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Working for a phase transition to an open commons-based knowledge society: the Poynder-Bauwens Interview

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
15th June 2014


Continuing our coverage of FLOK Society’s recent “Buen Conocer” summit, we’re glad to present this special long-form conversation between Open Access chronicler Richard Poynder and Michel Bauwens, held just before the summit took place. The interview is specially noteworthy for being a very honest across-the-board examination of FLOK as a process, including both its virtues and the unavoidable pitfalls it has faced. Read on for more.


Today a summit starts in Quito, Ecuador that will discuss ways in which the country can transform itself into an open commons-based knowledge society. The team that put together the proposals is led by Michel Bauwens from theFoundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives. What is the background to this plan, and how likely is it that it will bear fruit?  With the hope of finding out I spoke recently to Bauwens.

Richard Poynder

Richard Poynder

While these movements often set themselves fairly limited objectives (e.g. “freeing the refereed literature”) some network theorists maintain that the larger phenomenon they represent has the potential not just to replace traditional closed and proprietary practices with more open and transparent approaches, and not just to subordinate narrow commercial interests to the greater needs of communities and larger society but, since the network enables ordinary citizens to collaborate together on large meaningful projects in a distributed way (and absent traditional hierarchical organisations), it could have a significant impact on the way in which societies and economies organise themselves.One interesting phenomenon to emerge from the Internet has been the growth of free and open movements, including free and open source software, open politics, open government, open data, citizen journalism, creative commons, open science, open educational resources (OER), open access etc.

In his influential book The Wealth of Networks, for instance, Yochai Benkleridentifies and describes a new form of production that he sees emerging on the Internet — what he calls “commons-based peer production”. This, he says, is creating a new Networked Information Economy.

Former librarian and Belgian network theorist Michel Bauwens goes so far as to say that by enabling peer-to-peer (P2P) collaboration, the Internet has created a new model for the future development of human society. In addition to peer production, he explained to me in 2006, the network also encourages the creation of peer property (i.e. commonly owned property), and peer governance (governance based on civil society rather than representative democracy).

Moreover, what is striking about peer production is that it emerges and operates outside traditional power structures and market systems. And when those operating in this domain seek funding they increasingly turn not to the established banking system, but to new P2P practices like crowdfunding and social lending.

When in 2006 I asked Bauwens what the new world he envisages would look like in practice he replied, “I see a P2P civilisation that would have to be post-capitalist, in the sense that human survival cannot co-exist with a system that destroys the biosphere; but it will nevertheless have a thriving marketplace. At the core of such a society — where immaterial production is the primary form — would be the production of value through non-reciprocal peer production, most likely supported through a basic income.”

Unrealistic and utopian?

So convinced was he of the potential of P2P that in 2005 Bauwens created theFoundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives. The goal: to “research, document and promote peer-to-peer principles”

Critics dismiss Bauwens’ ideas as unrealistic and utopian, and indeed in the eight years since I first spoke with him much has happened that might seem to support the sceptics. Rather than being discredited by the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, traditional markets and neoliberalism have tightened their grip on societies, in all parts of the world.

At the same time, the democratic potential and openness Bauwens sees as characteristic of the network is being eroded in a number of ways. While social networking platforms like Facebook enable the kind of sharing and collaboration Bauwens sees lying at the heart of a P2P society, for instance, there is a growing sense that these services are in fact exploitative, not least because the significant value created by the users of these services is being monetised not for the benefit of the users themselves, but for the exclusive benefit of the large corporations that own them.

We have also seen a huge growth in proprietary mobile devices, along with the flood of apps needed to run on them — a development that caused Wired’s former editor-in-chief Chris Anderson to conclude that we are witnessing a dramatic move “from the wide-open Web to semi closed platforms”. And this new paradigm, he added, simply “reflects the inevitable course of capitalism”.

In other words, rather than challenging or side-lining the traditional market and neoliberalism, the network seems destined to be appropriated by it — a likelihood that for many was underlined by the recent striking down of the US net neutrality regulations.

It would also appear that some of the open movements are gradually being appropriated and/or subverted by commercial interests (e.g. the open access andopen educational resources movements).

While conceding that a capitalist version of P2P has begun to emerge, Bauwens argues that this simply makes it all the more important to support and promote social forms of P2P. And here, he suggests, the signs are positive, with the number of free and open movements continuing to grow and the P2P model bleeding out of the world of “immaterial production” to encompass material production too — e.g. with the open design and open hardware movements, a development encouraged by the growing use of 3D printers.

Bauwens also points to a growth in mutualisation, and the emergence of new practices based around the sharing of physical resources and equipment.

Interestingly, these latter developments are often less visible than one might expect because much of what is happening in this area appears to be taking place outside the view of mainstream media in the global north.

Finally, says Bauwens, the P2P movement, or commoning (as some prefer to call it), is becoming increasingly politicised. Amongst other things, this has seen the rise of new political parties like the various Pirate Parties.

Above all, Bauwens believes that the long-term success of P2P is assured because its philosophy and practices are far more sustainable than the current market-based system. “Today, we consider nature infinite and we believe that infinite resources should be made scarce in order to protect monopolistic players,” he says below. “Tomorrow, we need to consider nature as a finite resource, and we should respect the abundance of nature and the human spirit.”

Periphery to mainstream

Michel Bauwens

And as the need for sustainability becomes ever more apparent, more people will doubtless want to listen to what Bauwens has to say. Indeed, what better sign that P2P could be about to move from the periphery to the mainstream than an invitation Bauwens received last year from three Ecuadorian governmental institutions, who asked him to lead a team tasked with coming up with proposals for transitioning the country to a society based on free and open knowledge.

The organisation overseeing the project is the FLOK Society (free, libre, open knowledge). As “commoner” David Bollier explained when the project was announced, Bauwens’ team was asked to look at many interrelated themes, “including open education; open innovation and science; ‘arts and meaning-making activities’; open design commons; distributed manufacturing; and sustainable agriculture; and open machining.”

Bollier added, “The research will also explore enabling legal and institutional frameworks to support open productive capacities; new sorts of open technical infrastructures and systems for privacy, security, data ownership and digital rights; and ways to mutualise the physical infrastructures of collective life and promote collaborative consumption.”

In other words, said Bollier, Ecuador “does not simply assume — as the ‘developed world’ does — that more iPhones and microwave ovens will bring about prosperity, modernity and happiness.”

Rather it is looking for sustainable solutions that foster “social and territorial equality, cohesion, and integration with diversity.”

The upshot: In April Bauwens’ team published a series of proposals intended to transition Ecuador to what he calls a sustainable civic P2P economy. And these proposals will be discussed at a summit to be held this week in the capital of Ecuador (Quito).

“As you can see from our proposals, we aim for a simultaneous transformation of civil society, the market and public authorities,” says Bauwens. “And we do this without inventing or imposing utopias, but by extending the working prototypes from the commoners and peer producers themselves.”

But Bauwens knows that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and he realises that he has taken on a huge task, one fraught with difficulties. Even the process of putting the proposals together has presented him and his team with considerable challenges. Shortly after they arrived in Ecuador, for instance, they were told that the project had been defunded (funding that was fortunately later reinstated). And for the moment it remains unclear whether many (or any) of the FLOK proposals will ever see the light of day.

Bauwens is nevertheless upbeat. Whatever the outcome in Ecuador, he says, an important first stab has been made at creating a template for transitioning a nation state from today’s broken model to a post-capitalist social knowledge society.

“What we have now that we didn’t have before, regardless of implementation in Ecuador, is the first global commons-oriented transition plan, and several concrete legislative proposals,” he says. “They are far from perfect, but they will be a reference that other locales, cities, (bio)regions and states will be able to make their own adapted versions of it.”

In the Q&A below Bauwens discusses the project in more detail, including the background to it, and the challenges that he and the FLOK Society have faced.

The interview begins

RP:  We last spoke in 2006 when you discussed your ideas on a P2P (peer-to-peer) society (which I think David Bollier refers to as “commoning”). Briefly, what has been learned since then about the opportunities and challenges of trying to create a P2P society, and how have your thoughts on P2P changed/developed as a result?

MB: At the time, P2P dynamics were mostly visible in the process of “immaterial production”, i.e. productive communities that created commons of knowledge and code. The trend has since embraced material production itself, through open design that is linked to the production of open hardware machinery.

Another trend is the mutualisation of physical resources. We’ve seen on the one hand an explosion in the mutualisation of open workspaces (hackerspacesfab labsco-working) and the explosion of the so-called sharing economy and collaborative consumption.

This is of course linked to the emergence of distributed practices and technologies for finance (crowd fundingsocial lending); and for machinery itself (3D printingand other forms of distributed manufacturing). Hence the emergence and growth of P2P dynamics is now clearly linked to the “distribution of everything”.

There is today no place we go where social P2P initiatives are not developing and not exponentially growing. P2P is now a social fact.

Since the crisis of 2008, we are also seeing much more clearly the political and economic dimension of P2P. There is now both a clearly capitalist P2P sector (renting and working for free is now called sharing, which is putting downward pressure on income levels) and a clearly social one.  First of all, the generalised crisis of our economic system has pushed more people to search for such practical alternatives. Second, most P2P dynamics are clearly controlled by economic forces, i.e. the new “netarchical” (hierarchy of the network) platforms.

Finally, we see the increasing politicisation of P2P, with the emergence of Pirate Parties, network parties (Partido X in Spain) etc.

We have now to decide more clearly than before whether we want more autonomous peer production, i.e. making sure that the domination of the free social logic of permissionless aggregation is directly linked to the capacity to generate self-managed livelihoods, or, if we are happy with a system in which this value creation is controlled and exploited by platform owners and other intermediaries.

The result of all of this is that my own thoughts are now more directly political. We have developed concrete proposals and strategies to create P2P-based counter-economies that are de-linked from the accumulation of capital, but focused on cooperative accumulation and the autonomy of commons production.

RP: Indeed and last year you were asked to lead a team to come up with proposals to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge”. As I understand it, this would be based on the principles of open networks, peer production and commoning. Can you say something about the project and what you hope it will lead to? Has the Ecuadoran government itself commissioned you, or a government or non-government agency in Ecuador?

MB: The project, called FLOKSociety.org, was commissioned by three Ecuadorian governmental institutions, i.e. the Coordinating Ministry of Knowledge and Human Talent, the SENESCYT (Secretaría Nacional de Educación Superior, Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación) and the IAEN (Instituto de Altos Estudios del Estado).

The legitimacy and logic of the project comes from the National Plan of Ecuador, which is centred around the concept of Good Living (Buen Vivir), which is a non-reductionist, non-exclusive material way to look at the economy and social life, inspired by the traditional values of the indigenous people of the Andes. The aim of FLOK is to add “Good Knowledge” as an enabler and facilitator of the good life.

The important point to make is that it is impossible for countries and people that are still in neo-colonial dependencies to evolve to more fair societies without access to shareable knowledge. And this knowledge, expressed in diverse commons that correspond to the different domains of social life (education, science, agriculture, industry), cannot itself thrive without also looking at both the material and immaterial conditions that will enable their creation and expansion.

FLOK summit

RP: To this end you have put together a transition plan. This includes a series of proposals (available here), and a main report (here). I assume your plan might or might not be taken up by Ecuador. What is the procedure for taking it forward, and how optimistic are you that Ecuador will embark on the transition you envisage?

MB: The transition plan provides a framework for moving from an economy founded on what we call “cognitive” and “netarchical” capitalism (based respectively on the exploitation through IP rents or social media platforms) to a “mature P2P-based civic economy”.

The logic here is that the dominant economic forms today are characterised by a value crisis, one in which value is extracted but it doesn’t flow back to the creators of the value. The idea is to transition to an economy in which this value feedback loop is restored.

So about fifteen of our policy proposals apply this general idea to specific domains, and suggest how open knowledge commons can be created and expanded in these particular areas.

We published these proposals on April 1st in co-ment, an open source software that allows people to comment on specific concepts, phrases or paragraphs.

This week (May 27th to 30th) the crucial FLOK summit is taking place to discuss the proposals. This will bring together government institutions, social movement advocates, and experts, from both Ecuador and abroad.

The idea is to devote three days to reaching a consensus amongst these different groups, and then try and get agreement with the governmental institutions able to carry out the proposals.

So there will be two filters: the summit itself, and then the subsequent follow-up, which will clearly face opposition from different interests.

This is not an easy project, since it is not possible to achieve all this by decree.

RP: Earlier this year you made a series of videos discussing the issues arising from what you are trying to do —  which is essentially to create “a post-capitalist social knowledge society”, or “open commons-based knowledge society”. In one video you discuss three different value regimes, and I note you referred to these in your last answer — i.e. cognitive capitalism, netarchical capitalism and a civic P2P economy. Can you say a little more about how these three different regimes differ and why in your view P2P is a better approach than the other two?

MB: I define cognitive capitalism as a regime in which value is generated through a combination of rent extraction from the control of intellectual property and the control of global production networks, and expressed in terms of monetisation.

What we have learned is that the democratisation of networks, which also provides a new means of production and value distribution, means that this type of value extraction is harder and harder to achieve, and it can only be maintained either by increased legal suppression (which erodes legitimacy) and outright technological sabotage (DRM). Both of these strategies are not sustainable in the long term.

What we have also learned is that the network has caused a new model to emerge, one adapted to the P2P age, and which I call netarchical capitalism, i.e. “the hierarchy of the network”. In this model, we see the direct exploitation of human cooperation by means of proprietary platforms that both enable and exploit human cooperation. Crucially, while their value is derived from our communication, sharing and cooperation (an empty platform has no value), and on the use value that we are exponentially creating (Google, Facebook don’t produce the content, we do), the exchange value is exclusively extracted by the platform owners. This is unsustainable because it is easy to see that a regime in which the creators of the value get no income at all from their creation is not workable in the long; and so it poses problems for capitalism. After all, who is going to buy goods if they have no income?

So the key issue is: how do we recreate the value loop between creation, distribution, and income? The answer for me is the creation of a mature P2P civic economy that combines open contributory communities, ethical entrepreneurial coalitions able to create livelihoods for the commoners, and for-benefit institutions that can “enable and empower the infrastructure of cooperation”.

Think of the core model of our economy as the Linux economy writ large, but one in which the enterprises are actually in the hands of the value creators themselves. Imagine this micro-economic model on the macro scale of a whole society. Civil society becomes a series of commonses with citizens as contributors; the shareholding market becomes an ethical stakeholder marketplace; and the state becomes a partner state, which “enables and empowers social production” through the commonication of public services and public-commons partnerships.

Challenges and distrust

RP: As you indicated earlier, it is not an easy project that you have embarked on in Ecuador, particularly as it is an attempt to intervene at the level of a nation state. Gordon Cook has said of the project: “it barely got off the ground before it began to crash into some of the anticipated obstacles.” Can you say something about these obstacles and how you have been overcoming them?

MB: It is true that the project started with quite negative auspices. It became the victim of internal factional struggles within the government, for instance, and was even defunded for a time after we arrived; the institutions failed to pay our wages for nearly three months, which was a serious issue for the kind of precarious scholar-activists that make up the research team.

However, in March (when one of the sides in the dispute lost, i.e. the initial sponsor Carlos Prieto, rector of the IAEN), we got renewed commitment from the other two institutions. Since then political support has increased, and the summit is about to get underway.

As for Gordon, he became a victim of what we will politely call a series of misinterpreted engagements for the funding of his participation, and it is entirely understandable that he has become critical of the process.

The truth is that the project was hugely contradictory in many different ways, but this is the reality of the political world everywhere, not just in Ecuador.

Indeed, the Ecuadorian government is itself engaged in sometimes contradictory policies and is perceived by civil society to have abandoned many of the early ideas of the civic movement that brought it to power. So, in our attempts at broader participation we have been stifled by the distrust many civic activists have for the government, and the sincerity of our project has been doubted.

Additionally, social P2P dynamics, which of course exist as in many other countries, are not particularly developed in their modern, digitally empowered forms in Ecuador. It has also not helped that the management of the project has been such that the research team has not been able to directly connect with the political leaders in order to test their real engagement. This has been hugely frustrating.

On the positive side, we have been entirely free to conduct our research and formulate our proposals, and it is hard not to believe that the level of funding the project has received reflects a certain degree of commitment.

So the summit is back on track, and we have received renewed commitments. Clearly, however, the proof of the pudding will be in the summit and its aftermath.

Whatever the eventual outcome, it has always been my conviction that the formulation of the first ever integrated Commons Transition Plan (which your readers will find here) legitimised by a nation-state, takes the P2P and commons movement to a higher geopolitical plane. As such, it can be seen as part of the global maturation of the P2P/commons approach, even if it turns out not to work entirely in Ecuador itself.

RP: I believe that one of the issues that has arisen in putting together the FLOK proposals is that Ecuadorians who live in rural areas are concerned that a system based on sharing could see their traditional knowledge appropriated by private interests. Can you say something about this fear and how you believe your plan can address such concerns?

MB: As you are aware, traditional communities have suffered from systematicbiopiracy over the last few decades, with western scientists studying their botanical knowledge, extracting patentable scientific results from it, and then commercialising it in the West.

So fully shareable licenses like the GPL would keep the knowledge in a commons, but would still allow full commercialisation without material benefits flowing back to Ecuador. So what we are proposing is a discussion about a new type of licensing, which we call Commons-Based Reciprocity Licensing. This idea was first pioneered with the Peer Production License as conceived by Dmytri Kleiner.

Such licences would be designed for a particular usage, say biodiversity research in a series of traditional communities. It allows for free sharing non-commercially, commercial use by not-for-profit entities, and even caters for for-profit entities who contribute back. Importantly, it creates a frontier for for-profits who do not contribute back, and asks them to pay.

What is key here is not just the potential financial flow, but to introduce the principle of reciprocity in the marketplace, thereby creating an ethical economy. The idea is that traditional communities can create their own ethical vehicles, and create an economy from which they can also benefit, and under their control.

This concept is beginning to get attention from open machining communities. However, the debate in Ecuador is only starting. Paradoxically, traditional communities are today either looking for traditional IP protection, which doesn’t really work for them, or for no-sharing options.

So we really need to develop intermediary ethical solutions for them that can benefit them while also putting them in the driving seat.

Fundamental reversal of our civilisation

RP: In today’s global economy, where practically everyone and everything seems to be interconnected and subject to the rules of neoliberalism and the market, is it really possible for a country like Ecuador to go off in such a different direction on its own?

MB: A full transition is indeed probably a global affair, but the micro-transitions need to happen at the grassroots, and a progressive government would be able to create exemplary policies and projects that show the way.

Ecuador is in a precarious neo-colonial predicament and subject to the pressures of the global market and the internal social groups that are aligned with it. There are clear signs that since 2010 the Ecuadorian government has moved away from the original radical ideas expressed in the Constitution and the National Plan, as we hear from nearly every single civic movement that we’ve spoken with.

The move for a social knowledge economy is of strategic importance to de-colonialise Ecuador but this doesn’t mean it will actually happen. However, the progressive forces have not disappeared entirely from the government institutions.

As such, it is really difficult to predict how successful this project will be. But as I say, given the investment the government has made in the process we believe there will be some progress. My personal view is that the combination of our political and theoretical achievements, and the existence of the policy papers, means that even with moderate progress in the laws and on the ground, we can be happy that we will have made a difference.

So most likely the local situation will turn out to be a hybrid mix of acceptance and refusal of our proposals, and most certainly the situation is not mature enough to accept the underlying logic of our Commons Transition Plan in toto.

In other words, the publication and the dialogue about the plan itself, and some concrete actions, legislative frameworks, and pilot projects, are the best we can hope for. What this will do is give real legitimacy to our approach and move the commons transition to the geo-political stage. Can we hope for more?

Personally, I believe that even if only 20% of our proposals are retained for action, I think we can consider it a relative success. This is the very first time such an even partial transition will have happened at the scale of the nation and, as I see it, it gives legitimacy to a whole new set of ideas about societal transition. So I believe it is worthy of our engagement.

We have to accept that the realities of power politics are incompatible with the expectations of a clean process for such a fundamental policy change. But we hope that some essential proposals of the project will make a difference, both for the people of Ecuador and all those that are watching the project.

For the future though, I have to say I seriously question the idea of trying to “hack a society” which was the initial philosophy of the project and of the people who hired us. You can’t hack a society, since a society is not an executable program. Political change needs a social and political basis, and it was very weak from the start in this case.

This is why I believe that future projects should first focus on the lower levels of political organisation, such as cities and regions, where politics is closer to the needs of the population. History though, is always full of surprises, and bold gambles can yield results. So FLOK may yet surprise the sceptics.

RP: If Ecuador did adopt your plan (or a significant part of it), what in your view would be the implications, for Ecuador, for other countries, and for the various free and open movements? What would be the implications if none of it were adopted?

MB: As I say, at this stage I see only the possibility of a few legal advances and some pilot projects as the best case scenario. These, however, would be important seeds for Ecuador, and would give extra credibility to our effort.

I realise it may surprise you to hear me say it, but I don’t see this as crucial. I say this because, we already have thousands of projects in the world that are engaged in peer production and commons transitions, and this deep trend is not going to change. The efforts to change the social and economic logic will go on with or without Ecuador.

As I noted, what we have now that we didn’t have before, regardless of implementation in Ecuador, is the first global commons-oriented transition plan, and several concrete legislative proposals. They are far from perfect, but they will be a reference that other locales, cities, (bio)regions and states will be able to make their own adapted versions of it.

In the meantime, we have to continue the grassroots transformation and rebuild commons-oriented coalitions at every level, local, regional, national, global. This will take time, but since infinite growth is not possible in a finite economy, some type of transition is inevitable. Let’s just hope it will be for the benefit of the commoners and the majority of the world population.

Essentially, we need to build the seed forms of the new counter-economy, and the social movement that can defend, facilitate and expand it. Every political and policy expression of this is a bonus.

As for the endgame, you guessed correctly. What distinguishes the effort of the P2P Foundation, and many of the FLOK researchers, is that we’re not just in the business of adding some commons and P2P dynamics to the existing capitalist framework, but aiming at a profound “phase transition”.

To work for a sustainable society and economy is absolutely crucial for the future of humanity, and while we respect the freedoms of people to engage in market dynamics for the allocation of rival goods, we cannot afford a system of infinite growth and scarcity engineering, which is what capitalism is.

In other words, today, we consider nature infinite and we believe that infinite resources should be made scarce in order to protect monopolistic players; tomorrow, we need to consider nature as a finite resource, and we should respect the abundance of nature and the human spirit.

So our endgame is to achieve that fundamental reversal of our civilisation, nothing less. As you can see from our proposals, we aim for a simultaneous transformation of civil society, the market and public authorities. And we do this without inventing or imposing utopias, but by extending the working prototypes from the commoners and peer producers themselves.

RP: Thanks for speaking with me. Good luck with the summit.

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