The Ethical Economy Debate (2): Michel Bauwens on P2P and the Corporation

In the previous post, we referred to Kevin Carson’s excellent contribution to management-by-stress practices.

In this entry, I’m recopying an excerpt from my own essay on the contradictory relationship between peer to peer practices and the corporate world. Here’s part of the conclusion:

Today, people want and need to collaborate and they want to find meaning in their work life. Peer to peer is an answer to these new demands and necessities, because it is based on the free association of individuals who cooperate for the common good and in the process are creating a new ‘commons.’ Corporations need this cooperation, but also fear it, and there is therefore inherent tension: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

The ultimate aim of the corporation is to make profit and for this it has to measure value. The corporation is not concerned with the use value of products, but only with its exchange value. It will produce anything that can produce profit and in order to do that has become a formidable machine of creating mostly artificial desires.

To protect its ultimate aim of making profit corporations are organized on a feudal basis. Corporations are not democracies, but feudal organizations whether in the older bureaucratic format of the industrial era or the management by objectives of the cognitive era. Objectives are produced in a top-down format.

In the current neoliberal and deregulatory phase capitalism has created a hypercompetitive environment based on speed. Instead of exploiting the body of the worker as in the industrial era, it is now focused on the psyche of the knowledge worker. It has tremendously increased the pressure on individuals with its elusive search for zero time (no wastage of time). Stress and related illnesses are growing by the day and working hours have increased in the United States. Production and productive behavior has left the factory and office to infiltrate the daily lives of everyone. Learning has to take place ‘after hours’. The safe heaven of a fixed salary is increasingly being replaced by precarious and short-term contracts.

A corporation is not based on the common good, unlike P2P processes.

This is why the relationship between peer to peer, which it needed by the system to function effectively, and capitalism, is inherently problematic and rife with tensions.
From within, companies are not drawn to positive social change since their priority is to get the resources at the lowest possible price and to sell products and services at the maximum price allowed by the competitive environment. Pressure has to come from the outside: from the democratic polity with its regulations and through the demands of the new generations of workers that necessitate reform of working practices within the corporation.

This is why peer to peer, while growing in the corporate sector, is thriving in the social field. The dotcom crisis of 2000 was a first indication that the system was not able to harness P2P innovation to its full extent. It could not transform the ‘use value’, increasingly ‘beyond measure’ (See Note below), into exchange value. In the social field, P2P is creating a continuing stream of innovations with corporations such as the music industry vigorously opposed to them. One could argue without too much exaggeration that industry sectors such as the RIAA are pretty much in the situation of the guilds during the advent of industrial capitalism: they tried to stop, in vain, a more productive system.

P2P and Open Source production processes are increasingly making new and better ‘products’ than their for-profit counterparts. People by the millions are flocking to such projects and to the free intellectual exchange and collective knowledge production of the Internet. This is why I argued that the corporation, beholden to its shareholders, is not the cutting edge of social change, but rather a field of tension and contradiction between the cooperative nature of work and its private appropriation, between the demand for cooperative and synergetic working practices and the feudal nature of its power structure and, on the macro scale, between the win-win-win nature of P2P projects (the last win refers not to the gain of the parties involved, but to the wider social field in which they operate) and the social indifference of corporations. This is why we need new forms of cooperative organization, and eventually the instauration of the social wage to stimulate it even further. Meanwhile, through its competition with P2P processes, corporations will be forced to adapt.

Of course, one must applaud change agents within the corporation and their attempts to humanize it as Dr. Volckmann is attempting and stimulating through his Integral Leadership Review. But can they really transcend the inherently feudal nature of its power structure and the inherently a-social nature of its purposes?”

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