Key Role of Peer Production and the Commons in the Great Transition

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By Michel Bauwens, Celine Piques and Xavier Rizos:

Our response at the P2P Foundation has been particularly triggered, not just by the great work and proposals of Paul Raskin, but by the specific commentary of Ruben Nelson of Foresight Canada, who stresses that what we are and must undergo, is a true civilizational transition.

Nelson writes that:

“In the past, all transitions in the forms of civilization were slow, local/regional, exclusive, optional and unconscious. Today, we are faced by the need to undertake a GT in our dominant form of civilization that, in contrast, must be fast (by any historic standard), scalable to the whole planet, inclusive of all 7.4 billion of us, recognized as required and conscious. This last requirement also implies that today we must not only be conscious about change at every scale, but must develop a capacity for meta-consciousness about change at every scale.” ( )

Several macro-historians have provided interesting maps of such civilizational transitions (1), but a very sound overview is The Structure of World History by Kojin Karatani (2), which suggests that a key element of such a transition is a reconfiguration of modes of exchange, and that a key aspect of a future civilization is the return to prominence of both the commons and reciprocity mechanisms as key drivers for the exchange of human value and natural resources. Like Alan Page Fiske in ‘Structures of Social Life’ (3) and David Ronfeldt with his TIMN framework (Tribes, Institutions, Markets, and Networks), Karatani takes a multi-modal approach. This means he recognizes and shows that at least four modes of exchange have existed throughout history and throughout all regions of the world, but what matters is their internal configuration, and especially, what is the dominant mode of exchange in any given system, which acts as an ‘attractor’ for the others. Karatani starts with describing the dominance of pooling in early nomadic societies based on kinship bands, the dominance of reciprocity and the gift economy in tribal federations; the dominance of state and rank-based redistribution (‘Authority Ranking’) in pre-capitalist class formations and finally, the dominance of the capitalist market. This means that civilizational transitions, marked by the evolution of one dominant exchange system to another, are regular occurrences in world history, and they are quite systematically described in Karatani’s remarkable synthesis. On the European continent, the two last of such transitions were the 10th transition of the post-Roman plunder economy into the feudal land-based economy, brilliantly described in Robert Moore’s First European Revolution, and the 15th century start of the transition to a market-based economy.

Karatani makes a special argument that networked technologies bring back pooling and the commons as central exchange mechanisms, and at the P2P Foundation, we have focused for the last ten years on the observation of precisely that transition, and specifically, on the emergence of commons-based peer production, which was first identified by Yochai Benkler in his answer to Adam Smith, i.e., The Wealth of Networks. Peer production is a proto-mode of production which is marked by open input into contributory systems, participatory modes of governance, and commons-oriented output. While it has emerged in the field of immaterial production such as free software and open design, it is now moving towards physical production, through its combination with networked modes of financing and distributed capital goods (distributed manufacturing). This mode of production and exchange exists either in a context of profit-maximisation, when the contributive productive communities are surrounded by extractive corporations, as is the case for example in most of free software production, or in a context of the emergence of generative and ethical entrepreneurial coalitions. These are coalitions of mostly mission-oriented, purpose-driven entrepreneurs who are take on legal forms from the cooperative and solidarity economy and are starting to practice shared open and contributory accounting, as well as taking first steps in participatory eco-systems of production and distribution that are using open supply chains. Examples of such models are the ones of Enspiral in New Zealand, Las Indias in Spain, Sensorica in Canada, and more. A recent 3-year study of 300 such peer production communities, called P2P Value and funded by the EU, came to interesting conclusions. For example, nearly all of them qualified as imaginary communities (cfr. Benedict Anderson’s work on the emergence of the ‘nation’-state), marked by both a generative desire (make the world a better place and solve social and environmental issues), an identification with global networks of belonging, the use and planning of contributory accounting mechanisms (in 78% of the cases), and the use of peer-based reputation mechanisms.

In other words, this new model that combines open contributory productive communities and their livelihood organisations are part and parcel of the now necessary transition from extractive/degenerative modes of production and exchange, to regenerative models, as described also by John. D. Liu.

Our conviction that peer production models based on the commons are central to the GTI is also strengthened by the 3,000-year comparative study undertaken by Mark Whitaker (4), which shows how the mutualization of knowledge, the mutualization of infrastructures, and the relocalization of productive capacity have been central to the ‘civilizational transitions’ in the past, in Europe, Japan, and China. But whereas religious reform movements were at the core of the past transitions, the historical agent now seems to be more secular-minded productive communities, as the open and free software and design movements, the cooperative and solidarity economy movements, and the attempts at relocalized production prototyping by the fabbing communities.

So what is most interesting in this context, is the potential environmental impact in terms of the material footprint:

1. First of all, none of these design and production communities practice ‘planned obsolescence’, which is not a bug but a feature of market-based production; they focus instead on sustainable open source circular economies

2. The generative entrepreneurial coalitions are motivated by the creation of ‘open, fair, and sustainable’ livelihoods, and take into account externalities, unlike capitalist markets

3. Nearly all these projects are based on the principle of cosmo-localization, i.e., design global, manufacture local, under the principle ‘what is light is shared globally, what is heavy is produced locally’. Given that the GDP of transport is higher than the GDP of production and that some studies point to a 3 to 1 expenditure of energy of transportation vs making, this alone has huge ecological implications in terms of footprint.

This potential is well-argued in a recent article, by Stephen Quilley, Jason Hawreliak et al. (5):

The authors write:

“For example, if it were ever possible to 3D print computer chips and construct/repair/upgrade telecommunications technology in a domestic or community setting, it is possible to envisage a massive reduction in the associated metabolic footprint (the ‘unit transformity cost’) of mobile telephony or computing. The possibility of reducing the metabolic cost of complexity goes to the heart of the left-green dilemma. Social emancipation has hitherto depended on forms of technological and social complexity that involve an economic scale (the throughput of energy and materials) that is, in the long term, unsustainable. It is an open question as to whether a reMaker society might eventually make complexity affordable.

Such a society would be much more decentralised with a great deal of active participation in the making, repair, and recycling of everyday goods, thus possibly presenting a significant growth in the informal economy. The potential for a modern green distributive political economy is one in which the goods produced are much cheaper and sustainable to make, relies on open design and flexible fabrication, collaborative design and funding (crowdsourcing), modularity, and electronic re-invention based on need, rather than want. The potential primary social and economic outcomes of such a new society emerge from the interplay of new social milieu and re-focusing of technological innovation.”

Of course, we are not claiming that all this potential is fully reached right here and now, but making the more general argument that a shift towards commons-based peer production, and thus to the centrality of pooling and the commons, is a key feature of the next Great Transition. Peer production is the right structure for the transition, as it combines a productive civil society based on contributions to the commons, a generative post-capitalist market economy (which includes a framework of reciprocity and mutual coordination in participatory eco-systems for open source circular economies), and for-benefit institutions as enabling mechanisms that maintain the infrastructures of cooperation, and prefigure a future ‘partner state’, which creates the general conditions for societal cooperation. In other words, this is not just a micro-structure, but also a macro-structure for societal organization.

The Blaqswans Collective - in association with the P2P lab, a specialized research unit linked to the P2P Foundation -, with Xavier Rizos and Celine Piques as coordinators, has made a first attempt to illustrate the potential gains in material footprint, if an integrated transition towards this new mode of production and exchange would take place, taking case studies from agriculture and food production to industrial manufacturing and renewable energy.

The early results of this preliminary study and review of the potential and actual gains in the thermodynamic necessities of food production, were it to undergo a shift through regenerative practices confirm our hopes. Xavier Rizos confirms that “The feasibility is unequivocal and the thermodynamics efficiencies proven: all studies and multiyear live experiments show that agro-ecology not only delivers the required regeneration of the ecosystems, but also produces between 30% and 80% efficiencies across metrics ranging from yield, to energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.”

However, our research team also insists that such a shift must be integrative, including the various practices of peer production and mutualization of productive resources; that it must take place place under a growth regime of maximum 1% to be effective at all; and that the changes have strong requirements for structural transformation.

In other words, our conviction is that there cannot be a Great Transition without a systemic transformation from a market-centric to a commons-centric form.


Some references:

1. Macrohistory and Macrohistorians. By J. Galtung, and Sohail Inayatullah (eds), Praeger, New York, 1997

2. The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange. By Kojin Karatani. Duke University Press, 2014

3. The Structures of Social Life. Alan Page Fiske. Free Press, 1993

4. Ecological Revolution: The Political Origins of Environmental Degradation and the Environmental Origins of Axial Religions; China, Japan, Europe. by Mark D. Whitaker. LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing, 2010

5. Finding an Alternate Route: Towards Open, Eco-cyclical, and Distributed Production. By Stephen Quilley, Jason Hawreliak, Kaitlin Kish. Journal of Peer Production, Issue #9: Alternative Internets, 2016 ;