Peer-to-peer: a new opportunity for the left

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by Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis
ROAR Magazine

Not since Marx identified the manufacturing plants of Manchester as the blueprint for the new capitalist society has there been a deeper transformation of the fundamentals of our social life. As capitalism faces a series of structural crises, a new social, political and economic dynamic is emerging: peer-to-peer (P2P).

What is P2P? And why is it important in building a commons-centric future? These are the questions we try to answer, by tying together four of its aspects:

  1. P2P is a type of social relations in human networks;

  2. P2P is also a technological infrastructure that makes the generalization and scaling up of such relations possible;

  3. P2P thus enables a new mode of production and exchange;

  4. P2P creates the potential for a transition to an economy that can be generative towards people and nature.

We believe that these four aspects will profoundly change human society. P2P ideally describes systems in which any human being can contribute to the creation and maintenance of a shared resource, while benefiting from it. There is an enormous variety of such systems: from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia to free/open-software projects, to open design and hardware communities, to relocalization initiatives and community currencies.

What is P2P and how is it related to the commons?

To begin with, P2P computing systems are characterized by consensual connections between “peers.” This means the computers in the network can interact with each other. It is in this context that the literature started to characterize the sharing of audio and video files as P2P file-sharing, and that at least a part of the underlying infrastructure of the Internet, like its data transmission infrastructure, has been called P2P.

Let’s now assume that behind those computers are human users. A conceptual jump can be made to argue that users now have a technological affordance (a tool) that allows them to interact and engage with each other more easily and on a global scale. P2P can be seen as a relational dynamic through which peers can freely collaborate with each other and create value in the form of shared resources.

It is this mutual dependence of the relational dynamic and the underlying technological infrastructure that facilitates it, which creates the linguistic confusion between P2P as a technological infrastructure and P2P as a human relational dynamic. However, a technological infrastructure does not have to be fully P2P in order to facilitate P2P human relationships. For example, compare Facebook or Bitcoin with Wikipedia or free/open-source software projects: they all utilize P2P dynamics, but they do so in different ways and with different political orientations.

P2P is therefore a mode of relating that allows human beings, organized in networks, to collaborate, produce and exchange value. The collaboration is often permissionless, meaning that one may not need the permission of another in order to contribute. The P2P system is thus generally open to all contributors and contributions. The quality and inclusion of the work is usually determined “post-hoc” by a layer of maintainers and editors, as in the case of Wikipedia.

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