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Can material production be organized through the p2p mode of production?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
5th January 2013

A major protest movement has swept the globe in 2011. What if these protest movements put the appropriation of major means of production and their re-organization in a P2P cooperation system on their agenda?

Excerpted from Jakob Rigi in the Journal of Peer Production:

“Today the social mode of production (P2P) has been extended beyond software, covering other spheres of the production of symbols and signs (see P2P Foundation website). Bauwens (2011) shows that P2P is gaining grounds in design and manufacturing. Adrian Bowyer (2006) and his collaborators launched an open source project for the production of a three-dimensional printer in 2005 which now reproduces itself. Indeed, the P2P mode of production can be extended to most branches of material production. Automation will be a pillar of this transformation, though automation is not a necessary pre-condition for material P2P. In a fully automated production, the P2P production of cognitive factor (research and development, design and software) will bring material production under the sway of P2P. Capitalistic automation leads to loss of jobs and the degradation of work. Automation will not need to have these impacts in P2P social formation. Employment has no meaning and the automation will offer a lot of free time to humanity. This time can be devoted to the collective production of knowledge, education and care.

As strategic material resources are limited and unevenly scattered around the globe, a fair global distribution of such resources will become a major challenge for a global P2P society. The natural limit to raw material will also place a limit on material wealth and will require rules of distribution. But the criterion for distribution in the global community and within each local community cannot be the contribution of labor by individuals and communities, because cognitive work is globally collective, has no exchange value and does not produce exchange value. Only the needs of communities and individuals defined democratically among and within communities can be the criterion for distribution. I cannot speculate about rules of a P2P global distribution of raw material but it seems reasonable to assume that if the knowledge factor of production will become the free commons of all humanity, then strategic natural resources must follow suit. The ecological movement has already conceived the earth and the atmosphere as global commons (Rabinowitz, 2010 ). The common ownership and use of nature, particularly land, by the whole of humanity will be the ultimate challenge for the P2P society and by same token for humanity as a whole. Hence, the protection of nature will become the major priority of a global P2P society.


Capitalism is in a deep crisis and there is a global anti-capitalist movement. Moreover, the technological base for establishing a fully fledged P2P society already exists and a considerable number of savvy knowledge workers enthusiastically try to expand P2P. Yet, there is no guarantee that P2P will automatically prevail over capitalism. Tim Wu (2010) argues that the state and corporate empires will fight tooth and nail to bring IT technologies under their own control, as they did with radio technology. But the success of state and capital in preventing P2P from becoming the dominant mode of production is not guaranteed beforehand. Things can go either way depending on the consequence of social struggles. The P2P movement, if supported by all other social movements of the multitude, may prevail. Social struggle will also determine what type of P2P society we will have.

What then are the possible scenarios for P2P production to become the dominant mode of production? Will it grow parallel with capitalism until it overtakes it? Or, will its path of development be much more complicated, marked by ebbs and flows, and temporary setbacks? Will a social revolution that expropriates strategic means of production from capitalists be a prerequisite for P2P production to become the dominant mode of production? What will be the role of social struggle and human consciousness in advancing P2P production? The answer to these questions needs a collective effort of many. Here, suffice to mention that “the idea of communism” is becoming appealing again. However it is not enough, though really necessary, to say that “another communism is possible” (Harvey, 2010:259) but to imagine the general contours of communist production. Herein lies the historical and political significance of P2P production. It represents, though in embryonic form, a model for communist production and distribution. The success of this mode of production will definitely depend on the attendant social struggle. What then are the strengths and weaknesses of the P2P production social movement? Its strength is that it is a productive practice.

Its weakness, as Söderberg (2008) argues, is that most of the participants in the P2P production lack an explicit anti-capitalist consciousness, let alone a communist consciousness. As already mentioned, there are some, such as Moglen (2003), Barbrook (2007) and Kleiner (2010) who define the movement as a communist one. However, the majority’s involvement in production is motivated by personal reasons, such as doing something exciting and creative, and improving their own skills. However participants are aware of, and value the fact, that they are producing commons. In spite of the lack of an outright communist vision, my ethnographic observations show that participants have developed and cherish progressive beliefs, such as valuing cooperation, preference for creativity and happiness to money and careerism, concerns for ecology, preference for public interests to egoistic interests, antipathy towards consumerism, and care for poor people and the third world. For instance technological activists have helped Iranian, Tunisian, Egyptian and Syrian activists to organize net-based public spheres.

P2P communities also develop progressive and humanistic moral attitudes. The members of communities do not appreciate bragging, self-promotion, dishonesty and calculative manipulation. On the whole while recognizing individuals and crediting their contributions the common interest in maintaining and developing productive P2P communities were strong. No doubt the formation of a solid collectivist and progressive culture which grows organically around P2P production and other social movements will be essential for the formation of a communist society. Despite the significance of this progressive culture-in-making, it cannot remedy the lack of a clear programmatic communist vision and sustained theoretical critique of capitalism among the participants.

The lack of a clear collectivist vision combined with the dominant capitalist environment makes P2P production vulnerable to invasion by capitalism. Many projects that had been started as P2P production were diverted into capitalist enterprises. Under this condition the propagation of a clear communist vision among the participants of P2P production will be indispensable for the advancement of the new mode of production. No doubt there is a self-conscious communist section among the producers in P2P production. This communist section must carry out an uncompromising theoretical and critical theoretical struggle within the P2P production movement. However, this struggle should be conducted in friendly terms and avoid sectarianism. Communists should not position themselves against non-communist participants in the P2P movement. Actually, as Barbrook (2007) argues, all contributors to P2P production are involved in a communist material practice, regardless of their attitudes to communism. The task of communists is to describe and theorize this practice and critique capitalism from the vantage of this practice. P2P production itself has already developed an outstanding procedure for the advancement of a critical debate among its participants. Everyone’s contribution to production is reviewed, evaluated and credited by others openly and publicly on the net. This procedure can also be used (and is used to some extent) in political, theoretical and ideological debates within P2P communities.

In addition to the lack of class consciousness among P2P producers, and perhaps as a result of this, the absence of sustained connections/alliances between P2P producers and other progressive social movements is another weakness of the P2P movement. This is also a weakness of other social movements. The alliance between a self-conscious P2P movement and other social movements, with anti-systemic potentials and goals, will strengthen both sides. P2P production will receive support in its struggle against the increasingly draconian copyright regime which has been imposed in the last 30 years. P2P production, on the other hand, supplies other social movement with models for a more just, democratic and ecological alternative of cooperation in production, public sphere, and self-governance; and the realization of individual freedom and creativity. The very fact the Occupy Wall Street was initiated by Adbusters and Anonymous, and that its de-centered/network form of organization, alongside that of Indignados, is very similar to that of P2P, is indeed very promising.

There is at least a section among P2P producers who clearly relate their practice to the broader issues of justice, freedom, common goods and democracy. They also participate in other social movements. The academic and the activist left, on the other hand, have not yet grasped the historical novelty and significance of P2P production. They usually downplay the significance of P2P production as the hobby of some yuppies, or as an epiphenomenon on the fringes of the capitalist mode of production. Others downplay its significance by suggesting that tomatoes or cucumbers cannot be produced through P2P production. They ignore the fact that technology and life sciences, particularly micro-biology, including DNA sequencing, which are becoming increasingly important for agriculture, can be produced through P2P cooperation. Yet another argument, making a post-colonial gesture, suggests that computers, IT and 3DPs are the exclusive luxury of the privileged. Although this is true to some extent, it should not be treated as a static fact. Subaltern groups fight to appropriate IT technology for their own purposes. The Zapatistas used the Internet to mobilize global support for their movement. Recently, Chinese migrant workers, Green movement activists in Iran, and activists in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria have used the Internet to circulate the news of their protests. Laptops and mobile phones, acquiring the functions of computers, are becoming cheaper, and hence affordable for many, though not for everyone, in the Global South. The same is true of 3D printers. The left needs to recognize the struggle over knowledge as the new major terrain of social struggle and give its due significance to P2P production in this context.

A major protest movement has swept the globe in 2011. What if these protest movements put the appropriation of major means of production and their re-organization in a P2P cooperation system on their agenda?”


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