international

While it may be tempting to divide the world into two separate camps, market and commons, some of the most interesting territory lies in the spaces in between – namely, in the non-capitalist, commons-based marketplace.  In France, they call it the “social economy” – the segment of commerce serviced by cooperatives and mutual enterprises.  Such companies meet their members’ commercial needs while also trying to address broader social, ecological and democratic concerns.

I spent the past three days at a gathering, the Mont Blanc Meetings (Les Rencontres du Mont-Blanc) dedicated to exploring how economic efficiency and social equity can be balanced through coops, and how the social economy can be a political force for a new vision of society.  The Mont Blanc Meetings have been held every two years since 2005 as a kind of alternative to both Davos (World Economic Forum) and Porto Allegre (World Social Forum).  The Mont Blanc Meetings are the social economy’s attempt to build an international identity, collaborate on practical projects and promote a new political vision. 

I must say, the organizers certainly chose a lovely place to meet – Chamonix, France, a small resort village nestled in the shadow of two majestic mountain ranges that tower more than two miles above the 3,000-foot valley floor.  What a combination:  European charm, good food, scenic beauty and bracing political discussion.

Two recent developments suggest that the reactionary regime of maximalist copyright can still command a lot of raw political power to beat back commoners, flout legal principles and craft the law to its liking. Yet at the same time open networks and default norms of sharing are getting some serious traction these days, as two other developments attest. Could a post-reactionary world of free culture be at hand?

First, the bad news. A few weeks ago the EU extended the term of copyright protection for music recordings by another twenty years – an ignoble replay of what the U.S. Congress did in 1998 for U.S. copyright law. You may recall that the Disney Co. was determined to stop Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain, and the motion picture, recording and publishing industries were just as eager to reap a public giveaway worth billions of dollars.

If the copyright extension had not been adopted, lots of British music recordings from the 1960s from the Beatles to the early Stones and many others were expected to enter the public domain in 2012. Now there's a chilling thought: music that's still popular becoming free!  Alternatively, the artists themselves could begin to distribute the music themselves, rather than having to let the record labels have exclusive rights for another 20 years.

The Renegade Economist website has a clever and instructive video animation on how banks, corporations and governments use debt to prey upon needy countries and stay on top. As “Billion Dollar Bill,” the superhero banker, candidly explains, “The cheapest, most lethal weapon in the world [is].....spreadsheets!” 

The ingenious tool for consummating enclosures around the world is debt – loans made to impoverished countries with coveted natural resources that can be acquired via corrupt or gullible leaders. It works this way: Bankers and the U.S. Government persuade the countries to put the natural resources in hock in order to finance loans for infrastructure development (with lots skimmed off to the middlemen bankers and politicians, and kudos for "helping" poor countries "develop.").

The loans intensify pressures to monetize nature in order to come up with funds to pay the loans.  Government aid programs then collude with multinational corporations to enclose shared forests, pastures, water and other resources used by commoners.  Land values rise, along with rents, displacing poorer people from their apartments and homes, swelling the ranks of the homeless and "informal sector."  As the Renegade Economist folks put it, "It is not conspiracy -- it's structural economic behavior locked into Western Foreign Policy and therefore the global economy.  It's branded aid but really it's neo-colonialism." 

The Pirate Party Wins Big in Berlin

The Pirate Party won an impressive and unexpected 8.9% of the vote in Berlin's elections on Sunday. This means that the Pirates will have an astonishing 15 seats out in the state parliament, out of 141 legislators. It's the first time that the Pirate Party has won representation in a German legislative body.

To put this in perspective, the German Pirate Party won 2% of the vote in national elections in 2009, but no seats in the legislature. The Berlin election can be chalked up as a regional aberration, which it is, but it also took place in the capital of Germany.  And a bloc of 15 seats can be parlayed into real power in a parliamentary system.

But what's also significant about the Berlin victory is the growing power of trans-national movements that have strong local bases and political and cultural affinities that span national boundaries. This is the new Internet culture emerging. As the blog Governance Across Borders puts it, “The Pirate Party’s election win in Berlin would not have been possible without its relations to a much broader and transnational movement. For one, there are fellow pirate parties in over 40 different countries, most of which are members of the meta-organization Pirate Parties International. For another, the pirate party movement is itself only one of several related and partly overlapping social movements inspired by the new technological possibilities of Internet and digital technologies.” (Governance Across Borders has a useful FAQ on the Pirate Parties and the Berlin victory.)

             Thank you.  In the next few minutes, I want to give you a brief introduction to the commons as a very old but also very new paradigm for human governance.  In introducing the commons, I hope to persuade you that it is a potentially transformative idea for politics, economics and culture.

            The commons is, at its core, a very old – and a very new, recently rediscovered – system of governance for managing resources.  It has deep roots in history as a system of self-provisioning and mutual support.  It is also a way of being a human being that goes beyond the selfish, rational, utility-maximizing model of homo economicus that economists say we are.  The commons presumes that humans are more complex, and that more holistic, humane types of human behavior can be “designed into” our governance institutions. 

           Thank you.  This is my first time at the Caux Forum for Human Security, but I can already tell that I am among friends, with entire tracks on “healing memory,” “just governance,” “living sustainably” and “inclusive economics.”  In the next few minutes, I want to give you a brief introduction to the commons as a very old but also very new paradigm for human governance.  In introducing the commons, I hope to persuade you that it is a potentially transformative idea that carries with it a powerful healing logic.

A new British publication, Stir, short for Stir to Action, has released its second issue as editor Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh bravely tries to give voice to a new kind of post-liberal, globally aware activist readership.  True to its name, Stir features a number of provocative articles and invigorating interviews with iconoclasts.  If we're lucky, this venture from the edge may actually help assemble a "constituency of unrealistic pragmatists," in the words of George McKay, author of a wonderful piece on on “radical gardening.”

In an interview with author Mckenzie Wark, we learn some of the lessons that the Situationists may have for contemporary political and cultural activism.  The Situationist International “was an extremely marginal avant-garde movement that was formed in 1957 and then dissolved itself in 1972,” Wark noted, describing his new book, The Beach Beneath the Street.  “Why the hell would anybody be interested in this tiny marginal activity? The footprint the Situationists left in political aesthetic culture is vastly greater than their actual numbers. As their leading light, Guy Debord, said ‘all you need is a few trustworthy comrades’.”

That’s a great premise for any movement:  a few trustworthy comrades with the imagination and daring to challenge the narcoleptic conformism of our times.  Even some of the most active activists that I know are half-asleep because they have so internalized the prevailing political paradigm and cultural norms.

Requiem for CouchSurfing?

A recurrent problem for any successful digital commons is the temptation to privatize and monetize the value generated by it.  Once enough value has been created (impressive web traffic, cool software, a repository of information), the people in charge inevitably get to thinking, “Hey, this could be worth a lot of money!”  And so begins the insider-driven enclosure of an informal commons, usually cloaked in soothing rationalizations.

The latest example is CouchSurfing’s lunge toward the marketplace.  CouchSurfing is an international gift economy that lets people find a free “couch” to sleep on in more than 81,000 cities around the world.  Begun in 2003, the website has always prided itself on being a self-organized, tightly knit and trusting community for authentic cultural encounters and generous hospitality.  It has been the deliberate antithesis of crass tourism and commercial travel.  Travelers are actually prohibited from paying their hosts because the whole enterprise is meant to foster meaningful social encounters.  The whole enterprise has been run as a community, not as a business enterprise.  (I blogged about CouchSurfing here in 2010.)

Imagine the shock and dismay of many CouchSurfers to learn that “their” website is now a for-profit corporation that recently raised $7.6 million from Benchmark venture capital and the Omidyar Network.  The official reason given is that CouchSurfing needs to hire ten top-notch programmers to assure that the website can stay current and compete with a number of for-profit travel/hospitality sites that have arisen, such as Tripping.com, AirBnB and OneFineStay.com.  To its credit, CouchSurfing “owners” have filed to become a “B Corporation,” which legally allows to pursue mission-oriented goals as well as financial ones.

The following remarks are excerpted from a talk that I gave at the Vis Green Academy in Croatia, on August 25, dealing with the commons and its potential to remake cities and city life. My interview on the commons (in Croatian translation) with the Croatian environmental magazine H-Alter.org can be found here.

I have been asked to address what the commons might have to say about urban spaces and urban life.  The short answer is, a lot!

First, the language of the commons helps us assert a moral entitlement to public spaces again.  It lets us challenge the unholy alliance of politicians, developers and professional architects and planners, and insist that city spaces serve our needs as ordinary people.  This means, first of all, that commercial considerations cannot crowd out vital common purposes – as we see when the market or authoritarians take over.

I like how Pulska Grupa, a group of architects and urban planners from Pula, Croatia, put it in their Kommunal Urbanism Social Charter.  They write:  

“We imagine city as a collective space which belongs to all those who live in it, who have the right to find there the conditions for their political, social, economic and ecological fulfillment at the same time assuming duties of solidarity.  This concept of the city is blocked by capitalist dialectic based on difference in public and private good.  From these two poles State and Market emerge as the only two subjects.  We want to escape this dialectic, not to focus on eventually “third subject,” but on a group of collective subjectivities and the commons that they produce.”

Scenes from Croatian Enclosures

One of the treats at the Vis Green Academy in Croatia last week was seeing an exhibit of photographs by Marina Kelava, of Bjelovar, Croatia, who works as a journalist and photojournalist for Croatian Internet magazine H-Alter.org, which focuses mainly on environmental issues.  The exhibit included a number of photos documenting various enclosures of the commons in Croatia as well as photos taken while covering large international events, from the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and the World Social Forum to the beginning of Radovan Karadzic’s trial at the International Criminal Tribunal. 

Kelava graduated from the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Zagreb, with a degree in journalism.  A larger collection of her photos can be seen on Facebook at Marina Kelava Photography

I met Marina when she interviewed me for H-Alter.org.  Then I saw her photos on the wall and was impressed by their power in depicting the personal, social and emotional dimensions of commoning, the social practices of defending and celebrating a community's shared wealth.  The photos are simultaneously political and human, which is not always an easy thing to combine in rich, subtle ways.  Kelava's photos do.

View from the untouched hill of Srdj above Dubrovnik, Croatia, where a huge golf project is planned and the civil initiative "Srdj is Ours" is fighting against it.

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