Nurturing the path to post-capitalism…and some simulation.

By Peter G Johnson

Paul Mason’s recent book ‘Post-Capitalism’ has generated a lot of debate amongst those on the left of British politics; most obviously in interminable and reassuringly repetitive Guardian debates and opinion pieces. It has also inspired an equal amount of derision from those on the right; most predictably in ‘common-sensey’ reviews from the Telegraph and Spectator. In the book, Mason attempts to explain why he believes the end of capitalism has begun. We can (and do) endlessly debate whether capitalism is in its endgame. What can’t be denied is the increasing importance of one of the causes of Mason’s belief, that is, the advent of ‘commons-based peer production’. Commons-based peer production is so relevant, and so important, it has its own horrific abbreviation – CBPP – which is almost certainly impossible to actually say. CBPP is simply people coming together to work and collaborate as equals, or peers, to produce something for the common good – i.e., for free. This mode of production has existed for as long as humankind perhaps, but aided by the internet and the ease of communication it enables, appears to be on the rise. CBPP has come up before in this blog when Charles Masquelier considered the potential for CBPP to be part of radical social change. In this post, I want to consider how we might nurture CBPP, and in doing so, plug some of our current research!

There are many famous examples of CBPP, such as Wikipedia, Linux, Open Street Map and Mozilla’s Firefox. Many of these communities are focused on producing online products, and the best of these projects scale well, and so become well-known around the world. However, there are also many smaller communities and offline communities, that are equally interesting, but are less well-known (there is a list of some here). The last few years has also seen the appearance and rapid growth of commercial peer production, with companies such as Uber and Airbnb.

However, in the UK, my sense is that we have been fairly slow in realising the potential of smaller or offline CBPP communities, and have failed to provide them with as much support as some of our European neighbours. I doubt it is a coincidence that Mason spends much of his journalistic time reporting from southern Europe, mostly Greece and Spain, where communities in my experience, are better supported by local government and more closely integrated with the existing local and activist political landscape. In a recent trip to Madrid, I was struck by the overt presence of CBPP communities (e.g., La Tabacalera, Media Lab Prado), some supported by local government, some a little more illicit-feeling, taking up large amounts of space in the very centre of the city. This seems almost unimaginable in my home city of London, where such communities are only in our awareness to the east of London, where they can be dismissed as ‘hipster’ nonsense, or simply not noticed by wider society at all.

If, as a society, we are to improve our support of CBPP communities, as Mason suggests is imperative, we must better understand how these communities work, why they are useful and generate value for people, and consider what they need to survive and flourish (beyond simple hand-outs of cash and space). These are the aims of the ongoing European-funded P2Pvalue project. Led by project coordinator Professor Nigel Gilbert in the Centre for Research in Social Simulation, the project intends to build on and develop existing theory on CBPP communities, develop an archive and directory of CBPP communities and related data sets, and finally, to build a software platform (an app, basically) for communities to use to organise their collaboration and work.

To underpin the development of this software platform (think of an open source mobile version of Google Docs mixed with WhatsApp, using a crowd-funding type approach to prioritise work), project partners from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and Università degli Studi di Milano are respectively carrying out ethnographic studies and user-testing with CBPP communities. By taking this user-focused approach, the project intends to produce something that responds to communities’ diverse needs and has real value for them. This combination of approaches is also being complimented by the use of agent-based modelling, to simulate the potential impact of the software platform on different types of community. Using the theory and data generated by the project already, the simulation, which I am currently working on, allows us to construct a virtual CBPP community, and see how its structure and lifespan may be affected when it uses different features of the software platform to organise its work. These findings can then further inform the development of the platform.

Coincidentally, one of the other arguments Mason makes in his book (and has made previously), is for government policymakers to make much greater use of exactly this type of simulation modelling. Whilst Mason makes some very optimistic claims about the scale and types of questions this approach can be used to address, I do believe there is unrealised potential for it to inform policy in the public, private and third sectors. It is hugely encouraging to see this being recognised by those outside the fields’ immediate advocates and practitioners. For one, I am certainly hoping Mason’s dual vision of CBPP being part of the move towards post-capitalism and the increased use of agent-based modelling to inform our decision-making, has more than a whiff of truth to it!


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