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Peer to peer and the feudal transition

by mbauwens Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 09:42:09 AM EST

In this thought capsule, inspired by the reading of the very stimulating book Deep History by David Laibman, I'm not going to claim, as others have done, that we are going to evolve to some kind of neo-medievalism, or a new period of dark ages. But rather, that there are some interesting similarities between the slavery-to-feudal transition and the capitalism to  P2P transition.

Slavery was a system of `extensive' development. It had a low productivity from which a maximum surplus was extracted through a costly control system. Growth had to take place through growth in space, by conquering lands depleting their populations for slavery and tribute. Slave lives were short, surrounding areas were depleted of human material, and it was often marked by population decline. However, there was always a point where the cost of expansion did not cover the productivity gains of the system as a whole, and this is when Empires started to falter, either by being replaced by another, by being taking over by surrounding `barbarians', or, in the rather unique case of the Roman Empire, it was replaced by a different system.

Feudalism arose because failing extensive development, led to a quest for intensive development, i.e. more productivity, but this could only happen by fundamentally altering the social system (as you can't give autonomy to slaves). While the slave system could not give more productive autonomy to the slaves, the new system of feudalism would eventually do the trick. Feudalism was a retreat to the local, to the manor, but within that manor, serfs could now form families, keep a fixed relative part of their produce, and the monetary taxation was sharply reduced if not abolished altogether. Not only did agricultural productivity rise and innovation in machinery occur, but the producing class kept a larger part of the created value. (so, initially, as compared to the surplus that went to the slave owning class, it may have been a rather raw deal for the new rulers, with a much lower surplus to create high culture, at least in the first 500 years, before the first medieval renaissance). Also, this is important, feudalism produces directly for use value, not for a monetary economy. Feudalism was therefore a reconfiguration of the two main classes into something new. Slave owners became feudal lords, slaves became serfs, though of course the new lords most often came from the invading Germanic peoples.

What I want to show now is how similar is the predicament of the current world-system.

Intriguing - Diary rescue by Migeru

[editor's note, by Migeru] Fold inserted in mid-paragraph for the Front Page.
After 1989 and the fall of the centralized state socialisms, capitalism is now a global system, without any outside. While there are still wide areas of the world that could be more developed, it is hitting ecological, energy and natural resource limits. Already consuming two planets, it is an impossibility for China and India to achieve the same levels of the West, despite their very fast growth, as that would consume four (some say five) planets. Maintaining an infinite growth system in a finite material world, is a logical and physical impossibility. What this means is that the limits of extensive development are being reached, just as happened with the Roman Empire. But surely, capitalism could switch to a mode of intensive development, becoming a cognitive, experience-based economy?

Well, not exactly, because what the current evolution is telling us, is that only a tiny fraction of the development within the immaterial sphere can be monetized. In the emerging modes of peer production (and I distinguish three distinct models for this, the sharing economy characterized by Web 2.0 proprietary platforms, the commons economy exemplified by the Linux model, and the crowdsourcing model), we are again producing for use value much more directly (while the use value is increasing expontentially, the ability to monetize is only increasing linearly). In an immaterial sphere of virtual abundance through marginal reproduction costs, where there is no tension between supply and demand, markets can only arise at the margins. Sadly for the present system, the switch to the immaterial growth, from extensive to intensive development, is going to happen in a similar way than the slavery to feudal transition, by a transformation of the fundamental logic of the whole system.

There are more similarities. We just noted the shift to the primacy of use value. We should also note that we will have a return to the local. Indeed, globalized trade is a function of cheap energy prices, and when those conditions disappear, along with the the further miniaturization of productive machinery, the advantages of scale of large centralized production will tend to disappear and the space for distributed digital manufacturing will grow. (I would argue that while capital still seems necessary, the monopoly that is had on organization and on the ability to buy large-scale physical machinery, is eroding.)  But the relocalization of the economy will be matched by the globalization of intellectual and spiritual culture. Only this time, it won't be the Christian Church that will be the vehicle, but the internet. Globa-local open design communities will co-exist with more localized production communities and enterprises.

Also similar to feudalism is the reconfiguration of the classes. Within the capital owning class, we see the emergence of a new netarchical class that has understood that intellectual property rents are not an absolutely necessity for money making. These are no longer relying on the ownership of the means of production, hiring workers to create value, but rather, they create proprietary platforms to enable and empower sharing and peer production to occur. In their systems, value is created by the user communities, no longer by themselves. They do not sell commodities, only the attention of those that are creating use value on the platforms. On the level of the working produSers, a reconfiguration is occurring as well. Unlike the traditional workers who had no means of production and had to sell their labour, the emerging class of knowledge workers does again own its means of production (i.e. their brains and their computers, using the network to configure themselves at present in a wide variety of new organizational formats from open source communities to networked micro agencies.

What is still open in terms of the transition, is the exact configuration and power relations of those two forces.

So the reconfiguration will in my opinion happen like this. There will be a shift from extensive material development, to intensive immaterial development. The core logic of the creation of immaterial cultural, intellectual and spiritual value in this coming world of open design, will be non-reciprocal peer production. In the world of scarce material resources needing to be allocated, infinite growth capitalism will be replaced by new forms of peer-informed markets and various reciprocity based schemes.

While the resulting new meta-system is therefore fundamentally different in its core logic than feudalism, despite some similarities, what is interesting is the uncanny analogy between the slavery-to-feudal transition and the expected capitalism to P2P transition.

Welcome to ET, Michel. Or is it a return? I've only been here a year and a half...

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sun Feb 24th, 2008 at 09:24:01 AM EST
Very interesting big picture diary.

What you describe is a scenario: one more possible future. I would not see this system level change as an automatic process that does not need our assistance.

So, what are the obstacles, and what can we do to facilitate it?

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sun Feb 24th, 2008 at 09:30:33 AM EST
In the world of scarce material resources needing to be allocated, infinite growth capitalism will be replaced by new forms of peer-informed markets and various reciprocity based schemes.

that really resonates...

this diary bears rereading, as it is rich in interesting content.

the one human quality that possibly runs deeper than MINE! is the need for a good night's sleep. here's hoping we get there soon, and those blinded by selfish attachments realize that being unenvied and loved leads to more peaceful slumber than being hated and feared.

emotionally intelligent, secure people love to share, as it creates virtuous cycles. it's wild how the ultimate tech-tool, the pc, has highlit this perennial human quality, and how curious the mind is when seeded/entrusted with copious flows of fascinating information.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Feb 24th, 2008 at 10:50:01 AM EST
Finland became a Duchy of Russia in 1809, previously ruled by Sweden. The Finnish language was codified by Agricola in the 16th C, but the first piece of Finnish  literature was not until the 'Kalevala' in 1835. The first novel was 'Seven Brothers' by Aleksis Kivi in 1870.

But the real flowering of Finnish literature (and the Finnish language) didn't take place until the early 20th C by which time an almost wholly agrarian population began to get an education, and simultaneously were finally freed from 'feudalism'. Finnishness was born, and independence achieved in 1917. Books and newspapers were the keys that unlocked this flowering. And it happened relatively fast.

The question is: could the Internet have this same unlocking role in a society largely trapped in corporate (inc. media) feudalism?

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Feb 24th, 2008 at 11:08:52 AM EST
Excellent, refreshing and hopeful outlook!

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Sun Feb 24th, 2008 at 02:34:37 PM EST
Isn't P2p the real hope  8well unqiue hope) of self-organized anarchic economic society?

Is nto P2p where copyleft is the norm the great last hope of those of us who want a more gift-based society?

the complex gif-economies (potlach) are precisely based on P2P hierarchical status adquisitation trhough gift... in other words.. linux.

If we can democratize energy..and produce clean and cheap ..we can reduce the impact on the planet wioth green agricultural products... once you have that... and you have enough shelters (food, watrmth and sanitation is all what phsycically you need).. you can have a gift-economy not based in competition....or well based in another kind of compeition.

My ideal, I msut say, it is a democratize energy and greena griculture, some competition capitalism in some sector (with regualtion of the state) and huge chunks of the economy based on gift... I think it will be more stable, less ripe to financail instabilities and mroe self-satisfying... For example.. why the finantial markets can not be based on the gift-economy?

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Sun Feb 24th, 2008 at 03:52:38 PM EST
Interesting concept--this might also be seen as a compassion-based society.  Compassion in the sense of a mother caring for her child and the reciprocity in families, with the same problems of idealization--it can't work unless all the people feel a part of the whole community, and contributors and recipients of generosity and reciprocity.  Is this not the idea or the economic "system" of the beggar monks?  I guess they do fairly well as beggars, but it may be asking a lot of the rest of us to submit to a life of begging and generosity.  Does there then have to be a place of "commons," where the resources of forest, river, grazing land, etc. are available to any who has the wherewithal to exploit?  There has to be the fear that someone will be left out, or ignored in their time of need.  Not that that doesn't happen with the present system.  Anyway, you've given me something to think about today.
by jjellin on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 10:26:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
wherewithal to exploit?

that word has such negative connotations...

it has a one-way feel to it...

husbandry is as much about nurturing as harvesting, perhaps we need a new word.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 03:15:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"One-way feel," yes, but wouldn't that be the point: to give without expectation of reciprocity and direct benefit.  That could be scary because you could give and give and then when you are in need, you would have to beg for help, which you might not receive, especially if you are not part of the in crowd, or one of the important families or for any other reason find yourself out of favor with your neighbors.

Gift-based society is an idea that sounds nice at first, but then seems unrealistic and impractical.  I guess we've designated the government to be the safety-net of last resort (used to be the church?).  Under the new feudalism, what happens to the government social programs and safety net?

by jjellin on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 04:57:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Under the new feudalism, what happens to the government social programs and safetynet?

great question...

i assume the return to default: family-

considering how nuclear families have become. compared to a century ago, atomized even, this may not work. church has mostly gone too.

so it's the 'poorhouse' concept, or 'work-camps', unless we develop a lot more empathy as a species.

each new generation born and allowed to learn its history is another nail in the authoritarian mindset's coffin, every soundly educated child  a new individual better immunised against the man=thug pathology that is providing false refuge for many lost sheep, as does jihad.

these diseases need absence of compassion to take root, and are very difficult to modify once established.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 05:54:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A very interesting Marxist/materialist analysis of historical change.  However I'm not so sure about the the Marxist tendency to see a utopia over the next revolutionary hill.  That things will change is an historical inevitability, and the internet certainly marks a revolutionary technological change with huge potential for engendering and enabling social and economic change.  But historically, material scarcity, whether it be for lebensraum, capital/plunder, or manpower has resulted in wars of conquest/subjugation, and I'm not sure that reality has changed.  It just has the potential to move up to an entirely different level.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 04:49:44 PM EST
"It just has the potential to move up to an entirely different level. "  Or, same people, different gadgets
by jjellin on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 04:59:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I do not agree on what the shift from slavery to feudalism meant in the west roman parts of Europe (in the east roman the roman empire lived on much longer, but "fall of rome" is usually a referal to the fall of the western realm). The feudal system was not more efficient in terms of food production and food security. From 200 AD to 600 AD the (non-USSR) Europe suffered a population decline from 44 millions to 22 (according to Livi-Bacci - A concise history of world population).

I think the description of slavery economics misses some points. This is how I see it. As the Roman empire expanded there was a conflict of ownership of the newly aquired productive resources (land and the slaves to use it) between the really wealthy families - lets call them the senatorial class - and the free (but not wealthy) common person. The legioners of rome were commoners.

As long as the empire expanded both the rich and the commoners could get a part of the new resources. The wealthy got richer and the legioners got land as pensions. Eventually the Roman Empire reached its natural limits, Sahara in the south, low productive forests and marches in the north, the Atlantic in the East and was limited by a to strong opponent - the Parthian empire - in the east.

Without means to expand the wealthy started to expand their power - most notably their landholdings - at the expense of the commoners. As the senatorial class was not taxed this was an uneven fight that became more uneven over time. As more land became pert of the senatorial class latifundias, fewer free peasants remained to be taxed, and thus had to be taxed harder. To prevent peasants from fleeing their land, they were bound to it. Thus serfdom was introduced. As central power weakened, the empire lost cohesion. The germanic tribes took over what was already a system gone feudal. And slaves were still around.

If the system was doomed to collapse or not is a question of perspective. On one hand it is quite obvious what needed to be done, taxing the senatorial class, breaking up too large latifundias and so on. On the other the emperors came out of the senatorial class and had little reason to do so. The risk with opposing the senatorial class was obvious - beware the ides of march!

Today we have a similar problem as we are passing the peak in global resource extraktion. The über-wealthy and their immortal multinationals avoids taxes and attempts to break up monopolies (Microsoft is the prime example, but there has been others). That this weakens the governments and will worsen the decline for the great unwashed masses seems to be of little concern.

P2P is the most hopeful factor in getting a softer landing. The shift is however fought tooths and nails by the present structures. The p2p culture production is already often illegal, even if non-commercial. And it is growing, in one of the early drafts IPRED 2 included making patent violations a crime punishable by jailtime. Microsoft claims that Linux violates at least 200 of their patents. Since you can patent almost anything these days (especially in the US), they are probably right.

Guess what I am saying is that p2p society can come, would be good, but is not given. And the other scenario is the neo-feudalism. Multinationals keep on growning, states keep loosing power. Independent use of means of production - even your own ideas - is outlawed and policed by the multis. Social protection, even physical protection becomes the domain of multis. Gradually the systems break down as the multis can no longer leach on the states but becomes the states - highly feudal ones.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 05:30:57 PM EST
Note, however, that the collapse in population was by no means uniform ... the Mediterranean urban centers that depended on Egyptian and North African wheat for their subsistence were absolutely hammered when the Bubonic plague reached Alexandria from the headwaters of the Nile ... and while wine and olive oil may be able to command quite a bit of bread in trade, its a bit hard to live off wine and olive oil alone.

By contrast, with the development of the heavy wheeled mouldboard plough, populations in northern Europe expanded substantially in the second half of the first millenium.

(And, of course, if you are engage in commercial slave plantation agriculture when the Mediterranean food distribution system is being hammered by repeated outbreaks of plague, enough basic staple foods to keep your slaves alive and working is a rapidly rising cost of business ... while if you rely on a local monopoly of force to extract a rent in kind from a peasant farmer, you can get in the business of having staple food to live off of and a surplus to sell.)

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 06:11:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
All true.

600 was chosen deliberately as it is after the collapse of western Rome and before the heavy plough had started to work its miracle. (Also, Livi-Bacci has 600 in a handy table.)

Plough - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Despite a number of innovations, the Romans never achieved the heavy wheeled mouldboard plough. The first indisputable appearance after the Roman period is from 643, in a northern Italian document[2].

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 06:25:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
However, if it were not for the Bubonic plague, 600 would not have been "after the collapse of the Western Empire", as Justinian had reconquered North Africa and Italy, and it is not implausible that if those conquests had been consolidated that Iberia would have been added as well ... only leaving Julius Ceasar's pointless conquests of Transalpine Gaul and Britannia out of a revived Roman Empire.

Its the flea ... the flea I tell ya. There's your transition from late antiquity to the early medieval period.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 08:06:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
. . . and certainly hope so.  Thanks anyway for stating plainly, in a single clear sentence--

Maintaining an infinite [material] growth system in a finite material world is a logical and physical impossibility.

--a truth that was (almost) universally acknowledged in the 1970s--before the corporate media did their best to censor it out of the public discourse--but of which many people seem to need reminding these days.

Global corporate capitalism's current model would be doomed anyway, under any circumstances.  The fact that we have the seeds already of a P2P intellectual-growth economy to replace it is icing on the cake.

by keikekaze on Sat Mar 1st, 2008 at 08:00:05 PM EST
Maintaining an infinite [material] growth system in a finite material world is a logical and physical impossibility.

--a truth that was (almost) universally acknowledged in the 1970s--before the corporate media did their best to censor it out of the public discourse--but of which many people seem to need reminding these days.

Right you are...

Hostility to the notion of limits to growth by Jerome a Paris on December 20th, 2007

It is far more likely to be a step towards a world characterised by catastrophic conflict and brutal repression. This is why I sympathise with the hostile response of classical liberals and libertarians to the very notion of such limits, since they view them as the death-knell of any hopes for domestic freedom and peaceful foreign relations.
(quoting Martin Wolf in the Financial Times)

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Mar 7th, 2008 at 06:18:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On reading Jerome's diary it seemed vaguely familiar, as if I'd probably read it at Daily Kos last December.  But the comments thread here was certainly far more interesting, or at least far more thoroughly argued and annotated!  : )

Contrary to Wolf's formulation, I am not a "pessimist" who believes that economic growth will not continue, but an optimist who holds the same belief.  What Wolf and his "classical liberals and libertarians" don't seem to have grasped yet is that "limits to growth" also implies, and in fact demands, limits to population, a step that will act as a preventive to many or most or all of those "catastrophic conflict[s] and brutal repression[s]" they want to scare us with.

by keikekaze on Fri Mar 7th, 2008 at 10:20:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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