The basic orientation of p2p theory towards societal reform: transforming civil society, the private and the state

This article aims to be a summary of the very basic orientation that I propose for social change.

I start from the classic division of human society in three basic aspects: civil society, the private sector, and the state.

1. The transformation of civil society

I think it is safe to say that in the present system, civil society is not the primary social reality. “Value” is created in the private sector, where we are present as ‘workers’, under the ‘leadership’ of corporations and those members of our society who have access to capital. Civil society though in theory ‘sovereign’, chooses its own authority in terms of electing the state personnel. The secondary status is well established in our language, where the organisations of civil society are called non-profits, i.e. considered as secondary to the for-profit corporations, or NGO’s, non-governmental organisations that are secondary to ‘government’ or the state. Despite all democratic advances, the state forms have clearly been captured by private interests. Despite the critique that we can address to this state of affairs, it also represents some kind of reality, i.e. that in a capitalist system, ‘civil society’ is not directly productive of the goods and services that we need to survive, live and thrive.

However, the emergence of commons-based peer production, and all its derivative modes of creating value, clearly indicate that civil society has become not just productive, but in fact, the commons of knowledge, code and design are the primary productive factor in a knowledge-based economy, where everything that needs to be made, has to be designed through collaborative innovation in the first place. This means that under conditions of increased importance and centrality of peer production in value creation, civil society becomes the core of the civil-private-state triarchy.

Civil society, or perhaps better ‘civic’ society, becomes the core of social life, and consists of the continuous interchange and dialogue of citizens as they determine their collective life. Both civil society and the notion of citizenship can be criticized for being insufficiently inclusionary, and therefore as ‘mechanisms of exclusion’. While I believe that such critique has a lot of merit, I think we can continue to use the concept of civil society if we use it in an expansive way, i.e. with a view of maximum inclusion, and in the historicity of its evolution which indeed is characterized by succeeding waves of inclusion and participation.

However, in view of such limitations, this almost certainly means that on top of the existing nation-states, we need new mechanisms so that there are no human beings that are excluded from civil and civic duties, i.e. excluded from participation in the life of the physical and ‘virtual’ polises that they have a stake in, or are impacted by. This means by necessity that civic life must also be transnational. Objectively speaking, commonses of knowledge, code and design are not in any way limited by nation-state limits, through they may be organized in broad language communities.

In summary, peer to peer sees the core value creation happen in civil society, as citizens/commoners create value to the various commons and communities to which they belong, and specifically the commons of knowledge, code and designs that are at the basis of any human activity.

Thus, the core of civil society is the commons, consisting of shared depositories of knowledge, code and design; the communities of contributors and users of such commons. Such commons need infrastructures of collaboration, which are managed by a new type of ‘for-benefit associations’ which take care of the various commons and are democratically governed by all participants and stakeholders in such commons. It is important that we use this new language of for-benefit, as it clearly indicates the primacy of such institutions, which are not derived or secondary from either the private or state forms.

In conclusions, under conditions of peer production, civil society is the locus of the shared abundance of value creation, and the place for the continual dialogue regarding the necessities of common life.

We can distinguish different aspects of civil society.

As citizens, members of civil society enter into dialogue with others around the organisation and priorities of social life, including the meta-governance of the triarchy civil-private-state; and they democratically decide the rules and norms that govern the various systems of ‘provision’, both material and immaterial, which provide for human needs. We also participate in the meta-governance mechanisms responsible for managing the ‘common good’ of society as a whole

As contributors to the various commons, we participate in the value creation, either as free voluntary contributors, or as members of a new type of private sector organisation, which we will describe later.

Some of us also participate in the governance mechanisms of the commons themselves, particularly in the democratically governed for-benefit associations that protect and nurture the commons. Whereas the commons themselves are plurarchies based on permissionless contribution, forking and other rights guaranteeing the diversity of contributions and contributors; the for-benefit associations are democratically governed. The difference is that the commons where the immaterial value is created are positioned in a field of abundance characteristic for non-rival or anti-rival goods; while the for-benefit associations are responsible for the sometimes contentious allocation of rival infrastructures.

2. The transformation of the private sector

In the present system, the private sector is the core of the triarchy and it is dominated by corporations and financial capital, closely entertwined with a state system that maintains the privileges of dominant players and that is largely captured by the dominant players of the private sector.

Under conditions of the rule of capital, for-profit corporations are beholden to work for the interests of the shareholders. This format allows for the accumulation of capital, but also indirectly of political power, through the power of money to influence politics and politicians. For-profit corporations are part of a system of infinite growth and compound interest, must continuously compete with other corporations, and therefore, also minimize costs. For-profit corporations are designed to ignore negative environmental externalities by avoiding to pay the costs associated with them; and to ignore positive social externalities, also by avoiding to pay for them. In terms of sustainability, corporations practice planned obsolescence as a rule, because while the market is a scarcity allocation mechanism, capitalism itself is a scarcity maintenance and creation mechanism. Anti-sustainable practices are systemic and part of the DNA of the for-profit corporation.

Under conditions of peer production, design and innovation moves to commons-based communitiies, which lack the incentive for unsustainable design; products are inherently design for sustainability, and the production process itself is designed for openness and distribution. This already means that even without format change, the entrepreneurial coalitions that coalesce around commons of code and design, already have to adapt to the sustainibilty norms and regulations characteristic of commons-based design. In other words, corporations have to adapt to these rules and norms and work on the basis of sustainable designs. However, we believe that peer production will bring more profound changes, and a true reform of the private sector and the corporate form.

We suggest that commons-based production communities should create new entrepreneurial forms, that are designed to make the commoners and the commons themselves sustainable, by not ‘leaking’ surplus value to external shareholders. This means that commoners themselves should create mission-oriented, community supportive, sustainability-oriented corporate forms, that operate in the marketplace but do not themselves reproduce capitalism. In this transformation, surplus value stays within the commons, allows its autonomous social reproduction, and sustains the commoners. A good concept for such new enterprises is the phyle, a transnational business entity that sustains a particular commons. Such entities are not only limited by external regulations exerted by the state, but have internal regulations dictating their support for the commons. Phyles can be cooperatives, B-corporations, LLC’s, social entrepreneurs or any other ethical mechanism that subsumes profit making under the social goal of strengthening the commons.

3. The transformation of the state

Historically, the state started as a private function of the rulers, then became separate as the general instrument of the ruling class ‘as a whole’, but extended its realm of participation, first to all property owners (19th cy), later to all national citizens. Though the state form has become formally democratic in many countries, its national form has been largely unable to resist the dominance of global market forces.

We believe that under conditions of peer production, the state form will continue to exist, because the common good cannot be solely taking care of by individuals or groups taking on contracts, nor by the invisible hand of the commons, because commons and their communities are themselves specific, and do not automatically take into account the common good of society as a whole .

While we believe that the achievements of the welfare state have to be defended, and are necessary for the development of extra-state activities, we believe the state form has to be transformed into a partner state. A Partner State functions center around enabling and empowering social production and abandons some of the paternalistic aspects of the welfare state by focusing on strengthening the possibilities of autonomy.

For peer production to grow and thrive, general conditions are necessary which depend on a solid common infrastructure. The development of a partner state is not automatic, but will depend on the mobilization of social forces to obtain a new social contract. First, we suggest that peer producing communities and their social movements look for a network of sympathetic representatives; then, we suggest a sustained effort is undertaken to reform aspects of the state towards further participation and for the implementation of efforts that are beneficial to the commons. The ultimate goal is the transformation of the present state form which privileges private interests, towards a ‘partner-state form’ which works for the common good, the general interest of the commoners, and the thrivability of the commons.

We have to envisage the partner state as a fundamentally ‘transformed’ form of public authority, such as for example the ‘Civic Democratic Institutions’ described by Mark Whitaker in his book on the bioregional democracy.

The Partner State, functioning under the control and for the benefit of civil society and the commoners, creates ever better conditions for the growth of social production, and is responsible for the meta-governance of the new triarchy civil-private-state. The partner state respects the principles of subsidiarity, the prominence of civil society and the commons, and assists the emergence and evolution of the new commons-friendly market players.

2 Comments The basic orientation of p2p theory towards societal reform: transforming civil society, the private and the state

  1. AvatarGary Lewis

    Thanks, Michael, for this overview. I found it helpful as a way to “see” social reform as imagined in p2p theory.

    I have 2 quick comments.
    1) The basic lever for change appears to be a shift toward peer production in a “knowledge-based” economy. This elevates the importance of the commons and civil society while deemphasizing the importance of the private and state sectors as currently constituted.

    Maybe. But this is awfully sketchy. I’d guess that the more likely levers will come as slaps in our collective faces as we run headlong into limitations imposed by Mom Earth.

    2) I also don’t see tomorrow in quite the same way as expressed by p2p theory. For example, an “outcome” that rebalances the civic-private-state triarchy could be just as miserable as our current predicament. I suppose the presumption is that a reinvigorated civic sector and new private entrepreneurial forms that sustain the commons will guard against the negative. Maybe.

    Another approach is to express an “acceptable” future as a series of statements (eg, we must live on this earth in a sustainable way). This leaves the how open to an iterative experiment-fail-learn and jerky Brownian movement forward. Things like institutional forms evolve. The presumption of a rebalanced triarchy is only a conversation starter. Experiments around money play a critical role. This approach also emphasizes the multiplicity of solutions appropriate across diverse local environments (cultural, language, geography, etc).

    Thanks very much for this post. Very enjoyable.
    Regards, Gary

  2. AvatarPoor Richard

    Gary, your comment took the words out of my mouth. I don’t see the utility of drawing circles around various hunks of the economy/culture/state and calling them “sectors” any more. Speaking from a systems science approach, we need a “periodic table” of socio-economic-political elements (basic facts, rules, and tools, like your “series of statements”) and an experimental “chemistry” of hacking all these elements into appropriate, site- and situation-specific systems for getting stuff done.


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