What this essay is about

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1.A. What this essay is about

The following essay describes the emergence, or expansion, of a specific type of relational dynamic, which I call peer to peer. It’s a form of human network-based organization which rests upon the free participation of equipotent partners, engaged in the production of common resources, without recourse to monetary compensation as key motivating factor, and not organized according to hierarchical methods of command and control. It creates a Commons, rather than a market or a state, and relies on social relations to allocate resources rather than on pricing mechanisms or managerial commands.


Thus we have three important aspects that are essential for P2P processes to occur in a full-blown manner: 1) peer production as a mode of production; 2) peer governance as a mode of governance; 3) universal common property as a mode of distribution and access. But P2P can also occur in a partial manner wherever resources are distributed.

Thus underlying our description of P2P processes, it will be useful to distinguish between four different levels.


- One level is the phenomenological level, i.e. the different ways in which the P2P forms emerges in different social fields. Here we get the peer to peer relational dynamic in distributed systems, and how it expresses itself in the internet structure, the writeable Web 2.0, peer circles or what have you. This I propose to call ‘diffuse P2P’. Such P2P emergence is easy to integrate within the existing system, and can be instrumentalised by authoritarian social forces, as in Al Qaeda using the internet. It is ‘immanent’ to the system.

- The second level is when integration occurs. The different P2P forms in this case do not exist independently, but start reinforcing one another. This ‘integrated P2P’ involving such social processes as peer production, peer governance, and universal common property regimes, become transcendent to the system, because they cannot be contained within the current production schemes (market pricing and corporate hierarchy), governance schemes (corporate hierarchy or state bureaucracy or even representational democracy), or property regimes. They create an emerging new social reality, which is today dominated by the existing social economy, but that is a contingent situation which could change in the future. I’m not saying “it will happen", but definitely “it can happen" and whether it happens also depends on our human intentionality.

- Now, why is all this happening. Because, before social practices and technological artifacts are invented or emerge, it must be conceived in the human mind, and it must become acceptable as a social practice. Thus P2P emerges out of changes in the ‘ground state’ of humanity, i.e. deep changes in the ontology/epistemology/axiology, or in easier words: new ways of feeling and being, of knowing, and new constellations of values. That is the third level which occurs as a spontaneous social process, not directed, not necessarily consciously desired but part of the evolution of the ‘social imaginary’. It is this level which has been so beautifully captured by John Heron’s recapitulation of the evolution of participation, which I have cited on occasion. Broadly conceived, such a deep level of human change is also outside the scope of recuperation.

- The fourth level occurs when we become conscious of these changes, and make it an object of our human intentionality: in other words, we not only see it happening (level 1 to 3), but we want it to happen and seek out others with similar values in the hope of interconnecting our efforts. This is the object of my own work, and I hope it can become the basis of a broad social and political movement as more and more people, from their own particular perspective, come to their own conclusions. At this point, P2P becomes a normative ethos for a new kind of life on earth, and definitely outside the scope of any recuperation, though there is no guarantee of its success.

As the diffuse format of level 1, the P2P format is emerging throughout the social field: as a format of technology (the point to point internet, filesharing, grid computing, the Writeable Web initiatives, blogs), as a third mode of production which is also called Commons-based peer production (neither centrally planned nor profit-driven), producing hardware, software (often called Free Libre Open Sources Software or FLOSS) and intellectual and cultural resources (wetware) that are of great value to humanity (Wikipedia), and as a general mode of knowledge exchange and collective learning which is massively practiced on the internet. It also emerges as new organizational formats in politics, spirituality; as a new ‘culture of work’. This essay thus traces the expansion of this format, seen as a “isomorphism" (= having the same format), in as many fields as possible. The common format in which the peer to peer dynamic emerges is the format of the "distributed network", which, according to the definition of A. Galloway in his book Protocol, differs both from the centralized network (all nodes have to pass through one single hub), and from the decentralized network (all nodes have to pass through hubs). In a distributed network the nodes, as autonomous agents, can connect through any number of links. Hubs may exist, but are not obligatory.

The essay tries not only to describe, but attempts to provide an explanatory framework of why it is emerging now, and how it fits in a wider evolutionary framework (not in the sense of an inevitable natural evolution, but as an intentional moral breakthrough).

The underlying logic of development in which the emergence of P2P is best understood, may be by viewing 'participation' as the key variable, seeing how it intensifies historically in various social formations.

This idea was best expressed by John Heron in a personal communication:


"There seem to be at least four degrees of cultural development, rooted in degrees of moral insight and not in an evolutionary logic:

(1) autocratic cultures which define rights in a limited and oppressive way and there are no rights of political participation;

(2) narrow democratic cultures which practice political participation through representation, but have no or very limited participation of people in decision-making in all other realms, such as research, religion, education, industry etc.;

(3) wider democratic cultures which practice both political participation and varying degree of wider kinds of participation;

(4) commons p2p cultures in a libertarian and abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of participation of everyone in every field of human endeavour".


Note that within the first four sections, the organization is as follows: the first subsection is descriptive, the second is explanatory, and the third is historical. In the latter, I use the triune distinction premodernity/modernity/postmodernity, well aware that it is a simplification, and that it collapses many important distinctions, say between the tribal and the agrarian era. But as an orienting generalization that allows the contrasting of the changes occurring after the emergence of modernity, it remains useful. Thus, the concept of ‘premodern’, means the societies based on tradition, before the advent of industrial capitalism, with fixed social roles and a social organization inspired by what it believes to be a divine order; modern means essentially the era of industrial capitalism; finally, the choice of the term postmodern does not denote any specific preference in the ‘wars of interpretation’ between concepts such as postmodernity, liquid modernity, reflexive modernity, transmodernity etc.. It simple means the contemporary period, more or less starting after 1968, which is marked by the emergence of the informational mode of capitalism. I will use the term cognitive capitalism most frequently in my characterization of the current regime, as it corresponds to the interpretation, which is the most convincing in my view. The French magazine Multitudes is my main source for such interpretations. It's essential meaning is the replacement of an older 'regime of accumulation', centered on machines and the division of labor corresponding to them; and one centered on being part of a process of accumulation of knowledge and creativity, as the new mainspring of power and profit. Finally, note that in the accompanying graphs of figures, I sometimes use the "early modern/late modern/P2P era" framework. In this way, the current time frame can be distinguished from a hypothetical coming situation where P2P is more dominant than it is today, and what that would change in the characteristics of such a society.

I will conclude my essay with the conclusion that P2P is nothing else than a premise of a new type of civilization that is not exclusively geared towards the profit motive. What I have to convince the user of is that

- 1) a particular type of human relational dynamic is growing very fast across the social fields, and that such combined occurrence is the result of a deep shift in ways of feeling and being (ontology), of knowing (epistemology), and of core value constellations (axiology)

- 2) That it has a coherent logic that cannot be fully contained within the present ‘regime’ of society.

- 3) that it is not an utopia , but, as ‘an already existing social practice’, the seed of a likely major transformation to come. I will not be arguing that there is an 'inevitable evolutionary logic at work', but rather that a new and intentional moral vision, holds the potential for a major breakthrough in social evolution, leading to the possibility of a new political, economic, and cultural 'formation' with a new coherent logic.

Implicit in my interpretation of peer to peer as a social formation, is that it is accompanied by a nascent socio-political movement, much as industrial class relations triggered a labor movement. In the case of the 'peer to peer movement' this movement concerns itself with the promotion and defense of the Commons, i.e. the existence of a common-property regime that exists alongside the state and the market, but which is also under threat by a frenetic movement to privately appropriate common resources. This P2P movement has three components: first, the participatory movement, which is not necessarily political in the old sense, and includes all efforts to widen participation in human processes (for example Web 2.0 engineering efforts); second, the "open" movement in its various guises: open sources, open access, open money. This movement works on the conditions necessary for P2P processes to occur: without free access to information, i.e. the distribution of information, no P2P can occur; third, the Commons movement, which is concerned by protecting and developing the institutional format for P2P to thrive in: by avoiding private appropriation of commonly produced knowledge products, the motivation for P2P behaviour is strengthened. These are the explicit P2P movements in my mind, respectively focusing on peer governance, peer production, and peer property modes, but the movement is larger than that, as I will argue in the political section.

Such a large overview will inevitably bring errors of interpretation concerning detailed fields. I would appreciate if readers could bring them to my attention. But apart from these errors, the essay should stand or fall in the context of its most general interpretative point: that there is indeed a isomorphic emergence of peer to peer throughout the social field, that despite the differences in expression, it is the same phenomena, and that it is not a marginal, but a 'fundamental' development. It is on this score that my effort should be judged. If the effort is indeed judged to be successful, I then would hope that this essay inspires people from these different fields to connect, aware that they are sharing a set of values, and that these values have potential in creating a better, but not perfect or ideal, society.

How does the explanatory framework which I will provide for P2P, differ from the use of the earlier metaphor of the network society, described by Manuel Castells and many others, and lately in particular by the network sociality concept proposed by Andreas Wittel? The best way to differentiate the approaches is to see P2P as a subset of network conceptions.

If you would have been a social scientist during the lifetime of Marx and witnessed the emergence and growth of the factory-based industrial model, and you would then have arrived at the equivalent of what social network theory is today, i.e. an analysis of mainstream society and sociality. This is what the network sociality model of Andreas Wittel provides. But at the same time that the factory system was developing, a reaction was created as well. Workers were creating cooperatives and mutualities, unions and new political parties and movements, which would go on to fundamentally alter the world. Today, this is what happens with peer to peer. Whereas Castells and Wittel focus on the general emergence of network society and society, and describes the networks overall and the dominant features of it, I want and tend to focus on the birth of a counter-movement, centered around a particular format of sociality based in distributed networks, where the focus is on creating participation for all, and not the buttressing of the 'meshworks of exploitation'. As the dominant forces of society are mutating to networked forms of organizing the political economy (called Empire by Toni Negri), a bottom-up reaction against this new alienation is occurring (alienated, because in Empire, the meshwork are at the service of creating ever more inequality), by the forces of what Negri and Hardt call the multitude(s). These forces are using peer to peer processes, and a peer to peer ethos, to create new forms of social life, and this is what I want to document in this essay.