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Greens and Pirates: in Search of a New Majority for the Commons?

By Adam Ostolski , Michel Bauwens

Ever since their emergence within the political landscape, Pirates have been perceived by Greens both as rivals for voters’ support and potential allies in a common cause. The Pirate movement has articulated its distinctive political vision and, in several countries, succeeded in creating a new constituency of voters. Whereas on the level of national politics in various countries Pirates pose for the Greens more or less of a challenge, in the European Parliament, they work together, on a daily basis, on issues such as data protection, network security or intellectual property reform. Is it a result of a contingent overlapping of Green and Pirate agendas, or is it a sign of a deeper affinity, or complementarity, between the two movements? Adam Ostolski interviews Michael Bauwens.

One of possible answers has been developed by Michel Bauwens, a thinker, a peer-to-peer theorist and the founder of P2P Foundation. Michel Bauwens advanced the idea of a “grand alliance” for the commons. Such an alliance would bring together Greens, Pirates, movements for social justice (trade unions, farmers’ associations), and small entrepreneurs – to protect natural (environmental) and cultural (digital) commons.

I talked to Michel via internet in August 2013, a couple of days before the conference Europe from Below, co-organised by Polish Green Party, Polish Teachers’ Union, and National Union of Nurses and Midwives. Michel took part in a panel discussion on “Internet and digital citizenship.”

Adam Ostolski: A decade ago the Internet was perceived as a guarantee of a democratic change and a world without borders. Communication between people was supposed to become free and unconstrained, censorship was to be no longer possible. Nowadays we can see new “China walls” growing over and there, as well as new means of surveillance, from commercial data mining to surveillance by the States. What with the liberatory promise of the Internet – has it been lost? Is it endangered? Or was it always only a dream?

Michel Bauwens: I reject the notion that technology is a neutral thing, so I see it as creating new capabilities for humanity. But then, these capabilities can be an object of conflict. And if you analyse p2p technology, it can take different forms. These different forms are the function of the forces which control the technology. For example, in what I call “netarchical capitalism,” that is where you have proprietory platforms, business-owned entities creating p2p front-ends, because they want people to communicate with each other, but they combine it with controlled and hierarchical back-ends, where they control the design and your personal data, so that they are able to sell your attention. So, when we talk about peer-to-peer technology, we have to be very careful, not just look at the structure: computers organised in a peer network, humans organised in a peer network etc., but you have to look at governance and ownership as well.

I always insist that the important thing for peer to peer is that it is a form of human relationship, a very specific human relational form which allows people to aggregate their efforts around common value creation. They have to create a commons, if it is just a marketplace, it’s not really p2p!

So if you take another example, Bitcoin, which I occasionally use. And I think it’s important, because it was for the first time that we have the socially sovereign, post-Westphalian currency. But if you look at the structure, the peers in Bitcoin are the computers. You can be a well-financed hacker collective and have a bot net with ten thousand computers and be at the beginning of this large monetary system, when it had a very low value, or you can be in India and not have a computer at all. So, the study by Shamir showed us that about 70% Bitcoins are owned by a dozen people. You call it peer-to-peer, but it’s peer-to-peer for the computers, it’s not peer-to-peer for the humans.

Here at the Peer-to-Peer Foundation we think two things. First, what is of interest is the scaling of peer-to peer relationships. But it happens in a context, in a society characterised by contending and conflictual political forces, social forces, ownership. And therefore these various forces are trying to instrumentalise this. Surveillance is one way to do this, because suddenly all our communication becomes visible, it can be controlled, it can be surveilled. It’s never a question of saying “It’s great!” It’s a question of organising politically and socially to make sure this technology benefits the majority of the population rather than a tiny minority. The historical analogy is the printing press, which, before helping to create modern democracy, also allowed absolute royalty.

AO: How to do it? Who can defend this democratic potential of peer-to-peer networks?

MB: The key for me is self-organisation. Humans have this capacity to create commons and communities. Once people gather to create value, and they do it on the basis of a contributory mechanism, so that people who are either contributing for free or being paid, are effectively, for whatever reason, contributing to a common pool. If you have a common pool based on these voluntary contributions, then I’m not gonna do what you want me to do, because I have my own volition and I am not depending on the wage you are paying me. Therefore, we will have to negotiate a form of peer-to-peer governance. If I work for a common project, and you are able in the end to privatise the common work, then I’m going to stop contributing. So we need some form of property mechanism to protect the pool. So peer production, peer governance and peer property go together, and they create a community of people who share common values. And therefore we also see they create an institution to protect the value like the free software foundations. And if people want to protect the fruit of their work, and keep the value within the sphere of the commons, they need to create free software cooperatives, rather than work for for-profit companies.

My belief is that we have to do this on a massive scale and create a new social fabric that is based on these new principles. But this does not mean that we have abolished the other world that is out there. This co-existence therefore creates conflicts, all sorts of disturbances.

AO: Your approach seems to be very community-oriented. It can be inscribed in the tradition of cooperatives and other forms of socialised economy. Many activists, I think, put the issue of surveillance rather in the framework of individual liberty, or individual freedoms.

MB: Within peer-to-peer, there is a tension between individuality, relationality and community. It’s not a return to oppressive traditional community, in fact, because it’s actually based on these free contributions, so this is a network society and network relationality. It does create new forms of community. I think that this new forms are not oppressive because they are based on free contributions.

But if you look at Bitcoin, for example, it’s a vision of pure individuality. It’s about, basically, the dream of a currency system and economy without a state. It’s also free market oriented, it’s to create the universal capacity for every individual to become a trader and exchanger. That’s not my vision, because market exchange excludes people without market power; and in an unequal society, if you don’t have the state and public violence, you have private violence. Bitcoin makes it impossible to have any public policy at all, by weakening all mediating mechanisms, it’s a means to in the end increase private violence.

Within the field of the commons, and the emerging commons movement, you have these tensions, this is not a unified vision. But there are commonalities we can work together on. Once you make a commons together, you can have different political visions, but what you share is this desire to construct and protect the commons.

AO: You have become very critical about the Bitcoin. I remember you used to be more enthusiastic about it.

MB: If you look at my writings, you’ll see I was critical from the beginning, I was saying it was not enough. But then, gradually, once you learn more about it, it’s not just “not enough,” you discover that it’s a defective design, a deflationary design. The fact is that it doesn’t really solve any social problems. It actually exacerbates them. So, my idea of Bitcoin is to say that it’s a great thing in that we can have a globally scaled currencies driven by the community. I think that’s great. But what about social justice, what about people who don’t have Bitcoin, who have to buy them? So, all these issues are not solved just by having Bitcoin.

So, the idea for me is: can we think about global digital currencies that have a different design. For example, there is this Freicoin, which is a fork of Bitcoin with a negative interest called demurrage, to discourage hoarding. So, there are different modalities to look at. We need a better design than the anarcho-capitalist bitcoin and its “Austrian economics,” which are inscribed in the very protocol of that currency.

AO: You speak of a “grand alliance” for the commons; it is to include pirate, green and labour movements, among others. Is such an alliance really possible? The Internet seems to have brought about precarisation of labour conditions in many professions. Is there a common cause to be found between pirates and movements for social justice?

MB: Let’s look at the background of this conception. In the 1980s the Western social contract was broken down. Basically, in May 1968, there were two revolutions. The revolution of youth against the hierarchical social forms, and the revolution of workers against the labour conditions in the Fordist system. The answer of the system was to give youth what they wanted, i.e. a more egalitarian culture. And in the case of industry, to physically abolish the working class in the West by exporting manufacturing outside of the West. Now look at labour movements in the West: they are declining, as their social basis is declining, which is why physical industrial workers now only represent 17% of the Western population.

But what they have created is a knowledge working class. It’s a large number of people who are engaging in creating immaterial value, but which directly affects the organisation of physical production. They are at the core of the value creation in the system, so they are not at the margin of the system. These people are creating software and design, and branding. And peer-to-peer for me is their ideology. It’s what you need to work as a knowledge worker, you need this type technology, you need it to be free, you need to share it, you need to learn from others. So the idea is that, because of our precarity, we are recreating most of new social forms, peer-to-peer social forms. And this can gradually create a new fabric, create a kind of new social majority in the West.

Then you look at sociology. The Pirates – potentially young knowledge workers, 18-35. They actually were the first party in this age group during the first successful elections in Sweden. If you look at the Greens, they are older knowledge workers, 35 up. You look at the labour movement and you see there is a renewal, there is a new wave of radical, transformative parties on the left, like Mélenchon in France, and more interestingly, Syriza in Greece, who are open to the ideas around the commons and p2p. And then you have social liberals. They have more to do with creative class, like advertisement executives etc. They have a liberal outlook, they are more free market oriented, but they are very much in favour and sympathetic towards fair trade, organic agriculture, cultural freedoms, social entrepreneurship and these new forms.

What can unite these groups is the idea of commons. It’s no longer between private and state sectors, it’s the commons, private and state. The idea of having free culture, free sharing of information, culture and science can create a new majority. The commons become the central idea of their politics and the basis for a new majority. I’m not saying it’s easy, I am not saying it can happen today. But I think the premises and conditions for these kind of change are being created.

What is interesting geo-politically is the emergence of progressive states in Latin America, some of which are particularly open to commons ideas. Starting in January, I will be the research director for the FLOKsociety.org project in Ecuador, which has the explicit aim to create transition policies for a “open commons-based knowledge society.” So the politisation and policy-ation of the p2p/commons movement has already begun.

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