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Re: <nettime> Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy
Brian Holmes on Tue, 30 Dec 2014 04:50:58 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy

On 12/27/2014 02:26 AM, Michel Bauwens wrote:

>    Hi everyone,
>    I would like to announce the publication of a 100-pages long book
>    authored by Vasilis Kostakis and myself....

Find it here, for free of course:


Thanks for this book, Michel and Vasilis. "Future Scenarios for a 
Collaborative Economy" is exceedingly timely and I would recommend it to 
anyone interested in the Commons specifically, or in political economy 
more generally. In response, I've written something in between a review 
and a letter to the authors. I address Michel because he posted it. 
Hopefully he will respond to a few of my comments!

I like the book, Michel, but I must also say, I'm somewhat mystified by 
it. I like the very sophisticated strategy that it sets out at the end 
for a possible transition to a society of commons-based production. I'm 
mystified by the rather simplistic presentation of contemporary 
capitalism at the beginning. What explains the gap?

In Part I you adopt the theoretical framework of "long waves of 
capitalist development" as put forth by Kondratiev and Schumpeter, and 
more recently, by Freeman and Perez (Trotsky and Mandel aren't 
mentioned). In its most general form, the long-wave idea is that 
capitalist society periodically goes through major depressions, during 
which investment is withdrawn from production. Meanwhile inventions 
accumulate until such time as conditions look good, and a massive wave 
of technological investment lays the foundations for a new growth cycle. 
Right now we're in such a depression. Therefore you try to analyze the 
possible futures of the current "techno-economic paradigm."

There is some ambiguity here, but that's OK. On the one hand the book 
follows Carlota Perez, explaining that the information technology 
paradigm has run up against a set of internal contradictions and that a 
mature phase of sustained growth can only come under new political and 
institutional arrangements. On the other hand it hints in certain places 
at the emergence, in the upcoming years or decades, of an entirely new 
paradigm (which, according to Schumpeter or Freeman, implies a distinct 
set of technologies and organizational forms). And then near the end it 
quite strongly claims, with Marx, that capitalism must now be overcome 
in favor of a different system. The upshot seems to be that the new 
society will emerge from the old, perhaps not entirely smoothly, but not 
through an apocalyptic rupture either. That's realistic and desirable, 
in my view.

I too think some kind of new growth wave is almost inevitable, within a 
decade or so - and though it will probably not be on anywhere near so 
intensive as the postwar growth wave that so many theorists take as a 
norm, it could well be more extensive, reaching far more people on our 
densely populated planet. I also think such a new long wave does imply 
distinctly new technologies capable of attracting new investment; but in 
the absence of radical breakthroughs, the big difference is most likely 
to be in the political and institutional structures that govern those 
technologies. In other words, the current technology set is more likely 
to be augmented and institutionally inflected (as early mass 
manufacturing was by postwar Keynesian Fordism) than it is to be 
radically transformed (as Keynesian Fordism was radiclly transformed by 
the IT revolution). In other words, we are likely to get an extension 
and amplification of the certain aspects of the current paradigm, but 
under new institutional arrangements.

The problem is, Michel, you never really discuss the current 
techno-economic paradigm in any serious way. What you and your co-author 
are talking about, in Parts I and II, is a small though important field 
of activity, the one that can be identified with keywords such as P2P, 
social media, crowd-sourcing, sharing economy, etc. The best parts of 
the book contain significant insight into these activities, as one would 
expect. However, by claiming to discuss the future of the entire 
capitalist system and then not really doing so, you blur the issue and 
diminish the potential value of your work.

One can follow Manuel Castells and call the current techno-economic 
paradigm "Informationalism" - or better, "Neoliberal Informationalism," 
to give some idea of how this mode of production is governed. But 
Informationalism does not mean that the only significant commodity on 
the contemporary market is information. Nor does it signal an eclipse of 
industry, as you suggest in chapter 1. Instead, Neoliberal 
Informationalism has been based on a "lead technology" which is new kind 
of producer goods, namely IT in all its facets (computers, software, 
cables, mobile telephony, communications satellites, etc). These goods 
in combination with networked organizational forms are used to create 
transnational supply chains, constituting what is generally called 
"just-in-time production" or "the global factory." The characteristic 
companies of neoliberal informationalism are not Facebook and Google, as 
one would gather from your book, nor even less, recent start-ups like 
AirBnB or Uber. They are giant networked firms like WalMart and Apple, 
which have their products manufactured in China, coordinate their work 
forces and supply chains through sophisticated IT systems, and sell 
their wares on the web as well as in the store. Or they are specialized 
corporations like Cisco, Verizon and IBM, which furnish the hardware and 
software for the new mode of production, distribution and sales. All 
these corporations have evolved under the anti-welfare policy mix of 
neoliberalism, and with the resources allocated by speculative finance, 
which has largely replaced the central planning of national governments. 
Not coincidentally, finance itself is crucially enabled by IT. 
Computers, cable and satellite networks, transnationalism and financial 
governance are key aspects of the current techno-economic paradigm.

Now, it's necessary to add that older sectors, such as petroleum, steel, 
chemicals, automobiles, engineering, grain production, etc, remain 
tremendously significant for the global economy. They are not just going 
to disappear in the next ten or twenty years. However, the way these 
sectors are articulated, both internally and between each other, has 
effectively been transformed by IT, and that's why we can speak of 
Neoliberal Informationalism as a distinct techno-economic paradigm. As 
you and Vasilis point out, this paradigm has been predicated on low-wage 
precarious labor, and it has called on finance to furnish the means of 
consumption through the extension of credit to individuals. The debt 
burden of the working and middle classes has risen tremendously and now, 
in the overdeveloped world at least, these classes can no longer consume 
enough to prop up economic growth. So the system is in a deep crisis, 
one which cannot be resolved by simply pumping money into asset markets 
as various governments have been doing. That crisis is further 
intensified by geopolitical factors (rise of Asia) and by climate change 
(which has been made a lot worse by the rise of Asia). How will the 
global political economy reconfigure itself under these circumstances? 
And what can civil society do to influence the next redeployment of 
capital? That's what we need to know.

In Part II, it's really interesting how you present a diagrammatic field 
of four distinct yet neighboring scenarios, divided on the one hand 
between distributed and centralized organization (or local and global 
scales), and on the other hand, between capitalist and commons-based 
development paths (or "for profit" and "for benefit" activities, as you 
also say). However, for the reasons already stated, the capitalist or 
for-profit side of the diagram is not very convincing. In chapters 4 and 
5 we are introduced to two supposedly emergent categories. First, a 
corporate-scale "netarchical capitalism" where sharing and cooperative 
production are enabled by interfaces with closed, privately controlled 
backends that facilitate the harvesting of monetary value from social 
interaction. And second, an individual-scale "distributed capitalism" 
where everyone is asked to become a networked entrepreneur of him- or 
herself, creating their own backends for profit. Now, without a doubt 
these are already both realities. The first has already undergone 
significant expansion, partially wiping out the old media sphere with 
some inroads on the hobby, transport, in-person service and vacation 
sectors. The second has all the reality of neoliberal ideology: it is 
the computerized version of the entrepreneurial ideal, where everyone 
freely competes in an open, unregulated economic realm. But the claim 
that these figures represent the capitalism of tomorrow could only hold 
true if "we are not talking about monopoly capitalism" - which is a 
crucial caveat that you supply early on.

The problem is that we are talking about exactly that, Michel, just look 
around you. The great oligopolies that corral major sectors of the world 
economy, fixing prices and blocking the entry of smaller actors, are 
alive and despicably well in every major economic sector, including IT; 
and they are supported by very solid forces of the national and 
transnational state. To suggest that monopoly capitalism is on the way 
out through some force of networked nature is just plain mystifying, and 
that's the principal argument I have with this book.

Something else really is changing, though; and this is where the book's 
proposals, and more generally, those collected by the P2P Foundation 
over the last decade, are really worth one's attention. What's happening 
is an impoverishment of the former "First World," which is losing out to 
the newly developed countries at the same time as it starts being 
subjected to the environmental stresses of climate change. What one can 
see on the horizon is a gradual evening-out of global wages, leaving 
much of the former West in decaying housing with legacy appliances and 
amenities, while populations in the East and South rise up to a roughly 
similar level and then stagnate. That's already happening: and the 
frustration it engenders was behind the wave of protests in 2011-2013, 
whether in Egypt, Brazil, Russia and Turkey, or in Spain and the US. It 
is precisely the existence of the oligopolies and the financial elites 
(the famous 1%) that account for this dynamic. And we're likely to see 
even more intense frustration and anger as these populations have to 
confront the difficulties of climate change. Under these conditions, 
both newly unemployed people and those who have gained or retained a 
precarious hold on middle-class status are likely to find great 
attraction in what the book calls "resilient communities" and "global 
commons." Additionally, intellectuals with a capacity to see the 
dead-end future, whatever their class, will start to look for serious 

The discussion becomes tremendously interesting when the "for benefit" 
categories are discussed, in their local and global forms. This is the 
Marxian part of the book, where a change of the system itself starts to 
look desirable. Both the for-benefit categories are based on the 
generative matrix of the Commons, and I love the clarity with which 
you've expressed its basic principles: "It could be said that every 
Commons scheme basically has four interlinked components: a resource 
(material and/or immaterial; replenishable and/or depletable); the 
community which shares it (the users, administrators, producers and/or 
providers); the use value created through the social reproduction or 
preservation of these common goods; and the rules and the participatory 
property regimes that govern people?s access to it."

At this point (Part III), the strict focus on information production is 
abandoned and what comes to the fore are the new possibilities presented 
by the maker revolution: not only 3-D printing, but all the 
computer-controlled tools which can use freely circulated open-source 
designs to create practical objects ranging from housing to automobiles. 
One can easily see the relevance of such productive capacities for 
impoverished communities, especially when they are beset by the stresses 
of changing climates, violent storms and soon, rising water levels. 
What's more, to take a page from Jeremy Rifkin's recent books, it 
becomes clear that with falling costs for solar and wind generation, 
energy production itself could potentially be decentralized and managed 
according to commons principles so as to build resilient communities. 
The combination of alternative energy sources with micro-manufacturing 
techniques represents a possible basis for a new form of economic growth 
that could cater to very large numbers of people despite, or rather 
because of, their inability to reach Fordist and Neoliberal levels of 
grotesque hyperconsumption. If the development of capitalist production 
during the next upswing could be influenced so as to furnish the 
infrastructure and toolkits of decentralized energy production and 
micro-manufacturing, then the next wave of growth could have many 
positive consequences. That's the paradigm shift that we need, and Part 
III makes that quite clear, bravo. The question is, how to make it 
happen? What are the "new institutional arrangements" that we need, and 
how to achieve them? Or as you and Vasilis write:

"Arguably, the issue is not to produce and consume less per se, but to 
develop new models of production which will work on a higher level than 
capitalist models. We consider it difficult to challenge the dominant 
system if we lack a working plan to transcend it. A post-capitalist 
world is bound to entail more than a mere reversal to pre-industrial 
times. As the TEPS theory informs us [ie, the theory of techno-economic 
paradigm shifts], the adaptation of current institutions and the 
creation of new ones take place in the deployment phase of each TEP. We 
claim that the times are, finally, mature enough to introduce a radical 
political agenda with brand new institutions, fueled by the spirit of 
the Commons and aiming to provide a viable global alternative to the 
capitalist paradigm beyond degrowth or antiglobalization rhetorics."

Now, that's not Carlota Perez talking anymore. That's a utopian Marxist 
strain that has affinities with Italian Autonomia, to the extent it 
believes that progressive use-values slumber within the technologies of 
capitalist exchange, and that these use-values can be liberated through 
the kinds of self-organization that the Internet facilitates. The 
question is, how to avoid making this a purely utopian thinking, as 
Autonomia has proven to be so far? How can commons-based peer production 
reach deeply into daily life? And how can it expand globally, both as a 
philosophy and as a set of informational tools that can take full 
advantage of the new decentralized energy and manufacturing toolkits? 
Or, to put it in strategic terms: How can civil-society actors find the 
opportunity, in the current depression and in the upswing that will 
almost inevitably follow it, to push corporate production into supplying 
the toolkits for a society that will finally escape the worst and most 
life-threatening consequences of the capitalist system?

In chapter 8, I feel that you are groping for a way to bridge the gap 
between two rather different things. First, the many specific 
micro-examples of (mainly informational) commons-based production that 
you do provide, in welcome detail. Second, a full-fledged economic 
praxis that could rival with the existing forms of Neoliberal 
Informationalism, which you (and the rest of us) can only imagine 
somewhat fuzzily. The way you approach this problem suggests that you do 
recognize the difficulties of overcoming the norms imposed by monopoly 
capitalism: after all, they are exemplified by the trajectory of Free 
and Open-Source Software, which has still not been broadly adopted even 
though the operating systems are now perfectly serviceable and perfectly 
free. You cite two very promising projects from what could become the 
next techno-economic paradigm, namely the Rep-Rap 3-D printer project 
and the Wikispeed automobile project, both of which are impressive and 
point the way toward a new articulation of social production. But it's 
clear that without support from either large social movements, or 
powerful economic actors, or more likely both, a new wave of capitalist 
growth will render these projects insignificant - or at least, no more 
significant than Free Software is currently. Traditional monopoly 
capital will put the breaks on Wikispeed. The coming wave of investment 
and development has to be bent to fit collaborative priorities. 
Otherwise, a no-future scenario looms.

It is in this context that you introduce the "Partner State Approach": 
"The PSA could be considered a cluster of policies and ideas whose 
fundamental mission is to empower  direct social-value creation, and to 
focus on the protection of the Commons sphere as well as on the 
promotion of sustainable models of entrepreneurship and participatory 
politics." This is absolutely true: commons-based production requires 
infrastructure investments that commoners themselves cannot provide, at 
least, not as individuals or a members of small and fractious voluntary 
networks. The implication (which I don't think is anywhere clearly 
stated in the book) is that we need collective investments in order to 
stimulate forms of growth that are very different from those seen under 
Neoliberal Informationalism. We need a government capable of shaping an 
environment in which Commons-friendly investments will be possible. Yet 
so far, not a single state has emerged as a reliable partner. I'm 
curious: How do you feel about this today, Michel (and Vasilis), after 
the difficulties that the FLOK project encountered in Ecuador, in the 
attempt to generate exactly such a Partner State Approach?

The problems that our civilization faces are vast. The extension of 
commons-based peer production from the software to manufacturing and 
energy production does suggest a path forward. But support for it, in 
the form of something like a Partner State, can only be generated from a 
far broader civil-society movement than we have today. Such a movement 
is being called into existence by the rising awareness that the current 
form of development is literally a dead end. One one hand, it is 
important to nurture this movement (and ourselves, as parts of it) with 
pragmatic principles of hope, of the kind provided by experiments with 
Commons-based peer production. On the other, it's necessary to cultivate 
a very lucid of what's actually happening in society, not to paint an 
apocalyptic picture but just to identify the really existing obstacles. 
That kind of analysis is often lacking on the postmodern left. You could 
have used a little more Trotsky and Mandel, imho.

I think that civil-society movements have a tremendous amount to learn 
from experiments with peer production, and therefore, from the 
reflections in the last third of this book. However, I don't think any 
of this will go anywhere without a more realistic assessment of the 
forces currently in play. A broad movement needs to know both what to 
ask for and what to create, in view of pushing the really existing 
political-economic system towards a fundamental structural change. That 
means clearly facing the structure and power of corporate monopoly 
capital in its transnational form. I feel you have dispatched that issue 
too quickly and on that level, the book could definitely be improved. 
Actually, a careful read of this book has left me with the desire to 
rewrite parts of it, while keeping others intact - which I guess is a 
pretty good outcome for a book that reccomends the use of Peer 
Production Licenses!

Let me close this long review/letter with one more quote from Bauwens 
and Kostakis, a particularly astute and admirable one:

"According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2011) ?When the changes happen 
faster than expectations and/or institutions can adjust, the transition 
can be cataclysmic.? To avoid such a cataclysm, we arguably need 
political and social mobilization on the regional, national and 
transnational scale, with a political agenda that would transform our 
expectations, our economy, our infrastructures and our institutions in 
the vein of a Commons-oriented political economy."

I could not agree more.

best, Brian

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