Peer-to-peer-commons - The historical ‘third movement’ of radical science? It can only get better

Updated: Dec 10, 2018


When I first read Gary Werskey’s 2007 ‘three movements’ article - four years ago - I was sceptical. He discussed two British movements of radicals around science, in the 30s-40s and the 70s-80s, and speculated on the possibility of a third (which might possibly have an environmental impetus). I was particularly unconvinced about the possibility of a Marxist movement, like the other two. But now, in 2018, I do have the sense that, yes, the peer-to-peer commons movement may be the thing that is in fact standing in that place. It would be worthwhile, at least, to proceed on the basis that it is - with substantial (if, for activists, secondary) implications for the field of science and technology studies (STS). I’m in no doubt that P2P-commons is the biggest thing I’ve seen in my activist lifetime . . and that it mobilises the stuff I’ve been cultivating these past 50 years, as a libertarian socialist with an orientation to the politics of knowledges and technologies.

It would be worth proceeding on the basis that P2P-commons is ‘the third radical science movement’

Lucy Gao and I have just finished a project to research and build a presentation at 4S Sydney 2018, the annual gathering of the academic research field of STS. The theme of the conference session - Lives in STS as a series of failed political experiments - was generated from a comment that Gary had made, and Lucy and I took his ‘three movements’ as a frame for narrating two stories of experimenting and ¿failing? in two ‘lives in STS’ - hers of ten years and mine of forty-five. The conference presentation is posted in Youtube (mirrored at hooktube) and a bundle of related materials on radical science and radical professionalism - including a one-page outline of the two stories and a transcript of several hours’ interviews - has now been posted here in 3 History, at Lives in STS. For length, a part of that presentation had to be dropped: an analytical framing of . . Fordism/post-Fordism and P2P as a mode of production in waiting . . STS academia and radical science activism, and . . organic-intellectual activism in-and-against the professional-managerial class (PMC). I had thought of making a ‘directors’ cut’ after the conference. However, too much other work waiting. So . . regard this present blog post as the synopsis of the absent footage.


Three things stand out for me about this Lives in STS project, and the place that I got to through working on it with Lucy. Lucy is an Associate Professor in STS, in the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She was born 40 years after I was, and works in an academic field that burst full-formed upon the Chinese cultural world in the late 80s, with its churned and manifestly political (two-movements) history buried beneath a surface of glossy Westernism, managerialism and professionalisation.

‘Radical science’ in the 70s wasn’t essentially about science?

The first thing is my own sense that ‘radical science’ in the 70s wasn’t essentially about science, and that where I have gone to with it isn’t essentially ‘science’ either. I saw, and see, a bunch of cultural formations within a broad and deep generational movement of radical professionals. This has been theorised - among other framings - as a history of the PMC in what once (40 years ago!) was called ‘late capitalism’. In the past generation - I would say, as an aspect of the post-Fordist regrouping of capital and forces opposed to capital - there has been an emergence of a profound and historically new politics, of the producing and mobilising of knowledges, on a mass, globally distributed scale. In the 50s it was ‘Big Science’ and the underpinning of ‘the military-industrial complex’. In the 60s it was the ascendance of ‘science policy’ and arguments about the public or privatisable nature of research production. In the 80s (alongside computerisation) there began to be talk of ‘a knowledge economy’ and in the 90s ‘knowledge intensive business services’ and ‘innovation services’ were subjects of research in ‘national systems of innovation’. In the 90s I was part of this, as an STS researcher (more to be posted in due course).


But all the way through, in my perception, the sub-plot has been one of #organicintellectual production (Gramsci’s term, from Italian Marxism of the 1920s and 30s) and the increasingly clear possibility of - and need for - organising the production of knowledges - on a mass scale, on a class scale - to facilitate quite different modes of production, forms of living and relationships between professionals and other people who are ‘not paid to think’. This on-going story of organic intellectual practice is the concern of the 4 History thread here in FoP RoP. It also is why the analytical frame for the pattern language in the 2 Commoning thread has at its centre the choreography of ’the dance of knowing’, and the question of the historically altered production of #labourpower. In FoP RoP I’m proposing this as one of three spheres of literacy (see here) that can, combined, constitute a cultural-materialist ‘take’ on the historical evolution and ongoing activist production of a P2P-commons mode of production and everyday living.

The movement for P2P-commons may be significantly ‘cultural’ and profoundly ‘materialist’, in ways that might be facilitated and clarified

The second thing I note is that, although I’ve understood myself for 40 years now to be conducting an enquiry within #culturalmaterialism - rather than any kind of received Marxism - the movement for P2P-commons may also be significantly ‘cultural’ and profoundly ‘materialist’, in ways that might be facilitated and clarified by the kind of neo- (not post-) Marxian, carefully hybridised frame that I’m setting out to articulate in FoP RoP, and specifically, in 2 Commoning.


The #materialism within the P2P-commons movement is very obviously present in the core attention given to . . open architectures of apps and the peer-to-peer production of free code . . distributed web infrastructures . . open data, linked data/data ownership/document ownership . . licensing, and to infrastructural technologies of coordination over distributed fields of action including cryptocurrencies and credit-accounting mechanisms, hashchains, open-value supply-chain accounting systems and open-ledger algorithms and architectures.


The cultural-historical orientation is a little less visible. But it’s clearly present for example in the anthropological perspective that led Michel Bauwens to see the historical-evolutionary, post- and anti-capitalist significance of commons, and to inaugurate the P2P Foundation. Likewise it manifestly underlies the scholarly, activist research and development work of Bauwens’ partners in the Commons Strategies Group - David Bollier, Silke Helfrich - on cultural-historical stories of commoning, past and present, presented in their collections of essays The wealth of the commons and Patterns of commoning and under analysis in their work-in-progress towards a pattern language of commoning. See here for notes on the relationship between this and my own pattern-language work here in FoP RoP.

The P2P-commons movement seems to be carrying forward - expanding - the organic intellectual impetus that began to be apparent in the 70s, 'in-and-against the PMC'

The third thing I’m aware of is the way in which the P2P-commons movement seems to be carrying forward - and expanding - the organic intellectual impetus that began to be apparent in ‘the second radical science movement’ of the 70s. That was baby-boomers then. But now - although there are baby-boomers still on the scene - it’s another generation, who are discovering and enacting the organic intellectual mode differently. I began to see them only about 18 months ago. I’d been working on a notion of creating some kind of ‘college’ in which baby-boomer and twenty-something activists (and between) could engage in a cross-generation 'legacy' dialogue, theorising the ongoing practice of organic-intellectual, libertarian-socialist, activism. I sketched the idea in Humble origins 3 - Activists and the long march home. I’d decided the initiative called for an online platform of some kind (constituting a space for an ‘invisible college’) and had begun checking out the Loomio platform-for-deliberation www.loomio.org/. My ears pricked up here because Loomio was not only well-framed software with a wide and expanding voluntary-sector uptake across countries and cultures, but also because I clearly saw the attention to the #facilitation of group process that underlies the design. Here was a clear historical line, back to the discoveries and commitments of my own generation of community-oriented activism in the 70s (See 'radical cultural R&D' in 4 History and the Foreword/Preface to Location).


From Loomio the platform app, through Loomio the workers’ coop of developers, I came to Enspiral, the federation (family?) of post-Occupy activist hacktivist developers and cooperative entrepreneurs, among whom facilitation was a taken-for-granted dimension of activist culture. Thence, to Sensorica and an expanding world of anarcho-hackerist politics, Scuttlebutt infrastructure, a fediverse of code (and P2P producers of code and protocols); and wider formations of post-Occupy, anti-oligarch, direct-democracy research and development, ‘open-value’ value-chain accounting and ’agile’ post-Fordist cultural forms. This had all sorts of odd, contradictory resonances with my business-school experience of the 90s (when stealing the post-Fordist discoveries of Japanese and Italian flexible production systems was bread-and-butter for my colleagues in capitalist supply-chain innovation). Clearly, the histories were getting very mixed up, hybridising, rippling through, wave-fronts interfering. Clearly, there were younger radicals afoot now, in the teensies. who didn’t draw the same sorts of lines - between entrepreneurship and community, or solidarity and efficiency, or activism and technology, or politics and nurturing - that might have been problematic for an earlier generation, brought up in environments that were at once both more corporate, more professionally demarcated and careerist and more inclined to ‘design’ rather than ‘hack’ a solution. Then, it was corporate-competitive ‘right first time’, now it’s fail early, keep fixing and keep forking and federating.

P2P-commons is way bigger than ‘radical science’ was

P2P-commons is way bigger than ‘radical science’ was (damn well oughta be - post-Fordism is far further on, and doing loads of harm). Most directly, it’s a successor to the radical technology arms of that movement, all the way from the alternative energy community, committed to off-grid or anarcho urban-artisan living, to ‘human-centred’ and participatory, labour movement-oriented design movements in corporate-industrial settings, in the 70s/80s/90s. Work on other things is preventing me really getting to grips with the #patternlanguage of commoning in 2 Commoning, which is the central theorising venture of FoP RoP. I’ve been at work on ‘radical science’ history in 4 History, organising within the world of ‘platform cooperativist’ activism in social.coop in 3 Platforming; and convening the reflections of a transnational collective of friends of radical economist Robin Murray under #1 Making has now become the facilitating of a book (which will be a fabulous piece of work when done, but goodness it’s full-on) . However I’m in no doubt that the pattern language theorising venture is just as relevant (and has the ‘same’ cultural-materialist political basis) for today’s P2P-commons movement, as was 70s neo-Marxian labour-process theorising in the Radical Science Journal collective, for 70s radical professionalism. I recognise it as ‘the same’ politics, in circumstances that are, of course, changed .


Except . . it’s a bigger field, the stakes are raised, the pluriversal cultural challenges sit more obviously and crucially on the face of things here in the teensies. The end of the 70s faced baby-boomers with a Beyond the fragments challenge (Wainwright, Rowbotham & Segal), as politics splayed out - and thus 'radical science' became radical technology, alternative products, politics of food etc etc . . oh, and STS. Some would ‘blame’ identity politics for this. But ‘identity’ and ‘dig where you stand’ are really just very committed activists getting right down into the engine room, of how radical change does and doesn’t happen in the era of (consumerist) post-Fordism. The challenge has hatched many fresh forms - and god knows, neo-liberalism made nothing any easier. But things are on the move.


Goodness knows what the ‘third movement’ will look like in China, where my STS colleague Lucy Gao is coming at things 40 years later: no ‘second movement’, an established, otiose, first movement (wrapped up academic 'dialectics of nature' and the Party); and with all the waves of all the Fordisms crashing in together, in a tsunami of history and economy, in the wake of the ‘Great Enlightenment’ of the late 80s. Of course it doesn’t look like the 70s radical science movement! However . . Yes Gary, there is a third (Marxism-inheriting) radical science movement! It can only get better. It better get better, or we’re globally, ecosystemically, stuffed Radical-science baby-boomers didn’t do all that work, for it all to disappear into the sand.



Made with WIX by Barefoot Doc

Technologies are pervasive - digital, profoundly so.

Direct making of society in ordinary life is central.

Theorising is essential - organic intellectuals, yay!

The State is unavoidable but a pain in the arse.

Platforms are helpful - when user controlled.

Emotions and emotional skills are pivotal.

Facilitative practice is crucial.

Commons are fundamental.