The following is a revised transcript of a discussion that took place on May 3, 2012 between Michel Bauwens, Jonathan Clyne, Alex Dirmeier, Lena Hanno and Jean Lievens on peer-to-peer and Marxism.
For the full transcript go here.
This is the first part.
“Michel: I start with a thought on the Marxist theory of revolution, in the way I see it and in the way I think it’s wrong according to the following reflection: if you look at phase-transitions, like the one from the end of the Roman Empire to the feudal system and from the feudal system to the capitalist system, the reason that there is a revolution at the end is because there is already within the system a reorientation towards this new modality, which then has to break free from the old system in order to become dominant itself.
So why does that mean that the Marxist theory of revolution is not convincing for me? Because it basically says that the workers need to take over the commanding heights of the economy. But where is the mode of production? Yes, there is socialisation, there are tendencies, but there is no model that is really being born within capitalism.
Today we finally have this new modality. We see emerging within capitalism a way of producing value that is substantially different from the old one, which is more competitive in many different ways. And you do see a reorientation of common people and capital towards this new modality. Technically it is from each according to ones abilities and to each according to ones needs. So at the core, which is the immaterial sharing of knowledge, code and design, this is exactly how it works. I see this model emerging everywhere.
It is based on distributed infrastructure, distributed machinery, 3D-printing, micro-factories, distributed finance, crowdfunding, social lending, distributed currencies like Bitcoin, collective working spaces like co-working, hacker spaces, fablabs… collective learning capabilities which are very, very developed, even renewable energy. So this is happening anyway. But what we can do is steer it and fight for it so that it actually evolves in a way that is the most useful for the workers. In my view, peer-producers are the working-class of post-capitalism. It is an exodus out of capitalism towards a new mode of being and thinking about oneself, which is outside the capital-labour dichotomy. But of course it exists within a system of capital, so the social reproduction of the commons is dependent on capitalism. But they are mutually dependant. For me, the essential thing is to break this dependency.
In order to do that, you need to adopt a commons license, which means that only the people who contribute to the commons can use it. In that way you create a natural solidarity chain between different entities that make use of the commons to sustain their livelihoods. And instead of a shareholder-model, which is capital accumulation, you use coops, trusts, social entrepreneurship… I tend to think that this new phase transition will happen in steps. First of all within the system, where you try to create a new hegemony based on those new values and strategies until you are strong enough to take the next step. I think that is exactly how young people act today. They feel they can share and cooperate and be hyper-productive, but the whole system feels like a weight.
To me, the new core of social mobilization is the idea of the commons as a basis of a new hegemony.
Alex: Can you define what you mean by a new mode of production?
Michel: I make a difference between a proto-mode of production, which is not fully autonomous and is not fully able to reproduce itself, and a way of creating value, which is able to recreate itself. So today peer production is not yet a real mode of production, but a proto-mode of production. Because at this stage you need to have a wage in the capitalist system in order to reproduce it.
Alex: I think that the classical Marxist view is more or less true, because there are very few free spaces within capitalism where you can develop something else. But I think I agree that the things that you describe are only the beginnings of what could be possible.
Michel: I agree with your argument. But I would amend it with the personal conviction that the planetary crisis is getting to such a level that capitalism is no longer able to do this. It is trying to, but the second thing is that distributive infrastructures are also a way to fight against those appropriation mechanisms, which we may not have had before… Things like crowdfunding, social lending, even though they are market practices, can be used by smart layers to circumvent a lot of the limitations that were put on small players by capital before. Also, if capitalism were absolutely totalitarian, than nothing would be possible. So we have to maintain some hope that something can be done, hence my hypothesis that it can be done!
Jonathan: There are things developing for longer periods of time within the system, which are the real basis for a new society. What you talk about is part of that. But it is not the main part, because the main part is expressed in the dramatic increase, even in recent years and parallel to the development of peer-to-peer production, in the concentration of ownership that has increased over the last twenty years even more rapidly than in the period preceding that. And the concentration of ownership represents, what in classical Marxism is called the socialisation of production, the bringing together into one system of production. That I think is also a basis for a new society. It represents the possibility where things already are planned.
This enormous centralisation of ownership, power and money, used privately for profit interests, have created the mess we are in now. So we have to deal with that. Peer-to-peer production does not solve the dominant problem facing most people today. This tendency can develop within coming generations, but in the meanwhile things can collapse as the present crisis develops.
Michel: The system will collapse and I don’t think we can bring it down. I think that we can bring it down when it has collapsed, and then the already existing alternative modalities can become the core of a new social modus. That is the way I see it.
Jonathan: But the alternative modality is there already also in the big companies. You really don’t need to do very much. In a certain sense you have to do far less than with developing peer-to-peer production, because all you need to do is a slight legal change, which is the ownership question. Because then you have the resources and you can decide what to do with them. We don’t need to create a whole new system and impose it on the old, we just take the present system and tweak it slightly.
Jean: There is this huge crisis in the left for years now and from a personal point of view, I feel that I looked at the ‘left alternatives’ from every possible angle without finding a convincing answer. What I find so attractive in the ideas of peer-to-peer is that now we have actually something better developing within the old system. It offers a -credible alternative. But it also does not solve the question completely because you have to deal with the world as it is. The impression I got from what Michel is saying is, well, we just have to build this alternative within the system and ignore the rest. I have a problem with that view. In the sixties people were escaping the system, like hippies building communes. Today we see new developments that weren’t possible before because the technology wasn’t there. I think of the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, and peer production on the level of immaterial goods. But now with the fablabs, micro-factories, examples in agriculture, we see the possibility of developing something real within the system. But that does not involve any politics or trade unionism like in the ‘old world’, where you have the traditional divisions between labour and capital… Political parties, trade unions are not part of your story. It is like they are part of the old system. On the other hand, you also see the Pirate Parties as the political expression of this new movement.
Michel: Look at Wikipedia. It’s massive produced parallel development. Anybody in the world can work on something at the same time, and there is no capitalist company that can do that. Another example is Wikispeed, you might have heard of it. It is an open source car that took three months to develop. It has five star crash rating, drives hundred miles per gallon, it can be constructed in a micro factory, and has joined with open source ecology, which is a project to make fifty basic machinery in open source hardware.
They develop something called the extreme manufacturing platform, which would allow massive parallel-distributed development of any design. This is like Henry Ford inventing the assembly line. It’s the method of this new reality. I wanted to say this in order to show you that this is developing a lot faster than we think. But the second thing is that these new practices breed a new culture that wants to defend this new practice. So I see the pirate parties as directly being created by these practices of sharing, and therefore as a natural defender of the digital commons. I see the Greens as the natural defenders of the environmental commons, and I see what I would call the renewed left as a natural expression of the productive commons. And finally I think -and this might be seen as class collaboration by orthodox Marxists- that social liberals expressing social entrepreneurship represent these ethical companies that work under the commons. They can also be included in this coalition. So I see this as a basis for new vision on politics. I also want to say one thing about escapism, considering the ecological data… just take climate change: the prediction is that by 2030 the agricultural production of Africa will fall back by fifty percent. The Sahara is getting bigger, there are water issues… The Club of Rome Rapport, Limits to Growth, seems to underestimate the speed with which these things will develop. MIT made a projection for 2030 called peak civilization and predicts massive population die-outs, starting in 2030. Millions of people will die. If you look at other studies, from Oxfam for example, they all go in the same direction. There are nine vital systems for the planet and three of them are damaged already. Oxfam made a similar study about social issues, 8 of the 12 are declining. So I don’t think that the view that capitalism is in serious problems is escapism. I think that it is really grounded in scientific recognition of the ecological crisis. And there is absolutely no sign that they can do anything about it within their logic. The big debate within the ecological movement is the following. We know that the energy resources are going down, so energy scarcity is increasing and we need replacement. The big debate is: is it actually possible to find enough replacements fast enough to keep our civilisation functioning in pretty much the same way as now, or can’t we do it and do we face a very severe contraction. I tend to lean on the pessimistic side.
Alex: I find it strange that you are so pessimistic about solving the ecological question, but on the other hand so optimistic when it comes to what peer-to-peer production could mean or could change, because for me, it’s the other way around. I am much more optimistic about these ecological questions because from a technological point of view, it would be no problem to switch to sustainable energy production within the next twenty years. The problem is that this requires very huge investments in infrastructural projects, a change of architecture to include for example solar panels on housing in every city and there is no political will to do that.
Michel: Yes, I think we can only concur that within this type of capitalism it’s not happening. I think that, after reading ecological literature, that this is the end.
Jonathan: I think the collapse of the system would be the collapse of peer-to-peer production also. Because if you get mass unemployment, and if you get ecological disaster developing on top of that, that forces people to focus entirely on surviving for the day, and that will deprive them from their spare time. I do see Information Technology, I do see all those things as having an enormous potential in the context of a crisis of the main system… That’s why I think that peer-to-peer production is indeed a future mode of production that one has to strive for. But it is dependent on dealing with the dominant parts of the economy, and getting that to develop. And that will open the floodgates to peer-to-peer production.
Michel: But that requires a prior political revolution.
Jonathan: Well, a sort. So one has to get together a coalition of forces for that and I think that people involved in peer-to-peer production would be central in that process.
Michel: Here is from what I see the political difficulty. Because most people would tell me, yes, that is possible, give it some time, etc. But if I tell your story, let’s make a coalition to take over the ownership of big companies, there is just nobody there to listen. There is scepticism and even fear of centralised control and central planning. That’s a debate that young people just reject.
Jonathan: But still, a majority of people between 18 and 24 in the United States today think that socialism is preferable to capitalism. It is a dramatic change from five years ago. Attitudes can change. Michel: The crisis that we are in now is a systemic crisis. A systematic crisis means that it cannot be solved with the same premises as the older system. You see this every day. Like saving the banks is just not working. This is really a big crisis like in 1929, which was only resolved by a total reorganisation of the system. The premises of Fordist capitalism are totally different from the premises of Smithian capitalism. And I am pretty sure that, even if it works, a kind of peer-to-peer capitalism would be very, very different from what we had before the 2008 crisis. If capitalism wants to save itself, it has to integrate all of those new aspects.”