Debating Parecon: Michael Albert’s challenges P2P

I’ve recently been invited to debate on the ZNet site with the founder of the Parecon (i.e. participatory economics) movement, which is an approach to economic governance proposed by Michael Albert, whom I had met in Helsinki in April, where both of us gave a keynote to the PixelArts festival.

The whole debate is available here. Basically, each of us presented a basic text presenting our different approaches and we then mutually question and critique each other, so as to learn through dialogue.

Michael Albert’s basic article explaining the Parecon approach is here and my launchtext is here.

Since my views here are well-known, it may be of greater interest to reproduce Michael’s main critiques and questions.

This is from Michael Albert’s First Round of Critique on the p2p ideas:

“Michel, my main reaction to your essay is questions, which will make this reply just a bit longer than hoped.

You say peer to peer is “bottom-up” processes whereby “agents in a distributed network…freely engage in common pursuits” and “permissionlessly undertake actions and relations.”

Doesn’t any club has this character? Or take the Reimagining Society project that ZNet is currently hosting and to which you are an invited participant. The idea is that many folks contribute essays, react to one another’s work, assess proposals, etc. It also seems to fit your summary of attributes – a group, distributed in this case around the world, voluntarily undertakes a shared effort, without asking anyone else’s external permission. Is that peer to peer?

Looking further, I wonder about this description. What does “permissionless” mean? If some group produces outputs that require inputs, it would have to get the inputs. It would have to get the labor. People could say no. Permissions, and perhaps acquisitions, are involved. More, peer to peer seems to be only about undertaking joint ventures that have no significant costs. Is that right?

I wonder, what are the virtues that peer to peer is trying to capture? What are the gains from the choices? If we could enumerate those gains, most broadly, shouldn’t we then see if we can we have the gains not only for inexpensive and essentially volunteer efforts, but also for all other economic activity?

You note that peer to peer networks have internal norms and arrangements, also embedded in larger systems. You add, “despite these caveats, we have here a remarkable social dynamic, which is based both on voluntary participation in the creation of common goods, which are made universally available to all.” This additional characteristic confuses me further.

Apparently to call a project peer to peer its outputs have to be universally available but I am not sure what that means. A group writing essays and displaying them at no cost to readers would seem to meet your condition. But what about a group producing food, say, or violins, or something else? On two counts it would seem to fail to meet your definition. First, the products wouldn’t be for everyone, clearly. Second, the inputs would be expensive, which implies permissions, acquisitions, etc. Is this correct?

What precisely are the virtues of peer to peer that you like? More, can we preserve those virtues even when production involves serious costs and generates outputs that are not universal? If so, what would it require? If not, why not?

You say “peer to peer processes are emerging in literally every cranny of social life,” but unless I am missing something it seems to me they have been with us for centuries – unless you make the conditions very stringent. I understand that new information technologies have opened a new domain to peer to peer – the production and distribution of information – but the technology is what seems new, not the peer to peer activity per se – voluntarism, self determination, etc. Am I wrong about that?

After your introduction to peer to peer, you get more precise with three conditions. To me, however, the conditions imply that peer to peer is about production of a common resource, only. Why is that? Why do you want to limit your attention to only production of public goods? Is it really true that only the production of public goods production can embody the virtues – whatever they turn out to be once listed – of peer to peer? Why not all types of production?

You add that the governance of peer to peer production is whatever the participants choose to make it. I wonder what that means, When a capitalist offers jobs, and people of their own choice sign on as workers, and the work then occurs with the capitalist having overwhelming control as well as pocketing profits, but the workers agreeing to the situation, I suspect you would not call it peer to peer – does the fact that workers agree to participate of their own accord (even if in very constrained settings) and that the firm happens to produce information that it in turn makes available free – say via a giant web site, or something – though it then also sells ads to finance it all, qualify as peer to peer production?

What if a bunch of programmers create a project to produce a new program, that they will make available free, etc. They need offices, electricity, software, computers, and thy need to eat and sleep, etc. So they hire people to clean their workplace, to cook their food, to shop for them. They pay for the computers and their upkeep, for the electricity, etc. They get funds for all this by hiring some workers to provide technical support that people pay for. They then share the resulting profits among themselves, paying the other employees wages. Is that peer to peer because they are creating what they specify to be a public good and the programmers, at least, are doing it in a self-managing way (albeit while employing wage slaves as well)?

You then point out that “peer property” is “the institutional and legal framework they choose to guard against the private appropriation of this common work.” I understand the situation if universal access is costless, so I understand, for example, making information, designs, etc. universally available. There should be no copyrights, open books, open research, etc. etc. I quite agree a good economy should have all that, and more, and for all goods not just information. But what if the product is something like bicycles or violins or a massive investment project? Why are whatever the benefits of peer to peer are (and I am hoping you will explicitly list them) only available for activity that is (a) done on a volunteer basis without remuneration, and (b) done only to produce free public goods? It is as if peer to peer believes there is something wrong with getting remunerated or producing for use by limited numbers of self selecting folks, or as if when those conditions hold, we can’t aim for better relations.

To me, to the extent I understand, it seems the virtues of peer to peer are spreading the benefits of output and of creativity more generally as fully as possible as well as self managing economic choices. Are there other virtues peer to peer advocates have in mind that I am missing?

You say, “peer governance differs from hierarchical allocation of resources, from allocation through the market, and even from democracy, as these are all mechanisms for dealing with scarce resources.”

I think this might embody a confusion. Nearly everything produced and used in production is scarce in the very precise sense that if it wasn’t’ used for the chosen purpose, something else could have been done with it, instead. There is an opportunity cost for labor, resources, materials, time, etc. This is a timeless fact of life. Even information – which can be disseminated to a thousand people for very nearly the same cost as to one person – still involves production and dissemination costs in labor time, resources allotted, etc.

Inside a typical economic project in existing economies allocating labor time and resources is mostly about amassing profit for owners and also great advantage for what I call the coordinator class, but also allocating assets that could be put to other ends. There is no avoiding that last part but allocating assets to some ends instead of others can be done consistent with worthy values and assessments of full social and ecological implications, or can be done via methods that trample worthy values and utilize warped valuations. This is why I was asking about the underlying virtues that attract you to peer to peer. Whatever they are, if we can agree on their merit, and perhaps even enlarge and augment them further as a checklist of desired virtues for new economic relations, surely we should want to have those virtues present throughout and economy and society, rather than only for volunteer production of public goods.

You say, “peer governance essentially aims, and often succeeds, in making sure that no formal ‘representative group’ can take decisions separate from the community of peer producers.” I quite like this as a step in the right direction. But I call the aim self management – and it isn’t just that the affected community should be involved, but that all actors who are affected should be involved in proportion as they are affected. To attain that high standard, however, requires economic and social institutions that convey influence to people consistent with their self managing all decisions.

You say peer to peer’s “social reproduction mode, the circulation of the common, combines the open and free availability of raw material, participatory non-exclusionary processes of production, and universal availability of the result, creating a new layer of open and free material for the next iteration.”

But what is free availability of raw materials? If you use some raw material for task y then most often I can’t use that same material for task x. So what is free availability – and why would free availability even be good, save in very special cases?

Further, “participatory non-exclusionary processes of production” sounds nice, but again I don’t know what it means. If we have a hospital or health team, or even a programming team, surely it is not non-exclusionary because one has to meet certain standards to participate, no?

You say, “peer production is hyperproductive compared to the for-profit mode, 1) because it deselects both negative (fear) and positive (pure self-interest based on exchange of equivalent value) extrinsic motivation, relying solely on intrinsic motivation;” But this seems confused, at least to me.

Yes, when I am in my backyard with friends deciding as a peer among peers if we want to sit and talk, or run around, or have a snack, or whatever – that is not about fear nor is it only about narrow self interest. But self interest is certainly part of intrinsic motivation – isn’t it? And concern for and about the situation of others will be part of intrinsic motivation as well in certain institutional settings, though not in others. What I wonder is why you feel peer to peer induces desired social solidarity for all.

When you say societal change requires at least “a sizeable section of the former ruling structure morphing to the new mode” I think it is an understatement, and yet it also concerns me. All of the old rulers exist in the new system, and thus must by definition morph into operating in light of the new system’s norms and structures. This is a truism, no? But when you say it is happening with peer to peer now, I have concerns about that – because the old elite’s motives remain capitalist and govern their willingness to exploit peer to peer – and there is nothing about using peer to peer in accord with their interests, at least as I am understanding it so far, that overtly challenges their dominance – or is there? I suspect many capitalist firms would say their elite layers of managers and other officials now practice and have long practiced an at least largely peer to peer process, even while lording it over the peons below.

When you say, “while peer production is being accommodated by capitalists, capitalism is also being accommodated by peer producing communities, causing a mutual adaptation into hybrid modes.,” it worries me. Perhaps due to my not understanding as yet, I see two very rough approaches to peer production – one seems quite admirable, the other not so much – and the above sentence makes me worry about which approach has the upper hand even in the minds of advocates, much less in practical relations.

Scenario one (the admirable one): Peer production is in this approach an effort to begin incorporating desirable attributes in production and allocation in limited parts of economic life where it is easiest to do now, but very self consciously on the road to creating more encompassing and broader new norms and institutions that can define all production and allocation.

Scenario two (the not so admirable one): Peer production is in this approach an effort by a relatively small sector of producers – who together constitute parts of what I call the coordinator class – to escape their subordination to capitalists and to at the same time enjoy more enriching and less alienating activity in their chosen calling, even while lacking concern for other domains of the economy and without rejecting corporate domination, etc.

Which is the leaning of most peer to peer advocates?

You also say that “the weakness of socialism is that it could not point to a proven superior mode of production, and could not offer any interest to any section of the ruling classes.” But this seems to me false and also to involve a standard we may disagree about. First, socialism – as in what happened in the USSR say – was highly productive if compared sensibly to a country in a similar situation in 1917, for example, Brazil, over the following years. That it did not appeal to owning classes was a virtue, not a debit, it seems to me. That it did appeal to the coordinator class – which was certainly an elite and became a new ruling class – was its most deadly debit, it seems to me. The weakness of what has been called socialism, or 20th century socialism, or what I tend to call coordinatorism, was certainly not its inferior productive capacity – and since when is maximizing output our desideratum for judging societies, in any event even if it were inferior on that axis – but, instead, its social organization, class hierarchy, authoritarianism, etc. I assume we agree about that.

When you say “at the moment when no social alternative is yet strong enough to offer a roadmap to ‘total’ change, the social forces behind peer production form the basis of a new social compact which can, along with new technologies, create the possible basis for a new, but probably the last, growth phase of capitalism, which will have to substantially compose with the new structure of desire based on open and free, participatory, and commons-oriented value systems,” I find it very strange.

Why promote what purports to be a humane alternative to capitalism as a means of resuscitating a horrendously horrible capitalist system? But more, I am trying to see how peer to peer points toward a new “social compact” in your eyes, or in the eyes of its advocates, and am having trouble with that. For me, I think it certainly could – for example by highlighting as part of its ethos and aims the desirability of self management and thus classlessness, and of cooperative and solidaritous negotiation of allocation, equitable remuneration, etc. But peer to peer could also steer clear of all that, adopting what I earlier called a scenario two approach.

So again, I wonder which it is?

When you say we could attain “a post-capitalist economy, using peer to peer processes as its core way of producing value,” it seems like you personally have scenario one from above in mind, and share my feelings about peer to peer’s implicit virtues, too, perhaps – but I am afraid that even you are ignoring key aspects of economic life – remuneration, decision making structures, division of labor, and allocation – none of which peer to peer as yet addresses – when you say it provides a template for a better future.

When you say “peer production is therefore a great opportunity for workers, to create strong commons, and demand adaptations from their corporate partners, while nothing stops them from creating their own productive structures, such as parecon based cooperatives” it is of course in accord with the scenario one noted above, but wouldn’t it be more compelling if all peer to peer practitioners and advocates generally agreed about this, and thus were continually trying to enrich peer to peer rhetoric and practice with insights from broader social vision? Do they?”

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