Peer-to-peer: a new opportunity for the left

  • January 12, 2017

City & Commons

Digital technologies allow for the creation of a new mode of production, a new mode of allocation, and new types of social relations beyond the state-market nexus.

This text is based on a working monograph of the authors under the provisional title Peer-to-Peer: A Manifesto for Commons Transition.

Not since Marx identified the manufacturing plants of Manchester as the blueprint for the new capitalist society has there been a deeper transformation of the fundamentals of our social life. As capitalism faces a series of structural crises, a new social, political and economic dynamic is emerging: peer-to-peer (P2P).

What is P2P? And why is it important in building a commons-centric future? These are the questions we try to answer, by tying together four of its aspects:

  1. P2P is a type of social relations in human networks;

  2. P2P is also a technological infrastructure that makes the generalization and scaling up of such relations possible;

  3. P2P thus enables a new mode of production and exchange;

  4. P2P creates the potential for a transition to an economy that can be generative towards people and nature.

We believe that these four aspects will profoundly change human society. P2P ideally describes systems in which any human being can contribute to the creation and maintenance of a shared resource, while benefiting from it. There is an enormous variety of such systems: from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia to free/open-software projects, to open design and hardware communities, to relocalization initiatives and community currencies.

What is P2P and how is it related to the commons?

To begin with, P2P computing systems are characterized by consensual connections between “peers.” This means the computers in the network can interact with each other. It is in this context that the literature started to characterize the sharing of audio and video files as P2P file-sharing, and that at least a part of the underlying infrastructure of the Internet, like its data transmission infrastructure, has been called P2P.

Let’s now assume that behind those computers are human users. A conceptual jump can be made to argue that users now have a technological affordance (a tool) that allows them to interact and engage with each other more easily and on a global scale. P2P can be seen as a relational dynamic through which peers can freely collaborate with each other and create value in the form of shared resources.

It is this mutual dependence of the relational dynamic and the underlying technological infrastructure that facilitates it, which creates the linguistic confusion between P2P as a technological infrastructure and P2P as a human relational dynamic. However, a technological infrastructure does not have to be fully P2P in order to facilitate P2P human relationships. For example, compare Facebook or Bitcoin with Wikipedia or free/open-source software projects: they all utilize P2P dynamics, but they do so in different ways and with different political orientations.

P2P is therefore a mode of relating that allows human beings, organized in networks, to collaborate, produce and exchange value. The collaboration is often permissionless, meaning that one may not need the permission of another in order to contribute. The P2P system is thus generally open to all contributors and contributions. The quality and inclusion of the work is usually determined “post-hoc” by a layer of maintainers and editors, as in the case of Wikipedia.

P2P can also be a mode to allocate resources that does not involve any specific reciprocity between individuals, but only between the individuals and the collective resource. For example, you are allowed to develop your own software based on an existing piece of software distributed under the widely used GNU General Public License, only if your final product is available under the same kind of license.

In the realm of information that can be shared and copied at low marginal costs, the P2P networks of interconnected computers used by collaborating people can provide vital shared functionalities for the commons. However, P2P does not only refer to the digital sphere and is not solely related to high technology. P2P can generally be synonymous with “commoning,” in the sense that it describes the capacity to contribute to the creation and maintenance of any shared resource.

There are multiple definitions of the “commons.” We adhere to David Bollier’s characterization of the commons as a shared resource, co-governed by its user community according to the rules and norms of that community. The sphere of the commons may contain either rivalrous goods and resources, which you and I cannot both have at the same time, or non-rival goods and resources, whose use does not deplete it. These types of goods or resources have in turn either been inherited or they are human-made.

For example, a type of commons may include the gifts of nature, such as the water and land, but also shared assets or creative work such as cultural and knowledge artefacts. Our focus here is on the digital commons of knowledge, software and design, because they are the “new commons.” These commons represent the mutualization of productive knowledge that is an integral part of the capacity for any kind of production, including physical goods.

P2P is arguably moving from the periphery of the socio-economic system to its core, thereby also transforming other types of relationships, such as market dynamics, state dynamics and reciprocity dynamics. These dynamics become more efficient and obtain advantages utilizing the commons. P2P relations can effectively scale up, mainly because of the emergence of Internet-enabled P2P technologies. This means small-group dynamics can now be applied at the global level.

Are P2P technologies good, bad or neutral?

We do not claim that a certain technology may lead to one inevitable social outcome. Yet we recognize the key role that technologies play in social evolution and the new possibilities they create if certain human groups successfully utilize them. Different social forces invest in this potential and use it to their advantage, struggling to benefit from its use. Technology is therefore best understood as a focus of social struggle, and not as a predetermined “given” that creates just one technologically determined future.

Still, when social groups appropriate a particular technology for their own purposes, then social, political and economic systems can effectively change. An example is the role that the invention of the printing press, associated with other inventions, played in transforming European society.

The fast-growing availability of information and communication technology enables many-to-many communication and allows an increasing number of humans to communicate in ways that were not technically possible before. This in turn makes possible massive self-organization up to a global scale. It also allows for the creation of a new mode of production, a new mode of exchange, and new types of social relations outside of the state-market nexus.

The Internet creates opportunities for social transformation. In the past, with pre-digital technologies, the costs of scaling in terms of communication and coordination made hierarchies and markets necessary as forms of reducing these costs. Hence societies that scaled through their adoption “outcompeted” their tribal rivals. Today, by contrast, it is also possible to scale projects through new coordination mechanisms, which can allow small group dynamics to be applied at the global level. This means that it is now possible to combine “flatter” structures and still operate efficiently on a planetary scale. This has never been the case before.

How does P2P relate to capitalism?

We are living through a historical moment in which networked and relatively horizontal forms of organization are able to produce complex and sophisticated social outcomes. The latter are often better than the artefacts produced through state-based or market-based mechanisms alone. Just consider how the peer-produced Wikipedia displaced the corporate-organized Encyclopedia Britannica, how peer-produced free/open-source software displaced proprietary software, or how Wikileaks survived the assaults of some of the world’s most powerful states.

The hybrid forms of organization within P2P projects do not primarily rely on either hierarchical decisions or market pricing signals, but on mutual coordination mechanisms, which are remarkably resilient. These emerging mutual coordination mechanisms, however, are also becoming an essential ingredient of capitalism. This is the “immanent” aspect of peer production (or P2P production) that changes the current dominant forms.

But such mechanisms can also become the vehicle of new configurations of production and exchange, which are no longer dominated by capital and state. This is the “transcendent” aspect of peer production, as it creates a new overall system which can subsume the other forms. In the first scenario, capital and state subsume the commons under their direction and domination, leading to a new type of commons-centric capitalism. In the second scenario, the commons, its communities and institutions become dominant and, thus may adapt state and market forms to its best interests.

The new forms of collaborative production that rely on P2P mechanisms do have some hierarchies. Nevertheless, they generally lack a hierarchical command structure for the production process itself. Peer production has introduced the capacity to organize complex global projects through massive mutual coordination. What market pricing is to capitalism and planning is to state-based production, mutual coordination is to peer production.

As a result, the emergence and scaling of these P2P dynamics point to a potential transition in the main modality by which humanity allocates resources: from a market-state system that uses hierarchical decision-making (in firms and in the state) and pricing (amongst companies and consumers), towards a system that uses various mechanisms of mutual coordination. This does not mean that the market and the state will disappear entirely, but that the configuration of different modalities — and the balance between them — will be radically reconfigured.

None of this implies that the P2P transition will lead to a utopia, nor that it will be easy. Indeed, if the history of previous socio-economic transitions is any guide, the transition will most likely be messy. Just as P2P is likely to solve a number of problems in our current society, it will create others in the new one. Nevertheless, this remains a worthwhile social evolution to strive for, and even if P2P relations do not become the dominant social form, they will profoundly influence the future of humanity.

Summarizing the relationship between the relational and technological aspects, the P2P relational dynamic — strengthened by particular forms of technological capacities — may become the dominant way of allocating the necessary resources for human self-reproduction, and thus replace capitalism as the dominant form. This will require a stronger expansion of this P2P modality not just for the production of “immaterial goods,” but also for the production of physical (material) goods.

How is P2P to be implemented in practice?

While P2P is emerging as a significant form of technological infrastructure for various social forces, the way it is actually implemented (and owned and governed) makes all the difference. Not all P2P is equal in its effects. Various different forms of P2P technological infrastructure can be identified, each of which leads to different forms of social and political organization.

On the one side, for example, we can consider the capitalism of Facebook, Uber or Bitcoin. On the other, we can look at the commons-oriented models of Wikipedia or free/open-source software projects. Adopting this or that specific form of P2P technological infrastructure is the locus of intense social conflict, because the choice between them has enormous consequences on what may or may not be possible.

P2P enables a new (proto-)mode of production, named commons-based peer production, that is characterized by new relations of production. In commons-based peer production, contributors create shared value through open contributory systems, govern the common work through participatory practices, and create shared resources that can, in turn, be used in new iterations. This cycle of open input, participatory process and commons-oriented output is a cycle of accumulation of the commons, which parallels the accumulation of capital.

At this stage, commons-based peer production process should be seen as a prefigurative prototype of what could become a completely new mode of production and a new form of society. It is currently a prototype, since it cannot as yet fully reproduce itself outside of a mutual dependence with capitalism. This emerging modality of peer production is not only productive and innovative “within capitalism,” but also in its capacity to solve some of the structural problems that have been generated by the capitalist mode of production. In other words, it represents a potential transcendence of capitalism. That said, we argue that as long as peer producers or commoners cannot engage in their own self-reproduction outside of capital accumulation, it remains a proto-mode of production, not a full one.

Peer production can be innovative within the context of capitalist competition, because firms that can access the knowledge commons possess a competitive advantage over firms that use proprietary knowledge and can only rely on their own research. For example, by mutualizing the development of software in an open network, firms obtain vast savings in their infrastructural investments. In this context, peer production could be seen as a mutualization of productive knowledge by capitalist coalitions themselves, with IBM’s investments in free/open-source software projects as a case in point.

Yet this capitalist investment is not a negative thing in itself, but rather a condition that increases the societal investment in a P2P-based transition. It is precisely because P2P solves some structural issues of the current system that both productive and managerial classes move towards it. This means that capital flows towards P2P projects, and even though it distorts P2P to make it prolong the dominance of the old economic models, it simultaneously creates new ways of thinking in society that undermine that dominance.

Nevertheless, the new class of commoners cannot rely on capitalist investment and practices. They must use skillful means to render commons-based peer production more autonomous from the dominant political economy. Eventually we may arrive at a position where the balance of power is reversed: the commons and its social forces become the dominant force in society, which allows them to force the state and market forms to adapt to its own requirements. So we should strive to escape the situation in which capitalists co-opt the commons, and head towards a situation in which the commons capture capital, and make it work for its own development.

This proposed strategy of reverse cooptation has been called “transvestment” by telekommunists Dmytri Kleiner and Baruch Gottlieb. Transvestment describes the transfer of value from one modality to another. In our case this would be from capitalism to the commons. Thus transvestment strategies aim to help commoners become financially sustainable and independent. Such strategies are being developed and implemented by commons-oriented entrepreneurial coalitions such as the Enspiral network or Sensorica.

For example, the participants to the Enspiral network create commons-oriented products and services, while generating income from the capitalist market. They contribute a part of their income to the pool of the Enspiral Foundation. The total amount is then invested in new projects through a collaborative funding process. Enspiral also harnesses external funding using certain “hacks,” like capped returns, which gradually allow them to transfer all of their resources to their social mission. Loomio, a free/open-source decision-making platform, is the most prominent product of the network.

As said, the digital commons of knowledge, software and design are abundant resources enriched through usage. It is here that full sharing and the full ability for contributions must be preserved. But in the added value services and products that are built around these commons, we deal with rival resources. Here the commons should be protected from capture by capital. It is in this cooperative sphere of physical and service production where reciprocity rules should be enforced. We propose to combine non-reciprocal sharing in the immaterial sphere, with reciprocal arrangements in the sphere of physical production. Thus, in our vision, commons-based peer production as a full mode of production combines commons and cooperativism.

Towards a commons-centric society?

At that point, if the move from microeconomic P2P communities to a new “macroeconomic” dominant modality of value creation and distribution is successful, a transition phase towards a commons-centric economy and society can occur. This will be the revolution of our times, and a fundamental shift in the rules and norms that decide what value is and how it is produced and distributed in society. In short: a shift to a new post-capitalist value regime.

P2P is considered to be both a social relation and a mode of exchange, as a socio-technological infrastructure and as a mode of production, and all these aspects when combined contribute to the creation of a new post-capitalist model, a new phase in the evolution of the organization of human societies. This will necessitate a discussion about economic and political transitions. At the microeconomic level of commons-based peer production, P2P dynamics are already creating the institutional seedlings prefiguring a new social model.

P2P could lead to a model where civil society becomes productive through the participation of citizens in the collaborative creation of value through commons. In this pluralistic commonwealth, multiple forms of value creation and distribution will co-exist, but most likely around the common attractor that is the commons. We do not argue for a “totalitarianism” of the commons. But to make the commons a core institution that “guides” all other social forms — including the state and the market — towards achieving the greatest common good and the maximum autonomy.

Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens is the founder and director of the P2P Foundation and works in collaboration with a global group of researchers in the exploration of peer production, governance, and property.

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Vasilis Kostakis

Vasilis Kostakis is a senior researcher at the Tallinn University of Technology and the founder of the P2P Lab.

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