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."

The IASC Commons (International Association for the Study of Commons) has released a series of six short, artfully produced videos, “Commons in Action," that amount to short advertisements for important commons projects. 

Each begins with the words:  “Commons are forms of governance and governance strategies for resources created and owned collectively.  Commons are a reality today.”

The longest video, at four-and-a-half minutes, focuses on the newly created Workshop on Governing Knowledge Commons, which bills itself as “a collaborative, interdisciplinary research project based on studying cases of commons governance for knowledge and information resources. The Workshop and its methods are inspired by the work of The Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University.” 

Professor Michael Madison of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law is the host of the website.  The Workshop is a collaboration among prominent academic scholars of the knowledge commons such as Brett Frischmann (Cardozo School of Law), Charlotte Hess (Syracuse University), Charles Schweik (UMass Amherst), among others.

In a sign of the growing convergence of alternative economic movements, the Degrowth movement’s fourth international conference in Leipzig, Germany, last week attracted more than 2,700 people.  While a large portion of the conference included academics presenting formal papers, there were also large contingents of activists from commons networks, cooperatives, the Social and Solidarity Economy movement, Transition Town participants, the “sharing economy,” and peer production. 

By my rough calculation from browsing the conference program, there were more than 350 separate panels over the course of five days. Topics ranged from all sorts of economic topics (free trade, business models for degrowth, GDP and happiness) to alternative approaches to building a new world (Ivan Illich’s “convivial society,” permaculture, cooperatives, edible forest gardens). 

Degrowth?  For most Americans, the idea of a movement dedicated to non-growth, let alone one that can attract so many people, is incomprehensible.  But in many parts of Europe and the global South, people see the invention of new socio-economic forms of production and sharing as critical, especially if we are going to address climate change and social inequality. 

Some degrowth activists are a bit defensive about the term degrowth because, in English, it sounds so negative and culturally provocative.  (The French term décroissance, meaning “reduction,” is apparently far less jarring than its literal transation as “degrowth.”)  One speaker at the conference conceded this fact, slyly noting, “But unlike other movements, it will be exceedingly hard for opponents to co-opt the term ‘degrowth’”!

In a 2013 paper, “What is Degrowth:  From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement” (pdf), Frederico Demaria et al. write:  “”’Degrowth’ became an interpretive frame for a new (and old) social movement where numerous streams of critical ideas and political actions converge.  It is an attempt to re-politicise debates about desired socio-environmental futures and an example of an activist-led science now consolidating into a concept in academic literature.”  A new beachhead of this academic inquiry is a book Degrowth:  A Vocabulary for a New Era, due out in November.

I'm happy to announce that a new collection of essays that I've co-edited with John Clippinger, executive director of ID3, has been published. It's called From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond The fifteen essays in the book explore a new generation of digital technologies that are re-imagining the foundations of digital identity, governance, trust and social organization.

ID3 is a Boston-based nonprofit affiliated with the M.I.T. Media Lab, and was co-founded by Clippinger and social computing and data expert, Professor Pentland, who directs M.I.T.’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. 

The book is focused on the huge, untapped potential for self-organized, distributed governance on open platforms. There are many aspects to this challenge, but some of the more interesting prospects include evolvable digital contracts that could supplant conventional legal agreements; smartphone currencies that could help Africans meet their economic needs more effective; the growth of the commodity-backed Ven currency; and new types of “solar currencies” that borrow techniques from Bitcoin to enable more efficient, cost-effective solar generation and sharing by homeowners. 

A chapter on the 28-year history of Burning Man, the week-long encampment in the Nevada desert, traces the arc of experimentation and innovation in large communities devising new forms of self-governance.

I co-authored an essay in the book, "The Next Great Internet Disruption:  Authority and Governance," which appeared in an earlier form here.

The book is published by ID3 in association with Off the Common Books, and is available in print and ebook formats from Amazon.com and Off the Common Books. A free, downloadable pdf of the book is available at the ID3 website.  (The book is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.)

Among the contributors to From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond are Alex “Sandy” Pentland of the M.I.T. Human Dynamics Laboratory; former FCC Chairman Reed E. Hundt; long-time IBM strategist Irving Wladawksy-Berger; Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Hirshberg; monetary system expert Bernard Lietaer; journalist and author Jonathan Ledgard; and H-Farm cofounder Maurizio Rossi. 

 In addition to explorations of self-governance, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond introduces the path-breaking software platform that ID3 has developed called “Open Mustard Seed,” or OMS.  The just-released open source program enables the rise of new types of trusted, self-healing digital institutions on open networks, which in turn will make possible new sorts of privacy-friendly social ecosystems.

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.

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