commons strategies

New Video, “Re-imagine the Future”

When faced with the massive crises of our time, the most logical response is paralysis.  What can an individual possibly do about something so massive and complex?

But what if people could manage to imagine changes that matter within their own lives, and then to grow and federate them? My colleague Anna Grear, a law professor at Cardiff University, and I wanted to focus on some of the positive, practical steps that anyone can take in dealing with the terrible challenges of our time.  

One result is a six-minute video that we are releasing today. The video is based on a series of interviews with participants in a June workshop called “Operationalising Green Governance.”  Held at a lovely retreat center north of Paris, a handful of participants – international law professors, human rights advocates, activists – were interviewed on camera by Ibby Stockdale, Director of a British film production company, Five Foot Four.  Ibby brilliantly distilled hours of interview footage and crafted a succinct, beautifully produced message. 

The short film, “Re-imagine the Future,” is now posted online and can be watched here.

In six minutes, it’s difficult to cover too much ground – so in the closing frames of the film, we provide links to two dedicated webpages – Anna’s  and mine -- to provide resources, organizations, essays, books, etc. for those interested in exploring the film’s themes more deeply. 

We hope you like the film – and would welcome whatever pass-along visibility you can give it.

This is the third and final installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning: Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networks," published by Friends of the Earth UK. The full essay can be downloaded as a pdf file here.

III.  Re-imagining the Polity for a Networked Humanity

However promising the new forms of open source governance outlined above, they do not of themselves constitute a polity.  The new regimes of collaboration constitute mini- and meso-systems of self-organization.  They do not comprise a superstructure of law, policy, infrastructure and macro-support, which is also needed.  So what might such a superstructure look like, and how might it be created?  Can we envision some sort of transnational polity that could leapfrog over the poorly functioning state systems that prevail today?

A first observation on this question is that the very idea of a polity must evolve.  So long as we remain tethered to the premises of the Westphalian nation-state system, with its strict notions of absolute sovereignty over geographic territory and people and its mechanical worldview enforced by bureaucracies and law, the larger needs of the Earth as a living ecosystem will suffer.  So, too, will the basic creaturely needs of human beings, which are universal prepolitical ethical needs beyond national identity.

It may simply be premature to declare what a post-Westphalian polity ought to look like – but we certainly must orient ourselves in that direction.  For the reasons cited above, we should find ways to encourage the growth of a Commons Sector, in both digital and non-virtual contexts, and in ways that traverse existing territorial political boundaries.  Ecosystems are not confined by political borders, after all, and increasingly, neither are capital and commerce.  Culture, too, is increasingly transnational.  Any serious social or ecological reconstruction must be supported by making nation-state barriers more open to transnational collaboration if durable, effective solutions are to be developed. 

While states are usually quite jealous in protecting their authority, transnational commons should be seen as helping the beleaguered nation-state system by compensating for its deficiencies.  By empowering ordinary people to take responsibility and reap entitlements as commoners, nation-states could foster an explosion of open-source problem-solving and diminish dependencies on volatile, often-predatory global markets, while bolstering their credibility and legitimacy as systems of power.    

But how might we begin to build a commons-friendly polity?  After all, the most politically attractive approaches have no ambitions to change the system, while any grand proposals for transforming neoliberal capitalism are seen as political non-starters.  I suggest three “entry points” that can serve as long-term strategies for transformation: 

1) begin to reconceptualize cities as commons;

2) reframe the “right to common” (access to basic resources for survival and dignity) as a human right; and

3) build new collaborations among system-critical social movements so that a critical mass of resistance and creative alternatives can emerge. 

These three general strategies are not separate approaches, of course, but highly complementary and synergistic.

Transnational Republics of Commoning

I am often asked what the commons has to contribute to solving our climate change problems.  Since most commons are rather small scale and local, there is a presumption that such commons cannot possibly deal with a problem as massive and literally global as climate change. I think this view is mistaken.

The nation-state as now constituted, in its close alliance with capital and markets, is largely incapable of transcending its core commitments to economic growth, consumerism, and the rights of capital and corporations -- arguably the core structural drivers of climate change. But these allegiances artificially limit our options, if not dismiss the kinds of interventions we must entertain. The market/state simply command and coerce its way to success in arresting with climate change; it will require the active, enthusiastic contributions of everyone, and it must command social respect and political legitimacy.

A new vision and popular energy from the outside must arise.  But how?  And how could it possibly expand to a meaningful size rapidly enough?  I think that the Internet and other digital networks offer a fertile vector in which to develop new answers. I explore the speculative possibilities in this essay written for Friends of the Earth UK, published as part of its "Big Think" essay series.  Because the piece -- "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance Through Emergent Networking" -- is nearly 14,000 words long, I am separating it into three parts.  You can download the full essay as a pdf file here.

 

Four days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the pilot on United Airlines Flight 564, going from Denver to Washington, D.C., came on the intercom:      

The doors are now closed and we have no help from the outside for any problems that might occur inside this plane.  As you could tell when you checked in, the government has made some changes to increase security in the airports.  They have not, however, made any rules about what happens after those doors close.  Until they do, we have made our own rules and I want to share them with you …

Here is our plan and our rules.  If someone or several people stand up and say they are hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together.  Then take whatever you have available to you and throw it at them … There are usually only a few of them, and we are two-hundred-plus strong.  We will not allow them to take over this plane.  I find it interesting that the U.S. Constitution begins with the words, “We the people.”  That’s who we are, the people, and we will not be defeated.

As recounted by journalist David Remnick, passengers “were asked to turn to their neighbors on either side and introduce themselves, and to tell one another something about themselves and their families.  ‘For today, we consider you family,’ they were told.  ‘We will treat you as such and ask that you do the same with us.’”[1]

Want an intensive introduction to the emerging “ethical economy” led by some of the most active practitioners and experts around?  Consider attending an unusual two-week study program, “Transition to Co-operative Commonwealth:  Pathways to a New Political Economy.”  It will be held from September 11 to 23, in Monte Ginezzo, Tuscany, Italy. 

The course will be hosted by Synergia, an international network of academics, social activists, practitioners and policymakers engaged in building a new political economy that is sustainable, democratic and socially just.  The course will provide a critical overview of the diverse elements of the ethical economy and the mechanisms required for its realization. 

The course will consist of lectures, workshops and site visits to leading cooperatives and commons projects in Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, home to one of the most advanced co-operative economies in the world.

Among the topics to be covered:

• Co-operative capital and social finance; alternative currencies;

• Co-op and commons-based housing and land tenure; community land trusts;

• Renewable energy; community-owned energy systems;

• Local & sustainable food systems; community supported agriculture;

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.

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.

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.

For authors and their reader-communities, has conventional book publishing become obsolete or at least grossly inefficient and overpriced?  I say yes -- at least for those of us who are not writing mass-audience books. The good news is that authors, their reader-communities and small presses are now developing their own, more satisfying alternative models for publishing books.

Let me tell my own story about two experiments in commons-based book publishing.  The first involves Patterns of Commoning, the new anthology that Silke Helfrich and I co-edited and published two months ago, with the crucial support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The second experiment involves the Spanish translation for my 2014 book Think Like a Commoner. 

Whereas the German version of Patterns of Commoning was published with transcript-Verlag, a publisher we consider a strong partner in spreading the word on the commons, for the English version, we decided to bypass commercial publishers.  We realized that none of them would be interested – or that they would want to assert too much control at too high of a price.

We learned these lessons when we tried to find a publisher for our 2013 anthology, The Wealth of the Commons.  About a dozen publishers rejected our pitches.  They said things like:  “It’s an anthology, and anthologies don’t sell.”  “It doesn’t have any name-brand authors.”  “It’s too international in focus.”  “What’s the commons?  No one knows about that.” 

It became clear that the business models of publishers – even the niche political presses that share our values – were not prepared to support a well-edited, path-breaking volume on the commons.

In general, conventional book publishing has trouble taking risks with new ideas, authors and subject matter because it has very small economic margins to play with.  One reason is that commercial book distributors in the US – the companies that warehouse books and send them to various retailers – take 60% of the cover price, with little of the risk. They are the expensive middlemen who control the distribution infrastructure. Their cut leaves about 40% of the cover price or less for the publisher, author and retailer to split. 

This arrangement means that book prices have to be artificially higher, relative to actual production costs, to cover all the costs of so many players:  editors, marketers, publicists, distributors, retailers.

Commons Strategies Group: The Website!

I’m thrilled to report that the Commons Strategies Group finally has its own handsome, up-to-date website!  Whenever anyone asks me about the commons work that I’ve been doing over the past five or six years – and that of my dear colleagues Silke Helfrich and Michel Bauwens – I can now point them to this beautifully designed site.

Since 2009, Silke, Michel and I have collaborated on a variety of irregular projects under the banner, The Commons Strategies Group. Silke is a commons activist and scholar based in Jena, Germany, and Michel is a Belgian living in Thailand who heads the Peer to Peer Foundation.

The three of us founded CSG in 2010 as an independent activist and research driven collaboration to foster the growth of the commons and commoning projects around the world.  We’ve seen CSG as a way to seed new conversations to help everyone better understand the commons.  We also convene key players to explore the future of the commons and identify strategic opportunities.  In practice, this mission has led CSG to organize two major international conferences, many strategic workshops, and to publish dozens of reports, book anthologies and essays and give public talks.  

For years, all of the materials that the three of us have created as CSG were scattered across the Web and our personal websites, and sometimes buried amidst lots of other materials.  Now, thanks to the wonderful design work of Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratrel of Guerrilla Translation and the P2P Foundation, with backend assistance from the P2PF's Javier Arturo Rodriguez, the more notable CSG initiatives have been brought together and artfully presented.

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