Rajani Kanth, formerly associated with Harvard University (2007-2017), is the author of though-provoking and controversial books such as ‘Farewell to Modernism’ , ‘Breaking with the Enlightenment’ and ‘The Post-Human Society’ which are critiques of the ‘wrong turn’ taken by Euromodernism. He is currently undertaken a series of interviews with thinkers about social change, including herewith P2P Foundation founder Michel Bauwens. This is one of the longer interviews that gives a good idea of the current state of thinking at the P2P Foundation.
Rajani Kanth: What, in a nutshell, is P2P?
Michel Bauwens: Peer to peer is a relational dynamic which allows every individual to connect ‘permissionlessly’ to any other individual. You could call it ‘networking freedom’ if you like. This has been a hallmark of small groups of humans but has recently been scaled up by technology, creating the possibility of global ‘open source’ civic networks and generative economic coalitions that are on a par, if not surpassing, the capacities of both state hierarchies and capitalist market-dynamics.
But be careful: the concept of p2p, which is derived from the new structure of computers in which every server is autonomous, is now used in two competing ways. One, which the way I use it, is peer to peer as the capacity for commoning, i.e. the free association to pool, mutualize and share resources; and two, the anarcho-capitalist, libertarian-propertarian vision, which sees society as a collection of individual entrepreneurs. Between the commons view and the hyper-market view, there is a huge stretch.
RK: Explain your own history/connection with it.
MB: I was a typical nostalgic leftist, who had abandoned collective struggle for adaptation in a system which I had rejected. But by the mid-nineties, I felt all the planetary indicators, both ecological and social, were all converging in the wrong direction. Personally, I started to question my own activities: am I part of the problem or part of the solution?
Working in a large corporation and forced to act unethically on multiple occasions, I felt I had to change. But the invention of the world wide web in 1993, with the hugely increased capacity for horizontally-driven collective intelligence, i.e. the capacity to cooperation non-locally in real time (or in asynchronous time), was the epiphany. I immediately thought that, like print in the 15th century, this will be a driver for change, as it affects the very logic of social relationships. Thus, we have a new leverage point for social change, i.e. the power of horizontal or ‘diagonal’ networking, at scale.
I therefore decided to quit my well-paid executive function to spend two years, during a sabbatical in Thailand, studying historical phase transitions and seeing how this new leverage of peer to peer structures could help struggling people create the world that we need to survive planetary emergencies. How can we create new types of trust-based tribes, based on affinity and shared objects/goals, that can operate trans-locally and trans-nationally, to help serve a global transformation? My move to Thailand, and my adoption into my wife’s extended family, enabled me to combine a warm family life and activism in trans-local, affinity-based communities.
RK: What was your own inspiration in formulating it?
MB: It’s a combination of different things. Before my shift, and since the mid-90’s, the spread of peer to peer logic in different domains of social life was becoming very evident. I started to document examples as I found them in a specially dedicated wiki. My methodology was rather simple: keep it empirical, keep it coherent, and think about the most integrative narrative that makes sense for social change.
From my study of historical transitions, I started seeing the importance of seed forms that accompany the crisis of the previous and dying civilizational models, and how these seed forms carry new social logics (they have to, if they are to solve the problems of the previous systems). Then I started looking at the governance and property mechanisms of the seed forms today, specially the open source communities with their commons, and the entrepreneurial coalitions that surround them, moving later on to emergence of urban and physically productive commons as well. This evolved into a closer attention to how these emerging micro-networks could be models for society as a whole.
This meant attention to both public-commons institutional processes and to commons-market dynamics. In essence, I have been looking how the coop-tation of the commons by the state and the market can be reversed into its opposite, i.e. how the commons and the commoners can transform market forms and territorial governance so that it works to expand the commons, and the livelihoods of commoners in a way that is sustainable to the planet and its beings. More recently I have been moving my attention to the shift from a redistributive economy (which is extractive of human and natural value and tries to redistribute afterwards) to a pre-distributive economy, and from ecological damage limitation to regenerative practices.
My work is a pragmatic theory of social change today, hopefully useful for accelerating this transition, that is based on a engagement with commoners and their experience. I want the P2P Foundation to be the collective intellectual of the autonomous precarious workers that I see as vital agents of change today, and be a catalyst in the sense of increasing the velocity of collective learning between these various communities. The commons is today the central category of change, i.e. citizens have become directly productive of social value as contributors to the commons, and peer to peer is the key social relationship to enable and scale it beyond the capacities of both market and state. If the original state of humankind was the closely bonded human tribe, then today we are working on a new layer of close and empathic tribes based on the co-construction of shared value.
RK: What do you means by a ‘Commons’ Economy?
MB: A commons economy is an economy where core value creation happens around shared resources, and where other forms of human exchange have been adapted to its own needs. The commons economy is not a totalitarian alternative, but rather a reconfiguration of the capitalist market economy, in line with the logic of previous transitions. Today, value is thought to be created only in the market and then redistributed. In the commons economy, all contributions are recognized, whether at commons or societal levels, and the other forms of exchange and distribution are redesigned to serve the common-creating productive communities. Think of the historical success of the prayer-maximising enterprises in the monasteries of medieval Europe, which used mutualized infrastructures. Think of open source communities as the equivalent, but without the life-denying obedience and abstinence; think of mutualizing all human provisioning systems to radically diminish the thermodynamic footprint of humanity on the planet.
At the core of the commons community are open productive communities with globally shared immaterial commons and locally re-mutualized physical infrastructures. They interact with purpose-driven, mission-oriented non-capitalist entredonneurial (meaning, ‘giving between’ rather than entrepreneurial, or ‘taking between’) coalitions, supported by democratic, not-for-profit infrastructural organisations which enable and empower the infrastructure of cooperation. At the macro-level, this makes for a productive citizenry, an ethical economy, and a partner state.
RK: What might be the obstacles to this vision?
MB: Mutualization itself is pretty much inevitable in situations of civilizational overshoot and has happened multiple times throughout history. The question is whether the mutualization itself is captured by internal and outside extractive forces, or whether the democratic commons can become the mainstream model.
The record, so far, is that there have been long periods in pre-civilization with civilization defined as class-based societies, as the situation was for tens of thousands of years in hunter-gathering egalitarian societies; or, the more limited successes in class-based civilizations. Medieval democratic communes lasted 3 centuries, as did Greek democracy. Whether we can last beyond that, if successful, depends on whether we can transcend class-based society altogether, as suggested by Keith Chandler is his brilliant ‘Beyond Civilization’. The best bet is to work with scenarios, and focus on the one we prefer.
Imagine two axes: abundance vs scarcity, and equality vs hierarchy. Scenario 1 is the one we want, equality in abundance, depending on successful mutualization. Scenario 2 is equality in scarcity; Cuba might be a model for this type of society.
Then imagine scenario 3, hierarchy in abundance. This is what we have now in the emerging models of cognitive capitalism as a new feudalism in information and services, only accessible to those with monetary means.
Finally, scenario 4, hierarchy in scarcity, has been described in the last book by Latour: elite survivalism, with a mass die-out of human population, the expulsion into poverty and subsistence of the surviving poor, and with a new elite surviving in high-tech survivalist compounds. Lots of people in the elite are preparing for exactly that, and this exterminalist project is the great danger.
RK: Is this another Utopian project?
MB: While I have nothing against utopias myself, and they may be needed to inspire people with new visions of the possible, I consider my own work to be explicitly not utopian. My method is to look at real-life practices and examples, and when enough weak signals show up to prove it is a real trend, to analyse the underlying logic of these seed forms. It is only from there that I begin visioning exercises about what a society would look like if it would exhibit the same logics at the macro-level. Obviously, it is not because phenomena emerge at the margin that they will necessarily become dominant, or even survive in the long run, but I think this is legitimate methodology.
I have two remarks about the resistance to utopianism. First of all, what we consider as utopias are often very real. For example, the utopian socialists had real communities and experiments, as opposed to the marxists that were dreaming of another society. Secondly, the awful things we usually blame on utopias, let’s say the Inquisition or Stalinism, were consolidations of power using utopian visions in purely ideological ways as means of propaganda and control. After three decades of anti-utopian neoliberalism legitimating itself through capitalist realism, I think a revival in utopian thinking, at least a dose, would actually not be a bad thing.
RK: How does it compare to classical alternative economies like ‘socialism’?
MB: The peer to peer and commons approach is very close to the traditions of civil socialism of the 19th century, and even more so to the social doctrine of the Catholic Church which says that civil society should be at the center of society, with markets and state formations serving them. The mainstream socialist traditions have become very state-centric, in either Stalinist and totalitarian, or social-democratic forms.
Our tradition is civil society-centric. We consider all citizens (by whom we mean all people living in a given era) to be productive, i.e. creating value for society. But we believe we need common good-centric institutions at both the territorial level and at the ‘virtual’ level, to go beyond the mere corporate egotisms. Even commons communities think about themselves first, and not the totality of the ecosystem. I do not believe in societies that are mere expressions of contracts, either between individuals or between communities (as left-anarchists believe). Meta-governance is needed, and this is likely so for the foreseeable future, especially in societies which are structurally unequal.
Anarchists believe we would be safe without the state. I tend to believe that this would just give more freedom to private militias. What we can expect, though, is an increase in the mutual coordination capacities of our societies and economies as the functional governance of the commons complexifies to levels making the state obsolete. But in the meantime, we need facilitating mechanisms and infrastructural organisations, what I call the ‘partner state’. To the degree that the commons approach could be called socialist, is to the degree that decision-making is informed by social, ecological and ethical concerns, rather than by mere private interests.
RK: Is there any critique of capitalism in your vision?
MB: Yes, capitalism separates producers from their means of livelihood, promotes one-sided visions of humanity, and ignores social and ecological externalities. This leads to dangerous level of inequality, and hence social instability, and to an ongoing, and now dramatic and life-threatening, destruction of the planet and its other beings.
Neoliberalism is a particularly pernicious form of capitalism, since it creates total insecurity and the struggle of all against all. The 400 year experiment is pretty much over, but it survives as a zombie system and has set up something that could be much worse than itself. However, despite all this critique, we have to recognize that popular struggles created all kinds of counter-trends, that people continue to create non-capitalist forms and that it has created a complex society fulfilling needs that many people would not like to give up. So our approach is to say, let’s keep educational, health, housing and mobility advances, but mutualize them so their functioning becomes compatible with the survival of the planet. At the same time, we define ourselves as post-capitalist, because we focus on the creation of the models, rather than focusing on resistance and struggle ‘against’.
RK: How does one get from where we are to your ideal?
That is a difficult question. Our strategy is that of a relentless interweaving of projects and people, and to increase the level of understanding and mutual organization. The idea is that, as the mainstream disintegrates in stages, the alternatives will also strengthen in social and political power and become powerful attractors.
We see the commoner – the person who contributes to common social objects, defends what he/she loves, and fights for transformation in societal institutions so that they serve these commons – as the new subject. We believe there is a multitude of them, once they stop regarding themselves as labor dependent on capital, but as commoners constructing their own livelihoods – disregarding the beast, or using it where they can if it fits their interest, and struggling against it when they must.
Right now, the nation-state is no longer a key instrument of change, so we must focus on building transnational open source communities of collective intelligence, i.e. a noopolitik for the noosphere. We must also build transnational entredonneurial coalitions, i.e. livelihood organizations that permit social reproduction around our commons, and cosmo-local production units that are socially pre-distributive, and ecologically regenerative . But there is no blueprint as yet for any final showdown. However, this illustrates our approach quite well, I think:
RK: What current movements might support your vision?
MB: I think there are three powerful ‘currents’ that are converging, consisting of many different movements and projects. One is the movement to share knowledge and things, i.e. both the open source movements but also the genuine ‘sharing’ movements. The second are all the people that are caring for and fighting for the environment and the planet. And finally, the movements for fairness, equality, solidarity, cooperativism.
The challenge is that they all have to come together. Equality and ecology are very closely linked since the more unequal a society is, the more intensely the rulers will go beyond planetary boundaries while competing with their peers. Equality will insure a softer descent, and a faster healing of the planet after the inevitable catastrophes that awaiting in the coming decades.
Finally, there is absolutely no way we can solve these two first issues without an intense mutualization of knowledge and resources. If the solutions remain privatized and subject to profit, we will not be able to save ourselves, either. For me, the work we are doing is to provide a possible integrative narrative so that a lot more mutual coordination can occur, which can replace the industrial society narrative of labour vs capital. Right now, all that needs to happen is happening, but at tiny scale, too slowly, and with a huge fragmentation of effort. The more we can see ourselves in a common story, involved in a convergent structural effort to change the very DNA of our societies, the more we can mutually coordinate and the faster we can grow to the scale needed to tackle the global emergency.
RK: How do you define the current crisis in world affairs, its causes, etc?
MB: It’s a converging of three social ills, as I suggested in previously, but essentially: 1) we have a system that erroneously believes that that natural resources and the planet’s beings are abundant, and resources that can be over-used for short-term human profit 2) we have a system that believes that what is naturally abundant and shareable, essentially human culture and knowledge, should be made artificially scarce and that sharing is a criminal activity; hence capitalism is not just a scarcity-allocation system, but a scarcity-engineering system; 3) finally, all of this is done by increasing social and economic inequalities and creating general insecurity as concerns livelihoods.
If all this is true, it means our problems are really systemic. It will not be sufficient to reject only capitalism, as the most recent instantiation of class society and its ills, but also to reject class society as such, and recreate a higher, more complex instant of more egalitarian social forms based on ecological balance and massive mutual learning for collective intelligence.
RK: List your major publications for the curious.
MB: I have books in 3 languages so far. The Dutch, De Wereld Redden, and the French Sauvez le Monde, both subtitled ‘With p2p and the commons to a post-capitalist society’. These are easy to read conversations explaining our historical, philosophical, economic, political and even spiritual ideas and proposals about societal change.
Our English book is more academic and focuses on the economic aspects, i.e. the interaction of the commons with transformed market forms that can work for the commoners and their livelihoods, sharply distinguished from the dominant and extractive models of the so-called ‘sharing economy’. We explain alternative forms such as open cooperatives and platform cooperatives; you can find it here.
Next spring (2019), Westminster Press will present our ideas in more detail. We have lots of smaller booklets, based on our collective research with the P2P Lab – see our library here.. If you want to know about such things as ‘value sovereignty’, ‘open and contributive accounting’, public-commons cooperation and the like, this is the place to be. Our P2P Lab is very active in researching our hypotheses in real life with real communities through action-research, with numerous peer-reviewed scientific articles, see at here.
RK: Is there a website you might wish to provide readers?
RK: How can the interested support your project?
MB: People complain that it is hard to help us but that is essentially because we are a organized network rather than a network or organization, and this means that we do not have much hand-holding capacity. Essentially, if you agree to be of service through the co-construction of a knowledge commons, and willing to contribute to our resource base, you will find a way first to connect, and later, to create a livelihood around this passionate engagement.
RK: What are the achievements of P2P so far?
MB: You have to remember, we work in the background as a knowledge sharing facilitator rather than as a active social movement ourselves, so we help others in their achievements. But we have a well-used and growing knowledge base that has accumulated 60 million viewers and reach at least 20,000 people per day, all influencers in their own right. We have consulted with the Ecuadorian government on building national knowledge commons, and with the city of Ghent, on a ‘commons transition plan’. We have been invited to some influential spaces like the Vatican, China, and various political movements. We were cited a few years ago as the most important influence on Barcelona’s co-working spaces. We have worked a lot of converging social movements, such as coops and commons, with real progress in countries like the UK and France. Concrete local initiatives, such as the Commons Transition Coalition in Melbourne, and various ‘assemblies of the commons’ in France, are closely related to our ideas. We also have failures, such as for example our work in Ecuador, where the government just filed our recommendations and went for an even more extractive policy; or Syriza, which bowed to the Troika.
Right now, I am very enthusiastic about my association with the cooperativist/mutualist movement SMart, which is focusing on organizing solidarity for autonomous workers (freelancers) and with the interest of indigenous movements, who are using our ideas in their study groups, for example in Taiwan. Some of our associates have been locally active, for example in creating production coops in Ecuador. We are a tiny speck in terms of ‘material’ influence but in terms of post-socialist ideas, I think we are an important actor for social change movements to listen to.
RK: What is your best guess scenario for the imminent future of world society?
MB: I discussed this in a previous question where I outlined a few scenarios. Our best hope is to strengthen the social forces aligned with p2p and the commons during the brief intermezzo in which our civilization prepares for major catastrophes, and to have enough seed forms ready to attract those that will be vitally interested in resilient economic and social alternative forms. Things will probably get a lot worse before they can get any better, but we hope the ‘imaginal cells’ of the commons will be a significant factor in diminishing the amount of damage in the transition period.
RK: How do race, class, gender, and culture, figure in your project?
MB: Today we have a tension with different kinds of commons. Traditional commons are numerous, but under full onslaught of capitalism, while digital and urban commons in the advanced countries are strengthening. Finding a connection between both is crucial to strengthen the efforts in the Global South. In western countries, there is a tension between the civic commons of what Thomas Piketty calls the ‘brahmin left’, i.e. citizens with high educational but low financial capital, who are pioneering many of the urban commons, and the even more numerous migrant commons, which are limited to ethnic and religious communities. Again, vital connections will have to be created.
Culture is crucial, because while the contemporary commons are by definition open and self-governed, affinity-based clustering (the commons’ version of the filter bubble) isn’t always integrating communities. But the strength of the commons is that it creates a common endeavour around shared objects that are meant to be shared, which allows to significantly overcome identitarian conflicts. More significantly, the commons are an important social-economic paradigm to massively recreate local value streams and thus to create meaningful activities for those excluded. We have an answer to Trumpian rage that is not rooted in protectionism and nationalism, but in transnational, trans-local cooperation at the immaterial level, and on relocalization production at the bioregional level.
All these changes are undergirded by cultural evolution towards a re-strengthening of cooperation after the atomisation of the neoliberal age. We need to work on a culture of cooperation for a ‘more-than-human-commons’ (i.e. Zack Walsh in the Arrow), that has strong spiritual and ecological aspects, and overcome the subject-object split introduced by the Enlightenment, but without abandoning the aspirations for human equality.
The last thing we want is to replace a dysfunctional capitalist world order with a return of a much worse class exploitation. I think of the commons transition as the creation of global affinity tribes, in alignment with a return to local affectivity, an ‘archaic revolution’ as Terence McKenna put it, which combines high touch with ‘convivialist’ high-tech enabled collective intelligence. P2P is not a reactionary utopia towards a lost golden age or to earlier forms of class exploitation, but a brahmin-worker synthesis of a new cycle of post-civilizational development.
RK: Is the project Eurocentric?
MB: The project is world-centric, while recognizing a plurality of possible commonwealths adopted in various cultural, territorial and trans-local contexts. But it is rooted in the emancipatory traditions that developed in the historical West, and which can connect with similar traditions that developed in other cultural and historical contexts – something I call ‘neotraditional’ on occasion.
As suggested by William Chandler in Beyond Civilization, these are all markers of a deep trend to overcome the trauma of class-based civilization, the cycle of which must end if we are to preserve the very planet we live on. The current trends towards overcoming racialization, gender exploitation, and for seeing humans as equipotentially enabled contributory peers, corresponds to the deep human yearning to have warm affective communities in balance with the environment and all beings, in which everyone is recognized for their contribution to the common good. This is a profound aspiration of human beings, even in currently non-egalitarian cultures. I will never forget that the most enthusiastic responses to my ideas were in the indigenous communities of Ecuador.