Sources of P2P Theory

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How do we arrive at hypotheses, interpretations and conclusions in the P2P Foundation, and in particular how did we arrive at our theoretical framing? We will focus on the practical and concrete research and experiences elsewhere, but here we focus on the sources of our theoretical insights, by going through the key books of the most significant authors who influenced us. As a collective, there will be many more sources than listed here, but these reflects the initial and ongoing work by Michel Bauwens, as co-producing the theoretical insights in collaboration with colleagues. There is not necessarily a consensus about the sources listed here by the other members, as we are a pluralistic organization. However, when we write essays and books together, there is of course a mutual absorption and influence, an implicit acceptance of theoretical framings, even if we are not conscious of the specific sources that gave rise to a particular common understanding. The most contentious element in the list below would probably my more radical stance opposing the current form of identity politics. (I support the older egalitarian and universalist forms of identity politics).

If you find this of interest, please also check out:

  • We have selected 50 key essays for a better understanding of the multi-facetted emergence of p2p-based understandings in the following two sections of our wiki: Essays 1; and Essays 2

'Classic' Authors and Books

Relational Grammars

The P2P Foundation focuses on peer to peer dynamics in networks, and on the capacity of these dynamics to create commons. The main framing uses the relational grammar of Alan Page Fiske, which has been historised by Kojin Karatani.

Alan Page Fiske: Structures of Social Life

The foundational manuscript on P2P theory, uses the relational model used by anthropologist Alan Page Fiske, to conclude that the peer to peer relational dynamic is a form on 'non-reciprocal' or generalized exchange (you exchange with the totality of a resource and its community, not expecting a direct return from any individual). In Fiske's model, it is called Communal Shareholding and it is part of a fourfold structure that also includes Equality Matching, Authority Ranking, and Market Pricing (referring to the gift economy, redistribution according to rank, and exchange of commomodities through the pricing mechanism).

The implication is that Peer Production does not function as a Gift Economy (which corresponds to Fiske's category called Equality Matching), as is often mistakenly claimed.

For the basic article by Fiske, see at

See also our wiki entry at: Relational Model Typology - Fiske

A related and complementary framework is the TIMN framework by David Ronfeldt (see Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks. [1]

Kojin Karatani: The Structure of World History

Whereas Fiske establishes a relational grammar that one can in find throughout historical periods and in every cultural sphere, Karatani historicizes their role as dominant form for particular civilizational formats, as they succeed each other through cultural and societal evolution. To be the dominant form of exchange does not mean being the only form of exchange, but it means that it is the main form, and that the other forms adapt to it.

Karatani_Kojin, is a Japanese political theorist and philosopher who is one of the co-founders of the defunct Japanese New Associationist Movement‎ and the author of a book on the Evolution of the Structure of World History Through Modes of Production and Modes of Exchange. The book establishes a history of modes of relationship and allocation of resources (instead of the Marxist framing of 'modes of production' for example).

The evolution of cooperation: Multilevel Selection Theory

The commons, 'commoning', depends to a large degree on our capacity for cooperation and even altruism. Multi-Level Selection Theory is an adaptation of Darwinian evolutionary theory which allows for the integration of the evolutionary effects of group formation, which has been developed by David Sloan Wilson and others, for example through the Prosocial Framework [2] which attemts to create a convergence between evolutionary theory and the findings of Elinor Ostrom.

A good intro is the essay Evolutionary Theory of Resource Distribution by Blair Fix.

See also: Ultrasociality by Peter Turchin.

Interpretations of History and Human Societal Evolution

The Wave Pulse Theory of Human History

Wave Pulse theories are cyclical theories of human history, which sees societies evolving in a succession between more extractive/degradative phases, and more regenerative phases in which the commons operate as a key 'healing' mechanism. Peter Turchin's Secular Cycles is a good overview of how these cycles operate in agrarian societies, while Karl Polanyi focuses on the internal 'Kondratieff' type cycles within capitalism, in his masterpiece history of the emergence of industrial capitalism, at the end of the 17th cy., until 1945, i.e. The Great Transformation. Mark Whitaker's stellar book on ecological revolutions in China, Japan and Europe. P2P Theory is influenced by the findings of a two-year sabbatical investigation into phase transitions in human history, and draws on this body of historical interpretation. If you mix historical evolution as a trend towards increased complexity and scale, and the accumulation of technical-scientific knowledge, with the polarity switches indicated by wave-pulse theory, then you get to a vision of human evolution that is somewhat akin to a spiral-type development. Deep phase transitions are also important 'mutations' in human collective mentalities and forms of subjective consciousness. This is where the integrative work of Peter Pogany comes in, in his book, Rethinking the World, which integrates the work of the integral philosopher and cultural historian Jean Gebser.

For an introduction, see our article: The pulsation of the commons: The temporal context for the cosmo-local transition. By Michel Bauwens and Jose Ramos.

Karl Polanyi: The Great Transformation

A history of the emergence and evolution of capitalism, from the abolition of the basic income support system in the late 17th cy (Speenhamland system), up to 1945. Polany sees a double movement within capitalism, periods in which market power dominates and frees the economy from society (the 'lib' part of the pendulum), and periods when society reasserts its primacy (the 'lab' part of the pendulum). Technically, the 'Nation', i.e. the community form under capitalism, through its mobilization against the excesses of unregulated markets, forces the State, to re-regulate the Market. Alex Foti, in his book, General Theory of the Precariat, adds the interesting insights, that periods of relative 'labour' domination, end in a supply crisis (lack of profitability of capital), while 'lib' periods, end with demand crisis (insufficient buying power of the working classes). Carlota Perez, in Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, looks at the role of technology and finance within these cycles.

Peter Pogany: Rethinking the World

Peter Pogany integrates the story of the thermodynamic basis of the human economy (matter and energy flows, subject to degradation through use), the particular forms of societal organization through global governance institutions, and the dominant mode of consciousness. He sees a succession of relatively stable systems (Global System 0, 1, and 2), which morph through intervening and inevitable chaotic transitions.

In short, Global System 0, the mercantile system, interupted by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars; Global System 1, the 'Smithsian' capitalist system, based on the full dominion of capital over labor, and without multilateral institutions; interrupted by World War I and II; resulting in Global System 2, based on a contract between capital and labor in the western countries, and 'weak multilateralism'; the new chaotic transition started with a reversal of the 'Four Cheaps' (labor, food, energy, resources) in 2003, causing the 2008 financial crisis, reinforced by the effects of Covid, should possibly lead to GS3, a new global system with strong multilateralism, that reflects the needs for planetary revival and the internalisation of thermodynamic constraints, say 'a compact between humanity and the other beings and resources in the web of life'. See Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, for the evolution of stages of historical natures, different ways in which capitalist humanity intersects with nature (human nature with extra-human nature).

Earl A. Thompson: Ideology and the Evolution of Vital Institutions

This book [3] offers very important interpretation of the evolution of institutions. The book posits that territories and nations must be able to be both productive, but also able to defend themselves, and that a vital aspect for social progress is the necessity for states to compete for people, in which case social advances can be made, that do not materialize otherwise. In fact, until 1820, elites were very happy to leave the largest part of the population (more than 90%), at the subsistence level. But the very high cost of the Napoleonic War, created a unique 100-year peace between western powers that led to a five-fold increase in objective wages, which was magnified by the necessity to compete with the Soviet alternative. But the collapse of this alternative led to a stagnation and then lowering of these wages level, and the populations of western countries are now souping up their inheritances on the way to a new subsistence era. This can only be avoided by a international order that forces states to compete for populations and necessitates an end to the neoliberal order which makes it impossible to nations to be sovereign and implement measures that go in that direction. There is much more to the book but this is an important thesis about class dynamics.

The Hypothesis of Cognitive Capitalism

Empire by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt were instrumental in mediating a type of marxist structural analysis with postmodern insights. However, I cannot say that I really adhere to the description of Empire as the new nexus of power (certainly not after the crisis of 2008). However, what is valuable in the autonomist school of thought is the stress of the agency of working and producing classes, derived from Mario Tronti, which they now call the 'multitude', not really an operative term either. I find their work on the commons, which they call the common, to be located at a too abstract level to be operative as well (in their book 'Commonwealth'). It's a bit like the work of Marx, analytically interesting but ultimately not very predictive. However, class must remain an important structural driver of any class-based society, and cannot be ignored as a over-determining factor.

Somewhat related are the different schools of thought that focus on the hypothesis of Cognitive Capitalism, building on insights from the Regulation School, i.e. Yann-Moulier Boutang, Mazzarato, Andreas Fumagalli, Carlo Vercellone. I believe they offer a lot of insights into the current stage of capitalism. See also Mackenzie Wark's Hacker Manifesto, a true masterpiece although I disagree with its main theses.

Methodological Issues

In Summary: The Place of the Integral Approach in P2P Theory, it discusses:

  1. Ken Wilber's AQAL approach
  2. Roy Bhaskar's Four-planar Social Being
  3. Toni Negri's multitudes and singularities
  4. The Intersubjective Relational Typology of Alan Page Fiske
  5. Multi-Evolutionism or Non-Linear Evolution Theory
  6. Archdisciplinarity; Archtheory

P2P Theory as a Emancipatory Version of Integral Theory

Specific note to the intellectual background of Michel Bauwens:

At its very origin, the founding of the P2P Foundation as a project was linked to a progressive critique of the Integral Theory as developed by Ken Wilber, and used, and still uses, the AQAL framework as a non-reductionist framework to look at human history. It could be linked to the early work of the II-Politics group (before the founding of the Integral Institute) in the late 90s, with people like Michael Brooks and Greg Wilpert, Ray Harris, Mark Edwards, etc.. but with a specific critique of what I then believed was an unwelcome neoconservative turn by Ken Wilber, as expressed in his novel Boomeritis. I (Michel Bauwens), did not properly understood that Wilber's understanding of the political correctness was an early recognition of the fundamental dangers posed by identitarian politics. The P2P Foundation detached itself from Wilber then to take on a much broader interest in the whole tradition of integral thinkers, including the work of Jean Gebser, Roy Bhaskar (I feel very close to Critical Realism as the proper epistemology), Aurobindo, but also a wider variety of integrative meta-historians (see the book by Sohail Inatullah on the subject), such as Sarkar, Sorokin, and others. This remains a core interest to this day.

This is a good intro to the integral approach, as it inter-relates three complex adaptive systems of 1) the climate and the environment; 2) human societies and culture 3) the mental constellations. It synthesizes the work of three integral authors, Rudolf Steiner, Ken Wilber and Jean Gebser:

Note that our wiki has a separate section on Integral Theory

Critical Realism as Epistemological Approach

See: Critical Realism:

CR tries to steer a middle way, an integrative way, between the objectivity claims of modern science, and the critical approaches before, during and after postmodernism, i.e. it updates epistemology and truth claims taken into account some of the justified critiques of the postmodern period.

"CR holds that the world is characterized by a kind of duality in which (intransitive) objects (in a general categorical and dispositional sense) have their own existence (and agency) outside of human knowledge and interpretation, but can only be known in their specific contents, rich textures, and nuances in and through (transitive) scientific inquiry and human interpretation/construction." [5]

See also: The Cognitional Theory of Bernard Lonergan

Organicism and the Cosmobiological Tradition

"Rational human free agency is an immanent structure of essentially embodied conscious, intentional, caring human animal mind; essentially embodied, conscious, intentional, caring human animal mind is an immanent structure of organismic life; and organismic life is an immanent structure of spatiotemporally asymmetric, non-equilibrium matter and/or energy flows. Each more complex structure is metaphysically continuous with, and embeds, all of the less complex  structures." [6]

Robert Hanna and Otto Paans have developed a Theory of Thought-Shapers, which distinguishes Constrictive vs. Generative Thought-Shapers. It is rooted in the Cosmobiological Tradition, which is rooted in emergentist conception of mind as rooted in life, called Organicism (or sometimes New Wave Organicism. For more, see their Manifesto on the Organicist Conception of the World.


This is tentative, I am not yet convinced by metamodernist approaches, but I believe the P2P approach is probably best linked to transmodern approaches. For an introduction to these approaches, see: Visions of Transmodernity: A New Renaissance of our Human History? By Irena Ateljevic. [7]

See: P2P Theory's Positioning and the Transmodern Approaches

P2P Theory as 'Low Theory'

Low theory is described as an approach by McKenzie Wark in Molecular Red. This means that the aim of P2P Theory is not a grand unified theory of history, but a contextual theory-building approach with a single focus: understanding the emergence and role of peer to peer dynamics and commoning. The criteria to be covered in our wiki for example, is that is has to exist, at the very least in prototypal form. Thus, we aim to collect data and knowledge about how P2P and the Commons affect human society (and the broader web of life), in every single domain, looking at them as seed forms that carry new logics of possibility that could evolve from social innovation status to a normative and institutional part of society; the basis must be factual and revised if facts turned out to be untrue or no longer valid; the theory must be coherent in all its part, and third, what is the broadest integrative and emancipatory interpretation that is consistent with these facts and their coherence.

Structural-demographic, thermodynamically informed approaches

In our approach, we recognize the determinants of class, as first outlined by the French bourgeois historians and then Marxism, but also for example the structural-demographic approach practices by Peter Turchin, as expressed in his book on Secular Cycles. Structure and class remain important in our approach. We are favorable to the new approach by Kojin Karatani in his Structure of World History, where he focuses on the evolution of modes of exchanges, rather than modes of production. Peter Pogany is probably the best synthesis of such a thermodynamic approach, linked to human culture, which is also seen as an expression of thermodynamic realities. See his essay, Thermodynamic Isolation and the New World Order, and more specific, how he links states of consciousness to these thermodynamic realities, in: Fifth Order Form of Consciousness and Its Application to Economic Worldviews.

Technological Theories

I have found Andrew Feenberg's approach appealing, as it combines technology critique, but keeps the avenues open for constructive social change:

Theories of the Commons

To add: Michael Polanyi's work on 'Polycentric Governance

Elinor Ostrom: Governing the Commons

The P2P Foundation first phase of research was directed towards the peer production of 'immaterial' goods, such as free software, open design and shared knowledge, i.e. also sometimes called open source production, which operates around digital knowledge-based commons; the second phase was dedicated to urban commons, i.e. the mutualization of physical resources; and the third phase is dedicated to actual physical production, what we call Cosmo-Localization or "Cosmo-Local Production". In this context, the pioneering work of Elinor Ostrom, which focused on the multi-millenial history of natural resource commons (mainly but not exclusively), is of course a very important reference.

The Ecological turn: commons economics are bio-social-physical economics

We started our 'ecological turn' in 2017, with the publication of our own report, The Thermodynamic Efficiencies of Peer Production. Looking at the insights of biophysical economics, and the discussions in the degrowth movements, we came to the conclusion that mutualization is one of the key strategic priorities to reduce the human footprint, while maintaining complex societal systems. So we focus on the mutualization of urban and rural provisioning systems, striving for Perma-Circularity and a Factor 20 Reduction in energy usage.

Mark Whitaker: Ecological Revolution: The Political Origins of Environmental Degradation and the Environmental Origins of Axial Religions

Mark Whitaker's book is a historical study which looks at the experiences of China, Japan and Europe over a 3,000 year period, discovering a pattern of ecological revolutions (using mutualization techniques) that attempt to recreate civilizational healing, after period of exhaustion of natural resources.

Kate Raworth's synthesis on ecological and social economics, i.e. Doughnut Economics

Kate Raworth has produced an excellent synthesis of the earlier work of the Stockholm Resilience Institute and other ecological scholars pointing out the dangers of overstepping the planetary boundaries of crucial natural cycles. The Doughnut model combines a vision of the limited planetary resources, with a vision of fulfilling the needs of that part of humanity that doesn't have access to the basic provisioning systems. Our report P2P Accounting for Planetary Survival, which she foreworded, looks at which global cyber-physical infrastructure, could help the worldwide coordination of production for human needs, without overstepping those boundaries, by looking at innovative accounting prototypes which include these thermodynamic limitations in its contributory and flow-based supply chains, using shared distributed ledgers.

Jason W. Moore on Capitalism in the Web of Life

This book is the state of the art of world-ecological analysis. Capitalism exists because its sphere of commodity prices also uses the appropriation of the 'Four Cheaps' (labor, food, energy, resources) in frontiers that are not subject yet to its own rules. But as these frontiers exhaust themselves because of over-exploitation, new frontiers are needed to restart the cycle. Moore insists on a view that doesn't separate humans from nature, but sees historical natures as coproduced by human and extra-human nature.

The participatory turn in human consciousness: Jorge Ferrer and John Heron

The P2P Foundation's philosophical basis is a integral/integrative, participatory and relational ontology, based on a critical realist approach.

Jean Gebser: The Ever-Present Origin

"The P2P Foundation's founding was originally a left-integral impulse, i.e. an attempt to renew the emancipatory tradition for the networked age, inspired to a certain degree by integral theories and thinking. One of our sources was Jean Gebser and his history of forms of human consciousness, and their successive mutations that also corresponds to types of civilizations. Peter Pogany has worked on a synthesis between thermodynamic realities, socio-technical infrastructures of human civilizations, and the dominant forms of consciousness that accompany them.". Ken Wilber's AQAL approach was also influential, and Michel Bauwens had studied Wilber for about 8 years. At the time of the founding of the P2P Foundation however, Bauwens had already developed a critique of Ken Wilber's work, while still broadly believing in the importance of a non-reductionist and integrative approach. A third influence is the Critical Realism of Roy Bhaskar.

John Heron: Sacred Science

Jorge Ferrer: Participatory Turn in Transpersonal Psychology

Progressive opposition to identitarian regressions

When the global or regional/national order starts dissolvng, people on the right and conservative spectrum tend to focus on more closed communities from an ethnic, religious or nationalist nature, while people on the left of the spectrum tend to focus on racial/gender characteristics. I am particular concerned with the racialist and segregationist aspects of Group Identity Theory, which I analyse here in this document on Woke Ideology. I consider these trends to be explicitely dangerous for the evolution of peer to peer practices and the commons, since they adhere to a hierarchical vision of the world and explicitely deny personhood and thus the free adhesion to common projects beyond group identity.

Check our special section on Identity Politics, which is chiefly inspired by progressive critics, such as:

  • radical/class-oriented sources: Jacobin magazine with the late Michael Brooks and Ben Burgis, , the Toure father and son team, Mark Fisher with his landmark essay, on Exiting the Vampire Castle;
  • progressive liberal: James Lindsay and Helen Plukrose, and their New Discourses project; Brett Weinstein and Eric Weinstein (Darkhorse and the Portal podcast series, Sanje Das and the website Social Justice Evolution.

What is missing ?

Neotraditional approaches: learning from pre-capitalist and pre-modern civilizations

"Advances which erase the past and keep no memory of the identity of the territory or its contexts, cannot be considered a winning strategy, in contrast to solutions that merge with tradition. Deep down, each tradition is itself the result of an innovation. Each innovation emerges from a community and is considered important for the community’s survival. It is then decided it should be handed down to future generations. From an evolutionary perspective, tradition and innovation represent a hand over."

- Alex Giordano [8]

if we are to undertake a post-material, post-growth, post-materialist shift in our economy and civilization, we can learn from historical and contemporary non-capitalist social forms?

Medieval Commons and Ethical "Just Price" Economies

For comparison outside Europe, see: Togukawa Period in Japan as an Example of Ecologically Stable and Carrying Capacity-Led Population Dynamic

Adam Arvidsson

"This article investigates the potential role of the commons in the future transformation of digital capitalism by comparing it to the role of the commons in the transition to capitalism."

For more, see the book: Changemakers. The Industrious Future of the Digital Economy. [10]

Tine De Moor

* Article: The Silent Revolution: A New Perspective on the Emergence of Commons, Guilds, and Other Forms of Corporate Collective Action in Western Europe. By TINE DE MOOR. IRSH 53 (2008), Supplement, pp. 179–212 [11]

= seminal essay by commons historian Tine de Moor on the emergence of guilds and rural commons initiatives in medieval times in the 'Low Countries' (Flanders, Netherlands). See for more details our entry on: Emergence of Commons and Guilds as Silent Revolution

Working Class, Farmers, Smallholder and Crafts-based Associationism

When the natural resource commons that were an essential part of premodern/precapitalist societies were enclosed, and a great number of peasants had to flee to cities to make a living as workers, they mutualized, i.e. creating commons, to manage their life risks, creating common welfare institutions that were eventually "state-ified" through the welfare state model. This was also the case for non-industrial producers movements, giving birth to Georgism in the US for example. So during the 19th cy. , up to the nonconformist thinkers reacting to the crisis of 1930, a variety of mutualist movements came to life with the aim to 'commonify' capital, as distributed property of the workers, not through a centralized state. These movements, which were neither anarchist, nor social-democratic reformers nor communist state-centric revolutionaries, are also part of the history of commoning, and should be made part of p2p theory. I have not had the time in person to study this in earnest, but it feels important that the p2p/commons movement undertakes this task of updating mutualist and associationist insights. We are thinking of proudhonism and 19th cy. associationist/mutualist movements, of distributism, linked to the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, of social credit movements, binary economics, and more. Finally, guild socialism, which links this period to its medieval antecedents. A vast program!

Let's not forget that these movements which were occulted by the state-oriented socialist movements, were less linked to the factory proletariat than to artisans and small holders, a social condition that is again closer to us today in an era market by precarity and the growing number of freelance workers.