We have so internalized the logic of neoliberal economics and modernity, even those of us who would like to think otherwise, that we don’t really appreciate how deeply our minds have been colonized.  It is easy to see homo economicus as silly.  Certainly we are not selfish, utility-maximizing rationalists, not us!  And yet, the proper role of our emotions and affect in imagining a new order remains a murky topic. 

That’s why I was excited to run across a fascinating paper by Neera M. Singh, an academic who studies forestry at the University of Toronto.  Her paper, “The Affective Labor of Growing Forests and the Becoming of Environmental Subjects” focuses on “rethinking environmentality” in the Odisha region of India.  (Unfortunately, the article, published in Geoforum (vol. 47, pp. 189-198, in 2013) is behind a paywall.) 

How do people become “environmental subjects” – that is, people who are willing to apply their subjective human talents, imagination and commitments and become stewards of some element of nature?

Singh wanted to investigate why villagers were willing to regenerate degraded state-owned forests through community-based forest conservation efforts.  She found that “affective labor” is critical in managing a forest.  The term comes from Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who use it to describe the role that reciprocity, empathy and affect play in shaping human behavior and action. Indeed, other people’s affect influences what kind of “self” we construct for ourselves. 

This whole topic is important because standard economics has its own crudely reductionist idea of who human beings are.  We are “rational, self-interested” economic actors, of course, and most public policy is based on this (erroneous, limited) notion.  Most economists frankly have no interest in exploring how people come to formulate their “self-interest.”  They simply take those interests as given. 

But what if participating in commons produced a very different sort of human perception and subjectivity, and indeed, produced human beings as self-aware subjects/agents?  What if this process could be shown to be essential in integrating human culture with a specific ecological landscape?

Fixing the Law’s Bias Against Sharing

In the quest to imagine and build a new “sharing economy,” one factor that is often overlooked is law.  What shall be the role of formal law in a world of social enterprises, shared workspaces, cohousing, car-sharing groups, tool-lending libraries, local currencies and crowdfunding?  Who has legal rights in these various contexts, and what do they look like?  Who holds the legal liabilities?

These questions are sometimes ignored by commoners who consider the law a retrograde, irrelevant force to be avoided.  But even among those who acknowledge the inescapability of conventional law, the contours of legal rights and liabilities are not always self-evident because the law tends to be silent about commoning, or construes such activities in archaic legal categories. The law as it now stands presumes that we are either businesses or consumers, employers or employees, or landlords and tenants.  Production and consumption, and investment and usage, are "naturally" considered separate activities pursued by different people. 

But nowadays countless activities in the sharing economy are blurring old categories of law. There may be many parties involved in managing a a workspace, childcare facility or online information, or perhaps many people have ongoing relationships and responsibilities and entitlements that are collective and evolving. Should the strict letter of the (archaic) law necessarily trump our informal, self-negotiated social rules? 

Janelle Orsi, director of the Oakland-based Sustainable Economies Law Center, has tackled these and many other such questions in a terrific book, Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy:  Helping People Build Cooperatives, Social Enterprise and Local Sustainable Economies (ABA Publishing).  The book covers a monumental array of legal topics that are relevant to the sharing economy.  Most of the chapters deal with how to craft agreements that validate special forms of sharing – for example, how to form organizations, how to exchange with each other and how to invest in each other’s work.  There are also chapters for shared working arrangements, mutual provisioning, sharing rights to land, sharing rights to intellectual property, and managing collective risks.  

Jun
1

Zen Mountain Monastery

"Think Like a Commoner" talk, Mount Tremper, NY.  2 - 3:30 pm

The French-based group OuiShare recognized five exemplary projects in the “collaborative economy” at its recent OuiShare Fest conference in Paris. The three-day event was itself was a remarkable gathering of more than 1,000 passionate fans of innovative models of sharing and mutual support. 

The OuiShare awards focused on five broad categories – collaborative consumption, open knowledge, crowdfunding and P2P banking, makers and open manufacturing, and open and horizontal governance.  With 127 applications from 31 countries, it was a rather competitive field.

The winners this year included one of my favorites, Guerrilla Translation, “a collaborative hub for authors and translators to network and share stimulating ideas internationally.”  The group describes itself as “exporters of fine interlinguistic memes,” adding: 

Guerrilla Translation is building bridges between cultures, starting with Spanish and English. We select written and video pieces with a focus on constructive change and long-range analysis, translate them, and share them.  We’re connecting authors with new audiences, and people with new ideas, shared through technology but created in a very personal, artisanal way.  We feel strongly that translation is best handled not by software, but instead, by committed and passionate translators working together to achieve the highest level of professional quality in our work.

For a country suffering from economic devastation and political upheaval, Greece is not accustomed to bursts of optimism.  But last weekend provided a showcase of hopeful, practical solutiions at the second annual CommonsFest, held in Heraklion on the island of Crete.  The festival brought together a dazzling array of commons and peer production communities:  hackers, open knowledge advocates, practitioners of open design, hardware and manufacturing, open health innovators, sustainable farming experts, among many others. 

Vasilis Kostakis, a political economist and founder of the P2P Lab in Greece, noted that the “key contribution of CommonsFest has been to bring together so many components of the commons movement and raise awareness amongst them.  People had the chance to meet, talk and learn from each other with the aim of creating the seed of a larger movement.” Kostakis said that the crowdfunded festival “illustrates that the philosophy that has emerged from free software and open content communities actually extends to many aspects of our daily lives.”

The event drew hundreds of people to twenty-four talks, nine workshops and an exhibition of many commons-based technologies and projects.  Kostakis said that CommonsFest participants are preparing a forthcoming “declaration for the protection and the strengthening of the Commons” that will soon be published in Greek and then translated into other languages.  [I will add the declaration to this blog post as an update when it is available. –DB] 

CommonsFest also featured an open art space with more than 30 video works licensed under Creative Commons licenses and the screening of a new documentary, “Knowledge as a Common:  Communities of Production and Sharing in Greece,”organized by the Cinema Group from the University of Crete.  The film’s director, Ilias Marmaras, spoke afterwards.  Both events were intended to “highlight the collaboration that we can build working together as peers” and show that “the freedoms provided by the Creative Commons licenses help us share easily and create cultural value.”

Commons projects and activism seem to be really hopping in Greece:  just last week a collaborative ebook, Πέρααπότοκράτοςκαιτηναγορά: Ηομότιμηπροοπτική, was published in Greece as a free, downloadable pdf file.  The ebook presents a vision for a commons-oriented economy and society.  Print copies will be available at the end of May, at a price defined by the reader.

One of the most influential works in my thinking about the commons has been Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation:  The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times. A Hungarian economic historian and anthropologist, Polanyi  argued that world history dramatically changed in the 17th and 18th centuries when “Market Society” arose to displace societies that had been based on kinship, religion and social relationships.  Where once people were embedded in communities of reciprocity and redistribution, capitalist markets gradually turned societies into the alienated collectives of rational, utility-maximizing individuals dominated by the market order. The Great Transformation is a brilliant historical account of this transition from a commons-based world to market society.

Polanyi's book had the misfortune to be published at the wrong time, 1944, just as the nations of the world were racing to embrace market economics and soar into modern times.  In the 1950s and 1960s climate of the Cold War, go-go economic growth and gee-whiz technology, few serious people wanted to hear about how “the market” should be tamed and made to serve society – Polanyi’s primary theme.  The overriding goal of that period was to grow, grow, grow, with little thought for the long-term social and ecological consequences.

As a result, The Great Transformation has been largely exiled from the canon of mainstream economic literature for the past 70 years. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, also published in 1944, was far more in sync with the postwar cultural wave and went on to become a foundational book for modern corporatists and conservatives.  For decades the curious reader could only find archaic-looking reprint editions of The Great Transformation until Beacon Press came out with a new edition in 2001, with a new introduction by economist Joseph Stiglitz.

All of this is by way of background to the news that Concordia College has just gone live with a massive online archive of Polanyi’s work.  Exciting news! The archive is housed at the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy, which was founded in 1988 at Concordia. The archive has an estimated 110,000 documents, which range from correspondence and unpublished papers to lecture notes, articles and manuscripts in Hungarian, German and English. Here is the official announcement of the archive at the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy.

Last week, at the Edge Funders Alliance conference in Berkeley, California, I learned how participatory budgeting is starting to get some real traction here in the US. Participatory budgeting, or PB to aficionados, is a process by which ordinary people determine how to spend municipal funds.  Ginny Browne of the Participatory Budgeting Project, which is based in Brooklyn, gave a terrific overview of the history and current state of this rare form of citizen engagement in government. The basic point is to let people have a direct say about the services that most affect them.

Participatory budgeting got its start in 1969 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a city of 1.5 million residents.  Launched as an effort to bypass political corruption, PB is now used in that city to allocate 20 percent of the budget, or $200 million.  The process engages some 50,000 citizens in Porto Alegre, and has resulted in a doubling of sanitation services and more school buses for underserved areas.  (For more on PB in Porto Alegre, see the excellent book chapter by Hilary Wainwright in her 2009 book Reclaim the State.) 

Participatory budgeting first came to the US in 2009 when a Chicago city councilman attending the U.S. Social Forum decided to try it out in that city’s 29th ward.  In 2011 four New York City council members introduced PB in their districts.  About 1.5 million people participated in deciding how to spend $14 million for infrastructure projects. 

A year later, the city of Vallejo, California, introduced PB for $3.2 million in city programs and services. The idea had real appeal because the city had just gone through bankruptcy proceedings and citizen trust in government was low. A twenty-person steering committee for PB was created.  After brainstorming ideas and developing project proposals, 4,000 citizens chose which of twelve different projects to fund.

The nine-month effort in Ecuador to develop a new vision and policy architecture for commons-based peer production is coming into much sharper focus.  To refresh your memory on this project, the Government of Ecuador last year commissioned the FLOK Society (FLOK = “Free, libre, open knowledge”) to come up with a thoughtful plan for enabling every sector of Ecuador to be organized into open knowledge commons, to the maximum degree possible.  The project has now released a transition plan accompanied by more than a dozen policy frameworks for specific social and economic domains.

The main document can be read here – and here is a version that anyone can comment upon.  Here is series of specific sectoral policy proposals.  

What makes the FLOK Society report so significant is its informed analysis of global trends in the production of knowledge and culture -- and its bold attempt to reformulate state policies to assure maximum social benefits flow from them. The “advanced” industrial economies continue to cling to archaic intellectual property regimes that ignore network dynamics and prey upon the value created by nonmarket communities.  But Ecuador’s path-breaking project seeks to go beyond neoliberal economics and policy. Many of us are excited because the FLOK Society report is a comprehensive, sophisticated and integrated synthesis for moving to the next stage of commoning and peer production on open networks.

A guiding idea in this effort is Buen Vivir (Sumak Kawsay) or “good living,” an indigenous peoples’ concept that refers to a life that balances material, social and spiritual needs and satisfactions (i.e., getting beyond compulsive material growth and consumerism).  FLOK Society researchers realize that Buen Vivir is impossible without Buen Conocer (Sumak Yachay), which is the idea of “good knowledge.”  Ecuadorian President Correa himself has urged young people to achieve and fight for this open knowledge societ

The Leuphana Digital School in Lüneberg, Germany, has announced the start of an online course on the psychology of negotiations in commons, which will run from May 20 to August 20.  “Psychology of Negotiations:  Reaching Sustainable Agreements in Negotiations on Commons” will be led by Professor Dr. Roman Trötschel, and introduce participants to a psychological approach to negotiations in the context of commons. 

Anyone with an Internet connection can participate.  After successful completion of the course, participants may obtain a university certificate for a nominal fee of 20 euros, which grants participants five credit points that they can transfer towards their own degree program.  Here is a short video outlining the scope of the course.

May
7

Envision This! Radio Show

BlogTalkRadio, 7 pm, EST.  Merry & Burl Hall, hosts. 

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