[p2p-research] p2p in tunis, genova, and cairo: response to ignacio's maghrebi trilogy

Michel Bauwens michelsub2004 at gmail.com
Thu Aug 20 12:25:20 CEST 2009

I responded to Ignacio's p2p challenge, the third of which appeared today at

My response below is slated for the 25th:

Responding to the Maghrebi/Genovese
[image: photo of Michel Bauwens]Michel Bauwens
25th August 2009

 Ignacio de Castro has written a fine trilogy on medieval p2p-like
practices, that is somehow framed as a challenge to our p2p approach. It
describes the practices of jewish maghrebi traders in the Middle Ages and
their international support network, and wonders why they ultimately lost
against their Genovese more ‘capitalist’ competitors. Ignacio asks: could
the same defeat happen to contemporary P2P practices and communities?

The whole series is accessible from here

I indeed wonder whether that is the case, but I doubt it, so here is my
response, an attempt to explain my confidence in our p2p future.

According to the anthropological model that I used most, i.e. Alan Page
Fiske’s relational grammar, ‘peer to peer’ has always existed. He calls it
‘communal shareholding’. However, it also seems that different
intersubjective modalities have been dominant in different social systems,
never excluding the others, but informing and influencing them.

So it is not a surprise to me, that the Middle Ages had peer to peer like
practices. One that is of course very well known is the existence of local
land commons that were used by medieval peasants and serfs. But the
important thing is that it existed within the dominance of a society marked
by what Fiske calls authority ranking, i.e. the hierarchical allocation of
resources within feudal society. For the magrhebi traders, their commons
enabled their ‘merchant trading’ (i.e. what Fiske calls Market Pricing),
which in turn existed within an overall feudal-like social structure (I use
feudal here in the most general sense, since the North-African social
structures were undoubtedly different from those in Europe).

The general point is this: it is likely that many social groups had partial
commons or ‘p2p-like’ practices, but the key is to see to what dominant
model it was subsumed.

What is clear is that neither feudal or capitalist societies are based on
the dominance of peer to peer, but they can very exist, and probably depend
on, the existence of positive externalities from all kinds of commons, if
only to enclose them after a certain time. After all, our family units, the
very basis of our social reproduction, is still mostly a commons, and has
always been.

Apart from the subsumption of some social logics to others, the other issue
posed by Iganacio is that of scope and scale. Clearly, the Magrhebi network
had an impressive scale, but nevertheless, the pre-digital commons would
always have been constrained to some degree, by transaction costs based on
geographic scale. Even as their existing commons lowered the cost of
trading, there would have been constraints, in a way that is substantially
different from the digital constraints.

I would suggest it is this difference, which now allows a important scaling
of peer to peer practices, because communities can be global right from the
start, at very very low transaction costs. They are no longer just
‘international’, as they could be in their time.

In the second part of his series, Ignacio compares the commons-oriented
maghribi traders, with the more capitalist oriented Genovese, who ultimately
prevailed. I think his point actually strengthens our own interpretation.
This is that, in previous historical periods, peer to peer/commons oriented
practices would have been ‘less competitive’, precisely because of the issue
of physical transaction costs, than alternatives. (He also adds the
paradoxical point that it is ultimately the closed aspects of the Maghrebi
trading commons, based on ethnicity, which made them less competitive with
the open commercial practice of the Genovese traders, for whom money had no
ethnic odour.)

Our thesis of ‘asymmetric competition’ holds that it is precisely this that
is changing: we are entering a historical period, in which commons-oriented,
open practices are more competitive than their closed proprietary
alternatives. This only holds for their immaterial aspects though:
information, software, design, but we contend that these aspects of
production are now the core of innovation, and therefore, dominance in
immaterial production spills over in the dominance of the physical field.

Nevertheless, at this historical stage, p2p practices cannot replace systems
of reciprocal exchange, because cost-recovery is a necessity for physical
production. However, we argue simultaneously that open immaterial peer
production will also fundamentally change the organization of physical

Ultimately, we believe that peer production will be the core of value
creation, and that it is the market and exchange modes which will be
subsumed to P2P. But this is only true tendentially, ‘in the long run’, so
that, in a transition period of at least several decades, it is the hybrid
models that will be most competitive. In other words, peer production will
first strengthen and save capitalism, before it will transcend it.

His *second article* also stresses the importance of cultural in the
adoption of social practices, and this is indeed important. This is why Asia
for example, where authority ranking is still so much stronger, has more
difficulties in adopting peer to peer practices in the digital realm.
However, since we also think these countries can also benefit more for open
design and distributed manufacturing, it is entirely possible that the
culture would adapt and change in order to encompass the new possibilities.
We think that this is in fact quite likely, and in harmony with historical
precedents, as it was always peripheral countries which benefited most from
such techno-social revolutions.

In this concluding third part, Ignacio wonders whether the new digital p2p
will similarly succumb to capitalist competition and appropriation. The key
for Ignacio is the the exclusionary aspects of the Maghrebi commons, only
allowing fellow Jews to belong, does not generally hold for contemporary
peer production, where the exclusionary aspects are marginal compared to the
inclusionary aspects. We believe this is correct.

However, there is an important exclusionary aspect that needs to be added,
and which explains why P2P is a ‘post-industrial’ phenomenom,i.e. it could
not have occured previously.

As Ignacio stresses, modern P2P has a inclusionary metaphysic.

However, it cannot control what happens outside its own projects. This
potentially weakens peer production, but also is an important way in which
it has to remain connected with social and global justice movements arising
out of society. Indeed, without continued growth of human capacities, along
with digital infrastructures, its equipotential basis would shrivel.

Another limitation of p2p is its hybridity. Open design communities need
alliances with physical production entities, which are now mostly
corporations. This means that p2p projects are essentially ecologies, and
their strength will be determined by the ability of the community, the
abilities of the associated corporations, and the integration behind both.
So while P2P is tendentially hyper-competitive, the devil will always be in
the details of the specific ‘competitions’ between free alternatives and
their proprietary counterparts.

Work: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhurakij_Pundit_University - Research:
http://www.dpu.ac.th/dpuic/info/Research.html - Think thank:

P2P Foundation: http://p2pfoundation.net  - http://blog.p2pfoundation.net

Connect: http://p2pfoundation.ning.com; Discuss:

Updates: http://del.icio.us/mbauwens; http://friendfeed.com/mbauwens;
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