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."

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.

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