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Exploring the Promise of a World Beyond Capitalism
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In this stimulating analysis, Hannes Gerhardt outlines the potentials and challenges of a technology-enabled, commons-focused transition out of capitalism.

The book shows that openness and cooperation are more beneficial in today’s economies and societies than competition and profit-seeking. Driven by this conviction, Gerhardt identifies key imperatives for overcoming capitalism, from democratizing our digital, material, and financial economies to maintaining a robust, political mobilization. Using clear examples, he explores tactical openings through the lens of ‘compeerism’, a newly constructed framework that highlights the latent counter-capitalist possibilities, but also limits, of our emerging technological landscape.

This is an accessible contribution to counter-capitalist discourse that is both inspiring and pragmatic for academics and activists alike.

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Today, there is a widespread perception that capitalism has no viable alternatives. This book, however, explores an emerging body of work, centred on the conceptualization and enactment of the ‘commons’, that seeks to challenge this claim. It is a proposition rooted in the idea that our current state of economic and technological development, and especially the rise of digital capabilities, makes the adoption of openness, cooperation, and shared ownership and governance a more rational economic choice in meeting the needs and wants of humanity than one based on competition, artificial scarcity, and the pursuit of profit. This book critically assesses, organizes, and hones this emerging framework and potential movement, presented under the term ‘compeerism’, by holistically considering how various sectors of the economy could be decapitalized and arranged in more commons-oriented ways. This includes a consideration of the digital economy, infrastructure, manufacturing, raw materials, as well as the monetary-financial sector. Examples of current, commons-based efforts seeking to provide an alternative to present capitalist arrangements in each of these areas are considered in terms of their promise and the challenges they face. The book ends with a consideration of the political mobilization that would be needed to execute a ‘compeerist’ transition to a post-capitalist future and a presentation of what one iteration of such a future could look like.

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Chapter 5 continues the consideration of the material economy by looking at the organization of manufacturing. The focus here falls on the ‘design global, manufacture local’ (DG-ML) model espoused by P2P theorists as a way to achieve a greater democratization of the means of production. The blossoming of open-source design, open-hardware, and versatile makerspaces and fab labs are taken up first as short-term, localized forms of exit. The analysis then moves on to the challenges and potentials inherent in a larger scaled, integrated network of community oriented, democratized small-scale factories. Possible management arrangements for such commons-oriented facilities are then assessed and compared, ranging from state-run to various cooperative/collaborative forms of organization. The limits of localization in manufacturing are explored and the argument is made that greater inter-commons solidarity (boundary commoning) and more conducive state policies are essential if a commons-oriented DG-ML model is ever to get a foothold.

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Chapter 2 considers the question of how the expansion of commons-based digital value production could be expanded to the point of challenging and eventually outcompeting capital, as per Karl Marx’s vision in Grundrisse. Non-capitalist forms of digital commons contributions are presented, including from government, non-profits, and cooperatives. The cooperative framework and movement is shown to be particularly aligned with compeerism, a recurring theme throughout the book. The key takeaway from the chapter, however, is the need for commons-based digital value producers to engage in greater solidarity, or ‘boundary commoning’, in order to significantly boost the expansion of the digital commons. Especially critical is the establishment of a peer-property regime that can protect commons-sourced digital value from unwanted exploitation, thus enabling the producers of this value to challenge capital in a market context.

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Chapter 4 is the first of three chapters to tackle the challenge of translating compeerism to the material realm by focusing on the electricity and information technology (IT) infrastructures on which the digital economy depends. Immediate forms of exit such as opting out of the electrical or internet ‘macrogrid’ are considered, before possible longer-term options for decapitalizing critical infrastructure are explored. Compeerism here seeks alternatives to the top-down, centralized arrangement prevalent in the delivery of IT and electricity services by promoting localized, smaller operators and ‘prosumers’ (individuals participating in production) that would enable greater community autonomy and control. At the same time, the limits of localization are identified, pointing to the need for state engagement to pursue a decapitalization of larger-scaled infrastructural assets. The creation of networked and highly democratized stakeholder cooperatives is presented as the most promising organizational approach to commonifying the trans-local, material basis of our electricity and internet delivery systems.

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Chapter 1 lays out the theoretical foundation on which the rest of the book relies, presenting a capitalism that is turning increasingly to ‘engineered scarcity’ to ensure profits. The chapter then turns to the question of possible systemic change. The compeerist framework is here shown to be aligned with, but also distinct from, the peer production approach associated with scholars of the P2P Foundation. Divergence from this ‘P2P approach’ is largely based on compeerism’s adoption of autonomists’ theorizing of capitalism and its coopting power. As such, the prototypical compeerist outlook presented both embraces Hardt and Negri’s call for a bottom-up ‘exodus’ out of capital, while also recognizing the need to engage ‘the market’ and ‘the state’ if capital is ever to be fully overcome. The role of digital technologies is presented here as an important tool that nonetheless only affords certain possibilities; nothing is predetermined.

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Chapter 3 takes up the various options to exit and overcome the organization of the current internet, that is, a transactional cyberspace that has given rise to an increasingly powerful and all-consuming platform capitalism and an emerging ‘data colonialism’. The chapter considers the promise and challenges involved in ‘taking back’ the internet via ‘platform cooperatives’ and a movement to reclaim private and commons-sourced data. This includes efforts to establish a ‘self-sovereign identity’ and the creation of a data commons. Within these efforts the important role of the state, and especially municipalities, comes to the fore.

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Chapter 9 turns to the political mobilization that would be called for to truly achieve a post-capitalist future along compeerist lines. The case is made that such a political-economic upheaval would depend on the emergence of an intentional, commoner consciousness that could inspire a mass political ‘movement of movements’. Yet for such movement to outcompete other, more destructive discourses and mobilizations that are likely to emerge as capitalism’s failings mount, will depend on being able to deliver actual benefits from the commons and commoning. Harnessing a mass mobilization to compeerist ends is thus presented as necessitating both bottom-up forms of exit and targeted ‘hit-and-run’ demands on the state. This latter focus on the state is based on a long-term commitment to improve the chances of localized, compeerist initiatives to form and coalesce to the point where they can effectively challenge capital.

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Chapter 6 delves into the foundational basis of any economy, that is, the renewable and non-renewable resource sectors and the underlying natural planetary systems to which they are bound. This chapter, therefore, deals with the overarching challenge of establishing a more resilient and environmentally sustainable economy within a broader commons-based governance regime. The DG-ML model is here shown to be particularly suited for the needed shift to a truly circular economy. The chapter also focuses on agriculture as a quintessential case of renewable resource management, and a design global, farm local (DG-FL) model is proposed and explored as part of the broader aim of achieving a compeerist approach to feeding the world. The limits to localization are, nonetheless, also addressed as well as the problematic issue of engaging in fair, long distance trade, especially with regions defined by postcolonialism.

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After having remained squarely focused throughout the book on a presentation of compeerism within the context of the current capitalist mode of production, Chapter 10 concludes by looking at what a fully-fledged compeerist economy, released from the fetters of capital dominance, could look like. Importantly, no universal prescriptions are offered, seeing that a compeerist economy and society can have multiple configurations. Nevertheless, the chapter offers a basic outline for approaching some of the major governance issues pertaining to markets, money, and property. Then, to offer something more concrete, the chapter proceeds to lay out just one case of a hypothetical compeerist society. Careful consideration is here given to the interconnected and mutually reinforcing organization of the economic and political spheres of society.

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