Ignacio de Castro has written a fine trilogy on medieval p2p-like practices, that is somehow framed as a challenge to our p2p approach. It describes the practices of jewish maghrebi traders in the Middle Ages and their international support network, and wonders why they ultimately lost against their Genovese more ‘capitalist’ competitors. Ignacio asks: could the same defeat happen to contemporary P2P practices and communities?
The whole series is accessible from here .
I indeed wonder whether that is the case, but I doubt it, so here is my response, an attempt to explain my confidence in our p2p future.
According to the anthropological model that I used most, i.e. Alan Page Fiske’s relational grammar, ‘peer to peer’ has always existed. He calls it ‘communal shareholding’. However, it also seems that different intersubjective modalities have been dominant in different social systems, never excluding the others, but informing and influencing them.
So it is not a surprise to me, that the Middle Ages had peer to peer like practices. One that is of course very well known is the existence of local land commons that were used by medieval peasants and serfs. But the important thing is that it existed within the dominance of a society marked by what Fiske calls authority ranking, i.e. the hierarchical allocation of resources within feudal society. For the magrhebi traders, their commons enabled their ‘merchant trading’ (i.e. what Fiske calls Market Pricing), which in turn existed within an overall feudal-like social structure (I use feudal here in the most general sense, since the North-African social structures were undoubtedly different from those in Europe).
The general point is this: it is likely that many social groups had partial commons or ‘p2p-like’ practices, but the key is to see to what dominant model it was subsumed.
What is clear is that neither feudal or capitalist societies are based on the dominance of peer to peer, but they can very exist, and probably depend on, the existence of positive externalities from all kinds of commons, if only to enclose them after a certain time. After all, our family units, the very basis of our social reproduction, is still mostly a commons, and has always been.
Apart from the subsumption of some social logics to others, the other issue posed by Iganacio is that of scope and scale. Clearly, the Magrhebi network had an impressive scale, but nevertheless, the pre-digital commons would always have been constrained to some degree, by transaction costs based on geographic scale. Even as their existing commons lowered the cost of trading, there would have been constraints, in a way that is substantially different from the digital constraints.
I would suggest it is this difference, which now allows a important scaling of peer to peer practices, because communities can be global right from the start, at very very low transaction costs. They are no longer just ‘international’, as they could be in their time.
In the second part of his series, Ignacio compares the commons-oriented maghribi traders, with the more capitalist oriented Genovese, who ultimately prevailed. I think his point actually strengthens our own interpretation. This is that, in previous historical periods, peer to peer/commons oriented practices would have been ‘less competitive’, precisely because of the issue of physical transaction costs, than alternatives. (He also adds the paradoxical point that it is ultimately the closed aspects of the Maghrebi trading commons, based on ethnicity, which made them less competitive with the open commercial practice of the Genovese traders, for whom money had no ethnic odour.)
Our thesis of ‘asymmetric competition’ holds that it is precisely this that is changing: we are entering a historical period, in which commons-oriented, open practices are more competitive than their closed proprietary alternatives. This only holds for their immaterial aspects though: information, software, design, but we contend that these aspects of production are now the core of innovation, and therefore, dominance in immaterial production spills over in the dominance of the physical field.
Nevertheless, at this historical stage, p2p practices cannot replace systems of reciprocal exchange, because cost-recovery is a necessity for physical production. However, we argue simultaneously that open immaterial peer production will also fundamentally change the organization of physical production.
Ultimately, we believe that peer production will be the core of value creation, and that it is the market and exchange modes which will be subsumed to P2P. But this is only true tendentially, ‘in the long run’, so that, in a transition period of at least several decades, it is the hybrid models that will be most competitive. In other words, peer production will first strengthen and save capitalism, before it will transcend it.
His second article also stresses the importance of cultural in the adoption of social practices, and this is indeed important. This is why Asia for example, where authority ranking is still so much stronger, has more difficulties in adopting peer to peer practices in the digital realm. However, since we also think these countries can also benefit more for open design and distributed manufacturing, it is entirely possible that the culture would adapt and change in order to encompass the new possibilities. We think that this is in fact quite likely, and in harmony with historical precedents, as it was always peripheral countries which benefited most from such techno-social revolutions.
In this concluding third part, Ignacio wonders whether the new digital p2p will similarly succumb to capitalist competition and appropriation. The key for Ignacio is the the exclusionary aspects of the Maghrebi commons, only allowing fellow Jews to belong, does not generally hold for contemporary peer production, where the exclusionary aspects are marginal compared to the inclusionary aspects. We believe this is correct.
However, there is an important exclusionary aspect that needs to be added, and which explains why P2P is a ‘post-industrial’ phenomenom,i.e. it could not have occured previously.
As Ignacio stresses, modern P2P has a inclusionary metaphysic.
However, it cannot control what happens outside its own projects. This potentially weakens peer production, but also is an important way in which it has to remain connected with social and global justice movements arising out of society. Indeed, without continued growth of human capacities, along with digital infrastructures, its equipotential basis would shrivel.
Another limitation of p2p is its hybridity. Open design communities need alliances with physical production entities, which are now mostly corporations. This means that p2p projects are essentially ecologies, and their strength will be determined by the ability of the community, the abilities of the associated corporations, and the integration behind both. So while P2P is tendentially hyper-competitive, the devil will always be in the details of the specific ‘competitions’ between free alternatives and their proprietary counterparts.