Peer to Peer and the Future

Opening essay offered as part of an extended exploration of views conducted Michael Albert of ZCommunications / Parecon

Peer to peer social processes are bottom-up processes whereby agents in a distributed network can freely engage in common pursuits, without external coercion, i.e. permissionlessly undertake actions and relations. This requires not just ‘decentralized’ systems, but ‘distributed’ systems, through which individuals can cooperate. Distributed networks do have constraints, forms of internal coercion, that are the conditions for the group to operate, and they may be embedded in the technical infrastructure, the social norms, or legal rules. Despite these caveats, we have here a remarkable social dynamic, which is based both on voluntary participation in the creation of common goods, which are made universally available to all.

Peer to peer processes are emerging in literally every cranny of social life, and have been extensively documented in the 9,000+ pages of documentation at the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives, and many other places on the Web.

P2P social processes more precisely engender:

1) peer production: wherever a group of peers decided to engage in the production of a common resource

2) peer governance: the means they choose to govern themselves while they engage in such pursuit

3) peer property: the institutional and legal framework they choose to guard against the private appropriation of this common work; this usually takes the form of non-exclusionary forms of universal common property, as defined through the General Public License, (and a less stringent, individually focused ‘sharing’ mode, as seen in Creative Commons licenses, or similar derivatives).

Peer governance combines the free self-aggregation between individual skills and universally broadcast tasks, processes for communal validation of excellence within the broader pool of input, and defense mechanisms against private appropriation and sabotage. Peer governance differs from hierarchical allocation of resources, from allocation through the market, and even from democracy, as these are all mechanisms for dealing with scarce resources. Peer governance essentially aims, and often succeeds, in making sure that no formal ‘representative group’ can take decisions separate from the community of peer producers. Its social reproduction mode, the circulation of the common, combines the open and free availability of raw material, participatory non-exclusionary processes of production, and universal availability of the result, creating a new layer of open and free material for the next iteration.

Peer production is hyperproductive compared to the for-profit mode, 1) because it deselects both negative (fear) and positive (pure self-interest based on exchange of equivalent value) extrinsic motivation, relying solely on intrinsic motivation; 2) it strives for absolute quality while for-profit companies can only strive for relative quality. Hence the birth of a model of commons-based peer production, which combines relatively autonomous communities, for-benefit associations (usually Foundations) managing the infrastructure of cooperation, and an ecology of businesses cooperating with the commons, and through their benefit-sharing practices, maintaining the viability of the infrastructure of cooperation.

For society to change, as we’ve seen in the two previous meta-transitions from slavery to feudalism and from feudalism to capitalism, it is necessary that there is a congruent change from both the top and the base of the social pyramid, with at least a sizeable section of the former ruling structure morphing to the new mode. This is happening in peer production, through the engagement of netarchical capitalists, who invest in sharing platforms and associate themselves with knowledge, software, and design commons.

(design commons, because peer production is presently moving from free software to open hardware, and creating new alliances with more localized producers of physical goods)

While peer production is being accommodated by capitalists, capitalism is also being accommodated by peer producing communities, causing a mutual adaptation into hybrid modes, that insure that peer production is not just collectively sustainable, but also for the core individuals involved. Far from disarming peer production, this is the very condition of its success. The new social conflict is the one between peer producing and sharing communities, vs. commons-based businesses and corporate-owned sharing platforms, into the precise nature of that adaptation in the micro-scale of projects.

The weakness of socialism is that it could not point to a proven superior mode of production, and could not offer any interest to any section of the ruling classes. This weakness of 19th and 20th century social movements has now been overcome.

At the moment when no social alternative is yet strong enough to offer a roadmap to ‘total’ change, the social forces behind peer production form the basis of a new social compact which can, along with new technologies, create the possible basis for a new, but probably the last, growth phase of capitalism, which will have to substantially compose with the new structure of desire based on open and free, participatory, and commons-oriented value systems. This creates the condition for a macro adaptation of capitalism with peer production, moving it from seed form to parity, and preparing the ground for a meta phase transition that will create a post-capitalist economy, using peer to peer processes as its core way of producing value.

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. Social movements need to understand the historical opportunity of peer production, and add to their defensive social actions and reform-aimed political aims, a practical engagement with the dynamic forces of peer production, which represent the template of the future political economy and civilization.

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