Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State

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* Article: Practical Anarchism: Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State. By Yochai Benkler. Politics & Society41(2) 213–251


  • This article is part of the June 2013 special issue of Politics & Society called “Real Utopias.” The papers were originally presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association held in Denver, Colorado. The theme of the conference was “Real Utopias: Emancipatory Projects, Institutional

Designs, Possible Futures.”


'Based on several examples of working anarchies in the networked environment Benkler argued that peer mutualism works in certain contexts. Even though it is not perfect, it provides people with a new degree of freedom.

As individuals inhabiting a world of interlocked imperfect systems, we are susceptible to power shaping our perceptions, preferences, policies and principles as well as our actions, outcomes and configurations. Peer mutualism offers us a new way to bob and weave between those systems.

The core questions are how much of what people care about can be done in non-market, non-proprietary, non-governmental models? Do peer mutualism models offer enough of a solution space? And how corruptible are these non-hierarchical and non-coercive models?" (


"The article considers several working anarchies in the networked environment, and whether they offer a model for improving on the persistent imperfections of markets and states. I explore whether these efforts of peer mutualism in fact offer a sufficient range of capabilities to present a meaningful degree of freedom to those who rely on the capabilities it affords, and whether these practices in fact remain sufficiently nonhierarchical to offer a meaningful space of noncoercive interactions. The real utopias I observe here are perfect on neither dimension. Internally, hierarchy and power reappear, to some extent and in some projects, although they are quite different than the hierarchy of government or corporate organization. Externally, there are some spectacular successes, some failures to thrive, and many ambiguous successes. In all, present experience supports neither triumphalism nor defeatism in the utopian project. Peer models do work, and they do provide a degree of freedom in the capabilities they provide. But there is no inexorable path to greater freedom through voluntary open collaboration. There is a good deal of uncertainty and muddling through. The last part of the article suggests a theory of freedom that supports the significance of even these obviously imperfect peer systems with incomplete coverage of necessary human capabilities, and explains why expanding the domain of mutualism improves freedom and well-being under conditions of persistent market imperfection and an inevitably fallible state. Peer mutualism doesn’t have to be perfect; it merely needs to offer a new dimension or sufficient diversity in how it instantiates capabilities and transmits power to offer us, who inhabit the systems that these peer systems perturb, a degree of freedom."



Stefaan Verhulst:

"Prof. Benkler's “Practical Anarchism : Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State” ... considers “several working anarchies in the networked environment, and whether they offer a model for improving on the persistent imperfections of markets and states”. In particular, Prof. Benkler tries to capture and analyze our growing experience with what he calls

“peer mutualism: voluntaristic cooperation that does not depend on exclusive proprietary control or command relations as among the cooperators, and in many instances not even as common defense for the cooperators against nonparticipants.”

Later in the paper he describes “working anarchy” or “peer mutualism” as:

“ voluntaristic associations that do not depend on direct or delegated power from the state, and in particular do not depend on delegated legitimate force that takes a proprietary form and is backed by shared social understandings of how one respects or complies with another’s proprietary claim.”

According to Benkler, – using an “utopian” position – these working anarchies have the potential to produce four effects:

“First, they offer their participants a chunk of life lived in effective, voluntary cooperation with others.

Second, they can provide for everyone a degree of freedom in a system otherwise occupied by state- and property-based capabilities; they do not normally displace these other systems, but they do offer a dimension along which, at least for that capability and its dependencies, we are not fully subject to power transmitted through either direct state control or the property system.

Third, they provide a context for the development of virtue; or the development of a cooperative human practice, for ourselves and with each other.

And fourth, they provide a new way of imagining who we are, and who we can be; a cluster of practices that allow us to experience and observe ourselves as cooperative beings, capable of mutual aid, friendship, and generosity, rather than as the utility-seeking, self-interested creatures that have occupied so much of our imagination from Hobbes to the neoclassical models whose cramped vision governs so much of our lives.”

The central purpose of the paper is to examine the above value proposition behind peer mutualism, using two key questions:

“First, there is the internal question of whether these models can sustain their nonhierarchical, noncoercive model once they grow and mature, or whether power relations generally, and in particular whether systematically institutionalized power: hierarchy, property, or both, reemerges in these associations.

The second question is whether those practices we do see provide a pathway for substantial expansion of the domains of life that can be lived in voluntaristic association, rather than within the strictures of state and hierarchical systems. In other words, do mutualistic associations offer enough of a solution space, to provisioning a sufficient range of the capabilities we require for human flourishing, to provide a meaningful alternative model to the state and the market across a significant range of human needs and activities?”

The paper subsequently reviews various “working anarchies” – ranging from the so-called paradigm cases involving IETF, FOSS and Wikipedia to more recent cases of peer mutualism involving, for instance, Kickstarter, Kiva, Ushahidi, Open Data and Wikileaks. The emerging insight from the comparative selection is that all the examples examined:

“are perfect on neither dimension. Internally, hierarchy and power reappear, to some extent and in some projects, although they are quite different than the hierarchy of government or corporate organization. Externally, there are some spectacular successes, some failures to thrive, and many ambiguous successes. In all, present experience supports neither triumphalism nor defeatism in the utopian project. Peer models do work, and they do provide a degree of freedom in the capabilities they provide. But there is no inexorable path to greater freedom through voluntary open collaboration. There is a good deal of uncertainty and muddling through.”

Despite the uncertainties and imperfections, Prof. Benkler advocates…

“to continue to build more of the spectacular or moderate successes, and to try to colonize as much of our world as possible with the mutualistic modality of social organization. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it merely needs to offer a new dimension or sufficient diversity in how it instantiates capabilities and transmits power to offer us, who inhabit the systems that these peer systems perturb, a degree of freedom.” (


Defining "Working Anarchies"

Yochai Benkler:

"The defining feature of peer systems is their voluntarism; in particular, the absence of coercive power grounded in a delegation from the state and backed by social understandings of exclusive ownership. Property-based systems often exhibit substantial voluntary behavior, but they are based on a delegation of the state’s monopoly over the use of asserted legitimate violence, and widely enforced through social understandings of proper relations around such a designation and delegation. Where control of a resource depends solely on one’s own power to maintain possession, or on the goodwill and cooperation of neighbors, that is possession, not property.

The defining feature of property is that it harnesses the power of the state to back decisions of the “owner” with regard to the resource, even where as a practical matter that ownership is respected through social convention with only rare resort to the application of the delegated state power.

By “the state,” I mean Weber’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force, where “legitimate” has the same meaning it would in legal positivism: a sociological fact about the world, stating that relevant observers see this violence as “legitimate,” rather than based on a substantive claim of legitimacy according to some conceptual morality rather than social fact. Relevant observers would include a core set of the relevant elites (those whose collective judgment is habitually persuasive to a majority of the relevant population) and a majority of those who live under the state’s power.

By “working anarchy,” then, or mutualism, I mean voluntaristic associations that do not depend on direct or delegated power from the state, and in particular do not depend on delegated legitimate force that takes a proprietary form and is backed by shared social understandings of how one respects or complies with another’s proprietary claim." (

The Peer Production of Public Functions: Ideal Types

Yochai Benkler:

"A major path of intervention of decentralized, voluntaristic systems is a set of efforts to use peer-based approaches to work around nonfunctioning or imperfect state institutions. These models are the mutualist equivalent of the “privatization” movement that sought, and continues to seek, to remove public actions from the responsibility of governments and locate them instead in the hands of profit-seeking, proprietary organizations on the theory that these kinds of organizations have “incentives” to deliver these services better and more efficiently than do government officials. I will not address here the enormous literature on the costs and benefits of privatization; rather, I note it here merely to identify the parallels between that move, which diagnosed failure on the public side and prescribed markets as a cure, and the move to supplant government functions with anarchic, voluntaristic models.

The poster child for the distributed model of fulfilling otherwise governmental functions is Ushahidi. Ushahidi was create in 2008, when a Kenyan blogger, Ory Okolloh, posted a blog post in the midst of election violence there: “any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps? Perhaps we can begin to collect information from organizations and individuals on the ground e.g. red cross, hospitals, etc. and start to build a tally online.” Another blogger following the situation from the United States, who had volunteered in Kenya, wrote: “The primary means of communication during an emergency in Kenya is via SMS.” Within a week, two Kenyan expats working in the United States, David Kobiah and Juliana Rotich, developed an open source platform, itself built using several FOSS components, that allows anyone, anywhere, to send in mobile phone or computer updates about their observations, and then mash them up with a map. The platform that began as a solution for election violence there became the system used to map locations of relief needs in as wide a range of locations as Haiti after the earthquake, Russian wildfires, or Washington, DC snow emergencies. In the Egyptian elections that preceded the 2011 Arab Spring, Ushahidi was used for citizenbased election monitoring, using a system that was adapted by Egyptian hackers for that purpose, and was later extended and used in Tunisia for that country’s first free election.

While Ushahidi emerged as a clear response to vacuum of functioning government of a “developing world” sort, mutualism has also been used to work around governmental bodies that are reticent to fulfill their role because of the standard failures of government in democratic society—incompetence, political interest, cronyism.

Perhaps the clearest example of this to date is Safecast, a response to the failures of the Japanese government and power company to produce reliable information about radiation levels in Japan after the Fukushima incident. Within days of the earthquake on March 11, 2011 in Japan, an email exchange among three people—Sean Bonner (Los Angeles), Joi Ito (Boston/Dubai/Tokyo), and Pieter Franken (Tokyo)—that began as checking in among friends and on family, shifted to consideration of radiation data and how to get it. Supplies of commercially available Geiger counters dried up almost immediately, and within the first month the three had brought together a network of developers and designers from Maui (International Medcom there produced highquality Geiger counters), Tokyo Hackerspace, Singapore, Boston, Seattle, North Carolina, and Portland, Ore., to develop both mobile and stationary Geiger counter units, and a system for dynamically communicating and mashing up their findings into maps under an open-access data license.32 Seed funding was obtained through Kickstarter, later filled out by a grant from the Knight Foundation. The result has been a significant international collaboration, delivering physical products and deployments, as well as information infrastructure, based on volunteer efforts and funding.

Safecast is as crisp an example as we have for how mutualism can serve as a successful workaround for failure (whether for lack of capacity or, more likely, for lack of political will) of a public body." (

Conclusion: Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State

Yochai Benkler:

"Within, broadly speaking, democratic/liberal discourse, a core progressive claim is that the state is necessary to counter market-based power and provide for public goods that markets systematically fail to provide. From the breakup of Standard Oil and the emergence of food and drug regulation, following Tarbell and Sinclair, to the breakup of AT&T, the Microsoft case, and the feeble current efforts of re-regulating the financial industry, the major opposition in the industrial information economy has been between free-market “conservatives” and progressives. The core claim of the latter is that, without intervention by the state, market-based organizations have superior power, which they can use to exploit the masses of consumers and workers, and, within those organizations in the case of executive pay, even against diffuse shareholders. Similarly, individuals who begin and go through life with unequal endowments of wealth and social privilege systematically capture a larger-than-fair share of the social pie (according to a range of theories of justice), requiring a properly delineated redistributive agenda to moderate or compensate for those disadvantages that reflect merely bad luck or skewed structure. The state, in this story, is the primary defense against concentrations of market power and self-reproducing structures of inequality.

Furthermore, and independently, every society requires a steady flow of public goods.

Defense and policing, education and basic science, core infrastructures and a wellfunctioning legal system are all public goods that any society needs, and that even the most market-oriented social order will require some form of public provisioning of public goods if it is not to under-produce these and therefore underperform its potential even as a market-based society.

The mid-1990s effort at renewal of the progressive agenda was defined by the Clinton-Blair New Democrat/New Labor synthesis of market-based government mechanisms. This approach accepted the core critique that the right leveled at the progressive state—that bureaucracy was highly imperfect, that politics could be and was often captured, and that the model for innovative government required adoption of more market-based solutions. Instead of spectrum allocation by regulators, we got spectrum auctions; instead of structural banking regulation, we got deregulation aimed at fostering self-regulation and cooperative regulation. All these were branded not as defeats for the progressive model, but as its modernization. By 1999, the Clinton-Blair New Democrats/New Labor duo had successfully normalized and generalized the Reagan/Thatcher revolution, cleverly co-opting the rhetoric of the right to gain power, while being co-opted by it in the process of deploying the power they won. It was under the Clinton Administration that the core pillars of financial industry deregulation that led to the collapse of 2008 were introduced, most prominently the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, and during which the Washington Consensus became dominant. In Europe, the supposed merits of technocratic, economics-based policy making allowed the European Commission to capture increasing levels of influence, as technocracy came to determine ever-larger portions of what was once the domain of politics, and technocratic facility with implementing an agenda increasingly considered prepolitical became an independent basis for legitimacy on par with democratic accountability as a source of practical determination of policies with real political significance to the daily lives of Europeans. The Great Recession of 2008 burst the ideological bubble of efficient markets and the benefits of deregulation, though many of its adherents continue to spout its teachings; learning is difficult and ideology seems to hold up more robustly than the economy itself. As major US banks and financial actors required hundreds of billions of dollars of government funds to survive; as General Motors and Chrysler became state- and worker-owned firms for a short while in order to (successfully) save the companies, followed by rapid reprivatization, the ideologues and self-interested parties continued to spew the free-market rhetoric. The major European countries are undermining their own political stability by trying to impose austerity and limited expenditures in the hope of teasing the confidence fairy out of her deep slumber, as though markets themselves were well-functioning, and the problem was only the government side undermining confidence in these markets.

Faced with the spectacular failure of the financial markets, the impotence of so many of Europe’s governments, and the macht-politik of the US state, where an allegedly progressive president prosecuting a boundless “War on Terror” blithely asserts the imperial power indefinitely to detain and even assassinate his own citizens without semblance of due process, we are left looking for an alternative to these two sources of power: the state and the market.

The basic problem a political theory that responds to this situation has to deal with is the infeasibility of removing power from even a reasonably well-functioning democratic state and a reasonably well-functioning market economy. Power and privilege pervade the running and manipulation of state power; no less so the running of market organizations. The difference between anarchists and libertarians is that the latter refuse to see the power wielded through property and contract as illegitimate. They refuse to see that minimal-state laissez-faire results in an illegitimate feudal plutocracy, just as the minimal monarchic state that preceded the rise of early modern monarchies resulted in feudal aristocracy. The modern liberal state was able first to break the latter, and, in its twentieth-century version, moderate the Dickensian versions of the former.

The difference between anarchists, on the one hand, and a broad range of liberals (in the US sense) and social democrats is that the former emphasize the extent to which power is wielded through the state illegitimately, while the latter emphasize in varying degrees that power wielded through the state is

(a) necessary for the functioning of a society;

(b) necessary for the diffusion of nonstate concentrations of power, most importantly wealth and majoritarian power over minorities along a range of dimensions of potential domination; and

(c) less prone to illegitimate use of power than other forms of stable, sustainable models of large-scale organization, like monarchies or aristocracies, autocracies or bureaucracies.

Peer mutualism in the networked information environment offers a potential alternative pathway to resistance that does not depend so completely on deploying a state increasingly seen as itself far from perfect. It presents itself as an alternative pathway for improving the functioning of public life; the delivery of social desiderata, in the face of the breakdown in the belief in either perfect markets or perfect government. In the 1990s, Microsoft was the Standard Oil of personal computers. It was planning to expand into web servers, web browsers, and “active” programming that could run small applications in web browsers. Microsoft fought and lost its antitrust battles in both the United States and Europe. In each case the state stepped in to counter market power. Formally, it succeeded; both the US and EU competition authorities won their cases. But neither victory was in fact determinative of the market structure; the remedies obtained in law were less significant than the developments in the “markets.” In particular, Microsoft failed to win its three major efforts to leverage its desktop monopoly to new markets. It lost its effort to control web server software to the Apache Software Foundation, a FOSS project; it lost its browser dominance to Firefox and the Mozilla Foundation, together with latecomer Google Chrome, (also FOSS, although with substantial corporate control); and it lost its active programming language to Java (FOSS since 2006) and, more importantly, the rise in server-side scripting, which is completely dominated by PHP and other FOSS programs. At the same time, the increasing shift to smaller-scale devices—first phones, then iPods, and most recently smartphones and tablets — has passed Microsoft by, and has located the hyper-proprietary Apple in these smaller-device markets in a dominant position, albeit not quite as dominant as the one Microsoft occupied on the desktop in the 1990s. The primary competitive pressure there is from Android, which, like Chrome, is a corporate-sponsored, but still FOSS production model. It is simply too soon to tell whether the FOSS model of Android will successfully outshine Apple’s phenomenal success with the iPhone; and, if it does so, whether Android’s FOSS licensing will in fact result in a sufficiently robust development community that it will not be dominated by Google in ways that would undermine the very freedom the model promises. If both occur, then the story will simply repeat itself with Apple taking the role of Microsoft vs. FOSS. For now, the story of how Microsoft failed to leverage its initial monopoly from the 1990s into a similar position in the networked environment story presents a mixture of “the market takes care of it all” with “the non-market takes care of it all,” much more than the classic progressive story of government intervention succeeding in constraining corporate power or the neoclassical model of market-based competition alone doing so. A social intervention, based on peer production by many and diverse groups of developers practicing mutualism played a critical role that neither approach accommodates.

The question is how generalizable that solution is, and how independent, if at all, from being a particular hack, beneficial only under particular circumstances, on the background of a liberal state with a reasonably liberal property and market system. As to the first part of the question, we certainly have examples of both failures and successes. In my discussion of Kickstarter, I suggested how the model of peer funding is being used by artists who want to circumvent the power of the labels over the lives of musicians. When we look at the future of journalism, peer-produced news and video reporting are permitting a much broader range of people of sufficient levels of engagement to circumvent the more traditional, market- or state-financed incumbents. By the same token, we see the failures of community Wi-Fi or open source social networking as examples of the limitations of distributed approaches. Just as government efforts to contain market power may fail because the market organizations are too adaptable and too well-rehearsed in preying on the inefficacies and corruptions that infect the state, so too peer-based efforts to circumvent corporate power may fail because they do not garner sufficient contributions; or because large portions of the population simply accepts the market model as inevitable, and is skeptical about nonmarket models for provisioning goods.

The question of the dependence or independence of peer mutualism, or peer production, from the liberal state and market is a harder one. At baseline, it would be sufficient cause to celebrate peer mutualism if it offered a sustained path for improvement of freedom, innovation, and participation in liberal states and market economies. In such a view, the domain of mutualism still depends on the background of a more-or-less well-functioning state, utilizing excess capacity—time, energy, human capital—made feasible by the participants’ already well-developed capabilities and personal security, all dependent on the state. I am not, however, convinced that mutualism is limited to the case of an already-established state or property system. The core finding of the decades of work in the Ostrom school of commons studies is the persistence and diversity of nonstate, nonmarket solutions to shared resources. The Spanish irrigation districts Elinor Ostrom wrote of long preceded the rise of the Spanish modern state, much less its recent transition to democracy. The lobster gangs of Maine that Acheson wrote of were violent and anarchic in the negative connotation of the term, but they functioned to manage the tragedy of the commons that would otherwise have been predicted for lobster fishing, in the teeth of a competing state-based legal system that did not, in fact, govern the practices. The Muslim Brotherhood’s social services in Egypt before the Arab Spring were provided in the teeth of an illiberal, repressive, and corrupt state. The point is that, although the examples I offer here are aimed at the ways in which peer mutualism can improve on a baseline of a liberal state with a property-based market economy, the presence of such a state is not a precondition to such solutions emerging. A poorly functioning state, corrupt and with limited reach could still see voluntaristic, self-governing practices emerge to fill the voids left by the state. A highly effective totalitarian state may well suppress mutualism, for the same reason it might suppress free enterprise, to assure control and dependence on its centralized power; but again, in that context mutualistic self-organization becomes one of the few avenues for effective resistance, where feasible. In any event, the kind of mutualism I focus on here is offered as a solution space within the political-institutional space of the modern, liberal, reasonably well-functioning state, not because that state is a precondition to mutualism, but because mutualism is itself imperfect and incomplete; and the core point of “degrees of freedom” is the necessity of multiple, diverse, overlapping systems of affordance and constraint, the state and market among them, to permit people to live well and Benkler 245 pursue their individual and shared goals. So while a well-functioning state is not a precondition to mutualism; and a well-functioning property system is not necessary to enable peer production, both systems are necessary to enable people to live well. Introducing peer production and mutualism is then aimed at improving and completing the imperfection of these systems, rather than replacing them.

The pure utopian version of the political possibilities reflected by peer production would seek in peer production a complete solution to the imperfection of markets and states. If banking regulation is weak and regulators corruptible, while banks themselves are rife with manipulation and self-seeking behavior that renders the markets they operate systematically inefficient and exploitative (see Barclays Bank and the London Interbank Offered Rates (LIBOR) manipulation scandal), then the solution is mutualism. Some combination of Grameen Bank, Kickstarter, and the widespread use of credit unions can and should solve the problem. Mutual association among individuals who both need credit and savings capacity is the core solution, while states and markets can occupy edge roles for fancier market segments. If Internet service providers are extracting rents, failing to serve lower income populations, or exercising power over their customers so as to benefit, say, their own video services, then the answer is some form of Wi-Fi alliance among users that will circumvent the last mile bottleneck that the cable and telephone companies possess, rather than an appeal to a perennially disappointing Federal Communications Commission.

The practical utopian version would embrace a systematic effort to expand the domains of application of peer mutualism, while recognizing that it is a solution that is neither complete nor perfect. Externally, if we look at the banking system of a particularly successful use of mutualistic associations to circumvent the large banks, we see that credit unions, in fact, play a very large and, after the meltdown, rapidly growing, role in the banking system. In the United States by the end of 2012, millions of new accounts moved from the commercial banks to credit unions. The recent growth reflects the fact that these credit unions have provided an alternative to the larger banks, which have been raising rates on their customers in an increasingly consolidated market of megabanks. Nonetheless, it is difficult to lump credit unions, many of which are largely experienced by their members in more-or-less similar terms as other bank customers, with mutualism; their mutualistic attributes are important, but often limited. Moreover, we see failures in the effort to generalize these online. is the most prominent of these examples. It is too soon to tell whether various efforts at peer lending can (a) create more perfectly mutualistic forms than credit unions and (b) generalize to the population as a whole. More clearly yet, systems such as healthcare or education certainly present problems that mutualism can intervene in through discrete improvements, such as volunteers who improve the capacity of schools to offer individual attention or strengthening reading skills for younger ages; but these are not systems for which there is, at present, a clear path to mutualistic alternatives. Internally, we have seen in several of the studies that, while there are strong successes at scaling complex governance that combines debate, charisma, voting, and meritocratic influence to quite substantial projects, that does not mean that all projects are immune to illegitimate capture by a cabal or to subversion by market or state actors who try to harness them to their own needs. While the self-assured assumption of critics—that anarchic peer processes will necessarily devolve to chaos or suffer a reemergent hierarchy—is clearly false, it is certainly likely that a significant number of projects that begin their lives as peer efforts will develop their own internal power dynamics that will make them in fact far from utopian models.

The implication of this practical utopian view of peer mutualism is to accept that no single system can be perfected to avoid the accumulation and application of illegitimate power; but no system is also a perfect technology of control; and through none of these systems is power always deployed illegitimately or abusively. Freedom and human flourishing exist not in attaining a single perfect system of governance, with perfect participation or perfect autonomy, social or market. Rather, freedom in such a world as we inhabit consists in the continuous manipulation of different systems of power to create spaces with relatively more freedom, and power flows with relatively more legitimacy, than any steady, generalized state of these systems could, by itself, provide. Imperfection and incompleteness of the systems we inhabit become integral to defining the spaces in which we can be free.

Understanding the social-institutional world we inhabit in these terms requires that we undertake the pursuit of autonomy and an ethical life individually, and freedom and justice as members of the societies we inhabit as a process of continuous design and redesign of the relationships and contexts we inhabit. The design target is to identify systems that exploit, rather than necessarily seek to eliminate, imperfections; that produce counterforces that cancel each other out, and obtain a series of temporary victories on behalf of some class of dominated subjects as available under the circumstances.

This, in turn, will likely expose some other class to domination, and the cycle repeats. In the context of this highly imperfect conception of social organization, peer production or peer mutualism is best understood as a degree of freedom in the design of the multisystem context we inhabit. Its sources of legitimacy and efficacy, humanity and autonomy are different from, and orthogonal to, the sources of these desiderata in state or in market behavior. Those who pursue peer solutions to hard problems need not seek a perfect or complete solution. There are none. If they are able to build a single instance of more liberating infrastructure or flow of capabilities; if they are able to manage it through some mixture of charismatic leadership, normative commitment to reason and debate, democratic process, or meritocratic collective self-understanding, then they have built a degree of freedom into the world we all occupy; they have allowed all of us a degree of freedom in the world of interlocking systems that we inhabit—a pathway we can use to bob and weave between the continuous flow of efforts of others, in particular others who occupy positions that allow them to project power onto us through market or state institutions that the peer solution has allowed us to dodge. For now, that may well be the best we can practically work toward; in a wide range of dimensions of life, even this limited goal is quite a bit; and in many domains of life it can be quite a bit more than simply a side show.

Our experience with the networked world underscores that there are at least three species of practical anarchic response to the pervasiveness of power in states and markets. Only one of these—commons-based peer production—is even plausibly utopian; the other two are highly imperfect and morally ambiguous anarchic responses that nonetheless grab, and sometimes genuinely facilitate, degrees of freedom. The first of these latter two is pervasive illegality. This is the very uncertain freedom afforded by illegal immigration, speakeasies, or the closet in the teeth of immigration, prohibition, or sodomy laws. The second is radical resistance, whether legal or marginally legal, symbolized by a range of practices, from the clearly legal Wikileaks, through the more ambiguous, jurisdiction- and context-dependent cases of Anonymous and the Pirate Bay. As part of the real utopia discussion, I have spent this article on the utopian branch; but the other two, pervasive low-level illegality and radical resistance, both legal and illegal, are there, alive and kicking in both the real world and, very forcefully, the networked environment.

Decentralized, commons-based, peer production systems offer a degree of freedom: a set of affordances and design interventions that allow certain public goods to be provisioned in ways that allow for new forms of bobbing and weaving between the constraints of the state and the market, but also the constraints of more traditional forms of social organization like the church, the union, or the neighborhood association. The point is not that these new models of organization are the apotheosis of free human association. We will almost certainly come to find out, if we do not already know, that these too are, or will become, imperfect; that these too have the potential to create, transmit, deploy, and abuse power. The point is that they provide a new degree of freedom in the design of human systems, and that by providing this new degree of freedom, they provide new methods of improving human freedom and flourishing in those activities that depend on, or are built around, the public goods or functions that they can successfully provision on a model that, at least for now, in historical context, is less easily used for the reproduction of power than the state and more traditional market-based systems they displace, in whole or in part." (

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