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In dialogue with David Bollier: the commons and the market

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
22nd January 2010


I’m republishing a dialogue I had with David Bollier in January 2006, responding to a set of his questions:

David Bollier: How will P2P culture “wash over” and transform existing market-based identities?

Michel Bauwens: My belief is the following: that before a system collapses, it will exhibit the worst of its features. Thus, just as we are witnessing the marketisation, monetization, and commodification of everything, there is the birth of a counter-reaction, the emergence of the seed of the new. Network society itself, is not an answer to market totalitarianism, in fact, it exacerbates many of the current problems. Peer to peer, when harnessed within the for-profit system, seems to lead to an exacerbation of the work culture, as can be witnessed by many who work in the new IT sectors. It has been described by Pekka Himanen as the Fridayisation of Sunday, i.e. the values of the work week are being applied to private and intimate life. But when it creates its own logic, within a context of for-benefit instead of for profit, of production for use value instead of for exchange value, as in the hacker culture of the free software movement, it leads to the free self-unfolding of the individual, who can work at his own pace as democratically-governed cooperative producers. Market identities and sharing identities reside in the same person, ourselves. To survive materially, we need to take on a market identity, but in our free time, an increasing number are taking on sharing identities. In some ways, the exacerbation of market identities actually reflects a deep desire to get away with it, as it was with many youngsters in the dotcom boom: let’s cash in so that we can stop working as soon as possible. As I have tried to argue, the shift towards P2P practices reflects deep changes in ontology (ways of feeling and being), modes of knowing (epistemology), and constellation of values (axiology). The aim of modernity was to “individualize” everything, but we have achieved a stage where further hyper-individualization has become counterproductive. So what we see happening on the internet, and what I call peer to peer, is the “being in relationship” of everything. We are not returning to premodern pre-individual wholism, but to a form of sharing by highly individuated humans. The sharing is in part predicated on the abundance created by the current political economy: an abundance of mass intellectuality, an abundance of low-entry productive machinery, etc.. Negatively speaking: current complexity can no longer be managed without network structures, and these network structures, when the are distributed and not merely decentralized, generate peer to peer social processes. So the key question is: how do we create the conditions, within ourselves and in our institutions, to support the sharing identity as compared to the market identity. The evidence points to the fact that P2P is not a political program of a minority (not a simple left/right division), but the very direction in which an increasing number of humans want to go. So, though we may be for or against capitalism, I’m not sure that the sharing identities (what I would call â˜cooperative individualism”, should be set the market identities. Many programmers move from one field to the other, and do not hold at against anyone of the programming community, who cashes in from the reputation build in FS work. A more general answer is the following: modernity was predicated on the universal, on looking for the sameness in everyone, but we are now seeking for the “common”, a common object of desire. For example, if you are married to a very different type of partner than yourself, let’s say Democrat vs. Republican, you can still be united by the common desire to construct a family, to have an intimate life based on love. So you can bridge the intersubjective gaps by focusing on common goals and objects, i.e. producing use value together. This is why is doesn’t matter, in free software production, whether you are a right-wing libertarian or a left wing anarcho-communist.

2. The clash of different intersubjectivities seems so unbridgeable — and at the root of political polarization on IP and Internet issues. Do you have any thoughts on how the two radically different worldviews might be reconciled or bridged in some way?

MB: I don’t think the different intersubjectivities are so unbridgeable. The current campaigns against filesharing are the work of concrete material interests, who are defending their monopolistic rents, using the political class and the media that they are funding. They are a minority (Paul Ray, in new research, suggests the neoliberal consensus is only supported by 17% of the U.S. population, if I remember this correctly) On the other hand, a radical minority might want to do away with any and all IP protection. But the vast majority of online users support solutions that combine both the possibility of sharing, and that can support individual artists. The problem is not one of convincing a small minority of interest holders but of developing political power so that the majority can be heard, but I agree that this is a difficult problem that goes at the heart of the current crisis of democracy, beholden as it is to corporate interests. A strong commons (or P2P or “open access” movement is a prerequisite for this, but we can see it growing and interconnecting worldwide. It requires the realization by the millions of practicioners of P2P that in the current system, their rights are threatened. I should also add that we see the emergence of a new group within the system: not the owners of media, but the makers of the participative platforms. These new types of companies derive their value from the free flow of information between participants, and are mostly supportive of P2P-induced changes, and equally opposed to the attempts at enclosure.

3. One key arena for resolving the epic struggle between the old paradigm of power and social organization, and the new Internet-based one, is politics and public policy. Yet it is an open question whether dinosaur-corporations will be able to successfully use law and public policy to *thwart* the emergence of a P2P/commons regime and culture. Do you think the technology, as socially embodied, will inexorably transform conventional political power — or does P2P culture exist merely at the suffrance of conventional political power, which will eventually find it too threatening to let it survive?

MB: I do not belong to the pessimists in this area, those that continually predict the end of P2P culture. I see the whole trust of the social processes and technology moving inexorable in the direction of more participation. It will definitely require a major adaptation of the political and economic system, as did the print revolution which eventually led to a wholly new system. The question is how far that change will go. In an earlier essay, I outlined three scenarios: 1) the first is predicated on the use of P2P technologies but on the defeat of the P2P social movement; this is the information feudalism scenario as explained by Jeremy Rifkin. It predicts that traditional private property will make way for generalized licensing under strict conditions set by the owners of the media; 2) the second scenario is a peaceful co-existence, a continuation of the current system. In such a system there is a continuing shift from the profit sphere to the sharing sphere, and back again, much as free software programmers are doing today. But it is predicated on the continued stability of the current system, something which is very unlikely given the current rate of destruction of the biosphere and the instability generating increased inequalities. I’m pretty much like George Soros or Immanuel Wallerstein in this regard, I just don’t see this happening. Rest the third scenario. In my essay, I try to show how four types of intersubjective relations have co-existed over time: reciprocity-based “equality matching” or the gift economy, dominant in tribal times; authority ranking, dominant in the tribute-based agricultural civilizations; market pricing, dominant today. In each of these three broad eras, all four types existed, but they were dominated, in-formed by the dominant mode. The fourth type is called “Communal Shareholding” by Alan Page Fiske. It is the mode whereby a common resource is accessible to all, and all can contribute, without accounting or reciprocity. It was the case in the tribal era, in the communal land of the peasants of the middle ages, and today, it is experiencing a revival through the digital commons which are created through peer production. It is the mode that is best suited for the emerging dominance of immaterial production, a necessary adjunct to distributed networks which are again becoming the dominant organizational form, and can be expanded in every case where capital can be distributed (and this is not just a technical, but a political question). Thus, I believe that we are moving towards a society, which will still have a market and state, but which will be in-formed and re-formed by the dominant P2P relational dynamic, its mode of production, governance and property/distribution. Is this an autonomic process, no. But it is a very very strong undercurrent, supported by the logic of contemporary production and social organization. A conscious social movement, a kind of merger of the commons, open access/open source, and P2P-participative trends, would greatly strengthen this underlying current.

4. What successors and complements to the GPL, open source licenses and Creative Commons licenses need to be invented, esp. for commercial contexts?

MB: This is a technical question, and I am not an expert in it. But we are witnessing a very creative era for the development of open source business models, and the appropriate hybrid licences. The key is to give people freedom to move from one sphere to another, as they see fit.

5. What legal mechanisms or policy regimes can protect collective wealth and sovereignty in the P2P universe, esp. if a reactionary market order is hellbent on enclosing the commons? Or will such “enclosure business models” be easily discarded as archaic & dysfunctional once network infrastructure and culture reach a sufficient scale and cultural acceptance?

MB: The GPL and CC-like licenses, which I call peer property, and share the 2 fundamental attributes of recognition of individual authorship but coupled to the “share-alike” peering principles, are already very strong safeguards. The fact that Lessig complains about license proliferation is actually a witness to the fact that many people are applying its core principles to many new areas. Appropriate governance mechanisms must be found for the protection of physical commons, which do not share the feature of abundance. (I’m thinking of your friend Peter Barnes’ suggestion of trusts as forms of governance in these sectors) As you are suggesting: peer to peer processes of production and governance have very strong advantages: they are more productive, more democratic in their governance (create more happiness for the producers), and create a more generalized and fair distribution of their products. Thus peer production is much in the same position as was capitalist production in the feudal area. It requires ever more restrictive, repressive measures to stop the tidal wave of innovation, which seems only able to slow down the process, but not fundamentally reverse it. But for Commons and P2P advocates, offensive strategies are also needed to speed up and ease the transition. Fighting for open access and open access wherever we can; make sure the infrastructures are really “open”, fighting the second enclosure legislation and their attempts to create artificial scarcities, are certainly important.

6. Do the differences between P2P (as an efficient way to create public goods) and the commons (as a social model of governance and resource-management) matter? Or are these differences merely interesting?

MB: I think P2P is the social dynamic, which arises wherever distributed networks are emerging, in areas where linear and hierarchical organizational modes are no longer adequate to deal with the new complexities. And what they are producing is a digital commons. Thus P2P refers to the mode of production, while the Commons is the instititutional format that it is increasingly taking. They are different facets of the same phenomenon. They are very intertwined but the Commons is important in terms of institutional reform. Finally, open access and open source movements refer, in my mind, to the conditions of success of both other processes. There is some kind of triangular relationship between the three phenomena.

7. How stable, extensible and protectible is P2P, esp. given its dependency on the market order (and on public policies that are congenial with large, backward-looking media/content companies)?

I don’t think there is any doubt that P2P social processes are everywhere springing up, both within and without the market. Some old market and state forces opposed it, some other forces partially support it while trying to subsume it totally under the market. I see however, no realistic way in which a series of processes which are more productive, in certain circumstances, than firms; more democratically governed, and more efficiently distributed, can be stopped in the long run. P2P arises wherever distributed networks are adopted, and is dependent on such distribution: the distribution of intellect, a function on the general educational level of the population and the network infrastructures; the distribution of fixed capital and the means of production, i.e. the general availability of computers and means of desktop manufacturing; and the distribution of financial capital.

Some of these are easier to achieve than others. But I would like to turn your argument around. You stress the dependency of P2P on the market, but the contemporary market simply cannot function without the externalities provided by cooperating minds, which are no longer confined “within the enterprise” but diffused throughout the social body. Thus, trends towards participation are vital for the further development of the market. Since a great deal of peer production is indeed beyond exchange value and difficult to monetize, it would make great sense that the corporate world would give something back for the free use of such externalities, and the most sensible thing to do would be the institution of the basic income, which would give an enormous boost to the expansion of social production. Future society needs a commons sector that is at least as strong (as argued by Peter Barnes), if not stronger (as argued by me) than the private sector.

8. I think that “axiology” — value constellations — will be a real pivot in understanding how the future will unfold. Socially generated wealth is richer, more diversified in kind, and stable — yet it is not necessarily monetizable, portable or publicly recognized as “value,” and so it remains in the shadows, culturally speaking, and is therefore vulnerable to enclosure. But these two “value propositions” are rarely juxtaposed. I think it’s important to put socially based value on thesame epistemological footing as market (exchange) value, or at least to dissect the origins of our sense of “value.” Our cultural sense of “market value” needs to be de-constructed and then re-constructed in light of new market-exchange realities.

Yes, I completely agree with this, but here also I think we can be fairly optimistic as we see these value constellations change, particularly in the new generations. See my comment on quarternary economics, where I discuss value.
9. Identity and reputation commons software protocols may be critical drivers of the transformation you envision. Can you say more about that?

I’m not sure I can be convinced that such technological developments are as crucial as they are said to be. The reason is that, first of all, P2P processes function very well already without them, and secondly, that reputations and identity are not easily transferable amongst projects,the whole process is very contextual, you may be very good in one environment, and less so in another. I think we should resist the urge to apply purely instrumental reason, what’s in it for me, strategically and tactically, to the new commons, where such reasoning is subsumed in the larger field of cooperation. Communal reputation and rating systems are more important for successful cooperation than individualist technologies. The reason is that the former are necessary means to avoid a power transcendence, i.e. they avoid that a minority can represent the common and place itself above it, they are an insurance against private appropriation. I think this is why we see a rapid development of the former, while the latter technologies fail to take off. The market answers the question, what’s in it for me, and needs individualist technologies, P2P processes answer the question, what’s in it for us, and need communal technologies.

10. In your mind, how does P2P compare to prior theories of democratic production and governance — say Marxism or socialism or Jeffersonian democracy? My sense is that P2P is a more humanistic and fluid mode of value-creation than materially based Marxist theories, but it’s hard to speak of it in isolation because it depends so critically upon market structures.

Not being an American, I don’t know enough about the Jeffersonian tradition, but it seems to me that there is a crucial difference with the mainstream socialist tradition. This tradition confused the common and the collective. P2P is based on the commons, while socialism looked at the state. Socialism was also based on power transcendence with party and state officials separating from the popular movement, both in its reformist and Stalinist wings. P2P is an emergence of the social field, of civil society if you like, which has already very quickly developed techniques to avoid such power transcendence, and is in essence non-representational.

11. You leapfrog over the pitched IP debates of today, especially those involving P2P music downloads. Do you consider these mere epiphenomena on the road to P2P transcendence? It would be nice to have some discussion of this terrain, if only to situate it in the larger, big-picture trend analysis.

No, I don’t consider them mere epiphenomena, it’s only that in my work, I have a preference for the long term, and they are enough people covering the news already. Filesharing is an enormous training ground for P2P processes, and in this sense, very very important. Through filesharing, the young generation is practically confronted with the benefits of peer processes, it becomes a natural part of their value constellations. The attacks of the old order against it are also a crucial part in the raising of their political and social consciousness: what they consider natural, to share amongst friends, is considered a crime, so as they are under attack, they start opening up to the broader import of P2P as a central organisating and value principle in their life.

12. Will the great participatory networks/platforms like Google, eBay and Yahoo become evil empires because of their scale and monopolistic control, or will they be constitutionally unable to abuse power because of their open, participatory premises? At the root of this question, I think, is how sustainable the P2P paradigm is if the “big players” decide at some point that open platforms don’t suit their interests any more? Put another way, is “net neutrality” vulnerable or it is inevitable?

This is a very difficult question to answer. Netarchical capitalists, who enable and exploit the participatory platforms, are in this double position: they are beholden to the community, and they are beholden to their shareholders. So they are forced to follow a balancing act. Their temptations to short term greed, have to be balanced against the possibility that if they go all the way, their community may well abandon them. I’m not denying their strength, their proto-monopolistic strivings, as has been argued by Jaron Lanier’s Antigoras essay, but in a heavily distributed environment, the community is not powerless to change, so in the end I think both sides take pragmatic views on this.

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