Review of “Peer to Peer: The Commons Manifesto” of Michel Bauwens

In an unprecedented way Michel Bauwens hijacks the commons. While the commons practiced deliberative and participative democracy in the high middle ages, that weakened from the 16th century, we do not find any defense of alternatives for our faltering representative democracy in “Peer to Peer: The Commons Manifesto” of Michel Bauwens. No mentioning of the most recent experiments in deliberative democracy defended by David Van Reybroeck, applied in Ireland and Iceland. The “citizens’ assemblies” as proposed by Marcin Gerwin and adhered by Extinction Rebellion or “Red de Democratie” of Manu Claeys for the moderates do not figure in his picture of the future. P2P dominates his discourse.

One thing that strikes you when you start reading, is vagueness. Expressions as: “philosophers like Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas”, “approach is related to the theorization of ‘revolutionary reforms’ by Andre Gorz”, “The State (capitalized) in the Hegelian notion is the guarantor of the common good”… He also refers to some authors that excel in vagueness themselves: David Boillier, De Angelis, Hardt and Negri and Hegel of course, the philosopher of absolute idealism.

The wide spectrum of authors referenced surprises. Bauwens worked as a cybrarian, this might explain it, but there are to many extremes. Maybe the author wants to hook on as many readers as possible, a kind of eclectic universalism. Mentioning does not necessarily mean he backs the many points of view he presents, though it is suggested and for all he is not clear about it. Karl Marx for the leftist (who didn’t read him), the Dominicans Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas for the Christian community, David Graeber for the anarchists, Schumpeter for the libertarians, Jeremy Rifkin for the utopians…

When Michel Bauwens refers to valuable research he mistreats the work of the researchers, cherry picking and stretching the meaning of concepts until they become meaningless.

He summarizes his entire program in four axioms:

“1. P2P is a type of social relations in human networks, where participants have maximum freedom to connect.

2. P2P is also a technological infrastructure that makes the generalization and scaling up of such relations possible.

3. P2P thus enables a new mode of production and property.

4. P2P creates the potential for a transition to an economy that can be generative towards people and nature.” (Michel Bauwens et al., 2019, p. 1)

In the first two axioms he puts the world upside down. In what sociological, psychological or communication theory is P2P a type of “social relations” in human networks? Only in Bauwen’s brand new theory, there is no other one. P2P is just an internet protocol that can be used to exchange files and data, like email is a protocol to exchange messages, computer mediated communication. Using the P2P protocol to exchange files you do not need to have any relation with nobody, just pick a file out of the computer generated list and you have it. That is the depersonalisation effect all kind of computer mediated communication has.

In point 2. he claims that P2P is also a technological infrastructure. It is not. Without internet there would not be P2P, Internet is the technological infrastructure that makes P2P possible. So we have two points with no meaning in the real world. Since point 3. and 4. are deducted from 1. and 2. The whole theory is pointless. It is not only pointless it also useless. The far most important argument which makes the “P2P turned into commons” exercise completely irrelevant is the need for f2f communication when building commons. Bauwens claims to rely on Ostroms theory of common pool resources and collective action, he just stretches it a little by making it open access. But talking about the empirical base of collective action Ostrom says:

“A behavioral commitment to theory grounded in empirically inquiry is essential to understand such basic questions as why face-to-face communication so consistently enhances cooperation in social dilemmas or how structural variables facilitate or impede effective collective action” (Elinor Ostrom, 1998, p.1)


“Yet, consistent, strong, and replicable findings are achieved when individuals are allowed to communicate face to face.” (Id. p. 6)

So computer mediated communication does not support building commons, only f2f communication. You can not build trust by computer mediated communiction, because you can not solve ambiguity without f2f communication (Daniël Verhoeven, 2006).

Formal model for rational choice theory of collective action, proposed by Elinor Ostrom (Elinor Ostrom, 1998, p. 15),.Copyright American Political Science Review, Copy for educational purposes only.

Confronted with this anomaly he refers “gnostisch/manicheaans” worldview (translation from Dutch: Gnosticism / Manichaeism) . Some kind of religion.


In his book he explains the relations in cyberspace with “stigmergy”, a speculative experimental concept based on the behaviour of ants. Empirical proof, zero.

“CBPP is often based on stigmergic collaboration. In its most generic formulation, stigmergy is the phenomenon of indirect communication among agents and actions (Marsh and Onof, 2007, 1). Think how the ants or the termites exchange information by laying down pheromones (traces). Through this indirect form of communication, these social insects manage to build complex structures such as trails and nests. An action leaves a trace that stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent (ant, termite or commoner in the case of CBPP).” (p. 12)

Nevertheless, Bauwens promises are huge: a new mode of production and property, and a solution for climate crisis and the regeneration of our ecological systems. The global commons and the digital commons united. It would be nice, but it is not going to work that way. Climate change problems will not be solved just by using P2P. The computer networks that service Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, but also Bitcoins, Uber, Airbnb and alike, the so-called clouds run fairly well on the ground and they consume huge tons of energy for cooling. Do we really need more of them?

The always returning examples of internet production are: the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, open-source software projects (p. 1) and Wikileaks (p. 4). The Wikipedia is a community of volunteers producing a nice peace of work, but it is not based on p2p but on a web platform. Open source software developed using the Github platform, idem. Painful was, that the work of volunteers at Github was incorporated in Android by Google, making it commercial software. Wikileaks a serving hatch for investigative journalism was very useful in uncovering all kind of scandals, but in the end it was manipulated by the Russians and Julian Assange himself. Investigative journalists have organised better meanwhile, staying independent and nevertheless still uncovering tax evasion and alike without Wikileaks. So that’s it. Mainly volunteer work, valuable, but not a production system that can replace the existing one.

Michel Bauwens relates half truths and whole lies. Another fraud you find on page 3 and 4:

“The fast-growing availability of information and communication technology enables many-to-many communication and allows an increasing number of humans to communicate in ways that were not technically possible before. This, in turn, makes possible massive self-organization up to a global scale. It also allows for the creation of a new mode of production and new types of social relations outside of the state-market nexus.” (p. 3-4)

It is true that internet allows many-to-many communication, but not by P2P which is not a many-to-many protocol, but applications like mailing lists are. The self-organising possibilities using internet are largely overestimated. On the other hand the propaganda possibilities of the powers that be have been seriously underestimated. The Internet played only a minor role in the Egyptian occupation of Tahrir Square that after all ended in disorganisation (Zeynep Tufekci, 2012). Political leaders have learned to use internet with voter profiling, and microtargeting.

“Digital platforms allowed communities to gather and form in new ways, but they also dispersed existing communities, those that had watched the same TV news and read the same newspapers. Even living on the same street meant less when information was disseminated through algorithms designed to maximize revenue by keeping people glued to screens. It was a shift from a public, collective politics to a more private, scattered one, with political actors collecting more and more personal data to figure out how to push just the right buttons, person by person and out of sight.” (Zeynep Tufekci, 2018)

Trust on internet has given birth to a model of activism that uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into “clicktivism”. Gone is faith in the power of ideas, the power of goal directed action, or the belief in civil disobedience, to enact social change. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone. The school strike of the Belgian students started on the school yard, not on Facebook.

Another matter is the digital divide. In an analysis of the use of digital media during a debate over collective bargaining among public sector employees in North Carolina, it is shown that the workers and trade unions are less internet savvy than their opponents who have also a larger budget to spread and promote their ideas, which caused the trade unions to loose the fight (Jen Schradie, 2018).

Bauwens refers to a book of Mariana Mazzucato (p. 14) “The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy”. In that book she explodes the myth that wealth is created solely by a select few trailblazing entrepreneurs. Bauwens reduces it to a discussion about value – he likes this kind of abstract debates that lead nowhere – while Mazzucato’s viewpoint is based on empirical research that you can find in earlier work namely “The Entrepreneurial State” (2011).

Michel Bauwens links Karl Marx to Shumpeter (p. 17), in fact he uses Marx to promote Schumacher’s idea of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship that ends in auto-exploitation. See for instance the analysis of Dardot and Laval in “The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society”. They describe how the subjects of neo-liberalism turn into:

“…‘enterprising subjects’ who in turn will reproduce, expand and reinforce competitive relations between themselves. In accordance with the logic of the self-fulfilling prophecy, this requires them to adapt subjectively to ever harsher conditions which they have themselves created.”(Pierre Dardot & Christian Laval, 2017, par. 795)

Flexibility is the buzzword that conquered the public discourse in the eighties. Capitalists wanted to get rid of the acquired rights workers had won after the second world war. Protection against random dismissal, severance pay, limitation of night-shifts to the needed and for all collective bargaining and the right to strike had to be abolished. Social security had to be reduced to the bottom. Solidarity had to be broken. Neoliberal rationality encourages the ego to strengthen itself, because from now on you stand alone, no comrades that come to help when mistreated, nor trade union that defends your rights.

“He must constantly strive to be as efficient as possible, to appear to be totally involved in his work, to perfect himself by lifelong learning, and to accept the greater flexibility required by the incessant changes dictated by markets. His own expert, his own employer, his own inventor, his own entrepreneur: neoliberal rationality encourages the ego to act to strengthen itself so as to survive competition.” (Pierre Dardot & Christian Laval, 2017, par. 799).

These entrepreneurs have nothing in common with the commoners. After all it was an economy of entrepreneurs, the liberal bourgeoisie, the physiocrats wanting to turn common land into a high profitable exploitation during the 18th and 19th century, that repulsed the agriculture practised by the commoners. The entrepreneurs promoted by neo-liberalism really go to the bottom. They intrude every aspect of social life by attacking and appropriating also the sphere of private life. In their view everybody must consider himself as an enterprise. Even the beggar – for some gangs begging is an enterprise. Enterprises have to compete with one another. Instead of the ethics of the homo cooperans, the ethics of “dog eat dog” take over. Their device is: “If you do not eat the other one, the other one will eat you.” The ethics of making a permanent war of competition.

“The ethics of the enterprise is more bellicose in kind; it extols combat, force, vigor, success. Thus, it makes work the privileged vehicle of self-realization: it is by succeeding professionally that one makes a “success” of one’s life.” (Pierre Dardot & Christian Laval, 2017, par. 805).

The reason why this ends in auto-exploitation is quite obvious, the strings in economy are still pulled by the financial world and the top 147 networked corporates (Vitalia Stefani et al., 2011) and their lackeys, the top 20%, that skim all the profits one can make with small business. This corporate network also plunders the governments when things go wrong like in the financial crisis. Though the big firms barely pay taxes, they are profiteering government investments the most of all when implementing research paid by the state. See the research of Mariana Mazzucato (Mariana Mazzucato, 2011).

When Bauwens refers to Tine De Moor one of the most important researchers on the commons, he picks out some paragraphs she wrote about guilds, guilds are not commons by the way. The essay is about the emergence of commons in the 13th century and De Moor detects some analogy with the commons. This is what Bauwens turns it into:

“A historical analogy may be useful here. In her essay on the emergence of guilds in the twelfth century, ‘The Silent Revolution’ (2008), Tine De Moor describes how the guilds organized labour solidarity, while recognizing, and being recognized by, the existing power structure.” (p. 53)

Guilds had nothing to do with the commons. They were cartel like organisations ensuring a sustainable income using a policy of price agreements. Members were selected severely to limit the offer on the market to keep the prices high. It even was not about maintaining quality, empirical research has shown (Sheilagh Ogilvie, 2004). Some guilds installed regional monopolies, under the protection of the Lords (Daniel Curtis, 2014, p. 78). Medieval charters and patents protecting craft and trade granted by the Catholic Church installed even monopolies all over Europe. The family Thurn und Taxis was a key player in postal services in Europe during the 16th century, until the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, granted the privilege to distribute all post of the Catholic Church. The family is now one of the wealthiest in Germany but it was never involved in building the German industry. The family owns breweries, castles and is one of the biggest landowners of Germany. On the other side, not all guilds were that strong. Members of the weaker guilds in Flanders, workers in the pre-industrial proto-industry, weavers, spinners, dyers… for instance joined the proletariat in the factories after the abolishment of the guilds in France in 1791. Merchant guilds in Flanders did not succeed to dominate the markets (Daniel Curtis, 2014, p. 48-49), so there was not really an accumulation of capital to invest in industry. After the French Revolution the guilds gradually fell in most European nations over the course of the 19th century, as the guild system was disbanded and replaced by laws that promoted free trade.

In the following sentence Bauwens offers a simplistic view on capitalism when stating:

“At some point, the merchant guilds would evolve to become the new capitalist class that would finally take power in a new configuration.” (p. 53)

Some merchants might have played a role in the industrialisation process, but in England, the first capitalist country in Europe, the starting capital was collected by plundering the colonies and expropriating common land (Karl Marx, 1867, chapters 27-28). Another example of cherry picking, Bauwens likes to quote Karl Marx, but not when it is applicable. Marx witnessed the abolition of the commons in England, researched parliamentary documents about it, heard the still fresh stories about the precarity of commoners, thus a valuable witness, why leaving it out? Because it does not fit in the program of deceit? Renting landowners delivered also starting capital for industrialisation. This was more the on the continent in countries like Belgium, not having colonies to exploit yet. Marx didn’t see the whole picture, the socialist Emile Vandervelde did (Eric Vanhaute, 2001, p. 22-27).

Bauwens adapts Marx theory of relative surplus value to his own needs (p. 47) without any empirical backing nor accounting. Michel Bauwens shifts with the meaning of terms and changes their meanings to fit in his theory until you loose it. So he turns peer to peer systems into commons, naming them “commons based peer production” and with another magic trick he makes them open access. But as to De Moor:

“Commons are however different from open-access-goods, also called res nullius or nobody’s property, which stand for territories of which no property rights have been recognised.” (Tine De Moor, 2004, p. 6)

Bauwens compares P2P with common pool resources:

“For example, a type of commons may include the gifts of nature, such as the water and land, but also shared assets or creative work such as cultural and knowledge artifacts. Our focus here is on the digital commons of knowledge, software, and design because they are the ‘new commons’ (Benkler, 2014). These commons represent the pooling of productive knowledge that is an integral part of the capacity for any production, including physical goods.” (p.3)

Since he claimed on the preceding page: “The P2P system is, therefore, generally open to all contributors and contributions”, it is suggested that knowledge and information are open access also. Being available though P2P doesn’t mean they do not have production costs. So I agree when information and knowledge are produced with public funds, it should be available to every citizen completely free. It is public domain then. The Creative Commons community has rules of its own, and when they are respected their knowledge and information can be distributed freely also. But knowledge and information acquired with private funds should only be available to the academic community, since science can not progress without openness, but say it should be available completely free to everyone is tricky. When it is in the general interest it should but on the other hand you can not oblige a firm to give access to trade secrets.

But the coronation of all this juggling with terms and meanings is a neologism, “transvestment”, a term he will use all over the book again and again like a mantra.

“Eventually, we may arrive at a position where the balance of power is reversed: the commons and its social forces become the dominant modality in society, which allows them to force the state and market modalities to adapt to its requirements. So we should escape the situation in which capitalists co-opt the commons, and head towards a situation in which the commons capture the capital, and make it work for its development.

This proposed strategy of reverse co-optation has been called ‘transvestment’ by Dmytri Kleiner and Baruch Gottlieb (Kleiner, 2010; 2016). Transvestment describes the transfer of value from one modality to another. In our case, this would be from capitalism to the commons.” (p. 7)

He concludes with it:

“The first step is to fight against the extractive activities of profit-maximizing entities directed at the commons and its allied economic entities. Commoners should use transvestment strategies that would transfer value from the capitalist market modality to the commons modality.” (p. 67-68)

This is bizar. When first mentioned, ‘transvestment’ is a consequence of a reversed power balance. At the end of its book it looks like ‘transvestment’ strategies’ are to be used from the start. How? It is never mentioned. Why? Because it is a fata morgana. I advise Michel Bauwens and his co-authors to reread Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”. It is a book that describes the capitalistic system. The capitalistic system is based on the private property of the means of production as to Marx. The book states that use value is turned into exchange value, thus alienating the workers (verdinglichung in German), and that capitalists appropriate the surplus value from the production labour of these workers in order to exploit them. They can do this only once the surplus value is realised in the market, by selling the produced goods. How is a p2p system going to incorporate that capitalistic system, based on private property, labour and market exchange, by exchanging things that are nobody’s property, like knowledge and information, in his view, though that also are appropriated and commercialised by no producers in my view?

The reason why raising hope for “transvestment” is such a fallacy is because of the alarming underinvestment in measures to stop the global warming. The global bond market of 100 trillion dollar contains less then 1% investment in green bonds (OECD, 2019, p.2). Two of the five largest economies, the US and Brazil stepped out the Paris Agreement. Oil Industry is planning investments approaching $1 trillion by 2030, in everything from finding and tapping new fields to equipment ranging from drones to drilling rigs (Bloomberg Businessweek, 02/05/2019).

Early P2P applications were basically exchange system without interference of a third party. To reach his final destination Bauwens uses a stripped down definition of the commons handed over by David Bollier:

“We adhere to David Bollier’s (2014a) characterization of the commons as a shared resource, co-governed by its user community according to the rules and norms of that community.” (p. 3)

There are rules in the definition, but who is going to enforce these rules? In the commons practice there is monitoring and arbitrage. In Ostroms design principles point 4 and 5. Where are the conflict resolution mechanisms in common based peer production? There are not there. Giovanni Baldelli suggested that:

“No person in his relationship with another should be exempt from judgement by a third. This is not to say that every two persons have to give regular accounts to or be spied by a third but that a third should be approachable for protection and redress if a person is abused or wants to terminate a relationship.” (Giovanni Baldelli, 1971, p. 87).

There were two evolutions in peer to peer systems, both introduced a third party. Uber, Airbnb and alike are typical exploitation systems. Maybe the well settled hipster in New-York is happy he can easily and fast find a taxi, the drivers are members of a new precarity class, auto-exploiting themselves and Uber hopes to make profit one day… if not they’ll go broke. Ecce Schumpeters “creative destruction”. The effect of Airbnb is catastrophic for the average families in the large tourist towns. Real Estate prices rise above the average budgets. The second evolution is more positive. P2P exchange systems are structured, insurance and arbitrage is added on lending. But, well then it is no longer P2P. These systems are web based. See for instance Peerby. The need of a third party for conflict resolution and arbitrage as proposed by Giovanni Baldelli was the basis for the law theory of Thom Holterman.

Meanwhile there is another evolution with a p2p protocol, “activitypup”, which is used to build a distributed social network, Fediverse. Mostadon is one of the applications, and the autonomous nodes are moderated locally. So there is conflict resolution. Building an exchange system on top of activitypup could work, but only locally. Ostrom’s polycentral governance is practised in the Fediverse.

Sharing systems and exchange systems are not new at all. They were there before internet. See for instance the bike sharing project “Wittefietsenplan” in Amsterdam launced in 1965. Also exchange and sharing was a common practice in the neighbourhoods of worker families in the fifties, sixties and seventies. One might wonder if digitalising communication makes it better. Before internet, sharing was an informal practice, monitored by the neighbourhood community. Using digital communication, technically instrumental, favours instrumental relations (Sherry Turkle, 2011), . Without monitoring, it makes free riding easy as a peace of cake.


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Bauwens, M., Kostakis, V. and Pazaitis, A. (2019).Peer to Peer: The Commons Manifesto London: University of Westminster Press. DOI: License: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

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  1. Hans · July 30, 2019

    SOo what spicific protocol do you reference when you say P2P?


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