David Bollier's blog

Coming Soon: Think Like a Commoner

My year got off to a zippy start when Ralph Nader named my new book – due out in February – as #1 in his list of “Ten Books to Provoke Conversation in the New Year.”  Thanks, Ralph!

Think Like a Commoner:  A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons is my attempt to introduce the commons to the lay reader and concerned citizen. I wanted to explain the commons in simple but not simplistic language while pointing toward the many deep and complicated aspects of the commons, and to the diverse points of entry to the subject.  My publisher is New Society Publishers, known for its environmental and activist-minded books.

Think Like a Commoner is my best effort to provide a succinct, lucid overview of the commons. In relatively short chapters, I discuss its history, academic scholarship and many cultural variations.  I explore the political and economic implications of the commons and dozens of activist fronts and working projects.  I also look at the international commons movement and provide a list of further reading and other resources. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s taken me fifteen years to write this book!  While Silent Theft, my first foray into commons research and scholarship, came out in 2002, I’ve had quite an odyssey of reading, debate, conference-going and reflection over the past decade.  I decided it was important to circle back on myself to try to make better sense of the commons, ten years later, and to try to communicate it more clearly.

Now it's on to the public outreach / marketing stage of the book.  For that, I'm grateful to climate change activist Bill McKibben for his supportive blurb:  “The Commons is among the most important and hopeful concepts of our time, and once you've read this book you'll understand why!” 

Now that free market dogma has become the dominant narrative about value – and yet that narrative is neither credible nor readily displaced -- we are descending deeper and deeper into a legitimacy crisis.  There is no shared moral justification for the power of markets and civil institutions in our lives.  Since the 2008 financial crisis, the idea of “rational markets” has become something of a joke.  There are too many external forces propping up markets – government subsidies, legal privileges, oligopoly power, etc. – to believe the textbook explanations of “free markets.”

This is a serious quandary.  We’re stuck with a threadbare story that few people really believe -- the “magic of the marketplace” advancing human progress and opportunity – and yet it is simply too useful for elites to abandon.  How else can they justify their entitlements?  These are among the themes explored in an astute new book, The Ethical Economy:  Rebuilding Value After the Crisis  (Columbia University Press, 2013), by sociologist Adam Arvidsson and entrepreneur/scholar Nicolai Peitersen. 

The implicit “social contract” that people have with the reigning institutions of society is coming apart.  As the authors note:  “Three decades of neoliberal policies have separated the market from larger social concerns and relegated the latter to the private sphere, creating a situation where there is no society, only individuals and their families, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, and no values, only prices.”  Meanwhile, the catastrophic ecological harm being caused by relentless consumerism and economic growth is becoming all too clear, especially as climate change inexorably worsens.

Our “value crisis” is tenacious, say Arvidsson and Peitersen, because we have “no common language by means of which value conflicts can be settled, or even articulated.”  Few people believe in “free markets” and government as benign, mostly responsible influences any more; there is simply too much evidence to the contrary.  And who believes that the Market/State as constituted can solve the many cataclysms on the horizon?

Arvidsson & Peitersen’s ambitious goal is to outline a scenario by which we might come to accept a new, more socially credible justification for socially responsive production and governance.  They want to imagine a “new rationality” that could explain and justify a fair, productive economics and civil polity.  A tall order! 

While I don’t agree with all of their arguments, they do make a penetrating critique of the problems caused by neoliberalism and offer some useful new concepts for understanding how we might imagine a new order.  The Ethical Economy provides a bracing, sophisticated look at these issues.

Some communities in Ohio are fed up by the way that corporations, colluding with state legislatures, simply override the concerns of local communities.  Communities are often helpless in preventing their local environment from being blighted by hydrofracking, factory farming, and the extraction of groundwater supplies, among other enclosures of the commons. 

So, banding together as the Ohio Community Rights Network, community members from eleven Ohio Counties recently released "The Columbus Declaration," which calls for a movement to “elevate the rights of people, their communities and nature above the claimed ‘rights’ of corporations.”  The goal of the movement is to secure “local community self-governing rights through constitutional change.”

The Ohio Community Rights Network plans to form 88 county chapters throughout the state and seek a statewide constitutional convention to “guarantee that the people in every City, Village and Township of Ohio have the ability to protect the health, safety, welfare and fundamental rights of residents, free from state preemption or corporate interference.”

The campaign is the outgrowth of work by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund CELDF), which has worked with a number of Ohio communities in fighting fracking, drilling and injection wells throughout the state.

The Columbus Declaration may seem like a small, marginal project, but at a time when oil companies, big box stores, industrial agribusiness and transnational water bottlers can march into most communities and more or less override community sentiment, this initiative strikes me as one of the more promising legal vehicles for communities regaining some measure of control over their futures.

Why Not Tax Monopoly Rents?

Some interesting material coming out of Prosper Australia is a Melbourne-based organization and its partners, Earthsharing Australia and the Land Values Research Group.  A new report entitled “Total Resource Rents:  Harnessing the Power of Monopoly” (pdf file) finds that nearly one-quarter of Australia’s GDP comes from unearned income, not the 2% that neoclassical economists claim. 

This means that ten times greater revenue could be raised through taxing unearned income from monopolies than previously thought.  It also means that nearly half of Australia’s government revenues could be raised through channeling revenues from the real estate boom to more productive purposes.  In the process, income, company and sales taxes – along with 122 other current taxes – could be eliminated.

Report author Karl Fitzgerald, “the Renegade Economist,” describes the implications of the findings of the report:

“Unearned incomes equate to 23.6% of GDP and could be taxed without pushing up pricing structures. Most economists dismiss economic rents at just 2% of GDP. This report finds the free lunch driving the wealth gap is ten times greater than mainstream economists acknowledge. 

“Prices could fall by some 20% by reducing the number of taxes from 126 to 24” stated Fitzgerald. “The compliance and deadweight losses are a huge cost that fall disproportionately on small business.”  This reform offers a more efficient and equitable economic system, valuing productive over speculative activities.

Australia taxes productive work while averting its eyes from the incredible windfall gains handed to those who own monopoly rights. Victorian abalone licenses were sold outright for just $6 in the late 1960′s. Each license can now be leased out yearly for a reported $100,000. This unearned income can be taxed without affecting productive outcomes.

Readers of my blog may recall the announcement several months ago of Michel Bauwens’ appointment to head a strategic research project for the government of Ecuador. Under the auspices of the Free/Libre Open Knowledge (FLOK) Society Research Project, Bauwens and a small team have embarked upon an ambitious effort to imagine how to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.” 

The Project is now seeking the help of people around the world who are engaged in transformative social change inspired by open knowledge, co-operation, and the building of commons.  Here is a lengthy excerpt from the FLOK Society’s letter:

Our aim is to finalize proposals to be presented at a conference in April 2014, which will bring together the President, government officials, civil society participants, and global experts on the commons. The project received its impulse from IAEN Rector Carlos Prieto, Project Leaders Xabier E. Barandiaran & Daniel Vázquez, and Research Director Michel Bauwens.

Here is the link to the FLOK Society project: http://www.floksociety.org

The project seeks the involvement and input of local civil society, but also includes an explicit appeal to the global co-operative and commons movements to assist us with advice and policy proposals. It is our belief that the Ecuadorian people will be inspired by the best of what is happening abroad, in all countries of the world. Hence our appeal to you, global co-operators and commoners.

If you are engaged in transformative social change that is inspired by open knowledge, co-operation, and the building of commons for the well being of all, we ask you to send us information and benchmark proposals on leading local or global initiatives in your area of expertise.

Imagine a society that is connected to open knowledge commons in every domain of human activity, based on free and open knowledge, code, and design that can be used by all citizens along with government and market players without the discrimination and disempowerment that follows from privatized knowledge.

A fascinating new report just published by Co-operatives UK describes the huge potential of community land trusts and other forms of mutual housing and enterprise. Commons Sense:  Co-operative place making and the capturing of land value for 21st century Garden Cities brings together a wealth of insight into the practical solutions that community land trusts (CLTs) can provide. 

By converting land into commonwealth – capturing escalating land values for everyone’s benefit – it is possible to make housing more affordable and to finance all sorts of infrastructure and services that make communities more stable, attractive and thriving.  What’s not to like?  (Well, if you’re a bank, private landowner or speculator, you may not like the competition of a superior financial model.)

The Commons Sense report, edited by Pat Conaty of Cooperatives UK and Martin Large of Stroud Common Wealth, succinctly describes the basic problem:

The high cost of housing is draining money out of the productive economy, mainly through land and house price inflation, with damaging effects for national and individual household budgets.  Many new homes are unaffordable to ordinary working people, some offer poor value for money in terms of quality or construction, design and energy performance, and cost pressures frequently drive out good design in the spaces between buildings and in the concept of supporting new neighbourhoods.  Many new developments are socially, environmentally and economically obsolete from the moment they are conceived, let alone designed or built.

Conaty and Large note that in Britain, only 0.6% of the population – 36,000 people – own about half of the land.  This is a significant structural reason for soaring housing prices and continuing wealth inequality.

A New Zealand publication, Freerange, has published an artful collection of essays about the commons for a popular readership.  The publication focuses on a wide range of commons themes, including urban commons, global pharmaceuticals, Maori society, the commons possibilities in food activism, and early childhood education as a commons.  A free download can be had here, or a beautifully designed print version can be ordered here.

I was captivated by an interview with Anne Salmond, a New Zealand historian and anthropologist, who pondered the different cosmological outlooks of Māori, as commoners, and Westerners, as neoliberals.  She notes that, for the West, “the Order of Things, which is based on Cartesian logic, divides mind from matter, the observer from the observed, and culture from nature…..”  

But for the Māori, not to mention quantum physics, brain sciences and the life sciences, a very different order prevails – “the Order of Relations.”  This worldview, she explains, bases its forms of order on “complementary pairs of elements and forces linked in open-ended arrays, often ordered as networks or webs (for example, the internet), interacting in exchanges that drive change while working toward equilibrium.” 

Such relational perspectives are much more adaptive and open to collaboration and incoroproation of other ideas, says Salmond, than the non-adaptive myths of Western thought” that are destroying our bio-physical systems.  It is easy to slip into the dualism of Western thought that polarizes “the material” with “the spiritual.”  The point is that in relational worldviews, the two are integrated.

In an essay, Barnaby Bennett reflects on “the commons that can’t be named” -- and that therefore remain invisible  He notes that our own language establishes “a veil between our lives and that which-is-not-named, the things and stuff that are too big, too small, too complex, too profound, too obvious, too complete or too ubiquitous to see.  In doing so it is too easy to forget the common grounding of reality.”

On the eve of Thanksgiving here in the US, Andro Linklater, the author of a new book, Owning the Earth:  The Transforming History of Land Ownership (Bloomsbury), describes how the Pilgrims imposed their notions of private property on the land commons in the New World.  The consequences – while perhaps inevitable, whether from them or other settlers – were nonetheless pivotal in the future development of America.  Lanklater published an excerpt of his book recently on the Bloomberg News website. (Tragically, Linklater died a week before his book’s publication on November 12.)

In 1623, William Bradford, the future governor of the colony, declared that land would be privately owned and managed, with each family assigned a parcel of land “according to the proportion of their number.”  This decision had profound effects on how individual Pilgrims managed their land and related to each other.  

As Bradford wrote:  ‘‘And no man now thought he could live except he had catle and a great deale of ground to keep them all, all striving to increase their stocks. By which means they were scattered all over the bay quickly and the towne in which they lived compactly till now was left very thinne.’’ You might say that private property rights in land were the beginning of suburban sprawl. 

Linklater points out that the native people, the Wampanaog, had allowed individual parcels of land to be used and occupied by individual families, but no one could have exclusive, permanent ownership of the land.  As the Wampanaog leader Massasoit explained:  ‘‘The land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish, and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?’’

Five years ago I wrote about the concept of “sousveillance,” which was then a budding counterpoint to surveillance. Surveillance, of course, is the practice of the powerful monitoring people under their dominion, especially people who are suspects or prisoners – or today, simply citizens.  Sousveillance -- “to watch from below” – has now taken off, fueled by an explosion of miniaturized digital technologies and the far-reaching abuses of the surveillance market/state. 

Following my earlier post on corporate espionage of activists, I figured it was an appropriate moment to revisit this topic.  As it happens, the fellow who coined the term “sousveillance,” in 1998 -- Steve Mann, a pioneer in “wearable computing” who teaches at the University of Toronto – has recently written two terrific essays on the subject.  Both were released at the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers] International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS) in June 2013. 

Mann argues that sousveillance is an inevitable trend in technological societies and that, on balance, it “has positive survival characteristics.”  Sousveillance occurs when citizens record their encounters with police, for example. This practice exposed the outrageous police brutality against Occupy protesters (blasts of pepper spray in their faces at point-blank range) and helped transform small citizen protests against Wall Street into a global movement.

In the first of his paired essays, Mann writes:

We now live in a society in which we have both “the few watching the many” (surveillance), AND “the many watching the few” (sousveillance).  Widespread sousveillance will cause a transition from our one-sided surveillance society back to a situation akin to olden times when the sheriff could see what everyone was doing AND everyone could see what the sheriff was doing.  We name this neutral form of watching “veillance” – from the French word “veiller,” which means“to watch.”  Veillance is a broad concept that includes both surveillance (oversight) and sousveillance (undersight), as well as databeillance, uberveillance, etc.

It follows that: (1) sousveillance (undersight) is necessary to a healthy, fair and balanced society whenever surveillance (oversight) is already being used; and (2) sousveillance has numerous moral, ethical, socioeconomic, humanistic/humanitarian and practical justifications that will guarantee its widespread adoption, despite opposing sociopolitical forces.

(This passage is from “Veillance and Reciprocal Transparency:  Surveillance versus Sousveillance, AR Glass, Lifeglogging and Wearable Computing,” available as a pdf download here. A companion essay, “The Inevitability of the Transition from a Surveillance-Society to a Veillance-Society:  Moral and Economic Grounding for Sousveillance,” can be found here.

There are the official stories that we tell ourselves about constitutional democracy and citizen rights -- and then there are the ugly political realities of the struggle against unaccountable power.  Gary Ruskin, a veteran activist (most recently in the California voter initiative for GMO labeling), shines a bright light on the latter in a new report, Spooky Business:  Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations (pdf file), just published by Essential Information

Ruskin’s report exposes a world about which we have only fragmentary, accidental knowledge.  But enough IS known to confirm that large corporations carry out a broad range of corporate espionage activities against citizen activists for exercising their constitutional rights (to petition their government for change and to publicly speak out on public policies).  

“The corporate capacity for espionage has skyrocketed in recent years,” writes Ruskin.  “Most major companies now have a chief corporate security officer tasked with assessing and mitigating ‘threats’ of all sorts – including from nonprofit organizations.  And there is now a surfeit of private investigations firms willing and able to conduct sophisticated spying operations against nonprofits.”  Many of these “security” personnel are former intelligence, military and law enforcement officers who once worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), US military, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Secret Service and local police departments. 

None of this should be entirely surprising.  The early labor movement in the US was often illegally attacked and infiltrated by Pinkerton thugs.  In 1965, General Motors notoriously hired private detectives to investigate Ralph Nader’s private life and try to dig up incriminating information about him.  Nader, then a 31-year-old unknown, had just published a book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which exposed the designed-in dangers of automobiles.  The revelation of GM’s tactics and its awareness of its cars’ defects unleashed a ferocious backlash, enough to make Nader a famous crusader and to spur enactment of a new federal agency to regulate auto safety.  More recently, police and corporate infiltration of the Occupy movement has occurred.  (David Graeber’s recent book, The Democracy Project, has some good accounts of this.  See also The Progressive magazine.)

While Ruskin concedes that his accounts represent only “a few snapshots, taken mostly at random arising from brilliant strokes of luck,” his report documents an alarming range of acts of corporate espionage or planned espionage.  Among the highly unethical and/or illegal acts committed:  surveillance, infiltration, manipulation and dirty tricks.

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