A Dialogue With David Bollier: P2p, the Commons and the Open Paradigm


By James Burk

Michel Bauwens, 2/1/06 1.

David Bollier: How will P2P culture “wash over” and transform existing market-based identities?

Michel Bauwens: My belief is the following: that before a system collapses, it will exhibit the worst of its features. Thus, just as we are witnessing the marketisation, monetization, and commodification of everything, there is the birth of a counter-reaction, the emergence of the seed of the new. Network society itself, is not an answer to market totalitarianism, in fact, it exacerbates many of the current problems. Peer to peer, when harnessed within the for-profit system, seems to lead to an exacerbation of the work culture, as can be witnessed by many who work in the new IT sectors. It has been described by Pekka Himanen as the Fridayisation of Sunday, i.e. the values of the work week are being applied to private and intimate life. But when it creates its own logic, within a context of for-benefit instead of for profit, of production for use value instead of for exchange value, as in the hacker culture of the free software movement, it leads to the free self-unfolding of the individual, who can work at his own pace as democratically-governed cooperative producers. Market identities and sharing identities reside in the same person, ourselves. To survive materially, we need to take on a market identity, but in our free time, an increasing number are taking on sharing identities. In some ways, the exacerbation of market identities actually reflects a deep desire to get away with it, as it was with many youngsters in the dotcom boom: let’s cash in so that we can stop working as soon as possible. As I have tried to argue, the shift towards P2P practices reflects deep changes in ontology (ways of feeling and being), modes of knowing (epistemology), and constellation of values (axiology). The aim of modernity was to ‘individualize’ everything, but we have achieved a stage where further hyper-individualization has become counterproductive. So what we see happening on the internet, and what I call peer to peer, is the “being in relationship” of everything. We are not returning to premodern pre-individual wholism, but to a form of sharing by highly individuated humans. The sharing is in part predicated on the abundance created by the current political economy: an abundance of mass intellectuality, an abundance of low-entry productive machinery, etc.. Negatively speaking: current complexity can no longer be managed without network structures, and these network structures, when the are distributed and not merely decentralized, generate peer to peer social processes. So the key question is: how do we create the conditions, within ourselves and in our institutions, to support the sharing identity as compared to the market identity. The evidence points to the fact that P2P is not a political program of a minority (not a simple left/right division), but the very direction in which an increasing number of humans want to go. So, though we may be for or against capitalism, I’m not sure that the sharing identities (what I would call “cooperative individualism”, should be set the market identities. Many programmers move from one field to the other, and do not hold at against anyone of the programming community, who cashes in from the reputation build in FS work. A more general answer is the following: modernity was predicated on the universal, on looking for the sameness in everyone, but we are now seeking for the “common”, a common object of desire. For example, if you are married to a very different type of partner than yourself, let’s say Democrat vs. Republican, you can still be united by the common desire to construct a family, to have an intimate life based on love. So you can bridge the intersubjective gaps by focusing on common goals and objects, i.e. producing use value together. This is why is doesn’t matter, in free software production, whether you are a right-wing libertarian or a left wing anarcho-communist.

2. The clash of different intersubjectivities seems so unbridgeable — and at the root of political polarization on IP and Internet issues. Do you have any thoughts on how the two radically different worldviews might be reconciled or bridged in some way?

MB: I don’t think the different intersubjectivities are so unbridgeable. The current campaigns against filesharing are the work of concrete material interests, who are defending their monopolistic rents, using the political class and the media that they are funding. They are a minority (Paul Ray, in new research, suggests the neoliberal consensus is only supported by 17% of the U.S. population, if I remember this correctly) On the other hand, a radical minority might want to do away with any and all IP protection. But the vast majority of online users support solutions that combine both the possibility of sharing, and that can support individual artists. The problem is not one of convincing a small minority of interest holders but of developing political power so that the majority can be heard, but I agree that this is a difficult problem that goes at the heart of the current crisis of democracy, beholden as it is to corporate interests. A strong commons (or P2P or “open access”) movement is a prerequisite for this, but we can see it growing and interconnecting worldwide. It requires the realization by the millions of practicioners of P2P that in the current system, their rights are threatened. I should also add that we see the emergence of a new group within the system: not the owners of media, but the makers of the participative platforms. These new types of companies derive their value from the free flow of information between participants, and are mostly supportive of P2P-induced changes, and equally opposed to the attempts at enclosure.

3. One key arena for resolving the epic struggle between the old paradigm of power and social organization, and the new Internet-based one, is politics and public policy. Yet it is an open question whether dinosaur-corporations will be able to successfully use law and public policy to *thwart* the emergence of a P2P/commons regime and culture. Do you think the technology, as socially embodied, will inexorably transform conventional political power — or does P2P culture exist merely at the suffrance of conventional political power, which will eventually find it too threatening to let it survive?

MB: I do not belong to the pessimists in this area, those that continually predict the end of P2P culture. I see the whole trust of the social processes and technology moving inexorable in the direction of more participation. It will definitely require a major adaptation of the political and economic system, as did the print revolution which eventually led to a wholly new system. The question is how far that change will go. In an earlier essay, I outlined three scenarios: 1) the first is predicated on the use of P2P technologies but on the defeat of the P2P social movement; this is the information feudalism scenario as explained by Jeremy Rifkin. It predicts that traditional private property will make way for generalized licensing under strict conditions set by the owners of the media; 2) the second scenario is a peaceful co-existence, a continuation of the current system. In such a system there is a continuing shift from the profit sphere to the sharing sphere, and back again, much as free software programmers are doing today. But it is predicated on the continued stability of the current system, something which is very unlikely given the current rate of destruction of the biosphere and the instability generating increased inequalities. I’m pretty much like George Soros or Immanuel Wallerstein in this regard, I just don’t see this happening. Rest the third scenario. In my essay, I try to show how four types of intersubjective relations have co-existed over time: reciprocity-based “equality matching” or the gift economy, dominant in tribal times; authority ranking, dominant in the tribute-based agricultural civilizations; market pricing, dominant today. In each of these three broad eras, all four types existed, but they were dominated, in-formed by the dominant mode. The fourth type is called “Communal Shareholding” by Alan Page Fiske. It is the mode whereby a common resource is accessible to all, and all can contribute, without accounting or reciprocity. It was the case in the tribal era, in the communal land of the peasants of the middle ages, and today, it is experiencing a revival through the digital commons which are created through peer production. It is the mode that is best suited for the emerging dominance of immaterial production, a necessary adjunct to distributed networks which are again becoming the dominant organizational form, and can be expanded in every case where capital can be distributed (and this is not just a technical, but a political question). Thus, I believe that we are moving towards a society, which will still have a market and state, but which will be in-formed and re-formed by the dominant P2P relational dynamic, its mode of production, governance and property/distribution. Is this an autonomic process, no. But it is a very very strong undercurrent, supported by the logic of contemporary production and social organization. A conscious social movement, a kind of merger of the commons, open access/open source, and P2P-participative trends, would greatly strengthen this underlying current.

4. What successors and complements to the GPL, open source licenses and Creative Commons licenses need to be invented, esp. for commercial contexts?

MB: This is a technical question, and I am not an expert in it. But we are witnessing a very creative era for the development of open source business models, and the appropriate hybrid licences. The key is to give people freedom to move from one sphere to another, as they see fit.

5. What legal mechanisms or policy regimes can protect collective wealth and sovereignty in the P2P universe, esp. if a reactionary market order is hellbent on enclosing the commons? Or will such “enclosure business models” be easily discarded as archaic & dysfunctional once network infrastructure and culture reach a sufficient scale and cultural acceptance?

MB: The GPL and CC-like licenses, which I call peer property, and share the 2 fundamental attributes of recognition of individual authorship but coupled to the “share-alike” peering principles, are already very strong safeguards. The fact that Lessig complains about license proliferation is actually a witness to the fact that many people are applying its core principles to many new areas. Appropriate governance mechanisms must be found for the protection of physical commons, which do not share the feature of abundance. (I’m thinking of your friend Peter Barnes’ suggestion of trusts as forms of governance in these sectors) As you are suggesting: peer to peer processes of production and governance have very strong advantages: they are more productive, more democratic in their governance (create more happiness for the producers), and create a more generalized and fair distribution of their products. Thus peer production is much in the same position as was capitalist production in the feudal area. It requires ever more restrictive, repressive measures to stop the tidal wave of innovation, which seems only able to slow down the process, but not fundamentally reverse it. But for Commons and P2P advocates, offensive strategies are also needed to speed up and ease the transition. Fighting for open access and open access wherever we can; make sure the infrastructures are really “open”, fighting the second enclosure legislation and their attempts to create artificial scarcities, are certainly important.

6. Do the differences between P2P (as an efficient way to create public goods) and the commons (as a social model of governance and resource-management) matter? Or are these differences merely interesting?

MB: I think P2P is the social dynamic, which arises wherever distributed networks are emerging, in areas where linear and hierarchical organizational modes are no longer adequate to deal with the new complexities. And what they are producing is a digital commons. Thus P2P refers to the mode of production, while the Commons is the instititutional format that it is increasingly taking. They are different facets of the same phenomenon. They are very intertwined but the Commons is important in terms of institutional reform. Finally, open access and open source movements refer, in my mind, to the conditions of success of both other processes. There is some kind of triangular relationship between the three phenomena.

This post was previously published on p2pfoundation.net and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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