"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



WashingtonOregonCaliforniaAlaskaHawaiiIdahoNevadaArizonaMontanaWyomingUtahColoradoNew MexicoNorth DakotaSouth DakotaNebraskaKansasOklahomaTexasMinnesotaIowaMissouriArkansasLouisianaWisconsinIllinoisIndianaMichiganOhioMississippiAlabamaGeorgiaSouth CarolinaNorth CarolinaFloridaTennesseeKentuckyVirginia West VirginiaPennsylvaniaNew YorkMaineVermontNew HampshireRhode IslandConnecticutNew JerseyDelawareDistrict of ColumbiaMassachusetts

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Michel Bauwens - P2P Politics, the State, and the Renewal of the Emancipatory Traditions


Michel Bauwens explores the possibilities opened up by P2P projects for progressive politics, arguing that they could present an alternative to neoliberal privatization, and to the Blairite introduction of private logics in the public sphere.

Peer governance and democracy

As peer to peer technical and social infrastructures such as sociable media and self-directed teams are emerging to become an important if not dominant format for the changes induced by
cognitive capitalism, the peer to peer relational dynamic will increasingly have political effects.

As a reminder, the p2p relational dynamic arises wherever there are distributed networks, i.e. networks where agents are free to undertake actions and relationships, and where there is an absence of overt coercion so that governance modes are emerging from the bottom-up. It creates processes such as peer production, the common production of value; peer governance, i.e. the self-governance of such projects; and peer property, the auto-immune system which prevents the private appropriation of the common.

It is important to distinguish the peer governance of a multitude of small but coordinated global groups, which choose non-representational processes in which participants co-decide on the projects, from representative democracy. The latter is a decentralized form of power-sharing based on elections and representatives. Since society is not a peer group with an a priori consensus, but rather a decentralized structure of competing groups, representative democracy cannot be replaced by peer governance.

However, both modes will influence and accommodate to each other. Peer projects which evolve beyond a certain scale and start facing issues of decisions about scarce resources, will probably adapt some representational mechanisms. Representative and bureaucratic decision-making can and will in some places be replaced by global governance networks which may be self-governed to a large extent, but in any case, it will and should incorporate more and more multistakeholder models, which strives to include as participants in decision-making, all groups that could be affected by such actions. This group-based partnership model is different, but related in spirit, to the individual-based peer governance, because they share an ethos of participation.

But the fundamental change is the following. In the modern view, individuals were seen as atomized. They were believed to be in need of a social contract that delegated authority to a sovereign in order to create society, and in need of socialization by institutions that addressed them as an indifferentiated mass. In the new view however, individuals are always-already connected with their peers, and looking at institutions in such a peer-informed way. Institutions therefore, will have to evolve to become support ecologies, devising ways to create infrastructures of support.

The politicians become interpreters and experts, which can guide the issues emerging out of civil society based networks into the institutional realm.

The state becomes a at least neutral (or better yet: commons-favorable) arbiter, i.e. the meta-regulator of the 3 realms, and retreats from the binary state/privatisation dilemma to the triarchical choice for an optimal mix between government regulation, private market freedom, and autonomous civil society projects. In particular, it can evolve to do the following activities. Recognizing the direct value creation of the social field, it can find ways to support such activities.
An example I recently encountered was the work of the municipality of Brest, in French Brittany. There, the “Local Democracy” section of the city makes available online infrastructures, training modules, and physical infrastructure for sharing (cameras, sound equipment, etc…), so that local individuals and groups, can create cultural and social projects on their own. For example,
the Territoires Sonores project allows for the creation by the public of audio and video files to enrich custom trails, which is therefore neither produced by a private company, nor by the city itself.

The peer to peer dynamic, and the thinking and experimentation it inspires, does not just present a third form for the production of social value, it also produces also new forms of institutionalization and regulation, which could be fruitfully explored and/or applied.

Indeed, from civil society emerges a new institutionalization, the commons, which is a distinct new form of regulation and property. Unlike private property, which is exclusionary, and unlike state property, in which the collective ‘expropriates’ the individual; by contrast in the form of the commons, the individual retains his sovereignity, but has voluntarily shared it. The difference between the ethos of the
Creative Commons and the General Public Licence is, that in the former, the individual is primary and the commons a derivative of individual interests, while in the GPL, the construction of the common is primordial (even though it may be out of individual interest that one collaborates, the resulting work is clearly a full part of the commons, something that is unclear in many versions of the CC-licence), but both share the voluntary aspect of the sharing of one’s work.

In terms of the institutionalization of these new forms of common property, Peter Barnes, in his important book
Capitalism 3.0, explains how national parks and environmental commons (such as a proposed Skytrust), could be run by trusts, who have the obligation to retain all (natural) capital intact, and through a one man/one vote/one they would be in charge of preserving common natural resources. This could become an accepted alternative to both nationalization and deregulation/privatization.

Towards a commons orientation for a renewed progressive policy

What does it mean for the emancipatory traditions that emerged from the industrial era? I believe it could have 2 positive effects:

1) a dissociation of the automatic link with bureaucratic government modalities (which does not mean that it is not appropriate in certain circumstances); proposals can be formulated which directly support the development of the Commons

2) a dissocation from its alternative: deregulation/privatization; support for the Commons and peer production means that there is an alternative from both neoliberal privatization, and the Blairite introduction of private logics in the public sphere.

The progressive movements can thereby become informational rather than a modality of industrial society. Instead of defending the industrial status quo, it becomes again an offensive force (say: striving for an equity-based information society), more closely allied with the open/free, participatory, commons-oriented forces and movements. These three social movements have arisen because of the need for an efficient social reproduction of peer production and the common.
Open and free movements want to insure that there is raw material for free cultural production and appropriation, and fight against the monopoly rents accorded to capital, as it now restricts innovation. They work on the input side of the equation. Participatory movements want to ensure that anybody can use his specific combination of skills to contribute to common projects, and work on lowering the technical, social and political thresholds; finally, the Commons movement works on preserving the common from private appropriation, so that its social reproduction is insured, and the circulation of the common can go on unimpeded, as it is the Commons which in turn creates new layers of open and free raw material.

There is also a connection with the environmental movement. While the culturally-oriented movements fight against the artificial scarcities induced by the restrictive regimes of copyright law and patent law, the environmental movement fights against the artificial abundance created by unrestricted market logics. The removal of pseudo-abundance and pseudo-scarcity are exactly what needs to happen to make our human civilization sustainable at this stage. As has been stressed by
Richard Stallman [1] and others, the copyright and patent regimes are explicitely intended to inhibit the free cooperation and cultural flow between creative humans, and are just as pernicious to the further development of humanity as the biospheric destruction.

There is therefore a huge potential for such a renewed movement for human emancipation to become aligned with the values of a new generation of youth, and achieve the long-term advantage that the Republicans had achieved since the 80s.

What needs to be done?

A priority is the creation of legal and regulatory frameworks that

1) diminish artificial scarcities in the informational field so that immense social value can be created, and immaterial conviviality can replace the deadly logic of material accumulation\

2) introduce true costing in the material field so that the market no longer creates negative exernalities in the natural environment.

3) create more distributed access to the means of production (peer-based financing, distributed energy production, etc…) so that the peer to peer dynamic can be introduced in the sphere of material production as well.


[1] Richard Stallman opposes the use of the concept of intellectual property on the following grounds: ‘It is an error to say “intellectual property regime’ here, because only some, not all, of the various ‘intellectual property’ laws cause scarcity of something of inherent value. For instance, trademark law does not cause scarcity of anything of real value. Using a term which includes trademark law is an unnecessary error’.
(personal email, February 25, 2007)

Further links:

Foundation for P2P alternatives
P2P political concepts

No comments: