A few weeks ago, we met Michel Bauwens, co-founder and president of the P2P Foundation, to speak about the release of their book, Peer to Peer: a commons manifesto. We took the opportunity to discuss about blockchain, commons, DAOs and Aragon...
You can watch the interview here.
Let’s talk about your last book!
The book is a kind of a synthesis of ten years of research; so basically we believe that social change has to be prefigurative. We should look at the seed forms of people that are trying to bring solutions to the systemic crises of our society. By definition, those solutions cannot be the same order and logic than the system that has created the problems; so we looked very carefully for a number of years at open source communities, how they were functioning, their licenses, their governance methods and their collaboration methods. Then we looked at commons and people who take into their own hands to produce renewable electricity, renewable energy, organic food or shared habitat. Basically there's a kind of a common core, a common organizational logic; the value is created in contributory communities. People are collectively contributing to commons which can be open source software, open design, but can also be a cooperative. So what I'm doing is blowing up the system to say: this is how society could look like and actually will look like because this is new logic in which civil society becomes productive. Every citizen creates value because he's engaged in the common good and the creation of actual commons. The market should serve civil society and its commons. And the state form in the common good institutions that deal with everyone on a given territory, should basically have the goal to stimulate the autonomy of individuals and groups so that they can be autonomous in finding solutions. This is what I call a part of State. The goal of the book is to know what are the relations between the open-source communities, the entrepreneurial coalition's and therefore benefit associations and what kind of society we can imagine if that was becoming the norm.
What about blockchain in your research?
Actually, blockchain is not very present in the book but we have another publication called P2P accounting for planetary survival, which deals exclusively with blockchain. It is a summary of past researchs but it also reports how we look at the future and specifically at associate technological infrastructures. I'm not an unreserved blockchain fan. If you like I can explain why. There are four different structures that are being built today and that have fundamentally different ideas about how the world should look like. So the first one: imagine you have an X and Y axis, centralized versus decentralized, for profit versus for benefit . If you marry for profit with centralized, you get Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb... In other words, P2P is at the periphery, at the front but everything inside is centralized: you don't own your data, your attention is sold to advertisers, you have no autonomy; if you look at philosophy, it's the world of Hobbes. It's about surveillance and control. The other one is for profit but distributed and that's the model that the blockchain represents. But there are a lot of economic and political hypotheses that are behind the blockchain that I don't necessarily agree with. For example, if you look at blockchain systems, they almost exclusively use corporate competitive game theory, but in terms of incentives. So the belief is that we're all individuals and that we basically are market players and we do smart contracts and the algorithms will verify the smart contracts. There's very little in the blockchain about community, about society, about nature, about ecology. So one of the things that I do in my report is to say that the blockchain is very interesting because it's ecosystemic, it's about ecosystems aligning multi-stakeholders, it's open source. So there's some good things about it and what it allows to do is what we really need today; which is common accounting, ecosystemic common accounting. Yes, we are individuals but we also belong to groups, so why not have also Ostrom contracts? Most cryptocurrencies are commodity currencies supplying the man, they don't give you information about the impact you're having on nature, on people, so we could have mutual credit currencies and we could have asset-backed currencies which give you information about the world directly. This is what I thing about blockchain. I think we need distributed ledger. I'm not entirely sure that the form is the best one. Now this being said, historically it's not always the best of known technology that wins out; for example, I'm more in favor of Holochain. But Holochain is very marginal at the moment compared to Ethereum. Similarly, when you look at video formats, we had Betamax and VHS. VHS just wasn't the best one but it did porn and became the standard, whereas Betamax refused to do it and disappeared. Blockchain might very well be the standard for the future, that remains to be seen, but I would like to tweak and transform it so that it recognizes social and environmental externalities, which is not really doing well for the moment. Most blockchain projects don't really look at the outside.
What about DAOs?
I think this is a very interesting development. In complex societies, we want to automate some of the things that we do. My question is what do people in the blockchain call governance? Very often it's only individual incentives, so they think of governance as coordinating a mass of individuals. I would like to see DAOs as a place where human is recognized, so we actually can make collective decisions in the sense of a community. These are our values. We have social charter in our community. This is not purely individual market players as a value community. So I don't know if Aragon does that or Pando, but that's what I would like to see. I've seen this happening at some point: when you under theorized governance there is a real conflict, there is no solution and then you have to go back to authoritarianism. Think about The DAO theft. There was no way to discuss it, the only way to actually stop it was one person saying: we'll just just bring back the clock to before the theft and that will be right. So that's often missing in blockchain projects, thinking about how do we make decisions together, not just incentives for individuals. Recognizing that there is a community and there is a society.
Economic theories and blockchain ?
If you look at the original sociology of blockchain, it is computer engineers discovering economics. But the kind of economics they discover is Austrian economics. That's just one school of economics. There's a lack of knowledge, there is actually a lot of pluralistic interpretations in the economics that have very different point of view and results. I keep a list on the P2P Foundation of blockchain projects that we are interested in, because they have these other values and also embedded. I think we need more pluralism in the blockchain community, so people can tweak some of the designs to do different things and different values.
Which relations between P2P Foundation and Bitcoin?
I'm not sure why Satoshi chose a P2P foundation but he might have thought that peer-to-peer was this kind of technological principle. In fact, what we say in the P2P Foundation is that, by analogy of the technological peer-to-peer systems, we want social systems. So, if you have a system of where all the computers are independent of each other, then the people using your computers can also start building social relationships based on autonomy. That’s the idea and I'm not sure that Satoshi fully understood where he was going. My point of view on Bitcoin from the very beginning was very similar to blockchain: it's something we need and so I consider Bitcoin as the first socialist sovereign currency that scales. I think it was very interesting to have a proof that we can have scalable cryptocurrencies. My critique is the same as on blockchain; Bitcoin is designed in the same way. So my thesis is very simple: any competitive system that deal with scarce resources tends to oligarchy. It's an iron rule: you take land in feudalism, you take capital in capitalism, you take knowledge in knowledge companies, the same thing tends to happen. You're playing Monopoly, everyone starts with the same money but every round somebody has been more lucky than you or more clever than you. So the second iteration, there's somebody stronger than you and so what you get in the monopoly game is that, at the end, you have one player. Historically, that's what happened with any competitive system. It's not an accident. We've already seen that bitcoin is more unequal than any sovereign currency. So, I have a mitigated feeling about Bitcoin. But I think historically it's absolutely important because, it's the first one that gives the possibility to create many other cryptocurrencies that can be programmed differently. I still think this is historically a real pilot for creating these translocal, transnational structures. I think that we have a system of nation-states with territorial nations. I don’t think they’re gonna disappear anytime soon. The challenge for the future is how it is going to work together or create conflicts. But I think, as a more progressive person, we have capital state nation and the problem is that we cannot no longer change the system through the nation-state because capital is transnational. We have to create generative ethical alternatives that can operate translocally, transnationally and build social power that can play at the same level as transnational capital.
Nation states: friends or enemies?
I'm not an anarchist. The libertarian right and the collectivist anarchist on the left, they believe society is simply based on agreements between either individuals or groups. Left anarchists will tend to say we want a society with autonomous communities who can make agreements with each other. White-winged anarchists will say we want a society where individuals can make agreements with each other. I don't believe this is the case. I think we are always born in systems already. In other words, there's a field in which we operate and that determines our degree of freedom or non freedom. I also think it's unavoidable. If you're optimistic, you will assume the state is oppressive, because it maintains people that have struggled over many centuries. So the state also represents that compromise. You have civic rights, you have redistribution systems that help the poor, so there's a lot of things that the state does. If you don't have the state, it doesn't mean everybody would be equal. We have to move from the market state paradigm to a common state. I think we need common good institution now as long as we live in territories. We have to transform the state so that it works for us. We have capitalism because we have capitalists and 500 years of merchants and industrialists shaping the world to their image. If you want to move to another type of society, you have to shape both state and market, so that it works for you.
What about Pando ?
I think it's very interesting what Pando and Aragon are trying to do, which is giving design freedom for governance, so that you can, on top of Ethereum, create governance mechanisms that are freely chosen and collectively decided. So here's my vision of this: in traditional modern industrial systems, you can only work if you get a job and then you're subordinate to a hierarchy. What we've done in the last 15 / 20 years to the network is creating open contributive permissionless systems. Unfortunately, it didn't eliminate the hierarchy. What the maintainer does is not tell you what to do but he can say no and he can defend the integrity of the ecosystem. Personally, I think in open-source software it has worked pretty well. Think about Wikipedia. When Wikipedia shifted from a vision of abundance where everybody could write on any subject to a vision of what they call notoriety, they created artificial scarcity and the maintainers recovered the power. So writing for Wikipedia has become a very political thing because if you want something divergent, you have to mobilize support to be able to withstand the pressure of the editors. I think protecting the integrity of an ecosystem is vital.
There's a new book by James Scott which is about immersion of the state in the grain growing region of Mesopotamia: Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. This is a really good book to understand the same dynamic of barbarians versus the state. Just an example: the reason that the Germanic tribes won against Rome is that they freed the slaves so when they arrived in front of a Roman city, they would tell the slaves if you leave the city or fight or join us you'll be free. So you know this barbarian Empire dynamic is very interesting but I think the problem today is we're so embedded in these complex state systems, you can study hard to be a barbarian, there's no place to be a barbarian. Maybe we can create virtual places...