Although it is widely assumed that governments are the source of all new money – through “printing it” – the so-called private sector is the source of most new money put into circulation.  In one of the most successful enclosures of the commons in our time, commercial finance institutions have captured the power to create most new money through their discretionary lending.  This power has become so normalized and pervasive that hardly anyone acknowledges the startling fact that commercial lending accounts for more than 95% of “new money” created.  Government has in effect surrendered its enormous power to use its money-creating authority for the public good.

Perhaps the leading champion for reforming the current money system is Mary Mellor, emeritus professor at Northumbria University in the UK and author of the recently published, eye-opening book Debt or Democracy:  Public Money for Sustainability and Social Justice (Pluto Press, 2015, distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press Books). 

Mellor recently published an oped piece in The Independent, the British newspaper, that summarizes some of the key themes in her book. Her essay focuses on the “myth of handbag economics” – the idea that government budgets are comparable to household budgets.  This distorts our understanding of how the money supply works, says Mellor, and inexorably leads governments to adopt fiscal austerity policies. 

The critical political question that is rarely asked, said Mellor at a policy workshop last September, is: Who controls the creation and circulation of money?

She notes that the government, as the sovereign, has the authority to issue new money – an ancient authority known as seignorage.  But in practice, governments have surrendered this authority to the commercial banking sector, whose lending creates nearly all of the money in circulation as debt. 

Banks create money out of thin air by issuing new loans.  They need not have those specific sums of money on hand, in a vault. They need have only a small fraction of reserves of the total sum lent, as required by “reserve banking” standards. In this way, bank lending quite literally introduces new supplies of money into the economy based on strictly private, commercial standards – i.e., banks' assessments of borrowers’ ability to repay the debt with interest.

Mellor believes that we need to recover the power of public currency to meet public needs.   By “public currency,” she means “the generally recognized and authorized public currency created through a public money circuit that originates in central banks and government spending.”  Privately created currency is money designated as public currency that is issued through the banking sector as loans.  It is the fact that bankers are creating the public currency when they make loans that makes the state liable to honor that money when banks go into crisis.

The Neurology of Consumer Compulsion

It is self-evident that mass consumption is a main driver of relentless economic growth, the utopian goal of capitalism, and this has obvious ecological implications as we over-consume the Earth.  But why do we feel compelled to consume far beyond what we truly need? 

In a provocative new essay on the Great Transition Initiative website, neuroscientist Peter Sterling explores “Why We Consume:  Neural Design and Sustainability.”  It is an evolutionary scientist’s argument for how human beings are neurologically wired and what we might do about it. What is the biological substrate for our behaviors as homo economicus and as social cooperators?  Why do we (over)consume? 

Sterling points to such obvious social factors such as our desire for social status and a good self-image, all of it fueled by advertising.  But while these feelings of satisfaction invariably wane, they invariably surge forward again and again: “Something at our neural core continually stimulates acquisitive behavior,” he writes, adding that “we urgently need to identify and manage it.”

Sterling notes that we all have neurological circuits that are periodically bathed in dopamine as a reward for satisfying behaviors. More than a “pleasure center,” these neural responses serve as a reward for human learning and adaptation in a highly varied environment. It is the decline of our highly varied environment that may be responsible for our consumerist obsessions.

As healthcare insurance prices in the US have skyrocketed, despite passage of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2010, many Americans are turning to a new/old solution:  mutualized self-help.  As reported in the New York Times, many Christian groups in the US are forming their own unregulated insurance pools to pay the medical bills of their members. Nearly 200,000 people in 58,000 households are now paying their medical expenses in this fashion, to the tune of over $20 million a month. They constitute self-organized financial commons for healthcare.

This trend raises some fascinating questions about state/corporate bureaucracies vs. social commons:  Which offers the better value?  Which is more reliable and satisfying?  Could social commons help bring down the cost of conventional insurance while introducing a more human, caring dimension to healthcare?

Reporter Abby Goodnough tells the story of a family that was priced out of the insurance market, and so decided to cover their potential medical bills through a “sharing ministry.”  Instead of paying $600 per month for insurance with a $10,000 family deductible, the Doyle family in San Antonio, Texas, now pays $405 per month.  They also pay the first $300 for any medical bill they receive, and there is a spending cap of $250,000 for any illness or injury.

Some enterprising commoners in Spain and Latinamerica have launched an imaginative crowdfunding campaign to translate and publish my book Think Like a Commoner in Spanish.  What makes this publishing initiative so distinctive is its ambition to build a new transnational publishing network that is commons-oriented in content as well as practice.  They call it “Think Global, Print Local.” 

The plan is to translate my book into Spanish and then use small-scale printing and distribution to publish the book in Spain and throughout Latin America. -- initially Peru, Argentina and Mexico, to be followed later in other locations.  The Spanish edition of my book will be entitled Pensar desde los comunes: una breve introducción.

It is difficult for a project this innovative to obtain financing, so the organizers have launched a crowdfunding campaign this week through the Spain-based Goteo website.  I’m thrilled to have my book be the focus of this pathbreaking translation/publishing experiment.  I'm also excited about having my short introduction to the commons accessible to the Spanish-speaking world! 

The “claymation” video by Espacio Abierto of Peru, explaining the project, is particularly wonderful, especially the animated clay rendition of me!  If you go to the Goteo website for the campaign, you can watch the video, learn more about the project and contribute to it.  It's off to a strong start, but it needs to minimally raise 8.042 euros -- 10,602 euros is optimum.

When I met biologist and ecophilosopher Andreas Weber several years ago, I was amazed at his audacity in challenging the orthodoxies of Darwinism. He proposes that science study a very radical yet unexplained phenomenon -- aliveness!  He rejects the neoDarwinian account of life as a collection of sophisticated, evolving machines, each relentlessly competing with maximum efficiency for supremacy in the laissez-faire market of nature.  (See Weber's fantastic essay on “Enlivenment” for more on this theme.) 

Drawing upon a rich body of scientific research, Weber outlines a different story of evolution, one in which living organisms are inherently expressive and creative in a struggle to both compete and cooperate. The heart of the evolutionary drama, Weber insists, is the quest of all living systems to express what they feel and experience, and adapt to the world -- and change it! -- as they develop their identities.

Except for a few essays and public talks, most of Weber’s writings are available only in his native German.  So it is a thrill that some of his core ideas have now been published in English. Check out his lyrical yet scientifically rigorous book, Biology of Wonder:  Aliveness, Consciousness and the Metamorophosis of Science, just published by New Society Publishers.  (Full disclosure requires me to mention my modest role in helping Andreas improve the “natural English” of his translation of his original German writings.)

Future historians will look back on this book as a landmark that consolidates and explains paradigm-shifting theories and research in the biological sciences. Biology of Wonder explains how political thinkers like Locke, Hobbes and Adam Smith have provided a cultural framework that has affected biological inquiry, and how the standard Darwinian biological narrative, for its part, has projected its ideas about natural selection and organisms-as-machines on to our understanding of human societies.  Darwinism and "free markets" have grown up together.

This is now changing, as Weber explains:

Biology, which has made so many efforts to chase emotions from nature since the 19th century, is rediscovering feeling as the foundation of life. Until now researchers, eager to discover the structure and behavior of organisms, had glossed over the problem of an organism’s interior reality. Today, however, biologists are learning innumerable new details about how an organism brings forth itself and its experiences, and are trying not only to dissect but to reimagine developmental pathways. They realize that the more technology allows us to study life on a micro-level, the stronger the evidence of life’s complexity and intelligence becomes.  Organisms are not clocks assembled from discrete, mechanical pieces; rather, they are unities held together by a mighty force: feeling what is good or bad for them.

In the grand narrative of evolution, the idea that feeling, emotions, morality and even spirituality might be consequential has long been dismissed.  Such experiences are generally regarded as trivial sideshows to the main act of the cosmos:  nasty, brutish competition as the inexorable vehicle of evolutionary progress.  Indeed, modern times have virtually combined the idea of "survival of the fittest" with our cultural ideas about the "free market economy." 

The City as Platform

In the age of ubiquitous Internet connections, smartphones and data, the future vitality of cities is increasingly based on their ability to use digital networks in intelligent, strategic ways. While we are accustomed to thinking of cities as geophysical places governed by mayors, conventional political structures and bureaucracies, this template of city governance is under great pressure to evolve. Urban dwellers now live their lives in all sorts of hyper-connected virtual spaces, pulsating with real-time information, intelligent devices, remote-access databases and participatory crowdsourcing. Expertise is distributed, not centralized. Governance is not just a matter of winning elections and assigning tasks to bureaucracies; it is about the skillful collection and curation of information as a way to create new affordances for commerce and social life.

That's the opening paragraph from my new report for the Aspen Institute, “The City as Platform: How Digital Networks Are Changing Urban Life and Governance.”  (pdf file download here). The report synthesizes discussion at an Aspen Institute Communications and Society conference last July. About thirty technologists, urban planners, policy experts, economic analysts, entrepreneurs, and social justice advocates shared insights into how networking technologies are transforming urban life, commerce and government.

I wrote the report as a rapporteur, not a commons advocate, but it’s abundantly clear that the sharing and collaboration facilitated by digital networks are spawning all sorts of new commons and hybrids (e.g., government/commons and government/corporate collaborations). The focus of the conference was mostly on US cities, but these things are happening worldwide, especially in cooperation-minded global cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Seoul.  In the US, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in the vanguard, in part because of San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley tech firms and in LA, because everyone there lives on their smartphones.

The backlash to the corporate “sharing economy” is gaining momentum, and one key player is the movement to develop “platform cooperativism.”  The New York Office of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung has released a report critiquing the “sharing economy” and describing the alternatives.  It’s called “Platform Cooperativism:  Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy” (pdf file).  and it’s written by Trebor Scholz, an associate professor at the New School. 

Scholz and journalist Nathan Schneider were co-organizers of a November 2015 conference that served as an historic flashpoint on this topic.  People are starting to realize the many anti-social effects of the “gig economy,” as typified by Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk, but the development of workable alternatives is barely underway.

The first half of the report addresses the many deficiencies of the so-called sharing economy.  First of all, it’s not about sharing at all. It’s an “on-demand service economy” that relies on the same exploitative techniques of conventional capitalism, but with powerful tech enhancements. 

While the system delivers amazing convenience and efficiencies, it also preys upon those who cannot obtain good-paying stable jobs with benefits.  It re-introduces piecework on a massive scale, this time with sophisticated computer algorithms to ratchet down wages to below minimum wage.  Since everyone is nominally considered an independent contractor, corporate platforms can shrug and exonerate themselves by saying that everyone is “free to choose” their working circumstances, in Milton Friedman’s classic phrase. 

But as more jobs are sent abroad to countries that pay lower wages and have few worker protections, workers are in many cases victimized by a global race to the bottom.  Corporate platforms act as lucrative intermediaries that shed the costs of conventional businesses – the capital infrastructure, regular paychecks and employee benefits.

Can food be used as a way to bring strangers together, if only for a meal or two, and create the beginnings of a new type of community? Penny Travlou, a cultural geographer and ethnographer at the University of Edinburgh, decided to find out. In an interview posted on “Social Innovation Europe,” an EU website, she talks about her experience in co-organizing “pop-up dinners” that bring together immigrants with local Greeks in Athens. The idea is to use meal preparation and eating together as a way to break down cultural barriers and support migrant integration in Greece. 

Travlou’s specialty as a researcher is the collaborative practices of digital artists and practitioners. But recently she has been fascinated with “nomadic co-living communities, hackers and refugees.”  Syrian refugees of course face some very different challenges than hackers, makers and other nomads of digital culture. Yet they both are living a kind of “nomadic transient citizenship” that Travlou believes is changing Europe.  One might say that ad hoc cooperation based on mutual need, empathy and shared circumstances is a big aspect of modern life. 

In developing the idea of pop up dinners for refugees and local Greeks, Travlou had been inspired by Jeff Andreoni of the unMonastery, who had been organizing dinners in Athens for locals and immigrants.  Working with a professional cook, an Eritrean refugee named Senait, Andreoni and Travlou held a dinner for 100 people at a house in Athens.  As Travlou explained:

That made us think that such small-scale events can be a great way to give job opportunities to newcomers -- i.e., immigrants and refugees -- and get them feel part of the Greek society and culture. From that event onwards, we got collaborated with and participated in other immigrant collective pop-up events. In the summer, we set up the African Collective Kitchen “OneLoveKitchen” with a group of cooks from Senegal, The Gambia, Sudan, Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia. We collaborated with the African United Women Organisation and Nosotros: the free social centre.

All our events have been self-organised without any formal funding. We have organised small pop-up dinners in houses and roof terraces, have served food in a solidarity economy festival and have catered for two conferences. Since September when a great influx of Syrian refugees has been arriving in Athens, some of us have also been involved in daily collective kitchens preparing food for a housing squat for refugees and other similar initiatives.

Travlou and Andreoni are now setting up a new project, Options Foodlab, which is a professional kitchen and co-working space for food training.  Travlou said that food is a great way to bring people together: 

What I always say when people ask me why I got involved in such a project is to think of where the words ‘company’ and ‘companion’ come from. They both derive from the Latin word ‘companio’ which means one who eats bread [pane] with you. Thus, food making and sharing is a social act and a means of exhibiting respect for an existing or future relationship of reciprocity. Food making is about hospitality and connectivity. There is not a better way to bring people together: you don’t need linguistic cues to connect with others. With this perspective, we can think food as an object of exchange, a gift that can be shared and exchanged.

An inspiring project!  You can read the full interview with Travlou here.

One of the more complicated, mostly unresolved issues facing most commons is how to assure the independence of commons when the dominant systems of finance, banking and money are so hostile to commoning. How can commoners meet their needs without replicating (perhaps in only modestly less harmful ways) the structural problems of the dominant money system?

Fortunately, there are a number of fascinating, creative initiatives around the world that can help illuminate answers to this question – from co-operative finance and crowdequity schemes to alternative currencies and the blockchain ledger used in Bitcoin, to reclaiming public control over money-creation to enable “quantitative easing for people” (and not just banks). 

To help start a new conversation on these issues, the Commons Strategies Group, working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, co-organized a Deep Dive strategy workshop in Berlin, Germany, last September.  We brought together 24 activists and experts on such topics as public money, complementary currencies, community development finance institutions, public banks, social and ethical lending, commons-based virtual banking, and new organizational forms to enable “co-operative accumulation” (the ability of collectives to secure equity ownership and control over assets that matter to them).

I’m happy to report that a report synthesizing the key themes and cross-currents of dialogue at that workshop is now available.  The report is called “Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons:  Strategies for Transforming Neoliberal Finance Through Commons-Based Alternatives,” (pdf file) by David Bollier and Pat Conaty.

You could consider the 54-page report an opening gambit for commoners to discuss how money, banking and finance could better serve their interests as commoners.  There are no quick and easy answers if only because so much of the existing money system is oriented towards servicing the conventional capitalist economy.  Even basic financial terms often have an embedded logic that skews toward promoting relentless economic growth, the extractivist economy and its pathologies, and the notion that money itself IS wealth. 

That said, commoners have many important reasons for engaging with this topic.  As we put it in the Introduction to the report, “The logic of neoliberal capitalism is responsible for at least three interrelated, systemic problems that urgently need to be addressed – the destruction of ecosystems, market enclosures of commons, and assaults on equality, social justice and the capacity of society to provide social care to its citizens. None of these problems is likely to be overcome unless we can find ways to develop innovative co-operative finance and money systems that can address all three problems in integrated ways.”

Every time Uber, the Web-based taxi intermediary, enters a new city, it provokes controversy about its race-to-the-bottom business practices and bullying of regulators and politicians.  The problem with Uber and other network-based intermediaries such as Lyft, Task Rabbit, Mechanical Turk and others, is that they are trying to introduce brave new market structures as a fait accompli. They have only secondary interest in acceptable pay rates, labor standards, consumer protections, civic and environmental impacts or democratic debate itself. 

Rather than cede these choices to self-selected venture capitalists and profit-focused entrepreneurs, some European cities and regional governments came up with a brilliant idea:  devise an upfront, before-the-fact policy framework for dealing with the disruptions of the “sharing economy.”

If we can agree in advance about what constitutes a socially respectful marketplace – and what constitutes a predatory free-riding on the commonweal – we’ll all be a lot better off.  Consumers, workers and a community will have certain basic protections. Investors and executives won’t be able to complain about “unlevel playing fields” or unfair regulation. And public debate won’t be a money-fueled free-for-all, but a more thoughtful, rational deliberation.

Now, if only the European Union will listen to the Committee of the Regions (CoR)!  The CoR is an official assembly of regional presidents, mayors and elected representatives from 28 EU countries. It routinely expresses its views on all sorts of major policy issues that may have local or regional impacts. In December, the CoR submitted a formal statement about the “sharing economy” to the EU in an opinion written by rapporteur Benedetta Brighenti, the deputy mayor of the municipality of Castelnuovo Rangone, in the province of Modena, Italy. 

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