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Essay of the Day: Re-Politicising Participatory Design in the Fairphone Project

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
9th November 2014


From the Abstract:

“This exploratory paper is a contribution to the discussion of the re-politisation of Participatory Design. After a brief introduction of this Scandinavian design tradition, the Fairphone, a sustainable and fair mobile phone, is introduced as a case to rethink design as politics. Concern for planetary destruction, as a result of climate change, motivates the discussion of Tony Fry’s notion of redirective design in the analysis of the Fairphone. Is the Fairphone just ‘less bad’ or is it paradigmatic example of an alternative technological vision? There are many lessons to be learned from Fairphone, not just by Participatory Design. Most importantly, Fairphone shows the importance of relating the things we help design to futures that become possible or impossible. Participatory Design, with its focus on democratic practices and ‘having a say’, needs to find ways to bring the voices of future generations into today’s design practices.”


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Essay of the Day: Spectrum Regulation in the Communism of Capital

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Michel Bauwens
7th November 2014

* Essay: Spectre of the commons: Spectrum regulation in the communism of capital. By Rachel O’Dwyer.

From the Abstract:

“The past decade has seen a growing emphasis on the social and juridical implications of peer production, commons-based property regimes and the nonrivalrous circulation of immaterial content in the online domain, leading some theorists to posit a digital communism. An acquisitive logic, however, continues to operate through intellectual property rights, in the underlying architecture that supports the circulation of content and in the logical apparatuses for the aggregation and extraction of metadata. The digital commons emerges, not as a virtual space unfettered by material exploitation, but as a highly conflictive terrain, situated at the centre of a mode of capitalism that seeks valorisation for the owners of network infrastructure, online platforms and digital content.

Using a key example from core infrastructure, this paper will explore how controversies surrounding the management of the electromagnetic spectrum provide insight into the communism of capital in the digital domain. This paper proceeds in two parts: The first is historical, exploring how the history of spectrum management provides a lucid account of the expropriation of the digital commons through the dispossession and progressive deregulation of a communicative resource. The second considers current transformations to spectrum regulation, in particular the growing centrality of shared and commons spectrum to radio policy. Does a shift towards non-proprietary and unlicensed infrastructure represent an antagonistic or subversive element in the communism of capital? Or, if this communality of resources is not at odds with capitalist interests, how is it that an acquisitive logic continues to act?”

Rachel O’Dwyer discusses ‘virtual communism':

“The facility to leverage communicative capacities, support non-hierarchical cooperation and enable the circulation of non-proprietary content, has led a number of theorists to posit a ‘virtual communism’ (Lessig, 2004; Benkler, 2006; Kelly, 2009). This traces an immaterial space that trades in knowledge and culture, at once free from commercial subjugation and conversely capable of exerting influence on the material substrate of capital.

Such ‘virtual communism’ is, to echo Virno, ‘a communality of generalized intellect without material equality’ (Virno, 2004: 18). The underlying architectures that support the circulation of content are still proprietary. While user-generated content becomes increasingly central to the economy, the possibility of a ‘core commons infrastructure’, as Benkler (2001) calls it, is constrained by a variety of institutional, technical and juridical enclosures. The digital commons emerges, not as a virtual space unfettered by material exploitation, but as a highly conflictive terrain. The commons is situated at the centre of a mode of capitalism that seeks valorisation for the owners of network infrastructure, digital platforms and online content. This proprietary interest is diffuse, and increasingly so; it blends in a series of highly confluent mechanisms the essence of ‘the commons’ with new forms of enclosure.

Today we encounter conditions in which the core tenets of communism – the socialisation of production, the abolition of wage labour, and the centrality of commons-based peer-production – are remade in the interests of capital (Virno, 2004). These conditions imply new forms of sovereignty and political economy. This is not to say that the commons has not historically potentiated capitalist accumulation, but that we are witnessing a dramatic intensification of these conditions. In turn we are faced with a number of questions: through what proprietary mechanisms and juridical processes is the digital commons enclosed? How, in turn, is surplus value extracted from the digital commons – through what technological apparatuses, property regimes and composition of capital? Finally, what political and economic possibilities might emerge alongside the hegemony of the commons?

This paper will explore how recent controversies surrounding the management of electromagnetic spectrum provide insights into the composition of contemporary capitalism. As the communications channel for all mobile and wireless transmissions, electromagnetic spectrum is a core apparatus in the digital economy; its enclosure is part and parcel of the techniques that facilitate capitalist accumulation through production over wireless and mobile networks. This discussion proceeds in two parts: First, the history of spectrum regulation provides an account of the expropriation of communicative and cooperative capacities through the dispossession, deregulation and progressive rarefaction of a common resource. As mobile data grows exponentially, however, we are witnessing changes to the ways in which this resource is managed, with many calling for a greater communality of the radio spectrum in response to perceived scarcity in mobile bandwidth. The second part of the paper explores these emergent conditions. On one hand, it appears as though antagonisms between openness and enclosure in information capitalism prefigure a crisis in property relations that potentiate possible forms of anti-capitalist ‘exploit’ (Galloway and Thacker, 2007). On the other, it is also possible that capitalist accumulation is becoming ever more tightly organised through highly fluid and distributed mechanisms that route, not only around a direct intervention in production, but increasingly around the old property regimes.

The aims of such a study are reflexive. If the burgeoning political vocabulary of the ‘communism of capital’ offers a critical insight into the enclosure of the digital commons, spectrum management also provides an empirical case to reflect on the theoretical underpinnings of this vocabulary. For example, much of this theory not only acknowledges correspondence between forms of the commons with capitalist accumulation, it also identifies a number of contradictions in such an alliance, whether through the socialisation of production or through the imminent crisis of an underlying proprietary logic. This paper explores how the production of artificial scarcity around electromagnetic spectrum, when situated against the growing demand for a greater fluidity of network resources, provides a lens for what are perceived to be the irreconcilable elements of the communism of capital. Does a shift towards non-proprietary and unlicensed infrastructure represent an antagonistic or subversive element in the communism of capital? Or, if this communality of resources is not at odds with capitalist interests, how is it that an acquisitive logic continues to act?”


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Podemos as a template for the New Left

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Stacco Troncoso
11th October 2014

Mitin PODEMOS en Málaga
Joana Ramiro writing for Left Unity, describes how Podemos’ unprecedented tactics and organizational methods can reinvigorate the New Left in Europe though a wider (if not full) acceptance of P2P dynamics. You can read the original article here.

“Marketing guru Philip Kotler wrote that “the costumer will judge the offering by three basic elements: product features and quality, services mix and quality, and price. All three elements must be meshed into a competitively attractive offering.” It might sound obscene to some that I strongly believe there is much that the Left could take from this sort of advice.”

People push through in order to get into the room and reserve their seat. There is a buzz of euphoric expectation blending with rapid chatter in Castellano. This is the start of a Podemos meeting but it could have been a rock gig for all we know. When panel speakers finish their opening remarks ardent applause follows, people whoop and whistle in wondered appreciation. Credit, I suppose, has to be given mostly to the organisation at the core of it all.

Podemos is a Spanish anticapitalist party founded in January 2014. By beginnings of September it counted no less than 120,000 members and 20% ratings in the latest polls. It had elected five MEPs and is set to take Spain by storm at the next general election in December 2015. Its success is often described as part mystery, part formulaic “Twitter revolution” theory. And while it is true that Podemos reflects the political zeitgeist and has effectively built itself on the momentum of the 15M movement, there is much more to be said about its politics, strategy and exponential growth.

“I think we can emulate [Podemos] in the organising in the grassroots, drawing people in, speaking to the 90%, using social media when necessary”, Left Unity co-founder and revolutionary film-director Ken Loach tells me.

He adds another example of what Left Unity should be doing differently: “Using fresh language.”

But what does that mean?

It isn’t the first time I hear that we need to speak differently. During the build up to the British student movement of 2010/2011 I often had heated debates with members of the so-called “old Left” arguing for more Public Relations, more social media – on our side. It is well documented that uprisings don’t occur from a hashtag alone, but learning to communicate in progressive ways – even to co-opt some capitalist strategies of mass appeal – seems to be vital for any political organisation attempting to produce change in the twenty-first century.

“I think that what Podemos shows, and what other social movement groups like Juventud Sin Futuro or Oficina Precaria show, is that you can combine the autonomous, digital media campaigns with an active reaching-out to mass media”, says Cristina Flesher Fominaya, author of Social Movements and Globalization (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).

And according to Cristina, the process of being publicly recognised as a legitimate organisation does not happen instantaneously.

“You know, it’s little by little. They didn’t just overnight end up on these morning talk shows. They established those media connections, their media savvy and catchy and interesting direct actions, and then they engaged.”

She agrees that much like corporations have adopted more democratic channels of communication – such as the social media platforms Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest – to promote their products, so must social movements learn how to take over and efficiently use mass media channels for their causes.

“Alternative media is absolutely crucial, don’t get me wrong, but also engaging with mainstream media and mass media and thinking very holistically about how to combine those campaigns.”

The key lies in “retro-feeding” your message through these many avenues. It’s a process through which groups must constantly try “to keep on message and keep tweaking it and subverting and contesting”, she argues.

But what does this essentially mean?

In short it means the ways of organising that the British Left has taken for granted so far are utterly necessary but useless if not linked to two other tactics:

Firstly, the mentioned multifaceted approach to putting your message across. Leafleting door to door and holding local branch meetings is necessary, but so is blogging and writing opinion pieces for your local paper (they might be a dying breed but they are still read by thousands of people in your neighbourhood).

Secondly, keeping the message simple, clear and to the point. The Podemos programme is built on six simple aims, all based on the principle of democracy. It abides to the usual “rules and regulations” of socialist organisations – standing against sexism, racism, homophobia and all other types of prejudice and exclusion – but it gives members a clear structure of argument. It is therefore easy to understand, support and regurgitate. Unlike what some crude critics argue, the point is not to unite under the lowest common denominator, but to leave very specific alignments to debate and to group scrutiny, rather than to make them be-all end-all foundations of the organisation. Where one stands on the issue of Palestine or Scottish independence is important, but it won’t be helpful if taken outside the context of the organisation’s original purpose – to be the genuine political representation of the overworked, underpaid, disaffected 99%.

Importantly too is that these messages can be improved as the organisation grows. “Keep tweaking it” – as Flesher puts it. Political organisations today (perhaps always) have to be adaptable to the demands of the majority. As long as the principles of democracy and equality are not broken, the organisation needs to know when to talk about austerity and when to talk elections. Political parties are propaganda tools as much as they are forums of expression and activity for their members. If the people on the street – the “Polish fruit-picker and the Nigerian nurse” as Owen Jones often describes them – want more from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), then the party needs to verbalise that discontent, not pander to cronyism.

Above all, perhaps what is impressive about the Podemos strategy, and which should definitely be a lesson to us all, is its ability to embrace nuance and not to give in to black and white solutions to the problems at hand. Realpolitik is after all the art of advancing your political project when possible and giving way when necessary, without ever compromising your ethos. The Podemos European elections’ strategy was the brainchild of Íñigo Errejón, the man who said that “each country has to find its tools” to “hijack democracy”. The understanding that one needs to be flexible whilst sticking to one’s core beliefs has often been amiss on the British Left.

But don’t you need mass to attract mass?

Newton’s law of universal gravitation only applies to politics to a point. It is true that social movements and political parties can snowball once they’ve gained momentum. But where that momentum comes from and how political attraction can operate despite inexistent visible mass are points that Left Unity should think about long and hard.

Sceptics have come forward saying that unlike countries like Greece and Spain, Britain does not currently have a political movement active on the streets. There are no occupations of public squares going on, no million-strong demonstrations. This often crystallises into what I see as a misunderstanding of Rosa Luxemburg’s Dialectic of Spontaneity and Organisation (but let us leave that for another article). Crucially, we need to recognise that whilst many of these social movements and new anticapitalist parties have come out of a fortuitous sequence of events, organisations of different forms were involved in creating them from the start.

In Spain the 15M and the Indignados movement grew out of the said “indignation” of certain layers of society with a series of oppressive laws pushed through by neoliberal knee-jerk reactions of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) then in power. A cull of digital activism through the Ley Sinde, a media crackdown on strikes and workers’ protests, and the generally declining life and working conditions in the country (youth unemployment at 47% by 2011) created an explosive environment. Different activist groups started mushrooming about, some visible only online, many others on the streets too, handing out manifestos printed on A5 sheets.

According to Pablo Gerbaudo – a lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London and author of Tweets and the Streets (Pluto Press, 2012) – the popularity of the Democracia Real Ya campaign and the momentum towards the first May 15 demonstration was seen as “an opportunity to overcome division and inertia”. Several other groups joined in the call and “200 civil society organisations, including well-established groups like the anti-globalisation group ATTAC” joined in the call for action.

Their self-description as “neither left nor right” – which Podemos echoes and which is yet another discussion to be had in another article – did not mean they were actually outside or beyond the political spectrum. Standing for democracy, equality and collective decision-making processes the Indignados movement was well to the Left of the establishment, but also permeated with left-wing activists and even organisations from the get go. Our engagement with local issues and grassroots initiatives, not by demanding to lead them, but by fight side by side with those who are part of them is essential. Much like our duty to call for action where coordinated action is needed and yet not existent. To call for united action when there are three different campaigns. And to throw our weight behind those most representative, inclusive and efficient at that.

So what needs to be done?

I am not claiming to have the answer to the perfect left-wing party in Britain – I wish I did – but I do think there are lessons to be learnt from the successes and the failures of similar projects across Europe.

I also believe that, against my better (orthodox Marxist) judgement, we need to co-opt the dexterity and shrewdness of capitalist forms of propaganda in order to make ourselves visible and heard.

Marketing guru Philip Kotler wrote that “the costumer will judge the offering by three basic elements: product features and quality, services mix and quality, and price. All three elements must be meshed into a competitively attractive offering.” It might sound obscene to some that I strongly believe there is much that the Left could take from this sort of advice.

We know that our “product” is good – it is the best, in fact. In our politics we rest the hope for a better world. A world in which there is absolute equity, equality and equilibrium. The world socialists want to build is one of greatness, not just for a selected few but for every single person in this good old world. Who could possibly not want that?

Our “price” isn’t half bad. OK, so people know that building a better world is no smooth task. People know it because creating this not so amazing version we currently have is not that easy either. But when given the option to make things better for themselves and their loved ones, people do move mountains. People have always given their lives for their children, laboured harder to feed their elderly, gone to prison for the right to vote, the right to use the same facilities, the right to stand up straight and live with dignity. It wouldn’t be now – no matter how cynical this world might seem – that people would stop being inspired by a message of progress and prosperity.

But our “service” is poor. We have interiorised our weaknesses, made to act in defence, holding on dearly to creeds and formulas like deranged alchemists. The average Joe thinks it best to stay away from the Left or to mock it for its impractical project. We – the Left – have allowed political opponents to define us by what we are not. People that demand the impossible, they said. People that want to take away from you your individual freedoms and your right to chose between an iPhone and a Nokia Lumia, they said. And now we are faced with the task to prove them wrong.

Thankfully we are not alone. We have seen that change of rhetoric happen on our very doorstep. When UKUncut came around, it positively changed the message from “people living above their possibilities” to “corporations not living up to their responsibilities”. The Occupy movement pulled a similar trick with the creation of the now ubiquitous term 99%: we cannot be made to pay for the banking crisis when what we have in our billions adds up to the same amount of what those few, clearly responsible for this mess, have in their few hundreds.

How we create that change of speech, of poise and above all of doing politics is what is now in our hands.

“It’s easier to make speeches where we denounce what is happening, the difficulty is asking the question and finding specific organisational answers”, Ken Loach pointed out to me with a smile.

But we have a growing number of people out there on the streets hungry for change. We have the examples of the rest of Europe showing us the way. We have history on our side. Nos Podemos. We Can. Let’s do it.


Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Culture & Ideas, Featured Content, Featured Essay, Networks, Open Government, P2P Movements, P2P Public Policy, Politics | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Piketty, Marx, and the Political Economy of the Internet

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Michel Bauwens
9th October 2014

* Article: Fuchs, Christian. 2014. Thomas Piketty’s Book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, Karl Marx and the Political Economy of the Internet. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique 12 (1): 413-430.

From the Abstract:

“Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has resulted in a sustained political and academic debate about capitalism in the 21st century. This article discusses the relevance of the book in the context of Karl Marx’s works and the political economy of the Internet.

It identifies 3 common reactions to Piketty’s book:

1) dignification;

2) denigration of the work’s integrity;

3) the denial of any parallel to Marx.

I argue that all three reactions do not help the task of creating a New Left that is urgently needed in the situation of sustained capitalist crisis. Marxists will certainly view Piketty’s analysis of capitalism and political suggestions critically. I argue that they should however not dismiss them, but like Marx and Engels aim to radicalise reform suggestions. In relation to the Internet, this paper discusses especially how insights from Piketty’s book can inform the discussion of tax avoidance by transnational Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. For establishing an alternative, non-commercial, non-capitalist Internet one can draw insights about institutional reforms and progressive capital taxation from Piketty that can be radicalised in order to ground radical-reformist Internet politics.”


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Essay of the Day: The University as a Hackerspace

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Michel Bauwens
6th October 2014

* Article: Winn, Joss (2014) The university as a hackerspace. In: Friction: An interdisciplinary conference on technology & resistance, 08-09 May 2014, Nottingham.

From the Abstract:

“In a paper published last year, I argued for a different way of understanding the emergence of hacker culture. (Winn 2013) In doing so, I outlined an account of ‘the university’ as an institution that provided the material and subsequent intellectual conditions that early hackers were drawn to and in which they worked.

The key point I tried to make was that hacking was originally a form of academic labour that emerged out of the intensification and valorisation of scientific research within the institutional context of the university. The reproduction of hacking as a form of academic labour took place over many decades as academics and their institutions shifted from an ideal of unproductive, communal science to a more productive, entrepreneurial approach to the production of knowledge. As such, I view hacking as a peculiar, historically situated form of labour that arose out of friction in the academy: vocation vs. profession; teaching vs. research; basic vs. applied research; research vs. development; private vs. public; war vs. peace; institutional autonomy vs. state dependence; scientific communalism vs. intellectual property; individualism vs. co-operation.

A question I have for you today is whether hacking in the university is still a possibility? Can a university contain (i.e. intellectually, politically, practically) a hackerspace? Can a university be a hackerspace? If so, what does it look like? How would it work? I am trying to work through these questions at the moment with colleagues at the University of Lincoln. The name I have given to this emerging project is ‘The university as a hackerspace’ and it has grown out of an existing pedagogical and political project called ‘Student as Producer.’ It is also one of four agreed areas of work in a new ‘digital education’ strategy at Lincoln.

More broadly, our project asks “how do we reproduce the university as a critical, social project?”


Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Education | 1 Comment »

Essay of the Day: Merchant Sharing in a Zero Marginal Cost Economy

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Michel Bauwens
4th October 2014

* Article: Merchant Sharing. Towards a Zero Marginal Cost Economy. Laurent Fournier.

From the Abstract:

“This paper is the first attempt to formalize a new field of economics; studding the Intangibles Goods available on the Internet. We are taking advantage of the digital world’s specific rules, in particular the zero marginal cost, to propose a theory of trading & sharing unified. A function based money is created as a world-wide currency; (pronounced /k2p/). We argue that our system discourage speculation activities while it makes easy captured taxes for governments. Next step will be the propagation of the network application and we expect many shared benefits for the whole economics development.”


Posted in Economy and Business, Featured Essay, Sharing | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Algorithmic Governance of Common-Pool Resources

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Michel Bauwens
3rd October 2014


From the Abstract:

“As we saturate our everyday environment with computing and communication technologies, we can increase our capacities for successful collective action if we devise system infrastructures to support self-organization, self-management and pro-social behavior. Elinor Ostrom’s institutional design principles for managing common-pool resources provide a valuable template for designing effective Internet-based applications for algorithmic self-governance.”


Introduction: Resource Allocation in Open Systems

“Using a methodology called sociologically inspired computing, researchers are now attempting to solve engineering problems by developing “formal models of social processes.” This entails examining how people behave in similar situations and, informed by a theory of that behavior grounded in the social sciences, developing a formal characterization of the social behavior (based on the theory) using mathematical and/or computational logic. This logical specification then provides the basis for the specification of an algorithmic framework for solving the original problem.

In networks that function as open systems, for example, a significant challenge is how to allocate scarce resources.

This is a vexing challenge because open computing systems and networks are formed on the fly, by mutual agreement, and therefore they may encounter situations at run-time that were not anticipated at design-time. Specific examples include ad hoc networks, sensor networks, opportunistic and vehicular networks, and cloud and grid computing. All these applications have at least one feature in common: the system components (henceforth referred to as agents) must somehow devise a means to collectivize their computing resources (processor time, battery power, memory, etc.) in a common pool, which they can then draw upon in order to achieve their individual goals in a group (or as a group) that they would be unable to do if they each functioned in isolation.

However, open systems face serious challenges in coordinating agents because there is no centralized controller-agent that is compelling other agents in the system to behave in a certain way with regards to the provision and appropriation of resources. Furthermore, all agents may be competing for a larger share of the common pool, and may therefore not comply with the requirements for “correct” (pro-social) behavior. For example, they may appropriate resources that they were not allocated, or they may appropriate resources correctly but fail to contribute expected resources (a phenomenon known as “free riding”).”


Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Governance | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: The Political Economy of Bitcoin

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Michel Bauwens
2nd October 2014

* Essay: The (A)Political Economy of Bitcoin. By Vasilis Kostakis, Chris Giotitsas. Triple C, Vol 12, No 2 (2014)

From the Abstract:

“The still raging financial crisis of 2007–2008 has enabled the emergence of several alternative practices concerning the production, circulation and use of money. This essay explores the political economy of the Bitcoin ecosystem. Specifically, we examine the context in which this digital currency is emerging as well as its nature, dynamics, advantages, and disadvantages. We conclude that Bitcoin, a truly interesting experiment, exemplifies “distributed capitalism” and should be mostly seen as a technological innovation. Rather than providing pragmatic answers and solutions to the current views on the financial crisis, Bitcoin provides some useful and timely questions about the principles and bases of the dominant political economy.”

An excerpt:

“Bitcoin is widely viewed as an “apolitical currency”, devoid of the troubles that burden other currencies due to it being just code, controlled by no one. Yet this is not the case. Besides the fact that there are signs of emerging governance structures in Bitcoin, we can also see that its entire logic follows the key rules of other currencies. The code is in charge instead of central banks but as Lessig (2006) puts it, on the Internet the “code is law”, thus pointing out the politicalness that is imbued in each piece of software. In the real world, the law enables banks to mediate credit transactions between various parties. The law ensures the credibility of contracts, protects property rights, and regulates money circulation (Lessig, 2006). Whereas in the digital world, according to Lessig (2006), code assumes this role and defines what users can and cannot do. Therefore Bitcoin as a piece of software is imbued with ideas drawn from a certain political framework.

We have seen that Bitcoin is deliberately scarce. By limiting it to 21 million units, Nakamoto, or whomever is actually behind this project, has inadvertently created a condition in which the more popular Bitcoin becomes, the higher its price gets, making it more and more difficult to use. The buyer will be motivated to stall any transactions to take advantage of the climbing price, while the seller, for instance an artisan, would buy material now and by the time the final product is ready, the price would be unfavourable. In short, a deflationary currency puts pressure on the producer/seller to sell as fast as possible, while buyers prefer to wait in order to maximize their purchases. This situation clearly leads to crises. Presumably, the creators’ intention was to create a currency that is rid of debt in the spirit of various politico-economical critiques of the credit system. As previously mentioned Bitcoins do not come about as credit relations between two parties but as “private” information in a network.

The formulation of a Bitcoin “aristocracy” is the result of the code’s architecture. Members of this aristocracy are those that got into the Bitcoin game early on, when it was easy to create new units, and the owners of the so called “monster machines”, powerful computers that specialize in Bitcoin mining (Davies 2013). This small percentage of users has accumulated a great amount of Bitcoins, thus exhibiting features of the credit system it is supposed to be trying to overcome but also threatening the viability of the whole project.

Bauwens and Kostakis (2013) claim that Bitcoin is not a Commons-oriented project aiming to satisfy the needs of society, but a currency that reflects a new type of capitalism— “distributed” capitalism. This new iteration of capitalism conforms to the characteristics of the network era and utilizes the peer-to-peer infrastructures to achieve capital accumulation. Bitcoin is designed to allow multiple users, though in a competitive framework. It might appear as though it exists outside the financial system, but by promoting scarcity and compe- tition this project aggravates the over-accumulation of capital and exacerbates the social inequalities that it is supposed to combat. Distributed capitalism is premised on the idea that everybody can trade and exchange; or to put it bluntly, that “everyone can become an independent capitalist” (Kostakis and Bauwens 2014). The libertarian political ideology underlying this view advocates the elimination of the state in favour of individual sovereignty, private property, and free/open markets. In theory you have equipotential individuals (that is, everyone can potentially participate in a project), but in practice what one gets is concentrated capital and centralized governance. One could postulate that the anarcho-capitalist de- sign of Bitcoin, based on the Austrian school of economics, in many ways exacerbates the characteristics of the neoliberal era (Kostakis and Bauwens 2014).


Bitcoin should be viewed like a new technology, not just a currency. It has paved the way for new types of currencies that utilize new technological infrastructures and whose dynamics should not be ignored. Bitcoin as a protocol enables a decentralized network to achieve consensus without requiring any trust between parties. The potential of its innovations (for instance the blockchain) is so big that it has caught the attention of major banking institu- tions. The ability to embed scripts is also revolutionary and can set up terms and obligations within the blockchains, since it provides the possibility to enforce certain behaviours and limit corporate greed. However, we would say that the most important achievement is that it envisions an alternative approach to tackle the major problems of the current credit system. As an open source software programme, Bitcoin can get upgraded and it can get forked. The forking feature means that when an already set up economy becomes problematic it can be cloned by its users and given a new path. We are witnessing a plethora of new digital currencies and economies based on Bitcoin that aim to surpass the issues that were discussed in the previous chapter. Their efforts revolve around the belief that the current financial system is based on an unsustainable principle of continuous growth and attempt to implement social values into their structure.”


Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Money | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: An Opportunity for Innovative Credentialing for eLearning in Africa

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Michel Bauwens
1st October 2014

* Article: eLearning in Africa and the Opportunity for Innovative Credentialing. Gertjan van Stam

From the Abstract:

“The ubiquitousness of Information and Communication Technology triggers the current revolution in education. Online repositories of courses, through MOOCs or otherwise, open exciting possibilities for access to learning, also in Africa. A multitude of constraints must beovercome, spurred on by a vision of moral obligation and commitment to prepare the next generation and the swell of young people in Africa. The changing form of future education and the need for relevant certi?-cation calls for innovation in credentialing and validation of knowledge.”


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On the Dangers of Monetizing Nature

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David Bollier
26th September 2014

double sérénité

“We can see the application of economic valuation in the real world and the damage that application has in far too many cases already done to communities who depend on and defend their territories against outside decisions that will destroy the land that provides them with a livelihood.”

I remember in the late 1970s how the corporate world essentially invented the use of cost-benefit analysis in health, safety and environmental regulation. It was a brazen attempt to redefine the terms for understanding social ethics and policy in terms favorable to capital and markets.  Instead of seeing the prevention of death, disease and ecological harm as a matter of social justice, period, American industry succeeded in recasting these issues aseconomic matters.  And of course, such arcane issues must be overseen by a credentialed priesthod of economists, not ordinary mortals whose concerns were snubbed as selfish NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard).

And so it came to be that, with the full sanction of law, a dollar sum could be assigned to our health, or to the cost of getting cancer, or to a statistical baby born with birth defects. Regulation was transformed into a pseudo-market transaction.  That mindset has become so pervasive three decades later that people can barely remember when ethical priorities actually trumped big money.

It is therefore a joy to see Barbara Unmüssig’s essay,“Monetizing Nature:  Taking Precaution on a Slippery Slope,”which recently appeared on the Great Transition Initiative website.  Unmüssig is President of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Germany and a stalwart supporter of the commons, especially in her backing of the 2010 and 2013 conferences in Berlin.

Striking a note that is note heard much these days, Unmüssig points out the serious dangers of seeing the natural world through the scrim of money.  Here is the abstract for her piece:

In the wake of declining political will for environmental protection, many in the environmental community are advocating for the monetization of nature. Some argue that monetization, by revealing the economic contribution of nature and its services, can heighten public awareness and bolster conservation efforts. Others go beyond such broad conceptual calculations and seek to establish tradable prices for ecosystem services, claiming that markets can achieve what politics has not.

However, such an approach collapses nature’s complex functions into a set of commodities stripped from their social, cultural, and ecological context and can pose a threat to the poor and indigenous communities who depend on the land for their livelihood. Although the path from valuation to commodification is not inevitable, it is indeed a slippery slope. Avoiding this pitfall requires a reaffirmation of the precautionary principle and a commitment to democratic decision-making and social justice as the foundations of a sound environmental policy for the twenty-first century.

Unmüssig’s essay is followed by comments by some fantastic commentary by nine ecological economists and environmental policy experts, among others, who take issue with parts of the essay and elaborate on points of agreement.  Among the commentators are the noted ecological economists Herman Daly and Bob Costanza, but there are also some insightful comments by Neera Singh, Jutta Kill and Neil Glazer.

I especially liked biologist Jutta Kill’s comments:

We can see the application of economic valuation in the real world and the damage that application has in far too many cases already done to communities who depend on and defend their territories against outside decisions that will destroy the land that provides them with a livelihood.

And finally, adopting someone else’s frame—the frame that sees “nature” in a way that capital does—by default requires devaluing and undermining the values we (used to) consider worth fighting for. That would likely entail losing moral authority and legitimacy, at least over time. Adopting the concept of economic valuation means adopting the values of actors whose business model is built on limitless growth and the associated wrecking of “nature”—and many people’s livelihoods.

Forestry scholar Neera Singh also has a nice response to the perversity that sees ecological conservation as a sacrifice for which market payment should be paid:

“How can we honor the gift of conservation care labor that goes into the production of ecosystem services in ways that it is seen as a gift rather than as production of a service whose exchange can be sealed with a payment? And can we see these gifts—gifts by nature, by people who live in ecologically sensitive landscapes, gifts emerging from human-nature relations—as invitation for long-term exchanges in sharing the burden and joy of environmental care?”

Read the essay and then the comments.  Some terrific insights into the pathological monetization of nature.

Originally posted in Bollier.org


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