Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

Michel Bauwens comments on the dark side of peer to peer


I first became aware of the P2P Foundation last year after Michel Bauwens sent me a nice email in response to one of my posts.

An entry today by Michel in the P2P blog is typically thoughtful and thought-provoking. He apparently has a deep well of enthusiasm and energy to draw from for this subject, and I’m glad someone is saying these things so eloquently. I love reading stuff like this, conveying so much and suggesting so many avenues to explore and learn more about.

Michel is responding to some critical remarks by Anthony Judge about the dark side of peer to peer, excerpted here.

(Emphasis below is my own.)

I believe that constructing a theoretical framework contains different aspects. First of all, it has to be empirical and respect the facts. I think that anyone who regularly checks our tags or wiki entries will see that we are very careful in the recording of facts, and that we include the critical remarks and questioning about it. The second level is an evaluative judgement. Here an important issue comes up: peer to peer theory is not a value-less scientific theory (if such a thing exists), but acknowledges that it has an emancipatory goal, and that therefore, social practices are evaluated with an ethical framework that has a preferential choice for those that increase the potential for equality and liberty. Our broad judgment is that peer to peer practices have a higher productivity in these aspects. Finally, because we are an advocacy group, we have a praxis to promote such practices. Two things may happen when you take such a stance: 1) you may underestimate the negative aspects of what you are promoting … and I’m indeed hoping we are not doing too much of that; 2) you may choose, because of the strategic point of view of advocacy, to build on the positive elements of human social practice. I think that the second position is legitimate, as long as it is transparent.

Anthony Judge starts his contribution with an emphasis on negative issues surrounding Wikipedia. I want to make the general point that if capitalism replaced feudalism, or the latter replaced the slavery system, then it is not because the new social organization had no problems, but, because, despite those problems, they were more productive than their predecessors. Slave owners that liberated their slaves into serfs, obtained a higher productivity, feudal lords who adopted capitalist practices, overcame their peers who didn’t, corporations who become participatory will win out from those that don’t, and encyclopedias that open up will trump those that don’t. Therefore we conclude that, of course the Wikipedia has problems, but compared to the alternative that is Brittanica, it is evolving as a more useful and competitive resource for those seeking knowledge. So, we must have our eyes totally open to the negative elements of Wikipedia, while at the same time seeking to solve them, but, we will seek to do this by preserving the elements of peer production and governance and property that we favour.

[…] We just stress the general point that in highly complex societies, participation works better, yields more solutions, than no participation. Finding the best mix is partly an empirical question, partially constrained by power relationships.

Stressing that such peer applications are just parasitical is stretching the truth. Many peer projects are collectively sustainable, finding solutions to fund their infrastructure, but have no wish that their ethical economy operates on purely monetary lines. They are directly creating use value, which their communities are constructing and exchanging. On the individual level, this is indeed problematic, but this is not because such individuals create no value, but rather, because our money-only society has not created a mechanism to honour and value their creation. Yes, peer practices are build on the surplus of the capitalist economy, but the counter-truth is just as important, namely that this very same surplus is parasiting on the enormous positive externalities created by social cooperation.


Tony then again concludes with a critique of peer-based facilitation processes. It is clear that peer to peer processes won’t solve all the world’s problems, and it is legitimate, and in my view an expression of the logic and world-views of different personality types, to see the glass as half-empty. But it is equally legitimate, to see the glass as half-full, and my premise is that the latter attitude is more fruitful for human progress. Peer to peer is not the ultimate solution to everything, but it is a set of new processes that have a better chance of solving complex problems, than the hierarchical alternatives.

Learning empirically from successes AND failures, is precisely why we are building a knowledge base on the emergence of peer to peer throughout the social field, recording their rich experiences, both positive and negative.

—Michel Bauwens, “Responding to Tony Judge on the dark side of peer to peer”, 9 September 2007