politics

As if recovering from the binge of market triumphalism that crested in 2008, the Zeitgeist is now unleashing a steady stream of new works on cooperation.  The rediscovery of this aspect of our humanity is long overdue and incredibly important, given the deformities of thinking that economics has inflicted on public consciousness.  So I was excited to learn that the distinguished sociologist Richard Sennetthad written a new book about cooperation, Together:  The Rituals Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Yale University Press). 

The pleasures of a book by Sennett is its extreme erudition, lightly worn and combined with a thoughtful personal voice and political conscience.  Sennett, now 69, teaches at the London School of Economics and New York University, after a lifetime of studying urban culture, class consciousness, labor and politics.  Together eschews the social science jargon that imprisons so many of Sennett’s colleagues, offering an engaging, far-ranging and subtle meditation on how human beings learn to cooperate.  He draws upon evolutionary science, sociological research, a life of field research, and his personal experiences as a celebrated political cosmopolitan.

The great value of Together is its creation of a fresh vocabulary for thinking more systematically about how cooperation occurs, and does not occur, in contemporary life.  This is quite a radical act considering the general orientation of economics and public policy, which tend to presume that we are all individuals living in isolation, as disconnected libertarian monads.  It's utterly false, of course, but we do not have a very developed or precise public narrative for asserting the opposite.  Sennett supplies one. 

The Pirate Party Wins Big in Berlin

The Pirate Party won an impressive and unexpected 8.9% of the vote in Berlin's elections on Sunday. This means that the Pirates will have an astonishing 15 seats out in the state parliament, out of 141 legislators. It's the first time that the Pirate Party has won representation in a German legislative body.

To put this in perspective, the German Pirate Party won 2% of the vote in national elections in 2009, but no seats in the legislature. The Berlin election can be chalked up as a regional aberration, which it is, but it also took place in the capital of Germany.  And a bloc of 15 seats can be parlayed into real power in a parliamentary system.

But what's also significant about the Berlin victory is the growing power of trans-national movements that have strong local bases and political and cultural affinities that span national boundaries. This is the new Internet culture emerging. As the blog Governance Across Borders puts it, “The Pirate Party’s election win in Berlin would not have been possible without its relations to a much broader and transnational movement. For one, there are fellow pirate parties in over 40 different countries, most of which are members of the meta-organization Pirate Parties International. For another, the pirate party movement is itself only one of several related and partly overlapping social movements inspired by the new technological possibilities of Internet and digital technologies.” (Governance Across Borders has a useful FAQ on the Pirate Parties and the Berlin victory.)

Many people don't recognise that the commons is not just a thing – a physical element of nature or a resource like the Internet – but a distinct metaphysics and epistemology that challenges some deeply rooted premises of contemporary politics and policy.  James Quilligan probes this territory with a thoughtful piece in the latest issue of Kosmos magazine. In particular, he explores the “social nature of property”and how its individual, atomistic nature in liberal political philosophy is responsible for “its catastrophic impact on the commons.”

The essay is not a quick read, but it is a provocative and penetrating piece about some of the deeply rooted assumptions that shape our understandings of property, individual identity and how government and public policy should behave.  All such discussions must start with John Locke, the great 17th Century philosopher who created the enduring justifications for property rights.

One of Locke's central ideas is that property is inherently about individual rights of ownership and control, which means the right to exclude others and to ignore the larger social and ecological context of those rights, not to mention future generations. This understanding, in turn, entails an understanding of a human being as a dualistic creature, one who has a sovereign mind and a separate and independent material body.  The mind/body dualism is actually the basis for a larger political theory that assigns property rights to individuals (and not larger collectives) and charges governments with recognizing and enforcing those individual rights.

Some fascinating commons-animated political undercurrents are starting to surface in Ireland and Spain, two of the “troubled” nations of the Eurozone.  (I will focus on Ireland today and Spain later this week.)  In Ireland, a new all-Ireland political federation, Fís Nua hopes to shake things up.  Its self-professed goal is “to bring together, under one umbrella, all those disaffected with the corruption in politics and government and who feel that they have been left without a voice within the political arena in Ireland.”  (A tip o the hat to Michel Bauwens of P2P Foundation blog for this news.)

Fís Nua, a registered political party, wants to open up a new sort of political conversation and agenda.  The catalyst for the movement is the systemic ripoff of the Irish people in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  As the Fís Nua website puts it: 

We believe that up to 90 billion Euro of our tax money that is presently being used to ‘bail out’ or pay for the corruption of politicians and banking officials is the greatest crime in Irish history, one that we are paying for with a collapsed economy, soaring unemployment, diminishing social facilities and a scarred environmental and cultural landscape.  We believe that this money belongs to the Irish people and it should be devoted to dealing with our present crisis rather than guaranteeing the profits of criminal developers, bankers and corrupt politicians.

As set forth in a bracing manifesto, Fís Nua seeks to draw upon the work of social justice, ecology and anti-corruption constituencies “with the intent of breaking the mould in Irish politics.”  The party’s manifesto is comprehensive, thoughtful and well-worth reading.  But what I found especially exciting were Items #6 and #7 in the party’s “Ecological Economics” platform:

NATO Misconstrues the Commons

So now NATO is interested in the commons!  Or at least, it’s interested in what it thinks is the commons.  In September, a group of NATO brass, security analysts and other policy elites held a conference called “Protecting the Global Commons.”  Attendees were mostly unknown to us commoners, but they are described as “senior representatives from the EU institutions and NATO, with national government officials, industry, the international and specialised media, think-tanks, academia and NGOs.” 

The event, hosted by a Brussels-based think tank called Security & Defence Agenda, had its own ideas about what the commons is.  Let’s just say the sponsors apparently don’t regard the commons as a self-organized system designed by commoners themselves to serve their needs. 

No.  To NATO decisionmakers, the “global commons” consists of those empty spaces and resources that lie beyond the direct and exclusive control of nation-states, yet which are necessary to fruitful intercourse among nation-states.  So, for example:  space, the oceans and the Internet.

The Empire Strikes Back

John Naughton, writing in The Guardian (UK), is one of the few observers to see the WikiLeaks case for what it is:  “the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet.  There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.”

It’s difficult to make predictions about a story that is still unfolding, but the U.S. Government’s response to the WikiLeaks disclosures make two things quite clear:  1) that the world’s oldest democracy is not really committed to open debate, citizen accountability and due process; and 2) nation-states, in quiet collusion with key corporations, share an interest in curbing the open Internet in order to limit its disruptive impact on their power.

While the U.S. lectures China about the virtues of an open Internet, what happens when that very ideal is applied to the U.S. Government?  The disclosures expose stunning deceit, mendacity, incompetence and corruption, and the U.S. Government goes into attack mode against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. 

The Politics of Open Source

As a vehicle for passionate participation and, transparent management, free and open source software (FOSS) has become an icon of our time: a synonym for a happier, more productive and democratic way of producing things. But sometimes the progressive image of open source may skate past some of the messier realities. Developing software code is, after all, a different challenge than journalism or music. And hackers are a different kind of social cohort than writers and musicians, let alone the general public.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst just completed a two-day conference, The Politics of Open Source, which assessed the impact of open source software in a variety of domains. The dominant perspective was political science, with accents of tech talk and activism.

When Art Worked

At a time when our national (and global) predicaments are seen mostly as a matter for economists and policy wonks to solve, historian Roger Kennedy comes forward to remind us of the critical role of art. Art is not just an aesthetic pleasure or indulgence, he insists; it is a way in which people makes sense of their problems. It is a way of re-imagining the common good.

Kennedy’s new book, When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy, is a sumptuous immersion in the murals, music, paintings, photographs, posters, architecture, monuments, civic parks, books and travel guides, and countless other artifacts of public culture sponsored by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The glossy coffee-table book, published by Rizzoli, is illustrated with hundreds of stunning images selected by editor and designer David Larkin. (Full disclosure: I’ve enjoyed Kennedy’s hospitality on several wonderful occasions.)

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