The ‘welfare state’ is dead – long live the ‘partner state’?

As the welfare state declines, what’s needed are democratically-run, civic institutions that protect the common good.

Jimmy Wales wikipedia SOPA [GALLO/GETTY]
'There would be... no free software or open hardware' without support mechanisms, says Bauwens [GALLO/GETTY]

Chiang Mai, Thailand – In our first two installments we discussed the value crisis of cognitive capitalism and an emerging economic model that is being pioneered in the (free) software economy, prefigured by new social movements such as Occupy Wall Street.

There are three partners in this emerging model: a community of contributors that create a commons of knowledge, software or design; an enterpreneurial coalition that creates market value on top of that commons; and a set of “for-benefit institutions” that manage how this co-operation takes place.

This co-operation would not be possible if it were not for a heavy material infrastructure that underpins it. Every commons project rests not only on a general internet infrastructure, but on specific infrastructures that enable a particular project. For example, an open hardware project needs shared design depositories such as those provided by Thingiverse, and free software needs project management utilties like GitHub.

Can we also learn something about the politics of this new mode of value creation – something that would be useful not just for these particular communities, but for society in general? Is there perhaps a new political model co-evolving out of these new social practices that may be an answer to the contemporary crisis of democracy? My answer is an emphatic yes – in fact, I believe we are witnessing a new model for the state: a “peer-to-peer state”, if you will.

Let’s look at the mechanics of power and the politics of commons-oriented peer production by looking at the three players involved in this new institutional set-up.

Online communities

First of all, these communities are not democracies. Why is that so? Because democracy, the market and hierarchies are all modes of allocation of scarce resources. In hierarchy, our superiors decide; in the market, prices decide; in a democracy, “we” decide.

But where resources are abundant, as they are with knowledge, code and design – which can be copied and shared at a marginal cost – they are truly unnecessary. These types of communities are truly poly-archies and the type of power that is held in them is meritocratic, distributed and ad hoc. Everyone can contribute without permission, but those with recognised expertise who are accepted by the community – the so-called “maintainers” and the “editors” – decide which software or design patches are acceptable.

These decisions require expertise, not communal consensus. The tension between inclusive participation and selection for excellence is one that every social system faces, and that peer production has solved in a rather elegant way. The genius of the solution is not that it avoids conflict, but that it designs away unnecessary conflict by allowing for the maximum human freedom compatible with the goal of co-operation. Indeed, peer production is always an “object-oriented” co-operation, and it is the particular object that will drive the particular form chosen for its peer governance mechanisms.

The main allocation mechanism in such projects is a “distribution of tasks”. Unlike in the industrial model, there is no longer a division of labour between jobs and mutual coordination. Because the work environment is designed to be totally open and transparent, every participating individual can see what is needed, and decide accordingly whether to contribute. Remarkably, this new model allows for both global coordination and for small-group dynamics. And it does this without “command and control”!

Contributor conflicts

“Open source communities have created a new social institution: the for-benefit association.”

Of course, there may be – and often are – conflicts between contributors as they work together. But these are not decided by authoritarian fiat, but by negotiated coordination. Differences are “trashed out” in the forums and mailing lists that these communities use to coordinate their work.

The hierarchical decision that remains – the decision whether or not to accept a patch to a programme, necessary to protect its quality – is balanced by the freedom of participants to branch off – or “fork”, in the parlance of free software projects. Disagreeing participants can always take the codebase with them and create another version where their preferences would prevail. As a result, maintainers know that unjust and unilateral decisions would lead to a bleeding out of the membership, or to a fork.

Of course, not everything is abundant and every abundance creates its own scarcity. For example, there would be no Wikipedia without funding for its servers and no free software or open hardware without similar support mechanisms.

This is why open source communities have created a new social institution: the for-benefit association.

This is an important social innovation, because, unlike classic non-profits or non-governmental institutions, they do not operate from the point of view of scarcity. Classic NGOs still operate much like other industrial institutions, such as the corporation and the market state, as they believe that resources need to marshalled and managed. By contrast, the new for-benefits have only an active role in enabling and empowering the community to co-operate – by provisioning its infrastructure, not by commanding its production processes. These associations exist for the sole purpose of benefitting the community of which they are the expression. This is good news, as they are generally managed in democratic ways. And they have to be, because an undemocratic institution would discourage contributions by the community of participants.

Here is the kicker. What would you call an institution that is responsible for the common good of all the participants? I would argue that this type for for-benefit institution has a very similar function to what we commonly assign to the state.

State formation

While the state form is always a class institution that defends a particular arrangement of social privilege, it can never be a simple instrument of privileged rule alone, but needs to manage the common good as well. To the degree that it is seen to do the latter, most people would see this as an acceptable or even “good” state form. On the other hand, to the degree that it fails to do this, it loses legitimacy, and is seen as a source of oppression by a minority.

A state often reflects the balance of forces in a particular society. The welfare state was an acceptable form because it was based on social compromise and on the strength of a strong labour movement. It was supported by elites as superior to the alternative, Soviet-style state form, which they feared could take away the loyalty of their citizens.

Once this alternative collapsed in 1989, with social movements in the West weakened by deindustrialisation, the welfare state slowly made place for the contemporary corporate welfare state. This system only helps the privileged, guts social solidarity mechanisms, and impoverishes the majority of its population, fatally weakening the middle class. Such a system can have no long-term legitimacy and breaks any social contract that can guarantee social peace. It’s hard to build loyalty on the promise of ever-increasing pain.

This means we are witnessing not just the actual death of the social welfare state, but also the death of the neoliberal corporate welfare state. Even the welfare state has become problematic. The main reason is that its social basis, the Western industrial labour class and its affiliated social movements, have become demographic minorities. Its mechanisms, even when they worked, would not do much to assist the current social majority: knowledge and service workers, whose positions are often precarious.

Furthermore, the paternalistic and bureaucratic functioning of many welfare state institutions are becoming unacceptable to the emerging demand for personal and social autonomy – one of the primary social desires of the new class of knowledge workers. Many of the other positive social functions of the welfare state have been weakened by neoliberal “New Labour” reforms, which aimed to introduce private-sector logic into the public sector.

Can we, then, imagine a new type of state? Enter the concept of a “partner state”! The partner state, first theorised by Italian political scientist Cosma Orsi, is a state form that enables the social creation of value by its citizens. It protects the infrastructure of co-operation that is the whole of society.

Common institutions

The partner state can exist at any territorial level as a set of institutions that protect the common good. It does on a territorial scale what for-benefit institutions do on a project scale. While for-benefit associations work for participants in particular projects, the partner state works for the citizens. Commoners tend to care only about “their” commons, not about society as a whole. A specific set of institutions is required to take care of the whole.

A really thriving commons-based society requires a Partner State: a network of democratically-run for-benefit institutions that protect the common good on a territorial scale.”

The good news is that such a partner state already exists. We have seen it in action, at least in a local embryonic form. A few years ago, we visited the city of Brest in France. Brest is not really a beautiful city, although it is located in a beautiful region and does have its charms. It was bombed in World War II and afterwards a lot of rather unattractive social housing was built, leading to a certain amount of social anomie. Michel Briand, the mayor’s assistant, and his team of city workers had a brilliant idea: why not use the virtual to enhance social life in the city? The team created local versions of Facebook, YouTube and Flickr, helped local associations develop an online presence, invested heavily in training and even had a physical library where citizens could borrow production material. One of their projects was the revitalisation of old “smuggling trails” in order to attract the trekking crowd. So, they decided to virtually enrich the trails.

Here is where their social innovation came in: the city council did not do this itself; nor did they pay the private sector to carry this out. Instead, they empowered local teams of citizens to create added value. This happened through various forms such as the creation of picture galleries of notable landmarks, in the form of oral history collections. This, then, is the partner state: namely, public authorities which create the right environment and support infrastructure so that citizens can peer produce value. 

The whole society benefits from this. It stimulates a thriving local economy as well, as local entrepreneurs create added market value and attract more tourists. Michel Briand and his team worked tirelessly for the benefit of the citizens, enhancing their capacity to create civic value. Obviously, the knowledge and culture thus created constituted a vibrant commons. If we expand this on a national and even supra-national scale, we get a state form that practices “commonfare”: fostering the commons and the value-creating commoners.

One danger lurks here, though. This was exemplified by the United Kingdom’s Big Society programme, which uses a superficially similar language of civic autonomy and action, but actually aims to weaken the welfare state and its provisions. A partner state cannot be based on the destruction of the public infrastructure of co-operation. This may not have been the initial intention of Philip Blond and his “civil society”-oriented “Red Tories”, but it certainly is what David Cameron’s government put in practice. The peer production of common value requires civic wealth and strong civic institutions. In other words, the partner state concept transcends and includes the best of the welfare state, such as the social solidarity mechanisms, strong educational systems and a vibrant and publicly supported cultural life. What the British Tories did was to use the Big Society rhetoric to attempt to further weaken the remnants of social solidarity, and throw people to fend for themselves. This was not enabling and empowering; it was its opposite.

While peer production will undoubtedly also emerge as a drive for resilience in bad times, a really thriving commons-based society requires a partner state: a network of democratically-run for-benefit institutions that protect the common good on a territorial scale.

Michel Bauwens is a theorist, writer and a founder of the P2P (Peer-to-Peer) Foundation.

Follow him on Twitter: @MBauwens