P2P Theory and Marxism

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In this page, we would like to explore some possible linkages between P2P Theory and Marxist schools of thought.

Raoul Viktor: Peer production makes the future society visible

"Men make their own history - said Marx - but they do not do it arbitrarily, under the conditions chosen by them, but rather in conditions directly given and inherited from the past."

This is a very interesting and stimulating essay by Raoul, who is a participant in theOekonux mailing list.He identifies a key problem of the Marxist-inspired revolutionary movement: that of the invisibility of the revolutionary project. The key problem until recently was that such movements knew what they were against, but could only offer an abstract vision of the future. There were no social practices to point to that could give an idea of what the new society would be like. It is this fundamental condition which is now changing.

"Will the development of new technologies make it possible to better perceive what the new society can be?

One can distinguish two dimensions within which to envisage the effects of the development of new technologies on the visibility of the revolutionary project, even if in the reality of the two are interconnected: the first relates to the increase in the productivity of labor, the second concerns the new kinds of social practice thereby made possible.

On the productivity of labor, I will only insist on recalling the fact that the condition for making products freely available, and therefore eliminating commodity exchange, depends on the possibility of abundance and that, beyond the question of natural limitations and on the form of social organization, that depends on the increase in the productivity of labor, or of productive activity, if one doesn't like the term labor.

The Nobel Prize winner Robert Solow declared in 1987: "One sees computers everywhere, except in the statistics." At the time, indeed, productivity, such as it is measured by the ratio of production (measured in monetary terms) divided by employment (the number of people or hours worked), was not particularly marked by a more growth than in the past. Since the second half of the 1990's, things have changed and the effects of the introduction of "computers everywhere" can be seen in a spectacular way, including the problems thereby posed for employment levels in the Western economies. The importance of that growth is even more impressive when instead of measuring it in monetary terms (the price of the goods produced) one evaluates it "physically", in the use value produced by the same labor.

New technologies bring about a qualitative upheaval in the level of the growth of productivity, and thus in the possibility of a world without scarcity, where everyone can receive according to his needs and give according to his abilities, in the words of the old but still valid formula. The visibility of a project of a society freed from the laws of capital, which prevent such an outcome, would thus be enhanced. It is easier to dream of a world where goods are free when the necessary effort to satisfy human needs is being reduced at an accelerated rate, and when that becomes visible.

But it is especially on the new social practices made possible by modern technologies that I would like to insist. To fully understand the significance and the range today, I believe that there are two essential conditions: the first is situated at the qualitative level and consists in knowing how to recognize the authentically non-commodity, therefore non-capitalist, character of these practices; the second is situated at the quantitative level, and consists in seeing reality and the importance of its repercussions on social life within a temporal perspective of several years, or even decades.

Jacques W, and with him a number of revolutionary "technophobes" see in the evolution of technologies only what capital does and can do with them, and conclude that that can lead only to the "barbarization of social relations". They can thus show how the development of the Internet and all the applications of electronics lead to an expansion and intensification of commerce and the commercialization of social life, of control and spying on the life of individuals, of improvement in the means of destruction and self-destruction, etc. But they see only that, ignoring, often with an ironic contempt, the whole universe that develops with it, and which is built on non-commodity - therefore non-capitalist - bases. They see "in misery only misery", as Marx reproached Proudhon. They see the extension of commodity and capitalist relations to all aspects of social life but do not realize that simultaneously there also develops a sector that escapes that logic. Capitalist trade through the Internet represents a sector in full expansion and the world wide net is becoming an essential instrument for any competitive enterprise. But, simultaneously, the Internet constitutes as of now the greatest experiment in "sharing", in sharing non-commodifiable goods, in the history of humanity. The combination of the prospects of communication via the net and that of digital goods has generated, and is generating, an unprecedented development of "sharing." This phenomenon has three dimensions:

- The sharing of digital goods;

- The sharing of individual efforts for the development of a project, a common, public, work;

- The sharing of means materials (computers)."

2. How long will it take?

"These practices thrive and develop side by side with the commercial universe. Because of their new effectiveness, they are the prey of the voracity of the commercial undertakings which see a means to thereby appropriate free work, a weapon in the wars in which they are engaged, and even an instrument to adorn their image. In certain cases, some of these practices also face the repression of the State, and new legal structures are being set up to try to keep control of them. But, whatever the degree of interpenetration with the capitalist world, whatever the effort to control them that they encounter, they constitute a qualitatively new reality, one that is different from commodity relations. These new social practices are still, for the most part, just beginning, but the forms which they have taken until now are only the first in a universe which will not stop growing as it changes old activities and generates new ones. The possibilities opened up are infinite and to the extent that the world of the Internet grows, the creativity of new, possible, communities can only grow with it. It is estimated that there were nearly a billion Internet users at the beginning of 2005 and 1.2 billion are foreseen for 2006. That's a lot, if one takes into account what that number was only five years ago; it's only a little if one considers the part of humanity which still does not yet have access to the network of all networks. Besides, non-commodity practices are only one part of the reality of the Internet, which, moreover, has become an indispensable means of trade and of the organization of companies and governments. Nevertheless, these practices are a concrete demonstration that commercial exchange and the pecuniary search for profit are not the only motivations making it possible for humans to socially act and live together, contrary to what the dominant ideology repeats ad nauseam. And it is not unimportant, when it is a question of envisaging the possibility of a revolutionary project.

The influence of the these practices in the social body, and within the exploited classes in particular, can only become significant with their development and extension, and that will take time. How much time? It would be foolhardy to guess. If the growth in the number of users of the Internet continued to grow at the current rate, in 6 years that number could equal almost half of humanity. It would exceed 6 billion in 10 years. That is only one mechanical projection and ignores some important questions, such as knowing socially who will have access to the Internet or what part non-commodity practices, sharing, will play in it. What we can be sure about is that their development is inescapable. There are two essential reasons for that:

1. The inevitable productivity race, the veritable nerve center of capitalist commercial war, leads to the increasingly intense and extended recourse to new digital technologies. Which means that the number of goods that can be digitized (thus freely reproduced), and the share of the "digital" in each good, can only increase;

2. Relations based on exemption from payment, free co-operation and the disdain of borders, constitute the most effective forms to manage new technologies of communication and data processing.

Here are the elements of the "conditions directly given" in which one can foresee that humans will make "their own history", to again use the words of Marx. But, the evolution and the taking advantage of these objective conditions depend on the consciousness of men. At present, what consciousness do the humans who now engage in those non-commodity practices made possible by the evolution of technology have? Can these practices contribute to the generalization of a revolutionary anti-capitalist consciousness?" (http://dorax.club.fr/Visibility.htm)

Two schools of cybernetic socialism

Heinz Dieterich [1]:

"Apart from many individuals, two schools of thought have independently advanced the reasoning about the “socialism of the XXI century”: the so-called “Scottish School”, with the computational expert, Paul Cockshott and the economist Allin Cottrell; and that denominated the “School of Bremen”, in turn, of the universal genius, Arno Peters, the mathematician Carsten Stahmer, the Cuban physicist, Raimundo Franco, and myself.

The emphasis of analysis of both schools varies. To put it simply. The principal work of Cockshott/Allin, Towards a New Socialism, is a brilliant and profound discussion centered primarily on the technological and economic aspects of a new and viable non-capitalist project. On the other hand, the works of the Bremen School, for example, The end of Global Capitalism, The New Historic Project; Computer Socialism, (Arno Peters), and XXI Century Socialism and Participative Democracy, (Heinz Dieterich), prioritize a more evolutionary and institutional focus which discusses, in addition the problem of the phase of transition towards a new socialism in Latin America.

The amazing result, nevertheless, is that both theories, developed independently and from different angles, arrive at the same general inferences (conclusions) on the principal institutions which will substitute the bourgeois institutions in the new postbourgeois and postcapitalist civilization. These coincidences on the new socialist institutionalism of the XXI century, undoubtedly constitute a relevant methodological indicator of the validity of the results obtained, in an independent manner, by both groups." (http://reality.gn.apc.org/econ/chavez2.html)

School 1: Towards a New Socialism


This book by Scottish authors Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell combine a focus on cybernetic coordination, participatory democracy, and the labour theory of value, see http://reality.gn.apc.org/germanpreface.pdf

The complete book, http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/new_socialism.pdf

Main introduction, http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/intro.html

Other introductions:

  1. http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/bettelheim_etc.pdf
  2. http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/soviet_planning.pdf, 'Calculation, Complexity and Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Once Again' (Review of Political Economy, July 1993) in PDF format: calculation_debate.pdf. Our analysis and response to the historic 'socialist calculation debate' involving Mises, Hayek, Lange and others.
  3. http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/hayek_critique.pdf, 'Information and Economics: A Critique of Hayek' (Research in Political Economy, 1997) in PDF format: hayek_critique.pdf. Counter-argument to Hayek's influential critique of socialist planning in his article `The Use of Knowledge in Society'.

What is the theoretical basis for a new socialism?

"The principal bases for a post-Soviet socialism must be radical democracy and efficient planning. The democratic element, it is now clear, is not a luxury, or something that can be postponed until conditions are especially favourable. Without democracy, as we have argued above, the leaders of a socialist society will be driven to coercion in order to ensure the production of a surplus product, and if coercion slackens the system will tend to stagnate. At the same time, the development of an efficient planning system will most likely be impossible in the absence of an open competition of ideas. The failure of Soviet Communists to come up with viable socialist reform proposals over recent years is testimony to the malign effects of a system in which conformity and obedience were at a premium. Capitalist societies can achieve economic progress under conditions of political dictatorship, for even under such dictatorship the realm of private economic activity is relatively unregulated and the normal processes of competition remain operative, while the suppression of working-class organisation may permit a higher rate of exploitation. Under socialism, there can be no such separation of oppressive state from `free' economy; and if criteria of ideological `correctness' dominate in the promotion of managers and even in economic-theoretical debate, the long-run prospects for growth and efficiency are dim indeed.

On the counts of both democratic institutions and efficient planning mechanisms, we have to say that the problems which emerged in the Soviet case reflect certain weaknesses in classical Marxism. Marx, Engels and Lenin were much stronger in their critiques of capitalism than in their positive theorizing concerning socialist society. As regards democratic institutions, the Bolsheviks initially latched onto the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies as the favoured form. While this may have been tactically astute, we argue that the soviet form is inherently inadequate and indeed dangerous and that we must look elsewhere for the principles of a socialist democratic constitution. As regards planning mechanisms, Marx and Engels had some interesting suggestions, but these were never developed beyond the level of rather vague generalities. The Soviet planners improvised their own system, which worked for certain purposes in its time, but the development of their thinking about socialist economic mechanisms was limited by what they saw as the need to conform to the canons of Marxism -- to avoid and indeed denounce any theoretical methods, such as marginal analysis, that appeared tainted by `bourgeois' connotations. Western marxists have argued that this tendency was based on a misinterpretation of Marx. Quite likely so, but the fact that Marx did not attempt to spell out the principles of operation of a planned economy at any length made such a misreading possible. At any rate, socialism will never again have any credibility as an economic system unless we can spell out such principles in reasonable detail." (http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/intro.html)

Synopsis of the book

"In the remainder of this introduction we offer a synopsis of the main arguments to come, in the light of the problems and issues identified above. Chapters 1 and 2 tackle issues connected with inequality and inequity. The first gives an overview of the bases of inequality in capitalist society -- bases which, as we have suggested above, social democratic amelioration is unable to eradicate. The second shows how a consistent socialist system of payment could substantially eliminate inequality. The payment system outlined in chapter 2 depends on the idea that the total labour content of each product or service can be calculated. Chapter 3 justifies this claim, while developing the argument that economic calculation in terms of labour time is rational and technically progressive.

Chapters 4 to 9 then develop various aspects of an efficient system of economic planning, a system capable of ensuring that economic development is governed by the democratically constructed needs of the people. Chapter 4 establishes some basic concepts and priorities, and distinguishes a number of different `levels' of planning, namely strategic planning, detailed planning, and macroeconomic planning, which are then examined in detail in chapters 5, 6 and 7 respectively. Chapter 8 outlines a specific mechanism for ensuring that the detailed pattern of production remains in line with consumers' preferences, while avoiding excessive queues and shortages. Chapter 9 examines the information requirements for the type of planning system we envisage, and makes a link between the issue of accurate information and the incentives and sanctions faced by individuals. In the course of these chapters we draw a number of contrasts between the sort of system we are proposing, and the system commonly regarded as having failed in the Soviet Union.

While chapters 4 to 9 deal with the planning of a single economy in isolation, chapters 10 and 11 extend the argument to consider issues arising from trade with other economies, an important practical concern in a world of increasing interdependence.

Chapters 12 to 14 move beyond the economic to further social and political questions. Chapter 12 makes a connection between socialist objectives and the concerns brought to light by feminists. It investigates the possibilities for domestic communes as an alternative to the nuclear family `household', and shows how such communes could function within the broad structure of a planned economy. Chapter 13 considers the political sphere, and proposes a radical form of democratic constitution capable of giving ordinary people real control over their lives. As mentioned earlier, we are critical of the soviet model of democracy. We are equally critical of parliamentary systems, and our own proposals stem from a re-examination of the mechanisms of classical (Athenian) democracy in the modern context. Chapter 14 examines the question of property relations, and elaborates the specific forms of property required as a basis for the preceding economic and social forms.

In a final chapter we tackle some contrary arguments put forward by sceptical socialists in recent years. In this context we reply to arguments in favour of `market socialism' as an alternative to the sort of planning we advocate.

The overall theme which animates the book, through all its various detailed arguments, will, we hope, be clear. That is, we take as our ultimate aim the greatest possible fulfillment of the potential of each human being, as individual and as a member of society. This fulfillment requires dignity, security and substantive equality (though not, of course, uniformity), as well as productive efficiency. It also requires that humans find sustainable ways of living in balance with the overall environment of the planet. We argue that these aims can best be met through a cooperative, planned form of social economy under a radically democratic political constitution -- a post-Soviet socialism." (http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/intro.html)