A tough read - but the ideas in "P2P Accounting for Planetary Survival" comprise a system that could outmode the current one

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Like most other non-experts, we keep taking an enthusiastic run at the body of theory and practice that might underlie a “new economics” - or at least one that could answer human needs for services, provisions and experiences, without trashing the planet in the process. (See our “New Economics” category).

In our regular engagements with networks like CTRLShift and Open: Coop, we are seeking to grasp new structures, conveyed in a new common-sense language about economics and resources - something that can empower and enable localities and communities, in a tangible, material and concrete fashion.

Our core question is whether we can find a way to value all the relationships and resources in our lives, not just those that can be bought, sold and priced. If “GDP” rises when there is a fatal car-crash - as it measures all the economic activity around such a terrible event - then it’s surely counting the wrong things.

What’s so exciting is that, faced with the crises and opportunities of climate breakdown and digital automation, so many thinkers and activists are throwing themselves into the future, trying to create the “seed forms” of a new socio-technological order in the here and now. We track and support voices like Kate Raworth, Katherine Trebeck, Jeremy Rifkin, Jeremy Lent and others.

One of the most significant is Micheal Bauwens and his P2P [peer-to-peer] Foundation, who since 2005 have been working on the possibilities for a new “commons” based economy - neither state not market - opened up by the internet.

They have focussed particularly on the way the Net creates a sharable surplus of knowledge and information. Yet they’ve also noticed how much copyright and corporate power tries to make this into a scarcity - through copyright - so profits can still be made. While at the same time, we treat nature and its resources as an endless “abundance” - instead of realising its scarcities and limits (a situation very present to us now).

How can we get this situation the right way round, ask the P2Pers? That is, applying the abundance of digitally, knowledge and computation to the challenge of living well and wisely on a finite planet?

Where the P2P finds itself in 2019 is exemplified by their latest, magisterial paper, titled P2P Accounting for Planetary Survival (PDF download). The “accounting” part of it goes much further than, say, “beyond GDP” measures for social, economic and environmental performance - which we have covered here extensively. Indeed it tries to avoid relying on the “state” - or some far-off political takeover of it - as a force in this accounting. P2Pers want to build this accounting into the way that enterprises and organisations not just basically operate, but basically conceive of themselves.

The P2P model of being an enterprise or organisation is one which assumes that a livelihood can be made from the management of, and contribution to, a “commons” - a pool of shared and mutually-managed resources. Their original models were digital - open-source, freely-available software that could be infinitely shared, but also steadily improved by users. (Think the Linux operating system, or Wikipedia). But this model has begun to extend itself into other areas than the purely internet-oriented - towards housing, food, transport/mobility, and even currency.

The fundamental question they ask is: how can the complex structures (involving management, information and material resources) that run people’s lives be closer to those people’s control, and closer to their assessment of what is valuable?

click on image for full-definition PDF

click on image for full-definition PDF

Look at their “new ecosystem of value creation” (graphic at the right, and p. 16 of the report), and apart from the helpful and pleasant “healthy plant” image, you can begin to read (or get a feel) for the kind of actors, rules and fields which this model might imply.

The paper makes a clear distinction between extractive and generative economics - that is, economics which strips and depletes the resources in an area, and economics which maintains or even replenishes those resources. This might make clear sense when you consider food production or energy production - where the first might take a “permaculture” approach, seeking to farm in such a way that soils are not denuded of nutrients; or the second will try to make a shift to renewables that uses smart grids and batteries to eliminate the need for old energies to supply a “baseload”.

But the P2Pers want to make this distinction to much more consumer-friendly areas. For example an AirBnB or Uber system might distort local residence and local taxi cultures in pursuit of profit. But what if a “FairBnB” or a “CabFair” was able to be just as user-friendly and flexible as the prior two, but gave their workers a greater stake and better returns from the overall business (see our blog on these possibilities)?

What’s distinctive in this paper - and highly technical in places, we must admit - is that they’re accepting that one of the software advances that might support this kind of “collective complexity” is what has been gathered under the title “blockchain”. They prefer to dig below that, and say that it’s the idea of a “distributed ledger” that’s important.

As they phrase it:

Simply put, when a group of people agree that a certain activity has merit, [a blockchain or distributed ledger] can create a permanent and tamper-proof record of this agreement.

Let’s imagine for instance an energy cooperative building small- scale wind-turbines. Its members may collaborate and create a set of rules for the issue of tokens to engage more people in their cause (e.g., energy engineers, households that want to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, etc.), and interact with other groups that may provide resources or support services (e.g., a group of smart-grid experts, an impact finance firm, etc.). 

That’s a far cry from the usual framing of the blockchain as enabling wildly speculative and out-of-control digital currencies, powered by algorithms and computation that would seem to be stretching beyond human control or determination. Yet if it can be shaped and designed according to different values than just the dominant capitalism, the P2Pers see its utility in the form of a powerful biological metaphor:

The solution is to create a membrane which regulates the relation between market and commons. This is of supreme importance if we want to avoid a hyper-rationalisation of our behaviour, and avoid a transactionalization of all aspects of life.

We don’t want to subsume the commons to the market and its logic, but to embed and subsume the market into the necessities of human and non-human commons. By automating some of the aspects of human cooperation, we want to create more space for non-market commoning.

The rest of the paper is a tour-de-horizon of the “seed forms” that would make up what they unabashedly call a new “civilisation”. These are not just forms of business and organisation providing services (Holochain is a notable addition, often cited here), but also the different accounting methods that could be used to define success differently.

For those who think they know the language of measurement in economics, the list of names here are intriguing and original - Guerrilla Translation, REA (Resources, Events, Agents), Reporting 3.0, MuSIASEM (Multi-Scale Integrated Analysis of Societal and Ecosystem Metabolism), ReGen Network (featured on A/UK), Common Good Accounting System.

If you look at this matrix model of their “Commons-Centric Economy” (left), you can see an interesting pole at the bottom, which is “threshold and allocations”. The hope for the P2Pers is that these “distributed ledgers” can be connected to real, producing, civically confident communities, so appropriately and sensitively that they can begin to produce in ways that satisfy real-time human needs - without the overproduction or wastefulness that threatens ecological boundaries.

Indeed, these systems - with their indicators (tokens or currencies) valuing more than just the price of an object or service - will be a response to complex human demands. But in a way that makes their material costliness evident and obvious to us.

The paper concludes by reminding us of how the blockchain/distributed ledger makes this massive ambition possibles:

  • First of all, it has enabled the flow and exchange of crypto-assets and forms of value, outside of the control of the existing and centralized financial system. It is now possible to finance open source network infrastructures, in ways that go beyond the prior dependency on the banking, payment, and financial- and venture-capital based entities.

  • This enabled a different line of thought on value and money. Alternative value systems can be embedded in currencies, as money is a social construct: imagined and designed by humans. While local complementary currencies have shown the potential for creating local solutions, the new systems show that socially sovereign currencies are scalable, and can be used by global virtual communities.

  • Blockchain economies subsume bounded firms under the logic of the network, based on the use of open-source commons and autonomously created monetary tools. Corporations become codependent on multi- stakeholder networks and commons.

  • Token-based blockchain economies have the potential to shift the balance of power between labor and capital. They may allow a bigger part of the surplus value to flow to workers and other stakeholders, avoiding domination by venture capital demand for an equity stake.

Still not easy to grasp… We’ve done our best to digest and respond to this paper - but we certainly do think there is a need for a much more vernacular and popular articulation of its insights and players. (The Commons Transition Primer might be a good place to start - but we are far away from the soaring prose of any of the 19th and 20th centuries manifestos here.) We offer it here as maybe a potential tool for some of you localists to grab on to - and at least seek out these people for advice and consultation.