How does real change occur? P2P Theory vs. socialist theory

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This article was originally published on this blog in 2009

Marxism, and other forms of socialism based on a ‘a priori’ political struggle to take power and achieve change ‘afterwards’, are in my opinion wrong in their understanding of how fundamental social change can be achieved.

I would summarize my interpretation of their key ideas as follows: capitalism creates a new class, which, due to its structural position as workers, can become aware of its interests, organize themselves politically, and achieve political power in order to take over the means of production. So the image is of one class, eventually with allies, to take over political and economic power, from another class that was previously dominant.

But is there any historical precedent for such a form of change. What I know of history does not square with such an interpretation.

Fundamental change is only achieved by a congruence of change, both from the bottom, and from the top, a double reconfiguration of classes to a new system.

For example, faced with an increasing crisis of extensive globalization, the Roman Empire could not longer afford the same kind of extensive militarization and coercive power which could maintain a slave-based system. Faced with structural crisis, and probably combined with a pressure from below in the form of slave revolts, some slave owners started their slaves into coloni, the earliest form of serfdom (a different process is also mentioned by historians, that of freeholders converting to serfdom). For slaves, this was undoubtedly an advance, as they could now have families, construct local communities, and only had to give part, instead of the totality, of their produce to the new domain lords. This new system, which created enhanced motivation, more autonomy and interest for innovation, was more productive than slavery. Hence a dynamic whereby former slave-holders could see the advantage of moving towards the new system of production. The main idea here is that, faced with a crisis of the old system, populations started experiment with alternative patterns in different fields, that those patterns started integrating with each other to the point of forming a viable alternative, and by the year 975, year of the “First European Revolution’ driven by the Church, coalesced into the new feudal system. The change could only occur because of the congruent interest of both serfs and domain holders, who both had advantage in changing, therefore conferring legitimacy to the birth of the new system.

The change from feudalism to capitalism occurred in a very similar fashion. When feudalism entered in crisis mode beginning in the 16th century, a series of changes had started occurring (some starting at least in the 12th century, such as the invention of modern accounting), creating new patters of social activity. Enlightened self-interest in parts of the ruling class (nobility and royalty), would have led an increasing number of them to invest and engage with the new capitalist practices, and coopt successful merchants as well. Thus, change started occurring because the congruent interest of both the new bourgeoisie, and parts of the nobility, creating ever more integration of new patterns, slowly forming a coherent alternative. Just as with the previous change from slavery to feudalism, it is only after a long period of maturation, that political revolutions such as the French or American Revolutions could occur, and that the previous meta-system could be replaced.

Socialist proposals cannot account for this. The owners of capital have zero interest in such a radical change of ownership, while the workers cannot point to any successful alternative patterns that could form the basis of a new society, instead having to opt for radical but unproven social experiments. In my view, this can account for 200 years of failure of the socialist movements to achieve successful transitions.

The key problem therefore was that it could not point to any other proven alternative that would be more productive, and elicit congruent change both from the top and from below.

However, peer production changes this equation. We now have a hyperproductive alternative based on peer production, peer governance and peer property, that is superior to the traditional practices of industrial, and even informational, capitalism. It is because of the hyperproductivity of open and free input, participatory production processes, and universally available output in the form of the commons, that, just as in the previous two meta transitions, sections of the former ruling class are changing into netarchical capitalists, and investing into new types of open business models, ‘enabling and empowering sharing’, or associating with commons-based peer production. So as the Google’s, eBay’s, YouTube’s and Flickr’s are morphing from the top, so are workers morphing into peer producers. Both are them are congruently engaging in new patterns, that are slowly learning from each other, integrating, and maturing into a wholly new way of conceiving of production and civilization. Political revolutions can only be the result of such maturation, and of the crisis of the previous system.

Peer to peer theory therefore, has a much more realistic chance of being correct, because the changes it is predicting, and the process it is advocating, is consistent with what we know about previous phase transitions.

All of the above of course does not mean that there is no role for the social and political struggles of social movements. What it means is that the peer to peer movement, as expression of the new successful patterns that will form the core of the new post-capitalist civilization, need to work on a policy platform, that can inspire the social movements to a set of demands that no longer signify the status quo, a return to no longer operable models of the welfare state, or destructive despair. It also signifies that while we work on the autonomy and social reproduction of sharing and commons-based communities, we need to critically ally ourselves, based on common interests (while also be aware of differential interests) of the new netarchical forces that are converting, and thereby strengthening the emergence of the P2P alternatives.

The specific historical conjuncture demands a certain acceleration of these efforts.

– The financial crisis is a deep long-cyclical slump, definitely burying the neoliberal model, but not necessarily the class power configuration which created it

– The Obama administration signals the coming to political power of that fraction of capital which is aligned to peer production. The Obama coalition represents the conjunction of Wall Street, hence the doomed-to-fail attempts to restore the old predatory financial system; the high tech sector most conducive to P2P-influenced economic models (hence the ‘open’ nature of theother aspects of the Administration); the social-media induced P2P mobilization of the most dynamic social forces that were instrumental in creating its victory.

– At the same time, the forces of the old order of vectoral capitalism (the forces living from IP monopolies and mass media control), being in the panic that they are, are stepping up aggressive measures against the further emergence of peer to peer practices, as witnessed by the attempts in the EU Parliament, to abandon net neutrality.

– The financial dislocation and breakdown of the previous globalized order of neoliberalism, will lead to increasing expressions of social rage, and waves of mobilization, but that do not have adequate policy proposals.

– Populations living in increasingly bankrupt and hollow states, and desperate public authorities facing infrastructural breakdown, will increasingly look to measures to protect themselves from the global meltdown, to resilient community formation, and distributed infrastructures that can reboot their disintegrating social order.

The P2P movement is therefore at a historical juncture, where it has to start developing the ability for policy formulation and connect with social mobilizations.

Usually a new social movement goes to three broad stages: it starts with transgressive, ‘subcultural’ behaviour that ignores the constraints of the larger society, such as filesharing; it starts to develop social forms to insure its own social reproduction, i.e. creating the new patters within the old, as the free software community has done, now being followed by open hardware and distributed manufacturing communities, and the drive towards open money; but the next step is changing the old institutional order itself, and this crucial step has barely started.

In order to birth the new, an integrated set of alternative patterns and institutions must have been created, so that when the old metasystem breaks down, the new subsystem is sufficiently robust to serve as an alternative template for the phase transition.

All of this is of a tall order, and we are far from ready for this. Nevertheless, it is what we must do.

(I am indebted to Franz Nahrada’s lecture at Oekonux 4, for a clearer understanding of the import of pattern language integration, for successful social change)

Video presentation on the same topic, in Helsinki´s Pixelache festival:

Alternative Economy Cultures PART 2 from pixelACHE festival on Vimeo.

4 Comments How does real change occur? P2P Theory vs. socialist theory

  1. Avatarwageslave

    Dear Michel,
    Your understanding of Marxist theory is deficient. Faced with such “vulgar marxism”, the guy himself replied that then, he is no marxist. Your “socialist theory” is a strawman and even the most orthodox communist thinkers would easily decompose it as such, while providing a much better picture of social dynamics. Also, you have very poor understanding of class (“capitalism creates a new class”?? one? at least two, proletariat and bourgeoisie which are then composed of different strata. Also, “one class takes over, eventually with allies”? What allies? This makes no sense and you do not go into any detail, it is impossible to know what you are referring to). All of that, therefore, is not even wrong.

    You also mistake the tactic of taking state power to use in favor of the proletariat, a particular one prevalent in the 20th century generally known as leninism, for Marxism or maybe for your “socialist theory”. That is one tactic possible, that may be effective or desirable in some circumstances and not in others. Communist and anarchist thinking goes way beyond that, analyze social dynamics and derives whatever tactics are most useful for the situation. Communist theory is much broader, profound and nuanced than your crude description. And comprehends and encompasses peer production (see Marx in the Grundrisse, Mario Tronti, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and so many others).

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    well, it would be great if you could provide us with concrete references of marxist strategies that did not entail a taking of power prior to the inauguration of socialist dynamics; I’ve read a lot of texts in my time, and they all agreed on it and never encountered a marxist tradition that described the emergence of a prior mode of production within capitalism; if it exists, I am actually very interested in learning about it. From an equipotential point of view, it is great to have someone here who knows it so much better than I do.

  3. Avatarwageslave

    The way you approach this discussion is baffling. I criticize some of your statements as imprecise and, instead of clarifying what you meant, you turn it around and ask me for “marxist strategies that did not entail a taking of power prior to the inauguration of socialist dynamics”. Which is another ball of mess.

    First, I did not say there were are or were tactics or strategies specific to marxism or any other political current, just the opposite. And have no interest in sterile discussions about who is marxist or what is or was specific/exclusive/characteristic of whatever political identity. I have also read many texts and never found anything regarding “inauguration of socialist dynamics”, which I attribute to the fact that no such inauguration exists.

    Social and socialist dynamics are all around us and have always been. What we want is a social system that puts those dynamics first. The seeds of that system exist already (and other elements may also arise) inside of this one, just as elements of capitalism arose while feudalism was still dominant (and then exploded to dominance in a new form of social organization). Current already existing peer production practices are probably elements of this kind of transformation into a new mode of production and social organization (which may not be sufficient, though). And all of this fits the analysis of communist thinkers just fine (and was even predicted by those some I know of, mentioned earlier). So it follows that your P2P vs socialism opposition is false and makes no sense.

  4. AvatarK

    “So as the Google’s, eBay’s, YouTube’s and Flickr’s are morphing from the top, so are workers morphing into peer producers.”

    Have you read Christian Fuchs’ Marxist analyses of Social Media? From his point of view, “peer production” is not a new form of production outside of capitalist labor exploitation, but a deepening of it, in the same way that the option to use a self-service checkout at the grocery store could not really be described as some “liberatory” new form of self-production:

    “The category of the prosumer commodity/produser commodity does not signify a democratization of the media towards participatory systems, but the total commodification of human creativity. Much of the time spent online produces profit for large corporations like Google, NewsCorp (which owns MySpace) or Yahoo (which owns Flickr).” (Fuchs)

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