government

This is a time of great confusion, fear and political disarray.  People around the world, including Americans afflicted by a Trump presidency, are looking for new types of democratic strategies for social justice and basic effectiveness.  The imploding neoliberal system with its veneer of democratic values is clearly inadequate in an age of globalized capital.

Fortunately, one important historical episode illuminates the political challenges we face quite vividly:  the protracted struggle by the Greek left coalition party SYRIZA to renegotiate its debt with European creditors and allied governments. SYRIZA’s goal was to reconstruct a society decimated by years of austerity policies, investor looting of public assets, and social disintegration.  The Troika won that epic struggle, of course, and SYRIZA, the democratically elected Greek government, accepted the draconian non-solution imposed by creditors.  Creditors and European neoliberals sent a clear signal: financial capital will brutally override the democratic will of a nation.

Since the Greek experience with neoliberal coercion is arguably a taste of what is in store for the rest of the world, including the United States, it is worth looking more closely at the SYRIZA experience and what it may mean for transformational politics more generally.  What is the significance of SYRIZA’s failure?  What does that suggest about the deficiencies of progressive politics?  What new types of approaches may be needed?

Below, I excerpt a number of passages from an excellent but lengthy interview with Andreas Karitzis, a former SYRIZA spokesman and member of its Central Committee.  In his talk with freelance writer George Souvlis published in LeftEast, a political website, Karitzis offers some extremely astute insights into the Greek left’s struggles to throw off the yoke of neoliberal capitalism and debt peonage.  Karitzis makes a persuasive case for building new types of social practices, political identities and institutions for “doing politics."

I recommend reading the full interview, but the busy reader may want to read my distilled summary below.  Here is the link to Part I and to Part II of the interview. 

Karitzis nicely summarizes the basic problem: 

We are now entering a transitional phase in which a new kind of despotism is emerging, combining the logic of financial competition and profit with pre-modern modes of brutal governance alongside pure, lethal violence and wars. On the other hand, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have huge reserves of embodied capacities, a vast array of rapidly developing technologies, and values from different cultures within our immediate reach. We are living in extreme times of unprecedented potentialities as well as dangers. We have a duty which is broader and bolder than we let ourselves realize.

But, we haven’t yet found the ways to reconfigure the “we” to really include everyone we need to fight this battle. The “we” we need cannot be squeezed into identities taken from the past – from the “end of history” era of naivety and laziness in which the only thing individuals were willing to give were singular moments of participation. Neither can the range of our duty be fully captured anymore by the traditional framing of various “anti-capitalisms”, since what we have to confront today touches existential depths regarding the construction of human societies. We must reframe who “we” are – and hence our individual political identities – in a way that coincides both with the today’s challenges and the potentialities to transcend the logic of capital. I prefer to explore a new “life-form” that will take on the responsibility of facing the deadlocks of our species, instead of reproducing political identities, mentalities and structural deadlocks that intensify them.

It’s an open secret that political parties and “democratic” governments around the world have become entrenched insider clubs, dedicated to protecting powerful elites and neutralizing popular demands for system change.  How refreshing to learn about Ahora Madrid and other local political parties in Spain!  Could they be a new archetype for the reinvention of politics and government itself?

Instead of trying to use the hierarchical structures of parties and government in the usual ways to “represent” the people, the new local parties in Spain are trying to transform government itself and political norms. Inspired by Occupy-style movements working from the bottom up, local municipal parties want to make all governance more transparent, horizontal, and accessible to newcomers. They want to make politics less closed and proprietary, and more of an enactment of open source principles. It’s all about keeping it real.

To get a clearer grasp of this phenomena, Stacco Troncoso of the P2P Foundation recently interviewed two members of Ahora Madrid, a city-based party comprised of former 15M activists who forged a new electoral coalition that prevailed in Madrid in 2015. (The full interview can be found here.)  The coalition’s victory was important because it opened up a new narrative for populist political transformation. Instead of the reactionary, anti-democratic and hate-driven vision embodied by Brexit, Trump and the National Front, this one is populist, progressive and paradigm-shifting.

Below, I distill some of the key sights that surfaced in Troncoso’s interview with Victoria Anderica, head of the Madrid City Council’s Office of Transparency, and Miguel Arana, director of Citizen Participation. The dialogue suggests how a social movement can move into city government without giving up their core movement ideals and values.  Implementation remains difficult, of course, but Ahora Madrid has made some impressive progress.

First, a clarification:  To outsiders, the political insurgency in Spain is usually associated with the upstart Podemos party.  That is a significant development, of course, but Podemos is also much more traditional.  Its party structure and leadership are more consolidated than those of Ahora Madrid, which considers itself an “instrumental party.”  It qualified to run in the 2015 elections as a party, but it does not have the internal apparatus of normal parties.

On a visit to Barcelona last week, I learned a great deal about the City’s pioneering role in developing "the city as a commons."  I also learned that crystallizing a new commons paradigm – even in a city committed to cooperatives and open digital networks – comes with many gnarly complexities.

The Barcelona city government is led by former housing activist Ada Colau, who was elected mayor in May 2015.  She is a leader of the movement that became the political party Barcelona En Comú (“Barcelona in Common”). Once in office, Colau halted the expansion of new hotels, a brave effort to prevent “economic development” (i.e., tourism) from hollowing out the city’s lively, diverse neighborhoods. As a world city, Barcelona is plagued by a crush of investors and speculators buying up real estate, making the city unaffordable for ordinary people.

Barelona En Comú may have won the mayor’s office, but it controls only 11 of the 44 city council seats. As a result, any progress on the party’s ambitious agenda requires the familiar maneuvering and arm-twisting of conventional city politics. Its mission also became complicated because as a governing (minority) party, Barelona En Comú is not just a movement, it must operationally assist the varied needs of a large urban economy and provide all sorts of public services:  a huge, complicated job.

What happens when activist movements come face-to-face with such administrative realities and the messy pressures of representative politics? This is precisely why the unfolding drama of Barelona En Comú is instructive for commoners. Will activists transform conventional politics and government systems into new forms of governance -- or will they themselves be transformed and abandon many of their original goals? 

The new administration clearly aspires to shake things up in positive, transformative ways.  Besides fostering greater participation in governance, Barelona En Comú hopes to fortify and expand what it calls the “commons collaborative economy” – the cooperatives, commons and neighborhood projects that comprise a remarkable 10% of the city economy through 1,300 ventures.

At least we have some clarity.  The mystifications and rationalizations are evaporating.  If nothing else, the election of Donald Trump illuminates many of the deep structural problems that we need to face squarely.

While most post-election commentary is focused on Trump and the political realignment in Washington, I think the bigger stories are the tectonic shifts in the neoliberal political economy and representative democracy itself.  Both are imploding.  Both are losing credibility as vehicles for human governance and betterment. And yet the lineaments of a new order – a robust realm of social innovation relatively unknown to mainstream politics – remains out of focus.

The election of a narcissistic, authoritarian bigot with no experience in politics and no serious ideas about how to solve the country’s problems, reveals the dysfunctions of the US constitutional system and its two major political parties. The rollicking, vituperative campaigns made for blockbuster TV ratings, but they were a farce in terms of democratic deliberation and governance.

And how could it be otherwise?  The venerable system devised by powdered-wig elites in the late 18th century has been eclipsed by the realities of the 21st century.  Politics is now a self-referential bubble of mass-media spectacle and social media.  As a branch of the entertainment world, it is a highly confected virtual space that caters more to emotional hot buttons and prejudices than rational deliberation or meaningful human dialogue.

Parties can’t help but regard this bizarre, modernist fun house as the real venue for getting and retaining power; solving real problems or fostering real democratic participation is a nostalgic fantasy.  In hindsight, it now seems utterly logical that an outrageous former reality-show star could prevail in this arena – much as Ronald Reagan’s long experience in Hollywood was essential to his success in politics. Let's not pretend that this is "democracy." It's a Roman circus.

The European Parliament is formally focusing on the commons paradigm through a new “Intergroup on common goods,” which is part of a larger group known as the "European Parliamentary Intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services."  The group met for the first time on May 26 in Brussels, at the European Parliament.  At this early stage, it’s hard to tell if it will be influential either within the European Parliament or with the public, but it certainly represents a significant new threshold for commons activism. 

Intergroups are official forums of the Parliament at which members, political organizations and movements can air their views and try to rally attention to a given topic. As Sophie Bloemen of the Commons Network writes:

Even though the intergroups have no legislative power, they can be valuable having such a representation in the European Parliament. At the minimum, it is a multiparty forum where one can exchange views and propose ideas on particular subjects in an informal way. Those who choose to work with such an intergroup, its Members of Parliament, and civil society or lobbyists, share the notion that a certain topic is important and can focus on how to get things done.

Now there will also be a Commons Intergroup. This particular group will allow for discussions on policy from a shared perspective: the idea that “the commons” – is an important and helpful way of framing the important themes of present times. As there can only be so many Intergroups, inevitably the group is the result of a political compromise. It has been formed by Members of the European Parliament from the Greens, the left group GUE, the large Social Democrat party (S&D) and the group EFDD which now includes Beppe Grillo with his Cinque Stelle party. The movement on water as a commons has been instrumental for the mobilization of the intergroup. 

For political reasons, the Commons Intergroup is one of two subgroups of the European Parliamentary intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services. MEP Marisa Matias from GUE is the president of the Commons Intergroup.

Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber argues in his recent book, The Utopia of Rules, that bureaucracy is the standard mechanism in contemporary life for coercing people to comply with the top-down priorities of institutions, especially corporations and government.  Anyone concerned with the commons, therefore, must eventually address the realities of bureaucratic power and the feasible alternatives. Is there a more human, participatory alternative that can actually work?

The good news is that the City of Bologna, Italy, is pioneering a new paradigm of municipal governance that suggests, yes, there are some practical, bottom-up alternatives to bureaucracy. 

Two weeks ago, the city government celebrated the first anniversary of its Bologna Regulation on public collaboration for urban commons, a system that actively invites ordinary citizens and neighborhoods to invent their own urban commons, with the government’s active assistance.  I joined about 200 people from Bologna and other Italian cities on May 15 for a conference that celebrated the Regulation, which is the formal legal authority empowering citizens to take charge of problems in their city. 

How does the program work? 

It starts by regarding the city as a collaborative social ecosystem. Instead of seeing the city simply as an inventory of resources to be administered by politicians and bureaucratic experts, the Bologna Regulation sees the city’s residents as resourceful, imaginative agents in their own right.  Citizen initiative and collaboration are regarded as under-leveraged energies that – with suitable government assistance – can be recognized and given space to work.  Government is re-imagined as a hosting infrastructure for countless self-organized commons.

To date, the city and citizens have entered into more than 90 different “pacts of collaboration” – formal contracts between citizen groups and the Bolognese government that outline the scope of specific projects and everyone’s responsibilities. The projects fall into three general categories – living together (collaborative services), growing together (co-ventures) and working together (co-production).

Tomorrow’s election in Greece could be a significant turning point in the fight against neoliberal austerity politics and an opportunity to inaugurate commons-based alternatives – from peer production to co-operatives to social economy innovations – with the support of the state. Needless to say, it is a complicated situation, not just the political and cultural dynamics within Greece, but the ambition of stepping off in new directions beyond those sanctioned by the European and global financial establishment. 

Fortunately, John Restakis provides some excellent and subtle insight into the Greek situation in a recent blog post on the Commons Transition website (which is worth visiting in its own right!).  John is past Executive Director of the BC Co-operative Association in Vancouver and  has spent many years in community organizing, adult and popular education, and co-op development.  He also lectures widely on the subject of globalization, regional development and alternative economics.

John’s piece is worth reading not just for its assessment of the Greek crisis, but also for the larger challenge of moving commons-based peer production and social alternatives into the mainstream.

Civil Power and the Path Forward for Greece

By John Restakis

With the prospect of a Syriza government, everyone is wondering what the future holds for Greece.  Whether disaster or deliverance, or just the normal chaos, it is hard to ignore the potential for game-changing repercussions from a Syriza government. On the street however, embittered by the failures of governments in the past to change a corrupt and dysfunctional political system, few people are expecting big things from Syriza. The feeling of popular cynicism and fatalism is palpable. How different will Syriza be?

One thing is certain. If Syriza does what it says, it will be forging a courageous and desperately needed path in Europe, not only in opposition to the austerity policies that are devastating the country, but to the neoliberal ideas, institutions, and capital interests that are their source and sustenance. For such a path to succeed, an entirely different view of economic development, of the role of the market, and of the relation between state and citizen is necessary.

It is in this context that the social economy has become an important aspect of Syriza’s plans for re-making the economy. Like other parties of both the right and left in Europe, Syriza is taking cognizance of the role that the social economy can play in the current crisis. Even the Cameron government in the UK, the epicenter of European neo-liberalism, has promoted the social economy as a sector with a strategic role to play in job creation, in improving public services, and in reforming the role of government. In the last election, Mutualism and the Big Society were its slogans.

It all sounds very nice, until it becomes evident just how little right wing governments understand, or care about, what the social economy is and how it functions. For the Cameron government co-operatives, and the social economy more generally, became a cover and a means for public sector privatizations, for weakening job security, and for reducing the role of government. Thousands of public sector workers have been coerced into joining pseudo-co-operatives to save their jobs. Under the current government, the same is beginning to happen in Greece with the newly formed KOINSEPs. This is a travesty of the nature and purpose of co-operatives whose memberships must always be voluntary, whose governance is democratic, and whose purpose is to serve their members and their communities for their common benefit – not the ideological aims of government. It’s a lesson that few governments understand.

For the right, the social economy is often viewed as a final refuge for the discarded of society and the victims of the capitalist economy. It is one reason why the right advocates charity as the proper response for the poor. Never solidarity or equity. More recently, the rhetoric and principles of the social economy have been used to expand the reach of capital into civil spaces. For these reasons co-operatives and social economy organizations in the UK, and elsewhere, have condemned the distortion of social economy principles for vested political interests. But what are these principles?

The proposed privatization of the grand public theater in Rome, Teatro Valle, has been defeated – but perhaps more importantly, the historic three-year occupation of the building has succeeded in achieving many of its primary goals, including the recognition of its demands to establish a new theater commons, after weeks of contentious negotiations.

The struggle was noteworthy because it pitted municipal authorities in Rome, whose austerity policies had resulted in severe cutbacks at the theater, against self-identified commoners who want to run the historic theater in far more open, participatory and innovative ways.  At stake was not just the continuance of performances at Teatro Valle, but the governance, management practices, purpose and character of the theater.  Shall it be a “public good” managed by the city government, often to the detriment of the public interest, or a commons in which ordinary people can instigate their own ideas and propose their own rules? 

Beset by budgetary problems, the mayor of Rome had proposed privatizing the management of Teatro Valle.  But protesters who had occupied the building in 2011 adamantly resisted such plans.  Their protests inspired an outcry not just among many Romans and Italians, but among an international network of commoners, human rights advocates, political figures, scholars and cultural leaders. 

In July, the city government threatened to evict occupiers and issued an ultimatum with a July 31 deadline.  Thus began a series of negotiations.  Commoners were represented by Fondazione Teatro valle Bene Comune, which entered into talks with the city government and Teatro di Roma, the public entity that runs the systems of the theaters in Rome.

The Guardian today ran a profile of Robert David Steele, a former CIA spy who discovered the commons more than two decades ago and never looked back. Steele, a former U.S. Marine and CIA case officer who spent 18 years in US intelligence, is now, improbably, a vigorous advocate of “open source everything” – the title of his latest book. He brings the zeal of a convert to the mission of promoting the commons and open-source alternatives of every stripe.

As The Guardian’s Nafeez Ahmed writes, Steele discovered the virtues of open source software in the early 1990s and quickly began proselytizing the “Open Source Intelligence” paradigm to US military and intelligence sources and to US allies in dozens of countries. Steele saw (and sees) open source knowledge as the key to discovering the truth, assuring social legitimacy and moving ahead intelligently: 

“Sharing, not secrecy, is the means by which we realise such a lofty destiny as well as create infinite wealth. The wealth of networks, the wealth of knowledge, revolutionary wealth -- all can create a nonzero win-win Earth that works for one hundred percent of humanity. This is the ‘utopia’ that Buckminster Fuller foresaw, now within our reach.”

Suffice it to say, the CIA and its intelligence peers were not persuaded by such views, notwithstanding its embrace in 2005 of its collaborative intelligence version of Wikipedia, Intellipedia.  Open source everything is another matter, apparently, because of the democratic accountability it would require.

I don’t know Steele, but I’ve seen his videos and dipped into his writings, and he seems to bring a deep intelligence and big-picture perspective to analyzing our global and civilizational problems.  His self-stated goal is to hasten “the transition from top-down secret command and control to a world of bottom-up, consensual, collective decision-making as a means to solve the major crises facing our world today.”  That’s a description from his book, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth and Trust.

Steele is a prolific reviewer of books for Amazon, which may explain why he pestered me several times, as a stranger out of the blue, to re-post on Amazon my positive blog post about historian Peter Linebaugh’s book on the commons and enclosures, Stop, Thief!  I did. That’s the kind of energy and zeal that Steele brings to his mission of promoting commons-based solutions in all their variety.

In the words of The Guardian’s Ahmed, Steele provides “an interdisciplinary ‘whole systems’ approach [that] dramatically connects up the increasing corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability of the intelligence system and its political and financial masters with escalating inequalities and environmental crises.” 

Ahmed called Steele’s book “a pragmatic roadmap to a new civilisational paradigm that simultaneously offers a trenchant, unrelenting critique of the prevailing global order. His interdisciplinary 'whole systems' approach dramatically connects up the increasing corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability of the intelligence system and its political and financial masters with escalating inequalities and environmental crises.” 

In her brilliant new book, Mary Christina Wood, a noted environmental law scholar at the University of Oregon, Eugene, courageously sweeps aside the bland half-truths and evasions about environmental law.  In Nature’s Trust:  Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age (Cambridge University Press), Wood argues:  “That ancient membrane of law that supposedly functions as a system of community restraint [is] now tattered and pocked with holes.”  Our current regulatory system will never solve our problems.  She continues:

"A major source of administrative dysfunction arises from the vast discretion [environmental] agencies enjoy – and the way they abuse it to serve private, corporate and bureaucratic interests.  As long as the decision-making frame presumes political discretion to allow damage, it matters little what new laws emerge, for they will develop the same bureaucratic sinkholes that consumed the 1970s laws.  Only a transformational approach can address sources of legal decay."

Wood’s mission in Nature’s Trust is to propose a new legal framework to define and carry out government’s ecological obligations.  For Wood, a huge opportunity awaits in reinvigorating the public trust doctrine, a legal principle that goes back millennia.  She explains how the doctrine could and should guide a dramatically new/old approach to protecting land, water, air and wildlife. 

In 1970, Professor Joseph Sax inaugurated a new era of legal reforms based on the public trust doctrine with a famous law review article.  For a time, Sax’s essay sparked energetic litigation to protect and reclaim waters that belong to everyone.  The focus was especially on beachfronts, lakes and riverbanks, and on wildlife.  But as new environmental statutes were enacted, some courts and scholars began to balk and backtrack and hedge.  They complained that the public trust doctrine should take a backseat to environmental statutes.  Or that the doctrine should apply only to states.  Or that it applies only to water and wildlife, and not to other ecological domains.  And so on.

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