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Michel Bauwens on Marxism, Capitalism and the Commons

photo of Franco Iacomella

Franco Iacomella
13th January 2012


Source: David Bollier

How does Marxism relate to the commons and peer production? My friend Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives, offers a penetrating, big-picture analysis in an interview with Jean Lievens (originally posted on TANIT, Toward a New International Tendency, but also at Social Network Unionism). 

It’s now clear that postmodernism is a dead-end if only because it was more of a cultural stance than a serious analysis of economic production and social relations. Meanwhile, “class warfare” is making a resurgence, yet few people really aspire to rehabilitate communism or socialism; the historical models are simply not credible. So what are the realistic alternatives to capitalism and its known pathologies? And what role will the commons and peer production play in challenging capitalism?

Bauwens explains how peer production is moving well beyond the virtual world to include physical manufacturing, and how a certain class of business enterprises – “netarchical capital” – is positioning itself to exploit the powers of digital networks and collaboration. Bauwens:

Increasingly the commons is and will be the core of value creation, but value is still essentially captured by market economy, and netarchical capital is the fraction of capital which understands that change and want to profit from it. This means they have both to enable and empower social production, but also subject it to their own control, so that they can capture the value that is generated.

The first part forces them to a certain type of strategic behaviour that fosters sharing, while the second requirement forces them to maintain a general context of continued dominance. This is in essence the new social tension of the emerging p2p age, between communities of peer producers and the platform owners. The key for peer producers is to gain control of their own livelihoods and social reproduction, and in my view this can best be done by creating their own cooperative/corporate vehicles, which I call, following Neil Stephenson in The Diamond Age and the lasindias.net suggestions, “Phyles”, i.e. community-supportive entities that allow commoners to sustain their work in the commons, and to substract it from the mainstream economy of profit-maximization.

When asked how the contemporary commons movement compares to historical anarchist and communist movements, Bauwens replied:

The communal impulse is one of the permanent aspects of humanity, which ebbs and flows according to social conditions, and I think we are witnessing a revival of this impulse. However, there is a big difference, cooperative forms of organization can now work around open design commons and become hyper-innovative, and can obtain economies of scope to outcooperate shareholder-based multinations. Cooperatives and intentional communities are therefore no longer ‘dwarfish forms’ but actually the vanguard of the new p2p production system. If you combine shared open innovation commons (instead of privatized intellectual property which holds back innovation), with these new product-maximizing and commons-maximizing entities, you can obtain a quantum leap in productivity. This is why netarchical capitalists invest in platforms, and this is why the alternative ethical economy needs to do the same, and if they do, they could replace the for-profit corporation at the heart of our economy.

Lievens asks: “It seems to me that P2P is creating a sort of ‘whole new world’, but without any references or links to the present political system. If Occupy represents an alternative was to engage in politics, what is the link between peer politics and bourgeois democracy and political parties?” Bauwens:

It is a very difficult question and results from a paradox. One is the increasing social awareness that our present democracy is a facade, and that the state has been taken over by a predatory financial faction, while classic politicians see no other way out than to succumb to their blackmail. But the other side is that people’s freedoms and rights and private and social income is increasingly under pressure, which leads to political and social mobilization as well as effective policy engagement. The first aspect leads to continuous democratic innovation from the new p2p culture, think about the peer governance mechanisms in peer production communities; new inventions such as dynamic voting, and while these mechanisms operate outside the mainstream, they are also embedded in the new forms of value creation, new p2p social institutions, and therefore, poised to grow.

The second aspect leads to new political and social forces that work within the present system, such as the emerging Pirate Party. In Brazil, I heard that the vibrant Eixo do Foro cultural movement, which has a functioning counter-economy around music, is also politicising and engaging with local politics. The second leads to what I call diagonal politics, i.e. mutual adaptation between emerging p2p forces and practices, and the old institutional realities. To the degree that this is ineffective, it pushes from the solution coming from the first aspect, i.e. prepares for a more radical and revolutionary re-ordering of our institutions. Tellingly, a Swedish pirate party member once wrote that the Pirate Party is the last chance to avoid revolution. To the degree that the present system refuses adaptation, to that degree they heighten the need and push for more radical transformations.

For the full interview, click here. Recommended reading.

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One Response to “Michel Bauwens on Marxism, Capitalism and the Commons”

  1. happyseaurchin Says:

    “postmodernism is a dead-end”

    it is the starting point for the buddhist approach
    it seems to me

    it is only a dead end if one wants to pursue generalised abstractions
    and analyse without being immersed within the system one is examining
    that is
    pre post-modern thinking…

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