international

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.”

Smart Phones as Our Modern DataVeils

I’ve always felt that artists will play a leading role in helping us understand the deeper subjective and identity dimensions of commoning.  In Istanbul this past weekend, I encountered a number of artists who confirmed this fact for me.  I was at the “Paratactic Commons” conference, hosted by Istanbul Technical University and Winchester School of Art.  The event brought together a number of artistic interpretations of the commons as well as activist-oriented initiatives on the commons in Turkey. 

I was quite taken by several performance and video works by the Dutch artists Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat.  (I’ll talk about other projects featured at the conference in my next post.)  One of their most provocative works is called Tele_Trust, a performance project that explores how we come to trust each other online.  It explores how our bodies – especially our eyes and sense of touch – are critical to developing trust.  So what does this fact mean as more of our personal and social lives migrate to online platforms?  How do we develop trust there? 

Speaking at the conference, Hermen Maat described how he and his partner wanted to explore the subjective experiences of trust and privacy in a world of ubiquitous personal communications.  We face a paradox in our world of ubiquitous telecommunications:  “While in our changing social eco-system we increasingly demand transparency, we cover our bodies with personal communication technology.”  Our mobile phones function as a kind of “personal armor,” said Maat, covering our bodies and rendering us inaccessible to the public.  And yet we still need to cultivate trust, if only to consummate business deals. 

If our electronic devices function as “digital data veils,” Maat reasoned, why not explore that idea by connecting it to its nearest analogue – the wearing of a burqa? 

Maat and Lancel developed an interactive wearable “DataVeil” to cover one’s entire body.  Gender-neutral and one-size-fits all, it is “inspired by eastern and western traditions, like a monks’ habit, a burqa, Darth Vader, and a 'trustworthy' chalk stripe business suit,” they explain.  “When wearing the DataVeil it functions as a second skin.  Flexible, invisible touch sensors woven into the smart fabric of the veil, transform your body into an intuitive, tangible interface. It is a a membrane for scanning an intimate, networking body experience.”

Belgian Greens Explore a Commons Agenda

The Greens in Belgium have been taking a serious look at the potential of the commons to transform their political agenda.  Last week, a thoughtful 60-page report on a one-day symposium on the commons, "The Commons:  (Co)Managing Commonly Owned Resources" (pdf file), was released.  It describes the highlights of a March 9, 2012, event organized by the Green European Foundation in cooperation with the Belgian Green foundations Oikos and Etopia.  An overview of the symposium is available here.  The full report is here. My previous blog post on this event is here.

The report brings together a number of papers presented at the symposium (including mine).  Here is the contents page:

Introduction

Conceptual Clarification

The Commons:  DNA of a Revival of Policy Culture (David Bollier)

Science:  The Commons and Knowledge (Valerie Peugeot)

Nature for All, and By All:  The Common Resources of Environmental Infrastructure (Pablo Servigne)

Constructing a New System:  Collectively Produced Common Resources (Maarten Roels)

Reclaiming Finance and the Economy:  Economic Commons (Arnaud Zacharie)

Sharing without Owning:  Genetic Heritage as a Common Resource (Tom Dedeurwaerdere)

Conclusion:  The Commons and Reinventing Prosperity (Tom Dedeurwaerdere and Isabelle Cassiers)

Every year the Elevate Festival in Graz, Austria, awards its International Elevate Award to an exemplary project of commoners, a recognition that comes with a 2,500 euro prize.  Elevate is a rare event that brings together cutting-edge music with leading thinkers about the commons and politics.  What a combo!  I had the privilege to attend four years ago, which led to some collaborations on the commons that continue to this day.

The Elevate Awards don't just recognize past achievements, but also future promise.  As the name "elevate" implies, the awards seek to recognize under-recognized but strong, innovative projects that take account of "the environmental and cultural commons of our planet." 

The 2012 winner of the Elevate Award has just been announced:  the Women’s Network for Sustainable Development in Africa, or REFDAF. The Senegal-based organization is a network of hundreds of grassroots women’s associations in the southern regions of West Africa.  It’s dedicated to the empowerment of women to establish their own livelihoods through sustainable regional production. A live-stream of the awards show on October 28 will be shown here.

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:

Syndicate content