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Is p2p/commons theory to economistic?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
22nd December 2012


The above critique is suggested by David Ronfeldt here below:

“As trust in the NGO phenomenon has declined, proponents of developing a new sector that would have strong ethical bases have turned increasingly to the concept of “the commons.” Indeed, the most interesting and auspicious activity in favor of a new sector is developing around this concept (and growing reality?). It has been around for centuries — recall, for example, “the enclosure of the commons” in English history as capitalism took hold. Now the concept is gaining renewed life and new dimensions as a result of the information revolution. This revolution is creating new kinds of commons — e.g., a knowledge commons, potentially a sensor commons — and enabling new ways of organization and governance that appeal to “commoners”. Elinor Ostrom’s winning the Nobel prize in economics for her work on the management of common-pool resources has enthused commoners that they’re on a sensible track. Of further importance, the concept of the commons has great ethical appeal for people who believe in collaborative sharing and openness, among other ideals.

The rise of the commons is being articulated especially on the Left, mostly by proponents of peer-to-peer (P2P) theory. They are taken with proposals for developing a commons sector as an alternative to state and market sectors. So far I see nothing comparable on the Right, though some forward-looking conservatives espouse a related concept that also has appeal on the Left: “stewardship”. From a different but still motivating angle, the commons is also acquiring new impetus in national security and military circles — particularly where “cyber” is treated as a new domain that should be protected along with the traditional air and sea commons.

For all parties and proponents, it remains unclear just exactly what is the commons, what belongs in it, and how and why to develop it. Even so, the concept continues to gain ground, and in my view it is very pertinent to the prospects for a +N sector.

Yet, from a TIMN viewpoint I doubt that the concept is being headed in the most suitable directions by its proponents on the Left. Yes, as they observe, the future potential of the commons is very much about network forms of organization and governance — for me in a +N sense, for them mostly in a P2P sense. And they are producing insightful writings (such as a new book from The Commons Strategy Group, The Wealth of the Commons: A world beyond market & state). However, they keep focusing on the commons mainly in economic terms — as a largely economic endeavor, as a matter of political economy, as a new mode of production “beyond market and state” that can serve as a peer-powered alternative to capitalism. Thus a lot of theorizing on the Left about the commons is quite neo-Marxist. That in itself does not bother me. Nor am I bothered by the anti-capitalist tone; TIMN is entirely pro-market but not entirely pro-capitalist. Rather, what’s puzzling is the intensive emphasis on economic matters — including in treating the rise of the commons as a new way to revive old battles against capitalism, and this time against statism as well.

That kind of emphasis is at odds with TIMN. TIMN means that the +I (state) and +M (market) realms are here to stay, albeit more limitedly, and that futurist thinking about the +N (network-based) realm should be done by figuring out its own nature on its own terms, not by reapplying old ones. The rise of +N depends above all on its capacity to define its own realm, and far less on its capacity to combine with or counter the other forms.

I’ve intended to address this for over a year — initially in a part-2 post for my three-part series on Michel Bauwens’s concept of the partner state, and later in a part-IV post for my four-part series on the Occupy movements. But those posts remain unfinished, absent. So I do not have a lot of backup material handy for my critical remarks. But I leave them above anyway, holding them subject to future revision and refinement.

According to TIMN (as I understand it so far), a new +N sector — and it may well be largely a commons sector — will be focused on addressing issues and offering options that the older forms / sectors are not doing well at. It will help address inefficiencies and externalities that that those older forms / sectors have exacerbated and failed to resolve. It will grow alongside and in balance with those older forms / sectors. It may modify them, and be modified by them; but it will not overwhelm them, nor be overwhelmed by them. Moreover, it will be focused on distinctive issues — and my sense of TIMN remains that these will be mainly social (and only secondarily economic) issues: possibly health, education, welfare, and environmental issues in particular. The networked ways they will be addressed will be largely non-profit, cooperative, for social benefit, and in the common interest (much in keeping with the values and ethics behind P2P theory). And these dynamics will define the new sector, not make it a derivative of the older sectors.

In my view, then, TIMN would raise questions about the intense economic orientation — including the emphasis on new kinds of business-like, socially-entrepreneurial enterprises (e.g., “phyles”) — that dominates some current writings from the Left about the potential for a distinct commons sector. There may well be a future for these kinds of commons-oriented actors and activities; but TIMN implies that they will not form the core of a new +N sector. They may pertain better to a transformed +M sector. Something else is emerging for +N. I’m not sure exactly what, but notions about developing a “sensor commons” and “monitory democracy” around a new swarm of networked civil-society actors may turn out to be more on track and in tune with TIMN.

If that is one good track to be on, there is already evidence it has appeal across the political spectrum. Note the following quotes, the first from a P2P-oriented anarchist, the second from a conservative blogger — both well-known in their respective circles:

“Networked consumer, environmental and labor activism, with its ability to subject corporate malefactors to boycotts or tort actions, and to expose them to humiliating scrutiny, offers the potential to control and punish bad corporate behavior at least as well as did the regulatory state or the traditional press, and — insofar as they are not prone to the same sorts of cross-institutional collusion — to do an even better job of it. . . It incorporates a large element of what John Keane calls “monitory democracy.” (source)

“My dream is of a Tea Party so large and well funded it can serve as a perpetual monitor of the leviathan. Transparency and crowdsourcing will help.” (source)
A final musing: I keep seeing information-age manifestos by forward-looking thinkers: e.g., The Hacker Manifesto, The Telekommunist Manifesto, The P2P Manifesto, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto, etc. They incline me to think that there should be a TIMN manifesto. Perhaps call it The Quadraformist Manifesto. Meanwhile, whenever I’m asked whether I’m a liberal or a conservative these disturbed and disturbing days, I find it best to reply: “Neither. I’m a quadriformist. And someday you may be too.” Indeed, the question for the future is not how to be a better liberal or conservative in today’s triformist terms, but rather how to become a quadriformist first, and later a new kind of progressive or conservative.”

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9 Responses to “Is p2p/commons theory to economistic?”

  1. kevindoylejones Says:

    is p2p network commons theory an evolutionary step beyond market thinking?

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    I would say yes, but perhaps in the sense of ‘transcend and include’ ? My personal belief is that global mutual coordination will bypass much of the necessity to choose between market pricing and central allocation as key distribution mechanisms.

    Michel

  3. david ronfeldt Says:

    from a TIMN perspective, yes, network/p2p/commons (N) theory is headed toward creating an evolutionary step beyond market/pricing theory. much as market (M) theory posed a step beyond hierarchical institutional (I) thinking centuries earlier, and the latter was a step beyond ancient tribal (T) thinking that preceded the rise of formal institutions. even so, as societies advance, the earlier TIMN forms of theory/thinking are still needed and persist alongside the newer, albeit in ways that get modified with the rise of each new form. my view remains that balance among the forms is advisable, that no single form should get to dominate over the long term.

  4. Michel Bauwens Says:

    I agree with your integral/integrative interpretation, when I say dominant however, in my own writings, I mean, ‘the most important’, the form that infuences the others most, the core of the social logic but not the only one …

  5. kevindoylejones Says:

    I think the concept of blended value fits here. We create undifferentiated value. Some of it is financial, some of it is social; the relationships in which we are embedded, some of it is environmental; the clean water in our rivers that allows trout to spawn because we are handling agricultural effluent well. Some of is in the enhanced productivity and value creation that comes from living in the p2p network commons you are describing. I think evolution that allows for greater cultural diversity and biodiversity is the evolution i am trying to cooperate with.

  6. david ronfeldt Says:

    kevindoylejones – i’d like to inquire: do you think it would be helpful from your viewpoint if a u.s. chamber of commons were to be created? as i’ve speculated elsewhere, it might be organized partly like the u.s. chamber of commerce, but be very different in orientation and objectives. might such an organizational innovation help foster the “greater cultural diversity” you refer to?

    michel — I think we are largely in agreement about the roles of the various forms. also, many thanks for your interest in my recent postings.

  7. Michel Bauwens Says:

    you’re welcome David … I hope Kevin will see this, but I do not have his email,

    Michel

  8. kevindoylejones Says:

    Would it be helpful if a U.S. chamber of commons were created? yes, but also some associations around other things. i think it’s time for a lot of associations to arise, industry networks in fisheries, etc. polycentric centralizers, i think. overlapping loyalties like bandwidth in the sky. i am kevindoylejones on twitter, engage there and id be glad to give you my email.

  9. david ronfeldt Says:

    kevin — i quite agree that “it is time for a lot of associations to arise” — good point. and i hope some strategizing gets underway on that — both to stimulate the formation of new such associations, and also to network them together. — onward, david

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