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Dreaming of a peer to peer world

By V Sasi Kumar

Michel Bauwens, founder of the Peer to Peer Foundation, is one of those who believe in open spaces and creation without incentive. In this interview he talks about the Free Software and Wikipedia movements as pointers to a genuine change in the way we think, create and distribute goods. He believes that we have never before had such real-time possibilities for human cooperation and collective intelligence on a global scale

Michel Bauwens

The economic collapse of 2008 is leading many people to question the suitability of the capitalist economic system. At the same time, many people are unsure about the system that can replace capitalism. The most common solution is, of course, socialism. But there are those who wonder whether there could be alternatives, though no serious discussion seems to have taken place on this subject. No one today sincerely expects an armed revolution. On the one hand, there appears to be a serious revival of interest in Marxism in Europe and even in the United States, while on the other hand there are people who are being inspired by the success of movements like Free Software and Wikipedia which point to aspects of creativity and production that we have ignored for too long or misinterpreted deliberately or otherwise.

We now know that creativity can and does happen without any incentive, especially financial incentive. And sometimes even without recognition. A brief reflection should convince anyone that creativity happens naturally, not because of financial incentives. In fact, it is clear that financial incentives cannot be the reason for creativity -- an idea that directly contradicts the concepts behind copyright and patents.

Free Software exists because there are people who enjoy creating software and who are willing to share it with others. Contributors are recognised by the community. On the other hand, the thousands of people who contributed to the more than 2.5 million articles in English, and smaller numbers in more than 250 other languages in Wikipedia, do not even get credit for their contributions. They remain anonymous forever. Yet, millions of articles have been written. Similarly, millions of people voluntarily contribute their computer time to  computation-intensive projects like SETI@Home.

These are examples of a modern phenomenon that defies explanation within the existing paradigm -- a true revolution, in the Kuhnian sense, waiting for a paradigm shift. Many modern thinkers recognise that it forces us to reconsider our notions about production and distribution of goods. “Without a broadly accepted analytic model to explain these phenomena, we tend to treat them as curiosities, perhaps transient fads…” says Yochai Benkler in his The Wealth of Networks. But these do not appear to be curiosities or fads but symptoms of a genuine change in the way we think, create and distribute goods.

And this is prompting people to enquire into the possibilities of emulating that model in the production of ‘real’ goods (as opposed to ‘virtual' goods like software and knowledge). They also believe they can avoid the alienation of worker from work that Karl Marx warned about, just as in the case of Free Software and Wikipedia.

Michel Bauwens is one of those who believe in open spaces and creation without incentive. Like Richard Stallman who left his prestigious job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and started the Free Software Foundation, Michel also left a remunerative corporate job to start the Peer to Peer Foundation that tries to study the evolving peer to peer production and distribution systems exemplified by Free Software and Wikipedia. Michel Bauwens was in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in December 2008, to participate in the Free Software Free Society conference and talked about the work of the Foundation. In this interview, done through email after his return to Thailand, Michel speaks about how he decided to leave his job and start the P2P Foundation, what principles the Foundation is based on, what its work is, and how the work has been progressing. 

You were an information scientist and magazine editor before you started the P2P Foundation. Can you tell us about this evolution? How did it happen?

My first job (but without any formal library and information science training, as I studied political science) was nine years as reference librarian and information analyst for a centre in Brussels. In 1990, I started working as strategic business information manager at the headquarters of the agribusiness wing of British Petroleum. At that time, I reformulated the role of librarian into that of ‘cybrarian’, ie managing “just in time, just for you” information streams to senior management who were not in any real sense using the physical library resources anymore.

As the animal feed businesses were divested by 1993, I moved on to creating a Flemish magazine that was a mix of Mondo 2000 and Wired, and then became one of the Internet evangelists in my home country, leading to work as a serial Internet entrepreneur. 

From my very first encounter with the Internet, ie collective mailing lists combining experts from around the world, I knew this was a technology that would change the very fabric of our world. Never before had there been such real-time possibilities for human cooperation and collective intelligence on a global scale. From now on, the privileged communication infrastructures that were only in the hands of multinationals and the State, would be distributed and democratised, a shift at least as important as the effect of the printing press. 

At the same time, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the corporate world, seeing how the neoliberal system not only created increased social inequality, exacted a terrible psychic cost from even its privileged managerial layers, while also creating havoc in our natural world. I started seeing the system as a giant Ponzi scheme (a scheme in which the profit of those who invest earlier comes from those who invest later), so what surprised me was not the meltdown of 2008, but why it took so long to actually manifest itself!

At the same time, there was a revival of social resistance starting in 1995, and I was noticing, as a professional trend-watcher, that there was a common template in the new forms of social organisation, the one I now call the ‘peer to peer’ dynamic, or ‘voluntary permissionless self-aggregation around the production of common value’.

Key for me was the observation of the Internet bust in April 2000, which I witnessed from a privileged position as I was working in the same sector. As the stock market imploded, pundits were predicting the end of the Internet because no more capital was available for innovation and development. In fact the opposite happened -- rather than diminishing, innovation increased, entirely driven by the social field of aggregating geeks, giving birth to the Web 2.0, the first social model based on an interrelationship between new forms of capitalism and user-generated production of value. I knew then that I would study this phenomenon more deeply, and in particular since I consider peer aggregation to be a non-alienating form of work, how it could be leveraged as a force for social change.

So in October 2002, I decided to quit my corporate engagement, take a sabbatical to think things through, and moved to Thailand to create a global cyber-collective to research and promote P2P dynamics.

Is there a basic set of hypotheses from which the Foundation starts?

Yes, I formulated the following principles when I started the Foundation:

  • That peer to peer-based technology reflects a change of consciousness towards participation, and in turn, strengthens it.
  • That the ‘distributed network’ format, expressed in the specific manner of peer to peer relations, is a new form of political organising and subjectivity, and an alternative for the current political/economic order, ie I believe that peer to peer allows for ‘permission-less’ self-organisation to create common value, in a way that is more productive than both the state and private for-profit alternatives. People can now engage in peer production that creates very complex ‘products’ that can achieve higher quality standards than pure corporate competitors.

I also believe that it creates a new public domain, an information commons, which should be protected and extended, especially in the domain of common knowledge-creation; and that this domain, where the cost of reproducing knowledge is near-zero, requires fundamental changes in the intellectual property regime, as reflected by new forms such as the free software movement; that universal common property regimes, ie modes of peer property such as the general public licence and the creative commons licences should be promoted and extended.

These principles developed by the free software movement, in particular the general public licence, and the general principles behind the open source and open access movements, provide for models that could be used in other areas of social and productive life.

If we can connect this new mode of production, pioneered by knowledge workers, with the older traditions of sharing and solidarity of workers and farmers movements, then we can build a very strong contemporary social movement that can transcend the failures of socialism.

I think it also offers youth a vision of renewal and hope, to create a world that is more in tune with their values.

I call the new peer to peer mode a ‘total social fact’, because it integratively combines subjectivity (new values), inter-subjectivity (new relations), objectivity (an enabling technology) and inter-objectivity (new forms of organisation) that mutually strengthen each other in a positive feedback loop, and it is clearly on the offensive and growing, but lacking ‘political self-consciousness’. It is this form of awareness that the P2P Foundation wants to promote.

Was this mostly your work, or were others involved in formulating these principles? 

I formulated the principles on my own, but also after at least two years of reading, and of being attuned with the zeitgeist (zeitgeist describes the intellectual, cultural, ethical and political climate, ambience and morals of an era). Others were formulating similar ideas, though in different ways. So as usual we should not claim too much personal merit; we are standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past, and are simply lucky to accompany a deep shift in human consciousness that would be taking place without us just as well. At the most, we can try to put some extra grease in the machine.

What exactly does the Foundation do?

We want to be an interconnecting platform for people involved in realising the new open and free, participatory and commons-oriented paradigms in every social field. So, we are monitoring and describing real-world initiatives, theoretical efforts, creating a library of primary and secondary material, and trying to make sense of that aggregation by developing a coherent set of concepts and principles. We do this with a wiki, with nearly 8,000 pages of information, which have been viewed over 5 million times; through a blog reaching about 35,000 unique users last year, a Ning community with a few hundred members, and a number of mailing lists. The most active is the peer to peer research list, where academics and non-academics can collaboratively reach understandings. We also had two annual physical meet-ups in Belgium and the UK, and have some national groups such as in the Netherlands and Greece. There’s a lot of hidden activity acting as connectors between various initiatives, which, despite the global Internet, often don’t know they are working on very similar projects that could reinforce each other.

Peer to peer happens without us, but we want to add a little interconnecting grease to the system. My ultimate aim is to create a powerful social movement that can support the necessary reforms for social justice, sustainability of the natural world, and opening up science and culture to open and free sharing and collaboration, so that the whole weight of the collective intelligence of humanity can be brought to bear on the grave challenges we are facing.

How do you see the work that has already been done? Is it progressing according to your expectations?

I’m pleased on some levels, frustrated at others. In three years, we have constructed a sizeable amount of interrelated information and knowledge, and a ‘community of understanding’. I think we have a ‘really existing virtual community’ that cares about the ideals that we formulated. Each of these people are themselves active in their own real-world projects, some of which will be crucial change agents in the near future. Undoubtedly, the P2P Foundation is a global brand at least on the level of Internet users, as we have not crossed the boundary to mass media reporting. Our growth seems slow, but organic and rather strong, with not so much turnover and a lot of loyalty. Our internal culture of civil discourse seems very strong. On a personal level, I have a little more social and reputational capital, and have been privileged to explain P2P in several countries on four continents, which has allowed me to relate physical presence with the virtual network -- a strong combination.

My big frustration is that I failed to develop a ‘business model’ to sustain myself and my family, so I’m returning to paid employment in a few weeks, which will necessarily diminish my engagement, which has been full-time for the last three years, with the P2P Foundation’s work.

Do you see a P2P society as the state into which a society should evolve naturally? Something like how capitalist society evolved from feudal society?

If we look at the transition from slavery to feudalism, and from feudalism to capitalism, I think we discover a similar pattern. An old system in crisis and decline, the birth of more productive methods of creating value, and both sections of the ruling class and of the ‘producing’ class morphing to adapt to the new possibilities. Before feudalism and capitalism became disruptive to the old orders that they replaced they actually were used to strengthen the old order, and stave off their decline, because they were better ways of organising production and social relationships. So, today, hyper-productive peer to peer dynamics are being born in a mutually dependent relationship with capitalism, but ultimately slated to replace it. But first it needs to grow from seed form to parity form -- think of the situation in Rome between the 5th and 10th century, or 18th century European capitalism existing within the still-dominant remnants of the late feudal order of the ancient regime. Today, we see knowledge and other workers increasingly adopting modes of peer production, and netarchical capitalists such as Google and YouTube enabling and empowering sharing platforms, while extracting value from the value engendered through that social cooperation. All these processes take time, but that does not mean that they are necessarily smooth. The more established interests try to stop more productive alternatives, the more tension they create in the social system, the more this will express itself in crisis form. Both the birth of feudalism and capitalism were rather harsh transitions. This time we may hope that the global crisis of the biosphere, and the speed of innovation through global networks will speed up the process of change significantly.

I sometimes use the concept of ‘conditional inevitability’ to name this state of affairs in which a form of change is both necessary and likely, but can still be derailed because it depends on human agency and social struggle and creativity.

The alienation of work from the worker is one of the important aspects that Karl Marx has written about. The peer to peer system that you are trying to develop theoretically appears to tackle this issue. Have discussions at the P2P Foundation taken this aspect into consideration specifically?

Peer to peer is a form of what Alan Page Fiske calls communal shareholding in which each freely contributes to a common that is universally available to those who may need it. Because it is based on a passion-based free engagement and allows the producers to be autonomous and in charge of their own production process, it is in fact already a non-alienated form of work. It allows for the free self-unfolding of the individual, for autonomy-in-interdependence! It corresponds to what Marx called communism, the final stage of his future history, which was to be preceded by socialism, where each would get according to his contribution. The irony is that this mode of commonism is already being born within capitalism itself, creating a post-monetary seed within it. The important question is whether this seed form, now combined with capitalism, could also be combined with some form of socialism in the world of physical material production. My answer is yes, it is possible, but I prefer to leave this question open and to combine peer to peer as the core process for immaterial production and social innovation, with a pluralist economy for dealing with physical production, where individuals can choose whether they want to follow market-based exchange forms, or any other. The issue for me is not the market, but only capitalism as an infinite growth form and therefore a cancer for the biosphere and humanity. Capitalism will pass (if not, it would destroy us, and I don’t believe humanity will allow this to happen), but we may want to keep the market.

The important thing is to be non-coercive about it. As Eben Moglen said: ‘Free software’ (and thus peer production) is the wet dream of both capitalists and communists. What he means I think is that we can marry the strivings for freedom of liberalism with the strivings for equality of the left in a way in which both are not just mutually compatible but dependent on each other.

Have you thought about the system of governance that could be suitable for a P2P society? Would it be more akin to that in a capitalist society or to that in a socialist society -- you know, multi-party versus single party with a kind of democratic centrism?

I think we have to recognise different levels. The reality of peer governance is already well-known from the experience of Free Software communities, and we must insist that it is non-representational and avoids conflicts over the allocation of resources through coordinated self-allocation. But this can only fully work in the immaterial world. Note how Free Software and open design communities distinguish between the self-aggregation of voluntary work, and on the NGOs that are in charge of the scarcity-driven infrastructure of cooperation, which use democratic procedures. In society as a whole therefore, and though that part may shrink as we design and engineer more abundance, we still need democracy, though perhaps in a much more diversified way than today. So imagine a level of pure peer governance in the open production communities, representative democracy, and hybrid formats in between. In any case, in our complexifying society, we have to expect a significant increase of participatory processes. This democracy should be as far removed from capitalist pressure as it is from totalitarian centralised planning, but I imagine that we’ll have much more global coordination of resource flows, and not just market mechanisms.

How do you see the present global meltdown? Is it one of the crises that capitalist society faces once in a while? Or do you think it could possibly be the beginning of the decline of capitalism? 

I tend to trust the analysis in terms of Kondratieff cycles as expressed by Carlota Perez in her work on technological revolutions (http://www.carlotaperez.org/). The last one started with World War II and was ascendant into the early-’70s, after which the declining phase of neoliberalism took over choosing the speculative route that now collapsed. We’ll need seven or 10 years to go through a severe cleaning out, but after a period of reform, such as perhaps that carried out by Obama in the next few years, we can expect a new up-cycle based on green capitalism, and extensive usage of participatory processes. This will allow P2P processes to move from the margins to the parity level. There is no chance of achieving sustainability without changing individual lifestyles and participatory design.

After this, we’ll reach the national crisis stage of the next Kondratieff cycle, and I believe this is the moment when the peer to peer logic can become dominant. In the end, the infinite growth mechanism of capitalism is incompatible with our finite natural environment, and necessarily needs to be replaced.

Do you believe that capitalism has to grow and mature before a society can change to P2P or something similar?

I think that capitalism is already beyond maturity and has reached senility, but there’s still life in the old man. So I see the green capitalist global compact as the last attempt at integration, and though it will have some success, it is clear that a system based on infinite growth is doomed. What we have to do imperatively is separate the idea of markets and trading from the idea of infinite growth. Some people are talking about natural capitalism (David Korten, Paul Hawken, Hazel Henderson) or capitalism 3.0 (Peter Barnes) to indicate the hybrid nature of the potential new system, which will combine markets with participation and peer to peer-based social innovation. But the concept is misleading, as the system cannot possibly be based on capital accumulation. I think Umair Haque is also a good guide as to the logic of the new post-capitalist system.

What is your personal opinion?

As indicated in the germ form theory of Oekonux, with which I broadly agree, first we have an emerging germ form -- the situation today. Then, it may evolve to a parity level, in which peer to peer and the market will co-exist. But at some point, the meta-system of infinite growth that is capitalism will and must break down if we want humanity and our planet to survive, and at that moment the old meta-system of capitalism will become a sub-system, a market form for certain specific rival goods within the broader meta-system of peer to peer. But humanity always first tries the familiar solutions, so before thinking of a more radical overhaul, a green capitalist phase is unavoidable but also necessary in order to allow participation to reach a parity level. To answer specifically concerning ‘natural capitalism’: to the degree that we succeed in forcing the market to integrate the external cost of natural destruction, and to fund its dependence on social innovation, to that degree the infinite growth mechanism will be broken and what we’ll have will be a market form but no longer a ‘capitalist’ one.

How do you think, in a situation like that in India where feudalism has still not disappeared and capitalism is growing, the ideas of P2P will work?

I think we have to think in terms of neo-traditional economics and policies. This means understanding the commonality between pre-materialist and post-materialist logics, seeing that both are united through the priority given to immaterial wellbeing. On the basis of the generalised crisis of capitalism, local resilient communities and the local elite can both look to leapfrogging possibilities, using high technology, but in a re-localised framework. For example, we can imagine local elite families investing in production facilities for smart cars using renewable energy, but allied with global open design and tinkering communities; and we can imagine farmer movements linking up with brothers and sisters worldwide in order to exchange practical knowledge and experience in order to avoid taking the route of soil-destroying industrial agriculture. There are many possibilities, if the awareness is there to profit from them.

(V Sasi Kumar is a scientist and writer based in Thiruvananthapuram)

Infochange News & Features, July 2009