Michel Bauwens – P2P politics, the state, and the renewal of the emancipatory traditions
Michel Bauwens explores the possibilities opened up by P2P projects for progressive politics, arguing that they could present an alternative to neoliberal privatization, and to the Blairite introduction of private logics in the public sphere.
Peer governance and democracy
As peer to peer technical and social infrastructures such as sociable media and self-directed teams are emerging to become an important if not dominant format for the changes induced by cognitive capitalism, the peer to peer relational dynamic will increasingly have political effects.
As a reminder, the p2p relational dynamic arises wherever there are distributed networks, i.e. networks where agents are free to undertake actions and relationships, and where there is an absence of overt coercion so that governance modes are emerging from the bottom-up. It creates processes such as peer production, the common production of value; peer governance, i.e. the self-governance of such projects; and peer property, the auto-immune system which prevents the private appropriation of the common.
It is important to distinguish the peer governance of a multitude of small but coordinated global groups, which choose non-representational processes in which participants co-decide on the projects, from representative democracy. The latter is a decentralized form of power-sharing based on elections and representatives. Since society is not a peer group with an a priori consensus, but rather a decentralized structure of competing groups, representative democracy cannot be replaced by peer governance.
However, both modes will influence and accommodate to each other. Peer projects which evolve beyond a certain scale and start facing issues of decisions about scarce resources, will probably adapt some representational mechanisms. Representative and bureaucratic decision-making can and will in some places be replaced by global governance networks which may be self-governed to a large extent, but in any case, it will and should incorporate more and more multistakeholder models, which strives to include as participants in decision-making, all groups that could be affected by such actions. This group-based partnership model is different, but related in spirit, to the individual-based peer governance, because they share an ethos of participation.
But the fundamental change is the following. In the modern view, individuals were seen as atomized. They were believed to be in need of a social contract that delegated authority to a sovereign in order to create society, and in need of socialization by institutions that addressed them as an indifferentiated mass. In the new view however, individuals are always-already connected with their peers, and looking at institutions in such a peer-informed way. Institutions therefore, will have to evolve to become support ecologies, devising ways to create infrastructures of support.
The politicians become interpreters and experts, which can guide the issues emerging out of civil society based networks into the institutional realm.
The state becomes a at least neutral (or better yet: commons-favorable) arbiter, i.e. the meta-regulator of the 3 realms, and retreats from the binary state/privatisation dilemma to the triarchical choice for an optimal mix between government regulation, private market freedom, and autonomous civil society projects. In particular, it can evolve to do the following activities. Recognizing the direct value creation of the social field, it can find ways to support such activities.
An example I recently encountered was the work of the municipality of Brest, in French Brittany. There, the “Local Democracy” section of the city makes available online infrastructures, training modules, and physical infrastructure for sharing (cameras, sound equipment, etc…), so that local individuals and groups, can create cultural and social projects on their own. For example, the Territoires Sonores project allows for the creation by the public of audio and video files to enrich custom trails, which is therefore neither produced by a private company, nor by the city itself.
The peer to peer dynamic, and the thinking and experimentation it inspires, does not just present a third form for the production of social value, it also produces also new forms of institutionalization and regulation, which could be fruitfully explored and/or applied.
Indeed, from civil society emerges a new institutionalization, the commons, which is a distinct new form of regulation and property. Unlike private property, which is exclusionary, and unlike state property, in which the collective ‘expropriates’ the individual; by contrast in the form of the commons, the individual retains his sovereignity, but has voluntarily shared it. The difference between the ethos of the Creative Commons and the General Public Licence is, that in the former, the individual is primary and the commons a derivative of individual interests, while in the GPL, the construction of the common is primordial (even though it may be out of individual interest that one collaborates, the resulting work is clearly a full part of the commons, something that is unclear in many versions of the CC-licence), but both share the voluntary aspect of the sharing of one’s work.
In terms of the institutionalization of these new forms of common property, Peter Barnes, in his important book Capitalism 3.0, explains how national parks and environmental commons (such as a proposed Skytrust), could be run by trusts, who have the obligation to retain all (natural) capital intact, and through a one man/one vote/one they would be in charge of preserving common natural resources. This could become an accepted alternative to both nationalization and deregulation/privatization.
Towards a commons orientation for a renewed progressive policy
What does it mean for the emancipatory traditions that emerged from the industrial era?
I believe it could have 2 positive effects:
1) a dissociation of the automatic link with bureaucratic government modalities (which does not mean that it is not appropriate in certain circumstances); proposals can be formulated which directly support the development of the Commons
2) a dissocation from its alternative: deregulation/privatization; support for the Commons and peer production means that there is an alternative from both neoliberal privatization, and the Blairite introduction of private logics in the public sphere.
The progressive movements can thereby become informational rather than a modality of industrial society. Instead of defending the industrial status quo, it becomes again an offensive force (say: striving for an equity-based information society), more closely allied with the open/free, participatory, commons-oriented forces and movements. These three social movements have arisen because of the need for an efficient social reproduction of peer production and the common.
Open and free movements want to insure that there is raw material for free cultural production and appropriation, and fight against the monopoly rents accorded to capital, as it now restricts innovation. They work on the input side of the equation. Participatory movements want to ensure that anybody can use his specific combination of skills to contribute to common projects, and work on lowering the technical, social and political thresholds; finally, the Commons movement works on preserving the common from private appropriation, so that its social reproduction is insured, and the circulation of the common can go on unimpeded, as it is the Commons which in turn creates new layers of open and free raw material.
There is also a connection with the environmental movement. While the culturally-oriented movements fight against the artificial scarcities induced by the restrictive regimes of copyright law and patent law, the environmental movement fights against the artificial abundance created by unrestricted market logics. The removal of pseudo-abundance and pseudo-scarcity are exactly what needs to happen to make our human civilization sustainable at this stage. As has been stressed by Richard Stallman  and others, the copyright and patent regimes are explicitely intended to inhibit the free cooperation and cultural flow between creative humans, and are just as pernicious to the further development of humanity as the biospheric destruction.
There is therefore a huge potential for such a renewed movement for human emancipation to become aligned with the values of a new generation of youth, and achieve the long-term advantage that the Republicans had achieved since the 80s.
What needs to be done?
A priority is the creation of legal and regulatory frameworks that
1) diminish artificial scarcities in the informational field so that immense social value can be created, and immaterial conviviality can replace the deadly logic of material accumulation.
2) introduce true costing in the material field so that the market no longer creates negative exernalities in the natural environment.
3) create more distributed access to the means of production (peer-based financing, distributed energy production, etc…) so that the peer to peer dynamic can be introduced in the sphere of material production as well.
 Richard Stallman opposes the use of the concept of intellectual property on the following grounds: ‘It is an error to say “intellectual property regime’ here, because only some, not all, of the various ‘intellectual property’ laws cause scarcity of something of inherent value. For instance, trademark law does not cause scarcity of anything of real value. Using a term which includes trademark law is an unnecessary error’. (personal email, February 25, 2007)
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