Excerpts from “Peer-to-Peer and Marxism: analogies and differences,” an interview of Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives by Jean Lievens. Having facilitated a teach-in on commons-based peer production, governance and property, at Occupy Wall Street’s Liberty Plaza encampment last November, Bauwens visited London and the School of Commoning featured him in its series of Meetings with Remarkable Commoners. Bauwens gave his “Introduction to P2P and the Commons as the new paradigm of change“ talk at the Tent City University of Occupy London. The interview was made at that occasion. The complete text of the interview can be found here.
Jean Lievens: You describe Occupy as an example of peer producing political commons. In what way is this different from historical ‘anarchist’ or ‘communist’ movements like the Paris Commune, Barcelona 1937, or perhaps even the Russian Revolution?
Michel Bauwens: If you observe an occupation, you see a community that is producing its politics autonomously, not following hierarchical or authoritarian political movements with a pre-ordained program; you see for-benefit institutions in charge of the provisioning of the occupiers (food, healthcare), and the creation of an ethical economy around it (such as Occupy’s Street Vendor Project). This is prefigurative of a new form of society in which the commons is at the core of value creation; these commons’ are maintained by non-profit institutions, and the livelihoods are guaranteed through an ethical economy. Of course there are historical precedents, but what is new is the extraordinary organisational, mobilization and co-learning potential of their networks. Occupy works as an open API with modules, such as ‘protest camping’, ‘general assemblies’, which can be used as templates and modified by all, without the need for central leadership. We can now have global coordination and mutual alignment of a multitude of small-group dynamics, and this requires a new type of leadership. The realization of historical moment of Peak Hierarchy, the moment in which distributed networks asymmetrically challenge vertical institutions in a way they could not do before, forces social movements to look for new ways of governance… but these are not given, and have to be discovered experimentally, and of course, there will be valuable lessons to learn from predecessor movements!
It seems to me that P2P is creating a sort of ‘whole new world’, but without any references or links to the present political system. If Occupy represents an alternative way to engage in politics, what is the link between peer politics and bourgeois democracy and political parties?
Michel Bauwens: That is a very difficult question and results from a paradox. One is the increasing social awareness that our present democracy is a facade, and that the state has been taken over by a predatory financial faction, while classic politicians see no other way out than to succumb to their blackmail. But the other side is that people’s freedoms and rights and private and social income is increasingly under pressure, which leads to political and social mobilization as well as effective policy engagement. The first aspect leads to continuous democratic innovation from the new p2p culture, think about the peer governance mechanisms in peer production communities; new inventions such as dynamic voting, and while these mechanisms operate outside the mainstream, they are also embedded in the new forms of value creation, new p2p social institutions, and therefore, poised to grow. The second aspect leads to new political and social forces that work within the present system, such as the emerging Pirate Party. In Brazil, I heard that the vibrant FORA DO EIXO cultural movement, which has a functioning counter-economy around music, is also politicising and engaging with local politics. The second leads to what I call diagonal politics, i.e. mutual adaptation between emerging p2p forces and practices, and the old institutional realities. To the degree that this is ineffective, it pushes from the solution coming from the first aspect, i.e. prepares for a more radical and revolutionary re-ordering of our institutions. Tellingly, a Swedish pirate party member once wrote that the Pirate Party is the last chance to avoid revolution. To the degree that the present system refuses adaptation, to that degree they heighten the need and push for more radical transformations.
You claim that P2P makes a new, ‘higher’ form of society possible. Before, that was not the case because the technology did not exist. Marxists make this claim already for more than 150 years. Do you think they were wrong then, perhaps correct today, or it P2P something ‘completely different’?
Michel Bauwens: I consider Marxism, and the other forms of socialism and anarchism, ultimately as an expression of a dichotomy within the industrial capitalist system, and proposing other logics to manage the industrial model. But P2P is the expression of the evolving class and social dynamics under cognitive capitalism. And while the former was essentially anti-capitalist, and could not really point to a new hyperproductive model of organising production (socialism was a hypothesis, and its real life examples inevitably disappointed, there was no emergent socialism within capitalism and only ‘state capitalism’ outside of it), what is different for the p2p movement is that it can point out to already existing models that are outcooperating and outcompeting classic capitalist models, i.e. it is already post-capitalist. Marx was right about capitalism, but wrong about socialism and I believe the politically driven model of social change, when not based on an existing prior new productive model, was ill-conceived. The P2P movement is therefore poised to realize what the 19th and 20th century social movements couldn’t, because the hyperproductive alternative was not available to them. The politics of P2P flow from an already existing social practice, that is a really key difference.