Debating the role of the state and civil society in P2P Theory

A in-depth contribution by Jean Lievens, who addresses a number of important issues in our p2p approach. The full version of Jean’s contribution is here.

You can also join the debate in our Ning forum here.

Jean Lievens:

“The very idea of changing society has suffered an enormous blow because of what happened after the Russian Revolution. Although the murderous regimes in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Eastern Europe… had nothing to do with ‘socialism’ or ‘Marxism’, it was in their name that millions of people perished. One can therefore argue that very term socialism should better not be used anymore. On the other hand in Europe, socialism is also associated with the positive idea of the welfare state, although the right stresses the negative features such as bureaucracy, hierarchy and waste as an excuse for cutting state expenditure. Therefore the idea of ‘something new’, a new idea for a new century, can hit a cord. In terminology, there is a clear link between the terms used by the left and those by the P2P movement: commonism (communism), the commons (communes), etc.

These ideas are however not known within the labour movement, that is historically the main driving force behind civil liberties and social justice. As far as I understand the ideas of P2P at the present, I think they will play a crucial role in the transition to a new global society, which could not have been foreseen by Marx or any other ‘classic’ socialist thinker for the very simple reason that these new technologies did not exist. If this future society will be called ‘socialist’ is of secondary importance. But what is important is that it should be more just, equal and ‘happy’ than the present capitalist order witch is untenable anyways.

I do not think however that the transition will be gradual or unnoticed by the ruling elites. I think the organized working (or middle) class has of course a key role to play. I think that more clarity is needed on the question of nations and the state. I think that the question of private ownership of the commanding heights of the economy and the relationship between this notion and ‘the commons’ (or an expansion of it) needs to be resolved, and I think that the fundamentals of democracy, meaning exercising control over ones own destiny politically, socially and economically, needs to be deepened.

I think there are any overlaps between traditional Marxism and P2P, but as I am more familiar with Marxism than with P2P, I’d like to start with some comments and questions on Michel Bauwens’ article ‘the new triarchy: the commons, enterprise, the state’.

P2P is defined as the ability to freely associate around the creation of common value. Can it also be considered as the basis for a new mode of production? The development of the Internet and of networked infrastructures gave rise to all sorts of ‘free associations’, including a new type of businesses. Many of them were not ‘planned’, but developed ‘spontaneously’ as a result of voluntary contributions of thousands and even millions (Wikipedia, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook…). On the other hand, we witness the integration of new technologies and P2P production in existing large corporations, finding in some cases a ‘second life’ (IBM, Lego…).

A free association of people creating common value is of course nothing new and is proper to civil society: trade unions, political organisations, charity organisations based on gifts and volunteers, hobby clubs, etc. What is new is the ‘digital commons’ allowing people from all over the world to contribute and share on an unprecedented scale, eroding national and nationalistic barriers.

As I am not familiar with the structural anthropology of Alan Page Fiske, my understanding of the commons is based on what I found on Wikipedia:

“The commons were traditionally defined as the elements of the environment – forests, atmosphere, rivers, fisheries or grazing land – that are shared, used and enjoyed by all. Today, the commons are also understood within a cultural sphere. These include literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, software and sites of heritage. The commons can also include ‘public goods’ such as public space, public education, health and the infrastructure that allows our society to function (such as electricity or water delivery systems). There also exists the ‘life commons’, e.g. the human genome.

The Ecologist refers to the commons as “the social and political space where things get done and where people have a sense of belonging and have an element of control over their lives”, providing “sustenance, security and independence”.

There are a number of important features that can be used to describe true commons. The first is that true commons cannot be commodified – and if they are – they cease to be commons. The second aspect is that while they are neither public nor private they tend to be managed by local communities and cannot be exclusionary. That is, they cannot have borders built around them otherwise they become private property. The third aspect of the commons is that, unlike resources, they are not scarce but abundant. If managed properly, they work to overcome scarcity.

Michel writes: It is customary to divide society into three sectors, and what we want to show is how the new peer to peer dynamic unleashed by networked infrastructures, changes the inter-relationship between these three sectors.

The division of society in three sectors: the ‘public’ (or state) sector, the private sector and civil society is indeed customary amongst sociologists, including Marxists academics. However, there are many definitions of civil society. Here’s what Wikipedia says on Civil Society and Marx:

“For Marx, civil society was the ‘base’ where productive forces and social relations were taking place, whereas political society was the ‘superstructure’. Agreeing with the link between capitalism and civil society, Marx held that the latter represents the interests of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, the state as superstructure also represents the interests of the dominant class; under capitalism, it maintains the domination of the bourgeoisie. Hence, Marx rejected the positive role of state put forth by Hegel. Marx argued that the state couldn’t be a neutral problem solver. Rather, he depicted the state as the defender of the interests of the bourgeoisie. He considered the state and civil society as the executive arms of the bourgeoisie; therefore, both should wither away.”

Gramsci rectified this negative view about civil society. He did not consider civil society as coterminous with the socio-economic base of the state. Rather, Gramsci located civil society in the political superstructure. He underlined the crucial role of civil society as the contributor of the cultural and ideological capital required for the survival of the hegemony of capitalism. Rather than posing it as a problem, as in earlier Marxist conceptions, Gramsci viewed civil society as the site for problem solving. Agreeing with Gramsci, the New Left assigned civil society a key role in defending people against the state and the market and in asserting the democratic will to influence the state. At the same time, Neo-liberal thinkers consider civil society as a site for struggle to subvert Communist and authoritarian regimes. Thus, the term civil society occupies an important place in the political discourses of the New Left and Neo-liberals.

So, what definition are we considering here? The same clarification is needed for “the state” and “the private sector”. Michel writes:

In the current ‘cognitive capitalist’ system, it is the private sector consisting of enterprises and businesses which is the primary factor, and it is engaged in competitive capital accumulation. The state is entrusted with the protection of this process. Though civil society, through the citizen, is in theory ‘sovereign’, and chooses the state; in practice, both civil society and the state are under the domination of the private sector. ??

This is in line with the Marxist view on the state as a ‘capitalist’ state, defending in the last resort the interests of capitalism or the ‘private sector’. Also the assumption that civil society and the state are under the domination of the private sector does not contradict traditional Marxist thought. Does, however, civil society “choose the state”? It has, as Chomsky point out, in contradiction to the tyranny of corporations, at least some influence on the state through the electoral process. Only in that sense civil society exercise some influence on how the state and state institutions are run. In other words, civil society chooses (mainly indirectly) the government (executive power) through the election of representatives in parliament (the legislative power), who in their turn, again in theory, control the state apparatus. I consider the state as a ‘hybrid’, composed on the one hand of a ‘public sector’, that takes care of education, public transport, health care, housing -the so-called welfare state- and is led by bureaucrats under the control of elected officials, and on the other hand an instrument of coercion, with the police, the army… also led by bureaucrats controlled by elected politicians, and the juridical system (the ‘third power’). Is this view in contradiction with the above statement?

Of course, this is not to say that the state is a mere tool of private business. In my view, it fulfils three contradictory functions. One is the protect the whole system, under the domination of private business, and this is determined by a balance of power not only between different private business sectors, but also by the social balance of power between business and civil society, capital and labour.

I agree with the assumption that the state protects the whole system under the domination of private business, but it could be considered as a static view. The subsequent statement adds a dynamic element suggesting shifts in the different balances of power. In my view, this statement is consistent with the Marxist theory on class struggle (in a very broad sense):

It is only when this balance of power is severely disturbed, that the state either becomes a private tool of some dominant business clique, or, can become relatively independent, as in the case of the fascist state. ?

According to Marxism, the balance of power is severely disturbed on the basis of antagonistic interests between different classes in society, leading to class struggle. Does the triarchy model acknowledge the class structure of society, or does it reject it? The fascist state became indeed relatively independent, although it defended in the last resort the interests of private ownership. But what about the former (and present) Stalinist states? Does Michel’s model consider those states as sort of ‘private tool of labour’ that became relatively independent? Marxism talks about the class nature of the state based on the property relations that it defends. So fascism, defending in the last resort capitalist property relations, is in that sense the opposite of Stalinism, defending in the last resort public ownership, despite the overwhelming similarities between the two systems.

So, to the first function of being the protector of the total system under domination of capital, we should add two added functions. It is the protector of civil society, depending on the balance of power and achievements of social movements. And finally it is also the protector of its own independent interests. ??

This statement is valid for capitalist systems, but not for the former Stalinist states (North Korea, Cuba…), including China and Vietnam, unless we agree with the assumption that those states were or are state capitalist. I do not agree with this idea since private ownership of the means of production was abolished and the economy in those states did not follow the rules of the market. So I find it difficult to consider those states, including present-day China and Vietnam, as the protectors of the total system under the domination of capital. In addition, what does ‘the protector of civil society’ mean, depending on the balance of power and achievements of social movements? The state in its capacity of an instrument of coercion and repression is often challenged by ‘civil society’, so how can it be considered as ‘the protector’ of it? I think it is correct that the state, even under ‘normal’ circumstances, has its own independent interests to defend, although between certain limits, depending on the level of democratic control over it.

We have historically seen three scenarios in the 20th century. Under fascism, the state achieves great independence from the private sector, which may become subservient to the state. Under the welfare state, the state becomes a protector of the social balance of power and manages the achievements of the social movement; and finally, under the neoliberal corporate welfare state, or ‘market state’, it serves most directly the interests of the financial sector. ??

I have no disagreement with this statement, although we need to approach these types in a dynamic way. The welfare state is continuously under attack, social gains are eroded, with the help of the same state that is supposed to protect and manage the achievements of the social movements. What we saw, in the last 25 years, was a gradual evolution from a ‘welfare state’ (Western Europe) to a ‘marker state’ (USA). Again, the ’communist’ states (Russia, China and 35 other states, accounting for 1/3 of the world population) are left out in this article (but I have read other material on this issue from Michel since and will come back on it later).

Each sector also had its key institutions and forms of property. The state managed a public sector, under its own property. The private sector, under a regime of private ownership, is geared to profit, discounts social and natural externalities, both positive and negative, and uses its dominance in society to use and dominate the state. Civil society has a certain power through the mechanisms of civil society, but the great majority of its members are in a disadvantaged position because it lacks ownership of the means of production. ??

The first sentence is written in the passed sense, the others in the present. I suppose this is an unintended error, otherwise it would seem that the state does not manage the public sector anymore. Secondly, is a private sector not by definition operating under a regime of private ownership, or is it, in a system of public ownership (communism), where there is a private sector operating (NEP under Lenin, China…), not geared to profit?

In general, I think that the division of society into three sectors, the state, the private sector and civil society hides the class nature of society (based on the ownership of means of production). It puts all the beans in the same basket of ‘civil society’. I think that one of the main features of capitalism is the private ownership of the means of production and the profit motive. Capitalist property relations are in my opinion the main obstacles for the free development of P2P, as I understand it. In that sense, it would seem to confirm the old assumption of Marx as presented in the “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Marx assumes that the levels of productive forces are dynamic, and will eventually outgrow the capacity a given set of relations of production to sustain that growth. To give just one quote:

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or -this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms- with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

According to this theory, the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production eventually leads to revolutionary change. This statement can be and often has been interpreted in a deterministic manner, or as a pre-condition for revolutionary change. The revolutionary movements of 68 took place during the height of the post-war boom; revolutionary upsurges in Eastern Europe took place while the economy was growing rapidly. I do not think that these movements were defeated (or did not change the superstructure) because conditions were not ‘ripe’ because the productive forces were still developing.

However, civil society has a relative power as well, through its capability of creating social movements and associations. Amongst those are religious institutions, civil associations, political parties, the labour movement, identity and sectoral movements, and since the 1960’s mostly, issue-oriented non-profits. In the context of industrial and cognitive capitalism, natural resource commons slowly disappeared, and the institution of the commons became a non-player, in the dual struggle between the private and the state sector, influenced by the relative strength or weakness of civil society and its movements.

Capitalism has historically been a pendulum between the private and the public sector, and the commons mostly irrelevant in the struggles for more or less state intervention. ??

I doubt that capitalism historically has been “a pendulum between the private and public sector”. I think there has been a general trend in the direction of an ever-increasing public sector, although this needs to be confirmed by facts and figures. The private sector needs ‘big government’ and uses it in its own interests. But at the same time, the state is also a big burden on the private sector in terms of taxation. Therefore in the last 25 or 30 years, the neoliberals tried to reduce the state sector through cuts and privatisations, but they did not succeed in cutting the size of it substantially (for example in the US there was a huge increase in defence expenditure). What the state saves in social expenditure is partially compensated by an increase of expenditure for security (prisons, police, courts…). It boils down to the traditional Keynesian choice between canons or butter.

According to Michel, the experience of creating knowledge, culture, software and design commons, by a combination of voluntary contributions, entrepreneurial coalitions and infrastructure-protecting for-benefit associations, has most tangibly re-introduced the idea of commons, for all to use without discrimination, and where all can contribute “It has drastically reduced the production, distribution, transaction and coordination costs for the immaterial value that is at the core also of all what we produce physically, since that needs to be made, needs to be designed. It has re-introduced communing as a mainstream experience for at least one billion internet users, and has come with proven benefits and robustness that has outcompeted and outcooperated its private rivals. It also of course offers new ways to re-imagine, create and protect physical commons.” ??

This is the essence of the ‘digital commons’ as I understand it. I do believe that these new models are superior to its private rivals, but the question is also that these private rivals use the digital commons more and more into their own private interests, and quit successfully. I think that the development of the ‘digital commons’ could be considered as a higher stage in what Marxism refers to as the socialisation of labour. This point needs to be developed further, but in my opinion, P2P activities through global digital networks can be considered as a higher form of social labour, voluntary and spontaneously ‘organised’ and leading to unplanned but superior ‘business models’. The question here is: will this lead to a sort of ‘new economy’ within the old, just as European capitalism developed under feudal conditions until it was strong enough to ‘overthrow’ it, or will this development be integrated into the present capitalist word order?

The combined failure of state fundamentalism in 1989 and so-called ‘free market’ ideology in 2008, coupled with the emergence of the peer to peer practices and the commons, has put this alternative back on the agenda. ??

State fundamentalism is an interesting description of the failed planned economies under ‘communism’ that I don’t necessarily reject. Also, the collapse of the international financial system followed by the Great Recession was a big blow to the neoliberal ideology. Both systems have indeed failed and that opens up new possibilities.

Peer production gives us an advance picture of how a commons-oriented society would look like. At its core is a commons and a community contributing to it, either voluntarily, or as paid entrepreneurial employees. It does this through collaborative platforms using open standards. Around the commons emerge enterprises that create added value to operate on the marketplace, but also help the maintenance and the expansion of the commons they rely on. A third partner are the for-benefit associations that maintain the infrastructure of cooperation. Public authorities could play a role if they wanted to support existing commons or the creation of new commons, for the value they bring to society.

Let’s accept this model of a future commons-orientated society. It is a novel idea that breaks with the conventional perspectives of socialism and needs further thought. It solves some issues, but raises also a lot of questions. The first one is: how do we get to this commons-orientated society? Will it be a ‘spontaneous’ or gradual evolution within present society? Will capitalist corporations be ‘outcompeted’ by P2P based production? How will the state, as a defender of private ownership dominated by the private sector, react to this development? What about the present state structures? What about the political system? What about the international institutions?

Non- or anti-rival commons do not need to worry about the depletion of their stocks, so no trusts are necessary, but they use peer property modalities such as special licenses, which insure the common stock cannot be privatized, and that those that use the commons and improve on it, also improve the commons at the same time. But commons of rival or depletable goods need a trust. ??

To accomplish this, a whole new set of regulations will be needed, nationally and internationally. So the question arises: how will this be accomplished politically? Will it be done through new political parties (such as the pirate party), through existing ones (social democracy, greens, liberals…), or through pressure groups?

Then we arrive at Michel’s new model of the triarchy:

* The state, with its public property and representative mechanisms of governance (in the best scenario)
* The private sector, with the corporation and private property
* The commons, with the Trust (or the for-benefit association), and which is the ‘property’ of all its members (not the right word in the context of the commons, since it has a different philosophy of ownership)

Here I have some additional questions. What happened with the former civil society? It seems here to be replaced by the commons. Is there a parallel between the commons (which is the property of all its members) with cooperatives? The idea of the cooperative movement was to outcompete capitalist firms, building a new type of organisation where profits are distributed amongst its members or co-proprietors.

The emergence of peer-to-peer dynamics and the commons does not of course mean that society will change radically from the outset. I believe some different phases can be contemplated.?

It seems to me that the idea, in general, is that a new type of mode of production, based on P2P dynamics, is in the making within present capitalist society and that legal forms are proposed or introduced to protect the (digital) commons against appropriation by the private sector. We see on the one hand new private firms emerging (Google, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr…) taking advantage of the free contribution of millions of volunteers (art creators, software developers…), creating global platforms generating millions of dollars through all sorts of commercial activity, but mainly advertising. On the other hand, traditional private corporations use digital networks and appeal to the input of knowledge from ‘outside’ to develop their products further or launch new ones (Lego, BMW…). And thirdly, there is Wikipedia, Wikileaks and other non-commercial P2P organisations relying on non-paid volunteer work (for example civil journalists…) financed by gifts or charity. I think that in that sense, there is nothing new within the capitalist system, except from the fact that from a technological point of view, social labour has reached a qualitatively higher stage.

In a first phase, the commons simply emerges as an added alternative. But as it proves it worth and creates the accompanying social movements that create, defend and expand it, it starts becoming a subsector of society, and starts influencing the whole. Eventually, it reaches a phase where society needs to be reformed (let’s call this the parity level). However, it is not realistic that the state form that was created to protect a given class structure, can also serve for a new structure, and therefore at some point, phase transition and transformation will need to occur.

If I understand correctly, the further development of ‘the commons’ will reach a point where a reform or transformation of society and the state structure will be necessary. There seems to be a clear parallel here with Marxist thought, where the working class seems to be replaced by the commons? The million-dollar question is off course: how will this phase transition and transformation occur? What will be the social and political forces behind it?

Let us now imagine how a commons-dominated, i.e. after the phase transition, society would look like.

* At its core would be a collection of commons, represented by trusts and for-benefit associations, which protect their common assets for the benefit of present and future generations
* The commons ‘rents out’ the use of its resources to entrepreneurs. In other words, business still exists, though infinite growth-based capitalism does not. However, it is unlikely that traditional corporations, who do not take into account externalities, will still exist without modification. More likely is that the corporate forms will be influenced by the commons and that profit will be subsumed to other goals, that are congruent with the maintenance of the commons. Also likely, these entities will be owned by the producers, and not by abstract capital (we’re talking after the phase transition here)
* The state will still exist, but will have a radically different nature. Much of its functions will have been taken over by commons institutions, but since these institutions care primarily about their commons, and not the general common good, we will still need public authorities that are the guarantor of the system as a whole, and can regulate the various commons, and protect the commoners against possible abuses. So in our scenario, the state does not disappear, but is transformed, though it may greatly diminish in scope, and with its remaining functions thoroughly democratized and based on citizen participation.

This model looks like a kind of Utopia, although it is rooted in the existence of the commons and a vision for its further development. I do not necessarily reject this vision. In fact, it seems more valid than the idea of a “socialist market economy”, based upon the socialisation of the means of production through the distribution of shares amongst the population (eventually represented by ‘tokens’ that cannot be sold on the market).

In addition, given the fact that the two main currents within the labour movement, ‘communism’ and the planned economy on the one hand, and social democracy and the welfare state on the other -although both formally based on Marxism- are in a blind alley, capitalism is perceived more then ever as the natural order of things: “there is no alternative”. Despite the huge ideological differences, the state plays a crucial role in both models.

Despite the fact that the labour movement is ideologically in a blind alley, it continues to fight to defend its interests. However, in the last 25 or 30 years, it was mainly engaged in defensive struggles and did not fight for better conditions and more democracy. Marx had no clear vision of the future socialist society. He did not put forward a blueprint, but relied on the self-organisation of the working class as the new leading force in society. A lot of Marx’s predictions did not materialise, laying the basis for different revisionist theories.

That changed with the Russian Revolution and the abolition of market relations in the Soviet Union (and later also in other countries). Until 1989, despite all the crimes of those regimes, they represented at least experiments of a new form of society. Many in the labour movement in the West, including social democrats, hoped for a ‘democratisation’ of these societies. However, since 1989, the main trend was towards a weak form of bourgeois democracy, the restoration of capitalist property relations and the ‘free’ market.

Since the failure of the Soviet experiment, I think we need to return to the original idea of “self-organisation” of the working class by Marx (defined as wage earners = a very broad definition), but this does not mean that there is no need for a vision of a future society. Can Michel’s model serve in this way? I think the ecological movement, the P2P movement, and the labour movement have common interests and need to develop a sort of common ‘programme’ or ‘platform’. Traditional Marxism is in my opinion far too much concentrated on materialistic gains, economic growth and the rest of it. I think these ideas developed after Marx’ death, especially after the Russian revolution and the development of the planned economies. So in that sense, I think we can find more inspiration in the writings of Marx himself (especially the ‘young Marx’) and the left critics of the so-called ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in Russia after 1917, like Rosa Luxemburg. It is not because they lost that they were completely wrong.”

1 Comment Debating the role of the state and civil society in P2P Theory

  1. Poor Richard

    I see the divisions and distinctions between the public sector, private sector, and civil society continuing to dissolve. A state is a special corporation that operates certain “natural monopolies” for the residents of a geographical area. All other corporations are subsidiaries of the state which charters, regulates and taxes them. The state’s charter is its constitution and its bylaws are its statutes. Corporations can be related heirachially or horizontally. Their internal structure, management, and operating procedures are defined by their charters and bylaws as well as by the constraints imposed by the state, by any other corporations by which a subordinate corporation is held, and by their contracts with other corporations or individuals.

    These charters, bylaws, and contracts can take many forms that sometimes defy classification but which can often be categorized by where they lie on various continua or axes. One such axis is autocratic-consensual (or similarly, authoritarian-egalitarian). Democratic is somewhere between autocratic and consensual. Another axis is open-closed (which can apply to any number of matters such as information transparency, membership, employment, accountability, etc.)

    The “public interest”, whether expressed as general welfare, as life-liberty-happiness, as life-liberty-equality, or some other type of utility, is best served, in general, by the greatest possible consent of we the people. Consent is served by transparency and accountability. This is an oversimplification of utility, but the public-private axis should be redefined as a composite index of public-interest factors that are satisfied by any given corporation, including the state.

    Put another way, the public interest spans everything public, private, and civic. It is served more or less by all corporations, including the state, to the degree that they satisfy such functional public interest criteria as consent, transparency, accountability, democracy, inclusion, sustainability, reciprocity, & etc., etc., etc.

    Note: if the word “corporation” is too odious to some, a word like “association” can be substituted as long as its understood to include corporations both as we know them and as they could become. The word is not the thing. The important issue is the functional relationships between groups and individuals.

    Poor Richard

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