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The FLOK Society Vision of a Post-Capitalist Economy

Michel Bawuens, Founder of the P2P Foundation, has recorded four short videos describing the FLOK Society’s pioneering research project in Ecuador.  FLOK stands for “Free, Libre, Open Knowledge,” and the FLOK Society is a government-sponsored project to imagine how Ecuador might make a strategic transition to a workable post-capitalist knowledge economy. As Research Director of the project, Michel and his team are exploring the practical challenges of making commons-based peer production a widespread, feasible reality as a matter of national policy and law. 

The four videos – each four to six minutes in length – are a model of succinct clarity.  Here is a short summary of each one, which I hope will entice you to watch all of them:

Part I: The FLOK Society

Bauwens explains the significance of the FLOK Society project as “the first time in the history of mankind that a nation-state has asked for a transition proposal to a P2P economy.” He asks us to “imagine that for every human activity, there is a commons of knowledge that every citizen, business and public official can use.”  This regime of open, shareable knowledge would move away from the idea of privatized knowledge accessible only to those with the money to pay for copyrighted and patented knowledge.  The system could be adapted for education, science, medical research and civic life, among other areas. 

The FLOK Society project is actively looking for what it calls the “feeding mechanisms” to enable and empower commons-based peer production.  For open education, for example, open textbooks and open educational resources would help people enter into this alternative regime.  However, there are both material and immaterial conditions that must be addressed as well. 

One material condition is proprietary hardware, for example.  If open systems could replace the existing lock-down of proprietary systems, all users could spend one-eighth of what they are currently paying, on average.  Moreover, eight times more students could participate in creating and sharing, said Bauwens, which itself would yield enormous gains.  As for "immaterial conditions" that need to change, innovations like “open certification” are needed to recognize the skills of those who learn outside of traditional institutions, as in hacker communities.

Part II:  Traditional Knowledge

A special set of challenges arise in protecting the benefits of knowledge-sharing for traditional societies.  Such communities have shared their knowledge internally for generations, but in recent decades multinational corporations have taken this knowledge without compensation to produce patented seeds and other proprietary products.  So traditional and indigenous communities are understandably wary of the idea of a “sharing economy.” They've done it forever, and the practice is highly vulnerable to ripoffs by big market players ("biopiracy").

One solution, said Bauwens, is for communities to introduce “reciprocity-based licenses” and create their own “ethical market entities” that serve the community on their own terms.  “The peer production license,” said Bauwens, “is a type of license in which only other commoners, cooperatives and nonprofits can access and use the licensed material." The licenses would prohibit commercial entities from making profits from the commons without explicit reciprocity.

Part III:  Value regimes

Bauwens described different types of “value regimes” for producing and allocating wealth.  The dominant model of our times is what Bauwens calls “Cognitive Capitalism,” in which surplus value is extracted from intellectual property, which is controlled by big companies whose products are sold for a big markup.  Only one-fifth of the capitalization of large companies consists of identifiable material assets, and the rest is a matter of some speculation.  This means that there is a lot of “missing value” that has intangible dimensions.  And a lot of this clearly stems from the social cooperation that is involved value-creation, said Bauwens. 

There is another value regime that Bauwens calls “netarchical capitalism,” the hierarchy of open networks used by capitalists. Facebook is a prime example. Its massive stock values stem from the user community, whose self-organization and sharing create “attention capital,” which Facebook then sells to the advertising market.  “We see an exponential growth of use-value produced by users themselves,” said Bauwens, “but the monetization is only through large, proprietary platforms like Facebook.” 

This amounts to another form of exploitation of commons.  The value of crowdsourcing, for example, has been estimated at $2 per hour, which is far below the minimum wage for conventional work.  “People are free to contribute,” said Bauwens, “but there is no democratization of the means of monetization.”

The alternative that we should be building, he urged, is “a civic P2P economy where the value returns to the value creators.”  We need to develop new sorts of ethical market entities that can produce “cooperative accumulation” instead of “capital accumulation.”

Part 4:  Technological Regimes  

It seems clear that P2P networks are going to expand in the future, but it remains problematic whether commoners will be able to reap the benefits of their own work.  That’s because the very design of the technology can affect who may benefit.

Bauwens showed a chart with four quadrants.  The quadrant for “netarchical capitalism” has centralized control of the backend design of the system, the privatization of users’ personal information, and private profitmaking.  “This value-regime is inscribed in the very design of the technology,” Bauwens noted.

Another quadrant is “anarchic capitalist design” – capitalist, but not centralized.  However, because there is still an artificial scarcity in accessing resources (e.g., Bitcoin), there are still artificial limits on who may benefit.  If you don’t have money, you can’t participate or benefit.

Another tech design is “local and distributed,” which provides for-benefit sharing for everyone.   Examples include bike-sharing, car-sharing, and the open sharing of knowledge.  This value-regime is exemplified by the local resilience and Transition Town movement. 

This regime is certainly an improvement over cognitive and netarchical capitalism, but it has limits because it is only local.  It does not connect with the global. 

The most desirable quadrant for the future, said Bauwens, is the quadrant that combines local production with global commons for the benefit of everyone.  The idea is that what is heavy (physical production) should be local, but what is light (design, knowledge) should be global.  Examples include FarmHack, Open Source Ecology and other distributed design systems for agricultural equipment – “open hardware.” 

This value-regime in its very design would support distributed networks of micro-factories where product designs could be downloaded and produced for roughly one-eighth of the cost of conventional, proprietary products.  This infrastructure would support local domestic production of appropriate technologies for family and indigenous farms, for example.  Needless to say, this tech design regime is quite different from the centralized control and proprietary expense that corporations like Monstanto and Del Monte are seeking to impose on localities around the world.

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Of course, making this vision a reality will entail all sorts of additional work in elaborating realistic pathways forward, and in building the political and social infrastructure.  But by devising a coherent, detailed vision that leverages existing trends and popular aspirations, the FLOK Society is making incalculable contributions to the peer production/commons vision.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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