As you may have noticed, my blogging has suffered in recent weeks because of work on a new book with Silke Helfrich. Fortunately, we should be done soon. In the meantime, I have also given a few interviews that may be of interest.
Jane: …When there is this deep encounter with other beings, it triggers a natural desire to reciprocate, to share and communicate. So perhaps the commons brings out that aspect of our humanity which naturally desires to work toward the flourishing of our fellow creatures?
David: Yes, and I think this is why there is a kind of invisible tropism towards the commons. People sense precisely this potential of the commons and, without fully understanding or even if they have certain resistances or skepticism, they are nevertheless drawn to it. Through the many talks I have given and the conversations I have had over the years, I have come to see that the commons appeals to something very deep in people. It is about making human connections, about speaking to larger circumstances in life – and to deep time, both historical and present day. And it does so without all the encrustations of theological dogma.
These days there are very few discourses available to us where we can explore these matters outside of a theological one. Some kind of broad, cross-cultural exploration of our common humanity is long overdue. So I think that this aspect of the commons will grow as more and more people become involved with it.
Since 1834, when slavery was abolished on the Caribbean island of Barbuda, land there has been owned as a commons. The entire population collectively owns and controls the land, not private owners and developers. That may be about to change – with all the catastrophic results usually associated with enclosure.
After Hurricane Irma devastated 90% of the island’s buildings last year, it forced virtually all 1,800 residents to relocate to nearby Antigua or cities like New York and Toronto. International investors, working with Prime Minister Gastone Brown, a former banker, decided it was a ripe time to invoke the Shock Doctrine. This is the idea popularized by journalist Naomi Klein to describe how the market/state collusion to exploit national crises to ram through predatory neoliberal policies, which would otherwise be fiercely resisted by the citizenry.
In a great piece of reportage in The Intercept(January 23, 2018), Naomi Klein and Alleen Brown describe how the island government is taking advantage of the diaspora of Bardua residents. With no one around, it is an opportune moment to try to privatize the land and eliminate the communal ownership that has existed in Barbuda for nearly 200 years. A senator on the island described the communal ownership as something that was “born in the bowels of slavery and continued to grow in the post-emancipation world.”
The ostensible goal of the privatization policy is to provide a humanitarian response to the hurricane by facilitating outside investment and development. But the real goal is to open the door to investors and developers, who have long resented the democratic limits on development on Barbuda. They are eager to buy up pristine Caribbean land at bargain-basement prices and spur standard-issue Caribbean luxury resorts and ancillary businesses. The most notable such investor is actor Robert De Niro, who plans to build a luxury complex called Paradise Found Nobu.
You are not likely to encounter a more welcoming set of texts and infographics to introduce the commons and peer production than the Commons Transition Primer website.
The new site features four types of materials suited different levels of interest: short Q&A-style articles with illustrations; longer, in-depth articles for the more serious reader; a library of downloaded PDF versions of research publications by the P2P Foundation; and a collection of videos, audio interviews and links to other content.
The website does a great service in introducing topics that are sometimes elusive or abstract, giving them a solid explanation and lots of working examples. Go check it out!
Start with a series of Short Articles that addresses such questions as "What is a commons transition?" and "What is distributed manufacturing?" Then browse the Longer Articles section and read “10 ways to accelerate the Peer to Peer and Commons Economy,” a visionary piece on the movement to design global and manufacture locally.
George Monbiot, a columnist for the British newspaper and website The Guardian, may be the most prominent champion of the commons that I’ve discovered in mainstream journalism today. He has long been a compelling, out-of-the-box thinker on all sorts of economic and environmental issues. Now he is introducing the commons to his large readership and explaining its importance and its historic neglect by economists and politicians. Bravo!
"Are you a statist or a free marketeer? Do you believe that intervention should be minimised or that state ownership and regulation should be expanded? This is our central political debate. But it is based on a mistaken premise.
"Both sides seem to agree that state and market are the only sectors worth discussing: politics should move one way or the other along this linear scale. In fact, there are four major economic sectors: the market, the state, the household and the commons. The neglect of the last two by both neoliberals and social democrats has created many of the monstrosities of our times.
"Both market and state receive a massive subsidy from the household: the unpaid labour of parents and other carers, still provided mostly by women. If children were not looked after – fed, taught basic skills at home and taken to school – there would be no economy. And if people who are ill, elderly or have disabilities were not helped and supported by others, the public care bill would break the state.
"There’s another great subsidy, which all of us have granted. I’m talking about the vast wealth the economic elite has accumulated at our expense, through its seizure of the fourth sector of the economy: the commons."
The Great Lakes Commons project has embarked upon an ingenious campaign to reimagine money, value and water protection by issuing its own time-limited “Currency of Care.” The bills are not likely to be used for commercial transactions. In a way, that is the point – to spark a new conversation about money, value, community and the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes Commons is inviting people to give a Currency of Care note as a thank-you to people who have done something to protect the Great Lakes in big or small ways. Or you can give notes to people as a request that they do something to protect the lakes in the future. Paul Baines, an organizer of the project, notes:
“Each note represents the act of giving gratitude or requesting action. Each note carries the most precious value: acts of thanks and care for the Great Lakes. Rather than based on dollars, the value of these notes is our collective agreement and intention to reward people for their water protection through past actions (saying ‘thanks’) or future actions (saying ‘please’). Because our current money systems only acknowledge economic utility and gain, our Great Lakes Commons currency needs a wildly different theory of value -- such as past/future actions for water care.”
More than 5,000 individually numbered bills have been distributed, all of them due to expire at end of year. Why the expiration date? Because “this currency is for sharing not saving,” the currency webpage explains. “The value of this currency comes through its use -- its current. The rules of today’s dollar system rationalize hoarding and controlling money to make more money. The needs of healthy people and living water are denied not because there isn’t enough money in the world, but because it makes ‘sense’ to accumulate/hoard more and to spend it otherwise.”
So what might the commons actually achieve for you if you live in a city? How might you experience the joys of commoning? Check out Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons, a fantastic new book that describes more than 100 case studies and model policies for urban commoning. Researched and published by Shareable, the book is an impressive survey of citizen-led innovations now underway in more than 80 cities in 35 countries.
We all know about conventional approaches to “development” championed by investors and real estate developers, usually with the support of a city’s political elites. Much less is known about the commons-based agenda for improving cities. Sharing Cities is an inspirational reference guide for creating such an agenda. It details a great variety of policies and projects that are empowering ordinary citizens to improve their own neighborhoods, reduce household costs, and make their cities fairer, cleaner and more liveable.
I was thrilled to learn about Kitchen Share, a kitchen tool-lending library for home cooks in Portland, Oregon; the consortium Local Energy Scotland that is orchestrating shared local ownership of renewal energy projects; and the “community science” project run by Riverkeeper that carefully collects data about the water quality of the Hudson River.
Two years ago, we heard a great deal of hoopla on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, celebrating it as the landmark advance for the rule of law and limits on the power of the sovereign. Far less attention was given to a companion document, the Charter of the Forest, which guaranteed the customary rights of commoners to access the forests that were so vital to their livelihoods.
These rights were secured after a long civil war against the King, who had relentlessly expanded his claims of exclusive control of the forest, punishing violators with fines, imprisonment and sometimes death. So it is fitting that we pause a moment and recall that 800 years ago, on November 6, 1217, King Henry III granted the Charter of the Forest, formally recognizing in writing the customary rights of commoners to have access to the things essential to their everyday lives.
Commoners depended on the forest for nearly everything. It provided wood for their fires and houses, pastures for sheep and cattle, and wild game for food. The forest had mushrooms, hazelnuts, berries, dandelion leaves, and countless herbs. The forests were a source of acorns and beech mast for pigs; brush with which to make brooms; and medicinal plants for all sorts of illnesses and diseases.
“More than any other kind of landscape,” wrote English naturalist Richard Mabey, “[the English forests of the 13th Century] are communal places, with generations of shared natural and human history inscribed in their structures.”
How is it that the Charter of the Forest has been nearly forgotten? Historian Peter Linebaugh explains in his wonderful book The Magna Carta Manifesto that the two charters of liberty were often publicly linked. Indeed, the very term Magna Carta was used to distinguish the Great Charter of 1215 with the "lesser" one issued two years later, the Charter of the Forest.
It wasn’t until 1297 that King Edward I directed that the two be treated as the single law of the land. In 1369, King Edward III issued a law that incorporated the two into a single statute, with the Charter of the Forest becoming chapter 7 of the Magna Carta. Over the centuries, the Charter of the Forest, seen as a minor subset of the Great Charter, receded from public memory.
This essay of mine appeared on September 21 at journal-e, published by the 21st Century Global Dynamics website, UC Santa Barbara.
The rise of so many right-wing nationalist movements around the world—Brexit, Donald Trump, the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, anti-immigrant protests throughout Europe—have their own distinctive origins and contexts, to be sure. But in the aggregate, they are evidence of the dwindling options for credible change that capitalist political cultures are willing to consider. This naturally provokes the question: Why are the more wholesome alternative visions so scarce and scarcely believable?
Political elites and their corporate brethren are running out of ideas for how to reconcile the deep contradictions of “democratic capitalism” as it now exists. Even social democrats and liberals, the traditional foes of free-market dogma, seem locked into an archaic worldview and set of political strategies that makes their advocacy sound tinny. Their familiar progress-narrative—that economic growth, augmented by government interventions and redistribution, can in fact work and make society more stable and fair—is no longer persuasive.
Below, I argue that the commons paradigm offers a refreshing and practical lens for re-imagining politics, governance and law. The commons, briefly put, is about self-organized social systems for managing shared wealth. Far from a “tragedy,”2 the commons as a system for mutualizing responsibilities and benefits is highly generative. It can be seen in the successful self-management of forests, farmland, and water, and in open source software communities, open-access scholarly journals, and “cosmo-local” design and manufacturing systems.
The 2008 financial crisis drew back the curtain on many consensus myths that have kept the neoliberal capitalist narrative afloat. It turns out that growth is not something that is widely or equitably shared. A rising tide does not raise all boats because the poor, working class, and even the middle class do not share much of the productivity gains, tax breaks, or equity appreciation that the wealthy enjoy. The intensifying concentration of wealth is creating a new global plutocracy, whose members are using their fortunes to dominate and corrupt democratic processes while insulating themselves from the ills afflicting everyone else. No wonder the market/state system and the idea of liberal democracy is experiencing a legitimacy crisis.
Given this general critique, I believe that the most urgent challenge of our times is to develop a new socio-political imaginary that goes beyond those now on offer from the left or right. We need to imagine new sorts of governance and provisioning arrangements that can transform, tame, or replace predatory markets and capitalism. Over the past 50 years, the regulatory state has failed to abate the relentless flood of anti-ecological, anti-consumer, anti-social “externalities” generated by capitalism, largely because the power of capital has eclipsed that of the nation-state and citizen sovereignty. Yet the traditional left continues to believe, mistakenly, that a warmed-over Keynesianism, wealth-redistribution, and social programs are politically achievable and likely to be effective.
Where did things go wrong on the way to modern life, and what should we do instead? This question always seems to lurk in the background of our fascination with many indigenous cultures. The modern world of global commerce, technologies and countless things has not delivered on the leisure and personal satisfaction once promised. Which may be why we moderns continue to look with fascination at those cultures that have persisted over millennia, who thrive on a different sense of time, connection with the Earth, and social relatedness.
Such curiosity led me to a wonderful new book by anthropologist James Suzman, Affluence without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen. The title speaks to a timely concern: Can the history of Bushmen culture offer insights into how we of the Anthropocene might build a more sustainable, satisfying life in harmony with nature?
Writing with the emotional insight and subtlety of a novelist, Suzman indirectly explores this theme by telling the history and contemporary lives of the San – the Bushmen – of the Kalahari Desert in Africa. The history is not told as a didactic lesson, but merely as a fascinating account of how humans have organized their lives in different, more stable, and arguably happier, ways. The book is serious anthropology blended with memoir, political history, and storytelling.
After spending 25 years studying every major Bushman group, Suzman has plenty of firsthand experiences and friendships among the San to draw upon. In the process, he also makes many astute observations about anthropology’s fraught relationship to the San. Anthropologists have often imported their colonial prejudices and modern alienation in writing about the San, sometimes projecting romanticized visions of “primitive affluence.”