commons strategies

For a while, Couchsurfing had an amazing run, connecting travelers with hosts and helping strangers become friends.  Until around 2011, it was a way-crazy gift-economy for hospitality on a global scale, with more than five million members (now seven million) in 90,000+ cities.  Who would have thought that a loose non-market community could ever get so big while retaining its ideals and ethical stance?

Alas, Couchsurfing’s popularity created some new problems of its own, and the site was plagued by some dubious management decisions, technical challenges, and the lack of funds.  At Medium.com, Roy Marvelous explains what happened in 2011:

Basically, Couchsurfing owed tax money (its tax-exempt status as a non-profit was not approved), it needed far more investment in servers and it needed to hire more engineers to reprogram the site to make it scalable. And apparently, the only viable solution was to become a for-profit, sell a portion to venture capitalists and have it run by professionals.

The problems were real but I’ll be blunt: Couchsurfing was stolen from its members. This was code, content & community built by the members, for the members. None of those volunteers, working for free under the false pretense that Couchsurfing would stay non-profit, received any equity in this new corporation. Why couldn’t there have been another way? I would have donated money. I would have been happy with advertising. They could have moved Couchsurfing HQ to Berlin or Chang Mai or Santiago rather than be based in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The moment Couchsurfing was sold, it stopped becoming a community and started becoming a service, not unlike Yelp or Meetup or Facebook. And herein lies the problem: Couchsurfing now has an identity-crisis.

After the Internal Revenue Service refused to grant Couchsurfing tax-exempt nonprofit status – formally known as “501(c)(3)” status under the tax code – Couchsurfing decided to become a “Certified B Company,” or “for-benefit” corporation.  As Marvelous points out, this was apparently the only way to move forward.  (But is this true?)  By 2012, Couchsurfing had raised more than $22 million in venture capital money and it was on its way to becoming another profit-oriented corporation in the “sharing economy.”  (The so-called sharing economy, it should be noted, is less about sharing than about micro-rentals of things that previously could not be marketized.)

Max Haiven, a writer, teacher and organizer in Halifax, Canada, recently posted an essay on the website of ROAR magazine that is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Crisis of Imagination, Crises of Power:  Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons (Zed Books).  It’s a fascinating piece that dissects the formidable capacity of global capitalist systems to control our sense of the possible. 

It seems that Haiven has been thinking quite deeply about how the “financialization of culture”  for some time.  He writes:  “…the system is more invested than ever in preoccupying and enclosing our sense of self and of the future; our hopes, dreams and aspirations; and our capacity to imagine.”  A sense of futility preemptively neutralizes any threats to the system without the need to use visible force.  Modest incremental improvements within the existing system are the best that anyone can aspire to. 

“From this perspective,” writes Haiven, an assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College or Art and Design, “radical social movements that seek to transform society can only be interpreted as vainglorious or pathologically ideological. It is also this fatalism that enables radicalisms to be co-opted and internalized within the system: if the system cannot actually be overcome, the only horizon of dissent is an inadvertent improvement of the system itself.  Radical demands for the re-imagining of value are tamed and made to offer piecemeal solutions to capitalist crises; attempts to live out anti-capitalist values are transmuted into commercialized subcultures; anti-racist or feminist movements are co-opted into opportunities for a select few to enter into the middle class.”

So what to do?  Haiven brilliantly explains how commoning can be effectively “jam” the usual cooptation strategies deployed by the Market/State:   

It’s clear that commoners will not only have to make history themselves, outside of ordinary channels, but to write and preserve that history as well.  My colleagues Silke Helfrich and Michel Bauwens are off to a great start.  Independently, they’ve prepared two useful syntheses of some of the more significant recent developments in the commons and P2P worlds.

Silke prepared a timeline that identifies landmarks in the commons movement from the past several years.  The piece just appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of STIR magazine (about which I will have more to say below).  The timeline is on Silke’s blog as well.  Among the highlights: 

The rise of Remix the Commons (2010 – present), an evolving multimedia project about the key ideas and practices of the commons.

The Atmospheric Trust Litigation (2011 – present), which is filing lawsuits under the public trust doctrine to force state governments and the U.S. Government to protect the atmosphere as common property.

The world’s first Open Knowledge Festival in Finland, a week’s events in September 2012, in Helsinki, Finland.  (The next Open Knowledge Festival will be in Berlin in July 2014.)

The Constitutional Assembly of the Commons held with 700 participants at the occupied Teatro Valley, a revered opera house in Rome, in April 2013.

The timeline also has some great illustrations by Hey Monkey Riot.

Meanwhile, Michel Bauwens posted the “Most Important P2P-Related Projects and Trends in 2013.”  He cautions that “most important” “does not mean any blanket endorsement, nor ‘best.’  It just means that it is an important project.”  

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.

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.

Writer’s Voice, a national radio show and podcast featuring authors, recently devoted an hour to talking with me about the commons. The chief focus was on my new book co-authored with Burns Weston, Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, which Cambridge University Press published in January. 

Our book recovers from history many fragments of what we call “commons-based law” from such sources as Roman law, the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest, and public trust doctrine governing natural resources.  We also point to many modern-day analogues such as international treaties to manage Antarctica and space as commons. We wish to show that commons-based law is in fact a long and serious legal tradition – but one that has also been quite vulnerable, particularly over the past two centuries as market-oriented priorities have eclipsed the commons. 

Burns Weston and I argue that the right to a clean and healthy environment, and to access to nature for subsistence (as opposed to for profit-making market purposes), should be recognized as a human right.  The right to meet one’s everyday household needs – by responsibly managing forests, pasture, orchards and wild game as a commons – was recognized by the Charter of the Forest, adopted by King Henry III, the son of King John, in 1217.

This right was essentially a right to survive because commoners depended on the forest for food, fuel, economic security and other basic needs. Such precedents ought to inform our discussions today, when the rights of investors and markets in effect override any human right to survival (consider the many free trade treaties that override democratic sovereignty, ecological protections and local control).

The election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City suddenly presents a rich opportunity to reclaim a commons-based resource that the Bloomberg administration was on the verge of giving away. I’m talking about the pending introduction of a new Internet “Top Level Domain” for New York City, .nyc.   

Top Level Domains, better known as TLDs, are the regions of the Internet denoted by .com, .org and .edu.  They amount to Internet “zones” dedicated to specific purposes or countries.  Over the past few years, far beyond the radar screen of ordinary mortals, the little-known Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – which manages TLDs -- has been pushing the idea of TLDs for cities.  If Paris wants to have its own Internet domain -- .paris – it can apply for it and get it.  Rome could have its own .rome and London could have .london. 

New Yorker Thomas Lowenhaupt of Connectingnyc.org – a long-time advocate for treating the TLD as a shared resource – has written, “I’ve often thought of the .nyc TLD in its entirety as a commons -- that the .nyc TLD is a digital commons that we all need to protect as we today (seek to) protect our physical streets and sidewalks by not littering, and provide clean air, parks, schools, health care, fire and police protection, and the like, to our built environment so that it best serves 8,200,000 of us.”

Here are some examples that Lowenhaupt has come up with for how .nyc could make New York City more accessible and navigable: 

The idea is that Internet users could use the TLDs to access various aspects of city life by using them in creative ways.  Instead of having to rely on Google to search for museums in New York (which would yield thousands of not-very-well-organized listings), you could use museums.nyc and find everything laid out more intelligently.  Or if you were new to Brooklyn Heights, you could go to brooklynheights.nyc and find all sorts of civic, community and commercial website listings for that neighborhood – the library, recycling resources, parking rules, links to relevant city officials.  And yes, the businesses. The possibilities are endless -- and potentially enlivening for a city.

The co-organizers of the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) held in Berlin have just released an 80-page report (pdf file) that distills the highlights of that landmark gathering in May 2013. The conference brought together researchers, practitioners and advocates from around the world to explore the relationship of conventional economics and the commons. 

Discussion focused on several key themes: 

·      The commons as a way to move beyond conventional economics;

·      Alternative economic and provisioning models;

·      The transformations needed to move to a new type of economy.

The report consists of abbreviated versions of all ten keynote talks; brief summaries of the stream discussions; short overviews of each of the side events (with contact information for the hosts); a guide to the wiki resources on commons and economics; and an account of the Francophone network of commoners.  Videos of the keynote talks have been posted here, and as noted yesterdayRemix the Commons is releasing a series of video interviews that it conducted during the conference. 

The ECC Report also includes some final reflections by the Commons Strategies Group on the event’s significance for the commons movement.  We look back at the 2010 International Commons Conference and consider some of the ways in which our efforts have matured, and at some of the challenges that we face in the years ahead.

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