Essay of the Day: Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State

* Article: Practical Anarchism: Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State. By Yochai Benkler. Politics & Society41(2) 213–251

Here is a summary of its contents, followed by some excerpts:

‘Based on several examples of working anarchies in the networked environment Benkler argued that peer mutualism works in certain contexts. Even though it is not perfect, it provides people with a new degree of freedom.

As individuals inhabiting a world of interlocked imperfect systems, we are susceptible to power shaping our perceptions, preferences, policies and principles as well as our actions, outcomes and configurations. Peer mutualism offers us a new way to bob and weave between those systems.

The core questions are how much of what people care about can be done in non-market, non-proprietary, non-governmental models? Do peer mutualism models offer enough of a solution space? And how corruptible are these non-hierarchical and non-coercive models?”

1. Defining “Working Anarchies”

Yochai Benkler:

“The defining feature of peer systems is their voluntarism; in particular, the absence of coercive power grounded in a delegation from the state and backed by social understandings of exclusive ownership. Property-based systems often exhibit substantial voluntary behavior, but they are based on a delegation of the state’s monopoly over the use of asserted legitimate violence, and widely enforced through social understandings of proper relations around such a designation and delegation. Where control of a resource depends solely on one’s own power to maintain possession, or on the goodwill and cooperation of neighbors, that is possession, not property.

The defining feature of property is that it harnesses the power of the state to back decisions of the “owner” with regard to the resource, even where as a practical matter that ownership is respected through social convention with only rare resort to the application of the delegated state power.

By “the state,” I mean Weber’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force, where “legitimate” has the same meaning it would in legal positivism: a sociological fact about the world, stating that relevant observers see this violence as “legitimate,” rather than based on a substantive claim of legitimacy according to some conceptual morality rather than social fact. Relevant observers would include a core set of the relevant elites (those whose collective judgment is habitually persuasive to a majority of the relevant population) and a majority of those who live under the state’s power.

By “working anarchy,” then, or mutualism, I mean voluntaristic associations that do not depend on direct or delegated power from the state, and in particular do not depend on delegated legitimate force that takes a proprietary form and is backed by shared social understandings of how one respects or complies with another’s proprietary claim.” (

2. The Peer Production of Public Functions: Ideal Types

Yochai Benkler:

“A major path of intervention of decentralized, voluntaristic systems is a set of efforts to use peer-based approaches to work around nonfunctioning or imperfect state institutions. These models are the mutualist equivalent of the “privatization” movement that sought, and continues to seek, to remove public actions from the responsibility of governments and locate them instead in the hands of profit-seeking, proprietary organizations on the theory that these kinds of organizations have “incentives” to deliver these services better and more efficiently than do government officials. I will not address here the enormous literature on the costs and benefits of privatization; rather, I note it here merely to identify the parallels between that move, which diagnosed failure on the public side and prescribed markets as a cure, and the move to supplant government functions with anarchic, voluntaristic models.

The poster child for the distributed model of fulfilling otherwise governmental functions is Ushahidi. Ushahidi was create in 2008, when a Kenyan blogger, Ory Okolloh, posted a blog post in the midst of election violence there: “any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps? Perhaps we can begin to collect information from organizations and individuals on the ground e.g. red cross, hospitals, etc. and start to build a tally online.” Another blogger following the situation from the United States, who had volunteered in Kenya, wrote: “The primary means of communication during an emergency in Kenya is via SMS.” Within a week, two Kenyan expats working in the United States, David Kobiah and Juliana Rotich, developed an open source platform, itself built using several FOSS components, that allows anyone, anywhere, to send in mobile phone or computer updates about their observations, and then mash them up with a map. The platform that began as a solution for election violence there became the system used to map locations of relief needs in as wide a range of locations as Haiti after the earthquake, Russian wildfires, or Washington, DC snow emergencies. In the Egyptian elections that preceded the 2011 Arab Spring, Ushahidi was used for citizenbased election monitoring, using a system that was adapted by Egyptian hackers for that purpose, and was later extended and used in Tunisia for that country’s first free election.

While Ushahidi emerged as a clear response to vacuum of functioning government of a “developing world” sort, mutualism has also been used to work around governmental bodies that are reticent to fulfill their role because of the standard failures of government in democratic society—incompetence, political interest, cronyism.

Perhaps the clearest example of this to date is Safecast, a response to the failures of the Japanese government and power company to produce reliable information about radiation levels in Japan after the Fukushima incident. Within days of the earthquake on March 11, 2011 in Japan, an email exchange among three people—Sean Bonner (Los Angeles), Joi Ito (Boston/Dubai/Tokyo), and Pieter Franken (Tokyo)—that began as checking in among friends and on family, shifted to consideration of radiation data and how to get it. Supplies of commercially available Geiger counters dried up almost immediately, and within the first month the three had brought together a network of developers and designers from Maui (International Medcom there produced highquality Geiger counters), Tokyo Hackerspace, Singapore, Boston, Seattle, North Carolina, and Portland, Ore., to develop both mobile and stationary Geiger counter units, and a system for dynamically communicating and mashing up their findings into maps under an open-access data license.32 Seed funding was obtained through Kickstarter, later filled out by a grant from the Knight Foundation. The result has been a significant international collaboration, delivering physical products and deployments, as well as information infrastructure, based on volunteer efforts and funding.

Safecast is as crisp an example as we have for how mutualism can serve as a successful workaround for failure (whether for lack of capacity or, more likely, for lack of political will) of a public body.”

For a third exerpt, i.e. the conclusion, see here.

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