Technological alternatives

Michel Bauwens points to the importance of the possibilities for co-operative, peer-to-peer production opened up by new technologies

January 3, 2009
9 min read

As economic and social systems transform themselves into distributed networks through the technical possibilities opened up in recent decades, a new ‘peer-to-peer’ (P2P) dynamic is emerging. Best known as the means to share music files on the internet, P2P is actually a far broader social logic underpinning how people come together to create and exchange common value on a global scale – giving rise to new modes of production, governance and property. In many ways, it complements and extends upon existing forms of co-operative and solidarity economy.

How P2P works

P2P is based on free engagement, and hence represents non-alienated ‘work’, driven by personal interests and passion. Once a community establishes itself and gains sufficient traction, there are good reasons to believe that it becomes ‘hyperproductive’. Subjectively, because intrinsic and positive motivations are clearly preferable to extrinsic and negative motivations. Objectively, because the characteristics of such ways of working – equal participation, communal validation processes, distribution of tasks instead of division of labour, ad hoc meritocratic leadership, active engagement of users and a large base of contributors – are very hard to match by any for-profit competitor.

Such a community also needs an infrastructure of cooperation, so we usually get hybrid modes, where the self-managed community is coupled with a non-profit foundation that manages its infrastructure, as well as businesses operating on the basis of the wealth of the commons in the marketplace. Through the practice of benefit-sharing, these businesses support the common infrastructure, which in turn strengthens the community.

Once a for-profit business, relying on proprietary formats, faces such competition, it can pretty much close its doors.

Empirical examples are Microsoft’s Internet Explorer vs the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox, and the proprietary Britannica vs the open Wikipedia. The p2pfoundation wiki has hundreds of other case studies, compiled by a global independent research community.

Hardware is harder

That dynamic is by no means limited to the production of immaterial goods, such as open content and free software, but is now rapidly moving to open and shared designs – what is often called ‘open hardware’. The reason is simple: anything that needs to be physically produced needs to be intellectually designed. Readers may want to look at for a list of nearly 150 ‘open hardware’ projects, with a sizable number having already reached maturation.

But here comes the obstacle: whereas peer production of immaterial goods needs the free individual aggregation of immaterial means of production – brains, computers and access to socialised networks – physical production also needs cost-recovery methods.

This limit suggests that more fundamental change still requires fundamental changes in political and social power, so that peer production can be matched with cooperative production in the physical sphere. The alternative, which I think is likely in a transitional period, is ‘built-only capitalism’, driven by a sector of capitalists who, instead of relying on intellectual property, decide to ‘enable and empower participation’ – and profit from it.

Thus a new frontier of social cooperation and conflict is created, between proprietary platform owners and user communities (the sharing model); and between productive communities and the surrounding business ecologies (the commons model). The sharing model is based on the need and desire of individuals to share their creative production, the commons model is based on the creation of common artifacts. Both models have different logics, social structures, and underlying social contracts.

I think that social change will also emerge from a new structure of desire in contemporary youth. Once you have tasted ‘non-alienated’ voluntary participation in an online productive community, you are strongly motivated to extend it to the whole of life, and this drives the emergence of a powerful global movement that embraces three new paradigms of social organisation: open and free availability of ‘raw material’ for cooperation; participative modes of production impacting the design of techno-social cooperation; and commons-oriented output, available to all. The combination of these three principles creates a ‘circulation of the commons’ that ensures the social reproduction of P2P.

Value crisis

Under what conditions can this be facilitated? First of all, we have to understand that what happened with the computer and the networks – the ‘miniaturisation of the means of immaterial production’ – is going to happen, and in fact already is happening, in the sphere of the means of material production. The possibility arises of a combination of a new cooperative and relocalised economy, coupled with global and interconnected open design communities. If we can re-invent property modes away from the current monopolisation of financial property, such trends will be speeded up enormously.

It is important to understand that peer production creates a value crisis, a crisis of accumulation if you want, for the capitalist economy, of which both owners and producers are the victim. The reason is that more and more of the essential innovation becomes social, a result of the emergent networks of distributed collaboration in open communities. We have created the ability for an exponential growth in the direct creation of use value (think of the hundred million of downloaded videos via YouTube, a quantum leap in social production compared to the mass media model), but only a linear growth of monetisation. Google may be a giant, but only a fraction of websites can live from online advertising. So, while Linux creates a $40 billion economy, at the same time it destroys $65 billion annually in the proprietary software business. But undermining old business models in this way also creates precarity among the workers.

The short-term solution is organised benefit-sharing between productive communities, the non-profit foundations managing the infrastructure, and the businesses profiting from the commons. It works well for Linux, but is only reactive. Yet 75 per cent of Linux programmers are now paid, and recently, while I attended a free software congress in Ecuador, I was told that zero per cent of free software programmers in that continent are unemployed.

Ultimately, these ad hoc evolutions are not sufficient, and as countries and regions recognise that their ‘competitivity’ largely depends on such open innovation, they may start thinking in terms of basic income. The advantage of it, as recognition of the value each citizen creates for society through their natural participation in such networks, is that it creates a basis for workers to have some autonomy from the market. Such a basic income would not only benefit immaterial peer production, but also the experimentation with social and cooperative means of material production.

A partner state

We need a fundamental re-orientation of public policy, around the notion of a ‘partner state’, which enables and empowers direct social value creation.

I have proposed a set of three institutions to promote commons-based peer production: An institute for the creation and protection of the commons, which promotes and sustains the creation of new modes of value creation; an institute for open business, which promotes models of social entrepreneurship so that each commons can create an ecology of enterprises; and an institute for benefit-sharing and commons recognition, which focuses on patronage and various forms of support that do not destroy the P2P logic of voluntary contributions. It creates prizes, awards and bounties to support individuals involved in commons-based value-creation.

A partner state approach, combined with a strengthening of peer property formats, and new forms of capital ownership combined with mutual credit and non-capitalist money, would go a very long way in stimulating the autonomous sphere of production. Growing the counter-economy and a social life based on a new logic is not something to start after we gain political power, but right now.

At this stage we do not have a magic bullet solution in response to the disintegration of the neoliberal system. We should continue to furiously build the counter-society within the old. The emergence of open/free, participatory and commons-oriented movements, which has occurred in all fields but started around ‘immaterial’ cooperation, is now ready to be matched by their counterparts in the ‘physical world’. So I expect to see a speeding-up of real world alternatives in many different fields: more localisation efforts such as Transition Towns, more use of alternative currencies and mutual credit, and the rapid growth of global open design efforts with local partners in the field of real production.

One scenario is that the ‘enlightened part’ of the establishment, those with a long term vision who know the endgame is near, will push through a new global compact based on green capitalism, which simply cannot function without greater participation in social and political design. Compare it to the 18th century, which saw the downward trend of the nobles and the rise of the bourgeoisie, reaching a temporary point of equilibrium. Green capitalism would allow such a scenario, leading to a new surge of technological and social innovation. But if you believe, as I do, that capitalism as infinite growth is fundamentally unsustainable, this will then set the stage for a new transition phase, with P2P becoming the core social logic, with markets becoming subsystems for particular goods.

P2P as an alternative to capitalism

P2P involves the production of use-value through the free cooperation of producers who have access to distributed capital (essentially computers) different from for-profit or public production by state-owned enterprises. Its product is not exchange value for a market, but use-value for a community of users (for example in the sharing of film and music). It is governed by the community of producers (and users) themselves, and not by market allocation or corporate hierarchy. And it involves common property regimes by which the use of the service or product is freely accessible on a universal basis, through new common property regimes, different from private property or public (state) property.

There is a fundamental difference between the capitalist market and distributed P2P dynamics, which is exactly the reason it needs to replace market fundamentalism. A market is like the swarm of insects, and lacks intentionality. Participants only seek their own advantage, and the system cannot take into account any externalities, so the system destroys the biosphere and has a very high social cost. P2P dynamics are quite different: it’s a goal or object-oriented sociality, which unites people around the common object, which is almost generally the construction of a public or common good. Therefore externalities are built into the very fabric of P2P dynamics.

n Michel Bauwens is the director of the Peer to Peer Foundation – this article is based on an interview with Red Pepper. You can read Bauwens’ ‘Political Economy of Peer Production’ at

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