In our earlier review of the book by David Laibman on “Deep History”, we offer an interpretation of the advent of peer to peer society, in 3 broad stages.
First a phase of emergence, which are going through today. Second, after a reorganisation of capitalism resulting of the current crisis, and a new Kondratieff upcycle centered around green capitalism, a period in which peer to peer practices can come to maturity as a necessary participatory component of attempts at sustainability, reaching a stage of ‘equivalence’ with the capitalist market economy. Then, as the system faces a new crisis realising that infinite growth is not tenable, a potential meta-system transition to a form of political economy and civilisation wh ere peer to peer dynamics have become the core of the new system.
Note that in my interpretation, the core contradiction of the system is centered around the destruction of the biosphere.
Our friend Raoul Victor, writing from an explicit Marxist perspective, challenges this view in a long and thoughtful reaction.
Raoul ends this piece echoing my own critique that many left thinkers and advocates still have not come to terms with the potential of peer production.
“I think this (Laibman’s) scenario is believable on the whole, and one of its implications is that capitalism has not yet fulfilled its full role, that it still has to initiate and complete this full fourth cycle. Concluding to its obsoleteness or even “death” may be premature.”
I shall not deal here with Laibman’s scenario, which raises too many questions. Just some comments on your comment.
You refer to a “role” of capitalism. By these times of dark confused pessimism that concept if frequently questioned. But I agree with the Marxist idea that capitalism, as most historical economic systems of the past, has a historical “role” to “fulfill”, which means also that there is a moment in history, a point of reference where it becomes “obsolete” because it has fulfilled its role. That does not mean “dead”. As long as there is not a social alternative, a new mode of production which appears able to reorganize the social production and a social force to build it, society may rot indefinitely under the weight of a crippled and decadent capitalism.
The question is: what is the content of that “role”? and thus, when can be said that capitalism’s role has been fulfilled?
“The formation of the world market”, the extension of capitalism to the whole planet has been since Marx usually been accepted by Marxists as the main historical “role” of capitalism. And I also agree with that. But the question remains: what does that mean? Marx thought at one moment (1858) (Engels went back over that later) that that was realized, “at least in its broad outlines”, with the colonization of California and Australia and the “opening” of China and Japan.. Later, the revolutionary Marxists thought that the First World War, provoked by imperial colonial rivalries, gave evidence that the world was definitely divided into empires and thus totally submitted to capitalism. But creating capitalist trading-posts on the coasts of a territory does not means that all or even an important share of the population of that territory has been integrated into capitalist relations of production. Even in the heart of the continental European countries, the agricultural sector has been really integrated into capitalism only after the second world war.
Revolutionaries have always a subjective tendency to overestimate the maturity of the conditions for the upheaval of their dreams.
My feeling (being aware of that tendency) is that the integration (still partial) of China and India (but also other parts of East Asia) into the world capitalist production during the last decades represents a major step in the process of the “world market” formation. Something really new is happening. Even conservative economists emphasize the fact that the present economic crisis is the FIRST really-worldwide crisis of capitalism.
Is this “the end” of the “role” of capitalism? I don’t think so. But it might be the “beginning of the end”, in the sense that a qualitative step is being realized. After this crisis, the next ones will also be crisis of the “world market”.
The nature of capitalism’s limits/contradictions
You say that capitalism is a “system which cannot structurally solve the problems of nature and equity”. I agree in the sense that capitalism is a system whose goal is profit, and only profit. But you seem to mean that nature/ecology and equity are the main limits to capitalism development.
I think that a distinction must be made between two kind of limits (one could say contradictions) of capitalism. One kind is relative to the consequences of capitalism’s existence over the population, especially (but not only) over the huge majority of exploited and poor population. These limits are drawn by the capacity of the population to endure theses consequences and finally to revolt against their structural cause. As such these limits relay on subjective factors and on social/political relations of force. They do not affect systematically the capitalist growth.
The second kind of limits is more “objective”, or at least more “internal” to capitalism’s mechanisms. The limits of that kind result mainly from the consequences of the development of the labor productivity, which tends to push the rate of profit downwards and permanently imposes the need for new markets. When the rate of profit falls too much, when the new markets become insufficient, capitalist growth declines and becomes negative, independently of any subjective factor.
I would say that the two limits you refer to (nature, equity) belong to the first kind of limits/contradictions.
The present reality can illustrate the difference between these two kind of limits. What we are seeing now, a major economic recession, with thousands of factories closing and millions of redundancies all over the world, is not a consequence of limited natural resources, nor of excess of poisonous garbages or polluted rivers, nor of excess of inequity. Capitalism has always lived with a most destructive attitude towards “nature” and “equity”, and most of the time that is a condition for its development. The kind of limits/contradictions it is confronting now is “internal”, “objective”. It is this kind of contradiction that will signal the end of its historical “role”.
Just a word about the limits of natural resources. Capitalism can manage to develop new sources of energy and new methods of production, as far as that allows it to make business… and it is doing it. Gore did not get the Nobel Peace Prize by coincidence. You probably read the famous quotation of Tomas Edison (a great inventor but also a very successful business man) telling to Henri Ford, in 1931: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
The need of time for peer principles to become “natural”
“Many of the peer to peer developments that we describe and try to integrate in our theory are indeed emergent and small, they will take decades to play out, especially the expansion to the physical field.” (…) “this emergent globalism will then itself set the stage for a further transition to a full peer to peer mode, as more and more world citizens have the skills and consciousness and access to technology that makes a peer to peer style of social relationship a natural thing to do. The present minority of peer-ready knowledge workers need to become a massive social phenomena in the whole world.”
Yes, I agree. It will take time, maybe decades. It also depends on the effects the economic crisis may have on social life, on capitalist economic needs, on social mobilizations, etc. Crisis are generally periods of acceleration of history.
I like your formulation: “that makes a peer to peer style of social relationship a natural thing to do”. The effects of a technological revolution do not affect only the material production process. They concern most of the social life aspects, even intimate ones. The development of the printing press, for example, had much more consequences than changing the way to reproduce documents. Protestantism, for instance, as a new way to see the relations between individuals and God, would have been impossible without the possibility to reproduce more easily the Bible.
In two of the most important recent social movements in Europe, the movement against the CPE (professional contract for young people) in France 2006, and the Greek movement of last December, most journalist were surprised and disturbed by the fact that there were no “chiefs”, no “representatives”, and the official unions/parties had no control over the movement. Especially in 2006, the movement lasted more than a month and was very well organized at a national scale. I am convinced that that was a product not only of the natural distrust towards institutions which have proved many times their total integration in the capitalist logic, but also of the habit to use Internet and have access to multiform peer practices, where it is “natural” that chiefs and representatives are almost absent or understood in a completely different way.
In both movements the main protagonists were students, (even if in the Greek movement the participation of young workers was significant). They have access to and are familiar with Internet. But unfortunately, students as such have no “power” on the social life, especially on the material production of social life. Thus their movements, if they do not spread to other social classes, can hardly give a hint of what a new society could be. Things will probably be different when the protagonists will be the generations of material production workers become familiar with the new peer practices.
Globally I agree with the main lines of what you wrote on the last part of the text about the “stadiality of Peer to Peer”.
Finally, a remark about many Marxists’ ignorance of peer production.
“In his (Laibman’s) story, (…) he also ignores everything we are talking about in our blog.”
The ignorance by most Marxists of the peer-production reality is astonishing, since the development of peer production is a spectacular confirmation of many deep aspects of the Marxist theory. I think the reason is that “classical” Marxists can not accept that something close to communist relationships, as peer production, can exist within the capitalist framework. Many of them do not even accept that there has been a new technological revolution. I hope they will change their minds before “decades”.”