P2P Foundation

The Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives

Peer-to-Peer and Marxism: analogies and differences

Last month I was in London where I  attended a lecture by Michel Bauwens on peer-to-peer dynamics. I wrote an article in Dutch for ‘De Wereld Morgen’. Fortunaletly, there is a edited version of the lecture on vimeo.

P2P and the Commons as the new paradigm from David Nixon on Vimeo.

After the lecture, I contacted Michel for an interview.

We all know examples of P2P in the immaterial field: Linux, Wikipedia, Arduino. Can you give some examples of P2P in the ‘real’, material world, i.e. in the field of production?

Michel Bauwens: Arduino is already an example touching on material production since the collaboratively designed motherboards are already produced and sold on the market by companies using the Arduino trademark. An example I really like is the Nutrient Dense Project, a collaborative research network of farmers and citizen scientists that directly use nutrient research in their own immediate production. One of the most exciting areas is probably that of so-called open source cars, like the Rallye Motor and the Darpa-funded XC2V marine assault vehicle, the latter which is based on an input of more than 30,000 designs. The StreetScooter, an electric car based on a corporate design commons with over 50 companies participating is perhaps most exciting, since the orders have already rolled in and the car should be driving in German cities by 2013. In the p2pfoundation wiki section on Product Hacking (http://p2pfoundation.net/Product_Hacking), we've annotated nearly 300 open hardware projects but they are just the tip of the iceberg. It helps to distinguish the design phase, where crowd sourcing and collaboration are not qualitatively different from software collaboration, from the phase of 'making', which would require an infrastructure for open and distributed manufacturing which is only marginally available. But in the field of making we have exciting developments towards shared material infrastructures such as co-working and hacker spaces, product-service systems for car sharing and many other services, and the miniaturization of production via 3D Printing and Fab Labs, all of which also have open source versions and aspects.


You compare the transition from capitalism to P2P with the transition from slavery to feudalism, or with feudalism to capitalism. In both cases there was a mutual change from the top and the bottom. In London you only dwelled on the first one: slaves leaving the system and slave owners turning slaves into serves who were better off than before, but what about the transition from feudalism to capitalism? There was the birth of a new class and the transformation from noblemen to capitalists, but you can hardly say that workers were better off than before. So where is the positive change from the bottom?

Michel Bauwens:The transition from one form of unequal class society to another is always problematic for the value producing classes at the bottom. One can argue that serfhood is an inherently better position than slavery but it was still exploitation and dominance, and many serfs had been free farmers before. The situation with capitalism is not that different, though there was, and is, a lot of hardship, the formal rights of workers are certainly an improvement, and at least for the western working class, there has been for a long while, substantial material improvement. But overall, the systems transitioned because the old system was no longer sustainable and the new one was overall more efficient in creating material riches. It all depends on the social contract and the relative strength of the forces at play. Strong labour movements have tremendously improved the situation of working people, and the situation in the Middle Ages between the 10th and the 13th century was also one of improving living standards. So the record is always mixed and the people themselves usually have a pretty clear picture of what needs to be improved. For example, what worker would want to a return to serfhood as a social condition? Since I have difficulties in imagining a classless society myself, I see peer producers in conflict with netarchical capital about their social condition, rights, and material livelihoods, until the moment that peer producers become the core social layer, and the commons the locus of core value creation. This is not a scientific scenario with a certain and unavoidable ending but rather a description of the field of tension in which peer production develops.

To continue this analogy: do you see a new class arising under capitalism, or a sort of ‘enlightened capitalists’ turning to open source (as described in Wikinomics)?

Michel BauwensIncreasingly the commons is and will be the core of value creation, but value is still essentially captured by market economy, and netarchical capital is the fraction of capital which understands that change and want to profit from it. This means they have both to enable and empower social production, but also subject it to their own control, so that they can capture the value that is generated. The first part forces them to a certain type of strategic behaviour that fosters sharing, while the second requirement forces them to maintain a general context of continued dominance. This is in essence the new social tension of the emerging p2p age, between communities of peer producers and the platform owners. The key for peer producers is to gain control of their own livelihoods and social reproduction, and in my view this can best be done by creating their own cooperative/corporate vehicles, which I call, following Neil Stephenson in the Diamond Age and the lasindias.net suggestions, "Phyllis", i.e. community-supportive entities that allow commoners to sustain their work in the commons, and to substract it from the mainstream economy of profit-maximization.


Can you see a parallel between P2P and the cooperative movement born in the eighteenth century (utopian socialism), or with the hippies and the communes in the sixties?

Michel BauwensThe communal impulse is one of the permanent aspects of humanity, which ebbs and flows according to social conditions, and I think we are witnessing a revival of this impulse. However, there is a big difference, cooperative forms of organization can now work around open design commons and become hyper-innovative, and can obtain economies of scope to outcooperate shareholder-based multinationals. Cooperatives and intentional communities are therefore no longer 'dwarfish forms' but actually the vanguard of the new p2p production system. If you combine shared open innovation commons (instead of privatized intellectual property which holds back innovation), with these new product-maximizing and commons-maximizing entities, you can obtain a quantum leap in productivity. This is why netarchical capitalists invest in platforms, and this is why the alternative ethical economy needs to do the same, and if they do, they could replace the for-profit corporation at the heart of our economy.


If you say that we need to prepare an alternative to capitalism, is the P2P-movement not a sort of ‘escapism’?

Michel BauwensInfinite growth is not possible in a finite environment, and we are now reaching the limits of growth. This means that capitalism is increasingly unable to grow its way out of its problems and that the share of the 1% can only grow through dispossion, and this is what we are now witness in Europe, with Greece an advance example of what is in store for the working populations. So it is not a matter of escapism, the old system is dying and will be replaced, but it could be replaced by something worse, it could regress like in the early centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, or it could reorganize itself to a higher level of achievement and complexity, which is what the p2p approach indicates.


You describe #Occupy as an example of peer producing political commons. In what way is this different from historical ‘anarchist’ or ‘communist’ movements like the Paris Commune, Barcelona 1937, or perhaps even the Russian Revolution?

Michel BauwensIf you observe an occupation, you see a community that is producing its politics autonomously, not following hierarchical or authoritarian political movements with a pre-ordained program; you see for-benefit institutions in charge of the provisioning of the occupiers (food, healthcare), and the creation of an ethical economy around it (such as Occupy's Street Vendor Project). This is prefigurative of a new form of society in which the commons is at the core of value creation; these commons' are maintained by non-profit institutions, and the livelihoods are guaranteed through an ethical economy. Of course there are historical precedents, but what is new is the extraordinary organisational, mobilization and co-learning potential of their networks. Occupy works as an open API with modules, such as 'protest camping', 'general assemblies', which can be used as templates and modified by all, without the need for central leadership. We can now have global coordination and mutual alignment of a multitude of small-group dynamics, and this requires a new type of leadership. The realization of historical moment of Peak Hierarchy, the moment in which distributed networks asymmetrically challenge vertical institutions in a way they could not do before, forces social movements to look for new ways of governance... but these are not given, and have to be discovered experimentally, and of course, there will be valuable lessons to learn from predecessor movements!


In order for P2P to really blossom, we need to get rid of intellectual property rights, copyrights, patents, etc. How do you think we can achieve this?

Michel BauwensI'm personally not a pure abolitionist, because I believe a lot of artists and creators believe in the necessity of author's rights, so I think we can do number things. Bring back protection to reasonable amounts of time, no more than the original 14 years of protection, or less, the Pirate Party proposes a five-year limit. Next is to offer choice to creators, by popularising choice-based licenses such as the Creative Commons. But the priority is to find new ways to fund creation ... this can be done through collective licensing and other forms of public funding, promoting and sustaining open business models, and ultimately, through a basic income, which recognizes that, every citizen is a value contributor and creator. These goals can be achieved partly through the social innovation that results from peer production communities, who are intensively experiment with open business models, and partly through stronger social and political movements, such as the free culture movement, the Pirate Parties, and other expressions of the new sharing culture.

It seems to me that P2P is creating a sort of ‘whole new world’, but without any references or links to the present political system. If Occupy represents an alternative way to engage in politics, what is the link between peer politics and bourgeois democracy and political parties?

Michel BauwensThat is a very difficult question and results from a paradox. One is the increasing social awareness that our present democracy is a facade, and that the state has been taken over by a predatory financial faction, while classic politicians see no other way out than to succumb to their blackmail. But the other side is that people's freedoms and rights and private and social income is increasingly under pressure, which leads to political and social mobilization as well as effective policy engagement. The first aspect leads to continuous democratic innovation from the new p2p culture, think about the peer governance mechanisms in peer production communities; new inventions such as dynamic voting, and while these mechanisms operate outside the mainstream, they are also embedded in the new forms of value creation, new p2p social institutions, and therefore, poised to grow. The second aspect leads to new political and social forces that work within the present system, such as the emerging Pirate Party. In Brazil, I heard that the vibrant FORA DO EIXO cultural movement, which has a functioning counter-economy around music, is also politicising and engaging with local politics. The second leads to what I call diagonal politics, i.e. mutual adaptation between emerging p2p forces and practices, and the old institutional realities. To the degree that this is ineffective, it pushes from the solution coming from the first aspect, i.e. prepares for a more radical and revolutionary re-ordering of our institutions. Tellingly, a Swedish pirate party member once wrote that the Pirate Party is the last chance to avoid revolution. To the degree that the present system refuses adaptation, to that degree they heighten the need and push for more radical transformations.

How do you estimate the impact of P2P on the labour movement? Doesn’t it also undermine the bureaucratic structures of workers organisations?

Michel BauwensI'm in touch with young labour and union activist who are strong believers in networked labour movements and we also see how the Occupy movement has already radicalized the U.S. labour movement. But ultimately, the old institutional and hierarchical structure of the unions, as well as their increasing inability to protect social achievements within the present regressive system, must also lead to a profound renewal of the labour movement. In a way, the p2p movement is actually an expression of the new dominant layer of cognitive workers, who in the West are the mainstay of productive labour. P2P is their culture and what needs to happen to do productive and useful work. In that sense, the P2P movement is the new labour movement of the 21st century, with the Indignados and Occupy as the first expression of that new labour but also civic, sensibility.

You claim that P2P makes a new, ‘higher’ form of society possible. Before, that was not the case because the technology did not exist. Marxists make this claim already for more than 150 years. Do you think they were wrong then, perhaps correct today, or it P2P something ‘completely different’?

Michel BauwensI consider Marxism, and the other forms of socialism and anarchism, ultimately as an expression of a dichotomy within the industrial capitalist system, and proposing other logics to manage the industrial model. But P2P is the expression of the evolving class and social dynamics under cognitive capitalism. And while the former was essentially anti-capitalist, and could not really point to a new hyperproductive model of organising production (socialism was a hypothesis, and its real life examples inevitably disappointed, there was no emergent socialism within capitalism and only 'state capitalism' outside of it), what is different for the p2p movement is that it can point out to already existing models that are outcooperating and outcompeting classic capitalist models, i.e. it is already post-capitalist. Marx was right about capitalism, but wrong about socialism and I believe the politically driven model of social change, when not based on an existing prior new productive model, was ill-conceived. The P2P movement is therefore poised to realize what the 19th and 20th century social movements couldn't, because the hyperproductive alternative was not available to them. The politics of P2P flow from an already existing social practice, that is a really key difference.

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Comment by Michel Bauwens on March 3, 2012 at 4:29

Hi Anna, I agree with childcare as the primoridial template, but wouldn't you agree it is also immediately influenced by socialization processes that are imposed by the particular society ... no unequal society could reproduce itself without childhood socialization, which is imposed by mothers just as by others .. but if we can insert the childcare template into different social dynamics, then of course, we could make tremendous progress,


Comment by Anna Harris on March 3, 2012 at 15:02

Hi Michel,

I agree that childhood socialisation, imposed as much by mothers as society as a whole, will distort this basic relationship. What is interesting to me is that in p2p non reciprocal relationships you are not creating something new, but are calling up the essence of the gift of life, which we all experience, the gift which does not demand a return. Charles Eisenstein talks about this is his Sacred Economy, and quotes the poem by Hafiz,

Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
'You owe Me.'
Look what happens with
A love like that,
It lights the Whole Sky



Comment by Michel Bauwens on March 4, 2012 at 1:51

It has always existed, and was once the primary social relationship ... and our task is to make it so again!

Comment by Andrew Cady on March 5, 2012 at 19:28
Quote from above – ‘The key is that generalized non-reciprocity cannot be imposed by any top-down force, however benign, but must by necessity mature in the real society as people can gradually move towards it as sufficiency and abundance replace scarcity dynamics.’

Anna quoted this, and I was struck by this passage as well.

Since scarcity is imposed from above (primarily in the form of property, secondarily in the multi-faceted social requirement of work as the foundation of any claim to consume), how ELSE can "generalized non-reciprocity" be effected?

"P2p production" is largely performed by workers, in their leisure time, who pay rent and otherwise sustain their ability to produce using income from ordinary jobs. Without "top-down force", there seems to be no way to support society's "excess labor" in the form of the unemployed (i.e., to turn the unemployed into a sustainable leisure class), nor to truly liberate "hobby" labor, to turn it into first-class production. Even if we accept that capital requirements approach zero, the labor-power itself is lacking.

This is not only because the employee is crippled in "after-work" productive efficacy by lack of time. Even if he is able to produce _now_, nobody can depend on his precarious status to be sustainable. Could you really allow your food supply to depend on the ability of 40hr workers (who typically spend another 10hrs per week on misc. unpaid job-related needs, like commuting) to put in an extra 20hrs per week on top? Indeed, in the long-term such a system is biologically unsustainable, since you can't work 70 hours with children. Eventually the "free labor supply" will evaporate as either these people have children and leave, or die off without reproducing their numbers. (Or is p2p production to be performed by a perpetual supply of childless dropouts from the capitalist system?)

I think a little more Marxism is in order here. We must not forget that the 40-hour work mandate is a (top-down imposed) _social_ _practice_, rather than a technological status. No technological innovation can liberate our 9-5 labor. We can't give it away, since we don't own it. The value of technological improvements in efficiency will continue to be captured by the owning class, through the mechanisms of profit, rent, taxes, explicit work requirements on government benefits, etc..

(An exceptional case is domestic work, which was (mostly) never integrated into the capitalist economy. But domestic work is already so efficient that there are few gains left to be made; besides which, such gains are still subject to capture through an increase in hours. The primary gains of this century, e.g. washing machine, were captured by making female participation in the capitalist workforce largely mandatory.)

A concrete example: if YOU can use your apartment to grow some food for yourself, maybe you can capture a bit of the value of that land from your landlord (maybe even enough to feed a person, although that seems extremely implausible to me). This works precisely because the landlord does not know that the value of his property has gone up. But if EVERYONE starts to do that, as a general social trend, then landlords will find out, and rents will go up in direct correlation to this general technological increase in land-value. For those already on the edge, growing food within the apartment will then become necessary to survival, since wages will not otherwise cover food. (Or else moving to a smaller apartment, or else cramming in more roommates.)

The technological innovation we seem to need most, really, is a machine that can perform the automated payment of rent! Without that -- I mean, until we are freed from tributary social relations (tenant-landlord, debtor-creditor) which take from us our excess production -- how can p2p production help us? How can we hope to capture the benefits for ourselves?

It would seem the natural answer is a "back to the land
Comment by Andrew Cady on March 5, 2012 at 19:29
It would seem the natural answer is a "back to the land" type movement, where people gain the option of dropping out of the work system, moving to the country, and surviving off-the-grid. (As illustrated currently by Factor-e Farm.) But when considering the economy as a whole -- that is, when considering opening up this option to _everyone_ and not merely the few (10% of population? 5%?) who can afford the requisite land -- it should be obvious (I hope!) that this requires, at the very least, the top-down imposition of land reform.
Comment by Örsan Şenalp on March 6, 2012 at 0:54

Andrew you struck by the quoted statement from Michel and asks "Since scarcity is imposed from above (primarily in the form of property, secondarily in the multi-faceted social requirement of work as the foundation of any claim to consume), how ELSE can "generalized non-reciprocity" be effected?".

Michel's statement and your question address directly the rEvolution question, or answer. Spontaneity of 'objective and subjective conditions', or dialectic of structure and agency, the passage from quantitative change to qualitative change, or as Gramsci put it the death of old and born of the new happening with molecular changes underneath.  

This was the point I wan't to critique in Michel's identification of an antagonism between p2p theory and Marxism or socialist theory [of revolution]. This can be a try.   

Thinking and walking through French revolution, 1948, 1871, 1905, 1917, 1968 and today. what we see are constitutional assemblies, communes, soviets, factory committees etc being developed parallel to the rEvolutionary change processes taking place in the productive forces/production relations/as well as foreign relations. In every each one these moments the radical change got organised in a bottom up way. Yet what become the core norm to organised the society [so historical structures appeared after these moments]  around afterwards is delivered top down.

What I understand from Michel's proposition is that if there is no already matured mode of production to be replaced with the existing one -capitalist in this case which impose the scarcity norm top down- imposing generalized non-reciprocity as a norm can be a tragedy or would't work.

First of all, as a reply to Andrew, we can't say; if capitalism impose scarcity top down the only way to dismiss it top down. While I think generalized non-reciprocity could survive in tandem with respectful reciprocity I agree this can only happen in a society that is freed from 'imposed scarcity'. Yet if Andrew you mean that it is not possible to dismiss 'imposed scarcity' bottom up I don't agree with that. Today we have communication, transportation, organisation, networking etc. capacity to realize working grassroots governance. We owes to the developments in p2p technology for this more to the impact they have made on the productive forces, primarily the society. So I wouldn't see this 'technology' [so quantitative change] alone but a qualitative shift in productive forces that bears a new mode of production. A mode that would allow people to have to work for society less and less (obligatory work) but for themselves and other people s/he loves more and more, and may be even people s/he doesn't even know. Like 3D printing, or open/free hardware production.

If this mode is repalced from bottom up [by 99%], that it would mean you dismiss scarcity in a bottom up way. In such mode determined society people would without being forces share the output of theoir labour freely. You would't event need to feel love here to share with others. There can surely be awards like feeling productive, recognized, useful, receive attention from others so on, yet not as a reciprocity. 

I think a p2p mode of production that is regulated bottom up via transnationally linked popular assemblies and popular laws, and based on 'the commons' -so that natural resources, raw materials, or outputs of the production is not captured by private individuals- would be the Revolution. So that building the commons framework via  popular charters, laws than enforce and regulate p2p production, distribution and ownership relationships via occupy/Indignados assemblies, Occupied factory/hospital etc committees would synthesis the Evolution and Revolution and make it the rEvolution as they us it in the global movement.                 

To return to my critique to Michel your account of Revolution in Marxsim or Socialist

Comment by Örsan Şenalp on March 6, 2012 at 1:01

theory, the antagonism you describe between your P2P Theory and Socialist Theory, or Marxism is not quite correct. Instead, in a way I tried to explain above, it is not that different than as it is thought in Marx, Lenin or Gramsci, So your understanding of revolution is quite correct ! :)

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