Essay of the Day: Can Capitalism Reform Itself and Move Towards a P2P Society?

By Jean Lievens

Full Paper here


The first Dutch book on P2P Save the World by Michel Bauwens had a good reception in Flanders, but there were also some criticisms. In this article, we examine two criticisms of the book: the feasibility of an unconditional basic income within the present system and the possibility to move gradually to a P2P society without “overthrowing” capitalism. Apart from the “low road” to peer-to-peer (after an economic collapse) and “the high road” to peer-to-peer (through neo- Keynesianism), a third way could open up, based on a reformed partner states facilitating peer production. Our conclusion is that under the present circumstances – with  bottom-up initiatives; open source alternatives; and the Internet as a new means of production, value creation and distribution –  past failed experiences of socialism could today have more chances of succeeding on the condition that a progressive government arms itself with a commons transitional plan. Such a transitional government would undoubtedly face many difficulties, but it would at least open the horizon for a better future.

The High Road to P2P

Let’s return to the different scenarios for society to move beyond capitalism. The first scenario, the “high road” to P2P, is quite similar to the ideas developed by Jeremy Rifkin in his latest books “The Third Industrial Revolution” (RIFKIN, 2013) and especially “The Zero Marginal Cost Society” (RIFKIN, 2014). Rifkin’s thesis is that within 30 years or so, commons based peer production will be at the core of our economy. Capitalism will continue to exist, but as an auxiliary system, pushed to the periphery. But to get there, massive investments are needed to build the necessary infrastructures for this new Internet of communication, energy and logistics, enabling and facilitating common based peer production. The present Internet as a communication network should indeed be expanded globally and completed by an energy Internet and a logistic Internet.

This presupposes massive public investments that would create millions of traditional jobs, while at the same time, as information technology is eliminating tens of millions of jobs in manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors. New jobs must also be created in the third sector, voluntary and community-based service organisations. According to Rifkin these new jobs should be created with government support to rebuild neighbourhoods and provide social services (RIFKIN, 1996). To finance this last enterprise, Rifkin advocates scaling down the military budget, enacting a value added tax on nonessential goods and services and redirecting federal and state funds to provide a “social wage” in lieu of welfare payments to third-sector workers.

The Low Road to P2P

Therefore the best way for moving forward at present is to build our own peer- to-peer alternatives here and now, including local en digital currencies, and make our networks and solidarity mechanisms stronger. Michel Bauwens already expressed this view in 2010, in the aftermath of the financial crisis:


What seems to be happening is that mobilization is increasingly happening indeed, and also the quite rapid spread of open and sharing infrastructures, BUT, there is no longer anyone to talk to. The enlightened part of the nation states either do not exist or are two weak, and the global market forces are intent to break what remains of their independence, and hence, what they can do and signify for their own peoples. They’re is simply nobody there anymore, the system has exhausted its capabilities to rectify outside of the narrow interests of the predatory financial class (BAUWENS, 2015).

Also in 2010, John Robb, author, entrepreneur, inventor and a former USAF pilot in special operations wrote: (ROBB, 2010)

For those that think that this will bring about a surge of peaceful economic vigour, you will be wrong. It will fragment society and lead to perpetual stagnation/depression, endemic violence/corruption, and squalor. For absent any moral basis (a social compact), stability, or (widely shared) prosperity: new sources of order will emerge to fill the gap left by the hollowing out of the nation- state. These new sources of order will be first seen in the rise of the criminal entrepreneur, whether they be the be suited corporate gangster or the gang tattooed thug. For in the world of hollow states (without a morality that limits behaviour) and limitless connectivity to the global economic system, these criminal entrepreneurs quickly become dominant, violently coercing or corrupting everyone in the path to their enrichment.

Building the alternatives in a low road scenario shouldn’t however be all that dramatic, as John Rob already stated in 2009:

In either case, system recovery could be catalyzed and the damage largely mitigated, if our global system was scale invariant. Basically, this means that if we had communities that could produce at the local level many of the essential products and services currently produced at the global level, handling disconnection or buffering turbulence would be of little consequence (also, it would be much easier for us to find ways of protecting or making redundant the products/services that ONLY could be produced at the global level). Fortunately, particularly given the substantial uptick in dynamic instability at the global level, we are seeing movement towards scale invariant resilient communities. These communities can and would be able to operate autonomously regardless of availability, pricing, or quality of external goods/services for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, this movement may not spread quickly enough to provide any meaningful support to those communities that are utterly dependent on the smooth functioning of the global system. (ROBB, 2009)

Commons transition Plan on a National Level

John Rob was talking about local communities, about local resilience. But what is local in a globalised world? Is it communal, regional, or even national? We could argue that in the case of Greece, a plan B, based on the introduction of a “local” (in this case national) currency protecting and stimulating the local economy (and keeping the euro for international payments), and a governmental commons transition plan to turn the Greek state into a facilitator for commons based peer production, could well be a viable alternative to the present situation in which the country has in effect been turned into a European protectorate, stripped from every shred of sovereignty and democracy.

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