conferences

Can the boundary-bursting categories of the commons penetrate the mighty citadel of Harvard Law School and its entrenched ways of thinking about property, markets and law?  I set out to find out last Saturday at the “This Land Is Your Land:  Remaking Property After Neoliberalism” conference.  The one-day event was convened by Unbound, the Harvard Law journal of the legal left, and the Institute for Global Law and Policy.  I had been invited to participate on a panel, “From Homo Economicus to Commoner” and to explore with about 100 students and a few professors how “the left” might approach property rights in some new ways.

The liberal/leftist luminary Duncan Kennedy, a founder of the critical legal studies movement and an advisor to Unbound, opened the day with a talk about “property as fetish and tool.”  He explained how both the right and the left have their own versions of property fetishism.  The right has adopted highly naturalistic arguments that regard property as an entirely natural, ahistorical reality.  An example is the right’s imposition of intellectual property rights on countries of the global South. 

The left, meanwhile, generally regards property law as a “bundle of rights” that is principled and conceptually coherent when it is in fact, he pointed out, simply an incoherent accretion of laws that reflect countless political struggles of the past.  The problem with the left, Kennedy suggested, is that it does not have an alternative conception of property law except as a useful tool of left political projects, such as better housing and social conditions.  Kennedy implied that it was futile for the left to try to get “outside” of property discourse.

Fortunately, Michael Hardt of Duke University – author of Empire and Commonwealth, among other books –objected.  He argued that we need to develop a conception of property that lets us think outside of standard property discourse and property relationships.  But is this possible and desireable?  Conference participants disagreed, and came back to the topic many times throughout the day.

Upcoming Conferences on the Commons

There are a number of upcoming conferences focusing on various sorts of commons.  For those of you with a passionate interest in any of the following, check out these four gatherings in coming months:

A Virtual Town Hall for the Great Lakes Commons, March 18

What would happen if the Great Lakes in North America were managed on principles and practices that empower communities to become stewards of the water?  What if decisionmaking was local and collective? To discuss these themes, several organizations are convening the first webinar in a series, “Protect the Great Lakes Forever Virtual Town Halls.”  This first one will take place on March 18 from noon to 1 pm ET. For more information, visit here.  Or check out the Facebook invite

The event is convened by Alexa Bradley (Program Director for On the Commons), Sue Chiblow (Environmental Consultant for the Mississauga First Nation) and Jim Olson (Founder and Chair of FLOW for Water). Emma Lui (Water Campaigner for the Council of Canadians) will be moderator.  The organizers want to use the commons to “prioritize the basic needs of communities, the rights of indigenous peoples and the sustainability of the land,” noting that “the lens of the commons can act as a political framework for many Great Lakes issues including extreme energy projects, bottled water extraction, invasive species and pollution.”

Knowledge Commons Conference in September

Make plans now to attend the International Association for the Study of Commons’ second Thematic Conference on Knowledge Commons, to be held at NYU’s Engelberg Center on Innovation, Law and Policy, from September 5 to 7, 2014. 

The interdisciplinary conference seeks “to better understand how knowledge commons work, where they come from, what contributes to their durability and effectiveness, and what undermines them.”  This year, the focus will be on “Governing Pooled Knowledge Resources, with special attention to the fields of medicine and the environment.” 

Keynote talks will be given by Yochai Benkler (Harvard Law School), Eric von Hippel (MIT Sloan School of Management), and Michael McGinnis (Political Science, Indiana University, Bloomington).  Co-chairs of the conference are Katherine Strandburg, NYU School of Law, and Charlie Schweik of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. More information at the conference website.  

CommonsFest in Greece To Explore Peer to Peer Civilization

CommonsFest is an initiative to "promote freedom of knowledge (or free knowledge) and peer-to-peer collaboration for the creation and management of the commons." The focus of CommonsFest will be on “the emergence of the peer to peer civilization and political economy.” Festival organizers explain that peer production "has spread through free software communities and extends to many aspects of our daily lives, such as the arts, governance, construction of machinery, tools and other goods. Through an exhibition, talks, screenings and workshops, the aim of the festival is to promote the achievements of this philosophy to the public and become a motive for further adoption."

Goodbye, Pete Seeger!

In a time when pop stars are most known for their silly haircuts, salacious outfits and fleeting half-lives, it is almost impossible to comprehend Pete Seeger, the legendary folk icon who died yesterday at age 94.  Seeger was a giant of a human being, a man who insisted upon living humbly but with conviction and courage. 

His commitment to the public good was aching to behold.  When Congress asked him to name names in the 1950s, he refused and was blacklisted.  Undeterred, he toured colleges and coffee houses around the country to make a living.  When his beleaguered former singing partners the Weavers endorsed Lucky Strike cigarettes, presumably to pick up a few bucks, he refused.  When he returned to network television in the late 1960s to sing on the “Smothers’ Brothers” variety show, he choose to sing a provocative song, “The Big Muddy,” lambasting the Vietnam War and LBJ – hardly the kind of song to revive his career.

And yet, Seeger was no dour nay-sayer or small-minded zealot.  He was joyful, generous and optimistic.  He lived his confidence in the power of song to bring people together, beyond politics.  Through his person and the songs he wrote, Seeger’s music came to define the American experience during the civil rights era, the Vietnam War, the environmental movement, and beyond.  It’s hard to imagine the past fifty years without If  I Had a Hammer; Where Have All the Flowers Gone?; Turn, Turn, Turn; The Lion Sleeps Tonight; We Shall Overcome; and many other Seeger songs. 

His determination to nurture wholesome action in the face of abusive power was also a wonder.  From fighting fascism and the Klan to empowering ordinary people to become active citizens, Seeger did not let up.  One of his great inspirations was the Hudson River Clearwater Sloop, which exposed thousands of people to the joys of that river – and the pollution that was endangering it.  He showed up at protests and strikes and at community centers and schools.  How many performers and activists keep at it for more than 70 years without stopping?

The co-organizers of the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) held in Berlin have just released an 80-page report (pdf file) that distills the highlights of that landmark gathering in May 2013. The conference brought together researchers, practitioners and advocates from around the world to explore the relationship of conventional economics and the commons. 

Discussion focused on several key themes: 

·      The commons as a way to move beyond conventional economics;

·      Alternative economic and provisioning models;

·      The transformations needed to move to a new type of economy.

The report consists of abbreviated versions of all ten keynote talks; brief summaries of the stream discussions; short overviews of each of the side events (with contact information for the hosts); a guide to the wiki resources on commons and economics; and an account of the Francophone network of commoners.  Videos of the keynote talks have been posted here, and as noted yesterdayRemix the Commons is releasing a series of video interviews that it conducted during the conference. 

The ECC Report also includes some final reflections by the Commons Strategies Group on the event’s significance for the commons movement.  We look back at the 2010 International Commons Conference and consider some of the ways in which our efforts have matured, and at some of the challenges that we face in the years ahead.

Remix the Commons is a terrific collaborative multimedia project that works hard to document the commons movement and reach out to general public with stylish, intelligent productions. It was one of the partners at the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) in Berlin in May 2013.  While the rest of the conference was swirling along, Alain Ambrosi, Frédérc Sultan and their associates spent three days in a makeshift studio filming dozens of interviews with participants at the conference. It was a kind of parallel conference within a conference.  Now, finally, the fruits of that work are available online.  And what a rich body of material it is!

Remix has released fifty new short interviews as part of its ongoing series, “Define the Commons.”  Like the previous videos in the series, this batch consists of one- to two-minute interviews with commoners from around the world.  Each gives his or her own personal definition of what the commons is.  I loved hearing the different voices and ideas.  The opening blend of multilingual voices all speaking at once but resolving into a resonant bell is a beautiful metaphor.

The Remix videos series also include some longer roundtable interviews in which commoners focus on a shared theme.  One such roundtable was an interview with the Commons Strategies Group, which consists of my colleagues Michel Bauwens, Silke Helfrich and me.  Our interview, conducted the day after the conference concluded, focused on several questions:  how the 2013 commons conference differed from the previous one in November 2010; what single insight or theme stood out for each of us; our reactions to the strong interest at ECC in using the commons as part of power and political struggles; our predictions for the future of the international commons movement; and our advice for existing and future commoners.  Here is the link to our 26-minute video interview.  

My friend Silke Helfrich recently wrote a great blog post about the importance of infrastructure to the commonsdrawing 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).

For the past three days I've been attending a fantastic conference, "After the Crisis:  The Thought of Ivan Illich today," in Oakland, California, at the Oakland School for the Arts.  Illich was an iconoclastic social critic, Jesuit priest, radical Christian, historian, scientist and public intellectual who was especially famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his searing critiques of the oppressive nature of institutions and service professions.  His writings also explored the nature of the nonmarket economy, or "vernacular domains," as he put it, which are the source of so much of our humanity and, indeed, the source of commoning.

We have not had a social critic of Illich's originality and caliber in some time.  He was a classically trained yet traversed disciplinary boundaries with ease and rigor. He was disdainful of conventional political categories and ideology because his critique came from a much deeper place, beyond left or right.  He was passionate, humanistic and contemptuous of the harms caused by modernity and economics to the life of the spirit, especially as seen from within the Catholic tradition. 

This gathering, organized by Professor Sajay Samuel, has been a wonderful reunion of Illich's former colleagues, friends and admirers, as well as a venue for Bay Area political activists and citizens to get to learn more about Illich.  Governor Jerry Brown, a friend of Illich's going back to the 1970s, gave an opening talk at the conference and showed up for the later sessions to listen.  I am told that the nine talks given at the conference will eventually be put online; I will give any updates on that promise.

In the meantime, here is the talk that I gave yesterday:

The Quiet Realization of Ivan Illich's Ideas in the Contemporary Commons Movement 

I come here today as an ambassador of the commons movement – a growing international movement of activists, thinkers, project leaders and academics who are attempting to build a new world from the ground up.  It’s not just about politics and policy.  It’s about social practices and the design of societal institutions that help us live as caring, intelligent human beings in spiritually satisfying ways.

At the recent Economics and the Commons Conference, the charismatic Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambia (UK), made an offhand reference to “commoneering.”  The novel term is apparently a play on the terms “commandeer” and “pioneer.”  I must admit, the words had a nice, solid ring to it.  I think it’s the hard “eer” that sounds so good; it have a more assertive tone than the more familiar “commoning.”  Commoneering almost has a certain aura of cool to it.    

But should we embrace such a new term?  The topic provoked more controversy than I might have imagined – and perhaps deservedly so.  The arguments generally went like this:  “Commoneering” implies that there is a certain class of people who are skilled in designing a commons or in pioneering its development.  The word implies this group of expert designers work separately from ordinary commoners and have some special knowledge for setting them apart as “commoneers.” 

This, of course, is an affront to the very idea of commoning.  It implies that commoneering is something that is different from (and better than?) “ordinary” commoning.  Commoning is something that all the talents of the entire community do together, in collaboration.  Commoneering feels vaguely elitist.

This may be reading a lot into a term that was, after all, presented in a rather casual manner.  Bendell didn’t even really give a serious definition to the term.  And I usually don’t like for anyone to set themselves up as “language police.” 

But to the extent that commoneering has a substantive meaning that is different from commoning, I think it may be best to simply avoid using the term.  It invites needless controversy.  We have plenty of serious challenges to meet without wading into a swamp of linguistic debates about a term that we don't seem to need.  Why not nip this one in the bud? 

By the way, Jem Bendells’ talk on money and credit as a commons was terrific.  I highly recommend that you watch the video of his talk here.

That was quite a week in Berlin!  The Economics and the Commons Conference was an intense convergence of more than 200 commoners from thirty-plus countries.  It featured six amazing keynote talks, breakout sessions for five streams of discussion, extensive networking and bridge-building among commons activists, and action-planning in nine self-organized side events. 

If the landmark 2010 International Commons Conference let commoners meet for the first time and see that there was in fact a larger global community, the 2013 Economics and the Commons Conference showed how advanced the dialogue and projects have become, and revealed the many new frontiers of intellectual and political exploration.

To give you a sense of the wide range of people participating, there were activists fighting enclosures in Asia and Latin America; a Brazilian seed activist; an Amsterdam digital money designer; an Icelandic activist attempting to crowdsource democracy; a German sociologist who studies sustainable lifestyles and urban gardening, a leading champion of cooperatives from the UK; several French digital rights activists; a forest commons researcher from India; an American collaborative consumption advocate; a fab lab coordinator from Montreal; a Finnish artist-organizer involved with peer-to-peer developments; a commons education organizer from Barcelona; an EU official concerned with participatory leadership and collective intelligence; an Indonesian activist focused on alternative governance of natural resources and energy; among many, many others. 

It is impossible to encapsulate the highlights of the conference right now, but a full conference report will be released in about two months.  In the meantime, here are a few outcomes of the conference that I find significant:

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