Michel Bauwens is one of the foremost thinkers on the peer-to-peer phenomenon. Belgian-born and currently resident in Chiang-Mai, Thailand, he is founder of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives.
It’s a commonplace now that the peer-to-peer movement opens up new ways of creating relating to others. But you’ve explored the implications of P2P in depth, in particular its social and political dimensions. If I understand right, for you the phenomenon represents a new condition of capitalism, and I’m interested in how that new condition impacts on the development of culture – in art and also architecture and urban form.
As a bit of a background, I’d like to look at what you’ve identified as the simultaneous “immanence” and “transcendence” of P2P: it’s interdependent with capital, but also opposed to it through the basic notion of the Commons. Could you elaborate on this?
With immanence, I mean that peer production is currently co-existing within capitalism and is used and beneficial to capital. Contemporary capitalism could not exist without the input of free social cooperation, and creates a surplus of value that capital can monetize and use in its accumulation processes. This is very similar to coloni, early serfdom, being used by the slave-based Roman Empire and elite, and capitalism used by feudal forces to strengthen their own system.
BUT, equally important is that peer production also has within itself elements that are anti-, non- and post-capitalist. Peer production is based on the abundance logic of digital reproduction, and what is abundant lies outside the market mechanism. It is based on free contributions that lie outside of the labour-capital relationship. It creates a commons that is outside commodification and is based on sharing practices that contradict the neoliberal and neoclassical view of human anthropology. Peer production creates use value directly, which can only be partially monetized in its periphery, contradicting the basic mechanism of capitalism, which is production for exchange value.
So, just as serfdom and capitalism before it, it is a new hyperproductive modality of value creation that has the potential of breaking through the limits of capitalism, and can be the seed form of a new civilisational order.
In fact, it is my thesis that it is precisely because it is necessary for the survival of capitalism, that this new modality will be strengthened, giving it the opportunity to move from emergence to parity level, and eventually lead to a phase transition. So, the Commons can be part of a capitalist world order, but it can also be the core of a new political economy, to which market processes are subsumed.
And how do you see this condition – the relationship to capital – coming to a head?
I have a certain idea about the timing of the potential transition. Today, we are clearly at the point of emergence, but also coinciding with a systemic crisis of capitalism and the end of a Kondratieff wave.
There are two possible scenarios in my mind. The first is that capital successfully integrates the main innovations of peer production on its own terms, and makes it the basis of a new wave of growth, say of a green capitalist wave. This would require a successful transition away from neoliberalism, the existence of a strong social movement which can push a new social contract, and an enlightened leadership which can reconfigure capitalism on this new basis. This is what I call the high road. However, given the serious ecological and resource crises, this can at the most last 2-3 decades. At this stage, we will have both a new crisis of capitalism, but also a much stronger social structure oriented around peer production, which will have reached what I call parity level, and can hence be the basis of a potential phase transition.
The other scenario is that the systemic crisis points such as peak oil, resource depletion and climate change are simply too overwhelming, and we get stagnation and regression of the global system. In this scenario, peer-to-peer becomes the method of choice of sustainable local communities and regions, and we have a very long period of transition, akin to the transition at the end of the Roman Empire until the consolidation of feudalism during the first European revolution of 975. This is what I call the low road to peer to peer, because it is much more painful and combines both progress towards p2p modalities but also an accelerating collapse of existing social logics.
That’s a less optimistic scenario… what form of conflict would this involve?
The leading conflict is no longer just between capital and labour over the social surplus, but also between the relatively autonomous peer producing communities and the capital-driven entrepreneurial coalitions that monetize the commons. This has a micro-dimension, but also a macro-dimension in the political struggles between the state, the private sector and civil society.
I see different steps of political maturation of this new sphere of peer power. First, attempts to create networks of sympathetic politicians and policy-makers; then, new types of social and political movements that take up the Commons as their central political issue, and aim for reforms that favour the autonomy of civil society; finally, a transformation of the state towards what I call a Partner State which coincides with a fundamental re-orientation of the political economy and civilization. You will notice that this pretty much coincides with the presumed phases of emergence, parity and phase transition.
Most likely, acute conflict may arise around resource depletion and the protection of these resources through commons-related mechanisms. Survival issues will dictate the fight for the protection of existing commons and the creation of new ones.
You often cite Marx, who of course also wrote at a time of conflict and social change provoked by technological and economic development. Does this tension you’re describing fit in his notion of contradictory forces conflicting – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – in other words, is this a historical materialist process?
I don’t quite use the same language, because I use Marx along with many other sources. I never use Marx exclusively or ideologically, but as part of a panoply of thinkers that can enlighten our understanding. My method is not dialectical but integrative, i.e. I strive to integrate both individual-collective aspects and objective-subjective aspects, and to avoid any reductionist and deterministic interpretations. Though I grant much importance to technological affordances, I do not adhere to technological determinism, and I don’t find that I pay much attention to historical materialism, since I see a feedback loop between culture, human intentionality, and the material basis. Technology has to be imagined before it can be invented.
My optimism is grounded in the hyperproductivity of the new modes of value creation, and on the hope that social movements will emerge to defend and expand them. If that fails to happen, then the current unsustainable infinite growth system will wreak great havoc on the biosphere and humanity.
As you say classical or Marxist economics don’t really suffice to describe the current situation. Is one aspect of this problem that the classical distinction between use and exchange doesn’t fit with a situation in which many of the “uses” are ludic, and have an exchange system built into them? I’m thinking of on-line gaming specifically. But it has always been difficult to place art in this simple use/exchange polarity. Do you see any revisions to that polarity today?
I’m not sure the ludic aspect is crucial, as use value is agnostic to the specific kind of use, just as peer production is agnostic as to the motivation of the contributors. However, our exponential ability to create use value without intervention of the commodity form, with only a linear expansion of the monetization of peer platforms, does create a double crisis of value. On the one hand, capital is valuing the surplus of social value through financial mechanisms, and is not restituting that value to labour, just as proprietary platforms do not pay their value producers; on the other hand, peer producers are producing more and more that can’t be monetized. So we have financial crisis on the one hand, a crisis of accumulation and a crisis of precarity on the other side. This means that the current form of financial capitalism, because of the broken feedback loop between value creation and realization, is no longer an appropriate format.
Regarding your ‘integrative method’, this is a much more sophisticated take on economics that places it in relationship to other, cultural, dimensions of human life. And the imagination is central to it. Given that, do you see any special role for art in this transition?
Art is a precursor of the new form of capitalism, which you could say is based on the generalization of the ‘art form of production’. Artists have always been precarious, and have largely fallen outside of commodification, relying on other forms of funding, but peer production is a very similar form of creation that is now escaping art and becoming the general modality of value creation.
My take is that commodified art has become too narcissistic and self-referential and divorced from social life. I see a new form of participatory art emerging, in which artists engage with communities and their concerns, and explore issues with their added aesthetic concerns. Artists are ideal trans-disciplinary practitioners, who are, just as peer producers, largely concerned with their ‘object’, rather than predisposed to disciplinary limits. As more and more of us have to become ‘generally creative’, artists also have a crucial role as possible mentors in this process. I was recently invited to attend the Article Biennale in Stavanger, Norway, as well as the artist-led herbologies-foraging network in Finland and the Baltics, and this participatory emergence was very much in evidence, it was heartening to see.
We might see as opposed to that sort of grassroots participatory engagement, the entities you refer to as the “netarchies.” Their power lies in the ownership of the platform they exploit for harvesting user-originating information and activities. How hegemonic is this ownership? At what point does it become impossible to create a “counter-Google”?
The hegemony is relative, and is stronger in the sharing economy, where individuals do not connect through collectives and have weak links to each other. The hegemony is much weaker in the true commons-oriented modalities of production, where communities have access to their own collaborative platforms and for-benefit associations maintaining them.
The key terrain of conflict is around the relative autonomy of the community and commons vis a vis for-profit companies. I am in favour of a preferential choice towards entrepreneurial formats which integrate the value system of the commons, rather than profit-maximisation. I’m very inspired by what David de Ugarte calls phyles, i.e. the creation of businesses by the community, in order to make the commons and their attachment to it viable and sustainable over the long run. So, I hope to see a move from the current flock of community-oriented businesses, towards business-enhanced communities. We need corporate entities that are sustainable from the inside out, not just by external regulation from the state, but from their own internal statutes and linkages to commons-oriented value systems.
Counter-googles are always possible, as platforms are always co-dependent on the user communities. If they violate the social contract in a too extreme way, users can either choose different platforms, or find a commons-oriented group that develops an independent alternative, which in turn maintains the pressure on the corporate platforms. I expect Google to be smart enough to avoid this scenario though.
As you’ve said elsewhere, many of these issues are about a new form of governance. Do you see any of this as particularly urban in character — I mean, about organization at the smaller scale, regionally focused, as opposed to at the level of the nation state. Does propinquity matter at all to this — the importance of living together? This seems to relate to a — not a contradiction or tension exactly, but a complication of the P2P notion — that relationships are dispersed, yet a number of the parallels you draw with historical models (for example the Commons) connect with social situations in which people lived very close together. A fairly strong notion in urbanistic thinking is that propinquity is a good thing. In the past that was part of many artistic relationships also: cities as milieux of artistic production/creativity, artists’ colonies; working cheek by jowl with other creative people and breathing the same air. Is this notion in any sense undermined by dispersed networks?
I think we are seeing the endgame of neoliberal material globalization based on cheap energy, and hence a necessary relocalization of production, but at the same time, we have new possibilities for online affinity-based socialization which is coupled with resulting physical interactions and community building. We have a number of trends which weaken the older forms of socialization. The imagined community of the nation-state is weakening both because of the globalized market; the new possibilities for relocalization that the internet offers, which includes a new lease of life to mostly reactionary and more primary ethnic, regional and religious identities; but also because of this important third factor, i.e. socialization through transnational affinity based networks.
What I see are more local value-creation communities, but who are globally linked. And out of that, may come new forms of business organization, which are substantially more community-oriented. I see no contradiction between global open design collaboration, and local production, both will occur simultaneously, so the relocalized reterritorialisation will be accompanied by global tribes organized in ‘phyles.’ I think the various commons based on shared knowledge, code and design, will be part of these new global knowledge networks, but closely linked to relocalized implementations.
One interesting question is what forms of urbanism come out of p2p thinking. The movement is in the process of thinking this through, in fact a definition of p2p urbanism was just published by the “Peer-to-peer Urbanism Task Force” (http://p2pfoundation.net/Peer-to-Peer_Urbanism).
This promotes, in general terms, bottom-up rather than centrally planned cities; small-scale development that involves local inhabitants and crafts; and a merging of technology with practical experience. All resonant in various ways with p2p approaches. But this statement also provokes a few questions: It calls for an urbanism based on science and function; in fact it explicitly promotes a biological paradigm for design. At the risk of over-categorizing, isn’t this a modernist understanding of design — or if not, how is it different? This document also refers to specific schools of urban design: Christopher Alexander, and also New Urbanism. On the side of socio-economics though, New Urbanism has been criticized (for example in David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope); some see it as nostalgic and in the end directed at a narrow segment of the population. Christopher Alexander’s work on urban form has also been criticized as, being based on consensus, restrictive in its own ways. In fact, might not p2p principals call for creation of spaces that allow dissent and even shearing-off from the mainstream? Might there be a contradiction built into trying to accommodate the desires for consensus and for freedom? Contradiction can be a source of vitality, certainly in art; but it can raise some tensions when you get to built form and a shared public realm.
I cannot speak for the bio- or p2p urbanism movement, which is itself a pluralistic movement, but here’s what I know about this ‘friendly’ movement. I would call p2p urbanism not a modernist but a transmodernist movement. It is a critique of both modernist and postmodern approaches in architecture and urbanism; takes critical stock of the relative successes and failings of the New Urbanist school; and then takes a trans-historical approach, i.e. it critically re-integrates the premodern, which it no longer blankly rejects as modernists would do. I don’t think that makes it a nostalgic movement, but rather it simply recognizes that thousands of years of human culture do have something to teach us, and that even as we ‘progressed’, we also lost valuable knowledge. Finally, I think there is a natural affinity between the prematerial and post-material forms of civilization. The accusation of elitism is I think also unwarranted, given what I know of the work of bio-urbanists amongst slumdwelling communities. However, I take your critique of consensus very seriously, without knowing how they answer that. You are right, that is a big danger to guard for, and one needs to strive for a correct balance between agreed-upon frameworks, that are community and consensus-driven, and the need for individual creativity and dissent. Nevertheless, compared to the modernist prescriptions of functional urbanism, I don’t think that danger should be exaggerated.
Following on this track, I’d like to pose another question that relates to living together. The P2P concept depends on the difficulty of controlling the activity of peers on a network: i.e. it’s impossible to lock down the internet. Doesn’t this degree of freedom also eliminate those social controls that might be considered “healthy” – for example, controls over criminal activity. David Harvey (to bring him in again), in his paper “Social Justice, Postmodernism and the City”, lists social controls among several elements of postmodern social justice. When the grand narratives have been replaced by small narratives, there remains a need to limit some freedoms. How does p2p thinking deal with this?
I think we can summarize the evolution of social control in three great historical movements. In premodern times, people lived mostly in holistic local communities, where everyone could see one another, and social control was very strong. At the same time, vis a vis more far-away institutions, such as for example the monarchy, or the feudal lord, or say in more impersonal communities such as large cities, compliance was often a function of fear of punishment. With modernity, we have a loss of the social control through the local community, but a heightened sense of self through guilt, combined with the fine-grained social control obtained through mass institutions, described for example by Michel Foucault. The civility obtained through the socialization of the imagined community that was the nation state, and the educational and media at its disposal, also contributed to social control and training for civil behaviour.
My feeling about peer-to-peer networks is that they bring a new form of very real socialization through value affinity, and hence, a new form of denser social control in those specific online communities which also usually have face-to-face socialities associated with them. But this depends on whether the community has a real value affinity and a common project, in which case I think social control is ‘high’, because of the contributory meritocracy that determines social standing. On the contrary, in the looser form of sharing communities, say YouTube comments for example, we get the type of social behaviour that comes from anonymity and not really being seen.
So the key challenge is to create real communities and real socialization. Peer to peer infrastructures are often holoptical, i.e. there is a rather complete record of behaviour and contributions over time, and hence, a record of one’s personality and behaviour. This gives a bonus to ‘good ethical behaviour’ and attaches a higher price to ‘evil’. On the other hand, in the looser communities, subject to more indiscriminate swarming dynamics, negative social behaviour is more likely to occur.
A key difference between contemporary commons and those of the past is that the new ones are immaterial and global. The model for P2P exchange seems to be of autonomous agents relating and forming new communities not based on membership in an originary cultural group. Given a global distribution, how do local, cultural factors play into the model of globalized distributed networks? How does P2P accommodate cultural specificity, especially specificity with deep historical roots; and how does that accommodate the development of new culture, art?
In my view, the digital commons reconfigure both the local and the global. I think we can see at least three levels, i.e. a local level, where local commons are created to sustain local communities, see for example the flowering of neighbourhood sharing systems; then there are global discourse communities, but they are constrained by language; so rather than national divisions, which still exist but erode somewhat as a limitation for discourse exchange, there is a new para-global level around shared language. At each level though, cultural difference has to be negotiated and taking into account. If there is no specific effort at diversity and inclusion, then affinity-based communities reproduce existing hierarchies. For example, the free software world is still dominated by white males. Without specific efforts to make a dominant culture, which has exclusionary effects, adaptive to inclusion, deeper participation is effectively discouraged. Of course, as the dominant culture may not be sufficiently sensitive, it is still incumbent on minoritarian cultures to make their voice and annoyances heard. Obviously, each culture will have to go through an effort to make their culture ‘available’ through the networks, but I think the specific role of artists, now operating more collectively and collaboratively than before, is to experiment with new aesthetic languages, so that non-conceptual truths can be communicated.
The innovation I see as most important though is in terms of the globa-local, i.e. a relocalization of production, but within the context of global open design and knowledge communities, probably based on language. I also see a distinct possibility for a new form of global organization, i.e. the phyle I mentioned earlier, as fictionalized in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and operationalized by lasindias.net. These are transnational value communities that created enterprises to sustain their livelihoods.
I see the key challenge, not just to develop ‘relationality’ between individuals, as social networks are doing very well, but to develop new types of community, such as the phyle, which are not just loose networks, but answer the key question of sustainability and solidarity.
In terms of culture, what I see developing is a new transnational culture, based on value and discourse communities, based on language, that are neither local, nor national, nor fully cosmopolitan, but ‘trans-national’.
And the creative relationships between artists can in some sense be a model for this?
Artists have been precarious in almost all periods of history, and their social condition reflects what is now very common for ‘free culture’ producers today, so studying sustainability and livelihood practices of artist communities seems to me to be a very interesting lead in terms of linking with previous historical experience. I understand that artists now have increasingly collaborative practices and forms of awareness. Unfortunately, my own knowledge of this is quite limited so this is really also an open appeal for qualified researchers to link art historical forms of livelihood, with current peer production. In some ways, we are all now becoming precarious artists under neoliberal cognitive capitalism!