commons strategies

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.

Now here is an improbable idea:  an activist hedge fund.  Out of Tampere, Finland, comes the Robin Hood Asset Management Coop, which legally speaking, is an investment cooperative.  It is designed to skim the cream off of frothy investments in the stock market to help support commoners.  As the website for the coop describe it:

We use financial technologies to democratize finance, expand financial inclusion and generate new economic space.  Robin Hood’s proposition is no different than it was 600 years ago in Sherwood:  arbitrage the routes of wealth and distribute the loot as shared resources.  Today we just use different methods to achieve the same:  we analyze big data, write algorithms, deploy web-based technologies and engineer financial instruments to create and distribute surplus profits for all.  Why?  Simply, we believe a more equitable world is a better one.  

The Robin Hood Coop currently has 808 members from some 15 countries, and manages about 651,000 euros in various stock market investments.  Started in June 2012, the coop has generated over 100,000 euros for its members and to its common pool, which is used to support commons projects.  Robin Hood reports that in its first year, it had “the third most profitable rate of return in the world of all the hedge funds.” 

Anyone can join the coop for a 30€ membership fee, which entitles members to invest a minimum of 30€.  Members can then choose eight different options for splitting any profits (after costs) among their own accounts, Robin Hood Projects and the general Robin Hood Fund.  Most members choose a simple 50-50 split of profits to themselves and Robin Hood Projects.  For the past two full years of its operations, the project has been profitable. (As of November 19, however, net asset value was down 6.38%.)  Robin Hood says that its operating costs are quite low compared to normal asset management services provided by banks.

The enterprise is driven by Robin Hood’s “dynamic data-mining algorithm,” which it calls “Parasite,” because it tracks actual transactions in US stock markets and mimics the best market actors.  The coop’s website explains:  “The parasite listens to the feed of the NYSE, watching for traders and what they trade. Then it competency ranks traders, identifying ones that are constantly making money on specific stocks. When it sees that a consensus is forming among such competent traders, it follows.”   Robin Hood appears to be out-performing many leading hedge funds and reaping impressive returns, and it provides a modest but welcome source of income for some commons projects.

Universitat de Oberta Catalunya -- Open University of Catalonia -- just published the following essay of mine as part of its "Open Thoughts" series.  The UOC blog explores the benefits and limitations of various forms of peer production: well worth a look!

From open access platforms to managed digital commons: that is one of the chief challenges that network-based peer production must meet if we are going to unleash the enormous value that distributed, autonomous production can create.

The open platform delusion
We are accustomed to regarding open platforms as synonymous with greater freedom and innovation. But as we have seen with the rise of Google, Facebook and other tech giants, open platforms that are dominated by large corporations are only “free” within the boundaries of market norms and the given business models. Yes, open platforms provide many valuable services at no (monetary) cost to users. But when some good or service is offered for at no cost, it really means that the user is the product. In this case, our personal data, attention, social attitudes lifestyle behavior, and even our digital identities, are the commodity that platform owners are seeking to “own.”

In this sense, many open platforms are not so benign. Many of them are techno-economic fortresses, bolstered by the structural dynamics of the “power law,” which enable dominant corporate players to monopolize and monetize a given sector of online activity. Market power based on such platforms can then be used to carry out surveillance of users’ lives; erect barriers to open interoperability and sharing, sometimes in anticompetitive ways; and quietly manipulate the content and “experience” that users may have on such platforms.

Such outcomes on “open platforms” should not be entirely surprising; they represent the familiar quest of capitalist markets to engineer the acquisition of exclusive assets and monetize them. The quarry in this case is our consciousness, creativity and culture. The more forward-looking segments of capital realize that “owning a platform” (with stipulated terms of participation) can be far more lucrative than owning exclusive intellectual property rights for content.

So for those of us who care about freedom in an elemental human and civic sense — beyond the narrow mercantilist “freedoms” offered by capitalist markets — the critical question is how to preserve certain inalienable human freedoms and shared cultural spaces. Can our free speech, freedom of association and freedom to interconnect with each other and innovate flourish if the dominant network venues must first satisfy the demands of investors, corporate boards and market metrics?

Until the very end, my dear friend and colleague Burns Weston was passionate, hard-driving and committed to changing the world.  That’s why I was stunned to learn that Burns passed away yesterday, a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday.  When he failed to make a scheduled telephone call, friends checked his condo and found him dead.  Burns was a well-known international law and international human rights scholar at the University of Iowa College of Law.  He was also founder of its noted Center for Human Rights.

I met Burns about seven years ago when he was a professor for one semester a year at Vermont Law School.  He was writing a major legal treatise about climate change, and one element of the essay dealt with the commons.  A mutual friend, the polymath Roger G. Kennedy, introduced us, and the gravitational pull of Burns’ essay quickly drew me in. It was an irresistible disruption in my life that got me thinking a lot about environmental law and the commons.

Soon we were working together on a variety of projects:  a major scholarly book, chapters in anthologies, law review articles, grant proposals. In the course of it all, Burns exposed me to a great deal of human rights and international law, and he helped clarify their potential and limits for re-imagining international governance, environmental law and the actualization of human rights. For my part, I introduced Burns to the loose but growing network of international commoners and commons literature. He quickly realized that the commons is not just complementary to human rights; the two are long-lost partners with affirmative synergies. 

Our conversations became more serious and, with a bit of serendipitous funding, we embarked upon a grueling book project, Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press.  It was a bold attempt to reimagine environmental law and policy through the lens of human rights and the commons.  We wanted to envision new ways to actualize human rights principles and commons practices at global and regional levels.  We wanted to think beyond the framework of the nation-state and international treaty organizations.  We wanted to think beyond the standard forms and institutions of law itself.

Burns attacked these questions with the enthusiasm of a first-year law student and the sagacity of a gray eminence.  He really wanted to come up with creative legal solutions, and he wasn’t afraid if they might require social and political struggle. Now that’s not a quality you find in your average law professor, let alone one in his seventies. Burns had a bold and questing temperament, and did not let himself be confined by the disciplinary blinders of law. That’s why, following the publication of Green Governance, Burns wanted to continue our explorations.  So we founded the Commons Law Project to see if we could propose an architecture of law and public policy to address climate change and other urgent ecological problems.

The coming together of commons-oriented projects seems to be intensifying.  Even as the Le Temps des Communes festival in dozens of Francophone cities convenes thousands of commoners, an organizing meeting for a Chicago Chamber of Commons in planned for Saturday, October 10. (You can register for the event here.)

This idea has been kicking around for a while – see this 2013 blog post  – but it seems that the folks in Chicago are serious about making it work. They want to foster deeper collaboration among the many groups focused on shared ownership, the collaborative economy, co-operatives and other mutual-benefit initiatives. The organizers say they want to “connect social entrepreneurs, L3C's, B-Corps and other enterprises focused on triple bottom line, sharing-economy approaches to commerce and community development.” People involved with economic transformation, environmental protection, community life and culture are also invited.

The day will start with a consensus workshop that will try to come up with a shared definition of the commons. This will be followed with discussions for startup plans for a Chicago Commons, which organizers hope will be the first of many Chambers of Commons across the nation and globe.

In May, Huffington Post writer Sally Duros wrote a piece about the envisioned Chamber of Commerce in which she quoted Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation: 

"The old way is this. Here's a problem. We need resources to solve that problem. We create a hierarchy to direct resources at the problem," Bauwens says.

"Here's another way. There are enough people in the world with time, skills and energy who would be willing to work to solve that problem. The new solution is to create a commons and a platform that allows people to self-aggregate and collaborate to solve that problem."

Here's hoping that the organizing meeting is productive!

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