Why is it that American combat veterans experience the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the world, while soldiers from other countries have far lower levels?  Amazingly, warriors of the past, such as Native Americans, rarely experienced PTSD-like symptoms.

In his new book Tribe, Sebastian Junger argues that much of the difference lies not in the individuals, but in the societies to which they return. During a war, American soldiers become deeply immersed in a life of mutual support and emotional connection.  Then they return home to a hyper-individualistic, fragmented, superficial consumer society.  The shift is just too troubling for many.  Life is suddenly bereft of collective meaning. There is no tribe.

It turns out that PTSD is not just about coping with memories of death and destruction; it is an abrupt loss of tribal ties and a resulting crisis of meaning. “When combat vets say that they miss the war,” writes Junger, “they might be having an entirely healthy response.”

“As awkward as it is to say, part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up,” Junger insists. The intense, shared purpose in life-and-death circumstances is intoxicating and fulfilling. As one soldier told oral historian Studs Terkel, “For the first time in [our] lives….we were in a tribal sort of situation where we could help each other without fear.”

This theme was moving explored by Rebecca Solnit in her beautiful book, A Paradise Built in Hell, which describes how people show amazing empathy and help for each other in the face of earthquakes, hurricanes and wars. Londoners who lived through the Blitz during World War II don’t really yearn for the danger or death of that time.  They do yearn for the profound unity and cooperation that the Blitz inspired.   

Want an intensive introduction to the emerging “ethical economy” led by some of the most active practitioners and experts around?  Consider attending an unusual two-week study program, “Transition to Co-operative Commonwealth:  Pathways to a New Political Economy.”  It will be held from September 11 to 23, in Monte Ginezzo, Tuscany, Italy. 

The course will be hosted by Synergia, an international network of academics, social activists, practitioners and policymakers engaged in building a new political economy that is sustainable, democratic and socially just.  The course will provide a critical overview of the diverse elements of the ethical economy and the mechanisms required for its realization. 

The course will consist of lectures, workshops and site visits to leading cooperatives and commons projects in Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, home to one of the most advanced co-operative economies in the world.

Among the topics to be covered:

• Co-operative capital and social finance; alternative currencies;

• Co-op and commons-based housing and land tenure; community land trusts;

• Renewable energy; community-owned energy systems;

• Local & sustainable food systems; community supported agriculture;

Seeing Wetiko

One of the most important languages for expressing the values of the commons, I have come to realize, is art. It can often express visceral knowledge more effectively than words and give those insights a more powerful cultural reality.

Those were my thoughts when I saw "Seeing Wetiko," an “online gallery” of artworks, music and videos just released by the global arts collective The Rules.  “Artists and activists from around the world have come together in a burst of creative energy to popularize the Algonquin concept of wetiko, a cannibalistic mind virus they claim is causing the destruction of the planet,” the group announced. 

Wetiko is an indigenous term used to describe “a psycho-spiritual disease of the soul which deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others is logical and moral.”  The dozens of artworks on the website convey this idea in vivid, compelling ways.  The term wetiko was chosen for the project as a framework for understanding our global crisis, from ecological destruction and homelessness, to poverty and inequality.  To illustrate the scope of wetiko today, the website features a wonderful four-minute video, graffiti murals from Nairobi, carved marks from the US, a film about plastic bottle waste in Trinidad and Tobago, and a theater performance about patriarchy in India. 

The Rules is a global network of “activists, artists, writers, farmers, peasants, students, workers, designers, hackers and dreamers” who focus on five key areas needing radical change – money, power, secrecy, ideas and the commons. 

In an essay in Kosmos Journal describing the wetiko project, Martin Kirk and Alnoor Ladha, co-founders of The Rules, write:  "What if we told you that humanity is being driven to the brink of extinction by an illness? That all the poverty, the climate devastation, the perpetual war, and consumption fetishism we see all around us have roots in a mass psychological infection? What if we went on to say that this infection is not just highly communicable but also self-replicating, according to the laws of cultural evolution, and that it remains so clandestine in our psyches that most hosts will, as a condition of their infected state, vehemently deny that they are infected?"

New Report: State Power and Commoning

What changes in state power must occur for commoning to flourish as a legal form of self-provisioning and governance?  What does the success of the commons imply for the future of the state as a form of governance? 

My colleagues and I at the Commons Strategies Group puzzled over such questions last year and decided we needed to convene some serious minds to help shed light on them.  With the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we convened a Deep Dive workshop on February 28 through March 2, 2016, called “State Power and Commoning:  Transcending a Problematic Relationship.” 

Now a report that synthesizes and distills our conversations is available. The executive summary of the report is published below (and also here).  The full 50-page report can be downloaded as a pdf file here.

Participants in the workshop addressed such questions as: Can commons and the state fruitfully co-exist – and if so, how? Can commoners re-imagine “the state” from a commons perspective so that its powers could be used to affirmatively support commoning and a post-capitalist, post-growth means of provisioning and governance? Can “seeing like a state,” as famously described by political scientist James C. Scott, be combined with “seeing like a commoner” and its ways of knowing, living and being? What might such a hybrid look like?

These issues are becoming more important as neoliberalism attempts to reassert the ideological supremacy of “free market” dogma.  As a feasible, eco-friendly alternative, commoning is often seen as posing a symbolic or even a political and social threat.  It is our hope that the report will help inaugurate a broader discussion of these issues.

Silke Helfrich and Heike Loeschmann deserve much credit for helping to organize the event, with assistance from Michel Bauwens. I wrote the report, and Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel have produced a beautiful publication and webpages.  Thanks, too, to the workshop participants who shared their astute insights.

Sep
2

Peer Value: Advancing the Commons Collaborative Economy

Presentation on "Reinventing Law for the Commons.  Conference is September 2-3, at City town hall, Amstel 1, Amsterdam.

Jul
31

Booming Winsted Book Festival

I'll be speaking about my book Think Like a Commoner, hosted by Ralph Nader.  414 Main Street, Winsted, Connecticut, 4 pm  More information at Winsted Book Festival.

Michel Bauwens recently spoke at the Harvard Berkman Center to give his big-picture analysis of the economic and social transition now underway.  The hour-long video of his talk provides a clear explanation for why peer production is flourishing and out-competing conventional business models and markets.  It’s all part of an epochal shift in how value is created, argues Bauwens.

Citing major transitions of the past – from nomadic communities to clans; from clans to class-based, pre-capitalist societies; from pre-capitalism to capitalism – Bauwens said, “We’re in a period of history in which a marginal system of value is moving to the center of value-creation.” 

For those who don't have an hour to watch the video, below, a review of Michel's key points: 

Unlike traditional leftist visions of revolution, which require a social movement to seize state power and then install another system, the emerging world of peer production is based on another vision:  build an alternative economy outside the circuits of capitalism, or at least insulated from its exploitation, and then develop its own functionalities and moral authority. 

The point is not so much to displace or smash capitalism, he said, as to make the commons the new, more compelling “attractor” for activities that create value.  Rather than try to use private labor to produce value, which is then captured by privately owned corporations and sold in markets based on artificially created scarcity, the peer production economy proposes a new model:  abundance based on an ethic of sufficiency.

Instead of allocating surplus value through the market or hierarchical systems, the peer production economy creates value through open, voluntary contributions and “massive mutual coordination,” said Bauwens.  The goal is to create commons through social systems and the sharing of resources.

On June 21, I gave a presentation to a number of staffers and others at the Agence Française de Développement in Paris outlining my vision of the commons as an alternative vision of "development."  The talk was entitled "Beyond Development:  The Commons as a New/Old Paradigm of Human Flourishing."  Here are my prepared remarks:

I am grateful to be back in your lovely city, and I am grateful for your invitation to speak today about the commons as a new vision of “development.”  As the planet reels from the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change, we are seeing the distinct limits of the prevailing paradigms of economic thought, governance, law and politics.  While collapse and catastrophe have their own lurid attraction to many, the human species – and our governments – have a duty to seriously entertain the questions:  What new structures and logics will serve us better?  How can we better meet basic human needs – not just materially, but socially and spiritually?  And can we move beyond rhetoric and general abstractions to practical, concrete actions?

After studying the commons for nearly twenty years as an independent scholar and activist, I have come to the conclusion that the commons hold great promise in answering these questions.  But it is not a ready-made “solution” so much as a general paradigm and organizing perspective – embodied, fortunately, in thousands of instructive examples.  The commons is a lens that helps us understand what it means to be a human being in meaningful relation to other people and to the Earth.  This then becomes the standard by which we try to design our social institutions.

Talking about the commons forces us to grapple with the checkered history of “development” policy and what it reveals about global capitalism and poorer, marginalized countries.  We have long known that development objectives tend to reflect the political priorities of rich, industrialized western nations, particularly their interests in economic growth and private capital accumulation. 

Now here’s a fun audio experience – a 56-minute podcast, “The Deeper Magic of the Commons,” which functions as a kind of introduction to the commons by several eminent commons historians and commentators George Caffentzis, Massimo de Angelis, Peter Linebaugh, along with Dr. Bones, and yours truly. 

Besides conveying some great history, the podcast is an audio treat. The interviewer and producer, James Lindenschmidt, is a sonic engineer who cleverly splices in all sorts of short audio segments and atmospherics to the podcast.  Lindenschmidt is producer of the Crafted Recordings Podcast and resident audiogeek for Gods & Radicals, “A Site of Beautiful Resistance.” 

The website explains itself this way: “We think that resistance should be beautiful, because the idea isn’t to replace a violent world with more violence, or a dreary world with more drearyness, but to replace what has become destructive and cruel with something beautiful and life-affirming.”

Every so often I am invited to write a piece that in effect answers the question, “Why the commons?”  I invariably find new answers to that question each time that I re-engage with it.  My latest attempt is an essay, “Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm,” which I wrote for the Next System Project as part of its series of proposals for systemic alternatives. 

For those of you have been following the commons for a while, my essay will have a lot of familiar material.  But I also came to some new realizations about language and the commons, and why the special discourse about commoning and enclosures is so important. I won’t reproduce the entire essay – you can find it here as a pdf download or as a webpage at the Next System Project – but below I excerpt the opening paragraphs; the section on the discourse of the commons; and the conclusion.

Introduction

In facing up to the many profound crises of our time, we face a conundrum that has no easy resolution: how are we to imagine and build a radically different system while living within the constraints of an incumbent system that aggressively resists transformational change? Our challenge is not just articulating attractive alternatives, but identifying credible strategies for actualizing them.

I believe the commons—at once a paradigm, a discourse, an ethic, and a set of social practices—holds great promise in transcending this conundrum. More than a political philosophy or policy agenda, the commons is an active, living process. It is less a noun than a verb because it is primarily about the social practices of commoning—acts of mutual support, conflict, negotiation, communication and experimentation that are needed to create systems to manage shared resources. This process blends production (self provisioning), governance, culture, and personal interests into one integrated system.

This essay provides a brisk overview of the commons, commoning, and their great potential in helping build a new society. I will explain the theory of change that animates many commoners, especially as they attempt to tame capitalist markets, become stewards of natural systems, and mutualize the benefits of shared resources. The following pages describe a commons-based critique of the neoliberal economy and polity; a vision of how the commons can bring about a more ecologically sustainable, humane society; the major economic and political changes that commoners seek; and the principal means for pursuing them.

Finally, I will look speculatively at some implications of a commons-centric society for the market/state alliance that now constitutes “the system.” How would a world of commons provisioning and governance change the polity? How could it address the interconnected pathologies of relentless economic growth, concentrated corporate power, consumerism, unsustainable debt, and cascading ecological destruction?

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