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Peer Governance as a third mode of governance

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
9th June 2010


A republication of my 2006 manuscript on P2P, drawing on Bob Jessop:

“Following Bob Jessop, we will define peer governance as follows:

“[Peer] Governance is defined as the reflexive self-organisation of independent actors involved in complex relations of reciprocal interdependence, with such self-organisation being based on continuing dialogue and resource-sharing to develop mutually beneficial joint projects and to manage the contradictions and dilemmas inevitably involved in such situations. Governance organised on this basis need not entail a complete symmetry in power relations or complete equality in the distribution of benefits: indeed, it is highly unlikely to do so almost regardless of the object of governance or the ‘stakeholders’ who actually participate in the governance process. All that is involved in this preliminary definition is the commitment on the part of those involved to reflexive self-organisation in the face of complex reciprocal interdependence.”

The first aspect is to be found in the increasing amount of peer governance of autonomous groups. Peer production is not just an economic process, it is a political process, as these projects have to be managed, albeit in a distributed way. The principle of self-regulation of peer groups, which by definition create new use value for the commons, should of course not be confused with the self-regulation by the market, where individual agents are only looking out for their own interests, and not for the public good, which is of course not to say that it should be rejected in all cases. Bob Jessop insists on the difference of self-reflexivity amongst participants in peer groups, something absent in the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. Nevertheless, even for P2P groups we can envisage a role of arbitrage by the state, to make sure that P2P groups do not damage the public interests, however defined. There is still a legitimate difference to be made between peer governance as dealing with a subset of interests, and the state as guarantor of the ‘general interest’ of society as a whole .

One of the strengths of the liberal tradition today is that it speaks to the desire for autonomy of democratic subjects, who in many cases, feel this autonomy is more threatened by the bureaucracy of the state, than by the behavior of for-profit companies. Finding alternatives for bureaucratization is therefore an important part of the evolution towards P2P models.

Peer governance also has a second more expanded definition and application, as a mode of governance that can be applied in the real world, as a true alternative to the top-down and hierarchical state form of government, and can be applied whenever there are interdependent and multiple stakeholders involved. He has outlined a consensus among scholars that four conditions are required to make it applicable successfully:

“Studies suggest that there are four conditions for effective reflexive self-organisation: (a) simplifying models and practices, which reduce the complexity of the world but are still congruent with real world processes and relevant to actors’ objectives; (b) developing the capacity for dynamic, interactive social learning among autonomous but interdependent agencies about causal processes and forms of interdependence, attributions of responsibility and capacity for actions, and possibilities of co-ordination in a complex, turbulent environment; (c) building methods for co-ordinating actions across social forces with different identities, interests, and meaning systems, over different spatio-temporal horizons, and over different domains of action; and (d) establishing a common world view for individual action and a system of ‘metagovernance’ to stabilise key players’ orientations, expectations, and rules of conduct.”

How then will the state be molded by peer to peer? Peer governance is characterized by the relational paradigm . Rather than seeing itself as sovereign master, the state must be seen as embedded in relationships, and as in need of respecting these multiple relationships. This is probably best translated by the concept of multistakeholdership. We can probably expect that the nation-state, along with the newly emerging sub- and supraregional structures will continue to exist, but that their policies will be set through a dialogue with stakeholders. The key will be to disembed the state from its primary reliance of the private sector, and to make it beholden to civil society, i.e. the commons, so that it can act as a center of arbitrage. Despite the recent greater subsumption of the state to private interests (in the neoliberal era) – which of course has never been total since the balance of forces is not based on a complete defeat of the citizenship — many supraregional institutes, and in particular non-state governance institutions such as the standards bodies, but also policy-making at the U.N., already exhibit many features of multistakeholdership.

What we describe is of course an ideal state of affairs, requiring a new balance of power in society. Failing such a change, in the asymmetrical world of power relationship that we live in today, any multistakeholdership relation will be marked by such unbalances, and fail to reach the ideal of self-reflexivity in the context of equipotential relations. What can be achieved in peer groups today, cannot be achieved by extending the model to the whole of society. In the text that we are citing, Bob Jessop examines in detail the potential failure points of the interplay between peer governance and the state.

The market will also be greatly influenced (and of course already is), and will change more radically in a P2P-dominated political economy. It is a legitimate expectation, or hope, that the recent evolution from a market economy to a market society, in which every social relationship is in the process of being monetized, could partially or even largely be undone as civil society re-asserts itself. New types of businesses will emerge that embed more clearly P2P principles. It is to be expected that in many areas the authoritarian structures and practices will have to adapt, as the age of participation will want to extend the principle of self-rule to the productive sphere. As the concept of multistakeholdersship will be more strongly asserted, corporate governance will no longer be able to ignore its workers, consumers, and associated communities, including the voices of the natural environment. The increased demands for transparency, and their enablement by technology, will also impose changes in corporate behavior and structures. There are of course many aspects to this question, such as whether an alternative to the current capitalist system is possible or even desirable, but this will be discussed elsewhere.

But peer governance remains a clear alternative. If market allocation and corporate hierarchy are the governance model of the market, associated with private property; and if bureaucracy is associated with the state model of governance, then peer governance is clearly the alternative being forged by civil society. It will emerge in its pure form in P2P groups, but its associated values such as relationality (and transparency) will clearly force an adaptation of both market and the state. This is why we will say elsewhere in the text that one of the key goals of a P2P movement will be, or should be, ‘For a Commons-based Society with a reformed market and state’.

The assertion of peer governance as an alternative model, either in the current situation and/or in any future commons-based society, i.e. a society that will still inevitably be marked by a pluralism of governance models consisting of peer governance/ market allocation / and what Jessop calls ‘imperative coordination’, with doses of reciprocity-based gift economies thrown in, creates a problem of ‘meta-governance’, which has also already been discussed by Bob Jessop.

He distinguishes the following levels, which we reproduce in full in the endnotes . What is important is to distinguish meta-heterarchy, i.e. the coordination of different levels of peer governance, from meta-governance as the coordination of the different forms of governance/government.

- Meta-exchange as “the reflexive redesign of individual markets”, i.e. how can different types of markets and scales of market be co-ordinated?

- Meta-organisation, as “the reflexive redesign of organisations, the creation of intermediating organisations, the reordering of inter-organisational relations, and the management of organisational ecologies”. We could generalize that also to the problematic of meta-hierarchy, how the different levels of local, state, supreregional and global state forms interrelate.

- Meta-heterarchy, “this involves the organisation of the conditions of self-organisation by redefining the framework for heterarchy or reflexive self-organisation.”

- Meta-governance, “This involves re-articulating and ‘callibrating’ the different modes of governance… , [i.e.] the judicious mixing of market, hierarchy, and networks to achieve the best possible outcomes from the viewpoint of those engaged in metagovernance.”

The respective influence of peer governance on market and state is summarized by Jessop in the following way, and echoes what we have said about it supra:

“On the one hand, market competition will be balanced by co-operation, the invisible hand will be combined with a visible handshake. On the other hand, the state is no longer the sovereign authority. It becomes just one participant among others in the pluralistic guidance system and contributes its own distinctive resources to the negotiation process. As the range of networks, partnerships, and other models of economic and political governance expand, official apparatuses remain at best first among equals.The state’s involvement would become less hierarchical, less centralised, and less directive in character. The exchange of information and moral suasion become key sources of legitimation and the state’s influence depends as much on its role as a prime source and mediator of collective intelligence as on its command over economic resources or legitimate coercion .”

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