Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Monday, February 27, 2006

P2P Economic Potential As An Alternative Production Approach

Michel Bauwens takes us further in this explorative journey into better understanding the true nature, characteristics and potential value of peer-to-peer (P2P).

Photo credit: Neil Gould

In this essay (part II of three - part I ) he explores P2P as an alternative production modality, and gives useful background information to study and better understand P2P value relative to different social forms of organization.
In particular, communal shareholding and the relationship of P2P with the concept of a gift economy are explored.

Finally, relationships between authority, hierarchy and effective forms of P2P and participation are analyzed providing fascinating insight into the relations between hierarchy, co-operation and autonomy.

As he concludes: "The use-value created by P2P projects is generated through free cooperation, without coercion toward the producers, and users have free access to the resulting use value. The legal infrastructure that we have described above creates an 'Information Commons.' "

Photo credit: Erik Reis

P2P and the Other Modes of Production
The framework of our comparison is the Relational Models theory of anthropologist Alan Page Fiske, discussed in his major work Structures of Social Life.

The fact that modes of production are embedded in inter-subjective relations -- that is, characterized by particular relational combinations -- provides the necessary framework to distinguish P2P.

According to Fiske, there are four basic types of inter-subjective dynamics, valid across time and space, in his own words: "People use just four fundamental models for organizing most aspects of sociality most of the time in all cultures. These models are" :

  • Communal Sharing

  • Authority Ranking

  • Equality Matching

  • and Market Pricing

Communal Sharing (CS) is a relationship in which people treat some dyad or group as equivalent and undifferentiated with respect to the social domain in question. Examples are people using a commons (CS with respect to utilization of the particular resource), people intensely in love (CS with respect to their social selves), people who "ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee" (CS with respect to shared suffering and common well-being), or people who kill any member of an enemy group indiscriminately in retaliation for an attack (CS with respect to collective responsibility).

In Authority Ranking (AR) people have asymmetric positions in a linear hierarchy in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and take pastoral responsibility for subordinates. Examples are:

  • military hierarchies (AR in decisions, control, and many other matters)

  • ancestor worship (AR in offerings of filial piety and expectations of protection and enforcement of norms)

  • monotheistic religious moralities (AR for the definition of right and wrong by commandments or will of God)

  • social status systems such as class or ethnic rankings (AR with respect to social value of identities), and rankings such as sports team standings (AR with respect to prestige).

AR relationships are based on perceptions of legitimate asymmetries, not coercive power; they are not inherently exploitative (although they may involve power or cause harm).

In Equality Matching (EM) relationships people keep track of the balance or difference among participants and know what would be required to restore balance. Common manifestations are:

  • turn-taking

  • one-person one-vote elections

  • equal share distributions

  • and vengeance based on an-eye-for-an-eye, a-tooth-for-a-tooth

Examples include:

  1. sports and games (EM with respect to the rules, procedures, equipment and terrain)

  2. baby-sitting co-ops (EM with respect to the exchange of child care)

  3. and restitution in-kind (EM with respect to righting a wrong).

Market Pricing relationships are oriented to socially meaningful ratios or rates such as prices, wages, interest, rents, tithes, or cost-benefit analyses. Money need not be the medium, and Market Pricing relationships need not be selfish, competitive, maximizing, or materialistic -- any of the four models may exhibit any of these features. Market Pricing relationships are not necessarily individualistic; a family may be the CS or AR unit running a business that operates in an MP mode with respect to other enterprises.

Examples are:

  1. property that can be bought, sold, or treated as investment capital (land or objects as MP)

  2. marriages organized contractually or implicitly in terms of costs and benefits to the partners

  3. prostitution (sex as MP)

  4. bureaucratic cost-effectiveness standards (resource allocation as MP)

  5. utilitarian judgments about the greatest good for the greatest number, or standards of equity in judging entitlements in proportion to contributions (two forms of morality as MP)

  6. considerations of "spending time" efficiently, and estimates of expected kill ratios (aggression as MP).

Every type of society or civilization is a mixture of these four modes, but it can plausibly be argued that one mode is always dominant and imprints the other subservient modes. Historically, the first dominant mode was kinship or lineage based reciprocity, the so-called tribal gift economies.

The key relational aspect was 'belonging'. Gifts created obligations and relations beyond the next of kin, creating a wider field of exchange. Agricultural or feudal-type societies were dominated by authority ranking, that is, they were based on allegiance. Finally, it is clear that the capitalist economy is dominated by market pricing.

Photo credit: Liz van Steenburgh

P2P and the Gift Economy
P2P is often described as a 'gift economy' (see Richard Barbrook for an example). However, it is our contention that this is somewhat misleading.

The key reason is that peer to peer is not a form of equality matching; it is not based on reciprocity.
P2P follows the adage:

  • each contributes according to his capacities and willingness, and each takes according to his needs.

  • There is no obligatory reciprocity involved. In the pure forms of peer production, producers are not paid.

Thus, if there is 'gifting' it is entirely non-reciprocal gifting, the use of peer-produced use-value does not create a contrary obligation.

The emergence of peer to peer is contemporaneous with new forms of the gift economy, such as the Local Exchange Trading Systems and the use of reciprocity-based complementary currencies; however, these do not qualify as peer production.

That is not to say that these forms are not complementary, since both equality matching and communal shareholding derive from the same spirit of gifting. Peer production can most easily operate in the sphere of immaterial goods, where the input is free time and the available surplus of computing resources. Equality matching, reciprocity-based schemes and cooperative production are necessary in the material sphere where the cost of capital intervenes.

At present, peer production offers no solution to the material survival of its participants. Therefore, many people inspired by the egalitarian ethos will resort to cooperative production, the social economy, and other schemes from which they can derive an income, while at the same time honoring their values. In this sense, these schemes are complementary.

P2P and Hierarchy
P2P is not hierarchy-less, not structure-less, but usually characterized by flexible hierarchies and structures based on merit that are used to enable participation. Leadership is also 'distributed.' Most often, P2P projects are led by a core of founders, who embody the original aims of the project, and who coordinate the vast number of individuals and microteams working on specific patches.

Their authority and leadership derives from their input into the constitution of the project, and on their continued engagement. It is true that peer projects are sometimes said to be 'benevolent dictatorships'; however, one must not forget that since the cooperation is entirely voluntary, the continued existence of such projects is based on the consent of the community of producers, and on 'forking' (that is, the creation of a new independent project, is always possible).

The relation between authority and participation, and its historical evolution, has been most usefully outlined by John Heron:

"There seem to be at least four degrees of cultural development, rooted in degrees of moral insight:
  • autocratic cultureswhich define rights in a limited and oppressive way and there are no rights of political participation;

  • narrow democratic cultures which practice political participation through representation, but have no or very limited participation of people in decision-making in all other realms, such as research, religion, education, industry etc.;

  • wider democratic cultures which practice both political participation and varying degree of wider kinds of participation;

  • commons P2P cultures in a libertarian and abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of participation of everyone in every field of human endeavor.

These four degrees could be stated in terms of the relations between hierarchy, co-operation and autonomy.

  1. Hierarchy defines, controls and constrains co-operation and autonomy;

  2. Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere only;

  3. Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere and in varying degrees in other spheres;

  4. The sole role of hierarchy is in its spontaneous emergence in the initiation and continuous flowering of autonomy-in-co-operation in all spheres of human endeavor.

P2P and Communal Shareholding
With P2P, people voluntarily and cooperatively construct a commons according to the principle: "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

The use-value created by P2P projects is generated through free cooperation, without coercion toward the producers, and users have free access to the resulting use value. The legal infrastructure that we have described above creates an 'Information Commons.'

The new Commons is related to the older form of the commons (most notably the communal lands of the peasantry in the Middle Ages and of the original mutualities of the workers in the industrial age), but it also differs mostly through its largely immaterial characteristics.

The older Commons were localized, used, and sometimes regulated by specific communities; the new Commons are universally available and regulated by global cyber-collectives, usually affinity groups.

While the new Commons is centered around non-rival goods (that is, in a context of abundance) the older forms of physical Commons (air, water, etc.) increasingly function in the context of scarcity, thus becoming more regulated.

end of Part II (of three)

Read Part I

For resources and more information:

Pluralities/Integration monitors P2P developments and is archived at:

A longer manuscript and book-in-progress on the subject is available at:

The Foundation for P2P Alternatives has a website under construction at:

originally published as: "The Political Economy of Peer Production"
on January 12th 2005
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

About the author:
Michel Bauwens (1958) is a Belgian integral philosopher and Peer-to-Peer theorist. He has worked as an internet consultant, information analyst for the United States Information Agency, information manager for British Petroleum (where he created one of the first virtual information centers), and is former editor-in-chief of the first European digital convergence magazine, the Dutch language Wave. With Frank Theys, he is the co-creator of a 3 hour documentary TechnoCalyps, an examination of the 'metaphysics of technology'. He taught and edited two French language anthologies on the Anthropology of Digital Society.

Although a student of Ken Wilber's integral theory for many years, he has recently become critical of aspects of the Wilber-Beck movement, and is a powerful voice for a non-authoritarian peer-to-peer based integral society.

Michel is the author of a number of on-line essays, including a seminal thesis Peer to Peer and Human Evolution, and is editor of P2P News

He now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he created the Foundation for P2P Alternatives and maintains a blog.

He has taught courses on the anthropology of digital society to postgraduate students at ICHEC/St. Louis in Brussels, Belgium and related courses at Payap University and Chiang Mai University in Thailand.

Michel Bauwens -
Reference: [ Read more ]
Readers' Comments    
blog comments powered by Disqus
posted by Robin Good on Monday, February 27 2006, updated on Friday, April 14 2006

Search this site for more with 









    Subscribe to MasterNewMedia
    Feature Articles and Reports

  • RSS Feed


    Powered by FeedBlitz


    POP Newsletter

    Robin Good's Newsletter for Professional Online Publishers  



    Real Time Web Analytics