Skip directly to content

Michel Bauwens’ “partner state”

on Fri, 07/22/2011 - 20:59

Blogpost written by David Ronfeldt. 

This is the third in this series of similarly-titled posts about the future of the state vis à vis TIMN.

(CLA Note: TIMN stands for four major forms of organization — tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks)

The first focused on Phillip Bobbitt’s concept of the “market state,” the second on Phillip Blond’s “civic state.” This one is about Michel Bauwens’ “partner state.” 

The earlier posts explained why these three together (mostly alliterative happenstance) and provided background on each. The post about Blond also noted some similarities in his and Bauwens’ future prognoses. Since then, I’ve noticed additional differences regarding how Bobbitt, Blond, and Bauwens look at the state — differences that I’ve reduced to space-time-action (STA) orientations, in a nod to this blog’s other theme:

  • Space: In Bobbitt’s writings, perhaps because he’s a constitutional theorist, the state has majesty; it looms large — it’s a centerpiece of social evolution and high civilization. This is less true of Blond’s writings. As a conservative, he’d like to “render the central state superfluous” — though not the state en toto at all levels of society, for he still regards government as necessary. In Bauwens’ writings, presumably because he is on the Left, the state seems more like a begrudged necessity, worth having for limited purposes if it is radically reoriented and kept “modest” in scope. For him, the size of the state is less important than how it is embedded in society. In a way, that makes his perspective extra-interesting for TIMN; many theorists on the Left are so anti-hierarchy that they’d prefer to eliminate the state altogether in the future. 
  • Time: Bobbitt is sweeping in his historical scope, starting with the 1500s and seeming to reach far into the future. However, my sense remains that his market-state notion is more about the present and near future than the long-range. In contrast, Blond recounts little deep history, but for mentions of Edmund Burke. He is preoccupied with the present and near future — yet I think his ideas apply to the longer-range future, better than Bobbitt’s. Of the three, Bauwens engages the longest time span. That reflects his partly-Marxist orientation, as well as his interests in social evolution, Kondratieff waves, and complexity theory. The longer the time perspective, the more interesting for TIMN. 
  • Action: All three believe that people have leverage over the future. But each offers a different emphasis. Bobbitt’s is on the logic of markets, and Blond’s on the logic of civil-society associations, though both nod to other forces. For Bauwens, everything is now being permeated by the logic of networks. Of the three, only he emphasizes the rise of network forms of organization, specifically peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Lots of theorists are interested in networks nowadays; but few are also interested in how they may alter future social evolution — and Bauwens is one of the few.

I’ve intended to post about Bauwens’ concept for months. A recent post — “Blog status update” — alludes to why my posting has lapsed for so long. But there’s another reason for my delay with this particular post: When I first planned to do it, Bauwens had written little about his concept — far less than Bobbitt or Blond had written about theirs — and I expected to have a relatively easy time drafting a post. But then, in a prolific burst, Bauwens produced a string of elaborations; and the longer I languished, the larger grew my backlog of readings about P2P theory and the partner state. I’ve ended up having to read more than I did about either Bobbitt or Blond. I’m still not fully caught up, and I’m still not sure I’m quoting and citing the best sources for Bauwens’ ideas. But what I have here about P2P and the partner state — and I’ve included lots of quotes, perhaps too many — will have to do for now. I expect to draw on additional readings to have more to say about TIMN vis à vis (and versus) P2P in future posts. 

* * * * *

Bauwens anticipates the “partner state”

In Bauwens’ view, what will — and should — supersede the nation-state (as well as the welfare-state and the market-state) is the “partner state.” This will — and should — occur not so much because it offers a better kind of state per se, but because, as the information age progresses, society as a whole will be transformed by the spread of P2P networks across all sectors, and by the growth of the commons as a favored sector. Indeed, his partner state requires a P2P-oriented society that has a strong commons sector.

There is a lot to describe and explain here. And it might be clearer if I were to begin by discussing P2P networks and the commons first, before getting into the nature of the partner state. Bauwens proceeds that way in his own posts at his blog. But I’m sticking to my pattern for this series of posts — sketching the nature of the state comes first. 

Bauwens’ partner state is meant to be a state that enables and empowers people. It should not dominate and determine on its own. Rather, it should support and guide — provide expertise, remove obstacles, be an arbiter, act as a regulator and orchestrator — on behalf of the actors who matter most in his vision: groups and individuals who are arrayed in P2P networks and embody P2P values. Some of these actors may emerge in government and business circles that define the traditional public and private sectors. But most will arise in civil-society circles that reflect a radical expansion of a new third sector — the “commons sector” — which is expected to become as, if not more, influential than the traditional two sectors. 

Here are a few statements about these points, excerpted verbatim from a few of Bauwens’ blog posts (please overlook occasional grammar issues): 

“Beyond punctual adoption of pro-commons policies what we want to achieve in a next phase is a “reform” of the state, towards more of a Partner State model, whereby public authorities empower and enable the social production of value by civil society, and in this way sustains a wide variety of commons-oriented institutions and practices. . . . [W]hat we want to reach ultimately is a transformation of the state, as guarantor of a commons-based civilization. . . . [F]or a thorough commons transformation to occur, we will need fundamentally different state formations.” (source)

“[W]e need a political extension, one that, based on a commons-oriented policy framework, and a push towards replacing the corporate welfare state with a Partner State, . . . [that] institutes commonfare . . . and retakes control of the ‘commanding heights of the economy’, now in the hands of the destructive predatory factions that have taken control of the market states . . . .” (source)

“We believe that under conditions of peer production, the state form will continue to exist, because the common good cannot be solely taking care of by individuals or groups taking on contracts, nor by the invisible hand of the commons, . . . The ultimate goal is the transformation of the present state form which privileges private interests, towards a ‘partner-state form’ which works for the common good, the general interest of the commoners, and the thrivability of the commons.” (source)

“Rather than seeing itself as sovereign master, the state must be seen as embedded in relationships, and as in need of respecting these multiple relationships. . . . We can probably expect that the nation-state, along with the newly emerging sub- and supraregional structures will continue to exist, but that their policies will be set through a dialogue with stakeholders. The key will be to disembed the state from its primary reliance of the private sector, and to make it beholden to civil society, i.e. the commons, so that it can act as a center of arbitrage. . . . This is why we will say elsewhere in the text that one of the key goals of a P2P movement will be, or should be, ‘For a Commons-based Society with a reformed market and state’.” (source)
In many respects, Bauwens observes, the partner state will correspond to a kind of multi-layered and cross-linked “network state” (à la Manuel Castell’s renowned concept of the same name):
“What emerges is a new form of the state. It is a state made of shared institutions, and enacted by bargaining and interactive iteration all along the chain of decision making: national governments, co-national governments, supra-national bodies, international institutions, governments of nationalities, regional governments, local governments, and NGOs (in our conception: neo-governmental organizations). Decision-making and representation take place all along the chain, not necessarily in the hierarchical, pre-scripted order. This new state functions as a network, in which all nodes interact, and are equally necessary for the performance of the state’s functions. The state of the Information Age is a Network State.” (source)
(Note his substitution of “neo-governmental” for “non-governmental” in the standard definition of the acronym NGOs. I like that.)

Those quotes seem to represent the essence of Bauwens’ partner state. It’s a rather spare concept, in that little is said about what such a state would look like in detail — a point true for Blond’s civic-state concept as well. But no matter, the important point is that the philosophical direction is clear, as are its main organizational principles. Many states have long tried to do much that the partner state is supposed to do: enable and empower people in ways that strengthen civil society. Yet, the rise of P2P networks offers a distinctive forward-looking way to do so, one that could not have been proposed before our era. For Bauwens, how the partner state may itself be structured is less important than how it is embedded in the embrace of new P2P networks that represent civil society and especially the commons sector.

Lest Bauwens’ concept — or my sketch — seem too spare, I hasten to point out that it relates, as he occasionally notes, to concepts about “deliberative democracy” (not to mention variants like associativecollaborative, and/orparticipatory democracy). Liberal democracy has long emphasized indirect representation — representative democracy — by way of political parties and popular elections. Deliberative democracy is about creating more direct and immediate ways for people to shape government policies and laws. Thus, deliberative democracy would foster mechanisms like community forums to generate citizen inputs about policy and budget priorities. Bauwens foresees that organizing pro-commons civil-society actors in P2P networks around the partner state may be crucial for instituting deliberative democracy attuned to the information age. 

The big picture of which the partner state is a part 

Clearly, the partner state amounts to only a part, even a relatively small part, of Bauwens’ overall vision. Bobbitt’s market state and Blond’s civic state are the central features of their visions. Not so for Bauwens’ partner state. The nature of P2P society writ large is the central feature for him — the state amounts to just a layer in that vision. 

It’s not entirely clear to me what all the layers are. But P2P-oriented actors representing civil society and the commons sector appear to comprise the major layers (and players). And there are also layers that allow for more traditional public- and private-sector actors. But details aside, my point is that the evolution of P2P society is envisioned in layers — sometimes onion-like with the partner state at the center, in other instances strata-like with the partner state atop. Here is one statement about this: 

“The vision of P2P theory is the following:
1) the core intellectual, cultural and spiritual value will be produced through non-reciprocal peer production;
2) it is surrounded by a reformed, peer-inspired, sphere of material exchange;
3) it is globally managed by a peer-inspired and reformed state and governance system, a “partner state which enables and empowers the social production of value”.
Because of these characteristics, peer to peer can be said to be the core logic of the successor civilization, and is a answer and solution to the structural crisis of contemporary capitalism.” (source / source / variant)
What’s significant (in my view) is that Bauwens’ formulation of a future P2P society / civilization keeps the state around, playing crucial roles, although he and many of his colleagues on the Left might prefer to see states wither away eventually, with other P2P mechanisms (or layers, to stay with the metaphor) taking on their functions. Here is one statement to that effect: 
“My conviction regarding the state is that:
1) It is a current inevitability.
2) In the long term, we do need an expression of general interests that is separate from a mere federation of private interests, even if these are expressed by peer governed civil society networks.
But it is important to realize that the current form of a class-based state . . . is not an eternal form of that general interest.
Our notion of the Partner State is a transitional concept, that would allow the state to evolve from its current corporate welfare orientation, to one where it both becomes an enabler and servant of civil society and its peer networks, and a[n] arbiter in charge of meta-governance between public, private and common/civil functions.
What I’m predicting is that 1) many new functions will progressively replace state functions as they are made progressively redundant; and 2) that for the remaining functions, the very nature of the state as an oppressive entity will change.
. . . As [Paul Hartzog] writes, in what could be an alternative definition of the Partner State concept: “it may be that for the state to continue to participate effectively it would have to overcome its own nature, or state-ness, and in so doing would no longer be a state in any real sense.”” (source; punctuation and paragraphing slightly edited by Ronfeldt)
And, according to Bauwens, this new society and its state should evolve in phases, over a period of many decades, first by attracting political and other actors who come to see its value, then via new social movements that favor the growth of the commons sector, and finally by generating enough reforms to institute the partner state. Here is one statement about this: 
“I see different steps of political maturation of this new sphere of peer power. First, attempts to create networks of sympathetic politicians and policy-makers; then, new types of social and political movements that take up the Commons as their central political issue, and aim for reforms that favour the autonomy of civil society; finally, a transformation of the state towards what I call a Partner State which coincides with a fundamental re-orientation of the political economy and civilization. You will notice that this pretty much coincides with the presumed phases of emergence, parity and phase transition.” (source / source)
In other words, P2P theory is a grand (but not grandiose) theory of social evolution that has visionary implications. But before turning to that, I find that there is much else yet to lay out.

P2P as the transforming form

Bauwens’ concept of the partner state extends from his focus on the rise of “P2P networks.” By this, he means organizational networks that tend to be all-channel (or full-mesh), where everybody is or can be easily connected to everybody else, as an equal. By design and intent, P2P networks are open and inclusive toward all comers who aim to contribute as peers. Indeed, P2P is quite similar to the +N form in the TIMN framework (though, in my view, not all +N networks and actors have to be P2P). 

Thus, P2P networks lack deliberate hierarchy and are decentralized. But more than that, they are distributed — broad distribution is a hallmark. In Bauwens’ view, P2P relations occur best (and perhaps only) in distributed networks. And he contrasts them to centralized (hierarchical / single-hub) and decentralized (heterarchical / multi-hub) networks, which tend to have leaders and hubs that may constrain members. Politically, he equates hierarchy with absolute monarchy, heterarchy with a separation of powers, and distributed networks with a bottom-up, nearly leaderless, even hubless mode of governance. As his colleague David de Ugarte writes, “We are in the process of going from a world of decentralised networks to a world of distributed networks.” (source)

In other words, P2P is akin to “panarchy” — a concept championed by his colleague Paul Hartzog (who is also John Arquilla’s and my source for the concept in our writings). As Bauwens has noted, quoting an unspecified writing by Hartzog, 

“The tagline on is “many.2.many :: peer.2.peer :: d.i.y” precisely because it takes all three of these conditions for an effective panarchy . . . . No one of them is sufficient. 

“D.I.Y.” [do-it-yourself] is necessary but not sufficient. “Many to many” is necessary because communication has to be happening so that individual parts are connecting, disconnecting, and reconnecting in a myriad of new ways all of the time, and “peer to peer” is necessary because that communication has to be happening in a non-hierarchical way in order to actively work against the systemic bias that is the natural consequence of power-based social systems. Communication is only possible between equals.” (source)
In still other words, P2P tends to be “stigmergic” — a concept favored by another of Bauwens’ colleagues, Kevin Carson (not to mention John Robb). What this means is that P2P leads to problem-solving outcomes by enabling multiple individuals to make constant, interactive, iterated inputs to address a task, progressively adjusting the whole until all converge on agreement. Thus, P2P networks are meant to be self-organizing and self-adjusting; they fuse both individualism and collectivism, both competition and cooperation, in ways that were not feasible, nor much valued, until now. 

Bauwens has also said that “P2P projects are characterized by holoptism.” This means that participants can access all information about other participants’ activities and thereby see the whole at any time — it’s a kind of distributed topsight. Holoptism thus contrasts with the hierarchical concept of panoptism. In sum, dynamics like panarchy, stigmergy, and holoptism all help make P2P quite different from how hierarchies and markets normally operate to reach decisions. 

For Bauwens, then, P2P spells a metaphysical as well as organizational shift. It enables “cooperative individualism” and promises an egalitarian revolution of “equipotentiality” in which “people self-allocate to tasks” and accomplish “permissionless self-aggregation” without having to risk being filtered-out or out-ranked. Thus, P2P would supplant the capitalist “division of labor” with an information-age “distribution of labor” that aims for “value creation” by people who contribute voluntarily as peers in order to develop the commons: 

“Peer to peer occurs whenever we can self-aggregate and produce value without permission or dependence on obligatory hubs.” (source)

“P2P follows the adage: each contributes according to his capacities and willingness, and each takes according to his needs.” (source)

“The individual who joins a P2P project, puts his being, unadulterated, in the service of the construction of a common resource.” (source)
Bauwens’ favorite examples of P2P’s emergence include the early open-source efforts at file-sharing (e.g., Napster) and software development (e.g., GNU/Linux), for they spelled the nascence of a digital knowledge commons. But that’s only the beginning in his view. He foresees that P2P will reshape all realms of political, economic, social, and cultural endeavor, from local to global levels. 

P2P networks vis à vis other forms of organization

P2P theory is based on the rising importance of information-age kinds of networks. Yet, P2P also recognizes the importance of two other forms that have dominated social evolution for ages: hierarchies and markets. Indeed, P2P theory, rather like TIMN, is full of discussions about the evolving roles of all three forms — hierarchies, markets, and networks — and the interplay among their respective realms, entities, and actors. 

Of the four TIMN forms, tribes figure the least in P2P theory. It recognizes their early roles in social evolution, as well as some modern manifestations (e.g., online tribes). Moreover, two P2P values — communal shareholding and egalitarian participation — are drawn from ancient tribal dynamics. And one of Bauwens’ favorite new ideas for future transnational enterprises —“phyles” — blends clan and network design elements. Nonetheless, unlike TIMN, P2P hasn’t given tribes the distinction and weight that it gives the other three forms. In spots, P2P even seems more like a hybrid of TIMN’s tribes and networks.

Which leads to another point: P2P theory often refers to hybrids; they occur quite often, and involve all the TIMN types of forms. Thus, Bauwens recalls the tribal form when he defines “P2P as communal shareholding based on participation in a common resource.” He regards the hierarchical form as a “natural and flexible” positive for P2P projects “where everyone finds his place according to demonstrated potential” — for indeed, he adds, “Peer to peer is not anti-hierarchy or even anti-authority, but it is against fixed hierarchies and ‘authoritarianism’.” Finally, the market form enters when P2P is viewed as “a hybrid form with market-based and commons-based aspects.” (source

I think that Bauwens is correct in making points about hybrids. They are for real (and I’ve often written about hybrids myself). But they appear to play larger, more important roles in P2P theory than in TIMN. A positive I see is that, in identifying hybrids, P2P at least preserves ways and places for the classic forms to persist. This may help counter traditional antipathies on the Left to hierarchies and markets, and Leftist hopes that P2P networks could sweep them aside. But a negative I see is that hybrids are so important in P2P theory that they start to dominate the overall picture. Of course, in P2P theory, P2P networks are themselves supposed to become dominant. But that requirement, which is different from TIMN’s requirement that no single form dominate as societies advance, may be what inherently requires P2P to give greater importance to hybrids, including for defining the nature of the partner state. 

In short, P2P has many overlaps with TIMN in organizational terms. That’s why I am attracted to examining P2P, and why I may do a detailed analysis comparing TIMN and P2P in a later post. For now, however, in order to keep this post focused on the partner-state concept, only a few observations seem pertinent to offer, as follows: 

In P2P theory, P2P networks are not only the transforming form, but also the form that is expected to become dominant in the future. P2P networks will — and should — penetrate and alter all sectors and activities. States (i.e., hierarchies) and markets will still exist, but they will be so transformed that only vestiges remain of their original bureaucratic and capitalist tendencies. Indeed, the partner state will take shape as an expression of the P2P form, not the hierarchical institutional form. The partner state may initially emerge as a hybrid of the hierarchical and network forms, but P2P dynamics are supposed to eventually override if not supplant the hierarchical dynamics that ruled the bureaucratic nation-state. The little hierarchy that endures will be made more transparent, voluntary, and benevolent; and the exercise of power will become much more about responsibility than control. 

This is similar to but not exactly like what TIMN augurs for the state and society. Yes, TIMN, much like P2P, is motivated by the rise of the network form, and expects it to alter all sectors and activities. But while TIMN, much like P2P, expects the network form to generate a new sector (see the next section), TIMN does not imply that the +N form will become the dominant form across almost all of society. States will continue to be more about the hierarchical than any other form, no matter how modified states become. In my view, TIMN is concerned about developing but also balancing and limiting the roles of all four forms, keeping their domains relatively separate despite their influences on and interactions with each other. TIMN expects hybrids to occur in all sectors, but not to the degree that appears in write-ups about P2P theory and its implications for politics, economics, and social relations. 

None of this is to say that TIMN or P2P is right and the other wrong about the future of the state. I view both theoretical frameworks as still evolving, far from finished. I’m just trying to convey an understanding of P2P, while also analyzing it from a TIMN perspective. Bauwens’ partner-state concept is consistent in many ways with TIMN (though I think my somewhat-similar nexus-state concept will prove more likely, despite criticisms). Bauwens’ concept is, in my view, on the right track. 

Moreover, as I noted in the post about Blond’s concept of the civic state, part of what seems interesting for both P2P and TIMN is that Blond (on the Right), Bauwens (on the Left), and I (in the Middle?) all end up in roughly similar places with parallel views about the future, despite our differing interpretations: 

  • We all recognize that the state will remain a crucial institution.
  • We all sense that state and society should be less market-oriented.
  • We all hope to strengthen the roles of community and civil society.
  • We all propose new organizational approaches that reflect network notions — Bauwens and I far more explicitly than Blond.
These overlaps, and that last point in particular, serve my search for ways to foresee whether and how a +N sector may materialize — a key reason for my being interested in their future notions about the state and society.

Against this general background, I turn next to focus on several interesting and important aspects of the partner-state concept . . . 

* * * * *

Well, not yet. This write-up is already far longer and more repetitive than I wanted, and I figure I still have a long way to go. So, partly for the sake of recovering a sense of momentum at this blog, I’m breaking it into two parts, and posting what’s above right now as part 1 of 2. 

The second part, which may end up equally long, will address the following topics, probably under the following tentative section titles:

  • P2P as a new (third) mode of governance based on civil society
  • The rise of the commons as a new (third) sector
  • Transition and transformation: a new phase of social evolution
  • Toward a new political spectrum: beyond today’s Right and Left
  • Wrap-up comments about P2P theory and the partner state

[Note: I thank Michel for perusing the pre-final draft of this post, and letting me know he likes it. He offered comments about my points about the roles of hybrids in P2P theory. But they are not crucial to this post and may fit better in a discussion about social evolution in part 2, so I’m going to save them for part 2.]



Posted by David Ronfeldt at 11.10AM on 15 July 2011


Professional status: retired. Fields: first 20 years, U.S.-Latin American security issues (esp. Mexico, Cuba); last 15 years, worldwide implications of the information revolution (cyberocracy, cyberwar, netwar, swarming, noopolitik, the nexus-state). Goals: finish "STA" framework about how people think and act; finish "TIMN" framework about social evolution (past, present, future). Publications: mostly online at and



Vision from Two Theories - (retrieved on 21/07/2011)

A blog described by David Ronfeldt as: "Musings and other materials about: How and why four major forms of organization — tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks (TIMN) — affect social evolution. How and why people's space-time-action orientations (STA) affect their mindsets."



This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic