finance

One of the more complicated, mostly unresolved issues facing most commons is how to assure the independence of commons when the dominant systems of finance, banking and money are so hostile to commoning. How can commoners meet their needs without replicating (perhaps in only modestly less harmful ways) the structural problems of the dominant money system?

Fortunately, there are a number of fascinating, creative initiatives around the world that can help illuminate answers to this question – from co-operative finance and crowdequity schemes to alternative currencies and the blockchain ledger used in Bitcoin, to reclaiming public control over money-creation to enable “quantitative easing for people” (and not just banks). 

To help start a new conversation on these issues, the Commons Strategies Group, working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, co-organized a Deep Dive strategy workshop in Berlin, Germany, last September.  We brought together 24 activists and experts on such topics as public money, complementary currencies, community development finance institutions, public banks, social and ethical lending, commons-based virtual banking, and new organizational forms to enable “co-operative accumulation” (the ability of collectives to secure equity ownership and control over assets that matter to them).

I’m happy to report that a report synthesizing the key themes and cross-currents of dialogue at that workshop is now available.  The report is called “Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons:  Strategies for Transforming Neoliberal Finance Through Commons-Based Alternatives,” (pdf file) by David Bollier and Pat Conaty.

You could consider the 54-page report an opening gambit for commoners to discuss how money, banking and finance could better serve their interests as commoners.  There are no quick and easy answers if only because so much of the existing money system is oriented towards servicing the conventional capitalist economy.  Even basic financial terms often have an embedded logic that skews toward promoting relentless economic growth, the extractivist economy and its pathologies, and the notion that money itself IS wealth. 

That said, commoners have many important reasons for engaging with this topic.  As we put it in the Introduction to the report, “The logic of neoliberal capitalism is responsible for at least three interrelated, systemic problems that urgently need to be addressed – the destruction of ecosystems, market enclosures of commons, and assaults on equality, social justice and the capacity of society to provide social care to its citizens. None of these problems is likely to be overcome unless we can find ways to develop innovative co-operative finance and money systems that can address all three problems in integrated ways.”

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.

Half the challenge is to rip the mask from the face. Now that has happened. After months of the Troika’s unrelenting, unrealistic demands on the Greek people, it has become clear what this conflict is really all about:  maintaining the supremacy of the neoliberal market/state alliance. The Greeks must be punished for wishing to explore serious alternatives. 

Creditors, having conveniently socialized their losses through taxpayer-funded bailouts, are now using their hammerlock on state power to keep the lid on neoliberal austerity. That’s their only plan:  their idée fixe. Democracy?  Political stability?  Social or humanitarian need? Secondary details. This negotiation is not about reviving the Greek economy, which has only worsened after five years of enforced fiscal austerity and credit-dependency (which is why it’s absurd to continue with the same policies). It's about which vision of the future shall prevail. 

Syriza, armed with a democratic mandate to reject further bailouts and austerity cuts, is locked in a fierce struggle pitting raw financial power and neoliberal policies against democratic sovereignty and a nascent vision of something better. We know who generally wins such struggles (e.g., Chile in 1973).  Will it be different this time?   

A lot rides on whether the Greek people, in the face of desperate circumstances, are willing to stand up to reclaim their self-determination or whether abject realities will simply force them to surrender and become a colony dependent on European creditors.

The Troika surely wants to send a strong cautionary message to the citizens of Spain, Portugal, Italy and other European countries with problematic finances. If that means imposing further unemployment, social disintegration and trauma on the Greeks, without offering a credible plan for the country’s economic revival, the Troika and its European backers are clearly willing to go there.

The Economist magazine captured this insane choice with a darkly humorous cover, “Acropolis Now.” Angela Merkel enters the “heart of darkness” of subduing the Greeks, only to discover the unanticipated costs.  “The horror, the horror.”

Now that Syriza has prevailed in the Greek elections, a new field of battle has emerged:  the political maneuvering before debt-relief negotiations.  Syriza’s decisive victory is sending some richly deserved shock waves through the citadels of finance capital and their partners in government, especially in Europe. 

Not since the 2008 financial crisis have neoliberal policies and politicians suffered such a stinging public rebuke – through democratic elections, no less.  The financial establishment and leading politicians around the world want nothing more than to staunch the damage. They clearly wish to isolate the new prime minister and undermine his party’s leadership.  They would also love to kill in the cradle many socially minded initiatives that Syriza plans (protections against home foreclosures, restoration of pensions, basic healthcare, etc.).

Hence the fierce media propaganda war now underway to defame Syriza and lock in a negative set of images and ideas about it. I keep hearing the term “radical left” a lot (funny, the press never called austerity politics a program of the “radical right”).  British Prime Minister David Cameron recently warned, “The Greek election will increase economic uncertainty across Europe” – as if that hasn’t been the case for years.

There are also many attacks on the coalition government as unprincipled and expedient, particularly after Syriza made a coalition government with ANEL (a conservative party whose acronym translates as “independent Greeks”).  ANEL is socially conservative but it is also extremely hostile to big capital and the current banking system.  It is more radical than Syriza in that it wants to nationalize banks and throw out the Greek oligarchy.

I thought it was telling, in its account of the elections, that the New York Times gave the last word to the neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics.  A fellow there counseled Greece to move to the political center because “it would show that these protest movements ultimately recognize reality – which is that they are in the euro, and they have to play by the rules.”  Otherwise, he warned, “things could get a lot worse.  Very, very quickly.” 

“Play by the rules,” “face reality” – or things will get “a lot worse.” Worse than the slow-motion social disintegration that austerity is already imposing on the Greeks?  Such advice is darkly humorous in light of the rule-breaking, reality-defying audacity of banks, financial institutions and investors.

For a while, Couchsurfing had an amazing run, connecting travelers with hosts and helping strangers become friends.  Until around 2011, it was a way-crazy gift-economy for hospitality on a global scale, with more than five million members (now seven million) in 90,000+ cities.  Who would have thought that a loose non-market community could ever get so big while retaining its ideals and ethical stance?

Alas, Couchsurfing’s popularity created some new problems of its own, and the site was plagued by some dubious management decisions, technical challenges, and the lack of funds.  At Medium.com, Roy Marvelous explains what happened in 2011:

Basically, Couchsurfing owed tax money (its tax-exempt status as a non-profit was not approved), it needed far more investment in servers and it needed to hire more engineers to reprogram the site to make it scalable. And apparently, the only viable solution was to become a for-profit, sell a portion to venture capitalists and have it run by professionals.

The problems were real but I’ll be blunt: Couchsurfing was stolen from its members. This was code, content & community built by the members, for the members. None of those volunteers, working for free under the false pretense that Couchsurfing would stay non-profit, received any equity in this new corporation. Why couldn’t there have been another way? I would have donated money. I would have been happy with advertising. They could have moved Couchsurfing HQ to Berlin or Chang Mai or Santiago rather than be based in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The moment Couchsurfing was sold, it stopped becoming a community and started becoming a service, not unlike Yelp or Meetup or Facebook. And herein lies the problem: Couchsurfing now has an identity-crisis.

After the Internal Revenue Service refused to grant Couchsurfing tax-exempt nonprofit status – formally known as “501(c)(3)” status under the tax code – Couchsurfing decided to become a “Certified B Company,” or “for-benefit” corporation.  As Marvelous points out, this was apparently the only way to move forward.  (But is this true?)  By 2012, Couchsurfing had raised more than $22 million in venture capital money and it was on its way to becoming another profit-oriented corporation in the “sharing economy.”  (The so-called sharing economy, it should be noted, is less about sharing than about micro-rentals of things that previously could not be marketized.)

Now that the City of Detroit has declared bankruptcy, one of the most critical questions will be what assets will be put on the table to pay creditors – and what assets, if any, will remain inalienable, that is, not capable of being sold.  You see, there are moves afoot to sell off priceless paintings and artworks from the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay off the city’s debts.  The stash of assets include works by Bruegel, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and van Gogh. 

Normally the market value of large art collections is not calculated except as needed for blanket insurance policies.  But now that a pack of hungry creditors wants to be made whole, many people are starting to look yearningly at the estimated $2 billion that could come from liquidating the museum’s collection, or substantial portions of it.

The whole scenario is of a piece with other enclosures driven by finance capitalism.  The investor class has gone way beyond privatization; now it wants to use the debt crisis to gain outright ownership of public assets and start charging for the use of them.  As economist Michael Hudson has put it, cities are selling sidewalks and citizens have to start paying to walk on them. 

The fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection will say a great deal about how far we Americans are willing to go in monetizing our cultural heritage.  Museums are supposed to act as permanent trustees of a community’s priceless heritage.  Donors are willing to give works to museums only because they believe that the works will be there forever, and not sold off to satisfy some unrelated financial claim against the city.   In other words, the artworks held in trust for the public by a museum are supposed to be treated as the priceless heritage of the citizenry, beyond any market valuation. That principle may be breached very soon.

Prospects for the Commons in 2012

As we begin a new year, I thought it might be fun – and possibly useful – to try to identify where commons activism might make some breakthroughs in 2012. I won't venture specific predictions, which can easily miss the mark. But I do think we can usefully talk about areas of “quickening innovation” for the commons. Here's my list, along with brief explanations and speculations:

Digital and complementary currencies. As conventional national currencies crater and as digital networking technologies become more sophisticated, new sorts of commons-based currencies are emerging to fill the void. There is quite a bit of innovation going on in this space. Some new currencies are locally based; others are digital systems that can function globally. The rise of Bitcoin is only a hint of what may be coming down the pike. (See the terrific New Yorker profile of Bitcoin on October 10, 2011.) I am particularly fascinated by the Ven, a new international digital currency that is backed by real assets (about which I will blog shortly). In the meantime, a good way to acquaint yourself with the possibilities of alternative currencies is the book, Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies With Local Currencies, by Gwendolyn Hallsmith and Bernard Lietaer.

Crowdsourcing as a source of capital formation. I see two trends that appear destined to converge: one is the growing use of cooperatives, community land trusts, worker-ownership and social enterprises to democratize wealth and empower communities; and the second is the expansion of crowdsourcing as a way to raise capital for specific projects if not companies.

The first topic, the democratization of capital, has received renewed attention thanks to the re-publication of Gar Alperovitz's book, America Beyond Capitalism (Democracy Collaborative Press). The second topic, crowdsourcing as a new means to capitalize projeccts (and not simply elicit donations or group suggestions), has received less attention, perhaps because any successful equity crowdsourcing project will need to comply with securities law. Still, the efficiencies of equity crowdsourcing are irresistible – and its synergies with traditional forms of democratizing capital are obvious. This may be wishful thinking on my part, but I expect to see some developments here in the coming year. (Here's a great P2P Foundation overview of existing crowdsourcing projects.)

Anthropologist David Graeber could not have timed his new book better. Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a sweeping historical survey of the social meaning of debt – or more precisely, the relationship between debtors and creditors. While many people regard this as a straight-forward moral matter – “everyone needs to pay the debts they owe” – Graeber invokes dozens of instances throughout world history to show how this relationship is highly complicated -- and essentially political.

Debt is not really a freely entered into contract between equals. It is a time-delayed market exchange in which the debtor agrees to be subordinate to the creditor for the duration of the loan. Upon full repayment of the debt, the debtor suddenly becomes an equal to the creditor again.

The subordination of debtors is not only morally fraught, as evidenced by synonyms for the word debt such as “sin” and “guilt.”  Debt is also (indeed, primarily) a political subordination. The creditor has the whip hand – and debtors are vulnerable to all sorts of contempt, abuse and punishment. In Roman times, a creditor could seize a debtor's wives and children as collateral, and make them personal slaves, if the debtor failed to repay a loan.  

The Pathology of Financialization

We all know the story of enclosure as it applies to the commons. The lesser-known story is that businesses are enclosing themselves – aggressively cannibalizing their own internal productive capacities in order to maximize short-term profits.

Harvard business guru Clayton Christensen argues in Forbes magazine that business executives are so habituated to seeing the world through a scrim of financial abstractions that they are blindly undercutting their own long-term productive capacities. The problem is so pervasive, says Christensen, that “whole sectors of the economy are dying.”  (The full column, by Steve Denning, is headlined, "How the Pursuit of Profits is Killing Innovation and the U.S. Economy.")

A good example, he says, is the American personal-computer industry. It slashed costs by aggressively outsourcing to foreign companies the manufacturing of PC components, final assembly and even design. This has reduced costs and improved profitability – Wall Street cheers! – but it has also hollowed out the internal capacities of companies themselves. At this point, Dell Computers is little more than a brand; most everything else is outsourced. The same dynamic is practiced in a range of American industries – steel, auto, oil, pharmaceutical and software.  As if to replicate the Cartesian split of body and mind on a global scale, the "advanced" countries have cast themselves as the "mind" and relegated all the dirty work of production to "the body" in the poorer regions of the world.

Here are two great video commentaries on our screwed-up consumerist society.  The first, by Charles Veitch of the Love Police, is a hilarious performance art piece filmed at London's Canary Wharf.  A man with a megaphone (Veitch) assures passersby that "Everything that you read in the media is true," and "If you don't have a job, you are a worthless human being!"  What might come off as a crank protester haranguing a crowd is in fact an amusing, entertaining commentary that "breaks the fourth wall" of everyday street life.

 

 

 

 

 

Another video worth watching is Annie Leonard's new release, "The Story of Broke:  Why There Is Still Plenty of Money to Build a Better Future."  Leonard is famous for her viral smash, "The Story of Stuff."  In the same spirit, "The Story of Broke" simplifies a problem that is deliberately made more complicated than it needs to be, masking the solutions that will help the 99%.  The video makes the basic point: 

"The United States isn’t broke; we’re the richest country on the planet and a country in which the richest among us are doing exceptionally well. But the truth is, our economy is broken, producing more pollution, greenhouse gases and garbage than any other country. In these and so many other ways, it just isn’t working. But rather than invest in something better, we continue to keep this ‘dinosaur economy’ on life support with hundreds of billions of dollars."  

Leonard urges "government spending toward investments in clean, green solutions—renewable energy, safer chemicals and materials, zero waste and more—that can deliver jobs AND a healthier environment. It’s time to rebuild the American Dream; but this time, let’s build it better."

An illuminating, inspirational video by a master of plain talk.

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