Peer-to-Peer Potlatch and the Acephalic Response

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* Article: Andrew Whelan: Leeching Bataille : Peer-to-Peer Potlatch and the Acephalic Response.


“There are significant problems with ‘gift economy’ accounts of peer-to-peer (p2p). In what follows this argument is advanced on several grounds. Firstly, empirically: it may have been at one time that p2p operated like a gift economy, and it may be now that some elements of the p2p ecology operate like gift economies. But certain social and structural facets of ‘free culture’ online generate serious problems for conventional gift economy readings. In addition, there are notorious problems with conceptualising the actual practice of gifting and how it can best be understood in relation to reciprocity: the consequences of the ideology of the ‘pure’ gift and so on.

Secondly, then, there are good theoretical grounds for questioning the appropriateness of the gift model for p2p. There are inherent features of the theory of the gift and the model of reciprocity involved which tend to “elide inequalities of power” (Osteen 2002: 3). Furthermore, regarding p2p, the gift has often been picked up only partially; with deployments retaining elements of the economism the theory of the gift attempts to overcome. Many references to the anthropology of the gift in relation to p2p dilute significantly both the totality of the gift in the anthropological accounts Mauss drew on, and the enormous importance accorded to the gift and what it stands for in Mauss, Bataille, and numerous others.

Thirdly, the gift economy reading does not go far enough. It misconstrues p2p as utopian, positive, progressive, reciprocal, communal. It pretends that the ‘good guys’ (the ‘pirates’) are not (or not only) hyperconsumers. It underplays the extent to which downloaders and the monopolistic content producers are locked together in a grotesque embrace. It fails to grasp the consequences of Mauss’s account of the gift (let alone Bataille’s) when it asserts that p2p exchange is assessable as a utilitarian good, a good with calculable benefits, when in fact p2p presents a kind of supereconomics or antieconomics. It misidentifies a naïve and faulty model of the political in a contested and problematic social and cultural practice. It fails to account satisfactorily for the incredible responses to p2p from state and corporate agencies (for the violence of that particular gift). In short, it doesn’t work, and it also obscures from view some of the most important aspects of p2p; it artificially isolates p2p from the total social phenomenon in which it is embedded: the ‘general economy’ (Bataille 1988).” (

More Information

  1. Gift Economy