New Start magazine, a British magazine associated with the Manchester-based Centre for Local Economic Strategies, has just come out with a terrific issue (#525, October 2014) about co-operatives and commons.  The essays focus on how “more democratic forms of ownership – of land, housing, workplaces and the public realm – can revive our places.” 

While most of the essays deal with British co-ops and commons, the lessons and strategies mentioned have a relevance to many other places. Consider land ownership, a topic that is rarely a part of progressive political agendas.  Steve Bendle, director of a group called Community Land and Finance, offers a clear-eyed assessment of how government is obsessed with enhancing the value of land for landowners and developers – while largely ignoring how land could be used to serve citizens, taxpayers and the wider community. 

Unneeded land and government buildings, for example, are generally put up for sale on the market rather than used to serve the needs of a community for housing, work spaces or civic infrastructure.  The assumption is that privatized, market-driven uses of the assets will yield the greatest “value” (narrowly defined as return on investment to private investors). 

When government (i.e., taxpayers) finances new roads, subways or rail systems, the market value at key locations and buildings invariably rises.  But government rarely does much to capture this value for the public. 

Bendle concludes:  “So developers and landowners make profits, while the public sector struggles to secure a contribution to infrastructure costs or to deliver affordable homes despite successive attempts to change the planning system.”

Burning Man as a Commons

The Burning Man festival held every year on the desolate salt flats of Nevada is usually associated with the culturally avant tech crowd of the Bay Area – an image that is accurate as far as it goes. But the event is really much richer in implication than that. Burning Man is a rare space in modern industrial culture that actually invites people to give expression to some of their deepest artistic impulses and cultural fantasies while requiring them to show significant self-responsibility, cooperation and social concern. It is an immersive enactment of a different spirit of living that actually carries over into "real life" after the event itself.

Burning Man is a one-week commons of 60,000-plus people that has occurred every year since 1986. The event is, as Peter Hirshberg puts it, “a pop-up city of self-governing individualists.” That’s the title of his chapter in a new book, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond:  The Quest for Identity and Autonomy in a Digital Society, which I co-edited with John Henry Clippinger of ID3.  (The chapter -- copied below -- is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonComercial-ShareAlike license 3.0 license.  The book is available in print and ebook editions, and also at the ID3 website.)

Hirshberg is a former Apple executive and tech entrepreneur who is now chairman of Re:imagine Group and cofounder of the Gray Area Center for Arts and Technology in San Francisco.  He’s also been a Burner for years. 

When Hirshberg told me more about Burning Man (which I’ve never attended), I was astonished when I first read the “Ten Principles of Burning Man,” which cofounder Larry Harvey wrote in 2004 to convey the cultural ethos of the encampment.  The ten principles have enormous moral and social appeal and serve as a functional blueprint for a better way of living. The principles (discussed at greater length below) call on all Burners to honor radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. 

As you will see by reading Hirshberg’s chapter, the Burning Man principles are not idle abstractions; they are a lived reality for one week in the desert under extremely harsh natural conditions (heat, blowing sand, no water, only the stuff that you’ve brought along). The ten principles of Burning Man are a wonderfully vivid, passionate elaboration of some of the core design elements that sober-minded social scientists often ascribe to the commons. 

Burning Man helps us remember that design principles of commons need not be MEGO experiences (“My Eyes Glaze Over”). They are the essence of what it means to be fully human.

Burning Man: The Pop-Up City of Self-Governing Individualists

By Peter Hirshberg

When friends first started telling me about Burning Man in the 1990s it made me nervous. This place in a harsh desert, where they wore strange clothes or perhaps none at all. Why? Whole swaths of my San Francisco community spent much of the year building massive works of art or collaborating on elaborate camps where they had to provide for every necessity. They were going to a place with no water, no electricity, no shade and no shelter. And they were completely passionate about going to this place to create a city out of nothing. To create a world they imagined – out of nothing. A world with rules, mores, traditions and principles, which they more or less made up, and then lived.

John Holloway, a sociology professor in Mexico, recently gave an interview with Roar magazine suggesting how to introduce a new social and economic logic in the face of the mighty machine of neoliberal capitalism.  Holloway's idea, recapitulating themes from his previous book and 2002 thesis, is to build "cracks" in the system in which people can relate to each other and meet their needs in non-market ways:  "We have to keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking confluence, or preferably, the commoning of cracks."

This strategic approach has immediate appeal to commoners, it seems to me -- even though some engagement with state power is surely necessary at some point.  Below, Holloway's interview with by Amador Fernández-Savater. It was translated by Richard Mac Duinnsleibhe and edited by Arianne Sved of Guerrilla Translation.

In 2002, John Holloway published a landmark book: Change the World Without Taking Power. Inspired by the ‘¡Ya basta!’ of the Zapatistas, by the movement that emerged in Argentina in 2001/’02, and by the anti-globalization movement, Holloway sets out a hypothesis: it is not the idea of revolution or transformation of the world that has been refuted as a result of the disaster of authoritarian communism, but rather the idea of revolution as the taking of power, and of the party as the political tool par excellence.

Holloway discerns another concept of social change at work in these movements, and generally in every practice—however visible or invisible it may be—where a logic different from that of profit is followed: the logic of cracking capitalism. That is, to create, within the very society that is being rejected, spaces, moments, or areas of activity in which a different world is prefigured. Rebellions in motion. From this perspective, the idea of organization is no longer equivalent to that of the party, but rather entails the question of how the different cracks that unravel the fabric of capitalism can recognize each other and connect.

But after Argentina’s “que se vayan todos” came the Kirchner government, and after Spain’s “no nos representan” appeared Podemos. We met with John Holloway in the city of Puebla, Mexico, to ask him if, after everything that has happened in the past decade, from the progressive governments of Latin America to Podemos and Syriza in Europe, along with the problems for self-organized practices to exist and multiply, he still thinks that it is possible to “change the world without taking power.”

On his podcast show Levevei, Norwegian host James Alexander Arnfinsen interviews me for about 49 minutes, on Episode 106 of his podcast show.  It's called “The commons as an approach to governance, sustainable resource management and social well-being.” The show was recently re-posted by Resilience, a website hosted by the Post-Carbon Institute.

Arnfinsen's interview with me covers a wide variety of commons-related topics.  He's a host who clearly cares about the commons and who has done some homework on it. Arnfinsen helpfully provides a running abstract of the interview on the webpage for the podcast.  Here’s his summary of the first third of the interview:

(2:00) David starts of by sharing his own story on how he became interested in the commons, and he points to the advent of the internet and the disillusionment with neoliberalism as two important factors that inspired him to research this particular field. For him it was clear that the commons paradigm was a viable solution to resource management and governance, while also being a way for people to co-create and self-organize the economic and social structures that are needed in a thriving and living community (as opposed to either top-down government or market driven policies).

It’s hard to find many co-operatives with the kind of practical sophistication and visionary ambitions as CIC – the Catalan Integral Cooperative -- in Spain.  CIC describes itself as a “transitional initiative for social transformation from below, through self-management, self-organization, and networking.”  It considers the state unable to advance the public good because of its deep entanglements with market capitalism -- so it has set about building its own working alternatives to the banking system and state. 

Since its founding in May 2010, CIC has developed some 300 cooperative projects with 30 local nodes, involving some 4,000 to 5,000 participants.  You can get an idea of the impressive scope of CIC’s work through this interview with Enric Duran by Shareable magazine in March 2014. It’s fairly clear that CIC is serious about building a new global economic system – and not just as a rhetorical statement.  CIC builds real, working alternatives, showing great sophistication about politics, law, economics and digital platforms. 

CIC has now started Fair.Coop to help build a set of free economic tools that will “promote cooperation, ethics, solidarity and justice in our economic relations.” A key element of the Fair-Coop vision is a cryptocurrency, Faircoin, which has been designed to adapt the block-chain technology of Bitcoin with a more socially constructive design. (Faircoin relies less on "mining" new coins than on "minting" them in a more ecologically responsible, equitable ways.)

Many skeptics might scoff at the brash, utopian feel of this initiative.  But in many respects, Faircoin is the ultimate realism. CIC correctly recognizes that the existing monetary system and private banks pose insuperable barriers to reducing inequality and ensuring productive work and wealth for all. The only "realistic" alternative to existing fiat currencies and foreign exchange is to invent a new monetary system!  Fortunately, thanks to the pioneering examples of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and the evolving powers of software, that idea is actually within reach these days.

On the Dangers of Monetizing Nature

I remember in the late 1970s how the corporate world essentially invented the use of cost-benefit analysis in health, safety and environmental regulation. It was a brazen attempt to redefine the terms for understanding social ethics and policy in terms favorable to capital and markets.  Instead of seeing the prevention of death, disease and ecological harm as a matter of social justice, period, American industry succeeded in recasting these issues as economic matters.  And of course, such arcane issues must be overseen by a credentialed priesthod of economists, not ordinary mortals whose concerns were snubbed as selfish NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard).

And so it came to be that, with the full sanction of law, a dollar sum could be assigned to our health, or to the cost of getting cancer, or to a statistical baby born with birth defects. Regulation was transformed into a pseudo-market transaction.  That mindset has become so pervasive three decades later that people can barely remember when ethical priorities actually trumped big money. 

It is therefore a joy to see Barbara Unmüssig’s essay, “Monetizing Nature:  Taking Precaution on a Slippery Slope,” which recently appeared on the Great Transition Initiative website.  Unmüssig is President of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Germany and a stalwart supporter of the commons, especially in her backing of the 2010 and 2013 conferences in Berlin.

Striking a note that is note heard much these days, Unmüssig points out the serious dangers of seeing the natural world through the scrim of money.  Here is the abstract for her piece:

In the wake of declining political will for environmental protection, many in the environmental community are advocating for the monetization of nature. Some argue that monetization, by revealing the economic contribution of nature and its services, can heighten public awareness and bolster conservation efforts. Others go beyond such broad conceptual calculations and seek to establish tradable prices for ecosystem services, claiming that markets can achieve what politics has not.

However, such an approach collapses nature’s complex functions into a set of commodities stripped from their social, cultural, and ecological context and can pose a threat to the poor and indigenous communities who depend on the land for their livelihood. Although the path from valuation to commodification is not inevitable, it is indeed a slippery slope. Avoiding this pitfall requires a reaffirmation of the precautionary principle and a commitment to democratic decision-making and social justice as the foundations of a sound environmental policy for the twenty-first century.

Oct
17

"Think Like a Commoner"

Public talk at Greenfield Community College.

Nov
6

"The Art of Commoning"

A series of participatory events, Montreal, Canada. 

Oct
14

"Think Like a Commoner"

Public talk, Amherst, MA. 

Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis have just published a new book that offers a rich, sophisticated critique of our current brand of capitalism, and looks to current trends in digital collaboration to propose the outlines of the next, network-based economy and society.

Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy is a scholarly book published by Palgrave Macmillan. If you’d like to look at a working draft of the book, you can find it online here.

Bauwens is the founder of the P2P Foundation, and Kostakis is a political economist and founder of the P2P Lab. He is also a research fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance at Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia. 

Kostakis and Bauwens write:

The aim of this book is not to provide yet another critique of capitalism but rather to contribute to the ongoing dialogue for post-capitalist construction, and to discuss how another world could be possible. We build on the idea that peer-to-peer infrastructures are gradually becoming the general conditions of work, economy, and society, considering peer production as a social advancement within capitalism but with various post-capitalistic aspects in need of protection, enforcement, stimulation and connection with progressive social movements.

The authors outline four scenarios to “explore relevant trajectories of the current techno-economic paradigm within and beyond capitalism.” They envision the rise of "netarchical capitalism," a network-based capitalism, that sanctions several types of compatible and conflicting forms of capitalism – what they call “the mixed model of neo-feudal cognitive capitalism.”  There are variations that are possible, including "distributed capitalism, resilient communities and global Commons."

Syndicate content