P2P, capitalism, socialism, and beyond

This is a modified version of a response to Daniel Araya in the p2p research mailing list, which Alex Rollin found publishable.

We are often asked how we relate to left and right politics, and how the p2p/commons preference relates to earlier political approaches such as socialism.

Here is a possible answer:

“Communism was the dream of mostly European and other workers to have a world in which equal relations and full democracy would be possible, and part of the broad tradition of emancipatory thinking who wants to give every human an equitable chance …. it belongs in the same tradition as the french and the american revolutions. As defined by Marx, it was both the real movement of the workers to transform their situation, and the end stage of human history as a classless and stateless form of society, where everyone would contribute freely and have access to abundant resources according to their needs. It would be preceded by a transitional stage, socialism, where there would still be a conditional exchange between effort and reward, as long as society was determined by scarcity.

Communism defined in this way was not a collectivism, i.e. a theory of subsuming the individual to the collective, but rather based on the principle, like in mahayana buddhism, that the liberty of the individual is predicated on that of his brothers and sisters, in other words, nobody can really be free by enslaving others, or in a world predicated on exploitation of others.

In practice however, the left became dominated by statist approaches, in the form of the social democratic left, which wanted to reform the state within capitalism, and the Stalinist movements, which favoured a bureaucratic state presiding over state-owned enterprises and a hierarchically controlled society. If the former slowly adopted to the existing society by becoming the left wing of liberalism, the latter was discredited both by its historical crimes, and the collapse of the Soviet system where it was once dominant.

The reasons why class society persisted, including in the state-capitalist or state-‘socialist’ countries, is a complex one, to which I do not have a full answer, but I do think Marxism and socialism got the nature of the phase transition between succeeding systems wrong (see below).

I’m personally not sure that this dream of classlessness will ever be a reality, event thinking it as a unlikely possibility, and in any case I am not prepared to wait for it, but I think we can make substantial advances to a more equitable world order, not just because we can, but because we must, as the present infinite growth order is not compatible with our survival and that of the biosphere.

P2P is one attempt to formulate a narrative and a politics that can bring about such a change, by subsuming market dynamics (but not capitalism which has no realistic chance to survive in the long run) to a higher purpose and deeper social logic through the generation of commons. In that, I honour the many previous attempts to achieve it, from many different sides, which for me includes that of the dead european philosopher mentioned above, but also many others, and I can see many emancipatory values and approaches in competing political points of view, including liberalism and some forms of conservatism; and I recognize as primary enemies totalitarianism in all its forms, especially Stalinism in all its derivative forms. Capitalism may be objectionable, but it is in many crucial ways preferable, especially in its democratic forms, to state-induced and imposed totalitarianism. There’s a lot more opportunity for p2p in the capitalist U.S.A than in Stalinist North Korea, there can be no doubt about this.

You ask, “Tell me Michel, what technology, democratic practice, or medical innovation has a Marxist ever invented?” and of course the answer would be the same as for the masons or christians, many, as indeed many technologists, democrats, and healthcare pioneers have been Marxists, as others have been of different persuasions, though of course much less people espouse the label today. Do you imagine that all the inventors in world history were all hayekians or schumpeterians? I would like to turn it around and make it personal as well: nothing you have today, your ability to study, etc .. would have been possible without the social struggles and sacrifices of the working men and women for social justice and a more equitable distribution of the social product, including in terms of education, anti-child labour laws, universal suffrage, etc… Non of these things would have been achieved without the ‘socialist’ workers movement in the 19th and 20th century, along with other progressive social movements, such as say Gandhi in India, or the civil rights movement in the U.S. None of these achievements were ‘given’, or just a pure result of automatic prosperity. Left on its own devices, capitalism eats itself, as we have again seen in 2008, it is always up to the people to save it from itself and its own proclivities of taking from the many to give it to the few.

Then you ask: Why in the history of experiments with communism was there no democratic communist state?

You probably know the classic marxist answer, which isn’t mine, which is that this realization was supposed to happen in advanced western countries, the only one with the productive capacity to go beyond the scarcity paradigm, and when the many attempts failed, through violent suppression as well as internal contradictions, then successful power grabs could only happen in countries without that capacity, and hence quickly degenerated into new class systems to allocate the scarce resources. Really existing socialism then, became in effect more like state-capitalism or state-socialism, another way to achieve industrial society, based on bureaucratic control and state ownership, but still involving capital accumulation, workers that did not own their means of production, consumers, etc …

My own answer, presented as the p2p hypothesis, is different. First, I’m not sure that classlessness is possible without a very long cultural and psychological maturation, and with only 2% of the people at a peer to peer level of intersubjectivity (susan cook greuter’s statistics of human development), you can imagine what a long trip that would be. Like the going beyond the ego of eastern enlightenment, I’m not waiting for it. Second, I think that Marxists got the change scenario wrong, as i have argued in a few texts such as “To the Finland Station”. Phase transitions did generally NOT happen with a class taken over power from another, but from a dual transformation of both producing and managerial classes around a new productive paradigm. It is only after a long maturation, through the stages of first emergence, then parity, that phase transitions occur as a change in the state form and in the dominant form of political power.

My analysis of the failure of socialism then, is that it did not fulfil the condition that Marx himself had put forward, i.e. that the old mode had exhausted its possibilities, and that a new productive mode makes it appearance. Socialism, as it could exist in the 19th and 20th century, was not a superior and more productive mode of development. Obviously, though the state-capitalist or state-socialist mode did have some successes, such as higher growth than its capitalist competitors for a number of years, it could not deal with technological complexity in the way capitalist democracies could (and we will see how non-democratic capitalism like China will do on this score in the next 20 years), and it was thus NOT more productive than capitalism, and thus unable to overtake it.

But as I argue in my own work, peer production is hyperproductive in this sense, both economically, socially, and politically, and this is why there is a re-orientation of capitalism towards peer-production modalities today.

In my take today, this means an increasing turn of working people towards peer production, and a turn of a section of capital towards netarchical capitalism, through the joint modality of the commons.

So the phase transition towards peer to peer is not predicated upon the creation of classlessness, but on the becoming core of the commons as a social relation of commoning, while the remaining scarce good dynamics can still be allocated through the market and other modalities. So the difference is that as the present system is based on competition, and within the competing entities on cooperation (through the hierarchical wage relationship but also moderated through more and more horizontal networking), then in the future I envision, based on the already evident practice of existing commons, the core becomes cooperation through the commons, while competition exists between the different commons. And we move from a system which cannot recognize externalities in its practice (market transactions are by definitions outside this purview), to a system where externalities are build in.

Let me stress that this had nothing to do with collectivism … peer to peer is neither a return to premodern wholism, nor coercive cooperation in the stalinist version, but it is based on the free aggregation of individuals around the common creation of value through shared commons of knowledge, code, and design.

What then, is the position of ‘p2p’ towards the right. I have often stated that I believe peer to peer to be a dynamic of the left, as it seeks further emancipation, while the right generally seeks the continuation of existing social hierarchies (more precisely, there is of course also a reactionary right that seeks a return of older hierarchical forms, and a revolutionary right which seeks the imposition of new hierarchies, like Fascism attempted).

Nevertheless, we can find conservative and liberal traditions which have a place for p2p and commons-oriented dynamics, and in my view it might be possible to unite people of different political backgrounds around concrete common priorities. Take as one example, catholic Distributism, or the stress of the Red Toryism of Phillip Blond on civil society, mutualities and cooperatives. Free software is a good practical example, as it doesn’t require a specific political stance to work. Commons can therefore be made to work, and p2p dynamics be made to expand, without requiring any adherence to political principles proposed by the left, as the people of the right also often have a place for community, the commons etc… More importantly, most people are not always consistently on one side in all their convictions, but often mash-up different preferences.

If we ever want to achieve a political and social majority for a phase transition to a commons-based society, then we will need a very broad social alliance.

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