Working Anarchy / Peer Mutualism

Since the 1990s, Yochai Benkler, who is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, has been instrumental in documenting (and advocating for) the economic and societal value of an information commons and decentralized ways of collaboration, especially as it applies to innovation. Both his books “The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest” (Crown 2011); and “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom” (Yale University Press, 2006) are required reading to anyone interested in social networks, open innovation and participatory democracy.

Politics & Society carries a new paper by Prof. Benkler entitled “Practical Anarchism : Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State”. The paper considers “several working anarchies in the networked environment, and whether they offer a model for improving on the persistent imperfections of markets and states”. In particular, Prof. Benkler tries to capture and analyze our growing experience with what he calls

“peer mutualism: voluntaristic cooperation that does not depend on exclusive proprietary control or command relations as among the cooperators, and in many instances not even as common defense for the cooperators against nonparticipants.”

Later in the paper he describes “working anarchy”  or “peer mutualism” as:

“ voluntaristic associations that do not depend on direct or delegated power from the state, and in particular do not depend on delegated legitimate force that takes a proprietary form and is backed by shared social understandings of how one respects or complies with another’s proprietary claim.”

According to Benkler, – using an “utopian” position – these working anarchies have the potential to produce four effects:

  • “First, they offer their participants a chunk of life lived in effective, voluntary cooperation with others.

  • Second, they can provide for everyone a degree of freedom in a system otherwise occupied by state- and property-based capabilities; they do not normally displace these other systems, but they do offer a dimension along which, at least for that capability and its dependencies, we are not fully subject to power transmitted through either direct state control or the property system.

  • Third, they provide a context for the development of virtue; or the development of a cooperative human practice, for ourselves and with each other.

  • And fourth, they provide a new way of imagining who we are, and who we can be; a cluster of practices that allow us to experience and observe ourselves as cooperative beings, capable of mutual aid, friendship, and generosity, rather than as the utility-seeking, self-interested creatures that have occupied so much of our imagination from Hobbes to the neoclassical models whose cramped vision governs so much of our lives.”

The central purpose of the paper is to examine the above value proposition behind peer mutualism, using two key questions:

  • “First, there is the internal question of whether these models can sustain their nonhierarchical, noncoercive model once they grow and mature, or whether power relations generally, and in particular whether systematically institutionalized power: hierarchy, property, or both, reemerges in these associations.

  • The second question is whether those practices we do see provide a pathway for substantial expansion of the domains of life that can be lived in voluntaristic association, rather than within the strictures of state and hierarchical systems. In other words, do mutualistic associations offer enough of a solution space, to provisioning a sufficient range of the capabilities we require for human flourishing, to provide a meaningful alternative model to the state and the market across a significant range of human needs and activities?”

The paper subsequently reviews various “working anarchies” – ranging from the so-called paradigm cases involving IETF, FOSS and Wikipedia to more recent cases of peer mutualism involving, for instance, Kickstarter, Kiva, Ushahidi, Open Data and Wikileaks. The emerging insight from the comparative selection is that all the examples examined:

“are perfect on neither dimension. Internally, hierarchy and power reappear, to some extent and in some projects, although they are quite different than the hierarchy of government or corporate organization. Externally, there are some spectacular successes, some failures to thrive, and many ambiguous successes. In all, present experience supports neither triumphalism nor defeatism in the utopian project. Peer models do work, and they do provide a degree of freedom in the capabilities they provide. But there is no inexorable path to greater freedom through voluntary open collaboration. There is a good deal of uncertainty and muddling through.”

Despite the uncertainties and imperfections, Prof. Benkler advocates…

“to continue to build more of the spectacular or moderate successes, and to try to colonize as much of our world as possible with the mutualistic modality of social organization. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it merely needs to offer a new dimension or sufficient diversity in how it instantiates capabilities and transmits power to offer us, who inhabit the systems that these peer systems perturb, a degree of freedom.”