David Bollier's blog

Following Pope Francis’ surprisingly blunt homily about capitalism in November 2013, my friend and colleague Michel Bauwens had the brilliant idea of proposing a practical way for the Pope and Catholic Church to help address economic inequality:  let unused church facilities be used as hackerspaces, makerspaces and co-working spaces. This would help local communities reinvent the very idea of the economy with a different logic and ethic, while helping people meet real everyday needs and foster social solidarity. It’s an inspired idea that I hope the Pope and his advisors will consider.

Here is the backstory:  In November, the Pope issued a remarkably direct statement about the failures of the global economic system. It included headings such as “No to an economy of exclusion,” “No to the new idolatry of money,” and “No to the financial system which rules rather than serves.” In words that had more than a few wealthy Catholic moguls quivering with rage, the Pope declared, “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”

Earlier this week, Bauwens – who has twice participated in deliberations by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences – released an open letter to the Pope thanking him for his statements of support for a more just economy and social solidarity. Bauwens proposed a helpful solution:  find ways for the Catholic Church to let its old, unused church buildings and monasteries be used as hackerspaces, makerspaces and co-working spaces. The facilities would provide invaluable physical spaces for a local community to create new types of cooperative, mutualized forms of production and less money-driven, materialist livelihoods.   The new uses of the facilities would not amount to charity or commercialism, but rather, a new species of nonmarket economics, commons-based peer production.

One interesting analog to this idea is the unMonastery in Matera, Italy, which Bauwens refers to. The unMonastery describes itself as "an ambitious and radical response to the challenge of bridging the gap [between work to earn money and work to make meaning].  The UnMonastery "draws inspiration from the 10th century monastic life to encourage radical forms of social innovation and collaboration. A sort of lay, off-grid mendicant order striving for a society that can better withstand present and future systemic crises."

I’ve busy in recent weeks promoting my new book, Think Like a Commoner:  A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons. I’ve been getting some great responses from a variety of media outlets, interview shows, public events and readers both in the US and abroad.  (There are French and Polish editions, and other translations are currently being explored.)   

Since the focus of the book and my public outreach is to introduce the commons paradigm, long-time readers of this blog will probably be familiar with the substance of my various efforts to publicize Think Like a Commoner. For the curious, here's some recent interviews, book excerpts, reviews and public talks:

Huffington Post, “The Commons as a Rising Alternative to State and Market” (April 14).

Shareable magazine, “New Book Inspires Us to Think Like a Commoner,” interview with Jessica Conrad (April 2).   

Great Transition Initiative, Tellus Institute. Essay, “The Commons as a Template for Social Transformation” (April 2014), with comments from a selected readers -- and my responses to comments.

STIR magazine review (UK), by Danijela Dolonec (Spring 2014 issue). 

Writer’s Voice radio interview, with Francesca Rheannon (April 23), 30 minutes.

C-Realm Podcast, interview with KMO, Episode #412 (April 30), 30 minutes.

Video of my talk at Sustainability Expo, Middlebury, Vermont (March 28, 2014), 45 minutes.

Observatoire des Multinationales (France). Interview with Olivier Petitjean, « Les communs nous aident à sortir du carcan de l’économie néolibérale, à travers des alternatives concrètes » (April 20, 2014).  In FrenchIn English.

Basta! (France). « Les biens communs nous offrent davantage de liberté et de pouvoir que ne le font l’État et le marché » (April 23).

If you know of media venues, reviewers, activists or commoners interested in giving some visibility to Think Like a Commoner, let me know!

Finally: Open Source Broccoli and Kale

The past thirty years have seen a massive patent grab to control agricultural seeds and the crops that are grown, not just in the US but around the world.  In the name of progress and greater yields, seed companies introduced proprietary GMO and hybrid seeds, slowly squeezing out seeds that are more common and shareable. This is exactly what Microsoft did in software, using Windows to marginalize competing software systems, and this is what bottling companies have done to water, trying to supplant tap water with heavily marketed branded water.

Some folks at the University of Wisconsin have launched a new effort to fight this trend in the seed market through what they call the Open Source Seed Initiative. The project last week released 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains, all of them licensed under the equivalent of software’s General Public License (GPL), which is what has allowed GNU/Linux to remain in the commons. 

The license, known as the Open Source Seed Pledge, lets anyone use the open source seeds for whatever purpose they want – provided that any subsequent seeds produced are also made available on the same basis.  The idea is to bypass the built-in bias of proprietary control in the patent system, and assure that the new seeds will be available for anyone to grow, breed and share in perpetuity, without the fear of someone imposing intellectual property restrictions on later uses of the seeds.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison news office quoted horticulture professor and plant breeder Irwin Goldman, one of the authors of the pledge, as saying:  “These vegetables are part of our common cultural heritage, and our goal is to make sure these seeds remain in the public domain for people to use in the future.”  Last week Goldman released two carrot varieties he developed, named Sovereign and Oranje, at a public ceremony outside of the university’s microbial sciences building.

This and other questions are addressed in “The Weightless Marketplace:  Coming to Terms with Innovative Payment Systems, Digital Currencies and Online Labor Markets,” a just-released report that I wrote for the Aspen Institute’s Communications and Society Program. The report distills the more salient points raised at a three-day conference last August that brought together leading players in banking, financial services and online labor platforms.   

Most of the conference participants are in the business of inventing or adapting to new types of digital payment systems or data-based services. They include major players like JP Morgan Chase, Intuit and VISA as well as upstarts such as Bitcoin, ID3 and the identity-management service Personal.

The basic story in digital markets is the ongoing elimination of “friction” in making transactions – reducing the barriers of geography, time and transaction costs. Hence the title “the weightless marketplace.”  “Reducing economic friction” has been the story of the World Wide Web from its beginnings, of course, but the trend is now reaching new levels of intensity and disruption.  My role, as rapporteur, was to represent the diverse points of view while providing my own interpretive synthesis. 

Perhaps the most fascinating points of discussion revolved around Bitcoin.  Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding it, Bitcoin’s basic functionality and soaring popularity have some serious implications for banks, credit card companies, PayPal and other payment systems. Peter Vessenes of the Bitcoin Foundation noted that digital technology can move value to anywhere in the world, at any time, using just 100 bytes of data.  And it can do it at very little cost – much less than the per-transaction charges levied by credit cards, for example.

Critics charge that Bitcoin facilitates illicit transactions, money laundering and terrorist activity, not to mention tax evasion.  Vessenes replied that Bitcoin is “way less anonymous than cash” – because the permanent global ledger of transactions for each Bitcoin is accessible and can be used to help identify buyers and sellers.  Another reason that Bitcoin is controversial is that it represents a potential threat to the sovereignty of nation-states, because it could undermine their monetary and fiscal policies.  That’s why regulation of Bitcoin is inevitable, many agreed.

But apart from Bitcoin’s fate, the larger question may be how existing banks and financial companies will respond to the coming “democratization of money.”  Several factors are fueling this trend, according to Gartner, the consulting firm:  individual access to massive, high-speed flows of information, the proliferation of mobile computing (smartphones, tablets, etc.), the rise of the cloud, and the social commons of highly specialized communities of interest.

For many people, the commons exists as some sort of Platonic ideal -- a fixed, universal archetype.  That’s silly, of course, because commons are so embedded in a given place and moment of history and culture, and therefore highly variable.  Derek Wall takes this as a point of departure in his new book, The Commons in History:  Culture, Conflict and Ecology (MIT Press).  At 136 pages of text, it is a short and highly readable book, but one that conveys much of the texture of commons and enclosures as paradigms -- and the implications for ecosystems.

Wall is an economist at Goldsmith College, University of London, so he knows a few things about the biases of conventional economics.  He is also a member of the Green party of England and Wales, and therefore knows a few things about corporate power and oppositional politics. 

As the author of a recent intellectual biography, The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom (Routledge), Wall has a subtle mastery of Ostrom’s approach to the commons, but he is not afraid to wade into the political aspects of commons.  He notes, for example, “most commons have not been found to succeed or fail on the basis of their own merits.  Instead, they have been enclosed, and access has been restricted and often turned over to purely private ownership or state control.”  He adds that “commons is a concept that is both contests and innately political in nature.  Power and access to resources remain essential areas for debate.”

It is entirely appropriate, then, that Wall goes beyond the familiar Hardin-Ostrom debate on the rationality and economic value of commons, to explore what he calls “the radical case for the commons,” as outlined by E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, among others.  While Marxist criticisms of the environmental effects of capitalism so often hit the mark, Wall points out that “the commons is not utopia.  A common-pool property rights do not guarantee a free and equal society.”  

That’s partly because a commons is not a unitary model, but only a template with highly variable outcomes.  People may have common rights to use “usufruct rights” on privately owned land, for example, authorizing them to gather fallen wood.  This can be considered a type of commons, albeit not one as self-sovereign and robust as those with communally owned and controlled land.  Commons may also coexist with hierarchical power relationships – a reality that also militates against a radical equality.

Walking Paths as Commons

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh of STIR magazine shared with me an arresting little snippet of history that speaks eloquently about the quiet role of social reciprocity in a civilized life.  Consider walking paths as commons, as described by Robert Macfalance in his book, The Old Ways:  A Walking Journey:

“Paths are consensual, too, because without common care and common practice they disappear....In nineteenth-century Suffolk [UK] small sickles called 'hooks' were hung on stiles and posts at the start of certain well-used paths: those running between villages, for instance, or byways to parish churches. A walker would pick up a hook and use it to lop off branches that were starting to impede passage. The hook would then be left at the other end of the path, for a walker coming in the opposite direction. In this manner the path was collectively maintained for general use.”

It seems to be that we need more modern-day “hooks” that invite people to participate in anonymous acts of self-directed enterprise and reciprocal generosity.  Sounds like a great alternative, when feasible, to the connivances of large markets and remote, centralized bureaucracies.

Save Medialab Prado!

For people who care about socially engaged, commons-minded tech innovation, there are few institutions in the world as bold and courageous as Medialab Prado, in Madrid.  For the past ten years it has been a technology lab, an interdisciplinary forum, a space that welcomes public participation, a hub for citizen activism, and a host of provocative workshops and conferences.  And yes, the Medialab Prado has also been deeply engaged with the commons paradigm as an important way of shaping a better, more socially constructive future. 

Now, after a decade of fantastic work as a pioneering social/technological laboratory, the Madrid city council is threatening to let a giant telecom corporation, Telefónica, take over its new building.  The municipal government – apparently clueless about the international stature and significance of Medialab – is in talks to let Telefónica use the brand new building that MLP moved into less than a year ago. Telefónica wants to open its own startup incubator there. The move  would cast Medialab into limbo, without any assurance of appropriate space in a suitable location or adequate funds.  

Many of us who participate in the international tech, P2P, commons or activist worlds are appalled at this recent turn of events.  Doesn’t the Madrid political establishment recognize the immense value that Medialab Prado has for the city and Spain (and the rest of the world)? 

Doesn’t it realize that Medialab is a magnet for the most exciting thinkers, technologists and social activists – a place that elevates Madrid’s reputation and Spain’s leadership in cultural and tech circles?  After citizen uprisings in so many countries around the world, does the Madrid political establishment not appreciate the need to explore new models of social outreach and public engagement, as Medilab Prado does?

Can the boundary-bursting categories of the commons penetrate the mighty citadel of Harvard Law School and its entrenched ways of thinking about property, markets and law?  I set out to find out last Saturday at the “This Land Is Your Land:  Remaking Property After Neoliberalism” conference.  The one-day event was convened by Unbound, the Harvard Law journal of the legal left, and the Institute for Global Law and Policy.  I had been invited to participate on a panel, “From Homo Economicus to Commoner” and to explore with about 100 students and a few professors how “the left” might approach property rights in some new ways.

The liberal/leftist luminary Duncan Kennedy, a founder of the critical legal studies movement and an advisor to Unbound, opened the day with a talk about “property as fetish and tool.”  He explained how both the right and the left have their own versions of property fetishism.  The right has adopted highly naturalistic arguments that regard property as an entirely natural, ahistorical reality.  An example is the right’s imposition of intellectual property rights on countries of the global South. 

The left, meanwhile, generally regards property law as a “bundle of rights” that is principled and conceptually coherent when it is in fact, he pointed out, simply an incoherent accretion of laws that reflect countless political struggles of the past.  The problem with the left, Kennedy suggested, is that it does not have an alternative conception of property law except as a useful tool of left political projects, such as better housing and social conditions.  Kennedy implied that it was futile for the left to try to get “outside” of property discourse.

Fortunately, Michael Hardt of Duke University – author of Empire and Commonwealth, among other books –objected.  He argued that we need to develop a conception of property that lets us think outside of standard property discourse and property relationships.  But is this possible and desireable?  Conference participants disagreed, and came back to the topic many times throughout the day.

It’s clear that there is a great deal of momentum for developing new forms of online deliberation and decisionmaking.  I’ve discussed LiquidFeedback in the past and how open networks are making it inevitable that we will soon have some major shifts of authority and governance to online platforms. 

Now comes word of a crowdfunding campaign underway for Loomio, “a user-friendly tool for collaborative decision-making: not majority-rules polling, but actually coming up with solutions that work for everyone.”  We must be in a Cambrian explosion of rapid evolution!

The Loomio project is driven by a small team in Wellington, New Zealand that is trying to take its prototype to a new level entirely.  The platform provides a way for participants to start a discussion on any topic and bring a variety of perspectives into the open.  Then anyone can propose a course of action with which people can agree, disagree, abstain or block.  With enough agreement, a proposal can be developed and a deadline set for achieving group goals.  Here is a video describing how lots of people can have a complex discussion and make decisions.  

It is always refreshing to read Peter Linebaugh’s writings on the commons because he brings such rich historical perspectives to bear, revealing the commons as both strangely alien and utterly familiar. With the added kick that the commoning he describes actually happened, Linebaugh’s journeys into the commons leave readers outraged at enclosures of long ago and inspired to protect today's endangered commons. 

This was my response, in any case, after reading Linebaugh’s latest book, Stop, Thief!  The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance (Spectre/PM Press), which is a collection of fifteen chapters on many different aspects of the commons, mostly from history.  The book starts out on a contemporary note by introducing “some principles of the commons” followed by “a primer on the commons and commoning” and a chapter on urban commoning.  For readers new to Linebaugh, he is an historian at the University of Toledo, in Ohio, and the author of such memorable books as The Magna Carta Manifesto and The London Hanged. 

Stop, Thief! is organized around a series of thematic sections that collect previously published essays and writings by Linebaugh.  One section focuses on Karl Marx (“Charles Marks,” as he was recorded in British census records) and another on British enclosures and commoners (Luddites; William Morris; the Magna Carta; “enclosures from the bottom up”).  A third section focuses on American commons (Thomas Paine; communism and commons) before concluding with three chapters on First Nations and commons.

Syndicate content