Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Michel BauwensMichel Bauwens (born 21 March 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, and is former editor-in-chief of the first European digital convergence magazine, the Dutch language Wave. Bauwens currently lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Peer production
in an integral and
intersubjective framework

Michel Bauwens

Foundation for P2P Alternatives

The author of this essay comes outside of the mould of the IACR. The purpose of the essay is to describe first of all an all-important 'total social fact': the emergence of the peer to peer relational dynamic at work in distributed networks, which we contend, is the emerging new hegemonic organizational and technical infrastructure of humankind. And second, to examine whether a 'integral' approach, our name for a family of approaches which includes Roy Bhaskar, can help us understand us this new trend, which is crucial for contemporary emancipation. We will apply a broad integral/intersubjective approach, in order to understand the precise nature of the peer to peer relational dynamic, and conclude on its potential for social change and human emancipation.

Part One: Defining Peer to Peer

Definition of P2P

Peer to Peer is the name for the the relational dynamic that occurs in distributed networks. Distributed networks should be differentiated from decentralized network: in other words, hubs and passageways must be voluntary rather than obligatory, making the agents free in their choice of connections. Moreover, P2P is not just any behavior or process that takes place in a distributed network: they specifically those that aim to increase the most widespread participation by equipotential participants P2P processes should be distinguished from general network sociality, seen as an intentional process geared towards participation. We will define these terms when we examine the characteristics of P2P processes, but here are the most general and important characteristics.

P2P are those processes that are geared:

  • to produce use value through the free cooperation of producers who have access to distributed capital: this is the P2P production mode, a 'third mode of production', different from for-profit or public production by state-owned enterprises. It's product is not exchange value for a market, but use value for a community of users.
  • whose processes and decision-making are governed by the community of producers themselves, and not by market allocation or corporate hierarchy: this is the P2P governance mode, or 'third mode of governance'
  • that make this use value freely accessible on a universal basis, through new common property regimes: this is its distribution or 'property mode': a 'third mode of ownership', different from private property or public (state) property.

The Infrastructure of P2P

What has been needed to facilitate the emergence of such peer to peer processes?

The first requirement is the existence of a technological infrastructure that operates on peer to peer processes and enables 'distributed access to 'fixed' capital'.

Individual computers, enabling a universal machine that can execute any logical task, is a form of distributed 'fixed capital', that is available at low cost to many producers.

The internet, as a point to point network, was specifically designed for participation by the edges (computer users), without the use of obligatory hubs. Though it is not fully in the hands of its participants, it is controlled through distributed governance, and outside the complete hegemony of particular private or state actors. Its hierarchical elements (such as the stacked IP protocols, the decentralized Domain Name System, etc…) do not deter participation. Viral communicators, or meshworks, are a logical extension of the internet. With this methodology, devices create their own networks, through the use of excess capacity, bypassing the need for a pre-existing infrastructure. The 'Community Wi-Fi' movement, the Open Spectrum advocacy, file-serving television, and alternative meshwork-based telecommunication infrastructures are exemplary of this trend.

The second requirement is an alternative information and communication systems which allows for autonomous communication between cooperating agents.

The web, in particular the Writeable Web (and in particular the Web 2.0 that is in the process of being established), allows for the universal autonomous production, dissemination, and 'consumption', of written material, while the associated podcasting and webcasting developments, created an 'alternative information and communication infrastructure' for audio and audiovisual creation as well. The existence of such an infrastructure enables autonomous content production, that can be distributed without the intermediary of the classic publishing and broadcasting media, though new forms of intermediation may arise.

The third requirement is the existence of a 'software' infrastructure for autonomous global cooperation. A growing number of collaborative tools, such as blogs and wiki's, embedded in social networking software, to facilitate linkages, and social accounting tools, to facilitate the creation of trust and social capital, have made it possible to create global groups that can create use value without the intermediary of manufacturing or distribution by for-profit enterprises.

The fourth requirement is a legal infrastructure, that enables the creation of use value and protects it from private appropriation. The General Public License, which prohibits the appropriation of software code, the related Open Source Initiative, and certain versions of the Creative Commons license for publishing, fulfill this role. It enables the protection of common use value and uses viral characteristics to spread itself. GPL and related material can only be used in projects that in turn put their adapted source code in the public domain.

The fifth requirement is cultural. The diffusion of mass intellectuality, i.e. the distribution of human intelligence, and associated changes in ways of feeling and being (ontology), ways of knowing (epistemology) and value constellations (axiology), have been instrumental in creating the type of cooperative individualism needed to sustain an ethos which can enable P2P projects.

To conclude, the premise of the emergence, expansion and eventually hegemony of the peer to peer mode of human production and exchange, is the 'distribution of everything'. Some aspects of distribution are strongly related to the characteristics of the new technological infrastructure itself; but others, such as the distribution of capital, are strongly tied to the present form of political economy. A key issue is whether distributed modes will remain simply a subsystem of that main political/economic system, or whether the subsystem can become the main system by itself.

The Characteristics of P2P

P2P processes occur in distributed networks. Distributed networks are not just any type of network however: they are networks where autonomous agents can freely determine their behavior and linkages, without the intermediary of obligatory hubs. As Alexander Galloway has insisted in his book about protocollary power, distributed networks are not the same as decentralized networks, where hubs are obligatory. P2P is based on distributed power, and distributed access to resources. In a decentralized network such as the U.S.-based airport system, planes have to go through determined hubs; however in distributed systems such as the internet or the highway systems, hubs may exist, but are not obligatory and agents may always route around it.

P2P projects are characterized by equipotentiality or 'anti-credentialism'. This means that there is no a priori selection to participation. The capacity to cooperate is verified in the process of cooperation itself. Thus, projects are open to all comers provided they have the necessary skills to contribute to a project. These skills are verified, and communally validated, in the process of production itself. This is apparent in open publishing projects such as citizen journalism: everyone can post, but every one can verify the veracity of the articles, and reputation systems are used for communal validation. The filtering is a posteriori, not a priori. Anti-credentialism is therefore to be contrasted to traditional peer review, where credentials are an essential prerequisite to participate.

P2P projects are characterized by holoptism. Holoptism is the implied capacity and design of peer to processes that allows participants free access to all the information about the other participants (not in terms of privacy, but in terms of their existence and contributions), i.e. horizontal information; and access to the aims, metrics and documentation of the project as a whole, i.e. the vertical dimension. This can be contrasted to the panoptism which is characteristic of hierarchical projects: here, the processes are designed to reserve such 'total' knowledge to an elite, while participants only have access on a 'need to know' basis. Communication is not top-down and based on strictly defined reporting rules, but feedback is systemic, integrated in the protocol of the cooperative system.

The above does not exhaust the characteristics of peer production. However, we will continue our investigation of these in the context of a comparison with the other existing modes of production. We will return to the an examination of peer to peer, after we explain the features of an integral and intersubjective approach.

Part Two: Defining an Integral Approach to Intersubjectivity

The concept of integral is an umbrella term that can encompass different interpretations, though I believe that they share a commonality: that they are multi-perspectival, i.e. aim to combine not just one worldview, but several, or ‚meta-paradigmatical, incorporating more than one just one paradigm. The term transdisciplinarity is also closely related: it is not only the juxtaposing of different disciplines in one research project, but an attempt to transcend the partial approaches into a unity, an attempt to go „beyond“ the different disciplines. Transdisciplinarity, as contrasted with multi, or inter, starts from the object itself, and from our intersubjective relation to it. The choice of research methods derives from the here and now of that relationship, rather than from any prior institutional history of disciplines.

As my own contribution, I would like to offer some more perspectives to the concept of integral.

The Place of the Integral Approach

Let's have a look at the first figure:

  Parts Wholes Includes
Difference Postmodern approaches Integral Approaches Subjects and Objects
Similarity Analytical Sciences Systemic Sciences Objects Only

This table is an attempt to show how the integral approach is related to other approaches.

We can recognise two axes: one distinguishes attention for the ‚whole', from attention to the ‚parts'; the other distinguishes attention to similarities and ‚structural unity' between different phenomena, from attention to difference.

All four approaches are valid approaches in our attempt to understand ‚reality'.

The classic materialist approach is based on the reduction of any phenomena to its constitutuent parts, which are then studied separately. The idea of course is that such analysis is eventually followed by a synthesis, but the synthesis is always secondary, and for all practical purposes is often abandoned, since scientists have become hyper-specialised in their disciplines, and have difficulty understanding other specialised domains. It is still the mainstream approach in the hard sciences, and very important in the social sciences as well. The result is a fragmentation of our knowledge and worldviews. However, whatever it's limitations the reductionist method is the condition for the others to exist, as it provides the raw material of factual data and knowledge.

Current emphasis on the whole gives us the systemic sciences such as cybernetics, the system sciences proper, autopoiesis theory, chaos and complexity theories. In such an approach, a part is only considered through its function for the whole. Furthermore, it is geared towards the objective, there is no attention for its separate subjectivity, intention, will, etc... As in the systems approach to distributed networks for example, the subjective intentions of the agents is <bracketed> out of existence.

From the world of philosophy have come the postmodern approaches. This approach stresses that any worldview is dependent on perspective, that no part of a system can understand the whole. Therefore, it rejects ‚grand narratives' for their hubris of taking an imagined godlike position of a part claiming to be able to know the whole. Postmodern approaches, also called poststructuralist, reject structuralist approaches, which look at structural unity, and like the systemic sciences, do not stress the subject, which they mostly consider to be an essentialist construction. Postmodern approaches stress ‚difference', no ‚process', no ‚object', no ‚subject' exists apart from the field or system it is part of, and in fact, is defined by its difference from the other things in the same field.

The Integral approach can be seen as a reaction against the limitations and unforeseen effects of the previous methods. Unlike analytical science, it focuses on the whole. Unlike systemic approaches, it always includes the subjective component. Unlike postmodern approaches, it does not shy away from integrative ‚grand narratives'. But it has also learned from the other approaches: that no attention to the whole can violate the truth of its parts, from the systemic sciences, that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, from the postmodern, that the integral is just another limited perspective, albeit a useful one. Integralism should therefore never be seen as a totalising, ‚imperialistic' approach, but as another, integrative, multiperspectival way to look at the world. In fact, it can be said that any individual is an integrator, is a different composite, of his/her understanding of reality. But the specific effort, methodology, of the integral forces its practitioner to a more conscious effort to integrate as large a portion of truth as he possible can. Moreover, because it also knows the limitations of any individual perspective, it stresses that dialogic methods, involving intersubjective meeting of minds, can yield greater relative truth still.

To conclude, in my understanding, an integral approach is one that:

  • respects the relative autonomy of the different fields, and looks for field specific laws
  • affirms that new levels of complexity causes the emergence of new properties and thus rejects reductionisms that try to explain the highly complex from the less complex. It tries to formulate level-specific laws
  • always relates the objective and subjective aspects, refusing to see any one aspect as a mere epiphenomena of the other; it is subjective-objective in that it always relate the understanding of the objective, through the prism of a recognised individual perspective
  • in general, attempts to correlate explanations emanating from the various fields, in order to arrive at an integrative understanding; in this sense it is a hermeneutic discipline focusing on creating meaning

Some Integral Approaches

Ken Wilber's AQAL approach

One of the best known, and controversial, integral authors is Ken Wilber. For our purpose, we stress his use of a four-quadrant bases, subjective-objective AQAL framework (AQAL = all quadrants, all levels). It is a pretty systematic way, later refined into a integral methodological pluralism recognizing 8 basic perspectives to examine reality, and which should be ideally combined.

  Individual Aspects Collective Aspects
Interior Aspects Subjective field
The subject / the self
Intersubjective field
Spirituality / Worldviews
Exterior Aspects Objective field
Technological artifacts as extensions of the body; the body and brain
Interobjective field
Natural Systems / Political, economic, organizational system

Every phenomena has four aspects. It is always individual, but also always part of a system; and it has both objective measurable characteristics, and a interior aspect. This gives us four clear distinct realms for investigation: subjective, intersubjective, objective, interobjective.

An advantage is its comprehensiveness. There are few other integrative approaches of such a large encompassing scope. Looking at any phenomena from those different angles, is a very comprehensive way of looking at the world. It is also a tremendous way to avoid different kinds of reductionisms:

  • the objective reductionism of the analytical sciences, reducing any whole to its material parts, in a permanent attempt to explain the more complex by the less complex, the immaterial by the material, the subjective by the objective. While such a reductionist and analytical approach yields tremendous value, it is also at the same time an impoverishment.
  • The interobjective reductionism of the system sciences, which also do not integrate the subjective component, again reducing reality to its materiality, or rather to its ‚functionality'.
  • The subjective reductionism of any ‚idealistic' approach that takes the human will, or divine will, as paramount, without sufficient attention to its grounding in intersubjective and interobjective systems and in materiality. More recently this tendency emerges as cognitive reductionism, where reality is reduced to the cognitive apparatus of the human.
  • The intersubjective reductionism of some postmodern approaches, where everything is reduced to its constituent fields, for example language. In such an approach, materiality is often forgotten, everything becomes a ‚discourse'.

There is one particular aspect of Ken Wilber that is useful in understanding peer to peer, and it is the stratified view of the self. The followers of Ken Wilber have adapted the psychological system of Clare Graves, and its derivative Spiral Dynamics system, as a kind of popular synthesis of the evolving states of consciousness. It sees the evolution of human consciousness as a succession of adaptive systems, organized around typical value constellations.

Roy Bhaskar's Four-planar Social Being

A quick reminder of Roy Bhaskar's four-planar social being shows a remarkable similarity with the AQAL scheme. Bhaskar recognizes four spheres: 1) the stratification of the subject or self (interior-individual for Wilber); the interpersonal relations (interior-collective intersubjectivity for Wilber); our relationship to social structure (the exterior-collective interobjective world for Wilber); our material transactions with nature (interior-individual objective for Wilber).

Another important integral aspect of Bhaskar is the stress on the stratification of the self. This is a keystone of integral theorists such as Ken Wilber, Jean Gebser, Aurobindo, Georg Feuerstein and others.

Humans are layered persons. We have an instinctual apparatus and corresponding reactions, we have an emotional apparatus, a mental apparatus, a transmental ‚witnessing' apparatus, at the very least. But because of our civilisational evolution, these different layers are far from well integrated. There has been a lot of unconscious ‚repression' of our earlier layers, especially by mental layer, resulting in many individual and collective pathologies. As I see it, every human being should at some point of his life, undertake a ‚regression in the service of the ego', i.e. make a voyage of discovery into the repressed aspects, undertake a ‚dark night of the soul'. An important aspect of the integral approach is it developmental aspect, a focus on the fact that humans, societies, systems, evolve from the simple to the complex, from one historical formation to another. By uncovering this development, making the unconscious conscious, we become more whole, more integrated. Thus an integral approach obtains a ‚transparency' in terms of our functioning, an ability to recognize ‚where we are coming from', not only historically, but ‚here and now': which layer is active, and ‚is it appropriate'. In our particular civilisation this means a growing capacity to grasp reality as ‚a whole', and understanding how our different layers operate simultaneously. We can go beyond the ‚cognicentrism' that is our common cultural lot n the West. Through our own comprehension of our personal perspectives, we can better understand other perspectives, and thus achieve a growing ‚meta-perspectivity'.

Roy Bhaskar's dynamic-emergent materialism is equally squarely within the integral approach, since it recognizes phase-specific laws and categories.

But there are of course many differences with Wilber, outside the scope of this preliminary review. Important is this: Wilber has a focus on individual consciousness, more particular the particular phasing of the level of consciousness, and he focuses on how psychogenesis determines sociogenesis, that the social structure derives from the state of consciousness of the individuals in the society. The whole focus of Wilber's work and his Integral Institute is on the individual and his spiritual advancement. Wilber's stress on stratification, has led to a hierarchical view of the universe, and to a general neoconservative outlook. Wilber's integralism is, in the final analysis, system-confirming, as I have argued elsewhere. Wilber's focus on the critique of postmodern academic thinking as the main stumble block for social progress, has increasingly aligned him with neoconservative social forces, and their campaigns against political correctness. Wilber's personal incapacity to deal with peer review and scientific critique, generates cultic aspects which are absent from the academically embedded work of Bhaskar.

Roy Bhaskar approach, this is immediately noticeable, is relationally oriented, it is about our relationships with, our embeddedness in the planes of existence. If it is true that modernity was about 'extracting the individuality' out of everything; then the postmodern moment has clearly been one focused on extracting the relationality out of everything. At first 'deconstructively', but after the heyday of postmodernism philosophy, 'constructively'. The peer to peer relational dynamic, and everything it entails, is about constructing a human relational infrastructure, and so a relationally-oriented approach, such as Bhaskar's, holds greater promise than Wilber's individualist orientation. But I'm not yet aware that such work, of confronting Bhaskar's framework with emerging peer to peer theory, has effectively been done, and this essay is a first call to do so.

Toni Negri's multitudes and singularities

Toni Negri, with Michael Hardt the author of the landmark books Empire and Multitudes, is in my opinion an integral thinker as well.

  • Negri is not averse of grand narratives, i.e. for looking at structural similarities. He uses and describes the succession of social formations and tries to identify their logic, as he does in Empire; he has a stratified view of social evolution, but unlike Wilber, does not identify 'later' as 'better'; rather he stresses the availability of alternative paths, that were defeated and not taken.
  • Negri is clearly subjective-objective in his approach. He rejects the purely objectivist forms of Marxism, and his own post-Marxist theorizing stresses the role of subjectivity as a prime mover causing objective changes (following Tronti, he stresses that the producers' desire for liberation predates the re-organising of productive forces by the ruling classes; the latter is a response to the former; and there is no merely objective evolution of productive forces, it is seen rather as a political process as well)
  • Negri is meta-paradigmatic, he is clearly open to various theoretical traditions and sources a wide variety of ideas from different backgrounds, and in particular it can be said that he 'transcends and includes' the thought forms of the postmodern era. (though he stresses that his main sources, i.e. Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, explicitely rejected the label of postmodernism and argued against it)
  • Negri differs in many respects from the neoconservative Wilberian synthesis:
  • Wilber's has become system-confirming, Negri is system-critical. His theorizing is explicitely aimed at changing the world. Wilber is very dismissive of the current agents of change such as the alterglobalisation movement.
  • Wilber sees the agent of change to be a spiritual elite, who through meditative practices changes their worldview (state of consciousness), and can eventually change things through critical mass, something that will take many generations. But at the apex of his 'sociogenesis follows psychogenesis' hypothesis, he choses as exemplars notorious spiritual abusers such as Da Free John and Andrew Cohen.: Negri sees as the agent of change the multitudes, the worldwide community of producers, especially (but not exclusively) the new knowledge workers
  • Wilber focuses on individual change; Negri focuses on collective change; Wilber sympathies are for the individual search, the spiritual loner engaged in meditation; Negri expresses sympathies for engaged spirituality and the Catholic left.

In conclusion, though Negri is not a formal 'integral' author (he is not familiar with the tradition), his work exemplifies many, but not all, integral aspects. But he is certainly more advanced in terms of a relational and critical 'integral theory' than Wilber himself.

Comparing Negri to Bhaskar; while the latter is clearly open to the transcendent, and sees it as a key part of this theory, including an integration of the non-dual (similar to Wilber in that respect), Negri is on the contrary a pure immanentist. There is clearly a dimension lacking in his thought.

But unlike Bhaskar, Negri seems to have developed a whole conceptual apparatus which is very useful to understand the emergence of peer to peer, namely concepts like the multitude(s), individuals as singularities, the principle of non-representationality in politics and social life, and concrete attention to the new peer-based organizational formats, such as the coordination format. Whereas it seems that Bhaskar field of struggle and creation is science and philosophy, fighting an essentially epistemological battle, Negri and his followers are more embedded in concrete social struggles of contemporary social movements.

The Intersubjective Relational Typology of Alan Page Fiske

However, despite all of the above, and the general usefulness of integral theories as an approach to understanding the emergence of peer to peer, I have found them to be less useful, in a direct concrete manner, as the models of intersubjectivity presented by Alan Page Fiske, discussed in his major work 'The Structure of Social Life'. Here we have a stratification of intersubjectivity that is immediately useful in categorizing peer to peer, which satisfies Bhaskar's criterion of categorical realism.

Since modes of production are embedded in intersubjective relations, i.e. they are characterized by particular combinations of them, this will give the necessary framework to distinguish P2P.

According to Fiske, there are four basic types of intersubjective 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 utilisation 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 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 sports and games (EM with respect to the rules, procedures, equipment and terrain), baby-sitting coops (EM with respect to the exchange of child care), 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 MP relationships need not be selfish, competitive, maximizing, or materialistic—any of the four models may exhibit any of these features. MP 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 property that can be bought, sold, or treated as investment capital (land or objects as MP), marriages organized contractually or implicitly in terms of costs and benefits to the partners, prostitution (sex as MP), bureaucratic cost-effectiveness standards (resource allocation as MP), 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), considerations of "spending time" efficiently, and estimates of expected kill ratios (aggression as MP). “ (source: Fiske website)

Every type of society or civilisational is a mixture of these four modes, but it can plausibly be argued that one mode is dominant, and imprints the other subservient modes. Historically, the first dominant mode was kinship or lineage based reciprocity, the so-call 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, i.e. they were based on allegiance. Finally, it is not difficult to see that the capitalist economy is dominated by Market Pricing, which is the dominant mode today. In the third part of our essay, we will try to demonstrate that peer to peer is a contemporary expression of what Fiske calls 'Communal Shareholding'.

Part Three: Peer to Peer and the Four Intersubjective Modes

P2P and the Gift Economy

P2P is often called a 'gift economy' for example by Richard Barbrook. 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 is follows the adage: each contributes according to his capacities and willingness, each takes according to his needs. There is no reciprocity involved. In the pure forms of peer production, producers are not paid, and there is no tit for tat. So, 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: these do not qualify as peer production.

This is not to say that they 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 are free time and available the 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. Many people that are inspired by the egalitarian ethos will therefore resort to cooperative production, the social economy, and other schemes from which they can derive an income, while at the same time honor their values. In that sense, these schemes are complementary.

P2P and Hierarchy

P2P is not hierarchy-less, not structureless, but usually characterized by flexible 'voluntary' hierarchies and structures based on both the historical origination of the project (the ideological leaders) and merit (competence), and that are used to enable participation rather than to deter it. Leaderships is also 'distributed'. Most often, P2P projects as a whole 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 in the constitution of the project, and on their continued engagement. It is true that peer projects are sometimes said to be 'benevolent dictatorships', but one must not forget that since the cooperation is entirely voluntary, the continued existence of such voluntary projects are based on the consent of the community of producers, and 'forking', i.e. the creation of a new independent project, is always possible. Accepting that there are forms of hierarchy within peer production, should not lead to the erroneous conclusion that the kind of hierarchy is similar to the one employed in the market or state apparatus. It should of course also not blind us to the imperfect implementations of peer projects, and to abuses of power occurring within it. But such a study belongs more properly within an emerging subfield of peer governance studies.

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:

  1. autocratic cultures which define rights in a limited and oppressive way and there are no rights of political participation;
  2. 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.;
  3. wider democratic cultures which practice both political participation and varying degree of wider kinds of participation;
  4. commons p2p cultures in a libertarian and abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of participation of everyone in every field of  human endeavor."

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

  • Hierarchy defines, controls and constrains co-operation and autonomy;
  • Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere only;
  • Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere and in varying degrees in other spheres;
  • 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 the Market: The Immanence vs. Transcendence of P2P

P2P and the Market

P2P exchange can be considered in market terms only in the sense that free individuals are free to contribute, or take what they need, following their individual inclinations, with a invisible hand bringing it all together, without monetary mechanism. But they are not true markets in any real sense of the word: market pricing nor managerial command are required to make decisions regarding the allocation of resources. There are more differences:

  • Markets do not function according to the criteria of collective intelligence and holoptism, but rather, in the form of insect-like swarming intelligence. Yes, there are autonomous agents in a distributed environment, but each individual only sees his own immediate benefit.
  • Markets are based on 'neutral' cooperation, and not on synergistic cooperation: no reciprocity is created.
  • Markets operate for the exchange value and profit, not directly for the use value.
  • Whereas P2P aims at full participation, markets only fulfill the needs of those with purchasing power.

Amongst the disadvantages of markets are:

  • They do not function well for common needs that do not assure full payment of the service rendered (national defense, general policing, education and public health), and do not only fail to take into account negative externalities (the environment, social costs, future generations), but actively discourages such behavior.
  • Since open markets tend to lower profit and wages, it always gives rise to anti-markets, where oligopolies and monopolies use their privileged position to have the state 'rig' the market to their benefit.

P2P and Capitalism

Despite these differences, P2P and the capitalist market are highly inter-related. P2P is dependent on the market, and the market is dependent on P2P.

Peer production is highly dependent on the market. The reason is that peer production produces use value, through mostly immaterial production, without directly providing an income for its producers. Participants cannot live from peer production, though they derive meaning and value from it, and though it may out compete, in efficiency and productivity terms, the market-based for-profit alternatives. Thus: 1) peer production covers only a section of production, while the market provides for nearly all sections; 2) peer producers are dependent on the income provided by the market. So far, peer production is created through the interstices of the market.

But the market and capitalism is equally dependent on P2P. Capitalism has become a system relying on distributed networks, in particular on the P2P infrastructure in computing and communication. Productivity is highly reliant on cooperative teamwork, most often organized in ways that are derivative of peer production's governance. The support given by major IT companies to open source development is a testimony to the use derived from even the new common property regimes. The general business model seems to be that business 'surfs' on the P2P infrastructure, and creates a surplus value through services, which can be packaged for its exchange value. However, the support of free software and open sources by business poses an interesting problem. Is corporate-sponsored, and eventually corporate managed FS/OS software still 'P2P'. The answer is: only partially. If it uses the GPL/OSI legal structures, it does results in common property regimes. But if peer producers are made dependent on the income, and even more so, if the production becomes beholden to the corporate hierarchy, then it would no longer qualify as peer production. Thus, capitalist forces will mostly use partial implementations of P2P. The tactical and instrumental use of P2P infrastructure, collaborative practices, etc.. is only part of the story however. In fact, contemporary capitalism's dependence on P2P is systemic. As the whole underlying infrastructure of capitalism becomes distributed, it generates P2P practices and becomes dependent on them. The French-Italian school of 'cognitive capitalism' (i.e. those that emit the hypothesis of) in fact stresses, in my view correctly, that value creation today is no longer confined to the enterprise, but beholden to the mass intellectuality of knowledge workers, who through their lifelong learning/experiencing and systemic connectivity, constantly innovate within and without the enterprise. This is an important argument, since it would justify what we see as the only solution for the expansion of the P2P sphere into society at large: the universal basic income. Only the independence of work and the salary structure, can guarantee that peer producers can continue to create this sphere of highly productive use value.

Does all this mean that peer production is only immanent to the system, productive of capitalism, and not in any way transcendent to capitalism?

P2P and the Netarchists

More specific than this generic relationship that we just described, peer to peer processes are also contributing to more specific forms of distributed capitalism. The massive use of open source software in business, enthusiastically supported by venture capital and large IT companies such as IBM, is created a distributed software platform that will drastically undercut the monopolistic rents enjoyed by companies such as Microsoft and Oracle, while Skype and VoIP in general will drastically distribute the telecom infrastructure. But it also points to a new business model that is 'beyond' products, but rather focuses on services associated with the nominally free FS/OS software model. Industries are gradually transforming themselves to incorporate user-generated innovation, and a new re-intermediation may occur around user-generated media. Many knowledge workers are choosing non-corporate paths and becoming minipreneurs, relying on an increasingly sophisticated participatory infrastructure, a kind of digital corporate commons.

The for-profit forces that are building and enabling these new platforms of participation represent a new subclass, which I call the netarchical class. If cognitive capitalism is to be defined by the primacy of intellectual assets over fixed capital industrial assets, and thus on the reliance of an extension of IP rights (which protects the information core of their products, which can otherwise easilty be replicated) to establish monopolistic rents, and if the vectoral capitalists described by Mackenzie Wark derive their power from the control of the media vectors, then these new netarchical capitalists derive their power from the enablement and exploitation of the participatory networks. Think how Amazon build itself around user reviews, how eBay lives from a platform for worldwide distributed auctions, or how Google lives off user-generated content. Though these companies may still rely on IP rights for the occasional extra buck, it is not in any sense the core of their power, which relies in their ownership of the platform. The evolution towards open knowledge, open source and open access, a result of the easy replication at marginal cost of information and even of physical products, undermines the basis of cognitive capitalism; while the distribution of media into 'post-media', undermines the power base of vectoral capitalism whose mass media are losing ground relative to the post-media.

But netarchical capitalism embraces the peer to peer revolution, and ideologically, all those forces for whom capitalism is the ultimate horizon of human possibility. It is the force behind the immanence of peer to peer. Opposed to it, though linked to it in a temporary alliance, are the forces of Common-ism, those that put their faith in the transcendence of peer to peer, in a reform of the political economy beyond the domination of the market. Commons forces and the netarchists find common ground in their opposition to the old models of vectoralism and the private appropriation of common knowledge, but the for-profit nature of the netarchists pushes them to 'exploit' the common knowledge for their own benefit, not by privatizing them through IP, but through the control of the platforms and the selling of the attention generated by the 'wisdom of crowds'. The new class issues that emerge concern 1) the ownership of the physical layer, such as 'who owns the servers'; 2) the control of the code layer and what is enables and disables as well as interoperability issues that restricts the freedom to control one's own information production; 3) the ownership of the commonly regulated content: to what degree is their an equitable revenuesharing, rather than the revenue being appropriated by the platforms.

Market-Transcending Aspects of P2P

Indeed, our review of the immanent aspects of peer to peer, on how it is both dependent and productive of capitalism, does not exhaust the subject. P2P has important transcendent aspects which go beyond the limitations set by the for-profit economy:

  • peer production effectively enables the free cooperation of producers, who have access to their own means of production, and the resulting use value of the projects out competes for-profit alternatives

Historically, when such germs of higher productivity have been present in society, though they were first embedded in the old productive system, they have led to deep upheavals and reconstitutions of the political economy. The emergence of capitalist modes with the feudal system is a case in point. The fact that leading sectors of the for-profit economy are deliberately slowing down productive growth (in music, through patents) and trying to outlaw P2P production and sharing practices, is particularly significant.

  • peer governance transcends both the authority of the market and the state
  • the new forms of universal common property, transcend the limitations of both private and public property models and are reconstituting a dynamic field of the Commons.

At the time where the very success of the capitalist mode of production, actually endangers the biosphere and causes increasing psychic (and physical) damage in the population, the emergence of such an alternative is particularly appealing, and corresponds to the new cultural needs of large numbers of the population. The emergence and growth of peer to peer is therefore accompanied by a new work ethic (Pekka Himanen's 'Hacker Ethic'), by new cultural practices such as peer circles in spiritual research (John Heron's cooperative inquiry), but most of all by a new political and social movement which is intent on promoting its expansion. This still nascent P2P movement (which includes the Free Software and Open Source movement, the open access movement, the free culture movement and others) which is also echoed in the very means of organisation and aims of the alterglobalisation movement, is fast becoming the equivalent of what was the socialist movement in the industrial age: a permanent alternative to the status quo, and the expression of the growth of a new social force, i.e. the knowledge workers.

In fact the aim of peer to peer theory is to give a theoretical underpinning to the transformative practices of these movements, an attempt to create a radical understanding that a new kind of society, based on the centrality of the Commons, and within a reformed market and state, is in the realm of human possibility.

Such a theory would have to explain not only the dynamic of peer to peer processes proper, but also its fit with the other intersubjective dynamics, i.e. how it molds reciprocity modes, market modes and hierarchy modes; on what ontological, epistemological and axiological transformations this evolution is resting; and what a possible positive P2P ethos can be.

A crucial element of such a peer to peer theory would be the development of tactics and strategy for such transformative practice. The key question is: can peer to peer be expanded beyond the immaterial sphere where it was born?

P2P and Communal Shareholding

The contrasting of peer to peer with the three modes of intersubjectivity, i.e. the essential difference, leads to a clear conclusion that it is rather, a form of Communal Shareholding.

What people are doing in P2P is voluntarily and cooperatively constructing a commons, according to the 'communist principle': from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs'. The use value created by P2P projects is done through free cooperation, without coercion towards the producers, and users are free to use the resulting use value. Through the legal infrastructure that we have described before, it creates an 'Information Commons'. The new Commons is related to the older form of the commons (i.e. most notable 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 microstructures consisting of cyber-collectives, usually affinity groups. While the new Commons is centered around non-rival goods, i.e. in a context of abundance, the older form of physical Commons (air, water, etc..) is increasingly functioning in context of scarcity, thus becoming more regulated.

From the above, we also conclude the following about the advantages of the P2P mode of production, governance, and property

  • As a mode of production, it is, for immaterial production and the design phase of production, more productive and socially efficient than the for-profit mode of production
  • As a mode of governance, it is more participative than authoritarian and democratic-delegational modes of governance
  • As a mode of property or distribution, it ensures wider access to social wealth.

Subjectively, it generates more 'gross individual and collective happiness'.

This is why, from the perspective of this author, it is desirable 1) to expand the scope of the P2P modes; 2) to inquire whether this subsystem could become the main system.

Part Four: P2P and Social Change

The Expansion of the P2P mode of production

Given the dependence of P2P on the existing market mode, what are its chances to expand beyond the existing sphere of non-rival immaterial goods?

Here are a number of theses about this potential:

  • P2P can arise not only in the immaterial sphere of intellectual and software production, but wherever there is access to distributed technology: spare computing cycles, distributed telecommunications and any kind of viral communicator meshwork
  • P2P can arise wherever other forms of distributed fixed capital is available: such is the case for carpooling, which is the second mode of transportation in the U.S.
  • P2P can arise wherever the process of design, can be separated from the process of physical production. Huge capital outlays for production can co-exist with a reliance on P2P processes for design and conception
  • P2P can arise wherever financial capital can be distributed. Initiatives such as the ZOPA bank point in that direction. Cooperative purchase and use of large capital goods are a possibility. State support and funding of open source development is another example. However, essentially, this is also dependent on the overall balance of power, and whether some kind of radical distribution of capital can be effected.
  • P2P could be expanded and sustained through the introduction of the universal basic income.

The latter, which creates an income independent of salaried work, has the potential to sustain a further development of P2P-generated use value. Through the 'full activity' ethos (rather than full employment) of P2P, the basic income receives a powerful new argument: not only as efficacious in terms of poverty and unemployment, but as creating important new use value for the human community.

The Broad Vision for Change

However, as it is difficult to see how the use value production and exchange could be the only form of production, it is more realistic to see peer to peer as part of a process of change. In such a scenario, peer to peer would co-exist with the other intersubjective modes, but which it would profoundly transform.

A Commons-based political economy would have, at its core, non-reciprocal peer production of the most valuable immaterial goods, but it would co-exist with:

  • a powerful and re-invigorated sphere of reciprocity (gift-economy), centered around the introduction of time-based complementary currencies which could be productively applied both to the service economy in the West; and to protect the remaining aspects traditional economies in the South
  • a reformed sphere for market exchange, the kind of 'natural capitalism' described by Paul Hawken, David Korten and Hazel Henderson, where the costs for natural and social reproduction are no longer externalized, and which abandons the growth imperative for a throughput economy as described by Herman Daly; such a market would not in fact be a capitalist market, since it is not predicated on the accumulation of capital; furthermore, market pricing and supply and demand would not be solely derivative of unequal power structures, but would be subjected and informed by peer arbitrage (see fair trade as an example of how this operates)
  • a reformed state, that operates within a context of multistakeholdership, and which is no longer subsumed to corporate interests, but act as a fair arbiter between the Commons, the market and the gift economy

Such a goal could be the inspiration for a powerful alternative to neoliberal dominance, and create a kaleidoscope of 'Common-ist' movements broadly inspired by such goals.

Is there a subject for such social change. We believe there is. The last five years have seen the emergence of new social movements around 3 main paradigms.

  1. the open and free paradigms, which insure free access to cultural raw material so that peer production can occur
  2. the emergences of participative movements which no longer accept that democracy is restricted to the sphere of elections but demand stakeholdership formats in a wide variety of social fields
  3. Commons-related movements, active in the struggles against the extentions of copyright and the 'Second Enclosures

Such movements, if they can connect with the older social movements deriving from the structures of traditional or industrial society, could create powerful alliances for a move towards a more explicitely P2P-based political economy and civilization.

This is a broad social movement and emergence that the International Association for Critical Realism cannot afford to ignore and needs to urgently engage with.


More Information:

The weekly newsletter P2P News, is archived at:

The Foundation for P2P Alternatives has a Wiki at:

The P2P Foundation blog is at

Contact the Foundation at [email protected]


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The author, Michel Bauwens, has played a major role in the digital revolution of his home country Belgium, where he is known as an internet pioneer. He created two companies, was (eBusiness) strategic director for the telecommunications company Belgacom, and 'European Manager of Thought Leadership' for the U.S. webconsultancy MarchFIRST. He co-produced the 3-hour TV documentary 'TechnoCalyps: the metaphysics of technology and the end of man', and co-edited two French-language books on the 'Anthropology of Digital Society', and was editor in chief of the Flemish digital magazine Wave. He now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he created the Foundation for P2P Alternatives. He taught the Anthropology of Digital Society for postgraduate students at ICHEC/St. Louis in Brussels, Belgium and related courses at Payap University.

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