A Q&A with Michel Bauwens by Oliver Sylvester-Bradley, as part of our focus on Platform Co-ops and the open2017 conference

Michel Bauwens is a theorist in the emerging field of P2P theory and director and founder of the P2P Foundation, a global organisation of researchers collaborating in the exploration of peer production, governance, and property. He has authored a number of essays, including his seminal thesis, The Political Economy of Peer Production.

In the run up to the Open 2017 – Platform Co-ops conference in London, Oliver Sylvester-Bradley, from The Open Co-op explores some of Michel’s ideas.

Avoiding the exploitation of the commons and open source peer production

OSB: At The Open Co-op we believe that open source software is an essential component of the Platform co-op / solidarity economy. However, some of the developers I speak to are now less inclined to publish their code openly, since they have seen large corporations incorporate their code and go on to build multi million pound businesses… This makes me wonder if there is a need to move on from simply “open source” by creating a new licensing system, similar to the Creative Commons for artistic works, in order to ensure that developers can stipulate the ways in which their code may be used, and by whom, in order to ensure the commercial world does not exploit open source.

MB: This is of course a very valid concern. But we have to ask a few questions. First, we have to recognise that people have to make a living and free software developers, like others, can be paid for their work as employees or freelancers, independent of the ‘open’ nature of the code. 75% of Linux Core developers are paid for example, and the Fair Use Economy report calculated that one sixth of GDP and 17 million workers are making a living around shared knowledge economies. That’s not trivial.

My point is that work is a rival good, and has a price, but that knowledge is naturally abundant and thus privatising it is inherently problematic.

Which is why we propose a novel solution, one which combines both a full commitment to share knowledge, and a demand for reciprocity towards the commons in the case of commercialisation. This is what we call the ‘copyfair’ principle, and it avoids the reality of free software, which is that, ‘the more free the license, the more private the economy around it’.

To my mind, we thus continue to write shared code, but we create ethical business coalitions around it, and we re-introduce reciprocity into the private market mechanisms.  Examples of this are the practice of the FairShares Association, which has one CC non-commercial license for everyone, and a commercial license for those who pay a membership fee (this is their ‘reciprocity’ requirement).

The Peer Production License used by some publishers is another. I take this as an ethical requirement: while we all have to make a living, and I respect the freedom of everyone to use moderate IP protection as a free choice, I believe that withholding vital productive knowledge for humanity is not the right thing to do.

OSB: OK, some people get paid to write open code – others do not, but I believe for open code to flourish we need to actively encourage developers to publish openly and that is not going to continue to happen if their work gets blatantly exploited for financial gain by others.

Having read more about the PPL now I understand its structure and objectives and admire the way it aims to encourage reciprocation if a conventional capitalist business reaps financial dividends from the open source work. I also understand the valid objections to limiting the flow of ‘free knowledge’ and information.

However, I personally feel we are in a kind of battle here, to either fix, out-evolve or supersede the ‘extractive’ economy asap, if we do not want humanity to become extinct. And I do not see the elites that wield power today giving up on their vested interests any time soon so, to me it seems, we would be wise to place limits on how, and where, and in exchange for what, our work can be used.

As Nathan Schneider put it to me in a recent email:
“as long as there have been commoners, they have had to protect their commons from the greedy hands of the lords.”

We need to organise ourselves so that the ‘value’ of our work can be re-invested in our livelihoods, communities and resources

MB: We have to be defensive, but I think more importantly we need to organise ourselves so that the ‘value’ of our work can be re-invested in our livelihoods, communities and resources. This is why it can never be a purely defensive game, or even trying to get more of the piece of the pie, but it requires a reorganisation of our modes of production and exchange.

Our proposal at the P2P Foundation is threefold at the micro-economic stage: first, we need to build productive communities around our commons, and declare our value sovereignty; this means deciding to distribute value differently, ‘generatively’; this requires a second step, creating generative entrepreneurial coalitions, so that we are commoners adding to the commons, but also cooperators making a living. And this requires also of course building meta-networks, between them.

Obviously, this takes time, and it took capital 400 years to consolidate itself with all the institutions it needed. The problem of course, is: we don’t have that time, but perhaps, because of the acceleration of learning through mutual networks, we can achieve it in 40.

It’s clear from this, given the urgencies of climate change and ecological destruction, that we can never wait for these prefigurative processes to go on on their own. This is why we also need to ally the prefigurative forces with social movements and emancipatory political forces, and we need to infuse them with the models of the commons, and ‘liberate’ them from their exclusive reliance on private vs state.

By building such an alliance we can then also politically transform social and economic institutions and have them evolve in the direction of the prefigurative society that we are building. Free knowledge is hugely important in this context, because under capitalism, we treat rare resources as if they were infinite, and we treat abundant resources, as if they were scarce. So we destroy the planet, but withhold the knowledge necessary to solve the problems thus created.

Think of how patenting of solar and electric cars led to a 30 year stagnation of their necessary development. This is why we have to square the circle, continue to share code, but create vehicles for livelihood creation around it. We must also transform the institutions so that we can have a ‘partner state’ which can ’empower and enable personal and social autonomy’, just as the FLOSS Foundations are doing that at the micro-level. We need commons-based, commonified public institutions. Nobody said it would be easy.

Under capitalism, we treat rare resources as if they were infinite, and we treat abundant resources, as if they were scarce. So we destroy the planet, but withhold the knowledge necessary to solve the problems thus created. 

Can Co-ops create increased value?

OSB: I was inspired to hear you talk about the increased value that can be generated by co-ops and platform co-ops when members are all owners and value is not syphoned off, and away from the organisation, by third parties such as external investors. To me this is one of the main benefits of platform co-ops which I feel has not been adequately explained. Do you know of any real-world examples that prove this to be the case?

MB: Yes, I fully agree with that basic premise that we need platform cooperatives that are generative towards their community and commons and the resources they draw from. Cooperatives of course have a long history of proving they work and employ more people worldwide than the multinational enterprises, and we also know from studies that cooperative startups do a lot better than venture-based startups (who, for each unicorn they produce, destroy 99 other companies). This being said, platform cooperatives are very new and so it is still difficult to say with confidence how they will work. But Nathan Schneider’s Internet of Ownership site identifies more than 250 of them, and, to take just one of them,  Stocksy, a platform co-owned by professional photographers, seems to do quite well.

So, it needs to happen, and the established cooperatives and ethical and solidarity finance absolutely needs to wake up to the necessity of playing a vital supportive role. I stress another condition though, which is the concept of ‘open cooperatives’. My critique is that traditional coops end up working for their members in the competitive capitalist economy, and tend to slowly take over the practices of corporations, up to the point of being demutualised sometimes.

An open cooperative in contrast, would be multi-stakeholder, which means that a ride-hailing coop might be co-owned and governed not just by the drivers, but also by the users and other stakeholders; that it actively (through its own statutes and rules) is engaged in producing common goods (not just the platform itself, but say a commitment to open source code for example); and that it has an outlook and structure committed to achieving some social or environmental purpose.

Marjorie Kelly, in her book on the ‘Emerging Ownership Revolution’ has outlined five major characteristics of ‘generative enterprise’ that I think we should be heeding.

She writes that:

“In ownership design, there are five essential patterns that work together to create either extractive or generative design: purpose, membership, governance, capital, and networks.

  • Extractive ownership has a Financial Purpose: maximizing profits. Generative ownership has a Living Purpose: creating the conditions for life.
  • While corporations today have Absentee Membership, with owners disconnected from the life of enterprise, generative ownership has Rooted Membership, with ownership held in human hands.
  • While extractive ownership involves Governance by Markets, with control by capital markets on autopilot, generative designs have Mission-Controlled Governance, with control by those focused on social mission.
  • While extractive investments involve Casino Finance, alternative approaches involve Stakeholder Finance, where capital becomes a friend rather than a master.
  • Instead of Commodity Networks, where goods are traded based solely on price, generative economic relations are supported by Ethical Networks, which offer collective support for social and ecological norms.”

I think that is an excellent summary of where we need to be heading.

Inter Co-op cooperation and decentralised, distributed currencies

OSB: Principle 6, co-operation between co-ops, seems to provide huge scope for recycling the value that is generated within the co-op community, but doesn’t seem to have been particularly effective to date. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be and how co-ops could improve inter-co-op cooperation?

Relatedly, in a recent article for oD I suggested that “Decentralised distributed currencies will change the way our economy works by re-routing flows of capital. For example, if I could earn “co-op coins” in one co-op and spend them in the next, as a co-op member I would be incentivised to do so, since I also receive a share of the profits.”

How practical do you think that idea is? And what role do you see for decentralised distributed currencies in a new, generative economy?

MB: Cooperatives that compete, with each other and other private companies, and for the benefit of their own members, have historically adapted to capitalist practices, and they had to, given that capitalist competition drives down the cost and prices of the products they need; this has made inter-cooperative cooperation difficult to achieve, with some exceptions. I don’t think it can improve in the same context. But making cooperation ‘commons-centric’ changes the logic, since such commons increase the productive capacity of participating cooperatives. This is why capital has moved massively to the platform models and why it has been such a historical mistake of the cooperative movement to have missed the boat in this shift.

I also believe distributed currencies may play a role in this shift. The way I see it is the following: cooperative commons coalitions need to declare their ‘value sovereignty’; this means that, even as they may be dependent on external capital logics, internally, they can change the mode of distribution of value according to their own value logics, using contributory accounting mechanisms. And within this context, they can express their own new value logics, using new types of currencies, like for example backfeed.cc aims to do. I recommend your readers to check out our latest report on ‘Value in the Commons’ which analyses developments in open and contributory value accounting, based on 3 in-depth case studies.

OSB: The terminology you use here is a little new to me. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that, even though a co-op may generate income in GBP, for example, they can derive their own methods of distributing value (above and beyond just the GBP) to their members and other stakeholders, using their own distributed currencies. Is that what you are saying?

MB: I am saying two things. First, coops indeed need sovereign currencies as income, which they can distribute not just as wages, but also as contributive income, according to their own rules. Second, and complementarily, they can also recognise other value than what is recognised as ‘commodity’ or market value by the external market, and create other tokens for that, which can be used in inter-cooperative networks. These tokens are similar to complementary currencies that are used locally, but in this case, we are speaking of ‘territories of value circulation’, that are not geographically determined, but exist through the network of value exchanges over the network.

OSB: I read with interest how Open value Networks present a viable model for profit sharing in which a ‘value accounting system’ computes equity in proportion to contributions automatically, removing the pain from the profit sharing process. Could that be another example of “declaring value sovereignty” you describe above?

MB: Sensorica is indeed an example of value sovereignty, and there can be other forms, and of course, that is the point of value sovereignty, that it can be diverse. Sensoria’s aim is to create a much more direct linkage between commons contribution and market income. My own preference though is to create cooperatives around the commons, as an intermediary institution.

Is the blockchain really the holy grail for distributed organisations and currencies?

OSB: backfeed.cc seems interesting, and especially powerful if it can be understood and deployed as intended, but I am not convinced that the blockchain is either required, or the best underlying infrastructure, for new forms of distributed currency. For example, the block chain goes to great lengths to anonymise transactions, so that trade made may be conducted anonymously but, as we have seen so clearly in our modern economy (and as the Prisoners’ Dilemma illustrates so well), people do not behave so well in one-time, anonymous transactions.

On the contrary, when transactions are with real people, that we grow to know, people tend to behave more co-operatively and even develop deeper, more valuable ties based on mutual aid and solidarity. Reputation seems like the key ingredient here, as opposed to anonymity. What do you think about the current obsession with basing all these types of new, distributed, organisations and systems on the blockchain? And what do you think about the idea of an alternative system, based on open identity and reputation being more suited (and potentially more valuable to) the p2p / collaborative economy?

MB: I agree with your critique. The blockchain, let’s not forget, comes from the design of the Bitcoin currency, which is an anarcho-capitalist, “austrian economics” inspired design. It represents ‘ultracapitalism’ if you will, the urge to commodify everything. It presumes atomised and isolated individuals that contract out with each other, and dislikes any collective governance. So, while I think the blockchain can be inserted in other designs that do not make these limiting assumptions about human nature and motivations, it is not absolutely necessary.

My own beef with backfeed is that it assumes human work needs incentives, but the key assumption I make is the opposite, i.e. that commons work is driven ‘intrinsically’, and so there is a danger, that incentivising may actually ‘crowd out’ commoning behaviour to replace it with competition for scarce tokens. But of course we need to experiment, and backfeed is versatile enough to allow for very different designs adapted to various communities.

Ownership is directly related to the real value of an organisation

OSB: I developed the diagram (below) during discussions with Douglas Rushkoff, which attempts to illustrate the direct relationship between ownership and “real” value of an organisation to society. How true do you think this illustration is?

MB: The graphic is fine for me, in my own language, which comes from Marjorie Kelly’s ‘Emerging Ownership Revolution’, which we discussed above, I distinguish ‘extractive’ from ‘generative’ approaches; this could be added to the graphic. For example, the VC model extracts value from human communities and natural resources, for the benefit of a minority of shareholders (example, Uber destroys the potential of ride-sharing to diminish the numbers of cars, by making drivers compete for customers); while cooperative models attempt to add value to the communities and resources they work with.

What is democracy and how can we make improve on the present, undemocratic system

OSB: You seem to be a fan of democracy, as am I, however, I’m not sure I have ever experienced it. What do you think real democracy is?

MB: I think there are two competing visions of democracy, one which is rule by the people directly, as in the Athenian model (though it was restricted to male citizens), the other is through a set of institutions which have the contrary aim of actually restraining such direct power, as documented in the book by Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, “Athens on Trial: the Anti-Democratic tradition in Western thought “.

My focus is on the first model. The problem is that after 200 years of the second model, the primary areas of our life, like school and work, are not democratic, and so the basic problem is that we expect democratic behaviour from people (citizens / residents) who have basically never exercised it. This is one reason I favour the commons model, because it is based on self-governing communities, so it is a training school for democracy like no other.

OSB: When you say ‘the commons model’ what exactly do you mean? Where can we see a commons model acting as “a training ground for democracy like no other”?

MB: I follow the traditional definition of the commons, i.e. a shared resource, managed by a community according to its own norms. There are plenty of physical commons in the Global South, i.e. 85% of Africans still depend on them, less so in the West, but there are in fact more than we think. In Galicia, Spain, one third of the land is still commons and run by commons associations. But today, we see the explosion of digital commons (shared knowledge resources are the basis of one sixth of GDP in the US economy), and urban commons. There has been a tenfold increase of citizen initiatives in Flanders in the last ten years, and a similar exponential explosion in the Netherlands, and many of these initiatives involve creating commons as part of their practice. Guy Standing’s book on the precariat, has documented the deep linkage of precarious workers with networks characterised by commons.

I do not believe a complex society can solely run on direct democracy, and it is not realistic to demand of people to be involved with everything.

The innovation of peer production moreover, which is now actively pursued in the Italian model promoted by LabGovand LabSus, is the realisation that not everybody has to decide on everything, we simply have no time to be involved in everything at the personal level, but to give privileged space to the already engaged citizens, with the appropriate control mechanisms by other stakeholders, including ‘society’ as a whole.

OSB: So do you favour liquid democracy, or any kind of delegative democracy?

MB: I favour a mixture, which needs to be experimented with. I do not believe a complex society can solely run on direct democracy, and it is not realistic to demand of people to be involved with everything. Thus we need to build new layers of deliberative democracy and participation, on top of improved representative democracies, which can also include new lottery systems for such presentation, as for example presented in Melenchon’s proposal for a newConstituent Assembly and 6th Republic in France.

Right now, we (the human race) are at the cusp of combining the old representative model, which is no longer functioning for different reasons, and an added layer of experimental more direct democratic models. See also what is happening in Voralberg, the Austrian region, with civic councils for examples; or the Bologna Regulation in Italian cities, which gives citizens direct policy power to instantiate commons governance projects.

I think the essence is now experimentation, and different regions/countries/cities might opt for different contextual mixes of collective decision-making. Of course, I am also very aware of potential counter-tendencies with an authoritarian capitalism under the leadership of right-wing radicals such as the Trump-ian forces. It’s going to be a context between the two models, while we know the status-quo is no longer functioning.

OSB: Since members of co-ops and platform co-ops get to vote on everything and anything by which they are affected, a society populated by a multitude of co-ops might provide an alternative system of governance.

A co-op of co-ops could perform organisational duties at any scale whilst ensuring democratic governance by pushing decisions down to the lowest possible levels. What do you think about the possibility of a completely new system of democracy, like the above, superseding the existing system?

MB: I think we should be wary of uniform systems, since, if anything goes wrong with it, there is no backup. This was the argument of Rosa Luxemburg against the abolition in Russia of the parliament (during the Russian Revolution), she realised that if anything went wrong with the worker councils, there would be no other power able to create a balance, and she was proven right. The model you describe is being experimented in Rojava I believe.

But the cooperative model has its limits in my view, in that it easily functions as private property or ‘worker capitalism’, in relation to the rest of society. This is why I stress the model of open cooperatives, in which coops are also directly aligned with the production of common good, in the form of ‘commons’, through their own statutory obligations. In general, I favour a pluri-form model of democracy, in which cooperative democracy has its place, along with others, to make sure there is institutional diversity.

OSB: So, would I be right in saying you think that the most practical way to expand democracy is for citizens to propose solutions and organise around areas of shared interest (or physical or digital commons), to make their voices known and to influence our existing ‘representative democracies’ in the hopes that our representatives make better decisions?

Democracy has to be first of all a practice that is integrated in our lives, not something just like an election, which is like electing which elite is going to govern us.

MB: No that is not entirely correct. On the one hand, democracy has to be first of all a practice that is integrated in our lives, not something just like an election, which is like electing which elite is going to govern us (election = elite, both words have the same roots, and the greeks saw elections as the aristocratic principle and the lottery as the democratic principle); the commons, defined as shared resources that are governed by communities according to their own rules and norms, are a good way to achieve this, i.e. as we learn and work, we practice democracy.

Representative democracy needs to exist to cover wider territorial and functional units, but we are at the threshold where mere representation is no longer enough, and so this is the time to augment it with new techniques, to be experimented with, and this may involve participatory, deliberative, liquid feedback type, lotteries etc.

 John Heron explains well what chance of change I believe we can achieve, he once wrote:

“There seem to be at least four degrees of cultural development, rooted in degrees of moral insight:

  1. autocratic cultures which define rights in a limited and oppressive way and there are no rights of political participation;
  2. narrow democratic cultures which practice political participation through representation, but have no or very limited participation of people in decision-making in all other realms, such as research, religion, education, industry etc.;
  3. wider democratic cultures which practice both political participation and varying degrees of wider kinds of participation;
  4. commons p2p cultures in a libertarian and abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of participation of everyone in every field of human endeavour.”

Heron adds that “These four degrees could be stated in terms of the relations between hierarchy, co-operation and autonomy.

  1. Hierarchy defines, controls and constrains co-operation and autonomy;
  2. Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere only;
  3. Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere and in varying degrees in other spheres;
  4. The sole role of hierarchy is in its spontaneous emergence in the initiation and continuous flowering of autonomy-in-co-operation in all spheres of human endeavour”

Visions of the future

OSB: Finally, I’d like to ask about your vision. We are often exposed to the vision of a world full of hate and extremism and scarcity but rarely hear about a positive alternative. If you were in charge, what changes would you make to help speed up the transition to a collaborative, generative, sustainable, economy?

MB: I have a rather tragic vision for change, i.e. change happens when we must. At this stage where we have a world civilisation which is based on extraction, where social inequalities lead to authoritarian right wing populism and the planet is endangered in all kinds of ways, humanity will do what it has always done, i.e. create popular and spiritual movements that aim to limit extraction and discipline the extractors.  Mark Whitaker, who has done a 3,000 year comparative review of how civilisations react to meltdowns shows a pattern. This means going to a system that stabilises social unrest. This is where peer to peer dynamics come in today, and that needs massive mutualisation ( = pooling, = commons) of physical and knowledge resources.

Thus any successor system will need to comprise revived commons as a way to drastically reduce the material footprint.

If the medieval monks mutualised knowledge and infrastructure through monasteries and feudalism re-localised production, so today we have free software / open design, the sharing / access based economy to mutualise idle resources and recycle / upcycle and distribute local manufacturing based on demand, to relocalise.

You know the analogy of imaginal cells in the caterpillar; the cells who identify with the caterpillar are in panic, because the system is dying, but the cells who identify with the butterfly and carry its DNA know that it is a transition. Similarly today, we see seed forms emerging to solve the systemic crises, and the P2P Foundation is dedicated to observing them, analysing them and to think through where this can lead us, and be a catalyst for that change.

OSB: That’s a great analogy. The Open Co-op has similar objectives and we will be discussing all of the above themes at Open 2017 in London In February. Thank you for your time and all your thoughts Michel, you are an inspiration and the P2P Foundation is an amazing resource for the anyone interested in the transition to a more equitable, sustainable society.

This post was originally published on OpenDemocracy.net. 


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