commons strategies

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.

Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis have just published a new book that offers a rich, sophisticated critique of our current brand of capitalism, and looks to current trends in digital collaboration to propose the outlines of the next, network-based economy and society.

Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy is a scholarly book published by Palgrave Macmillan. If you’d like to look at a working draft of the book, you can find it online here.

Bauwens is the founder of the P2P Foundation, and Kostakis is a political economist and founder of the P2P Lab. He is also a research fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance at Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia. 

Kostakis and Bauwens write:

The aim of this book is not to provide yet another critique of capitalism but rather to contribute to the ongoing dialogue for post-capitalist construction, and to discuss how another world could be possible. We build on the idea that peer-to-peer infrastructures are gradually becoming the general conditions of work, economy, and society, considering peer production as a social advancement within capitalism but with various post-capitalistic aspects in need of protection, enforcement, stimulation and connection with progressive social movements.

The authors outline four scenarios to “explore relevant trajectories of the current techno-economic paradigm within and beyond capitalism.” They envision the rise of "netarchical capitalism," a network-based capitalism, that sanctions several types of compatible and conflicting forms of capitalism – what they call “the mixed model of neo-feudal cognitive capitalism.”  There are variations that are possible, including "distributed capitalism, resilient communities and global Commons."

In a sign of the growing convergence of alternative economic movements, the Degrowth movement’s fourth international conference in Leipzig, Germany, last week attracted more than 2,700 people.  While a large portion of the conference included academics presenting formal papers, there were also large contingents of activists from commons networks, cooperatives, the Social and Solidarity Economy movement, Transition Town participants, the “sharing economy,” and peer production. 

By my rough calculation from browsing the conference program, there were more than 350 separate panels over the course of five days. Topics ranged from all sorts of economic topics (free trade, business models for degrowth, GDP and happiness) to alternative approaches to building a new world (Ivan Illich’s “convivial society,” permaculture, cooperatives, edible forest gardens). 

Degrowth?  For most Americans, the idea of a movement dedicated to non-growth, let alone one that can attract so many people, is incomprehensible.  But in many parts of Europe and the global South, people see the invention of new socio-economic forms of production and sharing as critical, especially if we are going to address climate change and social inequality. 

Some degrowth activists are a bit defensive about the term degrowth because, in English, it sounds so negative and culturally provocative.  (The French term décroissance, meaning “reduction,” is apparently far less jarring than its literal transation as “degrowth.”)  One speaker at the conference conceded this fact, slyly noting, “But unlike other movements, it will be exceedingly hard for opponents to co-opt the term ‘degrowth’”!

In a 2013 paper, “What is Degrowth:  From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement” (pdf), Frederico Demaria et al. write:  “”’Degrowth’ became an interpretive frame for a new (and old) social movement where numerous streams of critical ideas and political actions converge.  It is an attempt to re-politicise debates about desired socio-environmental futures and an example of an activist-led science now consolidating into a concept in academic literature.”  A new beachhead of this academic inquiry is a book Degrowth:  A Vocabulary for a New Era, due out in November.

I'm happy to announce that a new collection of essays that I've co-edited with John Clippinger, executive director of ID3, has been published. It's called From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond The fifteen essays in the book explore a new generation of digital technologies that are re-imagining the foundations of digital identity, governance, trust and social organization.

ID3 is a Boston-based nonprofit affiliated with the M.I.T. Media Lab, and was co-founded by Clippinger and social computing and data expert, Professor Pentland, who directs M.I.T.’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. 

The book is focused on the huge, untapped potential for self-organized, distributed governance on open platforms. There are many aspects to this challenge, but some of the more interesting prospects include evolvable digital contracts that could supplant conventional legal agreements; smartphone currencies that could help Africans meet their economic needs more effective; the growth of the commodity-backed Ven currency; and new types of “solar currencies” that borrow techniques from Bitcoin to enable more efficient, cost-effective solar generation and sharing by homeowners. 

A chapter on the 28-year history of Burning Man, the week-long encampment in the Nevada desert, traces the arc of experimentation and innovation in large communities devising new forms of self-governance.

I co-authored an essay in the book, "The Next Great Internet Disruption:  Authority and Governance," which appeared in an earlier form here.

The book is published by ID3 in association with Off the Common Books, and is available in print and ebook formats from Amazon.com and Off the Common Books. A free, downloadable pdf of the book is available at the ID3 website.  (The book is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.)

Among the contributors to From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond are Alex “Sandy” Pentland of the M.I.T. Human Dynamics Laboratory; former FCC Chairman Reed E. Hundt; long-time IBM strategist Irving Wladawksy-Berger; Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Hirshberg; monetary system expert Bernard Lietaer; journalist and author Jonathan Ledgard; and H-Farm cofounder Maurizio Rossi. 

 In addition to explorations of self-governance, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond introduces the path-breaking software platform that ID3 has developed called “Open Mustard Seed,” or OMS.  The just-released open source program enables the rise of new types of trusted, self-healing digital institutions on open networks, which in turn will make possible new sorts of privacy-friendly social ecosystems.

(I am back from some time at the beach, ready to resume my reporting about the latest commons developments, of which there are many.  More to come!)

Dutch legal scholar Femke Wijdekop of the Institute for Environmental Security has tackled an urgent question for anyone concerned with planetary environment.  She writes: 

How can we construct a right to a healthy and clean environment that is enforceable in today’s complex international legal order? What legal construct would be visionary and ambitious enough to meet the urgent need for environmental justice and protection and at the same time be enforceable in court rather than fall into the category of ‘soft law’?

Wijdekop answers these questions in an essay, “A Human Right to Commons- and Rights-based Ecological Governance:  the key to a healthy and clean environment?” The legal analysis was published by the Earth Law Alliance, a group of lawyers organized by British lawyer Lisa Mead who advocate an eco-centric approach to law. 

Wijdekop’s piece draws upon some of the ideas in my book with Burns Weston, Green Governance in arguing for “procedural environmental rights to establish, maintain, participate in, be informed about and seek redress for ecological commons.”  She has presented these ideas to international lawyers and constitutional scholars in The Hague, and is now reaching out to environmentally minded lawyers.

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