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Peer-to-peer production and the partner state

Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

August 27, 2017
4 min read

Wikihouse is an open-source library of house-building plans. Photo: Wikihouse Foundation

What would it mean to go beyond the traditional models of the state, including the redistributionist welfare state, to a state that could create the conditions for the creative autonomy of citizens to play a far greater role in their collective flourishing? The social knowledge economy, rooted in an already-existing socio-economic practice – that of commons-based peer production – could be one model.

Peer production is on the rise as a new pathway of value creation, where peer-to-peer infrastructures allow people to communicate, self-organise and co-create digital commons of knowledge, software and design. Think of the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, the myriad of free and open-source projects such as Linux, or open design and hardware communities such as Wikihouse, L’Atelier Paysan, Sensorica or Farmhack.

The commons ecosystem

At the core of this new value model are the ‘productive communities’, which include both paid and unpaid labour. Around these commons, an economy of products and services that are based on the commons pools, but also adding to them, is formed. This is done by enterprises that create ‘entrepreneurial coalitions’ around the commons ecosystem and the productive communities.

These contributions to the digital commons are enabled by collaborative infrastructures of production, and supportive legal and institutional infrastructures, empowered by ‘for-benefit’ (as opposed to for-profit) associations. These foundations may create digital commons depositories, protect against infringements of open and sharing licenses, organise fundraising drives for infrastructure, and assist knowledge-sharing through local, national and international conferences.

Typically, the non-profit foundations of free and open-source communities, such as the Mozilla Foundation, manage and enable the infrastructure of co-operation. They defend the use of open licenses, sometimes provide training or certification, but overall their task is to enable and empower co-operation. These institutions generally function with formal democratic procedures, such as elections.

From communities to societies

These foundations operate as the ‘polis’, i.e. mini-states of the commons-based peer production ecosystems. Moving from what we can see of the existing practice at the micro-level, to the vision of a full social form, we can see that there is also a need for a ‘state form’.

In our vision, a commons-centric society would ideally have:

  • a productive civil society that would contribute to the commons,
  • a generative market that would create added value around the commons,
  • a partner state, which is emerging prefiguratively in some urban practices, such as the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons or some policies of the Barcelona En Comú citizen platform.

In this vision, the partner state would be the guarantor of civic rights, but also of the equal contributory potential of all citizens. Without this function, communities could have unequal access to resources and capabilities, perpetuating inequality. In our vision, the state form would gradually lose its separateness from civil society, by implementing radically democratic procedures and practices.

Public-good institutions like these are necessary in the face of rising individualistic political philosophies, such as anarcho-capitalism or libertarianism, that only see individuals making contracts with each other. Society needs its specific forms of expression. The state is one of them. And the state imaginary we argue for, synchronised with the special characteristics of digital technologies, could be that of the partner state. Watch this space.

Michel Bauwens is the founder of the P2P Foundation. Vasilis Kostakis is a senior researcher at Tallinn University of Technology and a research affiliate at Harvard University.

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