[iDC] Some considerations on peer governance and benevolent dictatorships

Michel Bauwens michelsub2004 at gmail.com
Wed May 9 08:28:27 EDT 2007


Thanks for the references Robert.

I thought that this reply to a correspondent might be of interest to some;
it expands on the issue of leadership and power in peer production projects,


1_What is the connotation of the word "dictatorship" in your phrase:
 "...Peer projects are sometimes said to be benevolent dictatorships..."?
(derive from "The political economy of peer production" ,found at:


If you define peer production as this kind of social production that is
based on free engagement, participatory processes of governance, and
distributed output in a commons format, then obviously the leadership
function changes rather profoundly. One form of power is in the protocol or
the design of the collaborative processes, the 'invisible architectures'
that promote or inhibit certain types of social behaviour. For example,
YouTube only allows sharing of the whole video, not remixing. Another type
of power is reputation, which depends on the individuals own merit, his role
in the group, and the role of the project in society. Peer governance is
neither hierarchical/centralized, nor decentralized/democratic, but rather
based on direct participation and co-decision-making in small groups, as
peer production functions as a global coordination of small teams. Each team
small enough to work on the basis of consensus. It's not democratic in the
formal  'representational' sense, because their is no negotation between
representatives of groups, who have to decide about scarce resources, rather
the free distributed production is matched by distributed communal
validation. Above all, starting from a context of either abundance or
distribution, peer production and governance is a means to avoid bottlenecks
of any kinds. It is designed to allow permanent experimentation, and to
validate after they have been produced.

 I used to write how the p2p dynamic de-institutionalizes, but I now would
say it differently. Every social mode of production, especially new ones,
need to reproduce themselves, and for this they will need, yes,
institutional structures. For example, in terms of peer production they
would use 1) collective choice systems that are either based on objective
algorhythms (think google doublepage ranking) or communally validated
rating/ranking systems, that aim to prohibit the formation of fixed elites;
2) they will form, over time, processes to resolve conflicts (think the
expanding set of rules within wikipedia), and 3) legal innovations such as
the GPL and CC licenses, which protect the commons from private
appropriation; 4) various anti-hijacking measures; and 5) finally, an
institutional framework to protect the technological infrastructure (usually
nonprofit foundations such as the mozilla, apache, and other foundations);
5) they may accept a support ecology from either business or state as long
as it does not involve control over the community dynamic.

Some structures may of course be totally ad hoc structures, but these then,
because they do not insure their social reproduction, will really be ad hoc,
i.e. short term, just individuals working together or sharing for a short

Now, to come back to the leadership issue. Since there is no hierarchy to
allocate resources, no democratic negotiation, what is the role of
'leaders'. It is twofold, one is a priori and invitational. They must have
the ability to describe a vision that will attract the peer producers in the
first place. Think Stallman saying we need free software, Torvalds saying we
need an alternative operating system, Wales and Sanger saying we need a
universal encyclopedia. But their role is also one of arbitrage, i.e. the a
posteriori role of an arbiter in case of unsolvabe conflicts. If the teams
do not agree on a course of action, after a number of intermediate steps,
the issue will end up with the 'benevolent dictator'.

This is a pragmatic solution, but also a misnomer since in peer production,
it is the leader who is dependent on the peer producers, and his arbitrage
is only there because of the trust of the community. So it is in fact
something altogether different than a 'dictatorship'. There is always a
danger to informal processes, nl. of hidden personal domination, which is
why the more complex projects in the end choose for more formal, and
sometimes 'democratic' (in terms of voting and representation) set of

Juch as distributed networks may adapt partial decentralization and
centralization, and peer production may make different kinds of adaptations
with the market and the for-profit world, so peer governance may also be
mixed with other modes. The key is then to be sensitive whether this
adaption preserves the core of the processes, i.e. it is adapted for more
efficiency or precisely for achieving more participation, or whether it is
indicative of a fixed group 'taking power'.
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