On May 3, Jonathan Clyne, Lena Hanno, Alex Dirmeier and Jean Lievens had a discussion with Michel Bauwens on peer-to-peer and Marxism. The discussion took place in the lobby of the Palace Hotel in Berlin. Here’s a slightly edited transcript of the discussion. The recording was reasonably good, but our voices were sometimes unintelligible because there were other guests talking in the lobby and there was also a piano playing (from the theme song from Titanic to What a Wonderful World, all very appropriate).
So my apologies if I misinterpreted some of the interventions, because sometimes I had to guess what has actually been said (words between parentheses are added). If that was the case, please react so I can change it. I hope this debate will continue.
Michel started the discussion with a summary of his thoughts on peer-to-peer.
Michel: I start with a thought on the Marxist theory of revolution, in the way I see it and in the way I think it’s wrong according to the following reflexion: if you look at phase-transitions, like the one from the end of the Roman Empire to the feudal system and from the feudal system to the capitalist system. How does (this transition) proceed? The decaying old system can no longer transform itself and there's a re-orientation of some elements of both what I call the managerial class and the producing class towards a new possibility. For me, the proto-mode of production in the Roman case would be the "coloni". Some slave-owners start liberating their slaves, who become serves. Why? Because it makes sense. (The Empire) is not longer expanding, estates become too expensive, they cannot get gold anymore from outside of Rome, so taxation is becoming problematic… Therefore it is much easier to maintain order if people produce for themselves, have families in stead of having to work completely against their own interests. At the same time, if you are an impoverished farmer and you cannot pay your debts, or if you are a freed slave and have nowhere to live, you can get protection from a landowner. This also makes sense within the context of that time. So I think that the reason that there is a revolution at the end is because there is already within the system a reorientation towards this new modality, which then has to break free from the old system in order to become dominant itself. I think it’s the same with the transition from feudalism to capitalism: we have proto-capitalist modalities within feudalism.
So why does that mean that the Marxist theory of revolution is not convincing for me? Because it basically says that the workers need to take over the commanding heights of the economy. But where is the mode of production? It is not there. There is no "socialist mode of production" which is prepared within capitalism. Yes, there is socialisation, there are tendencies, but there is no model that is really being born within capitalism. And basically I think that is why in the end the socialist revolutions failed, because they all ended up developing industrial capitalism, with giant corporations of many (workers); they still used labour as a commodity, people were still forced to work for wages... We can argue how different or similar (those systems were), but they were using the same technological base as the other system.
Today the situation is different because, in my conception, we finally have this new modality. We see emerging within capitalism a way of producing value that is substantially different from the old one, which is more competitive in many different ways. And you do see a reorientation of common people and capital towards this new modality. It also exists within both capitalism and state capitalism, but this is exactly the same (phenomenon) as the coloni strengthening the declining Roman Empire for another two centuries, or merchant capitalism actually strengthening the late feudal countries in which they emerged. So for me, it is not an argument that this is not a good thing, it is actually a proof that it works and that (we are dealing) with a new and very interesting modality because it has at its core a communist functioning. Technically it is from each according to ones abilities and to each according to ones needs. So at the core, which is the immaterial sharing of knowledge, code and design, this is exactly how it works. Anybody can contribute and anybody can use it. But of course it exists within a system of capital, so the social reproduction of the commons is dependent on capitalism. But they are mutually dependant and that is the key. Today I do not think capitalism would survive without this dependence on social innovation and the social factory.
That means that -in relationship with human emancipation- the class struggle becomes how to position you within that change, how to make it maximally beneficial as a transition towards something that resembles something that we used to call socialism. So, to be short, the next step is a vision of transition where you combine the already existing communist practice, that I call ‘ethical companies’ (you could call them 'socialist enterprise' but I would not use that term because I think it creates an unnecessary gut reaction against it). How would that work? Today open commons and capitalist companies are using them for their private capital accumulation. In that way they can hire people and sustain the commoners and they also sustain the organizations that protect the infrastructure, like the Apache Foundation or the Linux Foundation. So for me, the essential thing is to break this dependency.
(In order to do that), you need to adopt a commons license, which means that only the people who contribute to the commons can use it. In that way you create a natural solidarity chain between different entities that make use of the commons to sustain their livelihoods. And instead of a shareholder-model, which is capital accumulation, you use coops, trusts, social entrepreneurship… These are modalities, that one could call socialist because they have the principle “to each according his contribution”. So there is reciprocity, while in the pure communistic functioning it is only a general reciprocity with the whole system; there is no direct exchange between individuals and the system. I see this model emerging everywhere. It is based on distributed infrastructure, distributed machinery, 3D-printing, micro-factories, distributed finance, crowdfunding, social lending, distributed currencies like Bitcoin, collective working spaces like co-working, hacker spaces, fablabs… collective learning capabilities which are very, very developed, even renewable energy... If you think that community owned energy coops produce half of the energy in Germany, you can see that this model is really taking off. So this is happening anyway, independent of our will. But what we can do is steer it and fight for it so that it actually evolves in a way that is the most useful for the workers. In my view, peer-producers are the working-class of post-capitalism. It is an exodus out of capitalism towards a new mode of being and thinking about oneself, which is outside the capital-labour dichotomy. So a lot of the things we want are already there. The key then becomes how we strengthen it, so it becomes a basis for phase-transition, and I tempt to think that this will happen in steps. First of all within the system, where you try to create a new hegemony based on those new values and strategies until you are strong enough to take the next step. And you know, this is really how it happened in the French Revolution and the feudal revolution. It was not a vanguard that said that is what we want… The Russian Revolution is like a fluke, in my vision. What happened was more like this: there were already people within France doing things differently. They became increasingly upset with the superstructure that was holding them back. I think that is exactly how young people feel today. They feel they can share and cooperate and be hyper-productive, but the whole system feels like a weight. I give you just one anecdote, because that is like the key. There was a meeting called the Gathering in Melbourne, for social entrepreneurs. You can consider them as left liberals, or progressive neo-liberals who want to do some good, but without begging So they don’t want to be a NGO; they want to create some kind of a sustainable business practice that allows them to good. It was an amazing experience, because every time somebody made a nasty remark about capitalism, they all cheered. To me this shows how the situation is changing, and how the traditional left-right (division) is changing… I am not saying that it disappears, but it is changing into something else, into a new fracture, between peer producers and netarchical capital instead of labour against capital. Netarchical capital is the fraction of capital that wants to capture the value produced through this new modality.
Jean: Perhaps we can begin with some questions to clarify, because when I first heard Michel, I did not quite understand everything he said.
Alex: Basically I understand what he means, but I am not sure if I can see it entirely the same way. I have to think about it.
Michel: To launch the discussion, to me, the new core of social mobilization is the idea of the commons as a basis of a new hegemony. It is the commons that attracts different coalitions of people.
Alex: Can you define what you mean by a new mode of production?
Michel: I make a difference between a proto-mode of production, which is not fully autonomous and is not fully able to reproduce itself, and a way of creating value, which is able to recreate itself. So today peer production is not yet a real mode of production, but a proto-mode of production, just like capitalism was still dependent on feudal privileges to exist, without being a full mode of production.
Jonathan: Because people involved in it would have to be paid somewhere else to do the work in their spare time… so it cannot be reproduced by itself…
Michel: Yes, at this stage you need to have a wage in the capitalist system in order to reproduce it. Though of course there are little outfits like me trying very badly to be autonomous.
Alex: I think that the classical Marxist view goes like this: there is no place within capitalism that allows a new mode of production to develop, because unlike all other transitions, from slavery to feudalism or from feudalism to capitalism, capitalism tends to be totalitarian. It includes all aspects of the lives of people and this specifically means that the working class is not able to accumulate capital. I think that this is more or less true, because there are very few free spaces within capitalism where you can develop something else. But I think I agree that the things that you describe are only the beginnings of what could be possible.
Michel: I agree with your argument. But I would amend it with the personal conviction that the planetary crisis is getting to such a level that capitalism is no longer able to do this. It is trying to, but the second thing is that distributive infrastructures are also a way to fight against those appropriation mechanisms, which we may not have had before… Things like crowdfunding, social lending, even though they are market practices, can be used by smart layers to circumvent a lot of the limitations that were put on small players by capital before. Also, if what you say is correct, we couldn’t do anything, right? If capitalism were absolutely totalitarian, than nothing would be possible. So we have to maintain some hope that something can be done, hence my hypothesis that it can be done!
Jonathan: I think that what you call the classical Marxist view is not the classical Marxist view; it is the classical Stalinist view that Trotskyism adopted. I do not think at all that it is the view that Marx had, because Marx very much talked about developing various things under capitalism: cooperatives for example. (The view you described) developed from Stalinism, but even if it didn’t, it does not matter, it would be wrong in any case. I think the basic idea was: we have this ready system -basically the Soviet Union- and the choice is either the Soviet Union as it is, or the Soviet Union plus democracy. So a Trotskyite would say that we need to impose that ready-made system (plus democracy) upon the existing system, and we need a revolution to do that. But that view is fundamentally incorrect because there are things developing for longer periods of time within the system, which are the real basis for a new society. What you talk about is part of that. But it is not the main part, because the main part is expressed in the dramatic increase, even in recent years and parallel to the development of peer-to-peer production, in the concentration of ownership that has increased over the last twenty years even more rapidly than in the period preceding that. And the concentration of ownership represents, what in classical Marxism is called the socialisation of production, the bringing together into one system of production. That I think is also a basis for a new society. I am not talking about the kind of a completely new system that will solve all our problems and all the rest of it. But this concentration of ownership represents the possibility where things already are planned. Because within these companies, which are extremely large and in which the ownership is very concentrated… You have this computer generated mathematical formulas that talk about 400 people controlling the world economy...
Michel: Yes, there is a social network analysis showing 400 people basically running the world economy…
Jonathan: That does not give us the possibility of running our daily lives and our daily work like peer-to-peer production does, because that will develop as peer-to-peer production develops. But it does give us the possibility of abolishing the crisis in which we are right now, because this enormous centralisation of ownership, power and money and all the rest of it, used privately for profit interests, have created the mess we are in now. That’s the financial crisis: the economic crisis. So we have to deal with that. Peer-to-peer production does not solve the dominant problem facing most people today. Yes, we all want to have more control over our lives and over our work and most people want to cooperate more with other people. We should release the breaks on that and all the things you say, but that is only part of the situation. The other part is this enormous concentration of power, wealth and ownership, and that will not be solved now. I don’t know, maybe if the tendency of peer-to-peer production develops, maybe it can develop within coming generations, but in the meanwhile things can collapse as the present crisis develops.
Michel: I like to use the following image. At the end of the Roman Empire, the Roman state collapses. Germanic warlords are coming in, but they don’t have the ready-made skills to manage the complex societies that they invaded. So they basically make some kind of compromise with the Christian churches, because these already exist. They have a structure, and they become the core of the new society, which is a mix between Germanic social relations and basically the old roman elite, which can no longer bare arms. They send their children to the Catholic Church and become the lords of the church. But the reason they could do that is because there was already something there. I think that’s what peer production does. The system will collapse and I don’t think we can bring it down. I think that we can bring it down when it has collapsed, and then the already existing alternative modalities can become the core of a new social modus. That is the way I see it.
Jonathan: But the alternative modality is there already also in the big companies. That’s the point I am making. It is already there; you really don’t need to do very much. In a certain sense you have to do far less than with developing peer-to-peer production, because all you need to do is a slight legal change, which is the ownership question. Because then you have the resources and you can decide what to do with them. Instead of speculate with them, you use them actually for something productive. That’s all we need to do. We don’t need to create a whole new system and impose it on the old, we just take the present system and tweak it slightly.
Lena: Who will do it? That is what we are disagreeing basically…
Jonathan: Do we?
Lena: Well, I don’t know… That’s how I interpreter it.
Jonathan: In the nineteenth century the craftsmen were at the centre of the labour movement. The industrial workers were considered unorganisable. The labour movement looked at the industries and thought that these people couldn’t even be reached because they were inside fortresses and were to dumb anyway. And the whole labour movement was build up basically by people in craft industries. That attitude was proved wrong, because industrial workers could be organised. But now we have the opposite attitude, which I think you are very right in lifting out. The old Trotskyites consider knowledge workers as middle class, but I think that they will be at the centre of the new movement for changing society, just like the old craft workers were in the nineteenth century in Europe and the United Sates. Obviously in China things are different, because there you have an industrial working class, which is larger than (the working class in) Europe and America put together.
Michel: The problem is that I don’t see anything happening that suggests that it is going in that direction. You know, the big hope was Eastern Europe. If you were a Trotskyite, the big idea was that the workers were going to overthrow the bureaucracy (and establish real socialism). But that did not happen. The workers did not ask for it, and instead of this big change to socialism there was this big change to capitalism.
Jonathan: The system was fundamentally fraud; it was not socialism…
Michel: But that means that Trotsky was actually wrong. That was my conclusion. It did not just need a political revolution.
Jonathan: It was wrong, definitely… Although -not that it really matters- I blame his successors, because Trotsky actually clearly stated you need a market. If you read "The Revolution Betrayed", Trotsky ridiculed the Stalinist professors who said you could abolish the law of value and that you could abolish the market. Those texts have been pushed aside by Trotskyites afterwards. It is like Laplace’s universal mind, you know. They think that they can just decide everything centrally, but you need a market, and you need workers’ control. Also, in his writings throughout the thirties, as the Soviet Union was obviously a success compared to the depression in the West, that aspect was more toned down. But in key works like “The Revolution Betrayed” it is there, and he expresses himself even more sharply on the question in other writings. He said clearly that the idea that some central bureaucrat can sit at his desk and decide prices is completely flawed.
Jean: I have a question. There is this huge crisis in the left for years now and from a personal point of view, I feel that I looked at the 'left alternatives' from every possible angle without finding a convincing answer. I felt somehow 'blocked'. What I find so attractive in the ideas of peer-to-peer is that now we have actually something better developing within the old system. It offers a -credible alternative. But it also does not solve the question completely because you have to deal with the world as it is. The impression I got from what Michel is saying is, well, we just have to build this alternative within the system. In the Tent University at Occupy London you said basically: “We know that they are there, but they will collapse. We just have to ignore them and continue our business”. I have a problem with that view. I like to use the analogy with escapism in the sixties, but then on a scale and on a level that is much higher. In the sixties people were escaping the system, like hippies building communes. Today we see new developments that weren’t possible before because the technology wasn’t there. I think of the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, all those things, and peer production on the level of immaterial goods. But now with the fablabs, micro-factories, examples in agriculture, we see the possibility of developing something real within the system. But that does not involve any politics or trade unionism like in the 'old world', where you have the traditional divisions between labour and capital… Political parties, trade unions are not part of your story. It is like they are part of the old system and it seems to me that you are saying, let’s just ignore all that and let’s concentrate on building this new emerging peer-to-peer society within the present system. On the other hand, you also see the Pirate Parties as the political expression of this new movement. Can you comment on all that, because in Germany they now seem to be the third biggest party?
Jonathan: In Sweden, they have disappeared…
Jean: Yes, but that is not the end of the story, they go up in other countries and they can come up again in Sweden.
Michel: The greens went up and down for thirty years. But yeah… Let me first say this. Look at Wikipedia. It’s massive produced parallel development. Anybody in the world can work on something at the same time, and there is no capitalist company that can do that. Another example is Wikispeed, you might have heard of it. It is an open source car that took three months to develop. It has five star crash rating, uses hundred miles per gallon, it can be constructed in a micro factory, and has joined with open source ecology, which is a project to make fifty basic machinery in open source hardware. They develop something called the extreme manufacturing platform, which would allow massive parallel-distributed development of any design. This is like Henry Ford inventing the assembly line. It’s the method of this new reality. I wanted to say this in order to show you that this is developing a lot faster than we think. But the second thing is that these new practices breed a new culture that wants to defend this new practice. So I see the pirate parties as directly being created by these practices of sharing, and therefore as a natural defender of the digital commons. I see the Greens as the natural defenders of the environmental commons, and I see what I would call the renewed left as a natural expression of the productive commons. And finally I think -and this might be seen as class collaboration by orthodox Marxists- that social liberals expressing social entrepreneurship represent these ethical companies that work under the commons. They can also be included in this coalition. So I see this as a basis for new vision on politics, a new coalition. I also want to say one thing about escapism, considering the ecological data… just take climate change: the prediction is that by 2030 the agricultural production of Africa will fall back by fifty percent. The Sahara is getting bigger, there are water issues… The Club of Rome Rapport, Limits to Growth, seems to underestimate the speed with which these things will develop. MIT made a projection for 2030 called peak civilization and predicts massive population die-outs, starting in 2030. Millions of people will die, starting in 2030. If you look at other studies, from Oxfam for example, they all go in the same direction. There are nine vital systems for the planet and three of them are damaged already. Oxfam made a similar study about social issues, 8 of the 12 are declining. So I don’t think that the view that capitalism is in serious problems is escapism. I think that it is really grounded in scientific recognition of the ecological crisis. And there is absolutely no sign that they can do anything about it within their logic.
Jean: Just a question here. In "The Third Industrial Revolution" Jeremy Rifkin talks about a massive conversion of oil and fossil energy to green and sustainable energy, using a smart grid, a sort of democratisation of energy. What are your thoughts on that?
Michel: For me this is part of the peer-to-peer revolution, it’s the distribution of energy production, but the big debate within the ecological movement is the following. We know that the energy resources are going down, so energy scarcity is increasing and we need replacement. The big debate is: is it actually possible to find enough replacements fast enough to keep our civilisation functioning in pretty much the same way as now, or can’t we do it and do we face a very severe contraction, just like at the end of the Roman Empire. At that time you had no more cities, no more roads, no ceramics… I tend to lean on the pessimistic side.
Jonathan: The Roman Empire was a fraud, because it hardly developed the means of production. It just lived of means of production that were developed before the Romans, who gathered together in a few centre points the wealth of an empire. That gave the appearance of a great development, because if you take a vast area and you push everything to the centre, it will look very big, but in actual fact the means of production were extraordinary primitive during the Roman Empire; it is not until the plough was introduced in Europe in the year 1000 that you got a real development of the means of production during these 300 years which you talked about.
Michel: Yes, but nevertheless, I refer to the loss of surplus that did exist… It was there and it all disappeared.
Jonathan: Instead of being plundered and put in one place, (this surplus stayed where it was), and was distributed.
Michel: It was probably better for the population, I agree…
Alex: I think this comparison with the end of the Roman Empire is not at all helpful for solving any of the issues that we face today, because the starting point is totally different. It is just not comparable.
Michel: Well, the comparison is the big loss of resources that society faces.
Alex: It was an interesting thing you said about the ecological question. But I find it strange that you are so pessimistic about solving the ecological question, but on the other hand so optimistic when it comes to what peer-to-peer production could mean or could change, because for me, it’s the other way around. I am much more optimistic about these ecological questions because from a technological point of view, it would be no problem to switch to sustainable energy production within the next twenty years. The problem is that this requires very huge investments in infrastructural projects, a change of architecture to include for example solar panels on housing in every city and there is no political will to do that.
Michel: Yes, I think we can only concur that within this type of capitalism it’s not happening.
Lena: But we can see it China. There are enormous investments in solar energy, more than fifty percent of the solar panels are produced in China now, and they did it in five years. They have the political will to invest.
Michel: But they are also under pressure… I think the advantage of China is that they still have an organisation that can tell the capitalists to f.. off, right? And they have planning… But according to the latest statements, they want to give less freedom to the state banks, so… As (this faction) becomes bigger and stronger… I hope that it won’t happen, but I am not 100% sure that this will stay that way. And the problem of course in the West is that the market state has become so captured by private predatory interests that it can no longer effectively establish change. But you know, revolution can always been imagined, like at the end of World War Two, some kind of reconfiguration within capitalism. I used to think that this was possible, but now I think that, after reading ecological literature, there is no time. I think this is the end.
Jonathan: Just to pick up on that, and also on what you said earlier when you talked about the collapse of the system, that this will give the possibility for peer-to-peer to develop… I think the collapse of the system would be the collapse of peer-to-peer production also. Because if you get mass unemployment, if 20 or 25 percent of the population are unemployed (like in Spain) and if you get ecological disaster developing on top of that, that forces people to focus entirely on surviving for the day, and that will deprive them from their spare time…
Michel: But then it is not a question of spare time. If you look at Greece, there you see the revival of the potato bartering system and the spread of regional currencies. There is a substantial revival in Greece, just as there was in Argentina, of peer-based systems.
Jonathan: But this reflects that the economy is in decline
Michel: Yes, of course…
Jonathan: It is not the basis for building a future society; it’s a defensive mechanism against the system, which is declining, just as barter in 1905 in the Soviet Union. I think then 80% of all transactions were bartered transactions. That was a sign of complete catastrophe in the Soviet Union.
Michel: It is, but it can also be done on a basis of high-tech, and then it is something different. You know, if you have forces that use this to interconnect and create new structures…
Jonathan: Well I don’t see how cultivating potatoes together is the basis of a new society, I must say. I do see Information Technology, I do see all those things as having an enormous potential in the context of a crisis of the main system… That’s why I think that peer-to-peer production is indeed a future mode of production that one has to strive for, people’s voluntary cooperation… That is what one wants, and I think there is a possibility of that. But it is dependent on dealing with the dominant parts of the economy, and getting that to develop. If that collapses, then peer-to-peer will collapse too. And so we have to deal with the dominant part of the economy, which is this enormous centralisation of ownership, which is an opposing tendency to peer-to-peer production. So we have to deal with that, and this is not a question of imposing a new system on it, but just in dealing with that particular problem, and then that will open the floodgates to peer-to-peer production.
Michel: But that requires a prior political revolution.
Jonathan: Well, a sort, yeah. So one has to get together a coalition of forces for that and I think that people involved in peer-to-peer production would be central in that process. I do not think that the way of organising the labour movement as we had in the last eighty years functions at all. The way we had it before the Russian Revolution is a different matter because then it was much more a question of a coalition of forces. The German social democracy was allied with the women’s movement, it was allied with the gay movement, it was allied with all kinds of forces within society in the nineteenth century and then things changed.
Michel: Here is from what I see the political difficulty. Because, as much as I am still an outlier in explaining my story of the grand coalition of the commons, most people would tell me, yes, that is possible, give it some time, etc. But if I tell your story, let’s make a coalition to take over the ownership of big companies, there is just nobody there (to listen).
Lena: Is it because nobody believes in it, of because nobody wants it? These are two different things.
Michel: Well, there is scepticism and even fear of centralised control and central planning. That’s a debate that young people just reject.
Jonathan: But still, a majority of people between 18 and 24 in the United States today think that socialism is preferable to capitalism.
Michel: That is interesting, I read that too. But I really wonder what they mean by that, because I never meet these people.
Jonathan: It is a dramatic change from five years ago. Attitudes can change.
Michel: Of course, if something like this would happen, I would be thrilled.
Jonathan: Well, we should make it happen. We should bring these commons together. You see the ecological movement, the green commons, the labour movement, peer-to-peer… I think one does have to bring them together. Everybody will have their own agenda, and there will be certain things that are part of a common agenda. Those who are decisive, because, as Alex says, to get this investment going, is part of gaining control over resources which are in so few hands today. And also, breaking the political pressure from those people, who are trying to gain ownership control over the commons and legislate them to keep it down, all the copyright questions… all that would be broken with that too. And it’s not that much to do. It is not like we are saying abolish the whole market, create a giant computer planning system that would organise everything… Let’s just do that juridical change and then we can get control over the resources.
Michel: So who would own it then, the revolutionary state?
Jonathan: From a juridical point of view, I don’t see any alternative to the present system then it would be the state that owns it, which means that one would have to create a United States of Europe because it is pretty meaningless for little Belgium or little Sweden… Perhaps big Germany could pull it off… But that’s about it in Europe. So we all have to accept to be united under German leadership…
Lena: I have a comment to make. I don’t know if you followed the Breivik affair, the trial against this guy who killed all these people in Norway. His commentary upon why he did it? He claims that he is living in a society dominated by cultural Marxists. Have you read that? I live in a sister country of Norway, and in a way he is right. I would say that in a way, the countries in Northern Europe and I think also Germany, are dominated by cultural Marxists. But it depends on what you mean by it. We are living in late capitalism. Marx said that the dominant class would always control culture. But he was wrong, because that is not the case, not since the sixties and seventies. The opera houses do exist, but they are not dominant culturally. Dominant is mass working class culture, and that is been the case for a long time. So in a way it is very much like peer-to-peer production, if you look at it like that. This aspect of the economy is not a dominant aspect, but a minor side aspect. But an aspect. And actually, socialist ideas are dominant, really. The attitudes of people, what they put forward in theatre performances, that’s actually dominated by socialism.
Michel: By egalitarianism, right?
Lena: By egalitarianism… Lots of them consider themselves as socialists in a way, you know… even Marxist. But it is not dominant in society. Also the media that writes about culture is in between. They are sort of holding hands with the culture and with the capitalists, and they are the only ones who make money in the system, those who write about it, not those who do it, with the exception of a few stars in Hollywood. They earn much more than any actor, or any artist that paints.
Michel: So I think there’s dialectic that whenever people have some kind of a victory, a capitalist takes it over in a way…
Lena: Yes, but only to a certain degree, because in a way, it is still there, encapsulated in its own, not expanding, not taking over…
Michel: At the same time we do make progress, you know, like with female equality, racial equality. I think there is no doubt about it, but then again, capitalism learns to live with it… But it is still an advance.
Lena: It’s good. It’s wonderful, but it does not really change society. And after a while it is pushed backwards, it is not permanently there as a strong thing. But what you said about the Pirate Movement… There is a problem with the Pirate Movement, because they are really contrary to all the interests of the cultural sector, which will make it a problem, as they are not going in the same direction, I think they would weaken this (coalition) immensely, because the Pirate movement and the cultural movement are not compatible.
Michel: What is the cultural movement?
Lena: Well, you don’t want your films or music put up there for free…
Michel: I am part of an open forum; witch is called the free culture forum. All the artists are with us. All the young ones, not the ones who are privileged…
Lena: Not the ones who have an income, sure. I you don’t have an income, you are not loosing something…
Michel: Seriously, you know how many people live from copyright in France, from this wonderful system that protects the artists?
Lena: It is not a wonderful system…
Michel: One thousand. One thousand people live from copyright, in a huge country like France, maybe 2.000 in Germany, maximum. It is a mythology. It does not bring any money to artists. And a young artist practices free culture, because it is the only way that they get known, and build a business around their reputation. I don’t think that’s a handicap, I think that’s actually an advantage they have.
Jean: Like in the music industry.
Michel: Yes, for one Madonna you have 20.000 musicians who are not making money from copyright and who have nothing to loose.
Jean: But they are gaining money from the free cultural movement. There is one other point that I want to raise. I remember Mandel in the seventies in a discussion on the automation of the industry, you know, the futuristic view that some day robots would produce everything. According to Mandel, that would be the end of capitalism, because capitalism needs scarcity to make profits.
Michel: That’s why the end of copyright is also very changeling for capitalism.
Jean: To me, this is clear in the digital world. If you make something digitally, every copy is as good as the original, so you get abundance of everything that is immaterial. But of course, in the material world, there is still scarcity. I just read a book ‘Abundance’, and the costs and efforts to actually produce goods are also declining enormously and very rapidly. Then you have this whole discussion on micro-factories, fablabs, bio-farms… Today, things can be produced with far less resources than only ten years ago. I am talking about 80 or 90 percent less material resources. So from the point of view of capitalism, there is less and less profit to be made.
Michel: I have written about this, about the value crisis. Peer production creates huge problems of capital accumulation.
Jean: I think peer production causes big problems for capitalism, and for the workers.
Michel: Of course, it’s the same. They don’t get wages.
Jonathan: I think you are making a mistake. Because if you associate capital accumulation with physical commodity, that’s not the essence.
Jean: I did not say that.
Jonathan: Well, if you say the cost of actually producing goods are declining all the time; you talk about the cost of producing material goods… But capital accumulation does not have anything to do with material production. I mean this is a mistake with witch we are brought up with, the wrong idea that all services are parasitic, living of the surplus produced by others. And that’s wrong. I mean Marx gave a very clear example…
Jean: Yes I know, but to clarify myself… What I was saying is that as a capitalist or as a worker, I cannot get money out of something that is in abundance. That’s the point that I am making. And more and more things are in abundance. Or could be.
Jonathan: That’s true. But that doesn’t have anything to do with (capital accumulation.) You don’t make money from transforming matter; you make money from exploiting human beings. And you can exploit them without any material being involved at all, which you do in services all the time. So I mean the fact that only 5 percent of producing a pair of shoes is the actual cost of producing a pair of shoes, does not mean that you don’t make money of the other 95 percent. You make most of the money from the 95 percent; otherwise you wouldn’t bother.
Alex: Sorry, but what are we talking about? You talk about productivity, if I got it right? What is rising steadily is productivity of human labour, and following this, we have rising organic composition of capital, and because of rising productivity, it’s becoming more difficult to make a profit, but this is not a problem of the workers, it’s only a problem for capital.
Jean: Well, it’s a problem for workers when they loose their jobs. They can produce the same with 10 percent of the workforce.
Michel: I think I agree with Jean. If you look at the part going to the workers, it has declined since the seventies, right? And real wages are stagnant or even go down, so that already creates a problem, not just for workers, but also for capitalists, for capital accumulation. Then they use credit to compensate for the loss, and that system is broken down. So that’s one aspect of it, but the other aspect is in peer production. More and more value is created as use value directly through all kinds of mechanisms, and only at the margins you get monetization. Facebook is a big company, yes. But they only make three dollars per person. Google makes a lot of money, but there’s only 0,05 percent of websites who can make a living with Google advertising. So the monetization is marginal, because of the natural abundance of information doesn’t create market dynamics. And this is a problem for capital. Where can it invest? (…) Look at crowdsourcing. Before you had to hire a guy, he does what you ask, and you pay him a wage. Now you go to a platform and 300 workers are competing for a 300-dollar design. And 299 go straight in the bin. That’s not good for the workers but it is not good for capital either because…
Jonathan: But I don’t see that as a problem I must say. Look at Europe in the last forty years. It’s completely true that the amount of people working in the textile industry or in shipyards or something like that has collapsed. There are all kinds of industries. But the amount of people employed has increased every year, even in the recessions. If you look in the last thirty years in the OECD-countries, the amount of people employed has increased every year.
Michel: Because of women…
Jonathan: Well, yes, that’s one of the reasons, because more women have moved in the workforce, because of more immigrants. In that sense, there is no physical limit on the amount of people working. They expanded it through women and immigrants working in Europe and North America. So it’s not correct that the enormous increase of productivity has meant fewer jobs, it meant a different type of jobs, for instance in the knowledge industries and not least among teachers. There has been a huge expansion of education. Of course people working with computers hardly existed thirty years ago compared with today, or web designers, or all these things have increased. But people were employed by capitalists, and teachers or web designers contributed to capital accumulation just as much as people who work in textile factories.
Michel: I agree. But I think the issue is that the system of displacement is now broken. Job destruction through productivity creating something new… right now it does not work. That would be my contention. Like every million dollars in open source destroys sixty million dollars in proprietary software.
Jonathan: But the rate of rising unemployment just happened in a few countries. In Germany, which is the largest country in Europe, unemployment has barely risen during this crisis. Of course in Greece, or in the United States, or Ireland, things are different.
Michel: So what do you make of this? People I know with money all tell me the same story: we don’t know where to put our money. There is a general crisis of profitability for them.
Jonathan: But of course, that is always the case in a slump. In a slump you never know where to put your money.
Michel: The question is what kind of slump? This is a systemic slump; this is a slump like 1929. Or 1973.
Jonathan: What’s the difference?
Michel: If you look at the Kondratiev waves, the really big slumps occur every sixty, seventy years, and they usually take eight to fifteen years to resolve.
Jonathan: Well, I don’t believe in the Kondratiev cycle.
Michel: A systematic crisis means that it cannot be solved with the same premises as the older system. You see this every day. Like saving the banks is just not working, the neo-liberal system is not functioning. They try to keep it alive, and because they try to keep it alive they take the money from the workers. And that is not working at all. It is working for a few capitalists who do well in a crisis.
Lena: But it is like the normal boom-slump cycle. It happens all the time, and it never gets back to the same thing. And after a while, you need regeneration, just like the Second World War. And of course you need theoretically a new regeneration because the system is really pretty rotten, that is true. The Second World War was the solution then…
Michel: This is a kind of solution that does not seem to be available right now because of the destructive power.
Lena: Well, it would be some time ahead, if things go on like this. Above all the state apparatus is continuing to dissolve; barbarism would lead to war in my opinion. (The danger) is not there right now, but it is not an automatic thing that would be resolved by anything really. I mean, it is not automatic, ever, has never been. I do not want to be pessimistic, but…
Jonathan: In the United States the economy is moving up, but in a slow pace, but it will pick up.
Lena: But this will just go on and on and the next slump will be worse…
Michel: No, this is different, this is really a systemic crisis.
Jonathan: There is no final crisis.
Michel: No, but this is really a big crisis like in 1929, which was only resolved by a total reorganisation of the system. The premises of Fordist capitalism are totally different from the premises of Smithian capitalism. And I am pretty sure that, even if it works, a kind of peer-to-peer capitalism would be very, very different from what we had before the 2008 crisis. If capitalism wants to save itself, it has to integrate all of those new aspects.
Alex: I want to come back to something you said before. I think that this infrastructure that we have now on which this peer-to-peer production is based, especially the Internet, is something that was only made possible because of a huge concentration of ownership under capitalist development…
Michel: Well, the Internet is the state. And the web is the state. Internet was developed by the state, by academics, funded by ARPA (?). And the web was invented by Tim Burners-Lee…
Alex: Right, but still you need a state with the resources to fund such a research, and somehow that is all related to living in a system where you have a concentration of production of wealth.
Michel: Well, I am pretty sure that Microsoft would never have developed the Internet. So I am not sure what the argument is.
Alex: My argument is that peer-to-peer production at the level that we are talking about is not possible on the basis of feudalism for example.
Michel: Of course, it requires a technological developed society with high education levels and strong civic infrastructures.
Alex: But at this moment everything that developed in the open source, community costs, Microsoft… the end of money and all of that… I don’t agree with that, because if you sum everything together, then the capitalist companies, especially Google, are gaining much more in using and picking out the things that are developing in open source projects, for example android. Android is the most famous example… so in total it’s more another way of exploiting the work people do in a peer-to peer approach.
Michel: But this is what capitalists do, they exploit.
Alex: Yes, they are exploiting these things, and I think to sum it all up, it’s a basis to make profit. And as long as this peer-to-peer approach is not able to accumulate wealth in capital themselves…
Michel: But this is exactly what I am proposing, the system I explained in the beginning.
Alex: Yeah, but the last thing that the capitalists would give up is profit. So I don’t think that whatever will collapse in the future, will lead to the possibility of the peer-to peer production.
Michel: I can give you an example. In Norway musicians are now earning more through peer-to-peer than before, while the industry has collapsed. So there has been a transfer of wealth from the middlemen to the direct cultural producers. There is a study that shows that their income has increased, even as the sales of CDs has collapsed or diminished, they found enough other ways to make income…
Lena: But which ways, that’s what I am interested in…
Michel: Well, I am not sure about the details… But you know, concerts, performances…
Lena: But that’s just pure work. Compared to going to a studio and record a CD...
Michel: There is no intellectual property right in peer-to-peer, so you get money from your work, that’s exactly true.
Jean: Take the concert season, it lasts six months now instead of only the summer period. In Brazil, bands give their music for free on the Internet. Street vendors make CDs from it and sell them in the streets for very little mine. But they are making a living out of it and at the same time they are making cheap propaganda for the artists… I read about a group that earns now far more money from their concerts than formerly from their CDs, as the bulk of the profit used to go to the music industry. It’s mainly the industry that profits from the CD sales, not the artists. But even small artists now have an audience that they didn’t have before, because they couldn’t reach them. Now they can build a fan basis because they can reach them through the Internet, and then they can make a living from their music… Which was not possible before.
Michel: There is a huge industry in Bollywood that doesn’t use any copyright. Nigeria, the third film industry in the world, does not use any copyright. Italian neo-melodica, a sort of narco music, is bigger than the biggest stars in official Italy: no copyright. There is a completely parallel system of money making… (What the music industry concerns), I give the example of Fora do Eixo in Brazil. This is a group of people from the North East of Brazil, the poorest state. That’s why they call themselves the “out of the axis” because they are really outside. They mutualise their production infrastructure, studios, music instruments, etc. They use a complementary currency between themselves, and then they organise these huge festivals where people pay to attend. And they are doing extremely well. That’s just one example.
Lena: There are lots of examples like that, but there are opposite examples too, I know people who play in bands who used to make records. They are young, between 20 and 25, and since the cinema and the CD income collapsed, they tour three times as much. The two guys in the band who have written the songs they perform get double as much money as the others. That means they are replaced all the time. They only do it for a short time because they don’t get equal pay. So it is still copyright based, as those who have written the songs are paid double as much, and they all work a hell of a lot more.
Michel: Well, artists have had a really tough time since ever. For every actor in Hollywood you have ten thousand waiters and waitresses in Los Angeles hoping to became one. So that’s really nothing new. Capitalism has always been a “winner takes all system”, but there are a lot more niches now then there were before.
Jonathan: I think these are all positive developments, like the cooperative movement is a very positive development. So in that sense it is not new. The cooperatives in the late nineteenth century played a very large social role, because then we had mainly low conscious societies, and it became a way for peasants to survive. There was cooperative distribution, cooperative buying in… that was very important, but that is only one of the trends in society. One of the central trends is still the taking over of all this small and little companies and dissolving them, not into peer-to-peer production, but in private ownership by big companies, by a few owners. That is still an absolute central trend, which is not decreasing in any way, it’s rather accelerating, and every crisis accelerates that process.
Michel: Yes, I know this is true. But at the same time, for example, the number of independent entrepreneurs in Holland has gone from 5 to 10 percent of the population and these are all independently owned businesses. But you know, for me, the question is more like: do you really believe that Marxist language and a new Marxist party can lead a revolution?
Jonathan: The question of the language is completely secondary.
Michel: I know it is not. The discussion on a believable narrative is very important.
Jonathan: I agree. It is very important. But first we must understand it, and then we must create the language to express it. But first we must understand, and this is the phase we are in. We are all scattered individuals, small groups, discussing at the moment what the problem is and how we can deal with it. And for that, I think, the language is a help, but that is not important either.
Michel: But it is also a question of social practice, right? People like me, and all those who are engaged in peer production, feel that we are constructing something. This creates a positive psychology. We are creating commons, we are building commons, we are creating social movements…
Jonathan: I am prepared to revise all the language, that is not the problem, but first I need to understand, and I haven’t got there yet, that’s the problem. What you talked about, these small entrepreneurs that went from 5 to 10 percent, this is also a problem of the de-collectivisation of the workforce. People are being forced to start their own business, to get a contract, instead of getting a wage.
Lena: One third of the workers in the mines in Sweden are now on contract. It’s the biggest iron production in Europe, and one third is on contract, and they are forced to be.
Michel: This is somewhat different, I agree. Short-term contracts are social regression.
Jonathan: The same with people who took care of old people in Stockholm. They used to be part of the public sector, but were forced to start their own businesses. There were big demonstrations against it, but it was forced through anyway, because this is part of the breaking up of the trade unions.
Michel: At the same time, and here is the optimistic note, you have a movement of re-collectivisation through co-working centres for example. I was recently (at a conference) in Paris, and I was impressed by the level of enthusiasm. These are all progressive people. To give just one example, there is one guy making something called fair trade electronics, so the whole supply chain, from the mine to the production, will be done in the peer-production mode. And guys like that, there are hundreds and thousands of them, and these people are engaged, doing something, organising together, mutualising their infrastructure…
Jonathan: The main trend is still these big companies laying more and more the ownership of production under their dictatorship.
Lena: But you do repeat yourself immensely now Jonathan, so what’s the conclusion, he asked a question, do you believe in Marxist parties taking over?
Jonathan: Okay, I am sorry…
Alex: I have a question, because this is interesting what you just said. It is one thing to have peer production when it comes to artistic things like music or whatever, but this is not the basis for the wealth in society. The basis of the wealth of society is the energy production, it’s the infrastructure and the production of the means of production. Do you think that it is possible to also go into these sectors with peer-to-peer production?
Michel: Yes. The first successful industrial ecology is Arduino motherboards. (This business) is good for at least one million dollars, still very small compared to the concentration, but still. Five years ago I was having the same arguments in a discussion with friends, who said that if there is one thing that open source cannot do, it’s these motherboards, because they are so complex. The other thing was cars: if there is one thing open source cannot do, it’s cars, because for cars you need big factories. No. It’s all happening: local motors, crowd sourced cars, Wikispeed, there’s 24 of them. A few are driving, not many, but Arduino is… pretty much becoming the dominant thing in niche computing. Like balloon weather monitoring and all this specialised users. Garduino is for farmers, and this new way of seeing is really starting to develop. And you know, I thought Marcin Jakubowski was crazy when he said that he was going to develop fifty machines… His first machine is a bricklaying machine. If you want to buy it in the private sector it costs 25.000 dollar, 5.000 for the machine and 20.000 for the IP. So if you can have a system where you can sell those machines at cost plus profit, that’s pretty competitive.
Lena: I visited two mines in the North of Sweden, one mine, the bigger one, is state-owned, and the small one is privately owned. I went around, discussed with workers and representatives of the company, and interesting enough, in the state-owned company I think there is a peer-to-peer development, because every year they do something with actually 400 suggestions from the workforce. They have two or three people employed in just one mine, to develop and discuss the suggestions that are coming from the workforce. And that is a complete change from ten years ago. It is a huge thing. And that is within main production. So there are all kinds of things changing of how they are doing things… In the private company, they actually had closed down the suggestion box. I do think that this says something about industry in the hard-core production. I might be wrong about this, but isn’t this peer-to-peer in a way? Because they are not getting any money from it...
Jean: So that’s the definition of peer-to-peer, when you don’t get any money? The way I see it, we are really dealing with something completely new, because the technology wasn’t there ten years ago, or even five years ago. So I see it as a sort of an embryo. It is still very marginal… So to me, all arguments about what happened in the last thirty years are not really relevant…
Lena: But is peer-to-peer a technology? Or is it more a way of thinking? Is it like mind technology, aided by Internet?
Michel: Well, I give you my definition, which is the relational definition. Peer-to –peer is any relationship where the individual gives to the whole without direct reciprocity with another individual. Typical examples are Linux, Wikipedia: you give something to build the system, you can profit from the system, but there’s no direct link of reciprocity with any particular individual. So technically it’s communal shareholding. As a mode of production, I would say it’s a mode of production where anybody can contribute to a common project, which is available for anyone. But it’s enabled by technological infrastructure. What the infrastructure does is scaling that relational paradigm from the local to the global and that wasn’t possible before. So you can have things like Wikipedia, which is the global scaling of small group dynamics. You can scale trust and you can scale things that weren’t just scalable before. So, even if I am totally wrong, I think this is at the level of the print revolution It’s something that affects people on a very deep structural relational basis, it changes society and it changes power structures in ways that may not yet be clear, but certainly are different from the period in which Marx operated, even if it is still capitalism that we are under….
Jonathan: I want to talk about the car industry, which is something completely different. I checked out this scooter (you wrote about), this peer-to-peer car which is coming to production now. Fundamentally I think it is not different from Volkswagen. Because if you look at Volkswagen today, I think 60 percent of the components are produced by other companies. In that sense the scooter is not different. Because the pre-condition for being able to produce that car is that there are large parts companies, which is the same precondition for any car manufacturer today. The car manufactures are moving more and more from being car manufacturers to companies that put together parts, which are produced everywhere. They are more like a marketing name for their product, because they all use the same components produced by the same companies that deliver to all the manufacturers. There are a few competitors in some of these components, but they all produce all these parts. The final thing is just putting it together, just like IPods, or any advanced product today. (The brand) is really just a front behind which lays a particular combination of things produced by different large parts companies that are unknown outside the business. The scooter is not different in that sense because it is a sort of Management Company, just like Volkswagen can be considered a management company. (The idea is:): let’s put together a car; we bring together these fifty or sixty companies that produce the little parts and who have the expertise in that sort of thing, and we manage the process. But I would say any advanced company today basically functions like that.
Michel: But the key question is for me (and I don’t know enough to know the answer myself): is it a true open-source project or not, because that is the difference. If you buy a Volkswagen, you don’t know how it is made, you don’t know which parts are there, and even a mechanic in a garage can no longer repair the car if he doesn’t have a contract with Volkswagen. It’s a system of total dependency. If this scooter would be an open source project, that would mean that anybody could contribute to make it a better car, any mechanic could repair it and any part could be changed. So if it is a true open source, and I am not sure if this is the case here, I would still say this is a major difference.
Jonathan: I think that any mechanic would know the vast majority of parts because they are the same in all cars. A part is kept (secret) because they want their car to be special, precisely to preserve the trademark. This is the discussion of intellectual rights and all the rest of it: they want to keep the idea that this is a Volkswagen rather than a Volvo. But it’s the part of the way the system works. To what extent people from the outside can contribute to the scooter, I don’t know. But I can imagine that even Volkswagen is moving more and more into the field of open innovation. Because you have all those enthusiasts sitting at home in their garage, taking apart their Volkswagen and putting it together again to get an idea how it works. I think Volkswagen need really to exploit that too. So concerning open source, there’s all kinds of combinations and permutations whether it’s partially or not partially. But the less partial it is, the more there is an income, and the less partial it is, the less there is an income and the more it relies upon voluntary things, people who aren’t paid, and this makes it much more vulnerable to shocks and crises.
Michel: Yes, you need the right balance. So what’s the final word on this?
Jean: I think also we need to tackle the state. That is still a main issue. The non-political books I am reading now like “Abundance” or the “Third Industrial Revolution” make me optimistic, in the sense that they show that problems can be solved. But on the political front, I still don’t see how… I mean, traditional Marxism has more or less the following position: take state power and use the state to solve the problems. And then the only question remains: it must be a democratic state.
Michel: It’s amazing how the political system is totally gangrene. But there also technology may offer some solutions. The pirate party uses liquid voting, which is really interesting. So the way I understand it: every member can always vote or delegate, and can always take back his delegation. For example: I trust Jean Lievens to vote for me on issues of abortion, I trust Alex to vote for me on issues of naval development. But for everything concerning a basic income I want to vote directly. Then you can also make proposals and then use the slashdot-system (?) to give it weight. So people have more trust in others with a higher voting weight, issues will bubble up and the issues that reach a certain threshold become discussable to the whole group. So everyone can make a proposal, but there is a filtering system because you cannot discuss everything all the time. So only the things that members really give weight to bubble up and become issues for the party. Slashdot is a newspaper for hackers. There are tons of articles every day, and if you join, you get karma points. You get for example four points and you can vote for articles, and then they go up. Then people can vote for you and say oh you have good judgement, then you get 8 points, and 16, 32… So you get gradually more points and more influence within the system. Then there is also counter-veiling: suddenly you can loose everything. It is like a lottery system aimed at keeping a balance of power.
Jean: Or Wikipedia where you have also a sort of self-regulating system for resolving problems. But then this has also its limitations because especially discussions on sensitive issues often do not reach a solution and then there is some upper –judge who will decide in last resort. So you still have a sort of hierarchy.
Michel: Yes but it is not a command and control hierarchy. It’s something different. I am reading a really great book, it’s called “The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes”, and I did not know this, but there were no elections, everything was done by lottery. But you still had magistrates.
End of tape.
To be continued...
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