I'm adding my thoughts on the relation between the p2p and feudal transitions ...
If anybody on this list has the Perry Anderson book and is willing to lend it, it would be most appreciated ... my finances are dire ...
I have been told by now that neither the germanic tribes nor the church abolished or were opposed to slavery, which continued to exist at least until the millenium, showing it to be a very drawn out process, nevertheless, I do not think this invalidates the points I'm making below.
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. While the
slave system could not give more productive autonomy to the slaves, the
new system of feudalism could. 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. 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
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 (and as Foucault notes, it was
the sons of the old Roman ruling class which became the church leaders
and clergy, making a deal with the new kings against the lower feudal
What I want to show now is how similar is the predicament of the
current world-system. 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 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 peer production, we are again producing for
use value directly. 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 miniaturization of
productive machinery, the advantages of scale of large centralized
production will tend to disappear. (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.
(let us contrast this with the creation of a new middle layer in
feudalism, which became the bourgeois class). Within the capital owning
class, we see the emergence of a new netarchical class. 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
producers, 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