What is the connection between the historical tradition of socialism/communism and the contemporary emergence of ideas and practices centered around p2p dynamics and the commons?
Let’s first tackle our understanding and interpretation of communism.
To me it is basically the idea, probably born at the same time as post-tribal class-based society, that an alternative human arrangement based on equal relationships and without the inheritance of wealth and privilege is possible. It is something that appears again and again in human history as an expression of those that are not privileged in the existing social arrangements.
A prominent example is of course the form of the Christian communities as described in the Act of the Apostles, but it is a recurring theme across history.
More importantly and recently, it became a driving idea of the labour movement that was born at the same time as industrial capitalism, and it would take various ideological and social forms, such as the utopian socialist experiments of the 19th century, the social-democratic labour movement that became dominant in Europe in the 20th century, the anarchist movements that flourished before WWII, etc …
Unfortunately, after the social revolution in Russia and its regression through isolation, it also became the ideology of a new ruling strata, which installed a new type of class society based on a managerial elite using state property, which used communism as an ideology to justify its oppression, much as the hierarchical and feudal Church would use the ideas of Christ to justify its own oppressive rule.
Today, the “idea” of communism is terminally contaminated with that historical experience of social oppression.
What about peer to peer?
Peer to peer is born from the generalization of the human experience of voluntary aggregation using the internet.
It is the experience of creating digital commons of knowledge, code and designs, based largely on voluntary contributions, and on making these universally available, has re-introduced the reality of communal shareholding to wide strata of the population.
But is also the particular social expression of the new condition of work under cognitive capitalism, where workers, after the long hiatus of industrial capitalism where they were totally dispossessed of access to productive resources and machinery, could again access a productive resource under their control, through computers, the socialized network that was the internet.
This generalized the experience of social practices that are characterized by open and free input, participatory processes of production, and commons-oriented output.
From the contract between this strong experience of equality and liberty (equaliberty) and the trans-individuality of being connected through affinity, the desire naturally grows to extend this experience to other areas of life.
From this, social movements are emerging that seek to extend the reach of this human experience.
The P2P Foundation, and the P2P Theory that we are trying to develop, is merely one of the expressions of this general trend, but perhaps one of the more ambitious ones since it aims not just to a partial implementation of the new value system and social practice (as the free software or free culture movements would attempt), but to its generalization across the board.
What then, are some of the important differences?
Peer to peer is not necessarily based on the belief of realizing a full classless society, but on the extension of an already existing social practice. Certainly for me, I would be extremely skeptical of any idea that such a society could be realized. Therefore peer to peer politics becomes a more pragmatic effort at extending the reach of this existence practice. This does not mean however, that I do not contemplate that this social logic may become the core of a new social order, but co-existing with a still differentiated class society. However, it is definitely an effort to create a more free, just, and equal world.
Peer to peer is not the expression of the industrial working class, but of the new forms of cognitive labour. But this does not mean it is restricted to full time cognitive workers, rather it is becoming part of the general human condition under cognitive capitalism, and therefore has the potential of becoming the culture and ideology of much wider social strata.
Peer to peer is therefore not a continuation of the socialist/communist tradition, but a re-elaboration of emancipatory practice and theory under new historical and social conditions. It’s a new start and reformulation, that is not bound by the previous historical tradition, though of course it is natural that new emancipatory efforts would look at historical precedents. Peer to peer is not related to socialism as a reformation of it, but is related to it in the same way as Christianity was related to the paganism of the Roman empire, i.e. as a trans-valuation of its major premises. Amongst other things, this frees us from the incessant bickering of left-wing cults.
This of course does not mean that peer to peer can be entirely divorced from the previous historical context, but it is not beholden to it as a continuation of the same tradition.
What about the commons?
It is around the issue of the commons that the differences with the previous emancipatory tradition comes to the fore.
The labour movement became historically associated with the effort to increase the reach of public and state property, and the idea of regulation (social democracy) or planning of the economy (Marxism).
Peer to peer and the commons are about the direct value creation through civil society, and are about new forms of governance and property that apply directly to civil society groups creating this value. The forms of property advocated are not based on private exclusionary property, but also not on an alienation of property through the state. The commons are a form of property where individuals remain direct‘shareholders’, they are not expropriated from their contributions to the value creation, neither by the state nor private corporations. The individual and his/her property does not ‘disappear’ in the collective as represented by the state.
The commons, not the state, becomes the core institution of the new political economy. Both digital and material commons have their own institutional formats, the latter managed by democratically governed trusts.
The p2p/commons approach does not abolish private property, but limits its reach and subsumes it as an auxiliary form for the allocation of rival goods, while also drastically reforming the formats of such private ownership, away from the formats which deny any consideration of social and environmental externalities.
The p2p/commons approach does neither abolish the state nor makes it the sole proprietor in charge of central planning, but limits the role of the state as a institution for the meta-governance of the common good, looking at the equilibrium between public functions, the commons and civil society, and private entrepreneurs. The new Partner State becomes the guarantor of the new commons-based peer production, until that time as it can hypothetically ‘whither away’ as more and more of its functions are taken over by an increasingly egalitarian and autonomous civil society. But, we are not holding our breath that this process can take place in historically close times. However, we do believe that the necessary phase-transition is merely a few decades away, as the urgency of biospheric destruction and social dislocation does not permit the long-range survival of the present destructive social arrangements.
What about p2p/commons as a political approach?
The p2p/commons approach and the social forces representing it, does not seek to replace the labour movement, or other emancipatory political groups, but allies itself with all those protecting the common natural heritage of mankind, and a more just redistribution of social value.
Hence the idea of the triarchical alliance for the commons, consisting of those
– Directly fighting for free culture and the commons
– Directly fighting for the protection of the biosphere
– Directly fighting for social justice