“The object of P2P Theory is to investigate the specific phase transition from social forms based on the domination of the market form (aka capitalism), to social forms based on the peer to peer network form.”

Different historians and anthropologists have posited the existence of dominant social forms, which evolve over time, though should not necessarily be seen as a univocal evolution.

For example, David Ronfeldt has developed TIMN theory, which sees a succession of social forms that are the locus of power, respectively Tribes (T+), Institutions (I+), Markets (M+) and Networks (N+). See this graph for more details, as well as other overview graphs here.

Alan Page Fiske, in his book ‘The Structures of Social Life’, has described a relational grammar consisting of four types of relationships, related to the allocation of resources in society, which have existed in most times and regions, but with different relations of dominance amongst them. In his relational model he distinguishes Communal Shareholding (pooling with a totality), Equality Matching (the gift economy based on reciprocity), Authority Ranking (allocation according to rank) and Market Pricing.

Kojin Karatani distinguishes four modes of exchange:

  • mode A, which consists of the reciprocity of the gift; but he distinguishes the pooling of nomadic bands and the reciprocity-based gift economy of tribal systems;
  • mode B, which consists of ruling and protection;
  • mode C, which consists of commodity exchange; and
  • mode D, which transcends the other three.

So, there seems to be a more or less broad agreement that:

  • we have (had) societies based on small nomadic bands and the pooling of resources (Communal Shareholding);
  • we have (had) tribal societies (T+) based on reciprocity, existing in more or less localized mini-systems in which tribes relate to other tribes (and other forms in their margin);
  • we have state-based, tributary, Authority-Ranking systems based on rule and protect, plunder and redistribute principles (I+), existing in a broader system of interlocking world-empires (and other forms in their margin);
  • we have market-based ‘capitalist’ societies (M+), consisting of a trinity of an interlocking Capital-Nation-State, based on Market Pricing for exchange, and existing in a global world-market (i.e. world capital-nation-state system)

Historically, we can already discern:

  • a shift from nomadic pooling (Communal Shareholding) societies to tribal, sedentary reciprocity-based gift economy societies;
  • a shift of tribal societies to Empires, i.e. state-based class societies; and
  • a shift of the latter to capitalist societies.

Today, we see the emergence of the network form (N+), and in our hypothesis a new phase shift towards a system of world-networks, which will reconfigure the other modalities that always also exist, but in a new configuration. David Ronfeld sees the emergence of N+, and Karatani sees the emergence of Mode D.

P2P Theory therefore, tries to answer the more modest question: What institutions arise in the phase shift from market domination to network domination, to use the TIMN language, i.e. from M+ to N+; in Fiske’s language, a society based again on Communal Shareholding as the dominant form; for Karatani, the shift from Mode C to Mode D.

We expect this type of network society, Karatani’s Mode D, to be ‘dominated’ by the institutional form of the Commons, based on peer to peer relational dynamics (i.e. Communal Shareholding), but also that it ‘transcends and include’ the older forms in a new configuration. Just as capitalism consists of Capital-Nation-State under the domination of the capitalist market logic as the main mode of exchange, so we posit the Productive Commons Community, the generative Entrepreneurial Coalition, and the For-Benefit Association as the seed form for a society that consists of a Productive Commons-Centric Civil Society, a Ethical Economy, and a Partner State, but under the dominant exchange form of the Commons.

Yochai Benkler has described the emergence of commons-based peer production as a subset of today’s capitalist society, but lately, authors like Jeremy Rifkin in the Zero Marginal Cost Society, and Paul Mason in PostCapitalism have started joining our hypothesis that the new modalities are not just subforms of capitalism, but have the capacity to subsume capitalism. None of these authors however, has collated the amount of data on the actual occurence of the shift, and while Karatani brings a wealth of historical and anthropological findings to bear on the previous shift, the documentation on the emergence of an actual Mode D remains scarce.

Based on ten years of observation and analysis, allowing a much more ‘thick’ description of the already occurring phase shift, we believe the broad outlines of such a new social form have become visible:

1) the key network institution is the Commons, i.e. shared resources, their productive communities of contributors, and their shared norms and regulations. The key social form is the networked productive community practising Communal Shareholding, through which all citizens can produce shared value, through open contributory system, that create shared commons, and using ‘mutual coordination’ (stigmergy) as their main modality of cooperation and coordination.

2) the key market institution in a society dominated by the network form, i.e. based on networked commons as explained above, is the ‘ethical market entity’ or generative entrepreneurial coalition, which creates value and livelihoods around these commons; these market entities in other words, are not the dominant form, but serve the commons and their communities through generative practices (in contrast with traditional capitalist firms which ignore negative externalities, or netarchical capitalist forms which directly extract value from the commons without adequate return) that are beneficial for both the human and nature. P2P market entities infuse the market form with reciprocity based requirements at least within the coalitions itself, and are reciprocial towards the commons and nature. The ethical market institutions are not-for-profit (not for private profit, but also not necessarily non-profit).

3) the key governance institution (I+) form in this era of N+, is the for-benefit association, which exists alongside nearly all p2p productive communities and commons-centric entrepreneurial coalitions, i.e. these institutions, usually non-profit, create and maintain the infrastructures of cooperation needed by the commons and its actors (think of the role of the Wikimedia Foundation, which does not direct the work on the Wikipedia, but makes it possible)

So, in the emergent form, in N+, the M+ and I+ are subsumed under the logic of the accumulation of the commons ; my hypothesis is that this emerging micro-logic of peer production, is prefigurative of the new social form that is emerging for the N+ era, to use the language and TIMN theory. Thus our thesis that the new commons-centric society or post-civilization, will consists of 1) productive civil society, consisting of citizens contributing to the commons of their choice 2) ethical entrepreneurial associations, which respond to social need and create livelihoods for the commoners 3) a partner state form, which creates the meta-conditions for personal and social autonomy and the capacity building that citizens need to have equipotential rights of participation in the new society.

1 Comment A Synthesis of the Findings of P2P Theory: Ten Years After

  1. Strypey

    This succession of political-economic forms has also been described in Ken Wilbur’s book ‘A Brief History of Everything’. Wilbur describes it using his AQAL matrix (All Quadrants, All Levels), which breaks the historical development into a series of “worldviews”, each of which has its physical, psychological, cultural, and socio-economic correlates. I like the way Wilbur tries to integrate non-European philosophy and history into the mix, as David Graeber does in debt, but I think we need to be conscious that all of these descriptions are still located within a somewhat Eurocentric, modernist notion of continual and inevitable “progress”, shared by both marxist and neo-classical economic thought.

    An alternative perspective on the whole question is provided by Daniel Quinn. In his book ‘Ishmael’, humans are seen as following two diverging paths, the “development” path described above (agricultural > industrial > post-industrial), and one of sustainable hunter-gathering that is as old as humanity itself and still in operation wherever agricultural and industrial societies have not managed to colonize and assimilate its practitioners.

    Thom Hartmann synthesizes the two perspectives (the developmental and the primitivist) nicely in ‘The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight’. He agrees with Quinn that we should see surviving hunter-gatherer and nomadic herding societies as role models to protect and learn from, rather than primitives in need of “civilization”. But he also acknowledges that most of us don’t have the option of going back to the jungle or the prairie, there are just too many humans on the planet and too little wild habitat left. If we are to avoid wiping ourselves out and taking the surviving indigenous people and a huge number of other species down with us, we need to transcend the industrial society and its institutions, as described nicely in this article.

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