Saturday, June 18, 2011

Notes on 'the good' (i): Peer-to-peer relationality and postmodern productivity

"[M]odernity...based on a autonomous self in a society which he himself creates through the social contract, has been changing in postmodernity. The individual is now seen as always-already part of various social fields, as a singular composite being....Atomistic individualism is rejected in favour of the view of a relational self, a new balance between individual agency and collective communion."
Michel Bauwens, P2P and Human Evolution (44-5)

"Soon this society will only be held together by the mere tension of 
all the social atoms straining towards an illusory cure."
The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (19)

"There is a logic of self-unfolding at ethic that values activity and caring...creativity, the continuous surpassing of oneself in solving problems and creating new use value."
Pekka Hinamen, The Hacker Ethic

Postmodernism - that favoured buzz-word of Nineties theory-drones - has, it must be said, something of an image problem. On the one hand it is despised, with equal vociferousness, both by the forces of political reaction - that legion of young and old fogies who would prefer to drag us kicking and screaming back to some unspecified point before 1967 - and also, at the same time, by many of the hard left. Quite why so much frankly inarticulate disgust is reserved for the deconstructionist-feminist-new-age-vitalist strain of the philosophical left by the Badiouian-Zizekian new guard is something I have never really been able to adequately get to the bottom of....largely because I find such apoplexies of revulsion deeply suspect. Nonetheless, it does have to be said, that while deconstruction should be always defended against the erroneous charge of nihilism, there is still much work to be done in terms of hashing out what we might understand as the form of positive or productive deconstruction. As one of my friends said to me recently, putting his finger on the issue which has perhaps alienated just as many as the spectacularly dense - but endlessly repeated - reading of 'there is nothing outside the text' (yes, that's right, Derrida thinks that tables don't exist)'s all very interesting as a theory, but what on earth is one to do with it?

What unsettles me so deeply about the current trend to dismiss deconstruction - in fact, to dismiss pretty much the entire legacy of post-Bergsonian/pre-Badiouian French thought - as simply a fad or a fashion, a mere intellectual blip in the forward march of principled the fact that what we are dealing with here are some really really fundamental ontological claims, claims about the nature of reality which we can't just imagine away because we think they lead to namby-pamby-wishy-washyness, or a failure of political virility. As Michel Bauwens suggests above, one of the most - in fact I would say, the most - salient fact about what is unhelpfully called the linguistic turn, is that it is not really about language at all, but is, rather, a claim about the fundamentally relational nature of is a claim that each and every being (whether a sign or a state, a subject or a star) is constituted by its temporal and spatial relation to that which is other than itself.

There are lots of reasons why people don't like this. It makes things messy, it means that shit is all mixed up with other shit (and here, we return to my suspicion about visceral revulsion), that a dense weave of fibres contrives to make every situation unique, that the future is unpredictable, and that, as a result, our programs, policies and principals, have, from one moment to another, only limited applicability. It means, in short, that things are not perfectly controllable, that we have to assume the full weight and responsibility of our decisions (without a failsafe algorithm to guide us), that we are dependent, that we are vulnerable, and that it can never ever be guaranteed that everything will be okay. But, to be blunt, that is how it is. And to rather brutally paraphrase Aristotle (this one's for you Daniel), we don't get to decide what reality is like on the basis of what we would like it to be like for us to have the kind of perfect knowledge which could keep us always and forever safe. 

What this doesn't mean - as the naysayers seem to think - is that, in the absence of cast-iron political principal, we should simply slip into a state of acquiescence or inertia. Rather than abandoning the project - It's icky! Me no like it! - what is required is a whole lot of serious thought about the theoretical and practical implications of process-relational ontology for our systems of governance, production, economy and ethics. This is a big job, and there is no way I can even begin to do it justice right now (some small fraction of it will, if everything goes more or less swimmingly, constitute my life's work), but what I would like to look at here is some extremely helpful indications provided by Michel Bauwens' theory of peer-to-peer relationality (hereafter P2P), and in particular, the aspect of the theory which deals with the thinking of new modalities of work.

P2P is, in the broadest terms, the theory and practice of the cooperative production of commons by individuals participating in technologically mediated distributed networks (think Linux, or Wikipedia). The model is one which - unlike the game-theory dog-eat-doggedness of neoliberalism - seeks to explain the potential for new modes of social, political and economic organization based on a cooperative 'third mode of production' which - on the basis of a relational paradigm - resists the traditional opposition between public and private goods. In this day and age, and not without reason, 'production' - along with its well-worn friends 'efficiency' and 'growth' - has become something of a dirty word...and if you look but one post back, you'll find me using it in just that way. However, just as 'markets' can provide a perfectly pleasant and ethically unproblematic way of passing a morning, the notion of 'production,' and indeed, particularly 'creative production,' needs to be retrieved from the tar-and-feathering it has quite rightly received at the hands of those of us opposed to reductive market-logic.

As I discussed at some length in my last post, along with its manifest inability to grasp the concept of finite resource, what I have always found to be most odious about capitalism - particularly in its turbocharged neoliberal variant - is its gross reduction of the value and meaning of a human life to the metrics of economic productivity. This is especially problematic because - if you're a funny kind of postmodern Aristotelian-Marxist like me - you have a tendency to think that the meaning and value of a human life is peculiarly bound-up with the type of productive activity which occupies that life, and that alienated wage slavery is pernicious not merely because it involves the exploitation of the many by the few, but because it prevents people from spending their time doing those things which help them to unfold their own beings, and enables them to endow their daily activities with meaning.

The nature of purposive, meaningful, productive activity is profoundly complex, and can't be adequately unpacked here, but thinking hard about its processional and relational structure is imperative if we are to accomplish the task of providing a rigorous account of human goods that can challenge the 'realworlders' insistence that economic calculus is the only basis on which to manage our lives. What I like most about Bauwens' project - in addition to P2P providing a model for open non-representational democratic process currently being played out in the Spanish plazas - is its emphasis on the importance of just this type of creative productivity. In accordance with an ontology which posits relations of mutual enhancement - rather than antagonism - between individuals and collectivities, this importance resides both in the generation of socially-beneficial use-value, and, moreover, in the immeasurable psychophysical benefits to individuals of engaging in meaningful production. 

For the individual, production is experienced as meaningful both because it allows for the unfolding of a range of the self's potentials (i.e. process), and because it is directed towards an end (i.e. process) which the individual conceives of as a common good* (i.e relation)...both elements mutually reinforcing each other in the generation of the type of self-renewing motivation which drives deeply-engaged activity into its future (and thereby circumnavigating that great modern ailment, the motivational-futural crisis which is depressive despair). Contra the dominant neoliberal dogma that we are basically a bunch of lazy egoists who could only be induced to get off our arses by the pure motive of profit, I share Bauwens' alternative vision that the best of human life is to be found in the engagement in meaningful production, that such activity represents an end in itself, and that, moreover, people experience it as such and will do it, for its own sake. This is because - to get a little bit Aristotelian about it (again!) - such activity is 'eudaimonia'; the 'being-at-work of the soul in accordance with virtue,' the developmental flourishing of individual and collective excellence, or, to give it its more common or garden name, 'happiness.'

There is a whole lot more to be said here, in particular about how we move from where we are now - a state in which people's labour and experiences of 'eudaimonia' are extracted from them only to be sold back at vastly inflated prices in the form of fetishized objects that offer nothing but empty promises - to a state where P2P could become a more generalized mode of production. Bauwens' has some very interesting ideas here about the part played by the actual and manufactured perception of 'abundance' and 'scarcity' in the possibility of forming cooperative networked commons, and while P2P is presently a form of organization limited to the immaterial realm of information production, it could be, he suggests tantalizingly, "extended whenever there is perceived abundance." (P2P and Human Evolution: 19) This tallies well with much of my own thinking about the ways in which the defensive conflictual carapace of the neoliberal autonomous agent - the form, in fact, of the very subject of modernity - is maintained, fundamentally, by a fantasy of control and invulnerability which stems, at base, from fear. 

It is in teaching us about the futility of such fear that we find the real political power of the deconstructive project. You, like everything else under - and including - the stars, are a process-relational being. You cannot idemnify yourself against the risk that this entails, and the attempt to do so could only ever function by violently extracting yourself from - or attempting to annihilate -  the web of temporal and spatial relations by which you come to be. Given this, you have a fairly simple choice. You can engage in an endless attempt to defend yourself against the very stuff of your existence - cutting yourself off at the neck and spooling out violence and domination in your wake - or, alternatively, you can face your fear and get on with slipping into the flux of your unfolding, and the unfolding of all the others on whom you depend, and who depend on you. Deconstruction is not nihilism, or paralysis, it is an attitude, a way of inclining oneself into the activity of the world. Michel Bauwens has usefully shown us one way that this attitude might generate a mode of production, a mode of living, which can lead us into the always open future. Go on, I know you want my dear old Jackie D used to say. Play.


Of course here we're going to get into a whole load of argy-bargy about the common good - there's a lot to say on this, and it involves Aristotelian notions of function, and Nussbaum's capabilities, and a fair dash of Maslow. But what we can say more succinctly in this context, is that if P2P activity conceives productive meaningful activity as a good, then the end to which it is aimed is the creation of use-value which allows more people to engage in productive meaningful activity. Don't you just love a virtuous circle?



P2P Foundation

P2P Blog

The Political Economy of Peer Production

Peer-to-Peer Relationality


  1. Thank you for the wonderful post. Here are a few thoughts I had:

    Regarding deconstruction
    By uncovering the “struct”ure of a representation (or history of representations) we imply that there are other assemblages that would provide a different lens for the sphere of focus. To “deconstruct” is simultaneously to “construct.”

    In this light, “peer to peer” culture is a perpetual de/re-construction. The productive assemblage that is the global assemblage I usually refer to as “panarchy” is in constant flux. It is a complex (adaptive) system, and manifests the properties of the class of systems present in that field. Complex systems are constituted by networks of nodes and relations, just as the ecologically embedded beings are constituted by their web of relations.

    Complex systems theorist Stuart Kauffman likens these relations to walking around on a landscape that is a sheet of rubber -- every perturbation by oneself affects others, and every perturbation by others affects oneself. As Niklas Luhmann has said, every system is the environment of other systems.

    Regarding uncertainty
    Prigogine and Stengers tackles this in their book “The End of Certainty.” Where classical science and the modernism that hinges on it presupposes an ontology in which answers are findable, the ontology of relations results in systems that are not only merely qualitatively describable, but can be proven to be indeterminate. The discovery of the fields of chaos and complexity put an end to the dreams of classical modernity.

    Moreover, the arrow of time is irreversible. As Tom Stoppard notes in his play, Arcadia, “we must stir our way onward, mixing as we go, disorder out of disorder into disorder.” In other words, “you cannot stir things apart.”

    Regarding commons-based production
    My colleagues and I are working on a book about commons-based peer production as we speak, but the key authors everyone goes to on this topic are still Eric Raymond and Yochai Benkler.

    Regarding Aristotle
    It is interesting that you should mention this because Aristotle himself thinks of “happiness” as a teleonomic (not teleologic) perpetual activity. Initially, Aristotle defines happiness as follows: “Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.” (Ethics, 1097a34) It is most definitely “is not a state” (Ethics, 1176a30). The conundrum is resolved by the realization that happiness is an activity, or process. Aristotle asks, “Is it also the case that a man is happy when he is dead? Or is not this quite absurd, especially for us who say happiness is an activity.” (Ethics, 1099b32)

    Regarding material vs. immaterial production
    All production contains an essential information component. In fact, some would argue that everything is most or even entirely composed of information, and that “things” are simply information made flesh, as it were. The word “thing” originally meant an event -- a gathering, a coming together, an emergence, a manifesting, an activity of bringing-forth a world.

    As a final word, while it is entirely the case that peer-production contains the possibility that we will all be emotionally closer to the spirit of our activities, we have yet to answer the very real question of “who will do the work no one wants to do?” In the annals of history, it was slaves, or serfs, or servants, or subjects, and in the annals of paleo-futurism (future history) it has typically been robots, drawn from a Czech word which means precisely the same thing. We cannot continue to produce socially useful Others on whom we can push the undesired consequences of other activities. I believe the peer-to-peer’s greatest promise is that through the dense overlapping interpenetrated web of connections we will come to recognize that we are all that Other -- tat tvam asi.