While I share the enthusiasm of many with experience of working in self-selected and self-managed groups so typical of Free Software, once we look at the broader picture, and once we add the historical and materialist analytical approaches, a different view emerges. Enthusiasm remains, but its structural location and scope significantly shift. Instead of the total dominance of the paradigm, as some p2p theorists see it, its possible uses and limitations place p2p inside broader, plausible and historically grounded social changes.
Wikipedia and Free Software are two of the most widely used examples. Their main sources of core staff and infrastructure funding are voluntary contributions and salaries provided by non p2p organization: capitalist, state, NGO organizations, or families whose earning again originate outside of p2p. Even if voluntary contributions represent a significant part of covering the infrastructure and core staff, the minimal necessary overall cost emerges only when we account for the reproductive labour and resources and spare time of all the contributing volunteers. With total labour contribution accounted for, direct monetary contributions to Wikipedia and Free Software turns out to be such a tiny part of the overall cost of those productions that, due to its dependence on non p2p, it is hardly worth mentioning as an argument for the feasibility of p2p.
In other words, p2p entirely depends on those economic activities that pay for the housing, clothes, food and other living costs of all contributors (wages, studentships, parents’ funds, inheritances … all earned or created in capitalist or other existing systems based on commodities, exchange, labour, money, value) and those activities determine the overall mode of production.
P2p is an incredibly thin, though important, way of producing voluntarily and collectively that ought be researched. However, due to its binding with and dependence on the existing capitalist and state mode of production, it seems entirely inappropriate to call p2p a ‘mode of production’.
To put in simple terms (without entering economics or marxist terminology): on its own, p2p can not build, maintain and develop a city, nor can it organize the division of labour and allocation of overall produced wealth necessary for such achievements. While slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism all could/can.
It is not a surprise that p2p theorists have not been able so far to produce a plausible vision of how a p2p society might perhaps one day deliver the cities, etc that other modes of production delivered so far, and that we wish to improve on. Producing such visions is a task too difficult for anyone or any group of humans – this is one important thing to learn from social sciences (equally from Marx, or Keynes, or neoclassical economics and political theorists): there are too many complexities involved to create such visions in theory. Only through practice can any such ambitious goals be envisioned theoretically.
Hence the need to stick with analysing existing p2p practices, and to recognize material conditions in which those practices exist – the above-mentioned total dependence on other dominant modes of production being the starting point.
Yes, you may rightly say, new starts its existence in the old. You may also say that there are new phenomena which are able to boot-strap themselves out of the old and create a new totality on their own. The problem is, nothing so far points in the direction of p2p being such a new phenomenon able to become an overall logic of organizing the entire society (mode of production, if you wish) – I’m speaking here as a p2p fan and as a former and occasional p2p practitioner who would gladly assess any evidence to the contrary.
Any social phenomenon that is loaded with claims of being a new mode of production, or being beyond ‘left’ and ‘capitalist’ ideologies has to demonstrate its claims in the core theoretical fields where those analytical and ideological battles are fought: political economy, economics and politics.
If a social phenomenon makes claims on improving on emancipatory and egalitarian advances in society, it has to demonstrate the plausibility of those claims in direct comparison with the centuries of egalitarian battles organized and executed through mass political movements and ideas firmly based in the above-mentioned core theoretical fields. When entering those fields, as eclectic as it is, the p2p Foundation seems to me by far the best place to draw the inspiration from, for the analytical work that ought to be done to give p2p phenomena a chance to be evaluated according to the criteria it deserves.
Toni Prug is a PhD candidate at the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary, University of London