Peer to Peer dynamics in a corporate context: is it possible?

From the dynamic p2presearch mailing list, created after the Nottingham Peer Production Workshop, another great contribution by Henrik Ingo, who explains why it is impossible to fully implement peer to peer practices in a traditional corporation:

Henrik Ingo:

“From this it follows that a modern enterprise is not well suited for a p2p governance model, because in commercial enterprises aka as companies the power by definition lies solely within its owners (“hegemony of the owner”). Therefore the balance from “community voting with its feet” is lacking. By this logic even if a company was seemingly governed by a p2p process, in reality it would only be at the grace of the owners, who at any time could take back the power they had decided to give to the p2p process. (To be continued below…)

In contrast the problem of an enterprise acting as an agent within a larger p2p system is more easy to approach and as a rule of thumb I would suggest that such a situation is not so different from when individual persons act in a p2p governed system. For instance, a company such as IBM will decide to voluntarily spend its resources on Apache or Linux projects, without any contractual guarantee to receive anything in return. This is completely equivalent to an individual person choosing to participate in such a project. OTOH even this is not an easy task for many companies, for instance internal processes for many companies I know would make it impossible for them to really participate in the blogosphere, because the company culture is such that employees writing uncensored statements in public is unthinkable.

(Even if the company allowed it, many employees would not dare to actually write anything more interesting or useful than the average company press release.)

Also enterprises other than commercial companies (like a non-profit or a chess club, say) could be more easily governed by a p2p process, since they don’t have owners in that sense to begin with. In particular, such an enterprise might incorporate in its bylaws some clauses which would enable easy forking. Yet even then such an enterprise will probably govern some scarce material goods which cannot be forked.

(And now back to our main story of commercial companies…) So to have truly p2p governed commercial companies we must come up with a way to shift the balance of power from “hegemony of the owners” to a more balanced situation where power is distributed with the owners, employees, customers etc… We could start by questioning the hegemony of the owners directly, is it a true view of a commercial company, or is it just something our society is falsely taking for granted? While it is true that the employer has tremendous power of the employee, in practice it would be terrible for the company if a majority of its
employees revolted against the employer. Similarly if even a significant minority of the customers are unhappy with a company. So
maybe there is more balance than we think? On the other hand it is in our society seen ethically ok currently for the employer to restrict the power of its employees, in particular “forking” of a company can be contractually restricted by having employees accept non-competing agreements. (Whereas a Free Software license for instance, enables and almost encourages forking.)

So again, the question is: Could there be a way to start looking at modern commercial companies in a way where the balance of power is radically different from the current hegemony of owners? If not, then the second question is, how should society change its values and legislation on this issue, to better enable such a situation to come by.

Finally of course there is the possibility of a future where commercial companies are not the primary vehicle driving society
forward as they are today.

1 Comment Peer to Peer dynamics in a corporate context: is it possible?

  1. Patrick Anderson

    I agree it is a matter of distributing, or even auto-distributing ownership over the physical means of production to the ‘right’ people.

    My personal conclusion is that property should be owned by those who pay, and any price above cost that Consumers pay (what is usually called profit) should be handled as an investment from them. In that way, Users gain Freedom and control in the physical realm similar to the User Freedom RMS has helped owners syndicate through the GNU GPL.

    But even if I am wrong about WHO should own (maybe it is the Workers as most suggest), either decision can be enforced by *us* by starting a *new* company who’s initial owners choose to apply some kind of “operational contract” that insures the constraints are held in place over the life of the corporation.

    If that contract ‘solves’ some of the problems we see in raw capitalism, then we will outperform and eventually overgrow the current giants.

    Could there be a way to start looking at modern commercial companies in a way where the balance of power is radically different from the current hegemony of owners?

    What are some disadvantages of creating and presiding over our OWN corporation instead of begging others to “do the right thing”?

    Can “the right thing” be phrased in contractual language so it can be enforced through regular property rights?

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