P2P and the Cooperative movement: critical comments from Marcus Moltz

Michel Bauwens: Both theory and practice are important, even though they do not always coincide. Any theoretical scheme, such as the one I’m trying to develop on P2P, has to constantly check itself to the reality of transformative practice. Theory is subject to hubris, to ‘conceptual imperialism’ and to various forms of arrogance. It is something to be guarded against, and this is why I find the following entry so important and rich. My aim in the issue 88 entry on cooperatives, was not to denigrate cooperatives however, but to make a distinction between reciprocity-based schemes, market-based schemes, and non-reciprocal P2P production. Despite the corrections by Marcus, I believe they are still important, but they should not be read as denigrating the cooperative movement, or ‘hard dichotomies’ denying the hybridity of real practice. Reciprocity-based schemes, and fair trade or market schemes, share the ‘spirit of gifting’ and fairness, and in terms of the search of more just modes of production, they form part of a continuum of alternatives. Now, do I think that ‘peer to peer’ is in the end ‘superior’ to other schemes. To the extent that one finds that production for no gain, and with no direct expectation of a material return, may be morally more desirable than schemes based on reciprocity or exchange. Yes. But also knowing that where there is no abundance, full P2P cannot develop because it is based on the “wastage” of surplus resources. The swarming inherent in P2P production is in fact ‘very costly’ in terms of human resources, and is predicated on abundance.

However, my comments are not a critique on what Marcus is saying here below, and should indeed by read as a necessary critique and addition to perhaps indeed overhasty and overly dichotomizing conclusions. I have to admit that my knowledge of the contemporary cooperative movement is very partial.

In conclusion:

I would think it likely that in a future civilisational model, both gift economy and Commons-based models would be complementary. P2P will function most easily where there is a sphere of abundance, in the sphere of non-rival goods, while gift economy models may bean alternative model to manage scarcity, in the sphere of rival goods and resources. As my own preliminary ideal in this research project, I envision the future civilization to have a core of P2P processes, surrounded by a layer of gift and fair trade applications, and with a market that operates based upon the principles of ‘natural capitalism’, as outlined by authors such as Hazel Henderson, David Korten and Paul Hawken, i.e. a market which has integrated ‘externalities’ (environmental and social costs) to arrive at true costing.

1. Comments by Marcus Molz:

concerning the Issue 88 article on P2P and the Cooperative Movement

“Even if I appreciate very much that you put this important topic on the agenda in my eyes your conclusion is overexagerated and two much dichotomising in some respects. Even if historically cooperatives have arisen as a kind of local self-help mecanism there are today great many cooperatives, e.g. in insurance and banking, which are neither local nor concerned with the production of material goods. As a recent development becoming reality next year the European Commission has created new legal statutes for what will be European Cooperative Societies (SCEs) as transnational organisations. A similar approach is in the making for mutual societies, for foundations, and for associations. Further growth and smooth transnational activities of the not at all marginal social economy as it is called now (and which is a main contributor to job creation, social cohesion, and civil society development) will be stimulated by these new legal frameworks in the EU. This sector of the economy is of course adopting virtual collaboration in cyber-collectives as well, especially for its transnational activities. If this weren’t the case I couldn’t help them to do so (as a consultant). So, even if in their respective beginnings P2P is global-cyber-immaterial-production-centric and cooperatives local-face2face-material-production-centric, many cooperatives have outgrown their historical antecedents and have become (trans)national-cyber-immaterial-production-centric. Cooperatives will have much more ease to globalise and immaterialise (because this is a simple question of organisation) than P2P has to localise and materialise (because this would depend on tremendous technological progress e.g. in manufacturing). The first dichotomy of your conclusion does neither take into account this kind of evolution nor the huge diversity of cooperatives we have today. As a consequence it seems artificial to me, a theoretical antagonism not based on empirical evidence, at least not today, and still less in what will be the step to come. The next point of your conclusion concerns the commons: of all people or only of the shareholders of the cooperative. But still here the dichotomy isn’t as clearcut as you are suggesting. The are e.g. many cooperatives designed to reintegrate disadvantaged persons (long-term jobless, disabled, ex-junkies etc.) into the labour market. They do not only produce immaterial (social integration, self-esteem, jobs) and material goods at the same time, but they do clearly follow goals serving their specific target group at the same time as society at large (e.g. the education and the social security system). The more the common good traditionally managed by the nation state is internationalising (like in the EU) the more it really “belongs to all”. Another convergence, in the (very) long-term perspective. Your third conclusion is overstretching a phenomenon which of course exists. First of all, as I tried to show, many cooperatives do not only produce exchange value. Secondly, returning to the insurance sector, in several countries cooperatives are among the most attractive competitors, not because of their values and organisational make-up, but because they do not need to feed capitalist shareholders. Their clients are their shareholders, their shareholders are their clients, the circuit is closed, there is no money pipeline towards a third party. Other cooperatives are very much value-centric, like alternative banks. They can attract clients sharing these values. As a consequence they are (at least partly) distracted from traditional competitors until those are developing similar “ethical products” to reattract them. Cooperatives thus fulfill an an important function related to the evolution of the market. The margin may be in the first place be marginal in economic terms but it is the place where new ideas and new values generally come from and where they are implemented first before going mainstream and being realised even by non-cooperative organisations. The fourth and last point of your conclusion is finally not less “overdichotomised”. There is e.g. a new movement of entrepreneurial worker cooperatives. The goal of the cooperative is to create jobs. The design of this type of cooperatives allows for becoming an employee of the cooperative (with all the rights granted by the social security system of a given country) while realising one’s own freelance business. In this type of cooperatives income is NOT distributed in a formal and equal way, but depends basically on the income an individual is able to generate. But the individual’s capacity to generate income is leveraged by the cooperative through several mecanisms which I cannot detail here. There is a mix of communal sharing and market pricing but no equality matching nor authority ranking. These cooperatives can even get rid of the need for reciprocity. They just need of a critical mass of people to organise themselves in such a cooperative. My last critique is that the comparison is flawed as well because cooperatives are a recognised legal entity in great many countries whereas P2P is basically informal. This is the only true dichotomy I can figure out for the moment.

As an additional information I would like to tell you that I am currently involved in preparing a European project designed to build an open network of organisations (which will formalise as a European Cooperative Society) which share the goal to integrate open source software into products and services for easy and affordable use by small transnational networked organisations. This blends nearly everything I mentioned: existing originally P2P-developed open source software – the development and promotion of new open source software by a kind of open but formal organisational network cooperation – there are for-profit and non-profit elements intermingled, and there are all Fiske types of social interaction in various combinations and embeddedness. I really think that this could become a (very much experimental) way to bridge the transnational immaterial production and the local material one, or even more generally to move towards something more integral. P2P and cooperatives are in no way dichotomic. Cooperatives need P2P products, and cooperatives need to learn from P2P to unlimit benefits and contributions from their formal shareholders in order to flourish in a globalised competitive and P2P environment. P2P on the other hand needs formal organisations when it comes to consulting, adaptation, standardisation, maintenance etc. – why not do this as a cooperative rather than as a private company, as the values are much closer to P2P?

1 Comment P2P and the Cooperative movement: critical comments from Marcus Moltz

  1. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » P2P, markets, cooperatives, the state, and altruism

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.