Bauwin’s Replies to Albert’s First Reaction

Below is my response to Michaels’ questions and (counter)arguments. It does perhaps not adequately address the recurring question about p2p values, a subject to which I may return.
Michael Albert writes: 

“You say peer to peer is “bottom-up” processes whereby “agents in a distributed network…freely engage in common pursuits”  and “permissionlessly undertake actions and relations…. Doesn’t any club have this character? “
Peer production is easiest to implement and practice in conditions where the costs of reproduction are marginal. This includes content, software, designs. But it is very important that there is no a priori filtering, i.e. that you do not have to ask permission to add your contribution. In most newspapers for example, you can only write if your editor has asked you to do so, and if he then also accepts your article. By contrast, peer-produced citizen journalism, would accept your contributions, and would filter for excellence and quality ‘a posteriori’ after the fact. The overwhelming majority of NGO’s for example, would not allow this permissionless production of content. So it pretty much depends on the rules of the club: 1) can anyone participate (design for inclusion); 2) is the process of filtering participatory and a posteriori; 3) is the result available to all without exception. If the 3 conditions are met, we do indeed have peer production.
Michael Albert writes:
“If some group produces outputs that require inputs, it would have to get the inputs. It would have to get the labor. People could say no. Permissions, and perhaps acquisitions, are involved. More, peer to peer seems to be only about undertaking joint ventures that have no significant costs. Is that right?”
The input must indeed be open and free, and obviously, this works only where communication, coordination, and reproduction costs are marginal, i.e. in the world of immaterial production. But please note: everything that needs to be physically produced, and therefore needs cost-recovery mechanisms, has a design phase. That design phase is ‘immaterial’ (in the sense we understand it), and therefore, can be peer produced. Hence, it becomes easy to imagine, and this is already practiced (see to combine an open design process, with a different mechanism for physical production. You therefore could combine this ‘peer to peer’ (or in other words, Marx’s definition of communism as last phase of history) in the design phase, with say, a cooperative, for the production phase.
If you have a peer to peer design phase, then these designers start conceiving of producing the ‘product’ quite differently, in ways that are modular, etc… So the end effect is to have more distributed physical production infrastructures, which are more compatible with the peer to peer logic of the design process, since they lower the cost of entry for physical machinery, and help to decentralize and distribute capital requirements, reversing the logic of the capital system.
Michael Albert writes:
“I wonder, what are the virtues that peer to peer is trying to capture? What are the gains from the choices? If we could enumerate those gains, most broadly, shouldn’t we then see if we can we have the gains not only for inexpensive and essentially volunteer efforts, but also for all other economic activity?”

Peer to peer combines the ability for everyone to volunteer his passionate contributions (equipotentiality, see, to do so in an environment that does not necessitate hierarchical fiats, and where the results can be equally shared by all. Such production, because it relies on the most creative non-coerced intrinsic motivation, leads to hyperproductivity, and a striving for absolute quality, which can not be matched by purely commercial players relying on closed intellectual property. Most of the time, because of the issue you correctly described above, i.e. the different logics applying to immaterial vs. material production, a hybrid and cooperative logic emerges combining the open design communities, a nonprofit (‘for-benefit’) managing the infrastructure of cooperation, and a ecology of businesses producing scarce added value for the market.

Michael Albert writes:
“Apparently to call a project peer to peer its outputs have to be universally available but I am not sure what that means. A group writing essays and displaying them at no cost to readers would seem to meet your condition. But what about a group producing food, say, or violins, or something else? On two counts it would seem to fail to meet your definition. First, the products wouldn’t be for everyone, clearly. Second, the inputs would be expensive, which implies permissions, acquisitions, etc.  Is this correct?”
Yes, this is correct. Typically, as in the Arduino circuit boards, or your hypothetical violin, the violin would be a market product, exchanged for money, but the design would be available to all, so any other company would also be free to produce it. One of the side effects of this is to destroy monopoly rent on artificial scarcity.
Michael Albert writes:
“What precisely are the virtues of peer to peer that you like? More, can we preserve those virtues even when production involves serious costs and generates outputs that are not universal? If so, what would it require? If not, why not?”
As said above, peer production only works for immaterial production, but can be associated with physical production. Ideally, peer communities are strong enough to work with businesses that are closer in ethical values and practices. This is already happening in the existing hybrid practices. They can also create their own, such as for example coops, or parecon-inspired businesses.
For some of the values associated with p2p, see:
Michael Albert writes:
You say “peer to peer processes are emerging in literally every cranny of social life,” but unless I am missing something it seems to me they have been with us for centuries – unless you make the conditions very stringent. I understand that new  information technologies have opened a new domain to peer to peer – the production and distribution of information – but the technology is what seems new, not the peer to peer activity per se – voluntarism, self determination, etc. Am I wrong about that?”
No, you are correct. P2P, or in technical terms (see, communal shareholding, has always existed, but was limited in time and space to small groups. Only now can these small group dynamic scale to the global level through global coordination. Of the four human intersubjectivities and ways of creating value (the three others being Equality Matching = gift economy ; Authority Matching = Hierarchical Allocation; and Market Pricing = capitalism), it is the only form that has never really been dominant. With the affordances of the internet, peer to peer technologies, and other distributed infrastructures, what changes is that it can not only create very complex social artefacts, but can become a universal way of creating common value, and could even be the dominant logic of a new political economy/civilization.
Michael Albert writes:
“After your introduction to peer to peer, you get more precise with three conditions. To me, however, the conditions imply that peer to peer is about production of a common resource, only. Why is that? Why do you want to limit your attention to only production of public goods? Is it really true that only the production of public goods production can embody the virtues – whatever they turn out to be once listed – of peer to peer? Why not all types of production?”
For peer to peer to expand to all types of production, we need to solve to issue of cost recovery for physical production. This may either never be fully attained, or may require a long transitional period. The best option therefore is to think of peer to peer in terms of a pluralist economy. Imagine that innovation and creation becomes a matter of global open design groups, this being the core of value creation; around this core, you have coops, parecon groups, gift economies, fair trade and non-capitalist markets, etc… To the degree that we can design more abundance (capitalist markets being designed to create more and more scarcity), peer to peer logics of voluntary contributions and universal availability can expand to more and more aspects of society.


Michael Albert writes:
“Does the fact that workers agree to participate of their own accord (even if in very constrained settings) and that the firm happens to produce information that it in turn makes available free – say via a giant web site, or something – though it then also sells ads to finance it all, qualify as peer to peer production?”
If the income is conditional on production, it’s not peer to peer, even if the result is freely available. You can have a commons as outpout, without p2p as input and process. And you can have p2p input, but with the result being available only for sale. So the 3 conditions need to be met. In a capitalist context of courses, workers are never really free in terms of work contracts, since they cannot survive without one. It is important to distinguish the commons mode of peer production, where there is a common goal, from the sharing sites owned by corporate platforms.  In this case, you have a dual logic: individuals creating content for universal availability in a p2p-related way, while companies are selling the aggregated attention to the advertising marketplace. It’s a hybrid form, instrumentalized by capital. This creates a new type of social conflict, between the interest of the community, and the interest of the platform. But of interest is the greater opportunity for sharing, and that a sector of capital is abandoning its reliance on Intellectual Protection. Historically, modes of production have only changed, when there was a congruent change both from the value-creating classes and the value-extracting classes. The emergence of netarchical capitalism, as that sector of capital which enables and empowers ‘sharing’ to occur’ can therefore be seen as a partially positive development.

Michael Albert writes:

“What if a bunch of programmers create a project to produce a new program, that they will make available free, etc. They need offices, electricity, software, computers, and they need to eat and sleep, etc. So they hire people to clean their workplace, to cook their food, to shop for them. They pay for the computers and their upkeep, for the electricity, etc. They get funds for all this by hiring some workers to provide technical support that people pay for. They then share the resulting profits among themselves, paying the other employees wages. Is that peer to peer because they are creating what they specify to be a public good and the programmers, at least, are doing it in a self-managing way (albeit while employing wage slaves as well)?”
Interesting scenario, and it could conceivably happen. It’s a familiar situation with coops, who hire second-class workers to sustain cooperative logic of the privileged first tier (Mondragon comes to mind).

Michael Albert writes:
“It is as if peer to peer believes there is something wrong with getting remunerated or producing for use by limited numbers of self selecting folks, or as if when those conditions hold, we can’t aim for better relations.”
As stated above, we have to struggle to make peer to peer a more general feature of social life, and combine local and global open content/software/design communities with economic forms for physical production, that are most compatible with its values (open and free contribution, participatory process, commonly available output). Constructing more distributed infrastructures that can allow self-aggregation outside of capital is another complementary strategy. Social struggles towards the basic income, or at least schemes that allow more people to periodically leave the market sphere, are another.

Michael Albert writes:
“Nearly everything produced and used in production is scarce in the very precise sense that if it wasn’t used for the chosen purpose, something else could have been done with it, instead. There is an opportunity cost for labor, resources, materials, time, etc. This is a timeless fact of life. There is no avoiding that last part but allocating assets to some ends instead of others can be done consistent with worthy values and assessments of full social and ecological implications, or can be done via methods that trample worthy values and utilize warped valuations … We should want to have those virtues present throughout and economy and society, rather than only for volunteer production of public goods.”
I absolutely agree with you that we should extend the virtues of openness, freedom, participation, the common good, equality etc. The question is how that can be done. As you say, scarcity is everywhere. But scarcity – abundance sit on a continuum, and the present system has it backwards: it considers naturally scarce physical resources to be infinite, and wants to make abundance naturally scarce. So we need to reverse it. Most abundance is available in the world of immaterial production, where p2p now naturally occurs, because we have a largely socialized infrastructure. Let’s keep it and extend it. Next, we do what we can so that individuals can aggregate as freely as they can in the physical sphere, by creating distributed infrastructures. If we have open designs, and easier access to capital goods, we can create a cooperative economy. This is however, not merely a technical or economic question, but a political question. My expectation is that the peer to peer movements will naturally evolve from transgressive behavior (say filesharing), to constructive behavior (say the General Public License), to practices which challenge the existing institutional setup and political economy.


Michael Albert writes:
“Further, “participatory non-exclusionary processes of production” sounds nice, but again I don’t know what it means. If we have a hospital or health team, or even a programming team, surely it is not non-exclusionary because one has to meet certain standards to participate, no?”

If you are paid conditionality for what you produce, we do not have non-reciprocal voluntary contributions and hence no peer to peer. If someone hires you, there is no peer to peer.  


Michael Albert writes:
“What I wonder is why you feel peer to peer induces desired social solidarity for all.”

I do not think practicing peer to peer necessarily induces a desire for social solidarity for all, but I think that because p2p includes very high ethical values, and so it potentially does influence people in that direction. So I do think it is politically interesting to engage peer producers in such a way, as to use their natural desire for p2p engagement, with a broader social desire for a society that would expand its possibilities and generate social solidarity for all.

Michael Albert writes:
“When you say societal change requires at least “a sizeable section of the former ruling structure morphing to the new mode” I think it is an understatement, and yet it also concerns me. All of the old rulers exist in the new system, and thus must by definition morph into operating in light of the new system’s norms and structures. This is a truism, no? But when you say it is happening with peer to peer now, I have concerns about that – because the old elite’s motives remain capitalist and govern their willingness to exploit peer to peer.”
I understand the concern, but that is the reality of a class society, that different social groups protect their interest first. So, as peer producing communities seek to extend their sustainability and possibilities, so capital seeks to profit from it. The historical precedents show us that the old order first seeks to use the new mode to bolster its own logic, infrastructure and institutions, while being in the end overcome by it.  This is how the transition occurred from slavery to serfdom, and from feudalism to capitalism, and why I expect the same process to apply to the transition to a peer to peer society. Obviously, where I come from, and the work of the P2P Foundation is dedicated to it, is to advance on the way to scenario one. However, it is also the case that netarchical capital does a number of things that are in our interest as well, and so they can both be partial allies and partial enemies. Google is a good example. When it fights for open spectrum in Congress, it’s an ally, when it abuses our personal data, it’s an enemy. The leaning of peer to peer advocates will be on a broad spectrum of positions. People like Lawrence Lessig are happy with a liberal economy for example, and people like Yochai Benkler, see peer production as an adjunct to the market. I see it as an alternative, a ‘conditional inevitability’ that needs to be fought for.


Michael Albert writes:

“The weakness of what has been called socialism, or 20th century socialism, or what I tend to call coordinatorism, was certainly not its inferior productive capacity – and since when is maximizing output our desideratum for judging societies, in any event even if it were inferior on that axis – but, instead, its social organization, class hierarchy, authoritarianism, etc. I assume we agree about that.”

Peer production is hyperproductive not just in terms of production, but politically in terms of participation and democracy, and the universal availability of its production as well. ‘Really existing’ socialism was authoritarian and had uneven distribution. As a production alternative, it did not prove to be more productive in the long run, while capitalism proved compatible with some limited forms of democracy. But P2P retains the high productivity, introduces democracy in production and all areas of social life, and allows anyone to profit from its realizations.

Michael Albert writes:
“Why promote what purports to be a humane alternative to capitalism as a means of resuscitating a horrendously horrible capitalist system? But more, I am trying to see how peer to peer points toward a new “social compact” in your eyes, or in the eyes of its advocates, and am having trouble with that. For me, I think it certainly could – for example by highlighting as part of its ethos and aims the desirability of self management and thus classlessness, and of cooperative and solidaritous negotiation of allocation, equitable remuneration, etc.” 
So again, I wonder which it is?”
You and I may find capitalism to be ‘horrendously horrible’ (I actually would have to qualify that statement, but let’s pass it for this time), but most people in the world disagree, and two hundred years of rhetoric and social struggle haven’t abolished it. (I also do not believe classlessness is a realistic possibility in conditions of objective or perceived scarcity.) So my view is: as we are seeing post-capitalist processes emerging, how do we extend them as much as we can. I’m not interested one bit in anti-capitalist rhetoric, only in actions which allow us to go beyond commodity production. For that, we strengthen our peer producing communities, build our institutions, do what we can to promote distributed infrastructures in every area we can, and create a social movement which can successfully defend our practices, and hopefully one day, remove constraining institutions.


Michael Albert writes:

“I am afraid that even you are ignoring key aspects of economic life – remuneration, decision making structures, division of labor, and allocation – none of which peer to peer as yet addresses – when you say it provides a template for a better future.”

I’m not ignoring them at all. Within its sphere of success, peer production has actually successfully addressed decision-making structures (peer governance), replaced the division of labour, by distribution of labour, and hierarchical/market allocation by self-aggregation of productive resources. However, we do indeed not have a solution for unconditional remuneration. For physical production, they are the central concern and I’m continuously, along with the community of practitioners/researchers/activists at the P2P Foundation, observing how peer producing communities are inventing sustainable solutions in that sphere.

Michel Albert writes:
“When you say “peer production is therefore a great opportunity for workers, to create strong commons, and demand adaptations from their corporate partners, while nothing stops them from creating their own productive structures, such as parecon based cooperatives” it is of course in accord with the scenario one noted above, but wouldn’t it be more compelling if all peer to peer practitioners and advocates generally agreed about this, and thus were continually trying to enrich peer to peer rhetoric and practice with insights from broader social vision? Do they?”
No, they do not, I wish they did. And I’m working on it. Can you do more?

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