Michel Bauwens – Peer production, peer governance, peer property
Our current political economy is based on a fundamental mistake, points Michel Bauwens. It is based on the assumption that natural resources are unlimited, and that it is an endless sink. In a P2P-based society, this situation is reversed: the limits of natural resources are recognized, and the abundance of immaterial resources becomes the core operating principle.
1. General introduction
Peer to peer social processes are bottom-up processes whereby agents in a distributed network can freely engage in common pursuits, without external coercion. It is important to realize that distributed systems differ from decentralized systems, essentially because in the latter, the hubs are obligatory, while in the former, they are the result of voluntary choices. Distributed networks do have constraints, internal coercion, that are the conditions for the group to operate, and they may be embedded in the technical infrastructure, the social norms, or legal rules.
P2P social processes more precisely engender:
1) peer production: wherever a group of peers decided to engage in the production of a common resource
2) peer governance: the means they choose to govern themselves while they engage in such pursuit
3) peer property: the institutional and legal framework they choose to guard against the private appropriation of this common work; this usually takes the form of non-exclusionary forms of universal common property, as defined through the General Public License, some forms of the Creative Commons licenses, or similar derivatives
It is important to note that peer production is a form of “generalized”, on non-reciprocal, exchange. It is not a gift economy, based on direct exchange or obligation. So peer production is not to be equated by cooperative production for the market: participation has to be voluntary, there is no direct reward (but many indirect rewards) in the form of monetary compensation. The process itself is participative. And the outcome is similarly free, in the sense that anyone can access and use the common resource. In reality, most peer production projects are intertwined with a smaller core of people who may get paid, and use finances to create an infrastructure so that the peer production may occur.
The conditions for peer production to emerge are essentially: abundance and distribution. Abundance refers to the abundance of intellect or surplus creativity, to the capacity to own means of production with similar excess capacity. Distribution is the accessibility of such abundant resources in fine-grained implements, what Yochai Benkler has called modularity or granularity. Again we could talk about the distribution of intellect, of the production infrastructure, of financial capital.
Peer production, though embedded in the current political economy and essential for the survival of the cognitive forms of capitalism, is post-capitalist. Essentially because it is outside wage dependency, outside the control of a corporate hierarchy, and does not allocate resources according to any pricing or market mechanism.
Peer governance is post-democratic, because it is a form of governance that does not rely on representation, but where participants directly co-decide; and because it is not limited to the political field, but can be used in any social field.
Peer property is a post-capitalist form of property because it is non-exclusionary, and it creates a commons with marginal reproduction costs.
2. The conditions for the expansion of peer production
Peer production naturally occurs in the sphere of immaterial production. In this sphere, the access to distributed resources is relatively easy. Large sections of the population in the Western countries are educated, and can have a computer at their disposal. And the costs of reproduction are marginal.
The expansion of peer production is dependent on cultural/legal conditions. It requires open and free raw cultural material to use; participative structures to process it; and commons-based property forms to protect the results from private appropriation. Hence is a circulation of the common obtained (the concept is from Nick Dyer-Whiteford), through which peer production virally expands.
However, peer production is not limited to the sphere of immaterial production.
Physical resources can be shared, if they are available in a distributed format. For example: computers and their files and processing power. Cars can be pooled. Money can be pooled as in the P2P financial exchanges such as Zopa or Prosper. Desktop manufacturing and personal fabricators may lower the threshold of participation, creating more modularity and granularity in newer fields.
For processes where physical production requires access to centralized financial capital, for example the production of cars, it is entirely conceivable to split the immaterial design phase from the physical production space. Innocentive is an early example of this. The Open Car project may be stalling, but there is no fundamental barrier for such processes to occur.
Finally, the relationship between physical objects, logical space, and digital identifiers may be changed, so as to promote commons-based approaches. The white-bicyle experiment in Amsterdam failed, because the scarce physical resource, the bikes, could not be tracked and protected. But commons-owned bicycles can be tracked through RFID.
Such expansion is not just a natural extension of technical evolution, but has structural and therefore political impediments. The centralized capital formats of contemporary neoliberal anti-markets obviously impede such expansion. But even with such constraints, the scope for the expansion of peer production is significant.
3. The conditions for the expansion of peer governance
Peer governance functions because peer production is the macro-scale coordination of a large number of micro-production teams. Within the teams, decision-making is participative and consensual, and the global coordination is voluntarily accepted and today technically feasible. Small tribes, the victims of civilizational hierarchies, are re-enabled in the new format of affinity-based cyber-collectives.
Positively, peer governance expands the sphere of autonomy-in-cooperation to all social fields. It’s promise is that production becomes a non-hierarchical process. But as I said earlier, peer governance is ‘post-democratic’ because it is non-representational.
The negative constraint is the following: peer governance requires a priori consensus on the common object. But society as a whole lacks such consensus by definition: it is a decentralized collection of competing interests and worldviews, rather than a distributed network of free agents. Therefore, for society at large, there is no alternative to a revitalized democratic polity based on representation. However, just as the market can inspire itself and be reformed by P2P or partnership-based principles (as in the fair trade that is subjected to peer arbitrage), so we can have peer-informed formats of multi-stakeholder based global governance. And in any case, the sphere of autonomy, i.e. of pure governance, can substantially expand even within the strictures of democratic government.
4. P2P theory as the emancipatory possibility of the age
Our current political economy is based on a fundamental mistake. It is based on the assumption that natural resources are unlimited, and that it is an endless sink. And it creates artificial scarcity for potentially abundant cultural resources. This combination of quasi-abundance and quasi-scarcity destroys the biosphere and hampers the expansion of social innovation and a free culture.
In a P2P-based society, this situation is reversed: the limits of natural resources are recognized, and the abundance of immaterial resources becomes the core operating principle. The vision of P2P theory is the following:
1) the core intellectual, cultural and spiritual value will be produced through non-reciprocal peer production;
2) it is surrounded by a reformed, peer-inspired, sphere of material exchange;
3) it is globally managed by a peer-inspired and reformed state and governance system.
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