commons strategies

Bitcoin has taken quite a beating for its libertarian design biases, price volatility due to speculation, and the questionable practices of some currency-exchange firms.  But whatever the real or perceived flaws of Bitcoin, relatively little attention has been paid to its “engine,” known as “distributed ledger” or “blockchain” technology.  Move beyond the superficial public discussions about Bitcoin, and you’ll discover a software breakthrough that could be of enormous importance to the future of commoning on open network platforms.

Blockchain technology is significant because it can validate the authenticity of an individual bitcoin without the need for a third-party guarantor such as a bank or government body.  This solves a vexing collective-action problem in an open network context:  How do you know that a given bitcoin is not a counterfeit? Or to extend this idea:  How do you know that a given document, certificate or dataset -- or a vote or "digital identity" asserted by an individual -- is the “real thing” and not a forgery? 

Blockchain technology can help solve this problem by using a searchable online “ledger” that keeps track of all transactions of all bitcoins. The ledger is updated about six times an hour, each time incorporating a new set of transactions known as the “block” into the ledger.  What makes the blockchain so revolutionary is that the information on it is shared by everyone on the network using the Bitcoin software. The ledger acts as a kind of permanent record maintained by a vast distributed peer network, which makes it far more secure than data kept at a centralized location. You can trust the authenticity of a given bitcoin because it’s virtually impossible to corrupt a ledger that is spread across so many nodes in the network.

What does all this have to do with the commons? you might ask. A recently released report suggests that blockchain technology could provide a critical infrastructure for building what are called “distributed collaborative organizations.”  (One variation is called “decentralized autonomous organizations.”)  A distributed organization is one that uses blockchain technology to give its members specified rights within the organization, which are managed and guaranteed by the blockchain.  This set of rights, in turn, can be linked to the conventional legal system to make those rights legally cognizable.

What would it be like if city governments, instead of relying chiefly on bureaucratic rules and programs, actually invited citizens to take their own initiatives to improve city life?  That’s what the city of Bologna, Italy, is doing, and it amounts to a landmark reconceptualization of how government might work in cooperation with citizens.  Ordinary people acting as commoners are invited to enter into a “co-design process” with the city to manage public spaces, urban green zones, abandoned buildings and other urban issues.

The Bologna project is the brainchild of Professor Christian Iaione of LUISS University in Rome in cooperation with student and faculty collaborators at LabGov, the Laboratory for the Governance of Commons.  LabGov is an “inhouse clinic” and think tank that is concerned with collaborative governance, public collaborations for the commons, subsidiarity (governance at the lowest appropriate level), the sharing economy and collaborative consumption.  The tagline for LabGov says it all:  “Society runs, economy follows. Let’s (re)design institutions and law together.”

For years Iaione has been contemplating the idea of the “city as commons” in a number of law review articles and other essays. In 2014, the City of Bologna formally adopted legislation drafted by LabGov interns. The thirty-page Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons (official English translation here) outlines a legal framework by which the city can enter into partnerships with citizens for a variety of purposes, including social services, digital innovation, urban creativity and collaborative services. 

Taken together, these collaborations comprise a new vision of the “sharing city” or commons-oriented city. To date, some 30 projects have been approved under the Bologna Regulation.  Dozens of other Italian cities are emulating the Bologna initiative.

All attention in Greece and global financial circles has been understandably focused on the new Greek Government’s fierce confrontation with its implacable European creditors. Less attention has been paid to the Government’s plans to help midwife a new post-capitalist order based on commons and peer production. 

A commons colleague, John Restakis, wrote about this possibility a week or so before the January 25 elections. Now, speaking to the Greek Parliament last week, the new Deputy Prime Minister Gianni Dragasakis explicitly stated that Greece will develop new sorts of bottom-up, commons-based, peer production models for meeting people’s needs.

Dr. Vasilis Kostakis, who works with the P2P Foundation’s P2P Lab based in Ioannina, Greece, has been following the situation in Greece closely.  Kostakis, a research fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance in Tallin, Estonia, writes:

Syriza seems to be adopting policies and reforming certain laws in a fashion that resembles the Partner State Approach practices, with regard to education, governance and R&D. To mention a few:  

· opening up the public data;

· making openly available the knowledge produced with tax-payers’ money;

· creating a collaborative environment for small-scale entrepreneurs and co-operatives while favoring initiatives based on open source technologies and practices;

· developing certain participatory processes (and strengthening the existing ones)  for citizen-engagement in policy-making;

· adopting open standards and patterns for public administration and education.

The P2P Foundation recently launched a new website, the Commons Transition Platform,  as a central repository for policy ideas that help promote a wide variety of commons and peer-to-peer dynamics.  The site represents a new, more coordinated stage of activism in this area – collecting practical policy proposals for legally authorizing and encouraging the creation of new commons.

The website is a database of “practical experiences and policy proposals aimed toward achieving a more humane and environmentally grounded mode of societal organization.”  The idea is to begin to outline how policies could bring about and support a commons-based civil society, with a special focus on how collaborative stewardship of shared resources can be achieved. 

The P2P Foundation has stated its aspirations for the new initiative this way:

With the Commons Transition Plan as a comparative document, we intend to organize workshops and dialogues to see how other commons locales, countries, language-communities but also cities and regions, can translate their experiences, needs and demands into policy proposals. The Plan is not an imposition nor is it a prescription, but something that is intended as a stimulus for discussion and independent crafting of more specific commons-oriented policy proposals that respond to the realities and exigencies of different contexts and locales. This project therefore, is itself a commons, open to all contributions, and intended for the benefit of all who need it.

The Commons Transition Platform currently features three main policy documents, each originally created for Ecuador’s groundbreaking FLOK Society Project.  The FLOK Project (Free Libre Open Knowledge) produced a comprehensive set of policy proposals for encouraging knowledge commons and peer production.  These documents – written by Michel Bauwens, John Restakis and George Dafermos – have been newly revised and updated in non-region-specific versions.

As one of the countries hardest hit by austerity politics, Greece is also in the vanguard of experimentation to find ways beyond the crisis.  Now there is a documentary film about the growth of commons-based peer production in Greece, directed by Ilias Marmaras. "Knowledge as a common good: communities of production and sharing in Greece” is a low-budget, high-insight survey of innovative projects such as FabLab Athens, Greek hackerspaces, Frown, an organization that hosts all sorts of maker workshops and presentations, and other projects.

A beta-version website Common Knowledge, devoted to “communities of production and sharing in Greece,” explains the motivation behind the film:

“Greece is going through the sixth year of recession. Austerity policies imposed by IMF, ECB and the Greek political pro-memorandum regimes, foster an unprecedented crisis in economy, social life, politics and culture. In the previous two decades the enforcement of the neoliberal politics to the country resulted in the disintegration of the existed social networks, leaving society unprepared to face the upcoming situation.

During the last years, while large parts of the social fabric have been expelled from the state and private economy, through the social movements which emerge in the middle of the crisis, formations of physical and digital networks have appeared not only in official political and finance circles, but also as grassroots forms of coexistence, solidarity and innovation. People have come together, experimenting in unconventional ways of collaboration and bundling their activities in different physical and digital networks. They seek answers to problems caused by the crisis, but they are also concerned about issues due the new technical composition of the world. In doing so they produce and share knowledge.”

George Papanikolaou of the P2P Foundation in Greece describes how peer production is fundamentally altering labor practices and offering hope:  “For the first time, we are witnessing groups of producers having the chance to meet up outside the traditional frameworks – like that of a corporation, or state organization.  People are taking initiatives to form groups in order to produce goods that belong in the commons sphere.”

I don’t normally feature crowdfunding campaigns in my blog because there are so many worthy ones to support.  But here are two projects that I have a special affection for:  An ambitious campaign by CommonsSpark to raise money for a new mapping project called “CommonsScope,” and a set of twelve workshops to build local economies hosted by STIR magazine in the UK. 

Ellen Friedman and her colleagues have done a great job in pulling together an amazing number of maps of commons from around the world, featuring such categories as water, transportation, local commons and art commons. In an Indiegogo campaign that hopes to raise $35,000, CommonSpark plans to build a web catalog of hundreds of commons-related maps, data visualizations, open data, and tools – “a knowledge commons about the commons.”

Friedman also notes that CommonSpark is creating a catalog of commons with thousands of profiles that will communicate the story of each commons (who is the community, what is the resource, what are the commoning practices, where is it located, etc) along with best practices and data visualizations to identify patterns of commoning.

The CommonSpark Collective doesn’t want just want to raise money to build this useful web tool; it wants to attract a larger community to help build and steward the new world atlas of commons. You can help the effort by helping build the inventory of commons, joining the community and contributing to the Indiegogo campaign.  If this is any inducment, I've agreed to be a "reward" for any donor that gives $2,500 or more.

The Art of Commoning

This past weekend I learned a lot about the art of commoning through a process known as The Art of Hosting.  It’s a methodology for eliciting the collective wisdom and self-organizing capacity of a group – which is obviously important for a successful commons. 

We all know that the commons is about the stewardship of resources, but we may not realize that it is also about hosting people.  Not “managing” them or “organizing” them, but unleashing their capacity to self-organize themselves in creative, constructive, humane ways. 

This requires a sensitive touch, an artistic flair and a deep attentiveness to the humanity of other human beings. This is the art of hosting:  an engagement with people as living, feeling, meaning-making creatures who care about fairness, imagination and fun.

Serious observers of the commons often approach it “from the outside,” as if it were an elaborate machine of cogs and pulleys.  But if you approach the commons from within its inner dimensions – how people relate to each other – you are forced to pay more attention to qualitative dimensions and capacities of human beings, including aesthetics, ethics and feelings. Personality and authenticity matter.

The art of commoning, then, is about the graceful, light-touch structuring of people’s distinctive energies, passions and imaginations as they interact in groups.  By modeling certain attitudes toward each other and the world, and by constructing a shared social norm, people learn to give the best of themselves while taking care of each other and their shared social and physical spaces. 

The three-day Art of Commoning event in Montreal  – most of it in French – was hosted by a team of facilitators called Percolab. (Thank you, Elizabeth Hunt and Samatha Slade for your running translations!)  Fittingly, the gathering was held at Espace pour la vie, Space for Living, which is a group of four natural sciences resource institutes in Montreal.  Some collective notes from the gathering (in French and English) can be found here.  

Let it be said that this was not an event of droning keynotes and dreary powerpoints.  It was a lively, highly participatory set of deftly structured encounters among seventy people who care deeply about the commons. 

At one point, people were split up into small groups and one person told a memorable story of commoning – while others were assigned to identify notable aspects of the story – paradoxes, intuitive moments, “tipping points,” and the importance of economic, political and legal structures.  These interpretations really helped bring out revealing themes and meanings in each story.

It’s always been frustrating to me that Europeans and people in the global South appreciate the potential of the commons far more than most Americans, even among political progressives and activists. Happily, this past weekend saw a big shift.  In Rhinebeck, New York, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) – part of the noted Omega Institute retreat center – unleashed a torrent of creative energy and political action by hosting the first major conference of commons activists in North America.

There have, of course, been many smaller gatherings of US and Canadian commoners focused on specific issues such as water, local food, software code and online resources.  Commons scholars have a long history of getting together.  But this conference was different.  It brought together more than 500 participants to catalyze and instigate creative action around the commons. The paradigm clearly has some resonance for this region which is now faced with some serious market enclosures – the dangerous railway transport of oil supplies, the proposed construction of massive electrical transmission towers that will defile the beautiful landscape, and the proposed use of Cooper Lake for bottled water -- along with the usual assaults of neoliberal capitalism. 

“Where We Go From Here” focused directly on the great promise of the commons in re-imagining how we pursue social, political, economic and ecological transformations.  The keynote speakers were fantastic: the tireless environmentalist and eco-feminist activist Vandana Shiva; climate change activist Bill McKibben, still on a high from the successful climate march in NYC; author and futurist Jeremy Rifkin who foresees the rise of the “collaborative commons”; the deeply knowledgeable and witty ecological scholar David Orr of Oberlin College; the flinty, resourceful environmentalist and Native American activist Winona LaDuke, founder of Honor the Earth; the sustainable design architect Bob Berkebile; green jobs advocate and CNN commentator Van Jones; among many others.  I opened the day with an overview of the commons.

The deeply engaged conference participants consisted of environmental, food and social justice activists, the directors of many community projects, academics and students, indigenous peoples activists, a state legislator, permaculturists, Fablab hacktivists, Occupy veterans, and others too diverse to mention.  Most seem to have come from the Hudson River Valley, but quite a few came from the greater New York City region, New England and beyond. 

John Holloway, a sociology professor in Mexico, recently gave an interview with Roar magazine suggesting how to introduce a new social and economic logic in the face of the mighty machine of neoliberal capitalism.  Holloway's idea, recapitulating themes from his previous book and 2002 thesis, is to build "cracks" in the system in which people can relate to each other and meet their needs in non-market ways:  "We have to keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking confluence, or preferably, the commoning of cracks."

This strategic approach has immediate appeal to commoners, it seems to me -- even though some engagement with state power is surely necessary at some point.  Below, Holloway's interview with by Amador Fernández-Savater. It was translated by Richard Mac Duinnsleibhe and edited by Arianne Sved of Guerrilla Translation.

In 2002, John Holloway published a landmark book: Change the World Without Taking Power. Inspired by the ‘¡Ya basta!’ of the Zapatistas, by the movement that emerged in Argentina in 2001/’02, and by the anti-globalization movement, Holloway sets out a hypothesis: it is not the idea of revolution or transformation of the world that has been refuted as a result of the disaster of authoritarian communism, but rather the idea of revolution as the taking of power, and of the party as the political tool par excellence.

Holloway discerns another concept of social change at work in these movements, and generally in every practice—however visible or invisible it may be—where a logic different from that of profit is followed: the logic of cracking capitalism. That is, to create, within the very society that is being rejected, spaces, moments, or areas of activity in which a different world is prefigured. Rebellions in motion. From this perspective, the idea of organization is no longer equivalent to that of the party, but rather entails the question of how the different cracks that unravel the fabric of capitalism can recognize each other and connect.

But after Argentina’s “que se vayan todos” came the Kirchner government, and after Spain’s “no nos representan” appeared Podemos. We met with John Holloway in the city of Puebla, Mexico, to ask him if, after everything that has happened in the past decade, from the progressive governments of Latin America to Podemos and Syriza in Europe, along with the problems for self-organized practices to exist and multiply, he still thinks that it is possible to “change the world without taking power.”

It’s hard to find many co-operatives with the kind of practical sophistication and visionary ambitions as CIC – the Catalan Integral Cooperative -- in Spain.  CIC describes itself as a “transitional initiative for social transformation from below, through self-management, self-organization, and networking.”  It considers the state unable to advance the public good because of its deep entanglements with market capitalism -- so it has set about building its own working alternatives to the banking system and state. 

Since its founding in May 2010, CIC has developed some 300 cooperative projects with 30 local nodes, involving some 4,000 to 5,000 participants.  You can get an idea of the impressive scope of CIC’s work through this interview with Enric Duran by Shareable magazine in March 2014. It’s fairly clear that CIC is serious about building a new global economic system – and not just as a rhetorical statement.  CIC builds real, working alternatives, showing great sophistication about politics, law, economics and digital platforms. 

CIC has now started Fair.Coop to help build a set of free economic tools that will “promote cooperation, ethics, solidarity and justice in our economic relations.” A key element of the Fair-Coop vision is a cryptocurrency, Faircoin, which has been designed to adapt the block-chain technology of Bitcoin with a more socially constructive design. (Faircoin relies less on "mining" new coins than on "minting" them in a more ecologically responsible, equitable ways.)

Many skeptics might scoff at the brash, utopian feel of this initiative.  But in many respects, Faircoin is the ultimate realism. CIC correctly recognizes that the existing monetary system and private banks pose insuperable barriers to reducing inequality and ensuring productive work and wealth for all. The only "realistic" alternative to existing fiat currencies and foreign exchange is to invent a new monetary system!  Fortunately, thanks to the pioneering examples of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and the evolving powers of software, that idea is actually within reach these days.

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