David Bollier's blog

What is “value” and how shall we protect it?  It’s a simple question for which we don’t have a satisfactory answer.

For conventional economists and politicians, the answer is simple:  value is essentially the same as price. Value results when private property and “free markets” condense countless individual preferences and purchases into a single, neutral representation of value:  price.  That is seen as the equivalent of “wealth.”

This theory of value has always been flawed, both theoretically and empirically, because it obviously ignores many types of “value” that cannot be given a price. No matter, it "works," and so this theory of value generally prevails in political and policy debates. Economic growth (measured as Gross Domestic Product) and value are seen as the same. 

Meanwhile, the actual value generated outside of market capitalism – the “care economy,” social labor, eco-stewardship, digital communities and commons – are mostly ignored or considered merely personal (“values”).  These types of “value” are seen as extraneous to “the economy.”

My colleagues and I wondered if it would be possible to develop a post-capitalist, commons-friendly theory of value that could begin to represent and defend these other types of value.  Could we develop a theory that might have the same resonance that the labor theory of value had in Marx’s time?

Marx’s labor theory of value has long criticized capitalism for failing to recognize the full range of value-creation that make market exchange possible in the first place.  Without the “free,” unpriced services of child-rearing, social cooperation, ethical norms, education and natural systems, markets simply could not exist.  Yet because these nonmarket value-regimes have no pricetags associated with them, they are taken for granted and fiercely exploited as “free resources” by markets.

So we were wondering:  If modern political/economic conceptions of value are deficient, then what alternative theories of value might we propose? In cooperation with the Heinrich Boell Foundation and anthropologist David Graeber, who has a keen interest in these themes, we brought together about 20 key thinkers and activists for a Deep Dive workshop in September 2016 to explore this very question.  So much seems to hinge upon how we define value.

I am pleased to say that an account of those workshop deliberations is now available as a report, Re-imagining Value:  Insights from the Care Economy, Commons, Cyberspace and Nature (pdf download). The 49-page report (plus appendices) explains that how we define value says a lot about what we care about and how we make sense of things – and therefore what kind of political agendas we pursue.   

If the Greek experience of the past two years shows anything, it is that conventional Left politics, even with massive electoral support and control of the government, cannot prevail against finance capital and its international allies.  European creditors continue to force Greek citizens to endure the punishing trauma of austerity politics with no credible scenario for economic recovery or social reconstruction in sight. 

After the governing coalition Syriza capitulated to creditors’ draconian demands in 2016, its credibility as a force for political change declined. Despite its best intentions, it could not deliver. The Greek people might understandably ask:  Have we reached the limits of what the conventional Left can achieve within “representative democracies” whose sovereignty is so compromised by global capital?  Beyond such political questions, citizens might also wonder whether centralized bureaucratic programs in this age of digital networks can ever act swiftly and responsively.  Self-organized, bottom-up federations of commoning often produce much better results.    

Pummeled by some harsh realities and sobered by the limits of Left politics, many Greeks are now giving the commons a serious look as a political option. This was my impression after a recent visit to Athens where I tried to give some visibility to the recently published Greek translation of my book Think Like a Commoner.  In Greek, the book is entitled Κοινά: Μια σύντομη εισαγωγή.  Besides a public talk at a bookstore (video here), I spoke at the respected left Nicos Poulantzas Institute (video with Greek translation & English version), which was eager to host a discussion about commons and commoning. 

Can diverse social movements come together and find new synergies for building a new type of economy?  Last week there were some significant conversations along those lines at Goldsmiths College in London, at the Open Co-op conference. The two-day event brought together leading voices from the co-operative, open source, and collaborative economy movements as well as organized labor. The gathering featured a lot of experts on co-operative development, law, software platforms, economics and community activism.

The basic point of the conference was to:  

“imagine a transparent, democratic and decentralised economy which works for everyone. A society in which anyone can become a co-owner of the organisations on which they, their family & their community depend. A world where everyone can participate in all the decisions that affect them.

“This is not a utopian ideal, it is the natural outcome of a networked society made up of platform cooperatives; online organisations owned and managed by their members. By providing a viable alternative to the standard internet business model based on monopoly and extraction, platform cooperatives provide a template for a new type of organisation – forming the building blocks for a new economy.”

The idea of “platform co-operatives” – launched at a seminal New York City conference in November 2015 co-organized by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider – has quickly found a following internationally. People have begun to realize how Uber, Airbnb, Taskrabbit and countless other network platforms are distressingly predatory, using venture capital money and algorithms to override health, safety and labor standards and municipal governance itself.

The London event showed the breadth and depth of interest in this topic – and in the vision of creating a new type of global economy.  There were folks like Felix Weth, founder of Fairmondo, a German online marketplace and web-based co-op owned by its users; Brianna Werttlaufer, cofounder and CEO of Stocksy United, an artist-owned, multistakeholder cooperative in Victoria, British Colombia; and co-operative finance and currency expert Pat Conaty.

There was a lot of talk about building new infrastructures that could mutualize the benefits from local businesses while connecting to a larger global network of co-ops sharing the same values.  Among the tools mentioned for achieving this goal: Mondragon-style co-ops, government procurement policies to favor local co-ops, shifting deposits to local credit unions, and crowdfunding citizen-led community development projects.

As a developed set of social practices, techniques and ethical norms, permaculture has a lot to say to the world of the commons.  This is immediately clear from reading the twelve design principles of permaculture that David Holmgren enumerated in his 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and Practices Beyond Sustainability.  It mentions such principles as “catch and store energy,” “apply self-regulation and accept feedback,” “produce no waste,” and “design from patterns to details.”

My friendship and work with ecological design expert Dave Jacke have only intensified my conviction that permaculturists and commoners need to connect more and learn from each other.  The value of such dialogues was brought home to me by a public talk and an all-day workshop that I co-organized with Dave.  The events, which in combination we called “Reinventing the Commons,” were an opportunity for 35 participants to learn about ecosystem dynamics and the commons, and for Dave and me to learn from each other in public.  How might we build better commons by mimicking the principles and patterns of natural ecosystems?

Dave’s talk on the evening of January 20 was a great introduction to this topic.  He started by showing a chart plotting the “industrial ascent” of human civilization as fueled by cheap fossil fuels, growing populations and profligate pollution and waste.  (See the yellow line in the chart; based on a diagram originally by David Holmgren (http://futurescenarios.org.)

Dave’s quick historical overview started with tribal commons in the prehistoric era, a time when people self-organized to obtain enough food and shelter to survive.  Societies began to take the shape of feudal commons in Roman and Medieval times, at least in England and Europe.  Lords owned the land and claimed privileged access to certain resources of the landscape while allowing commoners to manage other resources themselves.

When the feudal system began to collaborate with the budding market system in the 17th century, we saw the rise of a new sort of state and market system with a very different logic and ethic.  Soon a series of enclosures privatized and marketized wealth previously managed collectively.  Enclosures were a violent dispossession of commoners, who were left as landless peasants with little choice but to become wage-slaves and paupers in the early industrial cities.

The commons, once a dominant form of social organization, was supplanted by the state and then the market.  In no time the market and state were colluding to build a new vision of “progress” based on an extractive growth economy.  The market/state system has in fact built the modern, technological society that we inhabit today.   

But can this system continue?  Can the planetary ecosystem – and climate – survive capitalism?  One of the most revealing slides that Dave showed was this one showing the role of different governance systems over history – commons, state and markets.

One of the big, unanswered questions in our political economy today is “what constitutes value?”  Conventional economics sees value as arising from market exchange and expressed as prices. A very simple, crude definition of value.

But how, then, to account for the many kinds of value that are intangible, social or ecological in nature, and without prices – activities such as child-rearing and eldercare, ecological stewardship, online peer production, and commoning?  There is an urgent need to begin to make these forms of value explicitly visible in our political economy and culture.

Two new reports plunge into this complicated but essential topic.  The first one – discussed below -- is called “Value in the Commons Economy:  Developments in Open and Contributory Value Accounting,” The 49-page report by Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Niaros focuses on socially created value on digital networks. It was co-published yesterday by the Heinrich Boell Foundation and P2P Foundation. 

Another important report on how to reconceptualize value – an account of a three-day Commons Strategies Group workshop on this topic – will be released in a few days and presented here.

The P2P Foundation report declares that “society is shifting from a system based on value created in a market system (through labor and capital) to one which recognizes broader value streams,” such as the social and creative value generated by online communities.  The rise of these new types of value – i.e., use-value generated by commoners working outside of typical market structures – is forcing us to go beyond the simple equation of price = value.

Michel Bauwens and sociologist Adam Arvidsson call this the “value crisis” of our time.  Commons-based peer production on open platforms is enabling people to create new forms of value, such as open source software, wikis, sharing via social networks, and creative collaborations.  Yet paradoxically, only a small minority of players is able to capture and monetize this value.  Businesses like Facebook, Google and Twitter use their proprietary platforms to strictly control the terms of sharing; collect and sell massive amounts of personal data; and pay nothing to commoners who produced the value in the first place.

This is highly extractive, and not (re)generative.  So what can be done?  How could open platforms be transformed to bolster the commons and serve as a regenerative social force? 

A very meaty issue of the British magazine STIR looks at a wide variety of projects based on Solidarity Economics.  Produced in collaboration with the Institute for Solidarity Economics at Oxford, England, the Winter 2017 issue explores everything from municipal energy in London to cooperatively owned digital platforms, and from childcare coops to the robust solidarity economies being built in Catalan and Rojava.  What’s striking about many of the articles is the fresh experimentation in new cooperative forms now underway.

Consider the Dutch organization BroodFondsMakers, based in Utrecht, an insurance-like system for self-employed individuals.  When a public insurance program was abolished by the government in 2004, a small group of self-employed individuals got together to create their own insurance pool.  More than a commercial scheme, members of the groups meet a few times a year, and even have outings and parties, in order to develop a certain intimacy and social cohesion.

When someone in a group gets sick for more than a month, they receive donations from the group, which usually have between 20 and 50 members. The mutual support is more than a cash payment, it is a form of emotional and social support as well. BroodFonds now has more than 200 groups and about 10,000 members participating in its system.

Another STIR article describes a new prototype for childcare in England that aims to overcome the well-known problems of high cost, low quality and poor availability of childcare.  The new cooperative model, Kidoop, is meant to be co-produced by parents and playworkers, and not just a market transaction. The model, still being implemented, aims to provide greater flexibility, better quality care and working conditions, lower costs, and a system that parents actually want.

This is a time of great confusion, fear and political disarray.  People around the world, including Americans afflicted by a Trump presidency, are looking for new types of democratic strategies for social justice and basic effectiveness.  The imploding neoliberal system with its veneer of democratic values is clearly inadequate in an age of globalized capital.

Fortunately, one important historical episode illuminates the political challenges we face quite vividly:  the protracted struggle by the Greek left coalition party SYRIZA to renegotiate its debt with European creditors and allied governments. SYRIZA’s goal was to reconstruct a society decimated by years of austerity policies, investor looting of public assets, and social disintegration.  The Troika won that epic struggle, of course, and SYRIZA, the democratically elected Greek government, accepted the draconian non-solution imposed by creditors.  Creditors and European neoliberals sent a clear signal: financial capital will brutally override the democratic will of a nation.

Since the Greek experience with neoliberal coercion is arguably a taste of what is in store for the rest of the world, including the United States, it is worth looking more closely at the SYRIZA experience and what it may mean for transformational politics more generally.  What is the significance of SYRIZA’s failure?  What does that suggest about the deficiencies of progressive politics?  What new types of approaches may be needed?

Below, I excerpt a number of passages from an excellent but lengthy interview with Andreas Karitzis, a former SYRIZA spokesman and member of its Central Committee.  In his talk with freelance writer George Souvlis published in LeftEast, a political website, Karitzis offers some extremely astute insights into the Greek left’s struggles to throw off the yoke of neoliberal capitalism and debt peonage.  Karitzis makes a persuasive case for building new types of social practices, political identities and institutions for “doing politics."

I recommend reading the full interview, but the busy reader may want to read my distilled summary below.  Here is the link to Part I and to Part II of the interview. 

Karitzis nicely summarizes the basic problem: 

We are now entering a transitional phase in which a new kind of despotism is emerging, combining the logic of financial competition and profit with pre-modern modes of brutal governance alongside pure, lethal violence and wars. On the other hand, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have huge reserves of embodied capacities, a vast array of rapidly developing technologies, and values from different cultures within our immediate reach. We are living in extreme times of unprecedented potentialities as well as dangers. We have a duty which is broader and bolder than we let ourselves realize.

But, we haven’t yet found the ways to reconfigure the “we” to really include everyone we need to fight this battle. The “we” we need cannot be squeezed into identities taken from the past – from the “end of history” era of naivety and laziness in which the only thing individuals were willing to give were singular moments of participation. Neither can the range of our duty be fully captured anymore by the traditional framing of various “anti-capitalisms”, since what we have to confront today touches existential depths regarding the construction of human societies. We must reframe who “we” are – and hence our individual political identities – in a way that coincides both with the today’s challenges and the potentialities to transcend the logic of capital. I prefer to explore a new “life-form” that will take on the responsibility of facing the deadlocks of our species, instead of reproducing political identities, mentalities and structural deadlocks that intensify them.

The word “development” has long been associated with the Western project of promoting technological and economic “progress” for the world’s marginalized countries.  The thinking has been:  With enough support to build major infrastructure projects, expand private property rights, and build market regimes, the poor nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia can escape their poverty and become "modern" -- prosperous, happy consumers and entrepreneurs poised to enter a bright future driven by economic growth and technology.

That idea hasn’t worked out so well.

As climate change intensifies, the ecological implications of growth-based “development” are now alarming if not fatuous. The 2008 financial crisis exposed the sham of self-regulating “free markets” and the structural political corruption, consumer predation and wealth inequality that they tend to entail.  And culturally, people are starting to realize, even in poorer countries, that the satisfactions of mass consumerism are a mirage. A life defined by a dependency on global markets and emulation of western lifestyles is a pale substitute for a life embedded in native cultures, languages and social norms, and enlivened by working partnerships with nature and peers.

It is therefore exciting to learn that Agence Française de Développement (AFD) – the French development agency, based in Paris – is actively considering the commons as a “future cornerstone of development.”

A key voice for this shift in perspective at AFD is Chief Economist Gaël Giraud, who boldly acknowledges that “growth is no longer a panacea.”  He compares the current economic predicament to the plight of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, who had to keep running faster and faster just to stay in the same place.  (For a short video interview with Giraud, in French, click here.  Here is an AFD webpage devoted to various commons issues.)

In a blog post outlining his views of the commons and development (and not necessarily reflecting those of AFD), Giraud cited the loss of biodiversity of species as a major reason for a strategic shift in “development” goals. “The last mass extinction phase [of five previous ones in the planet’s history] affected dinosaurs and 40% of animal species 65 million years ago,” writes Giraud. “At each of these phases, a substantial proportion of fauna was lost within a phenomenon of a massive decline of biodiversity.”

It’s an open secret that political parties and “democratic” governments around the world have become entrenched insider clubs, dedicated to protecting powerful elites and neutralizing popular demands for system change.  How refreshing to learn about Ahora Madrid and other local political parties in Spain!  Could they be a new archetype for the reinvention of politics and government itself?

Instead of trying to use the hierarchical structures of parties and government in the usual ways to “represent” the people, the new local parties in Spain are trying to transform government itself and political norms. Inspired by Occupy-style movements working from the bottom up, local municipal parties want to make all governance more transparent, horizontal, and accessible to newcomers. They want to make politics less closed and proprietary, and more of an enactment of open source principles. It’s all about keeping it real.

To get a clearer grasp of this phenomena, Stacco Troncoso of the P2P Foundation recently interviewed two members of Ahora Madrid, a city-based party comprised of former 15M activists who forged a new electoral coalition that prevailed in Madrid in 2015. (The full interview can be found here.)  The coalition’s victory was important because it opened up a new narrative for populist political transformation. Instead of the reactionary, anti-democratic and hate-driven vision embodied by Brexit, Trump and the National Front, this one is populist, progressive and paradigm-shifting.

Below, I distill some of the key sights that surfaced in Troncoso’s interview with Victoria Anderica, head of the Madrid City Council’s Office of Transparency, and Miguel Arana, director of Citizen Participation. The dialogue suggests how a social movement can move into city government without giving up their core movement ideals and values.  Implementation remains difficult, of course, but Ahora Madrid has made some impressive progress.

First, a clarification:  To outsiders, the political insurgency in Spain is usually associated with the upstart Podemos party.  That is a significant development, of course, but Podemos is also much more traditional.  Its party structure and leadership are more consolidated than those of Ahora Madrid, which considers itself an “instrumental party.”  It qualified to run in the 2015 elections as a party, but it does not have the internal apparatus of normal parties.

I have come to realize that language is an indispensable portal into the deeper mysteries of the commons. The words we use – to name aspects of nature, to evoke feelings associated with each other and shared wealth, to express ourselves in sly, subtle or playful ways – our words themselves are bridges to the natural world.  They mysteriously makes it more real or at least more socially legible.

What a gift that British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has given us in his book Landmarks!  The book is a series of essays about how words and literature help us to relate to our local landscapes and to the human condition. The book is also a glossary of scores of unusual words from various regions, occupations and poets, showing how language brings us into more intimate relations with nature. Macfarlane introduces us to entire collections of words for highly precise aspects of coastal land, mountain terrain, marshes, edgelands, water, “northlands,” and many other landscapes.

In the Shetlands, for example, skalva is a word for “clinging snow falling in large damp flakes.”  In Dorset, an icicle is often called a clinkerbell.  Hikers often call a jumble of boulders requiring careful negotiation a choke.  In Yorkshire, a gaping fissure or abyss is called a jaw-hole.  In Ireland, a party of men, usually neighboring farmers, helping each other out during harvests, is known as a boon.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called a profusion of hedge blossom in full spring a May-mess.

You get the idea.  There are thousands of such terms in circulation in the world, each testifying to a special type of human attention and relationship to the land.  There are words for types of moving water and rock ledges, words for certain tree branches and roots, words for wild game that hunters pursue.  There are even specialized words for water that collects in one’s shoe – lodan, in Gaelic – and for a hill that terminates a range – strone, in Scotland. 

Such vocabularies bring to life our relationship with the outside world. They point to its buzzing aliveness. There is a reason that government bureaucracies that “manage” land as "resources" don’t use these types of words. Their priority is an institutional mastery of nature, not a human conversation or connection with it. 

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