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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Congratulations to my colleagues at the Peer to Peer Foundation, and especially founder Michel Bauwens, for winning the 2016 Golden Nica for Digital Communities from Prix Arts Electronica!  This is a great and well-deserved honor.  There were a total of 3,159 entries from 84 countries for this venerable prize this year. 

In the prize citation, the jury wrote: 

“The P2P Foundation is a new generation of communities that help to build communities.  It is dedicated to advocacy and research of peer to peer dynamics in society. Established ten years ago, it evolved into one of the main drivers of the ‘commons transition’.

“As a decentralized and self-organized non-profit organization, the P2P Foundation analyzes, documents and promotes peer-to-peer strategies that seem to be well-suited to facing the challenges and problems of our times in ways that display great future promise. The focus is on three key traits: sustainability, openness and solidarity. Since its inception, the community of the P2P Foundation has input over 30,000 entries that document the history and development of the peer-to-peer movement. The P2P Foundation Wiki has been accessed more than 27 million times, and is thus the platform that has assembled the world’s most massive collection of knowledge about P2P.”

A shout-out to the P2P Foundation core team, consisting of James Burke, Bill Niaros, Vasilis Kostakis, Ann Marie Utratel and Stacco Troncoso, and of course, Michel – my dear friend and colleague on the Commons Strategies Group.  Michel, it is so heartening to see your years of toil, tenacity and leadership in building this global community receive this recognition.

The Alaska Permanent Fund has been an inspiration to many of us because it provides a mechanism, the “stakeholder trust,” to ensure that everyone benefits from common assets, especially natural resources such as water, minerals, forests and the atmosphere. 

In Alaska the Fund, operating as an independent, state-chartered trust, holds an equity stake in oil on state lands and therefore reaps a royalty on a portion of the oil extracted.  This is deposited in a massive trust fund, worth more than $52 billion, which kicks off revenues in the form of “dividends” for every resident of the state, including children.  The sums usually amount to $1,000 to $2,000 per year.   

Peter Barnes in his 2006 book Capitalism 3.0 suggested a number of ways in which the permanent fund idea could be applied to other common assets that are now plundered for private gain, such as forests, the atmosphere, the copyright and patent systems, and the financial regulatory apparatus.  The State of Vermont has entertained the idea of establishing permanent funds for some of its common assets, but the idea has not moved there. (See the 2008 report, "Valuing Common Assets for Public Finance in Vermont.”)

I was therefore thrilled to learn recently about a fascinating version of the permanent fund that the Supreme Court of India has mandated for the state of Goa.  In the course of public-interest litigation, it was discovered that, over the course of an eight-year period, the Goan government had allowed private mining companies to cart away 95% of the value of minerals on public lands, or about US$8.5 billion. This sum is twice the total state revenues for those eight years, or about$5,800 (Rs.3.7 lakhs) for each man, woman and child in Goa. In addition, private mining companies had caused all sorts of environmental destruction.

Rahul Basu, an Indian activist who brought the Goa Iron Ore Permanent Fund to my attention, noted that “since minerals are a part of the commons, i.e., owned by all of us, this loss is effectivelya per-head tax. Everyone loses equally, and a few get richer.  This is not trickle-down, it is gush-up. This is a highly regressive redistribution of wealth.”  Basu also noted that government privatization of common assets violates principles of equality, and thus runs contrary to Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  “We have found similar issues in iron ore, coal, oil & natural gas elsewhere in India,” writes Basu.  “As royalty rates are usually set by trying to attract investment into the sector, countries race to the bottom.”

On April 19, I delivered a short opening keynote talk at the EDGE Funders Alliance conference in Berkeley, California, on the challenges facing progressive philanthropy in fostering system change.  My remarks were based on a longer essay that I wrote for EDGE Funders, "A Just Transition and Progressive Philanthropy," which is re-published below. 

The weak reforms enacted after the 2008 financial crisis….the ineffectuality of climate change negotiations over the course of twenty-one years….the social polarization and stark wealth and income inequality of our time.  Each represents a deep structural problem that the neoliberal market/state seeks to ignore or only minimally address.  As more Americans come to see that the state is often complicit in these problems, and only a reluctant, ineffectual advocate for change, there is a growing realization that seeking change within the system of electoral politics, Washington policy and the “free market” can only yield only piecemeal results, if that.  There is a growing belief that “the system is rigged.”  People have come to understand that “free trade” treaties, extractivist development, austerity politics and the global finance system chiefly serve an economic elite, not the general good.  As cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff has put it, “I’ve given up on fixingthe economy.  The economy is not broken.  It’s simply unjust.”

Struggle for change within conventional democratic arenas can often be futile, not just because democratic processes are corrupted by money and commercial news media imperatives, but because state bureaucracies and even competitive markets are structurally incapable of addressing many problems.  The disappointing Paris climate change agreement (a modest commitment to carbon reductions after a generation of negotiations) suggests the limits of what The System can deliver.  As distrust in the state grows, a very pertinent question is where political sovereignty and legitimacy will migrate in the future.  Our ineffectual, unresponsive polity may itself be the problem, at least under neoliberal control. 

The failures of The System come at the very time that promising new modes of production, governance and social practice are exploding.  Twenty years after the World Wide Web went public, it has become clear that decentralized, self-organized initiatives on open networks can often out-perform both the market and state – a reality that threatens some core premises of capitalism.[1]  The people developing a new parallel economy – sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity, as in Greece and Spain – are neither politicians, CEOs or credentialed experts.  They are ordinary people acting as householders, makers, hackers, permaculturists, citizen-scientists, cooperativists, community foresters, subsistence collectives, social mutualists and commoners:  a vast grassroots cohort whose generative activities are not really conveyed by the term “citizen” or “consumer.” 

Through network-based cooperation and localized grassroots projects, millions of people around the world are managing all sorts of bottom-up, self-provisioning systems that function independently of conventional markets and state programs (or sometimes in creative hybrids). They are developing new visions of “development” and “progress,” as seen in the buen vivir ethic in Latin America, relocalization movements in the US and Europe, and the FabLabs and makerspaces that are reinventing production for use.

Mutualized Solutions for the Precariat

Large companies have long sought to boost profits by converting their employees into “independent contractors,” allowing them to avoid paying benefits.  The rise of the “gig economy” – exemplified by digital platforms such as Uber and Airbnb – has only accelerated this trend.  Business leaders like to celebrate the free agent, free market economy as liberating -- the apex of American individualism and entrepreneurialism.  But the self-employed are more likely to experience a big loss of income, security and collegiality.  There is a reason that this cohort is called “the precariat.”

A new report by Co-operatives UK called “Not Alone:  Trade Union and Co-operative Solutions for Self-Employed Workers” offers a thoughtful, rigorous overview of this neglected sector of the economy.  Although it focuses on the UK, its findings easily apply internationally, particularly for co-operative and union-based solutions. 

The author of the report, Pat Conaty, notes that “self-employment is at a record level” in the UK – some 15% of the workforce – and rising.  While some self-employed workers choose this status, a huge number are forced into through layoffs and job restructuring, with all the downward mobility and loss of security implied by them. 

Few politicians or economists are honestly addressing the implications.  They assume that technological innovation will simply create a new wave of jobs to replace the ones being eliminated, same as it ever was.

The sad truth is that investors and companies benefit greatly from degrading full-time jobs into piecemeal, task-based projects tackled by a growing pool of precarious workers.  This situation is only going to become more desperate as artificial intelligence, automation, driverless vehicles and platform economics offshore and de-skill conventional jobs if they don't permanently destroy them.  

Last year SYRIZA, the left coalition party elected to lead the Greek government and face down its creditors and European overlords, lost its high-stakes confrontation with neoliberalism. Greece has plunged into an even-deeper, demoralizing and perilous social and economic crisis, exacerbated by the flood of Syrian refugees. 

So what does the SYRIZA experience have to teach us about the potential of democratic politics to bring about economic and social transformation?  Andreas Karitzis, a former SYRIZA member and former member of its Central Committee and Political Secretariat, provides a rich and penetrating analysis in an essay at OpenDemocracy.net. "The SYRIZA experience':  lessons and adaptations" crackles with shrewd, hard-won political insights explaining why SYRIZA failed to prevail and the necessary future strategies for transformational change.

SYRIZA failed to stop the neoliberal juggernaut, Karitzis argues, because it thought it could work within the established political structures and processes.  But the gut-wrenching drama showed that conventional democratic politics is futile when state sovereignty is trumped by international finance.  SYRIZA's ultimate acceptance of the Troika's deal "arguably betrayed the hopes and aspirations of the popular classes and those fighting against financial despotism," says Karitzis.  He now calls on the left to develop a new "operating system," or what some have called "Plan C": 

We know that the popular power once one inscribed in various democratic institutions is exhausted.  We do not have enough power to make elites accept and tolerate our participation in crucial decisions.  More of the same won't do it.  If the ground of the battle has shifted, undermining our strategy, then it's not enough to be more competent on the shaky battleground; we need to reshape the ground.  And to do that we have to expand the solution space by shifting priorities from political representation to setting up an autonomous network of production of economic and social power.

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.