commons strategies

It’s been said that the fate of any great movement is to be cannibalized by the mainstream or to die.  I’d like to suggest two others paths:  zombiehood and courageous re-invention.

Zombiehood is a mode of living death in which people mindlessly repeat old advocacy forms that clearly aren’t working.  This is the fate of much environmentalism today – a professionalized, bureaucratized sector that is afraid of taking risks, innovating or defying respectable opinion.

It is refreshing, therefore, to recognize a notable departure from zombie-environmentalism, the Great Lakes Commons, a new cross-border grassroots campaign catalyzed by On the Commons to establish the Great Lakes as a commons.  Here is a bold idea with the nerve and intelligence to strike off in some new, experimental directions without any assurance that it’s all going to turn out.

For the past 40 years, environmental activists have looked to legislatures, regulators and international treaties to “solve the problem.”  Guess what?  It’s not working.  Governments are too corrupt, corporate-dominated, bureaucratic or just plain stalemated.  The Great Lakes Commons is an attempt to launch a new narrative and activist strategy based on some very different assumptions.  It’s trying to organize people in new ways, through commoning, and to imagine new forms of governance that will actually protect the Great Lakes.  It doesn’t just want to raise money and collect signatures for petitions.  It wants to nurture new types of human relationships with this endangered regional ecosystem.

As the Great Lakes Commons website points out, Great Lakes policies are biased toward private and commercial interests.  The political management regimes do not reflect ecological realities.  And the people living near the Lakes are treated as bystanders who have little power to affect government decisionmaking.  For all these reasons and more, the ecological health of the Great Lakes has deteriorated over the past several decades, and now there are new threats from hydro-fracking, radioactive waste shipments, copper-sulfide mining and invasive species. 

In a crazy twist of Italian politics – in a nation known for its zany political life – the Roman lawyer, scholar and commoner Stefano Rodotà unexpectedly became the presidential candidate of the Five Star Movement in Italy, the rising political force there.  The amazing thing is, he nearly won!         

Rodotà is a kindly, clever, fiercely intelligent and straight-shooting left-wing legal scholar and politician.  Now nearly 80 years old, Rodotà is a something of a grey eminence in Italian politics.  He has served four times in the Italian Parliament and once in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.  He helped write the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.  He has taught at universities in Europe, Latin America, the US and India.

The recent success of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in the February 2013 elections abruptly opened up this opportunity for Rodotà and the commons.  M5S was launched in 2009 by a comedian and activist, Beppe Grillo, to focus on five key issues – public water, sustainable transportation, development, connectivity and environmentalism.  The movement is less of a real party than a cultural vehicle for voters to express resentment, frustration and hostility toward the political class in Italy.  M5S is generally populist and libertarian in orientation, sometimes with a right-wing flavor (anti-immigrant policies). But Grillo is a showy amateur as a politician and not exactly a small-d democrat (he gives no press interviews and doesn’t welcome debate within M5S).

Still, the movement's issues and profile are compelling enough that M5S won more than 25 percent of the vote in the February 2013 elections – second only to the Democratic Party, which won only a fraction more votes.  Forming a government in a country with dozens of political parties can be a difficult proposition, however, especially when personalities, political history, ideology and various odd circumstances are thrown in.    

I recently wrote the following essay with John H. Clippinger as part of the ongoing work of ID3, the Institute for Data-Driven Design, which is building a new open source platform for secure digital identity, user-centric control over personal information and data-driven institutions.

As the Internet and digital technologies have proliferated over the past twenty years, incumbent enterprises nearly always resist open network dynamics with fierce determination, a narrow ingenuity and resistance.  It arguably started with AOL (vs. the Web and browsers), Lotus Notes (vs. the Web and browsers) and Microsoft MSN (vs. the Web and browsers, Amazon in books and eventually everything) before moving on to the newspaper industry (Craigslist, blogs, news aggregators, podcasts), the music industry (MP3s, streaming, digital sales, video through streaming and YouTube), and telecommunications (VoIP, WiFi).  But the inevitable rearguard actions to defend old forms are invariably overwhelmed by the new, network-based ones.  The old business models, organizational structures, professional sinecures, cultural norms, etc., ultimately yield to open platforms.

When we look back on the past twenty years of Internet history, we can more fully appreciate the prescience of David P. Reed’s seminal 1999 paper on “Group Forming Networks” (GFNs).[1] “Reed’s Law” posits that value in networks increases exponentially as interactions move from a broadcasting model that offers “best content” (in which value is described by n, the number of consumers) to a network of peer-to-peer transactions (where the network’s value is based on “most members” and mathematically described by n2).  But by far the most valuable networks are based on those that facilitate group affiliations, Reed concluded.  When users have tools for “free and responsible association for common purposes,” he found, the value of the network soars exponentially to 2– a fantastically large number.   This is the Group Forming Network.  Reed predicted that “the dominant value in a typical network tends to shift from one category to another as the scale of the network increases.…”

Gavin Andresen, the lead scientist for the Bitcoin Foundation (and one of its only two staff members) sat down with a few of us at the UMass Amherst Knowledge Commons meeting on Wednesday.  Having read so much hype and misinformation about Bitcoin over the past few months, I was excited to have a chance to talk to someone directly connected with this brilliant experiment in algorithmic institution-building.  Bitcoin is, of course, the digital currency that has been in the news a lot recently because of its surging value among traders – and its dramatic crash.  

For months the dollar value of a Bitcoin fluctuated between $20 and $50….but in mid-March the conversation rate soared to around $250 before crashing last week to $140 and then $40 yesterday.  (Today it was back up to $95.)  This kind of stuff is catnip to the mainstream press, which otherwise doesn’t know much or care much about Bitcoin.

Andresen, a self-described geek in his forties with a pleasant manner and trim haircut, strolled into the small conference room in his black rugby shirt and jeans.  Six of us proceeded to have a wide-ranging, fascinating chat about the functional aspects of Bitcoin, the political and social values embedded in its design, and some of the operational challenges of making Bitcoin a new kind of universal currency. 

For those of you who want a quick primer on Bitcoin, I suggest the New Yorker profile  by Joshua Davis in the October 10, 2011, issue; a terrific recent critique by Denis Roio (aka Jaromil), a Dutch hacker who is working to code new sorts of digital money; or the Wikipedia entry on Bitcoin

Bitcoin is of special interest to me for its remarkable success at solving a serious collective action problem – how to create a digital money so secure and authenticated so that no one can steal its value and ruin it as a stable, trusted currency? 

The problem that Bitcoin solves as a matter of algorithmic and cryptographic design is the “Byzantine General’s problem,” which has been described as “the problem of reaching a consensus among distributed units if some of them give misleading answers.”  As one reference describes it, the problem has been compared to the problem of various generals deciding on a common plan of attack:  “Some traitorous generals may lie about whether they will support a particular plan and what other generals told them. Exchanging only messages, what decisionmaking algorithm should the generals use to reach a consensus?  What percentage of liars can the algorithm tolerate and still correctly determine a consensus?” 

Bitcoin solves this classic problem of achieving coordinated action without reliable communication or excessive (or any) defections.  Much of this success stems from the startlingly solid cryptography of the system.  The other safeguard, Andresen explained, has been Bitcoin’s “get big quick” strategy.  If enough Bitcoins can be put into circulation quickly, then it becomes much harder for any faction to corner the market in Bitcoins or to compromise their integrity.  This is important because the viability of any currency depends upon the ability of the issuer to prevent counterfeiting or theft -- a kind of free riding on the social trust that any community invests in its currency. 

Scholar of networked behavior David Ronfeldt has proposed an idea whose time may have arrived:  let’s create a new federated network of commons enterprises called the “Chamber of Commons.”  The term is a wonderful wordplay on the more familiar group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the notoriously reactionary business lobby. 

A federation to help advance the commons paradigm and projects is a timely idea, especially in international circles and localities that enjoy a critical mass of commons projects.  We’ve already seen in digital spaces the value of mutual assistance rendered by various cyber-tribes to each other (free software hackers, free culture/Creative Commons advocates, open-access scholarly journals, Wikipedians, etc.).  There are inevitable tensions and disagreements, of course, but everyone has far more in common than the differences that separate them, and all sorts of innovations erupt. 

So why not a similar loose (or formal) federation of commons projects?  It would be especially exciting if a chamber of commons could begin to span the cultural barriers that divide digital and natural resource commoners, not to mention international political boundaries.  It would be great to create a common space for academic commoners and practitioner communities to build bridges, and also those involved in mainstream politics and those in “outside the system” advocacy.  Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has proposed a similar set of federations of commons projects at the civic/institutional, economic and regional levels.

At a small workshop outside of Paris, France, twenty-two of us – mostly Europeans except for two of us – got together to discuss the economics of the commons from an on-the-ground perspective.  We wanted to identify promising avenues for future research, writing and political action.  This was the third of a series of “Deep Dive” workshops that the Commons Strategies Group, working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, held in the fall of 2012.  The two other ones were held in Bangkok for Asian commoners, and in Mexico City for Latin American commoners.

This gathering, in Pontoise, France, was exciting because the participants were some of the world’s most serious, creative and internationally minded commons activists.  The dialogues took place at La Bergerie, a lovely retreat center run by the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, which graciously hosted the event.  Our talks probed the conflicts and contradictions in commons thinking, and tried to get each of us to look beyond our own issue-silos and subcultures.  I recently completed a 23-page interpretive summary of the workshop, which can be downloaded here

The report examines such issues as how shall we conceptualize the commons; whether commons have intrinsic purpose or not; the tensions between liberal constitutionalism and the commons; and future steps in building a commons paradigm.  Below, I excerpt a few portions of the report that strike me as especially interesting.

When people deliberately break the law to become squatters or take possession of public buildings, it is a pretty good sign that the market/state is failing to meet the public’s basic needs. This is the general scenario in many parts of Rome, reports Donatella Della Ratta of Al Jazeera, as various citizens’ movements take over theaters, public buildings and apartment buildings.  Squatting and illegal occupation are rampant. 

Much of the turmoil has resulted from budget cutbacks and the resulting failure of government to uphold its constitutional duty to provide adequate housing and meet other public needs.  Shady speculators then swarm into the picture to snap up buildings that the government is selling at rock-bottom prices in order to raise money. 

What’s a victimized public to do?  Defy the law and occupy what is theirs.  In Rome, former employees of the Teatro Valle, a grand public theater and former opera house, have taken over the premises since June 2011.  (Here is Della Ratta's November 2011 account of the Teatro Valle occupation.)  This act of defiance has now sparked many similar citizen takeovers around the city.  In one of the more notable occupations, citizens took over a government building used for motor vehicle registrations and drivers’ licensure.  As Della Ratta reports: 

“Scup (Sport e Cultura Popolare) as the place has been renamed, was occupied, cleaned up and brought back to life by a mixed group of young activists, sport instructors and some residents of the neighborhood.  They were outraged by the lack of public spaces for leisure and sport activities in an area that has become more and more gentrified while rental prices have soared.” 

A young activist, Carlo, explained:  “Occupying is an expression of public outrage.” 

For all the enthusiasm that “going local” has garnered in recent years, securing local control as a legal entitlement is generally a very different matter.  Federal and state law tend to place strict limits on what local communities can do to protect themselves from outside commercial forces.

A hearty salute, then, to the path-breaking work by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that provides legal advice and advocacy for municipal governments and, more recently, international allies.  Journalist Barry Yeoman has a terrific profile of CELDF, Rebel Towns,” in the latest issue of The Nation (February 4). 

The truth of the matter is that local communities don’t really have much legal authority to prohibit polluters and extractive industries (mining, water-bottling, timber companies) from coming into their towns and ruining the place.  In the U.S., at least, and in most other places around the world, national governments have the sovereign power to override local authorities, and they are only too willing to do so.  After all, politicians’ partnerships with major industries help grow the economy, boost tax revenues and reap political contributions to repeat the whole cycle. 

Of course, the “market externalities” that result -- poisoned soil, polluted rivers, etc. – aren’t taken into account.  The traditional response of public-interest attorneys is to “work within the system” to deal with these problems, using available laws and judicial processes.

The Possibilitarians

The history of the Diggers in 1649 is the improbable basis for a dramatic production by the Bread and Puppets Theater, an experimental troupe based in Vermont that uses masks and puppets to entertain and educate people.  The troupe bills itself as providing “cheap art and political theater,” adding that it is “one of the oldest, nonprofit, self-supporting theatrical companies in the country.”

As reported by Greg Cook of WBUR, the Boston public radio station, the Bread and Puppets Theater recently produced a show called “The Possibilitarians,” a counterpoint to the reactionary Parliamentarians of the time.  The show was described as an “epic and raucous pageant” about the 17th Century English radicals called the Diggers, who were seeking to build an alternative order to the proto-capitalism of its time, protesting in particular the private ownership of land. 

The Diggers have been wonderfully chronicled by historians such as Christopher Hill (The World Turned Upside Down and Left-Wing Democracy In the English Civil War).  Of note is a recently published biography, Gerard Winstanley: The Diggers Life and Legacy (Pluto Press).

It’s great to see such history resurrected through an innovative kind of street theater.  The Bread and Puppets Theater was founded in 1963 by German immigrant Peter Schumann.  The troupe quickly became known for its massive papier-mâché puppets and for giving its audiences fresh baked break at the end of performances.  In the '60s and '70s the theater often mounted performances/protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear arms race, among other issues.  As WBUR put it, the Bread and Puppets Theater “vividly merged radical ‘60s theater with the alchemy and magic of traditional ritual, public pageantry and folk art.”

As neoliberal policies put the squeeze on cities, what role can the commons play?  Some commoners in Greece decided to explore this issue by mapping the commons of Athens – and then this year, Istanbul.  The results are an inspiration and prototype for commoners in cities around the world.  The online maps and videos make visible the subjective, experiential commons that sustain people’s daily lives, giving a new twist to the official maps of a city.   

The “Mapping the Commons” project got its start when the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens commissioned the Spanish collective Hackitectura to convene an interdisciplinary group of artists, sociologists, scientists and researchers from universities in Athens.  Hackitectura is a group of architects and programmers that theorizes, and develops projects, that explore how space, electronic flows and social networks converge.  

The Athens project describes itself as “an open collaborative cartography of the contemporary metropolis based on the importance of the commons in times in of disaster capitalism.”  The project explicitly wanted to imagine a new Athens by seeing it through the lens of the commons.  As the organizers put it:  

We propose the hypothesis that a new [view of the] city will come out of the process, one where the many and multiple, often struggling against the state and capital, are continuously, and exuberantly, supporting and producing the commonwealth of its social life.

The workshop will develop collaborative mapping strategies, using free software participatory wiki-mapping tools.

Organizers noted, “Due to our tradition of the private and the public, of property and individualism, the commons are still hard to see for our late 20th century eyes. We propose, therefore, a search for the commons; a search that will take the form of a mapping process. We understand mapping, of course, as proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, and as artists and social activists have been using it during the last decade, as a performance that can become a reflection, a work of art, a social action.”

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