commons strategies

Across Europe, a vision of the commons has been emerging in the margins for many years.  But now, as the credibility of conventional politics and neoliberal economics plummets, commoners are becoming more visible, assertive and organized. The latest evidence comes from the first meeting of a newly formed European Commons Assembly. More than 150 commoners from 21 countries across Europe gathered in Brussels for the three-day event, from November 15 to 17.

The Assembly was organized by Sophie Bloemen and David Hammerstein of the Berlin-based European Commons Network, in collaboration with other commons advocates and organizations. Two sets of Assembly meetings were held at the Zinneke collective, based in an old stamp factory in Brussels that the nonprofit collective had reclaimed.  Another meeting was held in the stately European Parliament building, hosted by supportive members of the European Parliament who sit on the Working Group on Common Goods, within the Intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services.

Bloemen and Hammerstein recently wrote about the meetings:

This movement of commoners has been growing across Europe over the last decade, but last week it came together for the first time in a transnational European constellation. The objectives of the meetings were multiple but the foremost goal was to connect and form a stable but informal transnational commons movement in Europe. The political energy generated by bringing all these people together in this context was tremendous.

On a visit to Barcelona last week, I learned a great deal about the City’s pioneering role in developing "the city as a commons."  I also learned that crystallizing a new commons paradigm – even in a city committed to cooperatives and open digital networks – comes with many gnarly complexities.

The Barcelona city government is led by former housing activist Ada Colau, who was elected mayor in May 2015.  She is a leader of the movement that became the political party Barcelona En Comú (“Barcelona in Common”). Once in office, Colau halted the expansion of new hotels, a brave effort to prevent “economic development” (i.e., tourism) from hollowing out the city’s lively, diverse neighborhoods. As a world city, Barcelona is plagued by a crush of investors and speculators buying up real estate, making the city unaffordable for ordinary people.

Barelona En Comú may have won the mayor’s office, but it controls only 11 of the 44 city council seats. As a result, any progress on the party’s ambitious agenda requires the familiar maneuvering and arm-twisting of conventional city politics. Its mission also became complicated because as a governing (minority) party, Barelona En Comú is not just a movement, it must operationally assist the varied needs of a large urban economy and provide all sorts of public services:  a huge, complicated job.

What happens when activist movements come face-to-face with such administrative realities and the messy pressures of representative politics? This is precisely why the unfolding drama of Barelona En Comú is instructive for commoners. Will activists transform conventional politics and government systems into new forms of governance -- or will they themselves be transformed and abandon many of their original goals? 

The new administration clearly aspires to shake things up in positive, transformative ways.  Besides fostering greater participation in governance, Barelona En Comú hopes to fortify and expand what it calls the “commons collaborative economy” – the cooperatives, commons and neighborhood projects that comprise a remarkable 10% of the city economy through 1,300 ventures.

In the burgeoning genre of books focused on building a new and benign world order – a challenge variously known as the “new economy,” “Great Transition,” and the “Great Turning” among other terms) – John Thackara’s new book stands out.  How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today is low-key and sensible, practically minded and solidly researched.  Written in an amiable, personal voice, the book is persuasive and inspirational.  I can only say:  Chase it down and read it! 

It’s a shame that so many brave books that imagine a post-capitalist world surrender to grandiose theorizing and moral exhortation.  It’s an occupational hazard in a field that is understandably wants to identify the metaphysical and historical roots of our pathological modern times.  But critique is one thing; the creative construction of a new world is another.

That’s why I found Thackara’s book so refreshing.  This British design expert, a resident of southwest France, wants to see what the design and operation of an ecologically sustainable future really looks like, close-up.  He is also thoughtful enough to provide some depth perspective, following his own motto, “To do things differently, we need to see things differently.”

How to Thrive in the Next Economy seeks to answer the question, “Is there no escape from an economy that devours nature in the name of endless growth?”  The short answer is Yes!  There is an escape.  As Thackara shows us, there are scores of brilliant working examples around the world that demonstrate how to meet our needs in more responsible, fair and enlivening ways.

He takes us by the hand to survey a wide variety of exemplary models-in-progress.  We are introduced to scientists and farmers who are discovering how to heal the soil by treating it as a living system.  We meet urbanists who are re-thinking the hydrology of cities, moving away from high-entropy engineered solutions like reservoirs and sewers, to smaller, localized solutions like wetlands, rain gardens, ponds and worm colonies.  Other bioregionalists are attempting to de-pave cities and bring permaculture, gardens, “pollinator pathways” and informal food systems into cities.

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.

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