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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Michel Bauwens: P2P as Organizing Principle for the Physical Economy?

At P2P blog, Michel Bauwens writes on "Expanding peer production to the physical realm."

A crucial aspect of peer to peer theory... is whether peer producton, the common production through communities, as evidenced in free software, linux and wikipedia, can be expanded to the physical sphere, and additionally, whether that expansion can be enclosed in the money economy....

My own take at the P2P Foundation is of the more expansive school of thought, we think that peer to peer has the potential, and even likelyhood, of becoming the new core of the next political economy, the one that will arise to save us from the very success of capitalism, and its corollary: the destruction and depletion of the biosphere....

If we ask ourselves, through what strategies and trends could we see an expansion of peer production to the material sphere, I usually give two answers, one is the ‘distribution of everything’. To the degree we succeed in expanding the distributed format, in intellect, productive capital, financial capital, we expand the space where peer production can thrive. Additionally, if we can envisage a process whereby the design phase of industrial production is separated from its physical production space, there is no limit to the use of open source methodologies in the design phase. We can easily imagine for example, the design of a car that would be vastly superior to the car designs by corporations. But the question remains on how to finance its physical construction. But we already see companies in the software industry, who successfully link their market-based aims and behaviour, with a dependence on a intellectual commons and an open source community, fruitfully building a ecology from which all parties profit. It’s a model that can be expanded to other sectors of the economy.

Sam Rose, in the comments, has this to add:

Let me say that, if we can co-design a car, or a house, or a machine, or another similar structure online right now, we can also design it in a way that would allow people to physically construct it for less money, and within the means of general fabrication industries available to the average person right now. Basically, we can co-design the construction process of the car as well. The actual construction could be done by a combination of different independent fabricators....

To peer-design a car like we are talking about would be no small task, though. It has taken http://www.theoscarproject.org/index.php 6 years and they are still in the concept phase....

When I look at this: http://www.osgv.org/cdv1.php

And the question [is] “How much will it cost?” their answer is: “Preliminary analysis indicates that such car can be built for under USD$15,000 in large quantities. Actual production cost could be higher, depending on the supply of materials.”

But here again, the costs can be brought down in the design, and through research of fabrication costs and materials. This research can be done in a peer to peer way. So can the whole administration of ordering the cars, and manufacturing them.

And Richard Poynder has followed up with the second part of his interview with Bauwens.

MB: ...What is also incontrovertible is that immaterial production is becoming an ever-larger part of our economy and, within that sphere, it is increasingly apparent that peer production is more productive and more efficient than the traditional model — in so far as it creates more value than for-profit alternatives.

These things guarantee that P2P processes will continue to grow, and demonstrate that it is more than a transient phenomenon....

...[T]he key question today is a simple one: will P2P remain a subsystem within a capitalist economy, or will the market at some point become a subsystem within a pluralist economy that revolves around a core of peer production.

RP: What is your answer to that question?

MB: My expectation is that the market will eventually become a subsystem with a P2P economy. So in the system I foresee we would have:

* a core of non-material production using peer-to-peer principles in their pure format (non-reciprocal peer production);

* a surrounding sphere of reciprocity-based gift economy, for services in the West, and for the protection of the remaining traditional world in the South;

* a market that is divorced from the obligation of endless accumulation, and so becomes 'natural capitalism' (as envisaged by Hazel Henderson, David Korten and Paul Hawken.) In other words, it would no longer be obliged to destroy the biosphere, and it would have a market that is subject to peer arbitrage, not just power play — as is the case today with fair trade;

* States and governance enriched with multi-stakeholder principles (e.g. states subjected to peer arbitrage as well).

* * *

MB: We can no longer afford a system that externalises the true costs of things. So I am attracted to the notion of a market without capitalism — i.e. a free market but not based on infinite accumulation.

MB: ...Essentially, I see three main ways in which P2P might migrate to the physical sphere:

* In industrial processes, as I previously mentioned, we could see the design phase being separated from the material production phase. I see no objection in theory or practice, for instance, why cars cannot be designed by Open Source communities, and then produced by a third party who has access to the necessary capital.

* I can also see further expansion of distributed models, particularly in the field of financial capital. I mentioned, for instance, the "distributed capital" model being promoted by Open Capital schemes.

* Finally, we could start to make physical items freely available under Open Source licences — artworks say, or bicycles; or indeed books, as already happens with the Book Crossing project. The licensed item could then be linked to a digital address so that it can be monitored, and protected from private appropriation or theft. This strategy offers a tremendous opportunity for creating a wide variety of different physical commons.

9 Comments:

Blogger quasibill said...

I've been really focusing on monetary topics lately, because it seems to me that we have an impending crisis on this front. As I'm reading along, I'm agreeing with all the conclusions that Rothbard and company reach, but I keep coming back to an unrecognized tension with one of the assumptions in all of these works: namely, that money is necessary for the division of labor.

First, it seems to me that it can't be true from a logical standpoint, as money is nothing more than a commodity that is used as a unit of exchange. Given sufficient social mechanisms, trust in another person can replace trust in an agreed upon unit of exchange.

Second, money's value is entirely based upon trust. In most economies, even gold and silver have very little productive value (they have some ornamental value, but the placing of value on ornament requires an above subsistence level economy to begin with). What gives them true value is the trust that other humans will accept them as a unit of exchange.

Problem is, this trust, like all trust, comes with built in risks, such as inflation. So it does not seem to me that it is a priori correct that money is preferable to all other forms of exchange. In fact, I'm working on a more in-depth discussion of how money is being used as essentially a current form of primitive accumulation.

All of this is essentially me thinking this through as I read this great post. It really helped coalesce the thoughts I was grasping for recently. Keep up the great work!

September 15, 2006 8:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous2 said...

A crucial aspect of peer to peer theory... is whether peer producton, the common production through communities, as evidenced in free software, linux and wikipedia, can be expanded to the physical sphere, and additionally, whether that expansion can be enclosed in the money economy....

Ah, so THAT's what you meant by "P2P" theory; I thought you crazy socialists were talking about downloading spyware from kazaa in "the physical world" or something. It's about putting the gift economy in real life! All you had to do was say so and I've have saved you the effort. The answers to the question are "not really" and "no" respectively. Okay, everyone back to work!

September 15, 2006 1:56 PM  
Blogger Presto said...

Something similar to p2p production was used for generations in rural america for barn raising, harvesting, making candy, etc. Check this article in the Mother Earth News, reprinted from Foxfire 2, the high-school history project turned into a famous book series.

No money was exchanged, just a big party and the trust that you would be there at the next barn raisin'. I am sure, though, that p2p methods can be used in other areas than agriculture and house construction. Cash or labor notes could be used where there is no direct barter exchange. I see no reason why it couldn't work.

Consider computers. I mean the physical machines, not software. Standards are used so that parts made by many manufacturers fit together. Cases and motherboards are designed to a form factor standard such as ATX, disk drives are built to certain physical sizes and with certain interfaces (IDE or SCSI) to be able to plug into the motherboard. Add-on cards are made to plug into the PCI slot on your machine and use plug and play to be able to talk to your OS.

Apply this to cars. Rather than having the whole car designed by one group, have that group design a "chassis interface" that other groups could build on. GM came up with the concept of a car chassis that looked like a rollerskate, with a fuel cell and wheels, and little else. The rest of the car would be built by builders able to custom-design the rest of the car to particular needs and asthetics. Aftermarket parts suppliers to hot rod builders do this sort of thing all of the time. Go to any street rod show and see how similar cars can be made to be very different in the end using a common interface like an old Chevy.

September 15, 2006 6:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous2 said...

But Presto, if all Kevin and these people mean by "P2P" is just the gift economy and worker's cooperatives then why don't they just say that's what they support, instead of appropriating a term like "P2P" which has a different meaning?

September 15, 2006 7:06 PM  
Blogger Presto said...

Anomymous2,

I think you greatly over-simplify Kevin's ideas. It isn't limited simply to "gift economy and worker's cooperatives". Kevin doesn't need me to defend him, though, and I'm sure he will here as soon as he gets a chance. You could also read his book and the great deal of information here on his blog and at mutualist.org. You may disagree with some of his ideas, but I think that you will find that there is much to admire in Mutualist thinking. I'm not sure I agree with all of Kevin's ideas, but I agree with most and may be convinced of much of the rest. I feel that if two people agree on everything, at least one of them is not thinking, more than likely both! :)

I also believe that you misunderstand p2p. Peer-to-peer technology is much older than Napster and other file-sharing services. It even predates the internet. P2P is simply using a distributed system of computing where individual machines act as clients and servers to each other. It does not necessarily mean 'illegal' file sharing. Many people use peer-to-peer technology such as Bittorrent to download things such as Linux cd images, which are given away freely. There is much to argue about with regards to the issue of copyrights, but that is an issue for another time. But if you are really interested in that issue, read Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture.

There are other forms of distributed computing such as the SETI@home project, where individual computers are used all over the internet to analyze signals from a radio telescope. The BOINC projects (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) use distributed computing for everything from analyzing malaria defense strategies to chess games.

Carson and Bauwens' use of the term 'p2p' here is a metaphor for using a decentralized mode of production and/or design rather than a hierarchy. Using p2p as a metaphor is, as with all metaphors, inexact. It is, however, something that laypeople can understand. The idea here is to explain a "decentralized mode of production" in terms people can understand, using something they are familiar with.

September 15, 2006 9:01 PM  
Blogger Michel said...

P2P is the relational dynamic in distributed networks. It is not a 'metaphor' but a real dynamic which can be precisely described and defined. It is not limited to computers in a network, and works also with people in a network. So it is wrong to limit the notion of p2p to technical infrastructure, as it also applies to human organization infrastructure. That's the descriptive social science part. You can say, based on study: it works better in such and such conditions. Then you add a normative part to it: I see it, and I/we think 'it is good' or 'x is better than y' because it corresponds to certain normative values. So that's a second level of p2p theory. Finally, since you normatively think it is better, you develop a practice, a political strategy to support the process. Neither of these levels is a metaphor.

September 16, 2006 2:28 AM  
Blogger Presto said...

Michel,

Are you using p2p as a sociological term? I never thought of it in that sense, since I never studied sociology. Something to think about...Perhaps I was incorrect to refer to p2p as a metaphor, since I was only thinking of how it is used in computing.

September 16, 2006 9:56 AM  
Anonymous Dmytri Kleiner said...

Hello Kevin, I have just written a report from the Wizard of OS 4 conference where I raised some related issues with Yochai Benkler, here is a link to the report on interactivist.

Cheers.

http://info.interactivist.net/article.pl?sid=06/09/16/2053224

September 18, 2006 3:24 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks, quasibill. A P2P system certainly seems to be a way to establish cooperative division of labor without exchange. How narrowly are you defining money? Does the term include voluntary media of exchange like LETS?

Thanks for the info on GM, Presto. Re your and Anonymous2's discussion, I think Michel answered it better than I can. Anon2, I think Michel is talking about P2P as an organizing principle in two senses, one broader than the other. In the narrower sense, the P2P information economy will coalesce into a core around which the non-P2P rest of the economy will be organized. Research, design, consumer-pull marketing orientation, and distribution of the productive effort will increasingly be organized on P2P lines with only the steps of the final production process remaining in the world of exchange-value. In a broader sense, physical production itself might be "distributed," in the sense of breaking up the separate stages of production and tying them together in a loose network, and increasing producer control through the distributive ownership of capital. In this second sense, the replacement of exchange-value by the gift economy would be much less extensive.

Thanks for the link, Dmytri. I agree with your standpoint that there should be no legal restraint on the use of content. I don't think we're using the term "producer control" in the same sense, though: to me, the term refers to producer control of the *process*. It doesn't extent to a monopoly on the right to reproduce the product.

September 18, 2006 11:24 AM  

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