Everybody talks a lot about economic inequality, but there don’t seem to be many credible proposals out there, let alone ones that have political legs.  French economist Thomas Piketty documented the deep structural nature of inequality in Capital in the 21st Century, but the best solution he could come up with was a global wealth tax.  Good luck with that!

What a pleasure, then, to read Peter Barnes’ new book and discover some sensible, practical ideas.  Barnes is a writer, entrepreneur and long-time friend; we worked together a decade ago with the late Jonathan Rowe in exploring the great potential commons in re-imagining politics, policy, economics and culture. The author of pioneering policy ideas in Who Owns the Sky? and Capitalism 3.0, Barnes has just published With Liberty and Dividends for All:  How to Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don’t Pay Enough (Berrett-Koehler Publishers). 

The book aims to reduce inequality not through the tax system or education and training, but by inventing new commons-based institutions that can generate nonlabor income for everyone.  The secret of the wealthy, of course, is that they don’t depend on salaries or wages, but on investment income from their equity assets. 

So how might commoners pull off this trick?  By generating income from common assets.  The money won’t come from government spending or redistribution, or from new taxes on business.  It will come from commoners seizing control of the shared equity assets they already own – the atmosphere, airwaves, the sovereign right to create money (now enjoyed by banks), and the public institutions that make stock markets and copyrights possible.

These equity assets belong to all of us. Unfortunately, most of the benefits from these assets have been privatized by banks, oil companies, telecom companies, the culture industries, depriving us of income to which we, as common property holders, are entitled.

Barnes proposes renting out various common assets to businesses that wish to use them.  This is a well-accepted principle – to pay for something owned by someone else.  Why should companies get a free ride on public assets?  Barnes proposes charging corporations for the use of the airwaves, the pollution sink of the atmosphere, and the right to monopoly protections such as copyrights, trademarks and patents.  Revenues from our common assets could be channeled into independent, non-governmental trust funds that would then regularly generate dividends for everyone.

The proposed privatization of the grand public theater in Rome, Teatro Valle, has been defeated – but perhaps more importantly, the historic three-year occupation of the building has succeeded in achieving many of its primary goals, including the recognition of its demands to establish a new theater commons, after weeks of contentious negotiations.

The struggle was noteworthy because it pitted municipal authorities in Rome, whose austerity policies had resulted in severe cutbacks at the theater, against self-identified commoners who want to run the historic theater in far more open, participatory and innovative ways.  At stake was not just the continuance of performances at Teatro Valle, but the governance, management practices, purpose and character of the theater.  Shall it be a “public good” managed by the city government, often to the detriment of the public interest, or a commons in which ordinary people can instigate their own ideas and propose their own rules? 

Beset by budgetary problems, the mayor of Rome had proposed privatizing the management of Teatro Valle.  But protesters who had occupied the building in 2011 adamantly resisted such plans.  Their protests inspired an outcry not just among many Romans and Italians, but among an international network of commoners, human rights advocates, political figures, scholars and cultural leaders. 

In July, the city government threatened to evict occupiers and issued an ultimatum with a July 31 deadline.  Thus began a series of negotiations.  Commoners were represented by Fondazione Teatro valle Bene Comune, which entered into talks with the city government and Teatro di Roma, the public entity that runs the systems of the theaters in Rome.

(I am back from some time at the beach, ready to resume my reporting about the latest commons developments, of which there are many.  More to come!)

Dutch legal scholar Femke Wijdekop of the Institute for Environmental Security has tackled an urgent question for anyone concerned with planetary environment.  She writes: 

How can we construct a right to a healthy and clean environment that is enforceable in today’s complex international legal order? What legal construct would be visionary and ambitious enough to meet the urgent need for environmental justice and protection and at the same time be enforceable in court rather than fall into the category of ‘soft law’?

Wijdekop answers these questions in an essay, “A Human Right to Commons- and Rights-based Ecological Governance:  the key to a healthy and clean environment?” The legal analysis was published by the Earth Law Alliance, a group of lawyers organized by British lawyer Lisa Mead who advocate an eco-centric approach to law. 

Wijdekop’s piece draws upon some of the ideas in my book with Burns Weston, Green Governance in arguing for “procedural environmental rights to establish, maintain, participate in, be informed about and seek redress for ecological commons.”  She has presented these ideas to international lawyers and constitutional scholars in The Hague, and is now reaching out to environmentally minded lawyers.

Governments are so accustomed to dictating their will, through coercion if necessary, that they find it unimaginable that people might willingly – and with creativity and enthusiasm – self-organize themselves to take care of urgent needs.  So pause a moment to behold the remarkable Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan.  This settlement of 85,000 displaced Syrians is showing how even desperate, resource-poor people can show enormous creativity and self-organization, and turn their "camp" into a "city."

In many respects, Zaatari bears an uncanny resemblance to the DIY dynamics of the Burning Man encampment in the Nevada desert – an annual gathering that attracts more than 65,000 people for a week.  Both eschew "government" in favor of self-organized governance.  Both confer opportunities and responsibilities and individuals, and facilitate bottom-up initiatives through lightweight infrastructures.

As the New York Times reported on July 4, the Zaatari camp has “neighborhoods, gentrification, a growing economy and, under the circumstances, something approaching normalcy, though every refugee longs to return home. There is even a travel agency that will provide a pickup service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for the refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.”  Times’ urbanist/architecture critic Michel Kimmelman declares that “Zaatari’s evolution points more broadly to a whole new way of thinking about one of the most pressing crises on the planet.”

No respectable person in American politics dares to question the virtue of economic growth even though it is increasingly clear that life on Earth will collapse if current patterns of extraction and consumption continue.  So what is the responsible path forward?

It was exciting that the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. decided to host a two-hour webinar to explore this topic two weeks ago.  The dialogue – “A Deeper Look at the Limits to Growth:  Looking Beyond GDP Towards a Post-Growth Society” – amounted to dipping a toe into the water rather than a confident plunge.  But for Americans, who woefully lag behind European activists on this topic, it was a welcome attempt to get beyond conventional political stances. 

Economic growth is always touted as the absolute precondition for greater social justice or environmental progress.  Yet somehow growth never really translates into sustainable gains for the environment or fairer allocations of rewards.  Nonmarket goals are always a receding chimera, an afterthought, a political football.  On the other hand, it is equally true that criticizing economic growth is a sure-fire way to be politically marginalized in American public life.  That's a real problem, too.

The IPS webinar sought to probe the “fundamental rift between traditional progressives over the future of economic growth.  One segment argues that ecological limits dictate that the economic growth paradigm that we know is over…..Other progressives argue we should pursue growth policies -- or even ‘green growth’ -- and not concede that we are ‘anti-growth.’” 

Here is how IPS introduced the webinar:

How do we move beyond the notion that green economists are tone-deaf to equity issues? How do we move beyond the misguided aspirations of many groups excluded from economic prosperity to grow the pie so they can have a larger piece of the pie?  What is the green economist message to traditionally economically excluded constituencies?

Is there a way to “redefine growth” that doesn’t politically concede limits to growth? (After all, conventional wisdom say no politician will win on a degrowth program). Is there a common framework that can unify both of these movements that address both of these group’s deep systemic concerns?

In the past, organized labor and environmentalists have gamely attempted to find a common ground – a “blue/green alliance” – that would push for higher wages and stronger environmental protection at the same time.  Such projects have been a valiant effort to force capital to internalize its negative externalities (pollution, habitat destruction, etc.) and allocate the benefits of growth more equitably.

Save the Teatro Valle Commons in Rome!

The three-year occupation of Teatro Valle in Rome is now legendary:  a spontaneous response to the failures of conventional government in supporting a venerated public theater, and the conversion of the theater into a commons by countless ordinary citizens.  Now the mayor of Rome is threatening to end the occupation, evict the commoners and privatize the management of the facility.

It’s time for the international community of commoners to take a public stand against this very real threat. The mayor has summoned Italian law scholar Ugo Mattei to meet with him on Monday to negotiate a resolution. In advance of that meeting, Mattei and Salvatore Settis, President of the Advisory Board of the Louvre Museum in Paris, have prepared an international petition calling on the mayor to back away from his proposal and to allow this historic experiment in commoning to continue.

Below is a copy of the petition.  You can express your support by sending you name and affiliation to Ugo Mattei at matteiu /at/ uchastings.edu.

A number of human rights scholars around the world are keenly interested in Teatro Valle.  Noted human rights scholar Anna Grear alerted the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and Environment that "the attempted denial of popular 'ownership' of 'place' is fundamental to the cultural and material enclosures enacted by privatising and controlling agendas.”  She added that “closing down an important, even iconic, example of a fundamentally vernacular, community-based engagement with place (a vibrant, evocative commons) is entirely consistent with the deeper logic visible in moves such as the attempt to control the world seed supplies and breeds, to extend the corporatisation of the social spheres, to privatise urban space in ways that shut ordinary human beings out of them in central and important respects.”

For more on the backstory of Teatro Valle, here is a previous blog post on the occupation from February 2013.  Below is the petition now circulating.  Sign it!

The commons “Italian Style” must continue their experimentation! An International call to protect the Teatro Valle Foundation from Eviction.

Since June 14 2011, a community of artists and militants has transformed the Teatro Valle, the oldest and most prestigious in Rome, then at high risk of privatization, into the “Teatro Valle Occupato,” one of the most advanced experiments of merger between political struggle and performing arts in the current world. A trust-like legal entity, the “Fondazione Teatro Valle Bene Comune,” was created in the interest of future generations, with a membership of almost 6,000 people by a genuinely new process of cooperation between some well-known jurists and the Assembly of the occupants. While a notary has recognized the Foundation, the Prefect of Rome has denied its moral personality on the assumption that possession was not a sufficient title on the Valle premises.

The austerity agenda is often presented as inevitable, which is really just a way for corporatists and conservatives to dismiss any discussion or debate. “There are no alternatives!” they thunder.  But as Co-operatives UK demonstrates in a brilliant new report, there are a growing array of highly practical alternatives that are both financially feasible and socially effective. They are known as multi-stakeholder co-operatives, or more simply as “social co-operatives.” 

While most of us are familiar with consumer or worker coops, the social co-operative is a bit different.  First, it welcomes many types of members – from paid staff and volunteers to service users and family members to social economy investors.  While many coops look and feel like their market brethren, with a keen focus on profit and loss, social coops are committed to meeting social goals such as healthcare, eldercare, social services and workforce integration for former prisoners. They are able to blend market activity with social services provisioning and democratic participation, all in one swoop.

Pat Conaty is author of the report, “Social Co-operatives:  A Democratic Co-Production Agenda for Care Services in the UK.”   He explains how the legal and organizational structures of multi-stakeholder co-operatives – as well as their cultural ethos – generate all sorts of advantages.  They can deliver services more efficiently than many conventional businesses.  They are more adaptable and responsive than many government programs.  And they invite active, inclusive participation by members in deciding how their needs shall be met -- and in contributing their own knowledge and energies.

The report examines best practices in co-operative health and social care services, and profiles the success of social coops in Italy, Japan, France and Spain, among other countries, as well as in Quebec, Canada. 

The Italian experience with social coops is especially impressive.  Since passage of a 1991 law that authorizes social co-operatives and provides public policy support for them, Italians have started 14,500 social co-operatives that employ 360,000 paid workers and rely on an additional 34,000 volunteer members.  The typical coop has fewer than 30 worker-members, and provides services to the elderly, the disabled and those with mental illnesses.  Some provide “sheltered employment” for people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.

Stacco Troncoso and his colleagues at Guerrilla Translation, in Madrid, have completed an English translation of an important statement from Spain, “The Charter for Democracy,” which should be of great interest to small-d democrats throughout the world. He explains that “the group behind the piece, “Movimiento por la Democracia” (Movement for Democracy) is undoubtedly one of the most important evolutions of Spain’s 15-M movement.  It clearly targets the political arena without desiring to become a political party itself. Their ‘Charter for Democracy’ is an inspiring, thorough text on what politics should be. It proposes a politics for the people: squarely grounded in environmental realities and social justice, based on the Commons, defended from corporate interests and neoliberal dictates.” 

The Movement for Democracy introduces itself this way:

"We emerged during the destruction of an economic and political model that, by its decadence, makes us poorer, excludes us, and exiles us from our own cities and towns...we are here to take democracy into our own hands, to defend against the constant threat of its systematic robbery...we are the Movement for Democracy and we came into being to say, “Yes we can!” a thousand times and more. And as we hold this to be true, that we actually can, we will challenge whoever tells us it’s impossible."

The Charter for Democracy is “a thoroughly detailed plan for the transformation of public policy and democratic representation, open for public challenge and participation,” said Troncoso, whose network of translators acted as “compilers and editors of a volunteer group-produced work” in making the English translation.  A hearty thanks to translators Jaron Rowan, Jaime Palomera, Lucía Lara, Lotta, Diego and Stacco Troncoso, with editing by Jane Loes Lipton. I love that the Charter is illustrated with some beautiful original illustrations by Clismón, one of which I include here.

Here are the opening paragraphs of this inspiring document:

This Charter was born of a deep malaise: lack of prospects, mass unemployment, cuts in social rights and benefits, evictions, political and financial corruption, dismantling of public services. It was drafted in reaction to the social majority’s growing lack of confidence in the promises of a political system devoid of legitimacy and the ability to listen.

The two-party system, widespread corruption, the financial dictatorship imposed by austerity policies and the destruction of public goods have dealt the final blow to a democracy long suffering from its own limits. These limits were already present in the 1978 Constitution. They can be summarized as a political framework that neither protects society from the concentration of power in the hands of the financial groups, nor from the consolidation of a non-representative political class. This political framework has established a system which is hardly open to citizen participation, and unable to construct a new system of collective rights for our protection and common development. This is evident in the fact that, despite some very significant public demonstrations, the demands of the vast majority of the population have repeatedly been ignored.

Gender and the Commons in India

The following is an interview with Soma Kishore Parthasarathy from the website of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) on June 6. The interviewer was Ana Abelenda, and the piece is called “Reclaiming the Commons for Gender and Economic Justice:  Struggles and Movements in India.”  It is republished here with permission.

AWID spoke to Indian independent researcher and scholar Soma Kishore Parthasarathy[1], who has been studying and negotiating the concept of the ‘commons’ from a gender perspective and how women in rural India are contesting this reality by proposing a shared management of common resources.

AWID: How would you define the “commons"?

Soma Kishore Parthasarathy (SKP): There are varied conceptualizations about the commons. Conventionally, it is understood simply, as natural resources that lie outside the private domain and are intended for use by those who depend on its use. But, it is not just natural resources, it is also knowledge resources, heritage, culture, virtual spaces, and even climate plays a role. The concept of the commons pre-dates the individual property regime and provided the basis for organization of society. Definitions given by government entities today limit its scope to land and material resources. Attempts to release commons from the shared domain into the market, pose a serious threat to the commons as we know them, and to the way of life associated with the sharing principle embedded in their access and use.

It is about the cultural practice of sharing livelihood spaces and resources as nature’s gift, for the common good, and for the sustainability of the common.  But today commons are under increasing threat as nations and market forces are colonizing the commons.

AWID: Can you explain what you mean by colonization of the commons? How does it affect women in particular?

SKP:Colonizing the commons implies a predatory usurpation of the commons by parties in positions of authority and power, who impose their own set of rules and terms for the access, use, and regulation of the commons to serve their own needs, with little concern for rules and organizational principles that existed earlier and  with little respect for the needs and rights of those who have been dependent on the commons for centuries, ignoring the rights of traditional small users and gender and equity issues.

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