My friend Silke Helfrich recently wrote a great blog post about the importance of infrastructure to the commons, drawing upon the keynote talk on infrastructure by Miguel Said Vieira at the Economics and the Commons conference in Berlin, in May 2013. Silke reviewed Miguel's talk, prepared in collaboration with Stefan Meretz – and then added some of her own ideas and examples. Here is her post from the Commons Blog:
Infrastructure is, IMHO, one of THE issues we have to deal with if we want to expand the commons….Let’s start with a few quotes from the (pretty compelling) framing of the respective stream at ECC, which was called, “New Infrastructures for Commoning by Design.”
"Commons, whether small or large, can benefit a lot from dependable communication, energy and transportation, for instance. Frequently, the issue is not even that a commons can benefit from those services, but that its daily survival badly depends on them. … When we look at commoning initiatives as a loose network, it does not make sense that multiple commons in different fields or locations should have to repeat and overlap their efforts in obtaining those services (infrastructures) independently…“
We need to sensitize commoners about the urgent need for Commons-Enabling Infrastructures (CEI). That is, we need infrastructures that can “by design” foster and protect new practices of commoning; help challenge power concentration and individualistic behavior are based on distributed networks (as extensively as possible) provide platforms which enable non-discriminatory access and use rights (for instance: a “ticket-free public transport system” is not cost-free, but it is designed in such a way that the funding of maintenance is not tied to the traveller’s individual budget).
A vexing problem for many potential commons is the lack of startup capital to get a project going while nurturing the social structures to organize participation and work. I recently learned of an ingenious solution developed by a group of “time banking” commoners in West Virginia. They adapted a traditional Time Bank system of barter-exchange and combined it with common pool of funds, which in turn served as an engine of development for DIY solar power installations -- in the heart of coal country, West Virginia!
Greg Bloom of Washington, D.C., who has a keen interest in cooperatives and commons, alerted me to his case study of the project. (Thanks, Greg!) As he tells the story at the Community Power Network website, the tax incentive approach to promoting solar power has distinct limits. It is too geared to people who already earn enough to benefit from the tax breaks. But what if you are low-income and have trouble paying your utility bills? You don’t earn enough to be incentivized, and you don’t have enough to pay for the upfront costs of a solar project.
In the town of Philippi, West Virginia, a local engineer, John Prusa, known locally as a “benevolent mad scientist,” had “designed and built his own home’s solar power array, and then shared his designs with neighbors and helped them develop their own,” writes Bloom. Prusa and a local minister, Ruston Seaman, of People's Chapel Church, found each other, and decided to start a new group, New Vision Renewable Energy.
The Church had once been the host of a flourishing Time Bank system with over 300 members, and even a store that accepted the Time Bank credits. But the system had fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons. Time Banks are a system by which members can earn credits for work they do for each other, at a rate of one credit, one hour of work. The systems are especially valuable for people with more time than money, such as low-income people and the elderly. It helps them get their needs met, without money, outside of the marketplace. Time Banks can serve important needs in areas that banks and markets have abandoned or ignored.
I had always admired Ivan Illich for his penetrating insights into the pathologies of modern life and the human condition. Like dormant seeds, they sprouted at just the right time in my life and helped me develop a vocabulary for better understanding the commons.
The recent conference in Oakland – “After the Crisis: The Thought of Ivan Illich Today,” on August 1-3 -- gave me an enlarged, fresher understanding of Illich's life and writings. Below I’d like to share some of the highlights of the conference, which can help us recover and rejuvenate Illich's thought for our time. (Illich wrote his most famous works in the 1960s and 1970s, and died in 2002.)
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Governor Jerry Brown, a long-time friend of Illich’s, opened the conference with a short talk. He had met Illich at Green Gulch, a Zen monastery in Marin County, in the 1970s. Brown noted that Illich’s work cannot be fit into any political, religious or philosophical pigeonhole because. He ranged freely across artificial disciplinary boundaries, and put a central emphasis on aliveness (which is distinct from “life”). Much of Illich’s work, said Brown, was about challenging “the certitudes of modernity.”
In a short, just-released collection of four Illich essays, Beyond Economics and Ecology (Marion Boyars Publishers) Governor Brown writes in the preface that Illich “questioned the very premises of modern life and traced its many institutional excesses to developments in the early and Medieval Church.” In the 12th century and after, the Church and later the nation-state began to appropriate for themselves Christ’s narratives about salvation and the sacred, and put them to decidedly more secular, worldly use.
This has culminated in the profound alienation of modern times, in Illich’s view. As Governor Brown writes, Illich “saw in modern life and its pervasive dependence on commodities and services of professionals a threat to what it is to be human. He cut through the illusions and allurements to better ground us in what it means to be alive. He was joyful but he didn’t turn his gaze from human suffering.”
The Oakland conference consisted of ten speakers, most of whom had known Illich as collaborators and sparring partners. I can’t summarize all of the presentations or capture all of their subtle complexities, but let me excerpt a handful of thoughtful comments.
A fairly new group of leading heterodox economic thinkers and activists has come together as Econ4 to pioneer some new forms of popular education about economics. Their work focuses both on the fallacies of conventional economics and the promise of a new economic paradigm. Check out Econ4’s series of intelligent and engaging short videos which explain the economics of healthcare, housing, jobs, and more. A just-released video, “The Bottom Line: A New Economy,” provides a terrific overview of the new types of peer production, cooperatives and other distributed, local, hybrid initiatives that are already taking root across the US.
The basic mission of Econ4 is to change the study of economics and how we publicly talk about economic choices. As the project states on its website: “The economic crisis we face today is not only a crisis of the economy. It is also a crisis of economics. The free-market fundamentalism that attained ideological dominance in the final decades of the 20th century has been discredited by financial collapse, global imbalances, mass unemployment, and environmental degradation. To confront these challenges, we need an economics for the 21st century.”
The term “Econ4” refers to the four central conditions that the economy must meet in meeting people’s long-term needs and protecting the planet. This chart provides a shorthand overview of the four conditions, which are elaborated in a longer statement on the Econ4 website:
Besides its great videos, Econ4 has a variety of resources for those who wish to explore alternative economics further.
Some of the most interesting new commons are those that you don’t usually hear about, probably because they are so small or local. I recently stumbled across the New Cross Commoners and was quite impressed with their zeal and ingenuity in exploring the meaning of commoning in their district of South London. The “About” section of the New Cross Commoners website explains their mission quite nicely:
Capitalism is the term we can use to call the private / public system that dominates not only the economy but also our social relations and our lives. Our desires and efforts for a good life together get exploited by capitalism (see for example “Big Society”). Commoning can be a process of struggle to reclaim those efforts and desires for ourselves. A commoning that is worth of its name, one not entirely exploited by the private / public system, implies a degree of struggle against this private / public system. It also implies a negotiation amongst the people who produce it: we are “privatized” as well, we need to learn how to live together, how to take care of each other collectively.
To understand what is commoning in New Cross we’ll read and discuss texts together, and at the same time we’ll explore the neighbourhood to find out what processes of commoning are already part of the life of New Cross (we’ll start with communal gardens, housing associations, youth and community centres, and the New Cross library). We would like not only to understand the commoning already produced in New Cross, but also to produce new commoning here: to share and organize skills and resources in such a way that this sharing can become more and more autonomous from private / public interests, from the market, from interests that are not those of the people using them.
The New Cross Commoners website is an inspiration to other would-be commoners who may wish to rediscover commoning in their own neighborhoods and towns. The group has held meetings at which they discuss essays by the commons historians such as Peter Linebaugh; Massimo De Angelis, and Silvia Federici, for example. They have met together to brew beer and drink it when it was ready.
It’s been said that the fate of any great movement is to be cannibalized by the mainstream or to die. I’d like to suggest two others paths: zombiehood and courageous re-invention.
Zombiehood is a mode of living death in which people mindlessly repeat old advocacy forms that clearly aren’t working. This is the fate of much environmentalism today – a professionalized, bureaucratized sector that is afraid of taking risks, innovating or defying respectable opinion.
It is refreshing, therefore, to recognize a notable departure from zombie-environmentalism, the Great Lakes Commons, a new cross-border grassroots campaign catalyzed by On the Commons to establish the Great Lakes as a commons. Here is a bold idea with the nerve and intelligence to strike off in some new, experimental directions without any assurance that it’s all going to turn out.
For the past 40 years, environmental activists have looked to legislatures, regulators and international treaties to “solve the problem.” Guess what? It’s not working. Governments are too corrupt, corporate-dominated, bureaucratic or just plain stalemated. The Great Lakes Commons is an attempt to launch a new narrative and activist strategy based on some very different assumptions. It’s trying to organize people in new ways, through commoning, and to imagine new forms of governance that will actually protect the Great Lakes. It doesn’t just want to raise money and collect signatures for petitions. It wants to nurture new types of human relationships with this endangered regional ecosystem.
As the Great Lakes Commons website points out, Great Lakes policies are biased toward private and commercial interests. The political management regimes do not reflect ecological realities. And the people living near the Lakes are treated as bystanders who have little power to affect government decisionmaking. For all these reasons and more, the ecological health of the Great Lakes has deteriorated over the past several decades, and now there are new threats from hydro-fracking, radioactive waste shipments, copper-sulfide mining and invasive species.
In a crazy twist of Italian politics – in a nation known for its zany political life – the Roman lawyer, scholar and commoner Stefano Rodotà unexpectedly became the presidential candidate of the Five Star Movement in Italy, the rising political force there. The amazing thing is, he nearly won!
Rodotà is a kindly, clever, fiercely intelligent and straight-shooting left-wing legal scholar and politician. Now nearly 80 years old, Rodotà is a something of a grey eminence in Italian politics. He has served four times in the Italian Parliament and once in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He helped write the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. He has taught at universities in Europe, Latin America, the US and India.
The recent success of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in the February 2013 elections abruptly opened up this opportunity for Rodotà and the commons. M5S was launched in 2009 by a comedian and activist, Beppe Grillo, to focus on five key issues – public water, sustainable transportation, development, connectivity and environmentalism. The movement is less of a real party than a cultural vehicle for voters to express resentment, frustration and hostility toward the political class in Italy. M5S is generally populist and libertarian in orientation, sometimes with a right-wing flavor (anti-immigrant policies). But Grillo is a showy amateur as a politician and not exactly a small-d democrat (he gives no press interviews and doesn’t welcome debate within M5S).
Still, the movement's issues and profile are compelling enough that M5S won more than 25 percent of the vote in the February 2013 elections – second only to the Democratic Party, which won only a fraction more votes. Forming a government in a country with dozens of political parties can be a difficult proposition, however, especially when personalities, political history, ideology and various odd circumstances are thrown in.
I recently wrote the following essay with John H. Clippinger as part of the ongoing work of ID3, the Institute for Data-Driven Design, which is building a new open source platform for secure digital identity, user-centric control over personal information and data-driven institutions.
As the Internet and digital technologies have proliferated over the past twenty years, incumbent enterprises nearly always resist open network dynamics with fierce determination, a narrow ingenuity and resistance. It arguably started with AOL (vs. the Web and browsers), Lotus Notes (vs. the Web and browsers) and Microsoft MSN (vs. the Web and browsers, Amazon in books and eventually everything) before moving on to the newspaper industry (Craigslist, blogs, news aggregators, podcasts), the music industry (MP3s, streaming, digital sales, video through streaming and YouTube), and telecommunications (VoIP, WiFi). But the inevitable rearguard actions to defend old forms are invariably overwhelmed by the new, network-based ones. The old business models, organizational structures, professional sinecures, cultural norms, etc., ultimately yield to open platforms.
When we look back on the past twenty years of Internet history, we can more fully appreciate the prescience of David P. Reed’s seminal 1999 paper on “Group Forming Networks” (GFNs). “Reed’s Law” posits that value in networks increases exponentially as interactions move from a broadcasting model that offers “best content” (in which value is described by n, the number of consumers) to a network of peer-to-peer transactions (where the network’s value is based on “most members” and mathematically described by n2). But by far the most valuable networks are based on those that facilitate group affiliations, Reed concluded. When users have tools for “free and responsible association for common purposes,” he found, the value of the network soars exponentially to 2n – a fantastically large number. This is the Group Forming Network. Reed predicted that “the dominant value in a typical network tends to shift from one category to another as the scale of the network increases.…”
Gavin Andresen, the lead scientist for the Bitcoin Foundation (and one of its only two staff members) sat down with a few of us at the UMass Amherst Knowledge Commons meeting on Wednesday. Having read so much hype and misinformation about Bitcoin over the past few months, I was excited to have a chance to talk to someone directly connected with this brilliant experiment in algorithmic institution-building. Bitcoin is, of course, the digital currency that has been in the news a lot recently because of its surging value among traders – and its dramatic crash.
For months the dollar value of a Bitcoin fluctuated between $20 and $50….but in mid-March the conversation rate soared to around $250 before crashing last week to $140 and then $40 yesterday. (Today it was back up to $95.) This kind of stuff is catnip to the mainstream press, which otherwise doesn’t know much or care much about Bitcoin.
Andresen, a self-described geek in his forties with a pleasant manner and trim haircut, strolled into the small conference room in his black rugby shirt and jeans. Six of us proceeded to have a wide-ranging, fascinating chat about the functional aspects of Bitcoin, the political and social values embedded in its design, and some of the operational challenges of making Bitcoin a new kind of universal currency.
For those of you who want a quick primer on Bitcoin, I suggest the New Yorker profile by Joshua Davis in the October 10, 2011, issue; a terrific recent critique by Denis Roio (aka Jaromil), a Dutch hacker who is working to code new sorts of digital money; or the Wikipedia entry on Bitcoin.
Bitcoin is of special interest to me for its remarkable success at solving a serious collective action problem – how to create a digital money so secure and authenticated so that no one can steal its value and ruin it as a stable, trusted currency?
The problem that Bitcoin solves as a matter of algorithmic and cryptographic design is the “Byzantine General’s problem,” which has been described as “the problem of reaching a consensus among distributed units if some of them give misleading answers.” As one reference describes it, the problem has been compared to the problem of various generals deciding on a common plan of attack: “Some traitorous generals may lie about whether they will support a particular plan and what other generals told them. Exchanging only messages, what decisionmaking algorithm should the generals use to reach a consensus? What percentage of liars can the algorithm tolerate and still correctly determine a consensus?”
Bitcoin solves this classic problem of achieving coordinated action without reliable communication or excessive (or any) defections. Much of this success stems from the startlingly solid cryptography of the system. The other safeguard, Andresen explained, has been Bitcoin’s “get big quick” strategy. If enough Bitcoins can be put into circulation quickly, then it becomes much harder for any faction to corner the market in Bitcoins or to compromise their integrity. This is important because the viability of any currency depends upon the ability of the issuer to prevent counterfeiting or theft -- a kind of free riding on the social trust that any community invests in its currency.