Now that Syriza has prevailed in the Greek elections, a new field of battle has emerged:  the political maneuvering before debt-relief negotiations.  Syriza’s decisive victory is sending some richly deserved shock waves through the citadels of finance capital and their partners in government, especially in Europe. 

Not since the 2008 financial crisis have neoliberal policies and politicians suffered such a stinging public rebuke – through democratic elections, no less.  The financial establishment and leading politicians around the world want nothing more than to staunch the damage. They clearly wish to isolate the new prime minister and undermine his party’s leadership.  They would also love to kill in the cradle many socially minded initiatives that Syriza plans (protections against home foreclosures, restoration of pensions, basic healthcare, etc.).

Hence the fierce media propaganda war now underway to defame Syriza and lock in a negative set of images and ideas about it. I keep hearing the term “radical left” a lot (funny, the press never called austerity politics a program of the “radical right”).  British Prime Minister David Cameron recently warned, “The Greek election will increase economic uncertainty across Europe” – as if that hasn’t been the case for years.

There are also many attacks on the coalition government as unprincipled and expedient, particularly after Syriza made a coalition government with ANEL (a conservative party whose acronym translates as “independent Greeks”).  ANEL is socially conservative but it is also extremely hostile to big capital and the current banking system.  It is more radical than Syriza in that it wants to nationalize banks and throw out the Greek oligarchy.

I thought it was telling, in its account of the elections, that the New York Times gave the last word to the neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics.  A fellow there counseled Greece to move to the political center because “it would show that these protest movements ultimately recognize reality – which is that they are in the euro, and they have to play by the rules.”  Otherwise, he warned, “things could get a lot worse.  Very, very quickly.” 

“Play by the rules,” “face reality” – or things will get “a lot worse.” Worse than the slow-motion social disintegration that austerity is already imposing on the Greeks?  Such advice is darkly humorous in light of the rule-breaking, reality-defying audacity of banks, financial institutions and investors.

Tomorrow’s election in Greece could be a significant turning point in the fight against neoliberal austerity politics and an opportunity to inaugurate commons-based alternatives – from peer production to co-operatives to social economy innovations – with the support of the state. Needless to say, it is a complicated situation, not just the political and cultural dynamics within Greece, but the ambition of stepping off in new directions beyond those sanctioned by the European and global financial establishment. 

Fortunately, John Restakis provides some excellent and subtle insight into the Greek situation in a recent blog post on the Commons Transition website (which is worth visiting in its own right!).  John is past Executive Director of the BC Co-operative Association in Vancouver and  has spent many years in community organizing, adult and popular education, and co-op development.  He also lectures widely on the subject of globalization, regional development and alternative economics.

John’s piece is worth reading not just for its assessment of the Greek crisis, but also for the larger challenge of moving commons-based peer production and social alternatives into the mainstream.

Civil Power and the Path Forward for Greece

By John Restakis

With the prospect of a Syriza government, everyone is wondering what the future holds for Greece.  Whether disaster or deliverance, or just the normal chaos, it is hard to ignore the potential for game-changing repercussions from a Syriza government. On the street however, embittered by the failures of governments in the past to change a corrupt and dysfunctional political system, few people are expecting big things from Syriza. The feeling of popular cynicism and fatalism is palpable. How different will Syriza be?

One thing is certain. If Syriza does what it says, it will be forging a courageous and desperately needed path in Europe, not only in opposition to the austerity policies that are devastating the country, but to the neoliberal ideas, institutions, and capital interests that are their source and sustenance. For such a path to succeed, an entirely different view of economic development, of the role of the market, and of the relation between state and citizen is necessary.

It is in this context that the social economy has become an important aspect of Syriza’s plans for re-making the economy. Like other parties of both the right and left in Europe, Syriza is taking cognizance of the role that the social economy can play in the current crisis. Even the Cameron government in the UK, the epicenter of European neo-liberalism, has promoted the social economy as a sector with a strategic role to play in job creation, in improving public services, and in reforming the role of government. In the last election, Mutualism and the Big Society were its slogans.

It all sounds very nice, until it becomes evident just how little right wing governments understand, or care about, what the social economy is and how it functions. For the Cameron government co-operatives, and the social economy more generally, became a cover and a means for public sector privatizations, for weakening job security, and for reducing the role of government. Thousands of public sector workers have been coerced into joining pseudo-co-operatives to save their jobs. Under the current government, the same is beginning to happen in Greece with the newly formed KOINSEPs. This is a travesty of the nature and purpose of co-operatives whose memberships must always be voluntary, whose governance is democratic, and whose purpose is to serve their members and their communities for their common benefit – not the ideological aims of government. It’s a lesson that few governments understand.

For the right, the social economy is often viewed as a final refuge for the discarded of society and the victims of the capitalist economy. It is one reason why the right advocates charity as the proper response for the poor. Never solidarity or equity. More recently, the rhetoric and principles of the social economy have been used to expand the reach of capital into civil spaces. For these reasons co-operatives and social economy organizations in the UK, and elsewhere, have condemned the distortion of social economy principles for vested political interests. But what are these principles?

Is it possible to imagine a new sort of synthesis or synergy between the emerging peer production and commons movement on the one hand, and growing, innovative elements of the co-operative and solidarity economy movements on the other? 

That was the animating question behind a two-day workshop, “Toward an Open Co-operativism,” held in August 2014 and now chronicled in a new report by UK co-operative expert Pat Conaty and me.  (Pat is a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and a Research Associate of Co-operatives UK, and attended the workshop.) 

The workshop was convened because the commons movement and peer production share a great deal with co-operatives....but they also differ in profound ways.  Both share a deep commitment to social cooperation as a constructive social and economic force.  Yet both draw upon very different histories, cultures, identities and aspirations in formulating their visions of the future.  There is great promise in the two movements growing more closely together, but also significant barriers to that occurring.

The workshop explored this topic, as captured by the subtitle of the report:  “A New Social Economy Based on Open Platforms, Co-operative Models and the Commons,” hosted by the Commons Strategies Group in Berlin, Germany, on August 27 and 28, 2014. The workshop was supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, with assistance with the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation of France. 

Below, the Introduction to the report followed by the Contents page. You can download a pdf of the full report (28 pages) here. The entire report is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 license, so feel free to re-post it.

The P2P Foundation recently launched a new website, the Commons Transition Platform,  as a central repository for policy ideas that help promote a wide variety of commons and peer-to-peer dynamics.  The site represents a new, more coordinated stage of activism in this area – collecting practical policy proposals for legally authorizing and encouraging the creation of new commons.

The website is a database of “practical experiences and policy proposals aimed toward achieving a more humane and environmentally grounded mode of societal organization.”  The idea is to begin to outline how policies could bring about and support a commons-based civil society, with a special focus on how collaborative stewardship of shared resources can be achieved. 

The P2P Foundation has stated its aspirations for the new initiative this way:

With the Commons Transition Plan as a comparative document, we intend to organize workshops and dialogues to see how other commons locales, countries, language-communities but also cities and regions, can translate their experiences, needs and demands into policy proposals. The Plan is not an imposition nor is it a prescription, but something that is intended as a stimulus for discussion and independent crafting of more specific commons-oriented policy proposals that respond to the realities and exigencies of different contexts and locales. This project therefore, is itself a commons, open to all contributions, and intended for the benefit of all who need it.

The Commons Transition Platform currently features three main policy documents, each originally created for Ecuador’s groundbreaking FLOK Society Project.  The FLOK Project (Free Libre Open Knowledge) produced a comprehensive set of policy proposals for encouraging knowledge commons and peer production.  These documents – written by Michel Bauwens, John Restakis and George Dafermos – have been newly revised and updated in non-region-specific versions.

In a short, fascinating piece at Guerrilla Translation!, Madrid-based journalist Bernardo Gutiérrez shows how the collaborative practices of pre-capitalist indigenous peoples are not so different from post-capitalist practices of crowdfunding, open source software and peer production. 

“The native peoples anticipated the much-touted sharing economy by a few centuries," writes Gutiérrez. "While the current global crisis pushes capitalism towards an irreversible mutation, our vision of a post-capitalist future is remarkably similar to the pre-capitalist origins of indigenous America.” 

He notes that the Spaniards had many words for the commons in 1492, and pre-Colombian Latin Americans had their own terms for collaborative practices:    

Tequio, a term of Zapotec culture describes community labor or material contributions to help finish a construction project for collective benefit. 

Minga, a Quechua term used in Ecuador and the north of Perú, describes collective work.  The word has a connotation of “the challenge of overcoming selfishness, narcissism, mistrust, prejudice and jealousy.” 

Mutirão, a term from the Tupi in Brazil, describes “collective mobilizations based on non-remunerated mutual help.”  The term was originally used to describe the “civil construction of community houses where everyone is a beneficiary” and the mutual help is offered through “a rotating, non-hierarchical system.” 

Maloka is a term used to describe an indigenous communal house in the indigenous Amazon region of Colombia and Brazil – in today’s terms, a co-working space and knowledge commons.

It’s been a year since the publication of Think Like a Commoner:  A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons. I’m pleased to report that not only have domestic US sales gone well, but there will be seven foreign translations by the end of 2015.

There is already a French translation, La Renaissance des Communs:  Pour une société de coopération et de partage, published by Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer, of Paris, which commissioned me to write the book in the first place. 

There is also a Polish translation, The Commons:  Dobro Wspólne dla każdego, (downloadable for free from the Internet Archives. The Polish edition was initiated and translated by Petros & Natasha of the Freelab collective and published by the Social Cooperative “Faktoria,” in Poland.

Now, translations are underway in Spanish, Italian, Greek, Chinese and Korean, all with the generous permission of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation (which is directly supporting the Chinese translation).

The Spanish translation is being made by Guerrilla Translation of Madrid in cooperation with a number of commons-based groups in Spain. A special thanks to Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel for their tenacity and leadership in making this happen.

Italian translator Bernardo Parrella has done a lot of work exploring publishing arrangements for Think Like a Commoner in Italy.  The good news is that Stampa Alternativa will publish the Italian edition in the spring, probably in April.

The Korean version will be published by Galmuri Press.  Details of the Greek and Chinese publishing arrangements are still being worked out, but in the meantime translations are proceeding. 

I was frankly surprised at the number of translations that have materialized for Think Like a Commoner in only one year. The cross-cultural interest suggests that the commons is fast becoming part of the Zeitgeist, recognized as a powerful way to begin to confront the dead-end economics and values of neoliberalism and to imagine a new and better world.

My thanks to everyone who is helping make these translations of my book happen!

The Lost Right of Gleaning

Amazingly, it is sometimes a criminal act to retrieve food that has been thrown away. Often it is simply seen as culturally inappropriate or embarrassing. But when an estimated $165 billion worth of food gets thrown away in the U.S. every year, surely it’s time to change our attitudes about food waste.

That was the point behind Rob Greenfield's cross-country bicycle trip this fall. To call attention to the amount of food that is wasted, the San Diego activist spent months on the road, surviving entirely on food that he pulled out of dumpsters behind grocery stores and pharmacies.

Typically Greenfield would arrive in town on his bicycle and start to rummage through dumpsters. He usually emerged with perfectly good food – bunches of bananas, apples, boxes of unopened crackers and cookies, packs of soda, bottles of iced tea, and a smorgasbord of other perfectly edible food. Then he would take a photo of the haul of "waste."

In a trip that took him to some 300 dumpsters, Greenfield estimates that he recovered over $10,000 worth of food and fed well over 500 people. On his website, Greenfield posted many photos of his dumpster harvests.

Greenfield said, “I’ve learned that I can roll up in nearly any city across America and collect enough food to feed hundreds of people in a matter of one night. The only thing that limited me was the size of the vehicle I had to transport it. My experience shows me that grocery store dumpsters are being filled to the brim with perfectly good food every day in nearly every city across America, all while children at school are too hungry to concentrate on their studies."  About 50 million of 317 million Americans are food insecure, he notes.

Degrowth, the Book

In industrialized societies, where so many people regard economic growth as the essence of human progress, the idea of deliberately rejecting growth is seen as insane.  Yet that is more or less what the planet’s ecosystems are saying right now about the world economy. It’s also the message of an expanding movement, Degrowth, that is particularly strong in Europe and the global South. 

A few months ago I blogged about the massive Degrowth conference in Leipzig, Germany, that attracted 3,000 people from around the world. The basic point of the discussions was how to get beyond the fetish of growth, intellectually and practically, and how to transform our idea of “the economy” so that it incorporates such important values as democracy, social well-being and ecological limits.

Several of the movement’s leading figures have now released a rich anthology of essays, Degrowth:  A Vocabulary for a New Era (Routledge). It is the first English language book to comprehensively survey the burgeoning literature on degrowth.  More about the book on its website and an amusing three-minute video.  

The editors -- Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Giorgios Kallis – are three scholars at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, and members of the group Research & Degrowth. The editors describe degrowth as “a rejection of the illusion of growth and a call to repoliticize the public debate colonized by the idiom of economism.”  The basic idea is to find new ways to achieve “the democratically-led shrinking of production and consumption with the aim of achieving social justice and ecological sustainability.” 

Here’s how the book jacket describes the volume: 

We live in an era of stagnation, rapid impoverishment, rising inequalities and socio-ecological disasters. In the dominant discourse, these are effects of economic crisis, lack of growth or underdevelopment. This book argues that growth is the cause of these problems and that it has become uneconomic, ecologically unsustainable and intrinsically unjust.

When the language in use is inadequate to articulate what begs to be articulated, then it is time for a new vocabulary. A movement of activists and intellectuals, first starting in France and then spreading to the rest of the world, has called for the decolonization of public debate from the idiom of economism and the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective. ‘Degrowth’ (‘décroissance’) has come to signify for them the desired direction of societies that will use fewer natural resources and will organize themselves to live radically differently. ‘Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a degrowth society might look like.

The Capacity to Perceive the Commons

I increasingly think that anthropologists may have some of the deepest insights into the commons because they have the courage to pierce the veil of cultural norms.  This point was brought home to me by a wonderful essay by anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann of Stanford University in the New York Times.

“Americans and Europeans stand out from the rest of the world for our sense of ourselves as individuals,” she wrote.  “We like to think of ourselves as unique, autonomous, self-motivated, self-made. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed, this is a peculiar idea.”  By contrast, she noted, Asians tend to perceive things in more holistic, contextual ways. 

Social psychology experiments confirm many of these findings about people’s perceptions of interdependence and individualism.  Show Americans an image of fish swimming amidst various seaweed plants, and they will more likely to focus on large fish in the foreground.  But show the same image to Asians and they are more likely to remember first the sea plants and other objects.    

Context or foreground?  People who live in market-based cultures seem to have trained themselves to focus on the salient individuals while literally failing to see or remember the background.  Why might this occur?

Participants in a workshop hosted by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) and the German Institute for Human Rights are featured in a nicely done five-minute video, “A Commons Conversation.” (Tip of the hat to Silke Helfrich.)  It’s a thoughtful introduction to subsistence and traditional commons, especially in Africa. The focus is on secure land tenure and food security.

The July 2014 workshop is in the midst of producing a “Technical Guide on Tenure Rights to Commons” (or “TG Commons,” for short) at the request of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).  The guide seeks to support the adoption of “Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT).” 

According to the workshop, the TG Commons will:

provide strategies to overcome the challenges inherent in the recognition and protection of tenure rights to commons. The overall objective of the guide is to contribute to national food security, to secure access to natural resources (especially for marginalized and vulnerable groups), to support human well-being and livelihood, sustainable resource use, and ecosystem functioning. This is particularly timely, since today about three billion rural families’ livelihoods depend on common lands, forests and fisheries. 

The TG commons guidebook is focused on “providing concrete strategies to achieve the recognition and protection of tenure rights to commons."