Continuing the dialogue with David Bollier: P2P, the Commons, the Market

This is a continuation of our dialogue with David Bollier, of the On the Commons blog, which we had started earlier, responding to a first series of six questions.

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 successfull 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.

Michel Bauwens, Chiang Mai

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