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

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.

8 Comments How does real change occur: P2P Theory vs. socialist theory

  1. Pingback: How does social change happen? — keimform.de

  2. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » The P2P Foundation: time for a turn towards the political?

  3. Alan

    “The P2P movement is…at a historical juncture, where it has to start developing the ability for policy formulation and connect with social mobilizations…. the next step is changing the old institutional order itself, and this crucial step has barely started.”

    Right. It will be fascinating to see how far it gets — if it gets anywhere — on these fronts, especially the latter (the old institutional order). This is really where the rubber meets the road. It would be wonderful if it could be done by peaceful Fuller-like means (referring to the quote on your main page), simply building the parallel new structures and then letting nature take its course.

    Will the heavily entrenched structures of capital just sail on down without a (hot) fight? Doubtful, but you never know.

    Interesting time to be alive, huh?

  4. Michel Bauwens

    Hi Alan, I believe the three aspects actually go hand in hand. You have the constructive work of building a counter-economy, you have the accelerations of history marked by intense mobilizations, and you have the policy formulations. A massive mobilzation without a alternative is a riot, it can remove regimes but not really start something new. Hence we need all three. Autonomous practices, social mobilization, and credible policy alternatives.

  5. gregorywade

    Interesting. I’ve been meditating on the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism myself. I continue to find myself reflecting on the developments of money as the seeds of change in social relations.

    What prompted me to comment was this statement: “it starts with transgressive, ‘subcultural’ behaviour that ignores the constraints of the larger society”…such as growing Weed. Prohibition has resulted in the emergence of intensive gardening techniques a)highly adaptable to the built environment b)highly productive micro-ops c)produces higher yields, and higher quality with relatively few inputs. Despite the seemingly counter intuitive statement, higher quality results in fewer inputs; similarly, consumption of higher quality products results in lower aggregate consumption.

    This is relative to the current “Urban Farming” movement that merely attempts to replicate 70’s “Organic” Farming techniques at smaller scale–a political movement. Cannabis is an edible herb. The techniques are easily adaptable to micro food production systems. To put this in perspective: I could, and have, put a highly productive organic food system into operation with abundant local resources in a fraction of the time and cost as opposed to improving soil tilth–which is largely nonexistent in built environment.

    Obviously, improving soil tilth should be a community priority. But as you’ve noted, the emergence of alternatives will likely come about as a result of crisis. Cannabis producers already exist in communities; trust me: somebody grows weed in your neighborhood; statistically speaking, several people. Urban Farmers not so much. So the skill sets already exist in place as a distributed network.

    I’ve given up on pointing this out to people in the local food movements. In fact, it was my attempts that highlighted the political nature of the urban food movement in my mind.

    As an aside: the War on Weed, which is were most of the resources have been focused based on the gateway myth, has resulted in 5th generation genetics; the distributed nature of the production system resulted in the exponential growth in diversity of genetics. The product is an organic pharmacology for the 21st century.

    Enjoyed your thoughts; hope I contributed something.

    Gregory Wade

  6. Dmytri KleinerDmytri Kleiner

    MIchel, Marxism does not believe in ‘a priori’ political struggle to take power and achieve change ‘afterwards’, but rather that material conditions, especially changes in the mode of production, lead to change, which is what you are also arguing. You’d be better served in making your own arguments without imposing arguments on others.

  7. Pat Byrne

    There are three major holes that I can immediately see in Michael’s argument.

    The first is that the two social revolutions that he refers to: from slavery to feudalism, and from feudalism to capitalism, involved a transfer of power from one propertied elite to a different propertied elite (slave owners to feudalists, and then feudalists to capitalists). In the process, as Michael correctly points out, many of the old elites adopted the new property forms themselves. When decisive clashes occurred en route to these social revolutions, the new rising elite class would mobilise the ordinary people behind them with all kinds of promises, that were soon forgotten after the changes were made. In that sense the mass of people who actually produced the wealth were largely pawns in a struggle between two elites vying for who could exploit the wealth produced by the ordinary people.

    What capitalism has prepared is a very different possibility – that of the transfer of power and wealth to the population as a whole and thus for the end of elites entirely. Rather than look for P2P to develop a layer of powerful people who can challenge capitalism for their own different interests, we should move away from elites entirely and think in terms of how best to transfer power and wealth into the hands of the mass of the population and put them in conscious control of the world and in harmony with its environment.

    Where P2P can and will undoubtedly play a key role is in helping to make a new democratic socialist economy work far better than capitalism ever did.

    This brings me on to the second hole in Michael’s position. He argues that the failure of the socialist experiment is based on the fact that there was not an alternative propertied class or economic model available to effectively challenge capitalism and replace it, as he puts it “both from the bottom, and from the top, a double reconfiguration of classes to a new system”. The problem is that we have little evidence that P2P is producing an alternative class or property form that can challenge capitalism – Google, Facebook etc. are after all clearly capitalist entities and are not at all challenging the existing capitalist institutions (they even fund both political parties in the US. It is just as likely that capitalism will embrace the most potentially profitable aspects of P2P either in terms of corporate structures (Google, Facebook, Twitter and so on) or just by finding ways to profitably utilise the general benefits of the internet and P2P production (Wikipedia etc.). Yes, it is possible that localised production using the latest 3D Printing and related technologies could temporarily give space to small producers but how long would it be before the concentration of ownership would kick in again providing the advantages of brand, marketing, cheaper supply and so on? If we are honest, we do not know the answer to these things so how can we start assuming things that do not yet exist? One thing I am certain of is that the ever present power of money that the ever-increasing wealthy command can possibly corrupt all but a few of the committed supporters of the movement.

    The last contradiction in Michael’s argument is his call for the creation of “an integrated set of alternative patterns and institutions, 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.”
    One can as easily argue that the socialist movement has exactly the same task – to develop plans for an alternative set of institutions that is sufficiently robust to be able to operate effectively in a post capitalist society. Indeed, I would argue that it precisely the failure of the socialist movement to develop a serious democratic socialist alternative that has left us high and dry after the collapse of the bureaucratic planned economies of the Soviet Bloc. We argue for a planned society but we have no real plans for one, just a few slogans usually laid out in a ‘What We Stand For’ column at the back of newspapers sold in town squares or on demonstrations. This lack of a worked out set of alternative policies totally undermines the credibility of the socialist left with the mass of people who have lost confidence in the ‘welfare socialism’ or ‘state socialism’ models of the past.

    So I would argue that the P2P movement should not try to see itself as an alternative to the democratic socialist movement but as an integral part of it, renovating and transforming it in the direction of an enhanced critique of capitalism and more importantly towards the formulation of a far more convincing alternative to it.
    Pat Byrne
    email: [email protected]

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *