Beyond Green/Pirate cooperation towards a European grand alliance of the commons

Ever since their emergence within the political landscape, Pirates have been perceived by Greens both as rivals for voters’ support and potential allies in a common cause. The Pirate movement has articulated its distinctive political vision and, in several countries, succeeded in creating a new constituency of voters. Whereas on the level of national politics in various countries Pirates pose for the Greens more or less of a challenge, in the European Parliament, they work together, on a daily basis, on issues such as data protection, network security or intellectual property reform. Is it a result of a contingent overlapping of Green and Pirate agendas, or is it a sign of a deeper affinity, or complementarity, between the two movements?

Adam Ostolki interviewed me on the topic above:

“Adam Ostolski: A decade ago the Internet was perceived as a guarantee of a democratic change and a world without borders. Communication between people was supposed to become free and unconstrained, censorship was to be no longer possible. Nowadays we can see new “China walls” growing over and there, as well as new means of surveillance, from commercial data mining to surveillance by the States. What with the liberatory promise of the Internet – has it been lost? Is it endangered? Or was it always only a dream?

Michel Bauwens: I reject the notion that technology is a neutral thing, so I see it as creating new capabilities for humanity. But then, these capabilities can be an object of conflict. And if you analyse p2p technology, it can take different forms. These different forms are the function of the forces which control the technology. For example, in what I call “netarchical capitalism,” that is where you have proprietory platforms, business-owned entities creating p2p front-ends, because they want people to communicate with each other, but they combine it with controlled and hierarchical back-ends, where they control the design and your personal data, so that they are able to sell your attention. So, when we talk about peer-to-peer technology, we have to be very careful, not just look at the structure: computers organised in a peer network, humans organised in a peer network etc., but you have to look at governance and ownership as well. I always insist that the important thing for peer to peer is that it is a form of human relationship, a very specific human relational form which allows people to aggregate their efforts around common value creation. They have to create a commons, if it is just a marketplace, it’s not really p2p! So if you take another example, Bitcoin, which I occasionally use. And I think it’s important, because it was for the first time that we have the socially sovereign, post-Westphalian currency. But if you look at the structure, the peers in Bitcoin are the computers. You can be a well-financed hacker collective and have a bot net with ten thousand computers and be at the beginning of this large monetary system, when it had a very low value, or you can be in India and not have a computer at all. So, the study by Shamir showed us that about 70% Bitcoins are owned by a dozen people. You call it peer-to-peer, but it’s peer-to-peer for the computers, it’s not peer-to-peer for the humans. Here at the Peer-to-Peer Foundation we think two things. First, what is of interest is the scaling of peer-to peer relationships. But it happens in a context, in a society characterised by contending and conflictual political forces, social forces, ownership. And therefore these various forces are trying to instrumentalise this. Surveillance is one way to do this, because suddenly all our communication becomes visible, it can be controlled, it can be surveilled. It’s never a question of saying “It’s great!” It’s a question of organising politically and socially to make sure this technology benefits the majority of the population rather than a tiny minority. The historical analogy is the printing press, which, before helping to create modern democracy, also allowed absolute royalty.

AO: How to do it? Who can defend this democratic potential of peer-to-peer networks?

MB: The key for me is self-organisation. Humans have this capacity to create commons and communities. Once people gather to create value, and they do it on the basis of a contributory mechanism, so that people who are either contributing for free or being paid, are effectively, for whatever reason, contributing to a common pool. If you have a common pool based on these voluntary contributions, then I’m not gonna do what you want me to do, because I have my own volition and I am not depending on the wage you are paying me. Therefore, we will have to negotiate a form of peer-to-peer governance. If I work for a common project, and you are able in the end to privatise the common work, then I’m going to stop contributing. So we need some form of property mechanism to protect the pool. So peer production, peer governance and peer property go together, and they create a community of people who share common values. And therefore we also see they create an institution to protect the value like the free software foundations. And if people want to protect the fruit of their work, and keep the value within the sphere of the commons, they need to create free software cooperatives, rather than work for for-profit companies. My belief is that we have to do this on a massive scale and create a new social fabric that is based on these new principles. But this does not mean that we have abolished the other world that is out there. This co-existence therefore creates conflicts, all sorts of disturbances. AO: Your approach seems to be very community-oriented. It can be inscribed in the tradition of cooperatives and other forms of socialised economy. Many activists, I think, put the issue of surveillance rather in the framework of individual liberty, or individual freedoms. MB: Within peer-to-peer, there is a tension between individuality, relationality and community. It’s not a return to oppressive traditional community, in fact, because it’s actually based on these free contributions, so this is a network society and network relationality. It does create new forms of community. I think that this new forms are not oppressive because they are based on free contributions. But if you look at Bitcoin, for example, it’s a vision of pure individuality. It’s about, basically, the dream of a currency system and economy without a state. It’s also free market oriented, it’s to create the universal capacity for every individual to become a trader and exchanger. That’s not my vision, because market exchange excludes people without market power; and in an unequal society, if you don’t have the state and public violence, you have private violence. Bitcoin makes it impossible to have any public policy at all, by weakening all mediating mechanisms, it’s a means to in the end increase private violence. Within the field of the commons, and the emerging commons movement, you have these tensions, this is not a unified vision. But there are commonalities we can work together on. Once you make a commons together, you can have different political visions, but what you share is this desire to construct and protect the commons.

AO: You have become very critical about the Bitcoin. I remember you used to be more enthusiastic about it.

MB: If you look at my writings, you’ll see I was critical from the beginning, I was saying it was not enough. But then, gradually, once you learn more about it, it’s not just “not enough,” you discover that it’s a defective design, a deflationary design. The fact is that it doesn’t really solve any social problems. It actually exacerbates them. So, my idea of Bitcoin is to say that it’s a great thing in that we can have a globally scaled currencies driven by the community. I think that’s great. But what about social justice, what about people who don’t have Bitcoin, who have to buy them? So, all these issues are not solved just by having Bitcoin. So, the idea for me is: can we think about global digital currencies that have a different design. For example, there is this Freicoin, which is a fork of Bitcoin with a negative interest called demurrage, to discourage hoarding. So, there are different modalities to look at. We need a better design than the anarcho-capitalist bitcoin and its “Austrian economics,” which are inscribed in the very protocol of that currency.

AO: You speak of a “grand alliance” for the commons; it is to include pirate, green and labour movements, among others. Is such an alliance really possible? The Internet seems to have brought about precarisation of labour conditions in many professions. Is there a common cause to be found between pirates and movements for social justice?

MB: Let’s look at the background of this conception. In the 1980s the Western social contract was broken down. Basically, in May 1968, there were two revolutions. The revolution of youth against the hierarchical social forms, and the revolution of workers against the labour conditions in the Fordist system. The answer of the system was to give youth what they wanted, i.e. a more egalitarian culture. And in the case of industry, to physically abolish the working class in the West by exporting manufacturing outside of the West. Now look at labour movements in the West: they are declining, as their social basis is declining, which is why physical industrial workers now only represent 17% of the Western population. But what they have created is a knowledge working class. It’s a large number of people who are engaging in creating immaterial value, but which directly affects the organisation of physical production. They are at the core of the value creation in the system, so they are not at the margin of the system. These people are creating software and design, and branding. And peer-to-peer for me is their ideology. It’s what you need to work as a knowledge worker, you need this type technology, you need it to be free, you need to share it, you need to learn from others. So the idea is that, because of our precarity, we are recreating most of new social forms, peer-to-peer social forms. And this can gradually create a new fabric, create a kind of new social majority in the West. Then you look at sociology. The Pirates – potentially young knowledge workers, 18-35. They actually were the first party in this age group during the first successful elections in Sweden. If you look at the Greens, they are older knowledge workers, 35 up. You look at the labour movement and you see there is a renewal, there is a new wave of radical, transformative parties on the left, like Mélenchon in France, and more interestingly, Syriza in Greece, who are open to the ideas around the commons and p2p. And then you have social liberals. They have more to do with creative class, like advertisement executives etc. They have a liberal outlook, they are more free market oriented, but

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they are very much in favour and sympathetic towards fair trade, organic agriculture, cultural freedoms, social entrepreneurship and these new forms. What can unite these groups is the idea of commons. It’s no longer between private and state sectors, it’s the commons, private and state. The idea of having free culture, free sharing of information, culture and science can create a new majority. The commons become the central idea of their politics and the basis for a new majority. I’m not saying it’s easy, I am not saying it can happen today. But I think the premises and conditions for these kind of change are being created. What is interesting geo-politically is the emergence of progressive states in Latin America, some of which are particularly open to commons ideas. Starting in January, I will be the research director for the project in Ecuador, which has the explicit aim to create transition policies for a “open commons-based knowledge society.” So the politisation and policy-ation of the p2p/commons movement has already begun.”

4 Comments Beyond Green/Pirate cooperation towards a European grand alliance of the commons

  1. Avatar@mikeriddell62

    Great read – thanks for sharing.

    Michel – as you know, with colleagues I am developing a software platform that I hope in the end will help protect and defend the commons.

    So in the context of good OS design theory where i know you are hard to beat, i have some questions the answers of which will me improve what I’m working on.

    By the way, if what I’m doing is a mad idea it’s a mad idea that’s funded which is important in the sense that it’s an idea whose time has come.

    My questions:

    1. “A commons isn’t just a marketplace”. What other key functional components would you expect? A currency? An accounting system? A payments mechanism? A social network?

    2. “Contribution to the common pool”. You say an institution should be created to protect the value. I think that ‘value’ is personal information (and that this personal information is the new commons). Imagine if this information were stored “all in one place” and kept under lock and key by this institution acting on behalf of the community so that business and govt couldn’t get their hands on it without first paying for it, what constitution would this institution need to have in order to satisfy your requirements? Would a co-op model work?

    3. “market exchange excludes people without market power”. Imagine for a moment that the system was designed to reward inclusiveness, so in other words the more users that were connected, sharing and trading the more valuable the system (and thus the community) became, and the healthier, wealthier and happier it’s users/inhabitants became. And if the only way to bring about such a utopian dream were via the markets, would that turn you against such a system? (You’ve got to remember here, I’m from Manchester – the home of Free Trade!!!)

    4. “Bitcoin doesn’t solve any social problems”. Imagine if in your community, people agreed the terms upon which they would give each other credit and the terms of issuance were something along the lines of “you only get credit from us the community for activities that contribute to the common good”. Imagine if a network of connected community hubs had an unlimited supply of such credits, and were able to issue them to members of the community in exchange for a measured contribution to the common good. Imagine then that such credits could be stored somewhere safely before being exchanged in the community’s marketplace, then wouldn’t this flow of credit – this current – represent the community’s currency? And imagine that because this currency was very sustainable, very purposeful and very inclusive, that because of its ability to make the community a better place, demand to join the community increased and so its stock began to rise. Then because the stock was rising, speculators from New York City started buying the stock off individuals that were willing to exchange it for $$$$US. Wouldn’t it then be the case that the inflow of $US would increase demand for the community credit, thus producing demand for contribution to the community’s common good? And wouldn’t the suited and booted pin-striped swindlers be happy with the fact that (a) they’ve made a good $financial return for the time they’ve held the stock (b) demonstrated (because the credits are a unit of account) to their own stock-holders that rather than being sleazy speculators in it for a quick buck, they are in fact sustainable, purposeful, inclusive long-term investors that produce a social dividend that can be measured, and (c) the currency is an asset class all of its own – a ‘safe-haven’ that’s better than Switzerland becuase the community currency isn’t prone to inflation (it’s only ever earned into existence for contribution to the common good) nor deflation (the supply of the currency is only limited by the community’s willingness to earn more of it). So if you’ve imagined all that – have you not just imagined a social stock exchange where individuals can sell their credit to investors for real world $cash? In other words – A Bitcoin for Good?

    Sorry if this is a bit long but i do appreciate your perspective on such issues and promise not to waste your time!

    Thanks, Mike.

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    dear Mike, I reposted your questions for the broader community to reply to, on February 3.

    In the meantime, I start responding to the first question, and feel free to prompt me to continue the conversation.

    You ask: “1. “A commons isn’t just a marketplace”. What other key functional components would you expect? A currency? An accounting system? A payments mechanism? A social network?”

    But that is to my mind a wrong quesiton. A commons is NOT a marketplace. A commons is either a local scarce resource that doesn’t want to be a market, managed by the community a la Ostrom; or a abundant digital resource which by definition does not need and can’t have market dynamics. But a commons, a core abundant resources, can be linked to a market. For example, the Linux code commons can be linked to a market for services that build scarce value on top of the abundant commons. That marketplace may be a capitalist market (IBM, Red Hat), or could be a fair and ethical marketplace that is more structurally linked to the market.

  3. Avatarerik

    Green party should promote itself as established party with sound ecological, economical, social solutions. Pirates can be the think tank of the green.

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