international

On October 11, I gave a talk at the "Economies of the Commons 3 Conference:  Sustainable Futures for Digital Archives."  My remarks were entitled, "The Great Value Shift:  From Stocks to Flows, from Property Rights to Commons."  The text is below.  A video of my talk (29:36 minutes) can be watched here.

This panel is supposed to focus on new forms of value creation in the “audiovisual commons.”  I am not an archivist and I’m not even a techie.  But I have studied the commons quite a bit.  Today I’d like to suggest how the idea of the commons can help us think more clearly how to manage sustainable digital archives in the future.  The commons helps us in a number of ways.  It gives us fresh philosophical premises, ethical principles, valuable legal models, and a worldview that can help us understand value in some new ways. 

A big part of our challenge is simply shedding the comfortable prejudices with which we have been brought up.  Let’s face it, we are creatures of the 20th century and its overweening faith in free markets, private property, technology as the path to “progress.”  It’s not easy to escape this mentality.  Or as John Maynard Keynes put it when trying to introduce his own new ideas to economics:  “The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious.  The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify…into every corner of our minds.”

The ideas behind the commons are actually quite simple and obvious.  It’s about access, sharing, fairness, collaboration and long-term sustainability.  It’s about protecting and expanding a resource.  But living in a culture that celebrates markets, large institutions and copyright has instilled some deep prejudices in us about how the world can and must work.  The language of the commons can help us re-think these assumptions by giving us a new vocabulary and perspective.  And if we’re ingenious enough, it may help us reinvent many contemporary systems of production and distribution as commons.

After a week at the beach, I'm back at my desk and tracking all things commons.  --DB 

A recent piece by social anthropologist Mariya Ivancheva of Central European University in Sofia reminds us that the political and culture context of the commons matters a great deal in how we think about it – much more than we might imagine.  Her piece appeared at OpenDemocracy and was excerpted by Michel Bauwens at the P2P Foundation blog.

Ivancheva notes how the commons is experiencing a big surge in western Europe, especially in Italy, but she stresses that the history of Bulgaria is quite different from that of western Europe.  Western European commoners have fought the privatization of public resources such as water (Italy), cultural works (the ACTA treaty) and housing (Spain and France).  While eastern Europeans have also protested various acts of privatization, many of them favor the commons in some respects while viewing private property and (capitalist) economic development more favorably.  She writes: 

For the majority of people who grew up imbued with neoliberal ideology nurtured by anti-communist and anti-communal narratives – hegemonic public discourse in east-central Europe since 1989 – the idea of “the commons” does not make much sense. Many prefer an opt-in and opt-out strategy: they stand against the privatization of nature and for the privatization of industry and services; against the pollution of water and soil, but for the private property and “management” thereof; against the cutting of funds in the education sector, but for “efficiency” and individual survival by competition within the educational and job sector.

At the same time, the debates in the public forums surrounding the anti-Forestry Act protests [opposing ski-tourism facilities on public land] made clear the elite-driven public they attracted. The discourse is centered on preserving individual liberty and urges people to choose their struggles selectively (even when undergoing urgent political developments). This became even more problematic once you added in the manifest feeling of entitlement that people with upper social and significant geographical mobility demonstrated. As the author of one manifesto that became famous among protesters claimed, “We are against the limitation of the possibilities of development.”

Hollywood and the record industry got some serious comeuppance when the European Parliament overwhelmingly defeated a copyright maximalist treaty by a 478 to 39 vote on Wednesday.  Ouch!  This is a very sweet moment to savor. 

The content industries and trade representatives had been negotiating the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement for six years behind closed doors.  Civil society organizations were absolutely barred from the process even though industry players had full and complete access and participation.  The proposed changes to copyright law would have empowered copyright industries to throttle free speech on the Internet without due process; allow users to be barred access to Internet accounts; and force Internet service providers to act as copyright police by patrolling users’ web habits. 

The idea behind the ACTA treaty was to negotiate a new global standard of strict copyright standards.  It was also a sly tactical feint to use international policy venues to help impose stiff copyright rules on the US without having to go through the US Senate for treaty ratification (Obama could simply sign it as an “executive agreement”).  The point of this subterfuge was to avoid any bruising public debate about or political fallout from much-hated provisions of the agreement.

The defeat of ACTA is a sweet moment because arrogant trade reps and industry moguls had airily dismissed critics.  They thought that their insider access, lobbying dollars and propaganda campaigns could just ram the whole stinkin’ mess through.  But after last year's huge Internet mobilization against SOPA and PIPA – the Stop Online Privacy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate – it was clear that Internet users were getting their act together as a political force.  That anti-SOPA, anti-PIPA effort stunned Congress; industry-backed legislation that had previously sailed through was stopped dead in its tracks.  The spell of the entertainment industry's cozy influence-peddling was broken, at least for a while.

I recently encountered a bracing essay, “The Commons and World Governance,” by Arnaud Blin and Gustavo Marín.  Blin is a French historian and political scientist, and Marín is a Chilean-French economist and sociologist who is Director of the Forum for a new World Governance. Their 33-page piece is a terrific philosophical and historical overview of capitalism and governance, and it makes a strong case for the appeal of the commons in meeting contemporary ecological and economic challenges. 

The essay’s opening paragraph states that we are now undergoing “the first global revolution in history” brought on by the declining powers of the nation-state: 

Today the state is no longer equipped to ensure the sustainability of humankind, nor is it able to prevent itself, other states, and private actors from plundering our most precious treasure, our planet, irretrievably. The sudden powerlessness of the most powerful actor of the global stage has been caused by the onrush of globalization, which with breathtaking speed has overtaken the traditional actors of international politics and rewritten the rules of the game of economics. By doing so, it has also fostered the need to devise and uphold what can be described as the global interest, one that should inevitably take precedence over the outdated and ineffectual individual “national interests” that have for centuries determined the direction of international affairs.

How can humanity begin to articulate and protect the “global interest” in the face of marauding national and transnational corporate interests, and the decline of state power?  That is the problem.

While the official Rio+20 environmental summit will surely be a bust, reaffirming the supposed power of markets to solve our planetary eco-crises, the alternative People’s Summit has made some progress toward positive outcomes.  A wide variety of civil society groups from around the world has been meeting since November 2011 to try to hammer out a shared vision that addresses the theme, “Capitalist Crisis, Social and Environmental Justice.” 

The dialogues seek not only to provide a critique of what’s wrong and needs fixing, but to suggest some coherent themes and proposals for moving forward.  I am pleased to report that one of four short working documents produced by the so-called Dialogue Platform of the Thematic Social Forum (TSF) sees great promise in reclaiming the commons.

My colleague Silke Helfrich has been involved in these proceedings, participating in group discussions that occurred in Porto Alegre in January and in Rio de Janeiro in May.  She shared her insights with me from her blog, and will be attending the People’s Summit in Rio in about two weeks.  (See also her excellent presentation about how the commons can help us navigate the coming "Great Transition.")

The People’s Summit bills its gathering as “part of a historical process of accumulation and convergence of local, regional and global struggles, that have anti-capitalist, classist, anti-racist, anti-patriarchal and anti-homophobic political frames.” For a fairly short document that emerged from a very diverse group, the Dialogue Platform’s statement on the commons is remarkably deep and subtle.  It is clear to these activists that the problem is not just misguided policies and economic analysis; it involves fallacious mental maps, epistemological categories and modernity itself. 

I am impressed that a large group of this sort could agree on such a statement, and show such depth of understanding about the commons and its role in building a better future.   Here is the Dialogue Platform’s statement:

The Real Agenda of Rio+20

In mid-June, governments from around the world will converge on Rio de Janeiro for a major environmental conference that aspires to come to major new agreements for saving the planet's fast-declining ecosystems.  Since the event comes 20 years after a landmark 1992 environmental conference, this one is called Rio+20. Unfortunately, the conference is almost certain to be a bust because there are no signs that the world's governments are willing to entertain any significant new approaches to environmental protection, least of all ones that would genuinely protect the commons; it would be too economically disruptive and require shifts of power to the 99%.  So the chief task of Rio+20 will be to create the appearance of change.  Early indications suggest that the only green solutions to get any traction will be those that would help develop or expand markets for addressing environmental problems. In other words, a green rebranding for more of the same.In anticipation of this likely outcome, a British anti-poverty campaigning organization, the World Development Movement, has taken the official logo for the event and created a few creative alternatives.  WDM has also launched a "micro-blog" about the need for a "real green economy."  Also check out the People's Summit Rio+20 web portal.  Don't say that you weren't warned.

The Great Lakes Commons Map

A week or two ago, I blogged about the rise of new sorts of eco-digital commons that blend virtual spaces with environmental management.  It's a bit of serendipity to learn this week about the a fascinating new online tool, the Great Lakes Commons Map.  The map is an interactive platform that solicits contributions and conversation by people who love the Great Lakes.  The idea is to turn a resource that is often seen as belonging to no one into one that is actively stewarded by everyone.  How?  By inviting everyone to post their own videos, text, photos and comments about specific portions of the Great Lakes.  Over time, it is hoped that the site will help build a new shared “mental map” and shared space for people to talk about the Great Lakes as an integrated bioregion -- and to take action to defend it.

The map was created by Paul Baines, an environmental educator, and Darren Puscas of reWORKit (“web production for unions and social change”).  Here is Haines' video introduction to the map.  Haines hopes that the website will help people annotate their conservation projects, cleanups, ecological education and restoration initiatives, activist efforts, walking tours, historical markings, and other Great Lakes projects on a single site, and thereby illustrate how and why the Lakes are a commons.  Anyone can post their own personal stories, reports of threats to the Lakes' ecological health, alerts that seek to organize and educate, notices about upcoming events, etc. 

Haines eventually hopes to make it possible to post and share video and audio on the site; use SMS and Twitter feeds for reporting and campaigning; host workshops and training on community mapping; and translate the website into other languages. 

What’s especially beautiful about the site is its use of Ushahidi, an open source, interactive geospatial platform for the crowdsourcing of information in crisis situations.  The platform has been used to enable the geospatial visualization human trafficking, for example.  Haines adapted it to serve as a way to crowdsource information, images, video and more that can create a new shared cultural space for saving the Great Lakes.

The New Eco-digital Commons

When thinking about the commons, most people make a sharp division in their minds between natural resource commons (for water, air, land, forests, wildlife, etc.) and digital commons (free software, Wikipedia, Creative Commons-licensed content, social networking, etc.)  It is assumed that these two universes are entirely separate and distinct, and have little to do with each other.  But in fact, these two realms are starting to blur – and we should be more mindful of this convergence and the synergies that it is producing.

The reflexive division between digital and natural resource commons is understandable.  One type of commons deals with rivalrous, finite resources that can be physically depleted, while the other manages non-rivalrous resources – information, creative works, research – that can’t really be “used up” because it is virtually costless to reproduce them digitally.  Most natural resources can be over-exploited if there are too many users, so the challenge is how to manage access and usage.  By contrast, the biggest challenge facing digital commoners is how to curate information and community participation in intelligent, respectful ways.

But the “obvious” logic of this mental map is deceptive – because a new constellation of what I call “eco-digital commons” is using networking technologies to better manage natural resources.  The digital and natural worlds are starting to “co-mingle” in very interesting and constructive ways, suggesting that the more salient differences between the two resources are perhaps less consequential than we had thought.  Indeed, there are many powerful new capabilities that arise.

An example is a new iPhone and Android app designed to help stop invasive species.  It was developed by my friend Charlie Schweik, a UMass professor, in cooperation with the UMass Extension service, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Conservation, the University of Georgia and other partners.  Invasive species are non-native plants, animals, fish, insects, fungi and other organisms that are often quite harmful to an ecosystem.

At a time when representative democracy is increasingly revealed as ineffectual, phony or both – a kabuki theater of empty formalisms that disguise the offstage conspiracies of corporate/state elites – many people look to the Internet for salvation.  After all, the Internet is far more open, participatory and meritocratic than the closed, corporate-dominated process of our formal democracy. 

But even with these capacities, the Internet is not a solution because in the end the Internet is only a hosting platform.  A basic question must be answered:  How should a more serious deliberative democracy be structured in online spaces? 

Let the record show that the insurgent Pirate Party in Germany has made some significant progress on this problem.  Its new open source software platform, LiquidFeedback, is credited with helping the Pirates host more open, participatory and serious internal debates about party policies -- and to organize themselves to take action in conventional political arenas. 

The makers of Liquid Feedback characterize their platform in a mission statement as “a bridge between direct and representative democracy.”  They believe the software “has the potential to empower the ordinary members of mainstream political parties, making these parties more attractive to citizens and democracy stronger.”  The software, released in version 2.0 in March 2012, is currently used by several associations and political parties.

I’ve always been disappointed that the rich diversity of commons projects and scholarship that is exploding internationally cannot be readily seen – and what does exist tends to be written by and for academics. The International Commons Conference in Berlin in November 2010 brought this issue home by showing the amazing breadth of commons activism and thinking out there. The question is, How can someone tap into this knowledge? 

My friend and colleague Silke Helfrich and I have tried to remedy this problem by assembling a big anthology of essays on the commons by leading activists, scholars and project leaders.  I am happy to report that the German version of this book, edited by Helfrich and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, has just been published.  It’s called Commons:  For a Policy Beyond Market and State, and it's available from the German publisher, transcript. 

The 526-page book is likely to be a sourcebook on the commons for quite some time.  At least I hope so.  It contains 73 essays by authors who live in 30 countries around the world.  The essays focus on everything from commons-based abundance and free software to land enclosures and P2P urbanism.  There are essays by Peter Linebaugh on the history of the commons, Silvia Federici on women and the commons, Rob Hopkins on resilience, Liz Alden Wily on the international land grabs, Massimo de Angelis on capitalism and cooperation, and Hervé Le Crosnier on modern forms of enclosure, among many others. 

The point is to highlight the remarkable international diversity of commons projects, activism and theoretical thought.  The book features a number of essays by academics working in the Ostrom school of commons scholarship, but also many scholars from other traditions and independent activists. A major challenge was translating many essays from English and Spanish into German, and editing them all into a standard format.  A hearty congratulations to Silke and the Böll Foundationfor tackling this formidable task over the past year!

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