P2P and Communism

Recently on the P2P Research email list, Joss Winn raised the question of how P2P might dovetail with communist ideas. That’s a good question, because the principle of abundance is central to both P2P and Marxian communism.  Marx’s model of a future communist society (e.g. “Critique of the Gotha Program”) was predicated on the assumption that technology would achieve such high levels of productivity that the law of value would be superceded.   To borrow a slogan from the nuclear industry, the idea was that an increasing share of goods would become “too cheap to meter.”

As I responded there, I can think of three aspects of P2P that are relevant to the traditional Marxian model of communism.

The first is stigmergic organization as a way of removing the transaction costs of collective action and permitting collective action to emerge as the sum total of free individual actions without having to be coordinated by large, hierarchical institutions.

The second is the realm of non-rival goods with zero marginal reproduction cost, specifically digital information.  This is an example of the law of value being superceded, in Marx’s terminology, as well as of what the Austrians like Carl Menger meant by non-economic goods.

The third, which might also be treated as a weaker subcategory of the second, is the cheapening of producer goods in the physical realm. The effect is to drastically lower the capital outlays and overhead cost of production; make productive organizations smaller, more decentralized and more resilient; and to blur the boundaries between being a worker and owner that originally came about because of the high cost of producer goods in the Industrial Revolution.  Because expensive product-specific machines are being progressively replaced with cheap general-purpose tools affordable by individuals and small groups, and because the overhead cost from capital amortization to be serviced is imploding, we’ll see a shift toward networked production model in which there’s little cost to being out of the market for extended periods waiting for new projects, and the employment – vs – unemployment dichotomy will be replaced with constant shifting of free agents between networked projects (something like what Piore and Sabel, in The Second Industrial Divide, described for the construction and clothing industries).

In this area, short of a nanotech revolution in the indeterminate future, I don’t see the law of value or market exchange being superceded.  But least it’s a move in the direction of Free.  As Chris Anderson put it, “Atoms also want to be free — they’re just not as pushy about it.”?

Daniel Araya was skeptical:

I resonate with alot of what you’re writing here Kevin. I think networked production will change things dramatically. But the only economies in the world right now that are seeing significant economic growth are industrializing ones….  To my mind, the P2P ‘revolution’ looks a lot more like of a bunch of guys on listerves talking about a revolution in the abstract….

For a fully fleshed out P2P revolution to unfold you will need to integrate the education system in some way. Its not going to simply happen spontaneously– at least not in the numbers you would need to make ubiquitous. The feudal age had the church. Modernity had the university. What does peer production have?

My response was that my gut instinct is that the transition will be less about some new institutional basis than about the unsustainability of the old centralized, hierarchical institutions.  States are being hollowed out, “intellectual property” is becoming untenable as a method of controlling the value created by human capital, and the imploding cost of garage production machinery means most investment capital is becoming superfluous.

Maria Droujkova, in turn, challenged Daniel’s assumption that the P2P revolution would require some monolithic institutional base:  “There may not be a ubiquitous anything anymore, but a tapestry of multiple practices.”  She suggested that P2P’s answer to the church and the university might be the Internet, and that the most important transition was the shift from institutions to networks.

Regarding the shift from institutions to networks, I wrote:

Along those lines, the ubiquitous trend I see is taking place in many different ways:  as the old corporate and state hierarchies become unsustainable, they’re being forced to decentralize, harden their component units, and increase the initiative of those in last-mile networks.

They try to retain some sort of residual control, in ways that Andy Robinson has commented on [on this list]:  i.e. the Nixon Doctrine as a way of pulling back from most direct superpower policing and working instead through proxies, attempts to maintain corporate control of networked manufacturing through ownership of IP, etc.  But by progressively outsourcing and delegating functions, they’re putting themselves increasingly in the position of redundant nodes, so that their artificial property rights are the *only* source of control they retain.  At some point, the networked producers, having built the new society within the old corporate shell, will decide to “break the corporate integument” and ignore their IP and other property rights.

5 Comments P2P and Communism

  1. Avatarpostnationalist

    Marxist political economy is founded on institutional power, namely the “socialist” state. It, too, is being made obsolete – in post-industrial societies by distributed manufacturing, and in pre-industrial societies by extant social networks.

    The near-infinite abundance of IP (or intellectual capital, if you prefer) more closely recalls Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Economics. The anarchist economic principle that “Nature’s bounty is spread to all” applies here.

    Also, I don’t follow how the lowering of production costs for capitalists will smash capitalism and lead to worker control and micro-production. Yes, it factors into a lower barrier to entry, but one of the defining and most attractive features of capitalism is that business owners don’t have to work. Without an anti-growth or pro-worker-management philosophy, these new garage producers will replace and replicate the old centralized producers.

  2. Avataradam ricketson

    FWIW, I think that the university (or perhaps academia) is quite compatible with a P2P culture. Many research laboratories, particularly in the life sciences, are structured as small groups using multi-purpose tools. The hierarchy within labs is rarely more than the relationship between a master craftsman and an apprentice; the subordinate members are expected to eventually leave and strike out on their own (often within a rather constrained time frame).

    The broader scientific community is structured around peer organizations (journals and professional groups). The product (knowledge) is one of those non-economic goods, and there is currently a pretty fierce debate regarding the proprietary publishing model (for instance, see this article on the PLoS blog: http://www.plos.org/cms/node/525).

    The big impediment is the University itself, which is split between its academic nature and its role in the corporate economy (which is the source of most of its funding and influence). I think that the “corporate research” model peaked in the post-WWII era, and we are now seeing a diversification of institutional research structures, driven both by the new “internet ethos” and the inability of academia to absorb all of the Ph.D’s that it produces.

    Institutions like Strayer University, while being for-profit certification mills, have the potential to greatly expand access to academic instruction. On top of that, there’s an ever increasing supply of online materials for self-instruction.

    Anyway, I think that academia could provide a lot of support for the P2P revolution, but it remains to be seen how the younger generations handle any conflicts between that ethic and their own career advancement.

    Even if the P2P revolution is more abstract than real at the moment, we should remember what John Adams said about the Amercian revolution occuring first in the hearts and minds of Americans, before it was expressed it the political institutions.

    ” The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

  3. Avataradam ricketson

    I should clarify two things:

    By calling Strayer a “certification mill”, I don’t mean that they have no standards, only that their main purpose is to provide certification to their students. This is also a major role of traditional universities, though I think many traditional universities students (through their patrons/parents) still have the luxury of pursuing a true “liberal arts” education.

    Second, regarding “low-cost research”, a prominent scientist once told me that the main impediment preventing small labs from doing ground-breaking research is not the cost of machinery or lab space, but access to the literature. This is one of the reasons that this scientist supported the Public Library of Science.

  4. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    From Tere Vaden, via email:

    Hi all,

    well, there are several things here.

    First of all, I want to say that the discussions and reservations on the
    words “socialist” and “communist” presented on this list and by
    participants elsewhere have not gone unnoticed by Juha and myself.
    Indeed, the historical connotations do give me pause, in two ways: i)
    the atrocities perpetrated by people calling themselves communists and
    ii) the tendencies toward fixation on persons (Marx etc.) and the
    theories presented by them. (I like David Graeber’s point that the
    difference between socialists and anarchists is evident already in the
    fact that the factions of the former are identified by proper names
    (Marxists, Leninists, Trotskyists, etc.) while the latter are identified
    by ideas (syndicalists, libertarians, communalists, etc.)). These
    discussions have made me more reflective and careful in using those
    terms; I’m thankful to you all for that.

    However, I still do use those terms, and we decided to keep them in
    Wikiworld. Why?

    There is the general point that I think that we should not give language
    and words up too easily. “Anarchism” is maybe even more a case in point
    than communism. To the man in the street “anarchism” means all that is
    wrong, and this is the result of a conscious and purposeful campaign of
    meaning-change by the enemies of anarchism (including factions of
    communists, to be sure). I’m not sure we should just abandon a word that
    is willfully poisoned; that would keep us running forever. Having said
    that I have nothing in principle against new words and names, just as
    long as they are good ones. 🙂

    So are the words “socialism” and “communism” worth trying to save? Well,
    the wager here is that they are. First, communism is a very “obvious”
    idea to which no Marx or no China has a copyright. Think about certain
    primitive societies: there is no party or coercion there, but certainly
    communism. Second, there is an inspiring new wave of thinking about
    communism in the post-communist era; I’m thinking of people like Zizek
    and Graeber (“communism is what you do naturally when you co-operate in
    a family, a village, etc.”), for instance, and especially the
    indianismo-movements in Latin America that combine socialism with
    anti-colonialism. Third, and most importantly, I’m personally familiar
    with a form of communist/socialist politics that was not blind towards
    Stalinism, that was not violent, not subservient to “Marxism”, and that
    did produce real, tangible results. My grandfather was a part of a
    communist generation after the civil war in Finland that started their
    political activity underground. With the industrialization of the
    country, especially after WWII, the communists and socialist were very
    popular in elections; my grandfather was a representative in the
    municipal council for decades. The main goals for him there were free
    education and universal health care; both of which were achieved. There
    was a very direct link between his socialism and the school next door;
    the “reds” wanted it, the reds built it and made sure everyone gets in.
    The reds had their own co-op shops, banks, sport stadions, etc., indeed
    a relatively autonomous and self-reliant economic sphere that is even
    hard to imagine now. This is the “concrete utopia” I have in mind: the
    little money the reds had never entered the stock exchange, they
    collectively owned food production and processing chains that also made
    possible improving on working conditions, they had their own independent
    non-Hollywood culture. This was, to be sure, to some extent parasitic on
    the growth of the capitalist system (fossil fuels), but I see no
    in-principle reason why it could not have been made more independent,
    had they been aware of the energy-environment facts. (There was, indeed,
    a local municipally owned water-powered electricity station, too, that
    was torn down as “ineffective” later). (I would have to admit, however,
    that violence – the threat of violence – did probably have its role. The
    fact of the civil war and the proximity of the Soviet Union forced the
    hand of the right in granting major concessions to the left.) At the
    same time, he was very critical and non-naive about the Soviet Union,
    having visited it several times and knowing already from the 30’s about
    what happened to Finnish communists that moved there (they were killed).
    To sum up: this was not Don Quixote, this was not ideological blindness,
    but a very nitty-gritty and down-to-earth day-to-day grind that did
    eventually over the decades produce concrete results, most of which
    have, alas, been lost. I just don’t have the stomach to say that he was
    wrong in calling it “socialism” or “communism”. (“Welfare-statism” would
    be one possible alternative, but that has its problems too, since while
    welfare was an important goal and the state an important tool, equality,
    locality and internationalism would override both welfare and statism in
    his thinking and action.)

    Maybe the conclusion, then, is that when we want to envision, on one
    hand, a world of education that for its freedom needs also the
    collective/common ownership of the physical infrastructure, and, on the
    other hand, want to see this model take root in physical production as
    well, it would actually be dishonest to call it something else than
    socialist or communist. We know more, we have better tools, so it will
    not be the same; if we can come up with a better name, I’m in. But at
    the same time, there already exists a significant body of thought and
    praxis on these things that also helps to situate current developments
    in context, so why invent everything from the ground? (This point is not
    only academic: in my day job in the university I talk about p2p and open
    hardware and so on, which might be tactically right, but gives me some
    trouble with my conscience, because I know that it is “communism with a
    twist” I’m talking about and I suspect the students can see that, too.
    So why not say it?)

    One last point: I suspect that with peak oil and the financial/debt
    crisis, certainly the right and possibly the left will in the
    foreseeable future turn more and more authoritarian. So the decisive
    political divide will more be on the authoritarian – anti-authoritarian
    axis than on the right-left axis.



Leave A Comment

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.