the dominant contradiction there’s a new contradiction emerging that peer produces a new Netarchical Capital. Which is the new system. And they just can’t see it. They’re blind*. (Netarchical Capitalism:

(* additional note from mb: the context of this quote was contrasting the religious conflicts before the French Revolution of 1789, in which conflict was expressed through different interpretations of religion), to the period from 1789 to 1989, in which conflict was expressed through affiliation within ideological camps; and to the recent period, in which the primary expression is becoming the participation and defense of common goods. Thus, the 'blindness' refers to the forces of the left, who cannot see the post-capitalist contradictions emerging.)

Peer production creates use value directly, which can only be partially monetized in its periphery, contradicting the basic mechanism of capitalism, which is production for exchange value. (

Personal journey:

Why do you think they’re blind?

(…) I was a Marxist when I was in my 20s and I still have a bit of tribal identification: these are my people. At least they were. But discussing this with them is most frustrating because they just don’t get it.

What is the individual journey to get to the point where you see it?

It’s a bit complicated. I was a young Trotskyist when I was 17. I was part of a group called Militant in the UK. ( )

Very radical. The Revolution was always just behind the corner.

And after 7 years of such an engagement (I was 24), I could see this was going nowhere. I was selling my newspaper: and you could see all these workers looking at us not understanding why we were even there … There was a contradiction between the militants having this language, and the workers who were not caring even a bit about what we were saying.

I went intoto a crisis. I could see we couldn’t do the revolution. And was unhappy. So I went through 'therapy' and a spiritual journey for 14 years. You name it, I’ve done it. I experienced and practiced different therapeutic approaches and spiritual practices. Then by the time I’ve reached my 30s. I got married: I thought I’m ok now, I’m just as fucked up like everyone else. I realised I was ok :-))

Then 3 years of studying Western Philosophy reconciled me with my Western heritage. It was really important. Yes the West did very bad things (colonialism, slavery, etc), but what I saw is that we’re the only ones who gave women equality and abolished slavery. The West has dual contradictions, but has been really thinking about equality. This not necessarily the case everywhere else in the world where people are not focused on equality as a primary concern or value: many actively want hierarchy.

There are 2 books by Louis Dumont that I would recommend ( " director at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. A specialist on the cultures and societies of India, Dumont also studied western social philosophy and ideologies.)

  • Homo hierarchicus
  • Homo æqualis: which shows the birth of equalitarianism, which is fascinating – mostly in 16th century.

On Marxism:

The thing with Marxism (and this is very important) they recognise class conflicts. You have to recognise the deep structural clusters. Which is why I think Marxism is still very useful. In any country if you want to know what’s happening, read the Trotskyist magazine and it will tell you who’s who, what power groups are there. If you want to know what’s happening in Venezuela, Equator, you really need to know this.

But the problem with Marxism is that you go from this notion of class conflict to a class war, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to deal with it. **

(** here the context was a discussion on the many different forms social change can take, with the French and Russian models as exceptions rather than the rule, and yet those are the models marxism was always focused on)

So when I talk like I talked yesterday morning in room full of bankers, I know what you are saying and I know this is true. But I know that most people in corporations actually want to do good stuff. But structurally they cannot, that’s why I left.

At the personal level, good things can happen though connections with people at all levels of society. And sometimes you can get the financing from unexpected places. In my 20s, I was told by my group that our English printing press was funded by John Lennon, and that the Belgium printing press of another group was funded by the Red Queen of Belgium (Queen Elizabeth), and I remember reading the Black Panthers in the US were funded by rich Jewish liberals in New York: you cannot have any grassroots change without funding or support from other quarters. And it’s got to come from somewhere. And it usually comes from renegades who are unhappy with the system they are part of or even from "evil" people with strategic interests: Lenin was funded by German secret services to undermine Russia, because they didn’t expect he would do much more than they expected – and the Bolsheviks were very cynical about this.

You know, we need money. And it’s very difficult to find.

But we need to do it in a way we have super-ethical requirements and we know when to say no. If you can keep your independence, if you feel you are advancing the cause: yes. If you feel you are compromising: no.

And one final thing: The problem with Marxists and a lot of the people on the Left is that they are driven by their hatred. So ‘the enemy of my enemy is a friend’. But you have to start thinking of positives, for your own group or class’ interests. And I see P2P, the commoners, as a new class. We are primarily focused on the construction of alternatives through the commons, not by our hatred of the dominant system. As Spinoza would have said, it is not comong from our 'sad passions' but from an overflow our our common love for what we are building together.

That’s where Gramsci comes in: you have the constitution of a new subject. The workers, because they were farmers, they didn’t know they were workers. And some people have a language to allow people to constitute as a new people, to build the counter-hegemony. That is why Gramsci is still very relevant.

They only difference within Marxists is that they are in an old counter-hegemony which is dying, and they are blind to the new counter-hegemony which is growing. And they just can’t see it. (I am aware people are arguing that networks obviate the need for gramscian tactics, but I do not believe that is the case, there is still a system to overcome).

“How about the Left and Right dynamics? Is it becoming irrelevant? Does the Logic of production matter more?"

MB: I’m not sure I agree. The issue is capturing the value of the commons. But there are also means of production behind it. I’m still of the opinion that Left and Right are still there because it is about inclusion. It’s all about community. And the Right is generally better than the Left at communnity, generally speaking. In evangelical groups, people will visit you in hospital. When I had an accident I was 3 months in hospital: nobody came to visit me. So the left loves humanity in the abstract. But when it comes to real people, they have a real problem.

[-> Blaqswans: It reminds me of this famous passage from the brothers Karamazov Brothers:

“The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.”]

It’s a typical attitude for the Left.

The typical attitude for the Right: “let’s protect ourselves.” They actually care for each other. It’s very tribal.

It is about the capacity to extend your circle of care: that is still there as a fundamental contradiction. Are you willing to share your privilege with people who need it more than you? That’s still a Left/Right kind of thing.

Also, the importance of the participatory communal language (in the UK, in Netherlands it is mis-appropriated by the right for their anti-welfare agenda)

Examples: Cut budget by 1/3 and give it to the banks and let decentralized structures deal with the diminished means and funding: that is a very Right wing policy, a class policy. Or compare using people’s fear to destroy the commonwealth estate, vs Comú in Barcelona: they use the commons but restrain Airbnb because it excludes poor people.

[-> Blaqswans: See]

That’s the Left vs Right. Depending on who you care for. And Comú cares for the excluded. In my view, politics is about creating alliances between the knowledge workers and the workers, the farmers, to create social support. But not everybody will be on our side eventually.

“With the emergence of digital, will the distinction Left-Right disappear?”

MB: I would argue differently. With the rise of a digital society, we’ll have a different Left-Right.

It has happened before:

  • Before 1789: being Left meant that you were some kind of reformed Christian. You would look into the Bible to say why the Pope was evil. Thomas Müntzer etc.
  • After 1789 you’re getting into an ideological reality: it becomes “let’s organise all the people who think like that about society, let’s take power and then change”.
  • Now we are in a situation where we build a new society through the commons, unite with everyone who wants to build the commons. And we’ll still have differences but we are united around the commons. For example, I would critique Ethereum supporters ( ) for their libertarian bias, but I would still work on the blockchain with them, because we have a common interest in the blockchain.

It doesn’t mean that we ignore differences. There are profound ideological differences that are very shocking. For example when they infer that we are all isolated individuals who make smart contracts: I want to scream “what about your mother? did she make a contract with you? I mean, Come on!” This assumption that we are just atomized individuals I find to be very disturbing and untrue. Anyway… we can still have those kind of arguments and work with them.

Question about working as peers, but not having the constraint “to live in the same phalanstère

MB: We are witnessing a deep evolution from the holistic paradigm where for example you’re part of the Catholic society, or the Muslim society. You’re like a piece, you’re subjected, as part of the body of the king. Then we go to a situation where you have to belong to physical communities that are part of production (workers and employees in factories). So you go from ‘holistic’ to kind of ‘parts’. Then we go to individuals. Then we go within individuals to distribution. We go down to the basic modules. For example: we go from Atoms to nano-technology. We go from biology to genetics. And with P2P we go to the distribution of tasks, the capacity to differentiate: this is what equipotentiality is about:
. The trend is from centralized control and organization, to decentralized, to distributed.

  • Equipotentiality : peer production processes are characterized by the adoption of equipotentiality as an organizing principle. This means that everyone can potentially cooperate in a project, that no authority can pre-judge the ability to cooperate, but that the quality of cooperation is then judged by the community of peers, i.e. through Communal Validation.

Peer to peer relationaly, by contrast, is based on the principle of Equipotentiality:

“This means that everyone can potentially cooperate in a project, that no authority can pre-judge the ability to cooperate, but that the quality of cooperation-through-contributions is then judged by the community of peers, i.e. through Communal Validation. In equipotential projects, participants self-select themselves to the module to which they feel able to contribute.” Persons are therefore seen as a varied collection of capacities, in some of which the person can excel over some others, but there is no overall ranking as compared to others. The law of equivalence, which has dominated the modern period, is explained very well by anthropologist Harry Walker in this talk on the “Anthropology of the Common”.

Instead of a system where you are better than me, P2P says “let’s build a social system where every individual can contribute her/his best passion knowledge skills to a common project”. And individuals can contribute to different projects. And by creating an open signalling system, a stigmergic system you are able to belong to several communities. So you are not forced to choose a holistic thing. P2P allows you to say “I’m a socialist, a Buddhist, a vegetarian, but I don’t want X”.

And the difference with post modernism, is that post modernism sees this as fragmentation, and alienation, because they are deconstructing. And when you reconstruct you realise that you can unite your fragments around your passions, and around the recognition you get from your contributory community. You are building your identity from your engagement.

What about ULab work?

MB: one day we should do a panel with myself, Peter Senge ( ) and Otto Scharmer: that would be very interesting.

Stephen Richards: “that’s what I tried to do as an entrepreneur. I started. I just got bent over. So I went OK, that’s not going to work. Yet, I had a deep knowledge of the system. But realised that you can’t take those concepts and just change the existing governance. You need to convince young people to switch.”

MB: talk to Enspiral in NZ. They have those young people.


MB: So for example I’m not talking to Westpac saying “here is how much more money you can make with the Blockchain”. But I’m speaking as I did there saying you’re human beings I’m sure you want to be part of the solution.


On the issue of still working in the old system (e.g. in a big corporate) but wanting to participate to the P2P community:

Part of the P2P approach is that I’m not telling anyone what to do, I’m telling them what I’d like to see. Because I’m also trying to show each other what they are doing.

In order to increase mutual alignment. And you may be in a phase of your life where you are perfectly happy to have that split (work for a corporate and moonlight in P2P – “Corporate as a day-job, P2P as a night-job”). To be honest we need some people like that. Because if everybody is precarious, it will be difficult. So I’m happy to have a few people who can lend me money once in a while. Seriously.

So we need those people.. and maybe at an another point of your life you will want to do more of the good thing because it becomes intolerable. That’s what happened to me. And you prepare yourself. I had my crisis when I was 42, which was 1996. But it still took 6 years, to prepare. I took a last well paid job. Saved money for 3 years.


Blaqswans: Conversation on also using the 'weaponry' of the old system for the cause. Because one complaint from people driving activism is at times that they are surrounded by well-intended activists but who lack the skills from the other camp to be effective (financial skills, organisational skills, etc.).


Discussion about Catalan Integral Cooperative and the Aurea Social: [ -> Blaqswans: Vice magazine article: “On the Lam with Bank Robber Enric Duran ]

Enspiral is a good example: So you need to create a rich tapestry of knowledge, people who have skills to bring the money. And once you have that, you have other people who can work on an organic farm, and they will be supported by this rich tapestry of knowledge. They have reinvestment mechanisms. They have people who work in the Silicon Valley, and they reinvest in the common pool, and they help each other get mortgages. They actively co-create. They have leadership.

What are the next steps for you?

  • Ethereum are looking at their governance. They need to accelerate their work and manage the demands of their investors. Initially they started as libertarians who are actually against governance. But if you don’t want to think about power, it will expand itself in a perverse way. So working with them will be interesting.***

(this was in the context of a dinner meeting on the subject, which, due to a misunderstand, was missed)

  • “Sauver le monde” is now published in French and Flemish. The text is there but we need to improve it, and find a publisher (probably North Atlantic): That’s January to mid-February 2016. We will be working on a 2nd flemish edition and a new english edition.
  • Then Maddison, University of Wisconsin 4 months: with the Havens Center to rewrite my essay of 2005 “Peer to Peer and Human Evolution” I want to recapture everything I’ve learnt in 10 years. People will have to react to it. How much I can do in 4 month? I don’t know. It will be a very copious book by Verso.
  • And here is my dream: in 2010 I did this report for Orange “A Synthetic Overview of the Collaborative Economy”. I want to do a new one. I want to do my ‘10 commandments’. A book with 10 chapters showing what the new communities are doing, what they are prototyping, what’s working, give as many example as I can, supported by quotes, citations and statistics. But I need at least 20,000 euros. (Note: let’s organise a fund raiser). The reason is that I need someone next to me, someone to work with me full time. I don't want to do this particular project in a p2p way, as I want to express my personal understanding and vision in this project. To get progress and cut through, sometimes it's good to do it à la Francis Ford Coppola who drove everyone pretty hard on the set of Apocalypse Now, but delivered a masterpiece, like a benevolent dictator.

What about creating a value chain?

I’m building the raw materials for somebody else to do this. What we need is an economics of the commons, an economics of abundance. Instead of an economics of scarcity. And we don’t have that.

Their fundamentals are so problematic. It’s an axiomatic system. I remember by my economics 101. They lay out assumptions: “let’s assume that…“ and when you say “hang on a second, it’s not like that…” they reply “it doesn’t matter, let’s assume that…” And by the time you have all these axioms, everybody says “yeah it’s true” And they build their whole economics on false assumptions.

Blaqswans: Which leads to totally dysfunctional sectors of the economy such as intensive farming, which is drowning in debt. While farmers who have switched to bio-dynamics, who got rid of Monsanto etc, who sell to the AMAP ( ) , La Ruche Qui Dit Oui ( ) (The Beehive) are running a better margin and a profit with less volumes.

MB: This is what the Open Food Network is doing in Australia. You should connect with them ( )

If we could create a circle of P2P heterodox economics willing to study this.

MB: ...And I will provide them with all the raw materials: this is what we need. Maybe a journal of peer to peer economics, a journal of the commons economics. That would be great. It would also create the intellectual legitimacy of the time.

What level of sophistication?

We start where we can: peer review so that it’s not just bullshit. We have the journal of peer production. They have an interesting open peer review method. We could just take that and launch a journal of the commons economics.

  • First I need to so this new survey to show people that is happening.
  • Then we need somebody to work on these things and formalise the economics around it. For example: describing the relations between the commons and the entrepreneurs. The raw materials is available on the wiki. I can point you to the right sections. We can do this in January. Each of the sections will be one chapter.

For example: P2P accounting system. What are the different options in that space: Integral Accounting, contributory accounting, open value accounting… just describe what it is, who is doing what, with citations, the sources. Create evidence that this is really happening, for people who don’t have the time to browse on my wiki. They can get a shortcut.

What about the notion of de-growth?

De-growth is just not the right word…

We need to dramatically increase out thermodynamic efficiency. And peer to peer can do this:

  • Open design doesn’t create planned obsolescence.
  • Transparent networks with stigmergy which allow for mutual coordination, open supply chain and open book accounting. They can dramatically increase the mutualisation of infrastructure (sharing) and decrease costs.
  • If we do this we can reduce 80% of our ‘matter/energy’: here is the idea: let’s go back to the 60s (not that old) and use 20% of the energy we consume today. We need a bit of degrowth in the western countries. Why do we need 3 houses? 1st house ok, 2nd house you’re taxed, and 3rd house you’re taxed so much that you won’t go for it.

So we need to lay out the argument for the thermodynamic efficiency of peer production

If you could work on this. I have intuitions and I need to make them harder.

Blaqswans: It’s a macroscope view of the energy flux...

Let’s do this. This is very important. If we can prove this, beyond my intuition.

Here are a few hints:

Open Source Ecology ( ) has calculated that they can make machines at 1/8 of the cost of industry standards

“The resulting machines are around 8-10 times cheaper than off-the-shelf industrial versions – but may require self-assembly. (..) On average, the machines are 1/8 cheaper than industry standards to buy, and much less expensive to maintain."

There are a lot of anecdotal evidence that this is the case about hardware.

  • The Circular Economy people have just produced a report saying that the circle economy alone can eliminate 44% of ‘matter/energy’
  • 2/3 of production costs are transportation: if we could re-localise production.

I need somebody to put it all together and make a really nice case. If you could do this, that would be great.

[ -> Blaqswans: References on the Circular Economy – Ellen MacArthur foundation ]

… then, if not literally at least in principle, we go back to Keynes’ 15 hour week. By realising industrial de-growth we will increase growth in our quality of life.

[ Pertinent reference: Essay - The golden age. The 15-hour working week predicted by Keynes may soon be within our grasp – but are we ready for freedom from toil? by John Quiggin ]


Discussion about Australia’s Superannuation system.


MB: So here is the thing: we create a funding pool that is free, fair and sustainable at the same time.

Because Wiki House, Wiki Speed. They are not just a bunch of people trying to make a house or a car. These are open platforms for sustainable mobility and sustainable housing. They are converging all the knowledge that is needed to do these things. The private companies are never going to do this.

[ Blaqswans: Another thought:

  • We have considered the “Economics layer”
  • The “Thermodynamics layer” which is a legacy from Marx's era. Marx was a product of his time (the era of engineers, steam engines, etc): that is why he saw the world as an engineer and did social engineering. Power, actions and counter-actions. He saw the world in a very deterministic way, like clockwork.
  • But today the scientific paradigm has moved to the science of networks, complex systems, and cognitive science. That is why Peer-to-Peer is all the more relevant today.

This really echoing MB’s slide from 2006 about “Complexity and Hierarchy”: and our shift to a networked civilisation. Also see René Passet (Les grandes représentations du monde et de l'économie à travers l'histoire : de l'univers magique au tourbillon créateur, Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2010, 958 p. (ISBN 2-9185-9708-2)

[-> Note: also see Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in his magisterial The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971).]

MB: So here is my proposal: thermodynamics efficiency

If we could could lead a section of our wiki called thermodynamics efficiency. I will help you collect all the information you need. And we will turn it into a scientific article. That would be a powerful article. “Peer to peer thermodynamic revolution”

Do the whole argumentation, and you back it up. It is going to be fantastic. It is so necessary.


On capitalist accounting:

MB’s example of fudging numbers on business case in his previous corporate career:

The soviet planning system was probably more reliable than the capitalist accounting. It’s really what can you get away with. This made me physically sick.***

(***this refers to my experience in a large firm and its creative accounting practices)


How can we make money when we share our knowledge?

There are plenty of examples of open business models. I documented it on the wiki.

If Rupert Murdoch had started Wikipedia, the world would be different today.

We need to systematise it instead of relying on providential individuals (Ghandi, Tim Berners Lee). To systematise it doesn’t have to be hierarchical. Distributed capital.

Final note:

Have a look at MB’s essay From the Communism of Capital to Capital for the Commons - Today we have a paradox: the more communist the sharing license used in the peer production of free software or open hardware, the more capitalist the practice.