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Six months after the print edition was published by our good friends at Levellers Press, I’m happy to report that the anthology of essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State, is now available online at http://www.wealthofthecommons.org

A hearty thanks once again to the commons activists, academics and project leaders from more than 25 countries who contributed the 73 essays in the book.  You can review the list of contributors and their essays here.  

The volume describes the enormous potential of the commons in conceptualizing and building a better future.  My colleague Silke Helfrich edited the German edition with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which was published in Germany in April 2012.  Silke and I then edited a separate English edition published by Levellers last November. 

The five sections of the book give a good idea of its themes:  “The Commons as a New Paradigm”; “Capitalism, Enclosure and Resistance”; “Commoning – A Social Innovation for Our Times”; “Knowledge Commons for Social Change”; and “Envisioning a Commons-Based Policy and Production Framework.” 

The book chronicles many ongoing struggles against the private commoditization of shared resources – while documenting the immense generative power of the commons.  It explains how millions of commoners are defending their forests and fisheries, reinventing local food systems, organizing productive online communities, reclaiming public spaces, improving environmental stewardship and re-imagining the very meaning of “progress” and governance.   

We’re hoping that the online access to the book will help increase its visibility and readership – along with sales of the printed version.  I invite you to spread the word about book in your spheres of influence. 

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.    

Last October, a group of seventeen commons activists from throughout Asia – India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, New Zealand and other countries – met in Bangkok to have a wide-ranging discussion about the future of the commons, especially in fighting neoliberal economics and policy.  The primary goal was to discuss economics and the commons from an on-the-ground perspective, and to help identify promising avenues for future research, writing and political action.

This was the second of three “Deep Dive” workshops that the Commons Strategies Group co-hosted with the Heinrich Böll Foundation in the fall of 2012.  (The others were in Mexico City and Pointoise, France, near Paris.  Here is the report from the European Deep Dive, and here is my previous blog post on it.)  A big thanks to Jost Pachaly and his staff at the Böll Foundation in Bangkok for hosting this event!

Because there were so many interesting insights that flowed from those discussions, I have decided to excerpt below some of the more interesting portions of the report that I prepared following the workshop.  If you wish to read the full report – a 15-page pdf document – you can download it here

Nature as a system of abundance.  Roberto Verzola, an economist and agricultural activist in the Philippines, opened with a presentation about the inherent abundance of nature – an abundance that market capitalism systematically attempts to negate and control.  He compares natural abundance to the “miracle of the loaves” parable in the New Testament of the Bible, in which living things seem to miraculously multiply.  Verzola calls this ecological sector of production the “living sector,” which must be seen as qualitatively different from the industrial sector, which by contrast “creates things from dead matter.” 

An Explosion of Commons Gatherings

Anna Betz, cofounder of the School of Commoning in London, has amassed a remarkable listing of commons-related conferences, lectures and other notable events in Europe, Asia and Africa in the next four months.  (See her longer blog post here.)  I’ve added Brooklyn to her list, just to add a US event.

Oxford, England, March 16 
Commons and Commoning - Ideas and practices for a connected world. A one day programme with international commons activist and author, Silke Helfrich to facilitate and share new thinking and practices on the commons, commoning and commons creation in all areas of our lives: our communities, organisations, networks, disciplines.

Barcelona, Spain, March 20-21 
Sharing Commons Spring Institutions for/of the Commons. State & Commons: An Impossible Match? Reflections from a worldwide perspective by Michael Bauwens

London, England, March 23 
A World that Works For Everyone. An event jointly organised by the Green Party and the School of Commoning featuring Silke Helfrich in the Series 'Meetings with a Remarkable Commoner'

Savannah, Georgia, USA, March 27-29 
The 6th annual The SoTL Commons [Scholarship of Teaching and Learning] conference is a catalyst for learning, conversations and collaborations about SoTL as a key, evidence-based way to improve student learning.

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.

After three years of hard work, I am pleased to announce that my new book – co-authored with Professor Burns Weston of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Iowa College of Law – has just been published.  Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons was recently released by Cambridge University Press.  Here is a short summary of the book:

The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree: we have reached a point in history where we are in grave danger of destroying Earth's life-sustaining capacity.  But our attempts to protect natural ecosystems are increasingly ineffective because our very conception of the problem is limited; we treat “the environment” as its own separate realm, taking for granted prevailing but outmoded conceptions of economics, national sovereignty, and international law.  Green Governance is a direct response to the mounting calls for a paradigm shift in the way humans relate to the natural environment.  It opens the door to a new set of solutions by proposing a compelling new synthesis of environmental protection based on broader notions of economics and human rights and on commons-based governance.  Going beyond speculative abstractions, the book proposes a new architecture of environmental law and public policy that is as practical as it is theoretically sound.

The book has a number of significant endorsements.  At the risk of immodesty, here are a few of the blurbs for Green Governance:

James Gustave Speth, Former Dean, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Professor of Law, Vermont Law School:

“When a vital body of existing policy and law has run its course, the need for reinvention becomes urgent. So it is with environmental law and policy. It is therefore exiting that two enormously well-informed and creative thinkers, Burns Weston and David Bollier, have joined forces to produce this breakthrough in environmental governance. Their book is a landmark in our thinking about rights-based environmentalism and the law of the commons and how these fields can combine in a powerful synthesis. We must take these ideas very seriously indeed. Highly recommended.”

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.

Last November I was lucky enough to be in Berlin when the newly founded Mercator Research Institute for Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) formally presented itself to the world.  I was initially impressed that a new scientific research institute with serious financial backing would make a commitment to studying climate change and the commons. The new Institute even regards the late Elinor Ostrom as a prime inspiration, to the extent of naming its auditorium for her.

I wondered if the new institute would be a fresh opening for some very different conversations about climate change.  I mused that perhaps the Mercator Research Institute could validate the eco-friendly practices of countless commoners around the world.  It might point the way to a different vision of “development” and more meaningful notions of “sustainability.”  It might even force the economics discipline to revisit some of its core assumptions about human cooperation and reinvent itself.

Alas, I now believe that few of these scenarios are likely.  After listening to the four speakers at the MCC’s inaugural one-day conference on November 15, “The Green Growth Dilemma,” the institute seems poised to explore modest, socially minded twists to the standard economic narrative.  In other words, a fairly tame, meliorist agenda within the crumbling edifice of neoclassical economic thought.

There will apparently be no deep critiques of the basic goals, assumptions and methodologies of economics as it is practiced today.  Nor does it seem that the potential of the commons as a form of participatory socio-ecological management will be probed.  That topic lies too far outside the framework of standard economics. Or at least, no one focused on such commons at the institute's inaugural conference.

Social Banking and the Commons

The Swiss are known for their highly secretive banking services for the super-wealthy.  Who would have guessed that they would inaugurate a Summer School on Social Banking and the Commons

The Institute for Social Banking and the Alternative Bank Schweiz are hosting a week-long seminar in the Swiss Alps on “social banks” and how their practices can strengthen the commons.  As the Institute’s website explains, “The Summer School will be a live, working inquiry [that aims] to understand and develop pioneering, entrepreneurial practices and policies that enable the commons to flourish for shared gain.”  The Summer School is intended for up to 100 people who want to learn more about social banking and finance and how they can be used to support the commons.

Among the topics to be discussed:  the commons paradigm; indigenous commons; money and the commons; social banking; the financing of common businesses; and alternative currencies.  The sessions will feature bankers, academics and commoners from all over the world, including Jean-Pierre Caron of the French mutual finance society, La Nef ; Sion Brackenbury, a Wales consultant with Commons Vision who works with business models and the commons; and my colleague Silke Helfrich of Germany, cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group.

There are of course many fascinating new initiatives involving alternative currencies and innovative banking, but I have yet to encounter one that directly addresses the relationship between banking and the commons.  Here’s hoping that the Institute for Social Banking pushes this important line of inquiry many steps forward.

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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