On the socio-political potentialities of experimental productive alternatives

10 09 2014

This is the title of a paper to be presented at the inter-disciplinary workshop on “Political Action, Resilience and Solidarity” (18th-19th September 2014, King’s College London).
Here is the introduction.

* * *

“Peer to peer” practices are commonly thought of in reference to exchange and sharing of computer files, but they also overlap with other domains. Indeed, they appear to be in expansion in other areas and, in certain cases, pertain to political intent. For example, they currently serve as the basis for initiatives in the field of transportation (carpooling), energy production (in the form of collaborative projects) and food production (from seed sharing to product sharing).

These practices may bring about renewed modalities of coordination and cooperation between many actors, without necessarily being confined to informal registers. Different types of work are developping without the search for financial compensation, and without hierarchical or salary relations. They allow for new forms of production which seem to persist over time and for which denomination attempts have begun to be proposed. While being more oriented towards changes in the information economy that followed the development of the Internet, Yochai Benkler (2002 ; 2006), for example, refers to a new model of “commons-based peer production”.

This form has mainly been studied for immaterial products, such as free software, collaborative encyclopedias, etc, but rarely for more material productions. Therefore, considering their emancipatory appearances, this contribution aims at exploring the potentialities, especially in terms of relation to work, that peer production can have on more material aspects of human activities. This new model may in fact be another way of looking at needs and how to satisfy them, in this case without any monetary medium and appropriation. These productions are not intended to be placed on the market. With these practices, it is the very meaning of work that could change.

Some writers, as the philosopher Bernard Stiegler (2011), announce and describe the emergence of an “economy of contribution.” Bernard Stiegler also pinpoints a “deproletarianization” to try to report a “new organization of work and a new economy of work.” If this “commons-based peer production” can actually be considered to contain such potentialities, it seems useful to test such a hypothesis by studying it in a more sociological context, as regards both its ins and outs, particularly in a period of “economic crisis.”

A mode of production can be characterized by its inputs and outputs (what is necessary for its operation and what it is able to achieve). Three complementary angles can thus be taken to analyze these potentialities more precisely: the modalities of personal engagement and frameworks of relations, the conditions of coordination and organization, and the outputs as a support for (local) resilience.

What is indeed interesting is to understand the ways by which subjectivities can invest in this “commons-based peer production.” Related activities seem more likely to give the feeling that the work thus accomplished has a social purpose and may receive recognition. To what extent can these material practices then change the relationship to work, production and consumption? These activities also contribute to reconfiguring exchange relations and can be a way to renegotiate more practically the networks into which everyday life fits.

But the convergence of these activities and the organization of these relationships are not straightforward. How are such coordinations possible, especially if they are to be maintained over time? In this form of production, collective assemblages seem volatile and if they are based on an organization, the latter is rather flexible (but not as devoid of effectiveness). Community dynamics can play an important role. In keeping with this idea, how can we talk of division of labor? What are the devices that can help stabilize forms of organization?

Moreover, the outputs of these activities appear to be more difficult to qualify with the usual categories. To what extent can these non-conventional forms of work contribute to the emergence of a mode of production with new or original features? How do these initiatives contribute to making new resources available, which could be considered socially and ecologically valuable? One can wonder wether this production method can become sustainable and lasting, particularly with regard to the availability of potential contributors.

Food to ShareThis study is based on an exploration of two types of peer-to-peer collaborations: those which have begun to help build projects of machines and equipment, such as the RepRap 3D printer and open-source hardware developed on contributory bases, and local initiatives in food production, such as “Incredible Edible”, an idea which originally started in 2008 in the town of Todmorden, North of England, to transform available public spaces into areas for growing food products and put them into open access[1].

As it was difficult to investigate simultaneously on multiple, rhizomatic terrains (although France was the main field considered), the research was undertaken taking advantage of the possibilities to observe these experiments at a distance[2]. Many of these abounding initiatives present themselves on the Internet while using it as a vector of diffusion[3]. They offer access to their motivations and their arguments. They can also give descriptions of activities undertaken. Their reflections, works, and the debates behind them, can also be followed remotely via social networks, mailing lists, discussion forums, wikis, etc., frequently set up to ensure their collective functioning and advances. On these bases, which can be identified and classified to form a corpus of documentary material, the inquiry can then identify and characterize the justifications and promises that are put forward, therefore start accessing rationalities, follow ranges of activities (Bidet, 2012) and make links between them, while ensuring the consideration of all constraints and resources that underpin them. All the traces left enable us to follow networks (Latour, 2005) which, in fact, ensure the implementation of these initiatives and experiments, the nature and shape of which will variably ensure their stability and durability[4].

From these two experimental fields, one oriented towards digital manufacturing, the other in food production, and to assess the conditions of possibility of a material form of “commons-based peer production”, the analysis will go deeper into the previous three angles. It will first be shown that for material goods, unselfish frames of mind are also possible and can be exercised towards productive activities by stimulating their own forms of work (1). Social relations and forms of coordination will then be analyzed, especially as they can facilitate and help these activities gain momentum (2). By reconnecting (evolution of) work and (evolution of) production systems, we will conclude by providing elements to evaluate the alternative routes and the potentialities that this type of productive activity seems to open in the socio-economic order, including providing new capabilities and resources to the lives of individuals and groups (3).

The full version of the paper can be downloaded as a PDF file.

Comments are welcome.


[1] The corresponding local groups were recently estimated at around fifty in the UK and three hundred in France (Julian Dobson, “10 Steps Toward an Incredible Edible Town”, Shareable, December 3, 2013, http://www.shareable.net/blog/10-steps-toward-an-incredible-edible-town, retrieved on February 22nd 2014. The movement is now spreading in many other countries and can be followed on the Internet through a “Google map” where new locations in the world are updated, in a spirit that is also conceived to promote interactivity (See “Incredible edible world interest map”, http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/blogs/incredible-edible-world-interest-map, retrieved on March 21st 2014).

[2] Meetings and interviews were conducted with members of the local hackerspace in Nice (the Nicelab), which has built its 3D printer on the model of the RepRap.

[3] It may thus be an important contribution as empirical material (texts, photos, videos, etc.), if methodology is properly adapted (Barats, 2013).

[4] Regarding this analytical approach, see also Callon, 1991. Entry through networks has proved useful for understanding the development of alternative practices in food production. See Goodman, DuPuis and Goodman, 2011.

Sustainable development and institutional reflexivity

24 01 2014

Sociological FocusMore and more entreaties demand a great transition to try to cope with environmental threats that gain ground. The realization of “sustainable development” tends to be increasingly thought of in such terms. In a recent article (“The search for “sustainable development” pathways as a new degree of institutional reflexivity”, Sociological Focus, vol. 46, n° 4, 2013, pp. 314-336), I try to understand how the “sustainable development” perspective, while penetrating the institutional spheres, has become a catalyst for and the product of a form of collective reflexivity that also has implications in governmental activities. This study thus critically analyzes the reflexive dynamics that appear to be in progress in governmental activities and seem to integrate the transitional perspective as a driving force in a series of interrelated dimensions.

“Sustainable development” issues have become an obligatory point of passage for any public action and an essential value in political and administrative discourse (Rumpala, 2003). There seems to be a pragmatic and hesitant construction of a new meta-narrative (Rumpala, 2010). Under the heading of “sustainable development,” intentions seem to accumulate in favor of a vast corrective program to deal with threats (particularly ecological ones) that weigh heavily on the planet and humanity. Inspirations from the Brundtland report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) have become an active influence and frequently serve as minimal and nearly consensual references to the most widespread views, which converge to promote something that would resemble a “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is still a great ambition, since it is a question of consciously carrying out, for the long term, a quasi-general adaptation that would combine a variety of interlinked adjustments in many fields and dimensions (economic, social, technological, cultural, and institutional). As a matter of fact, the need for change and the importance of guiding such a process have become structuring ideas and have begun to find their way into institutional agendas. Different milieus (administrative, academic, expert, etc.) more or less close to the institutional sphere are elaborating reflections about the way to manage what can be conceptualized as a transition, that is to say the dynamics enabling human activities to go from one situation (“un-sustainable”) to another (“sustainable”). In the academic and scientific fields, the growing number of publications (reports, articles, books, etc.) written with this perspective and including an expression like “transition to sustainability” in their title can be taken as a reliable indicator of its development. Certain publications clearly communicate the desire to give some sort of support for decision-making processes (for example: Elzen, Green, and Geels, 2004).

The Consequences of ModernityThis transitional perspective seems to confirm an intellectual framework which is beginning to have practical effects. This framework in progress can exert a structuring effect because it can give meaning to what needs to be done and define the ways of organizing and implementing interventions. Basically, this could be analyzed as another instance of “institutional reflexivity” that Anthony Giddens (synthetically in The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1990) has shown to be the central role in the evolution of modern society. With this expression, he actually tried to indicate the importance of recursive phenomena by which the use of the knowledge of social systems also tends to contribute more and more to their organization and their transformation. But it should be clarified that there are also factors that can foster dynamics of institutional reflexivity and this is the hypothesis that this article proposes to work on. Together with the different types of knowledge which can be produced and communicated, the various attempts to think about the transition towards a sustainable development are likely to strengthen such an institutional reflexivity. More precisely, wishes to engage the generalized transition deemed necessary tend to lead to a greater degree of institutional reflexivity. Indeed, the policy communities concerned are reflecting on certain social processes that could be acted on and these reflections are starting to define policies. Therefore, if ways of thinking are brought about by the desire to arrive at a “sustainable” stage of development, it is not only useful to study them but also to more precisely and critically distinguish which elements of reflexivity are developing, in which directions, and in what way they support initiatives and processes that are supposed to drive this transition.

Translations of this objective of sustainable development seem indeed to contribute to building and highlighting relatively new objects of government (Earth’s climate, natural habitats, etc.) or to transform the understanding of older ones (economic growth, technological progress, consumption, etc.). They participate in the reorganization of programmatic frameworks from which institutional responses are elaborated, and they seem to find extensions in a range of devices with operational purposes.

The objective of my article is to go beyond the existing literature on “sustainability transitions” (Markard, Raven, and Truffer, 2012) by considering that a historical moment in a process of rationalization may be under way. This contribution aims to analyze the reflexive dynamics that appear to be in progress in governmental activities and that seem to integrate the transitional perspective as a driving force in a series of interrelated dimensions. The study firstly examines in what spirit and with what aims this theme of transition has benefited from intellectual explorations and has become an object of reflection in academic and politico-administrative milieus. The second part brings to the fore the efforts of actors who defend this perspective to legitimate the transition, and how this has also contributed to making it an object of discursive framing, carried by different forms of apparently voluntarist discourses. Finally, this article explains how the understanding of this transition as an object of government, specifically when policy protagonists approach concrete aspects, can also bring about particular reflexive processes by confronting the envisaged interventions with the practices and interests that make up the social fabric.

The article is available on the journal’s site or on request by email (rumpala [at] unice.fr).

Degrowth from a transitional perspective

20 08 2013

ESA 2013Paper to be presented at the
European Sociological Association 11th Conference
in Turin
(Panel “Practices of Transformation Beyond Growth and Paths of Transition”),
31st August 2013.


Broadly speaking, the theme of “sustainable degrowth”, as an alternative collective project, has mostly been presented and justified as a new common horizon allowing populations to find solutions to current challenges concerning ecological sustainability and human living conditions. However, if it is a question of moving from one state to another one with different characteristics, the problem will be to find a transition. For this project to be credible, a process of reflection should be undertaken about such a transition that would allow a movement towards a “sustainable degrowth”, and notably about the manner and modalities of this transformation. From this point of view, while it is a question of turning away from paths considered to be harmful, propositions about “degrowth” suffer from not truly being linked to a theory of change. And yet, this theory appears to be essential to conceive the conditions to which this type of vast project could apply. As a starting point for moving forward, three foci of reflection are suggested, which prove to be determining factors because they also correspond to realms of confrontation that such a project would be faced with in the present world:

– the relationship with dominant values which largely influences the conditions of the diffusion and acceptance of ideas;

– the capacities of generalizing (counter-)practices and of facilitating the accumulation of alternative experiences;

– the possibilities of reducing structural constraints thanks to the coordination and networking of existing initiatives.

=> Download the paper

Additive manufacturing as global redesigning of politics?

1 03 2012

3D printers (ie, three-dimensional, since they work by adding layers of material one on top of the other) are beginning to generate a lot of comments. They suggest potentially important changes in the way of making a range of everyday objects. But this is not the only possibility. Certainly, there are technical and economic implications, but beyond this, there could also be more structural and far-reaching political effects. It is these effects that this contribution aims to explore.

These technical developments, combining digital design and new modes of automated production, open spaces for experimentation, which are for the moment mainly visible in communities of technophile tinkerers like “fab labs” (“fabrication laboratories”) and “hackerspaces”. But, since these tools are designed to be eventually accessible to the broader public[1], it would be useful to look beyond the still experimental nature of these initiatives. One can indeed make the hypothesis that changes in the political realm, and potentially profound changes, can also occur by the accumulation of dispersed practices even if they appear merely technical (just as computer connections over the Internet have not only opened up new possibilities of communication, but also catalyzed political changes).

Beyond the economic impacts that are beginning to be studied more often, it is this potential to transform the political order that also deserves consideration, especially insomuch as such an evolution could be even felt on a global scale. It is not a question of merely saying that there are political elements in technologies, which is now commonly accepted[2], but that some contain potentialities for change which go beyond their designers and the importance of which will be revealed in their conditions of actualization. It is precisely a question of identifying these potentialities and analyzing them, specifically as material factors that can also have political effects.

The register in which 3D printing has developed is not really one of frontal resistance against the dominant terms of the economic system, but the latter could nevertheless find itself destabilized. This type of new technology seems to offer renewed capacities (control and mastery of the techniques used, unlocking of desires of creativity, etc.) for individuals or communities, especially the possibility of putting these capacities in social spaces that appeared to have been dispossessed of them. Could this be seen as a new form of empowerment by technology?

If each person can make, rather than buy, many of the objects he or she needs, then these new tools can bring current ways of life out of a massive industrial model dependent on large production units. They seem to reveal new patterns of production and consumption, and therefore potentially different relationships between individuals and commodities. For individuals, such a technology could thus represent a way of reducing their dependence on the industrial system. In addition, this technology, which is also designed so that some machines can become self-replicating, makes the presence of certain intermediaries almost unnecessary, including commercial intermediaries or logistics services.

If we examine them from Ivan Illich’s inspiration[3], these additive manufacturing technologies appear to provide autonomization possibilities, or at least they can give margins of autonomy. This method of personalized manufacturing allows the passivity to which the consumer has often been subjected to be circumvented, by reopening or broadening of spaces for creativity. The anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin, who, as part of his project of “social ecology” sought to show that some technologies can have a “liberatory potential”, may have seen there an example of those machines allowing to bring the production away from increasingly imposing industrial apparatuses and to free up individuals to do or complete other tasks than stultifying and binding work[4]. With this decentralized mode of production, which is a priori suited to individual needs, we can also assume that the utility value could tend to prevail over the exchange value, since anyone can make the desired object and that the exchange becomes superfluous (except perhaps when special characteristics must be added).

The potentialities of this type of technology are also linked to the social bases on which it grows. A large part of its development is indeed favoured by collaborations in networks, which allow individuals, again thanks to the Internet, to exchange and share ideas, and compare experiences. It thus has a strong rhizomatic potential, in the way it can spread (thanks to advances in the digital world), but also in the way it can challenge installed hierarchies and subordinations. The change would be possible not by an impetus from economic or political hierarchies, but diffusely, with a technology enabling new practices which, when generalized, could themselves have systemic effects. Thanks to the techniques developed, capacities seem to be given back to communities, like those that have qualified themselves as “makers”.

It is possible to imagine that the scope of these transformations can be global. Indeed, the space of flows (to use the notion of Manuel Castells[5]) and the organization of these flows, both for materials and productions made possible, can be upset by the generalization of such tools, all the more so if they are accompanied by premises like fab labs becoming commonplace in everyday environments. If 3D printing tools bring the productions of objects back on more decentralized bases, it is likely to become difficult to speak of international division of labor. This type of technology, whose cost seems in fact to be decreasing, may make industrial infrastructures obsolete and can help redistribute economic power. It is obviously too early to say whether such tools can bring a halt to economic globalization, but at least we can assume they can contribute to dynamics of relocalization and reduction in the volume of international trade. From this point of view, one could compare this technology to an innovation such as the container[6], but with almost opposite effects. Additive manufacturing can contribute to further destabilization of hierarchies of scale, but in distinct forms, even adverse to those that could have occurred with globalization[7].

In order not to yield to technological messianism, we should however be aware of the obstacles that the diffusion of these technologies is likely to meet, starting with those posed by the various actors who have opposite interests to their development, and those resulting from ecological constraints and the availability of resources. Of course, this technology is not yet fully developed, but it would not be judicious to neglect it on the grounds of its uncertain future, for it could have a larger impact than the current experiments and techy craft projects that its designers and users are for the moment producing and trying to make work. These conceivable potentialities are all the more challenging to analyze that they revive questions about interrelationships between what is technical and what is political, including how technical advances can expand political capacities, possibly on a worldwide scale.

[1] See Leslie Gordon, “Rapid prototyping for the masses”, Machine Design, vol. 83, n° 10, 9 June 2011, pp. 40-42.

[2] In line with the reflections of Langdon Winner, “Do artifacts have politics?”, Daedalus, vol. 109, n° 1, 1980, pp. 121-136, reprinted in The Whale and the Reactor. A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986. See also Geoffrey L. Herrera, “Technology and International Systems”, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, vol. 32, n° 3, December 2003, pp. 559-593.

[3] See Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, London, Marion Boyars, 2001.

[4] See “Towards a liberatory technology”, in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Montreal/Buffalo, Black Rose Books, 1986.

[5] See “The Space of Flows”, in The Rise of the Network Society, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

[6] See Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008.

[7] For a comparison with dynamics that can be relaled to globalization, see Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2006.

P.S.: I will make a presentation on this theme at the next Millenium annual conference, “Materialism and World Politics” (London School of Economics and Political Science, October 20-21, 2012). The text can be downloaded here.

Degrowth as transition

5 09 2008

« Sustainable degrowth vis-a-vis the question of “how?”
    An overview of prospects for transition and their conditions for realization »

Paper for the International Conference « Economic degrowth for ecological sustainability and social equity », Paris, 18-19 April 2008.


There are numerous reflections which stress that the logics of actual development are not “sustainable”. Logically, the concerns and dissatisfactions raised often lead to the search for an alternative. From this point of view, the idea of “degrowth” arouses a growing interest, even though it remains rather peripheral compared to other discussions, in particular those developed from the concept of “sustainable development”. The available proposals provide a view of a new horizon, although the vision presented is generally rather vague.

This concept in effect appears to be more easily defined by what it does not want than by what it wants. At its core, it proposes the need to leave obsession with economic growth, transformed to an ultimate objective, almost self referential to the detriment of other considerations, in particular ecological and social considerations. It places the schemes of permanent and infinite accumulation in contrast to the limits of the planet, with the idea of promoting the search for a model of social organization which would make it possible to ensure, in an equitable and democratic way, subsistence and activities of the public [populations] without degrading the natural substrata. Such a project should then pass via a “regular reduction in material and energy consumption, in countries and for those populations which consume more than their acceptable ecological impact”.

Around this core, the visions suggested in fact remain diverse, more or less formalized according to their proponents (associations, academics …) and we are still waiting for clarifications. However, beyond the difficulties of definition, proposals on “degrowth” seem to find it all the more difficult to be considered in the debates as the ways of getting there seem even more vague. It is this problem (almost ignored) that this paper wishes to examine. In order to pass from one state to another, with different characteristics, a transition is needed. While the point of arrival might be more clearly defined, which transition would be necessary for sustainable degrowth? The question is all the more important as the obstacles on this path are numerous. And all the more numerous as it would involve major change, on a broad scale and intended to last in time. The transition envisioned in this perspective turns on an inclusive process, supposed to intervene across a whole system in order to make it evolve right to its roots. Touching at the same time rationale, practices, institutions, cultural bases. In other words, if the aim is sustainable degrowth, this transition is similar to the search for means of extrication (“paths of extrication”), to take again (by diverting it somewhat) an expression used in the study of “democratic transitions”, in order to indicate the exit points from authoritarian modes.

Beyond this analogy, this idea of extrication is interesting in the sense that the objective of degrowth in effect presupposes that it is necessary to leave those trajectories considered to be damaging. Adopting this perspective encourages movement of the analysis toward the identification of possible paths and, in continuation, to re-situate these paths in relation to the collective choices to be carried out and with the more or less same weight as the previous structures. This extrication implies passage through a period of reorganization, which itself can have us envisage various stages, various sequences. What it is then necessary to explore, is the installation of a process of transformation, which is a matter of consciously realizing, over the long term, a nearly general adaptation combining multiple intermingled adjustments, in a plurality of dimensions (economic, technological, cultural, institutional). However, from this point of view, the proposals for degrowth do not appear truly articulated in a theory of the change.

Such an imposing transforming perspective effectively assumes one collective intention as to the direction to be considered, but also raises the stakes in finding the means of organizing or “managing” such a transition. In fact, a project, especially one with such vast ambition, can only be carried out with difficulty if the conditions under which it can apply are thought through. It raises interdependent problems, and whatever the entry point, leads to a pass through a cascade of subjects which can hardly be treated without an overall picture. What it also means is that one has to find a plurality of levers whose actions are coherent amongst themselves. As much on the analytical level as the pragmatic, it then becomes preferable to have a systemic overview of the situation and its possible evolution. But that leads at the same time to the question of complexity (because of a multitude of potentially heterogeneous variables to take into account) and the possibility of dealing with it within a logic of change.

Beyond the question of “what to do?”, this paper aims especially at “how to make?”. Indeed, the difficulties evoked above encourage us to take more seriously the transitional dimension, and to reflect more on the adaptation of the idea of transition. In particular it will be a question of examining their bases and the implications of them, acting in particular on the design of the transition as a process to be managed, of the capacity to correct trajectories considered to be problematic, and conditions of collective action vis-a-vis a project aiming at the social whole.

Thus reconsidered, in the end the prospect for the “sustainable degrowth” would have the intent to reflect on:
– the terms of diffusion and acceptance of ideas (like those of sobriety in consumption, of criticism of materialist satisfaction, of revision in the manner of thinking of work…);
– the possibilities of generalizing practices and capitalization of experiences (such as those aimed at revising the links with goods, the modes of use of products, or using innovative forms of economic solidarity like recycling shops…) ;
– the work of coordination to be engaged between existing initiatives (like those seeking to restore short circuits, to create buying co-operatives, to bring consumers and producers closer together…).

These are the three axes that this paper proposes to explore more deeply. In effect, these three axes are less avoidable as they correspond to three fields of confrontation.

The first confronts the project of “sustainable degrowth” with the need to consider standard schemes and vested interests. How to make dominant interests evolve, in particular economic interests? Is it enough to attack advertising as the Ad Busters try to do? If the public is to be sensitized, can conferences and marches for degrowth be enough?

Another important question is that of confrontation with those practices (modes of consumption, modes of transport…), whose anchors reveal the multiple dependences suffered by the public. From which range of proposals to draw to start the adaptation of practices? Is it necessary to support community practices, for example in energy production, housing or transport? Is it necessary to develop a “do it yourself” culture, to restore markets for second hand products?

The final ambition of the project puts it fundamentally on the level of structures, at the same time institutional, economic, technological in their dimensions, etc. The difficulty is to release these capacities, to put intervening actions in synergy, in plans or in different styles? How to structurally create the conditions for collective participation? The dynamics of networks, and more particularly setting up networks of various experiments (like Local Exchange Trading Schemes [LETS], Community-Supported Agriculture [CSA], etc.), which appear to offer one track and their joint development thus deserves more attention.

The paper can be downloaded in French.