Changing the world together – Dirk Holemans’ postface to Bauwens’ Sauver le Monde

I recently posted a translation of Bernard Stiegler’s Preface to Michel Bauwens and Jean Lievens’ book Sauver le Monde or Saving the World: Towards a post-capitialist society with peer-to-peer. In the book Michel, with his collaborator Jean Lievens, argues that a new distributed and de-centralised economic model is necessary to shake up the world and  drive us towards a post-capitalist society.

I have read a bit of the book now, which I hope will make it into English translation, in which Bauwens and Lievens conduct a wide-ranging, almost breathless, conversation about the promise of peer-to-peer for constructing a post-capitalist society. Interestingly, there is also a postface by Dirk Holemans, who is a coordinator of the independent Belgian think tank or ‘ideas lab’ Oikos, which I feel offers a nice overview and fulsome recommendation of the book.

I offer here a translation, which I have made available to the authors and publishers – it may need finessing but I think its a pretty good attempt…

Changing the world together

Dirk Holemans — Coordinator of the independent think tank Oikos

Society faces an unprecedented challenge: the 20th century model of production and consumption has been utterly spent. It is no longer possible, on our vulnerable planet, to continue to commercialise and market everything, and, in the process, to exhaust our energy supplies and primary resources. Furthermore, the fact that the global economy is controlled by 150 multinational corporations, which have no care for social equality, runs counter to the ideal of a highly-skilled society where citizens wish to collectively take control of the future.

In this sense we urgently need formidable thinkers who are able to both keenly analyse the current state of affairs and to develop concepts and resources that facilitate the collective construction of a different world. In this book Michel Bauwens vigorously fulfils this task. In the context of the contemporary system of capitalism, which is set within a longer historical evolution, he describes the enormous possibilities of the new peer to peer system. His argument, which is, in turn, provocative and stimulating, is that the way people relate to one another in horizontal networks facilitates a form of self-organisation, without authority, in the creation of common value that is more productive than can be achieved by private companies or official organisations. A good example is Wikipedia, the product of the efforts of millions of citizens across the world that has rendered privately edited encyclopedias redundant.

Michel Bauwens sees a great potential for emancipation in civil society. Indeed, opportunities for collaboration in horizontal networks are more important than ever before thanks to new information and communication technologies.  Nevertheless, this cyber-philosopher is not naive: the future will emerge from social struggle and social power relations. Accordingly, Facebook allows people to communicate but also appropriates the use value they create as users, thereby capturing exchange value—in other words: profit. Bauwens poses questions that thus will remain relevant: “Why not create, as a society, a digital cooperative to develop an alternative to Facebook?”, or: “Why not consider social media a form of public service?” He does not share the postmodern vision of knowledge workers guaranteeing themselves a career by virtue of their talent and their laptops. Even if a flexible career is aligned with peer production, such a society can only be stable with a guaranteed basic income.

Bauwens challenges the reader by asserting that peer-to-peer is not simply a new mode of production but in fact heralds a revolution in productivity that will change society at every level. This new model of value through cooperative individualism is focused on openness, sharing and collaboration. This vision of a post-capitalist future enables the prospect of a movement away from a model where the market price dominates, as is the case today, towards a model where sharing in-common has more weight. While we are currently working in organisations that operate in a system based on competition, this is a vision of a system in which collaboration is the dominant logic and where, in this context, competition is based on merit.

Bauwens offers us a provocative conceptual framework that outlines the process of transformation towards a post-capitalist system of values and practices, and ultimately to a new socio-economic system. This designates a key role for “social associations for solidarity” which develop and manage the commons, common goods, and which work with existing cooperatives. Such value systems do not simply fall from the sky, rather they emerge from new, concrete, practices. In effect, the internet renders our world open and horizontal, and allows users to autonomously organise themselves. Non-hierarchical collaboration, which was only previously possible at a small scale, can now extend to a global scale through networks and this has many ramifications. Thus, building a commons amongst P2P networks creates a form of socialisation via positive experiences that influence how we think and feel. This can lead to self-perpetuating beneficial cycles: by sharing more and more things (such as carpools) and buying, and therefore owning, fewer products such activities will become increasingly normal, we will do it more regularly and we will enjoy it.

In short, for Bauwens, the concept of peer-to-peer encompasses much more than technologies and the opportunities they create. In his eyes, it is infused with political substance: we can use it as lever for human emancipation by developing and testing new practices, such as forms of public-commons partnerships to replace current public-private partnerships. This opens up unprecedented possibilities for citizens to variously and collectively participate in projects in which they can individually work towards a sustainable future. However, we must seize the opportunities that now present themselves. A clear understanding of what is at stake presents a straightforward choice: Either we resign ourselves to the appropriation of peer-to-peer networks by the dominant capitalist system (as the total control of everything we do through our digital footprints [“shadows” in the original French: ombre numérique]), or we seize control of the direction of these networks for ourselves.

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