Why the P2P and Commons Movement Must Act Trans-Locally and Trans-Nationally

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Michel Bauwens (Madison, Wisconsin), June 12, 2016:

Part One - Analyzing the global situation

“One of the best books I have read in the last ten years is undoubtedly, The Structure of World History, by Kojin Karatani.

Karatani focuses on world history as an evolution of ‘modes of exchange’, i.e. how humans produce, but most of all, ‘exchange’ value. Like Alan Page Fiske, in ‘Structures of Social Life’, Karatani recognizes four basic ways of doing this, and these modes exist at all times and in all places. For example, while the dominance of capitalism is new, markets have existed since very early times; or, if the dominance of the state was new after the replacement of tribal systems, distribution depending on rank pre-existed its dominance. This insight is very important because it allows us to recognize that any political and economic system is not just one modality, but an integration of modalities. As Dmytri Kleiner says, ‘we live in a multi-modal world’, and ‘if the capitalists won, its because there were capitalists already’.

It is quite different to see capitalism as a mere mode of production, and then to declare the state and the nation as mere epiphenomena of capital (as marxists used to do), or to insist (as Karatani does) that capitalism is really a triarchy combining Capital-State-Nation. Though 'capital' dominates, the two other modalities are just as essential for the survival and organization of the system as a whole.

The reason that the present system is so strong, therefore, is that these three act in concert, and whenever one is endangered, the two other sub-systems mobilize to its rescue.

What I want to do now is to interpret Karatani’s insight by adding another layer of analysis, that of Karl Polanyi, expressed in his landmark book, The Great Transformation.

Polanyi’s book is a history of the emergence and perpetuation of capitalism from the late 18th century to the 1940s, in which he sees a double movement at play. In some periods, the market forces are dominant (the 'Smithian' capitalism of the 19th century) but by being dominant, they actively subvert the order of society and dislocate it, putting many people in danger; thus, eventually, society reacts through mobilisations and forces the market back into a more ‘social' order. For example, the post-war so-called 'Fordist' system - think of how in that Fordist period, the labor movement forced a re-alignment of society around the welfare state, and how the counter-revolution of the 80s again deregulated these social protections in favour of the 1%. Since the 1980s we have again seen a impoverishing of the workers and the middle classes in favour of the oligarchic elites.

? Now let’s recount this dynamic in Karatani’s scheme.

When capital becomes too dominant in the Capital-State-Nation system, the nation, the locus of what remains of community and reciprocity dynamics, revolts and mobilizes, and, if successful, it forces the state to discipline Capital.

Many observers were puzzled that, despite the systemic crisis of 2008, there seems to be a lack of such an expected counter-movement, but that was just social inertia at play. Now, in 2016, we are in the midst of a Polanyian backlash nearly everywhere. Both Trump and Sanders in the current US electoral cycle represent the Polanyian double movement, and are reacting against the effects of neoliberalism and its destruction of the U.S. middle class. Trump represents the ‘national’ business interests, trying to mobilize behind their interests the declining white middle class and workers, while Sanders represent the new generations of workers who are suffering from precarity. The signs of this Polanyian counter-movement are visible nearly everywhere. The U.S. right now is an exciting place to be, where all kinds of social movements are being revitalized, such as the struggle against structural racial bias (Black Lives Matter), the $15 dollar minimum wage movement and its successes, and vibrant anti-gentrification and rent control revival movements.

Nevertheless, there is a bug in the (Polanyian) double movement!

And the bug is that ‘Capital’ has developed a trans-national logic and capacity. Globalized and financial neoliberalism has fundamentally weakened the capacity of the nation-state to discipline its activities.

Faced with a all-powerful transnational capitalism, the various nation-state systems have proven pretty powerless to effect any change. Dare to challenge the status quo and paralyzing capital flight is going to destroy your country!! This is one of the explanations of the deep distrust that people are feeling towards the current political system, which simply fails to deliver towards any majoritarian social demand.

Look at how the moderately radical Syriza movement in Greece was put under a European protectorate and had to abandon Greek sovereignty; or look at how the more antagonistically-oriented Venezuelan government is crumbling, along with other progressive governments in Latin America. So, while the electorate may vote for parties that promise to change the status quo and eventually bring to power movements like Podemos, a Labour Party under the leadership of Corbyn, or a Democratic Party strongly influenced by the Sanders movement, their capacities for change will be severely restricted.

Our own 'political' recommendations in the P2P Foundation, following our work on the Commons Transition, is that progressive coalitions at the city and nation-state level should first of all develop policies that increase the capacity for the autonomy of citizens and the new economic forces aligned around the commons. Simply initiating left-Keynesian state policies will not be sufficient and will, in all likelihood, be met with stiff trans-national opposition from the financial oligarchy. These pro-commons policies should be focused not just on local autonomy but on the creation of trans-national and trans-local capacities, interlinking the efforts of their citizens and ethical and generative entrepreneurs to the global civic and ethical entrepreneurial networks that are currently in development (*). What we are suggesting is that progressive coalitions should focus on post-capitalist construction first and foremost.

To be realistic, except in very rare locales (perhaps in Barcelona under the En Comú coalition or in Bologna), the current progressive movements are still very much wedded to the old industrial Keynesian models, but as they discover the limits of this strategy, openings towards commons-supportive policies should emerge.

Part Two: Our Necessary Response, from inter-national to trans-local

What necessarily follows from the above analysis, is that the current p2p and commons forces must also focus on the creation of trans-local and trans-national capacities.

What can we do ?

Currently, there is an exponential increase in the number of civic and cooperative initiatives outside of the state and corporate world, as documented for example by Tine De Moor in Homo Cooperans for the Netherlands. Most of these initiatives are locally oriented, and that is absolutely necessary and legitimate. It is vital that citizens transition here and now to new models of food and energy provisioning (and any other domain that needs to be changed); from an extractive model that is destroying the environment and undermining society, to generative models that create added value to the shared resource base that citizens are co-constructing everywhere. Ezio Manzini has already taught us that in the networked age, there is no such thing as pure locality, and that these are all SLOC initiatives, i.e. they are Small and Local, but also Open and Connected. We also know that today there are movements that operate beyond the local and use global networks to organize themselves. A good example may be the Transition Town movement, and how it uses networks to empower local groups.

But this is not enough, at least in our opinion. What we are thinking and proposing is the active creation of trans-local and trans-national structures that actively aim to have global effects and change the power balance on the planet.

The only way to achieve systemic change at the planetary level is to build counter-power, i.e. alternative global governance. The transnational capitalist class must feel that its power is curtailed, not just by nation-states which may organize themselves inter-nation-ally, but by transnational forces representing the global commoners and their livelihood organizations.

How can we do this ?

Las Indias, a trans-national hispanic community, has introduced the notion of ‘Phyles’, inspired by cyberpunk literature and specifically from the book The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.

Phyles are trans-national business eco-systems that sustain a community and its commons. They are already successful for certain ethnic and religious communities that operate on the global level, such as the soufi ‘mourabite’ communities from Senegal, and the indigenous communities of Otovallo in Ecuador, where the trans-migrant income-generating systems are said to represent one third of GDP. These globally operating networks are described in the book by Alain Tarrius entitled, Etrangers de passage. Poor to poor, peer to peer (Editions de l’Aube, 2015).

My argument is that we need to construct phyles for peer production communities. Remember the structure of commons-based peer production most commonly consists of three institutions. One, the contributory community co-creating the shared resources (the open source communities); two, the entrepreneurial coalitions creating livelihoods around those shared resources (the third institution is the ‘for-benefit association’ which manages the infrastructure of cooperation on behalf of the contributors and entrepreneurial coalition; see below). At the P2P Foundation, we favour ‘generative’, ‘ethical entrepreneurial coalitions’, which strengthen commons and their contributory communities and create an economy for them. These generative, trans-local, and trans-nationally operating coalitions already exist. Amongst the best known are Enspiral [1] (originally based in New Zealand); Sensorica (originally based in Montreal, Canada); Las Indias? (mostly based in Spain but with many hispanic members from Latin America); and the Ethos Foundation (based in the UK). We believe this new type of trans-local organization is the seed form of future global coalitions of generative entrepreneurs, sustaining global open design communities. Our work in this trend is the eventual creation of a United Phyles Organization, which is represented at the local level by the territorial Chambers of Commons.

We also believe that global civic organizations from the commons sphere should do the same. Our working name for these are the United Transnational Republics.

We are fully aware that these are at present science-fictional notions but if we don’t build them, it will be the extractive multi-national organizations of capital that will rule our world, destroy our planet, and reduce the world population to generalized precarity.

This construction is by no means impossible, and we can see already the construction of many globally nomadic structures as well as global civic mobilizations such as those against climate change. But we can’t just protest and ask the ‘state’ and ‘states’ to do our bidding; we cannot just rely on the weak inter-national structures such as those of the United Nations. We must build ‘counter-hegemonic’ power at the global level. This means building global open design communities, and the global phyles that go with it. At the production level, this means replacing neoliberal globalization, which is destroying the biosphere, with cosmo-local production coalitions. These follow the rule, ‘what is heavy is local, what is light is global’. They combine global open design communities, global open cooperatives and phyles, i.e. organizing coordination systems at the trans-local and trans-national scale, with relocalized distributed manufacturing.

At the political level, this means building territorial assemblies for citizens, the Assemblies of the Commons, and assemblies for generative entrepreneurial entities, the Chambers of the Commons, and to scale them at the national, regional and global levels. This continuous meshworking at all levels is what will create the basis to create systemic change, i.e. power to change, at the level where the destructive force of global capital and its predation of the planet and its people can be countered.

Let me stress that this does not mean a destructive, all-out conflict. Dmytri Kleiner has proposed a strategy of trans-vestment, i.e. the transfer of value from one modality to another. Enspiral has created a vehicle, based on ‘Capped Returns[2], which is able to accept external investments, which are then ‘subsumed’ to the values of the generative coalition. At the P2P Foundation, we have proposed reciprocity-based licenses, which allow the commercialization of open source knowledge on the basis of reciprocity, creating a protective membrane around the ethical phyles. The Assembly of the Commons in Lille is discussing a trans-vestment vehicle for the state, called a General Public License, which allows the assembly to work with the world of politics and government while maintaining the autonomy of the commoners.

This has been done before. ‘If capitalists became dominant, it is because there were capitalists’. The reason our current market society came about is that Europe, being at the margins of Empire, was never able to consolidate centralized power, allowing independent cities where the merchants could exist and expand their power, and this social force became dominant after the fall of the absolute monarchs.

Commoners exist; there’s three billion of us in digital commons, and likely just as many relying on physical commons. They have to follow the same multi-modal strategy, i.e. prefiguratively building their power and influence at all levels, trans-vesting state and market forces to strengthen the commons. Of course, just as laborers did, for this we have to develop a consciousness that we are commoners. Anyone participating and co-constructing shared resources without exploiting them is in fact a commoner. And as the current global system becomes increasingly dysfunctional, more and more of us have to rely on the commons, and not on the market and the state, for our very survival.

If the world of the merchants became the world of Capital-State-Nation, an integration of various modalities under the dominance of the market forces, then the world of the commoners will be a new integration: Commons – Ethical Economy – Partner State. Because we live in a multi-modal world, it does not make sense, and is impossible, to create a ‘totalitarian’ commons world, but we can aim for a commons-centric world in which market forces and state functions (rule and protect, plunder and distribute) are ‘disciplined’ at the service of the commons and the commoners. Like capital did before us, we must build our strength within a multi-modal world. Paradoxically, I believe it is because the ‘extractive’ model is incompatible with our survival that the time for a ‘generative’ transition will come and is in fact not just indispensable, but likely.

The commons is civil society, where citizens contribute to the commons and choose where they invest their care for the common good of their communities, the planet and humanity; the ethical economy consists of the livelihood organizations of the commoners, where generative market practices add value for the commoners and the commons; and the ‘state’ of the commons, presently prefigured by the for-benefit associations which manage the infrastructures of cooperation of the open source communities, is the ‘partner state’ which enables and empowers the capacities of individuals and communities to participate and contribute to the commons of their choice.

This fundamental transformation of our social, political and economic systems requires more than a local approach, it requires trans-local practices and forms of organization.

Let’s get to work!!


  • (An interesting parallel would be the 'Silent Revolution' in the High Middle Ages, as described by Tine De Moor, which saw an explosion of civic autonomy in the form of city-based guilds and rural land commons agreements, in coalition with the autonomous city authorities and protected by social charters that forced feudal lords to abide by them.).