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There has been a surge of new interest in the city as a commons in recent months – new books, public events and on-the-ground projects.  Each effort takes a somewhat different inflection, but they all seek to redefine the priorities and logic of urban governance towards the principles of commoning.

I am especially impressed by a new scholarly essay in theYale Law and Policy Review, “The City as a Commons, by Fordham Law School professor Sheila R. Foster and Italian legal scholar Christian Iaione. The piece is a landmark synthesis of this burgeoning field of inquiry and activism. The 68-page article lays out the major philosophical and political challenges in conceptualizing the city as a commons, providing copious documentation in 271 footnotes.

Foster and Iaione are frankly interested in “the potential for the commons [as] a framework and set of tools to open up the possibility of more inclusive and equitable forms of ‘city-making’.  The commons has the potential to highlight the question of how cities govern or manage resources to which city inhabitants can lay claim to as common goods, without privatizing them or exercising monopolistic public regulatory control over them.”

They proceed to explore the history and current status of commons resources in the city and the rise of alternative modes of governance such as park conservancies, community land trusts, and limited equity cooperative housing.  While Foster and Iaione write about the “tragedy of the urban commons” (more accurately, the over-exploitation of finite resources because a commons is not simply a resource), they break new ground in talking about “the production of the commons” in urban settings. They understand that the core issue is not just ownership of property, but how to foster active cooperation and relationships among people. 

This is the third and final installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning: Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networks," published by Friends of the Earth UK. The full essay can be downloaded as a pdf file here.

III.  Re-imagining the Polity for a Networked Humanity

However promising the new forms of open source governance outlined above, they do not of themselves constitute a polity.  The new regimes of collaboration constitute mini- and meso-systems of self-organization.  They do not comprise a superstructure of law, policy, infrastructure and macro-support, which is also needed.  So what might such a superstructure look like, and how might it be created?  Can we envision some sort of transnational polity that could leapfrog over the poorly functioning state systems that prevail today?

A first observation on this question is that the very idea of a polity must evolve.  So long as we remain tethered to the premises of the Westphalian nation-state system, with its strict notions of absolute sovereignty over geographic territory and people and its mechanical worldview enforced by bureaucracies and law, the larger needs of the Earth as a living ecosystem will suffer.  So, too, will the basic creaturely needs of human beings, which are universal prepolitical ethical needs beyond national identity.

It may simply be premature to declare what a post-Westphalian polity ought to look like – but we certainly must orient ourselves in that direction.  For the reasons cited above, we should find ways to encourage the growth of a Commons Sector, in both digital and non-virtual contexts, and in ways that traverse existing territorial political boundaries.  Ecosystems are not confined by political borders, after all, and increasingly, neither are capital and commerce.  Culture, too, is increasingly transnational.  Any serious social or ecological reconstruction must be supported by making nation-state barriers more open to transnational collaboration if durable, effective solutions are to be developed. 

While states are usually quite jealous in protecting their authority, transnational commons should be seen as helping the beleaguered nation-state system by compensating for its deficiencies.  By empowering ordinary people to take responsibility and reap entitlements as commoners, nation-states could foster an explosion of open-source problem-solving and diminish dependencies on volatile, often-predatory global markets, while bolstering their credibility and legitimacy as systems of power.    

But how might we begin to build a commons-friendly polity?  After all, the most politically attractive approaches have no ambitions to change the system, while any grand proposals for transforming neoliberal capitalism are seen as political non-starters.  I suggest three “entry points” that can serve as long-term strategies for transformation: 

1) begin to reconceptualize cities as commons;

2) reframe the “right to common” (access to basic resources for survival and dignity) as a human right; and

3) build new collaborations among system-critical social movements so that a critical mass of resistance and creative alternatives can emerge. 

These three general strategies are not separate approaches, of course, but highly complementary and synergistic.

New Forms of Network-based Governance

The text below is a second installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networking," published by Friends of the Earth UK.  The third and final part of the essay will appear next.

Digital Commons as a New Species of Production and Governance

 To return to our original question:  How can we develop new ways to preserve and extend the democratic capacities of ordinary people and rein in unaccountable market/state power?  There is enormous practical potential in developing a Commons Sector as a quasi-independent source of production and governance.  Simply by withdrawing from the dominant market system and establishing stable, productive alternatives – in the style of Linux, local food systems and the blogosphere – the regnant system can be jolted.

While many digital commons may initially seem marginal, they can often “out-cooperate” conventional capital and markets with their innovative approaches, trustworthiness and moral authority.  The output of digital commons is mostly for use value, not exchange value.  It is considered inalienable and inappropriable, and must be shared and copied in common, not reflexively privatized and sold.  By enacting a very different, post-capitalist logic and ethos, many “digital republics” are decisively breaking with the logic of the dominant market system; they are not simply replicating it in new forms (as, for example, the “sharing economy” often is).

Let us conspicuously note that not all open source systems are transformative.  We see how existing capitalist enterprises have successfully embraced and partially coopted the transformative potential of open source software.  That said, there are new governance innovations that hold lessons for moving beyond strict market and state control.  For example, the foundations associated with various open source software development communities,[17] and the wide variety of “Government 2.0” models that are using networked participation to improve government decision-making and services (e.g., the Intellipedia wiki used by US intelligence agencies; Peer to Patent crowdsourcing of “prior art” for patent applications).

Any serious transformational change must therefore empower ordinary people and help build new sorts of collaborative structures. Ultimately, this means we must recognize the practical limits of external coercion and try to develop new systems that can enable greater democratic participation, personal agency, and open spaces for local self-determination and bottom-up innovation.[18] The examples described below are embryonic precursors of a different, better future.

On June 21, I gave a presentation to a number of staffers and others at the Agence Française de Développement in Paris outlining my vision of the commons as an alternative vision of "development."  The talk was entitled "Beyond Development:  The Commons as a New/Old Paradigm of Human Flourishing."  Here are my prepared remarks:

I am grateful to be back in your lovely city, and I am grateful for your invitation to speak today about the commons as a new vision of “development.”  As the planet reels from the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change, we are seeing the distinct limits of the prevailing paradigms of economic thought, governance, law and politics.  While collapse and catastrophe have their own lurid attraction to many, the human species – and our governments – have a duty to seriously entertain the questions:  What new structures and logics will serve us better?  How can we better meet basic human needs – not just materially, but socially and spiritually?  And can we move beyond rhetoric and general abstractions to practical, concrete actions?

After studying the commons for nearly twenty years as an independent scholar and activist, I have come to the conclusion that the commons hold great promise in answering these questions.  But it is not a ready-made “solution” so much as a general paradigm and organizing perspective – embodied, fortunately, in thousands of instructive examples.  The commons is a lens that helps us understand what it means to be a human being in meaningful relation to other people and to the Earth.  This then becomes the standard by which we try to design our social institutions.

Talking about the commons forces us to grapple with the checkered history of “development” policy and what it reveals about global capitalism and poorer, marginalized countries.  We have long known that development objectives tend to reflect the political priorities of rich, industrialized western nations, particularly their interests in economic growth and private capital accumulation. 

Some enterprising commoners in Spain and Latinamerica have launched an imaginative crowdfunding campaign to translate and publish my book Think Like a Commoner in Spanish.  What makes this publishing initiative so distinctive is its ambition to build a new transnational publishing network that is commons-oriented in content as well as practice.  They call it “Think Global, Print Local.” 

The plan is to translate my book into Spanish and then use small-scale printing and distribution to publish the book in Spain and throughout Latin America. -- initially Peru, Argentina and Mexico, to be followed later in other locations.  The Spanish edition of my book will be entitled Pensar desde los comunes: una breve introducción.

It is difficult for a project this innovative to obtain financing, so the organizers have launched a crowdfunding campaign this week through the Spain-based Goteo website.  I’m thrilled to have my book be the focus of this pathbreaking translation/publishing experiment.  I'm also excited about having my short introduction to the commons accessible to the Spanish-speaking world! 

The “claymation” video by Espacio Abierto of Peru, explaining the project, is particularly wonderful, especially the animated clay rendition of me!  If you go to the Goteo website for the campaign, you can watch the video, learn more about the project and contribute to it.  It's off to a strong start, but it needs to minimally raise 8.042 euros -- 10,602 euros is optimum.

A new anthology of essays, Build the City: Perspectives on Commons and Culture, powerfully confirms that the “city as a commons” meme is surging. This carefully edited, beautifully designed collection of 38 essays shows the depth and range of thinking now underway.  The book was published by Krytyka Polityczna and the European Cultural Foundation in September as part of ECF's Idea Camp convening

Thinking about cities as commons is so compelling to me because it gives a structured framework for talking our moral and political claims on cities. It helps makes our entitlements as commoners visible, as well as the scourge of enclosure – two concepts that are not particularly welcome topics in respectable political circles.

The essays of Build the City celebrate the idea that ordinary people – tenants, families, artists, the precariat, migrants, community groups, activists – have a legitimate role in participating in their own city.  The metropolis is not the privileged preserve of the wealthy, industrialists, investors, and landlords. It is a place where commoners have meaningful power and access to what they need. In developing this theme, this book is a timely complement to the Bologna “The City as Commons” conference in November.

You can download a pdf of the book here – or you can order a hard copy here. Besides ECF and Krytyka Polityczna, the book is a collaboration with Subtopia (Sweden), Les Tetes de l’Art (France), Oberliht (Moldova), Culture2Commons (Croatia) and Platoniq (Spain), all of whom are partners in the action-research network Connected Action for the Commons.

If there is one recurring theme in this book, it is that commoners must devise the means for more open, inclusive and participatory models of democracy in cities – and that art and culture projects can help lead the way.

“Cultural initiatives that challenge the extremely individualized model of the world are worth closer attention,” writes Agnieszka Wiśniewska, a Polish member of the “Connected Action for the Commons” network, “as they may help us re-esetablish social ties and our trust in others.” The real challenge, then, is how to devise effective new structures that can empower commoners in improving governance, building social connection and democratizing power.

Commons Strategies Group: The Website!

I’m thrilled to report that the Commons Strategies Group finally has its own handsome, up-to-date website!  Whenever anyone asks me about the commons work that I’ve been doing over the past five or six years – and that of my dear colleagues Silke Helfrich and Michel Bauwens – I can now point them to this beautifully designed site.

Since 2009, Silke, Michel and I have collaborated on a variety of irregular projects under the banner, The Commons Strategies Group. Silke is a commons activist and scholar based in Jena, Germany, and Michel is a Belgian living in Thailand who heads the Peer to Peer Foundation.

The three of us founded CSG in 2010 as an independent activist and research driven collaboration to foster the growth of the commons and commoning projects around the world.  We’ve seen CSG as a way to seed new conversations to help everyone better understand the commons.  We also convene key players to explore the future of the commons and identify strategic opportunities.  In practice, this mission has led CSG to organize two major international conferences, many strategic workshops, and to publish dozens of reports, book anthologies and essays and give public talks.  

For years, all of the materials that the three of us have created as CSG were scattered across the Web and our personal websites, and sometimes buried amidst lots of other materials.  Now, thanks to the wonderful design work of Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratrel of Guerrilla Translation and the P2P Foundation, with backend assistance from the P2PF's Javier Arturo Rodriguez, the more notable CSG initiatives have been brought together and artfully presented.

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.

Patterns of Commoning is Now Published!

After two years of working with more than 50 contributors, Silke Helfrich and I are pleased to announce that Patterns of Commoning is now available in both English and German editions.  The books have just arrived back from the printer and are available from our distributor Off the Common Books and Amazon (US). You can learn more about the anthology at its website.

Patterns of Commoning is arguably the most accessible and broad-ranging survey of contemporary commons in print. It introduces readers to more than fifty notable commons from around the world and explores the inner dynamics of commoning with great sensitivity.

A primary goal of Patterns of Commoning is to show the great scope and vitality of commons initiatives around the world. There are chapters on alternative currencies and open source farm equipment, community forests and co-learning commons, theater commons and collaborative mapping, urban commons and dozens of others. Margaret Thatcher once championed neoliberal capitalism with the harsh ultimatum, “There IS no alternative!”  Patterns of Commoning shows in vivid detail that there are plenty of alternatives!

As editors, Silke and I are grateful that dozens of international activists, academics and project leaders agreed to share their deep knowledge about commoning learned from their particular commons. A special set of longer essays in the book probe the personal, social and spiritual dimensions of commoning among specific groups, such as Scottish fishermen, the Maori in New Zealand, and the shantydwellers movement in South Africa. Other essays explore the new political rationality of commoning through the lens of property rights in African farmland. Other pieces explore the metaphysics of the commons and the commons as a "pluriverse" of relational worldviews.  (Contents page here.

Patterns of Commoning is a companion volume to The Wealth of Commons anthology published in 2012 (the German version, Commons:  Für eine neue Politik jenseits von Markt und Staat).  Once again, we are grateful to the Heinrich Böll Foundation for its unwavering support, especially from Barbara Unmüssig, President of the Böll Foundation, and Heike Löschmann, the head of the Department of International Politics. 

We’re hoping the book will open up some new conversations and provoke greater media coverage of commoning. If you have any good ideas for promoting the book among Web communities, academics, activists, the press or ordinary citizens eager to learn about fresh alternatives, please let me know. I also invite you to use Facebook and Twitter to spread the word.  We’re recommending use of the hashtags #patternsofcommoning, #commoning or #4thecommons.

Le Temps des Communes, surely the largest festival of the commons ever, is about to get underway! The festival is not just a single event in a single place, but a series of more than 250 self-organized events to be held over the course of fifteen days in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada (Quebec) and several Francophone countries in west Africa. 

From October 5 to 18, there will be symposia, workshops, lectures and participatory events on all sorts of commons-related topics.  There will be events to showcase free and open source software, community gardens, participatory mapping projects, seed-sharing, open scientific knowledge, renewable energy co-operatives, land trusts and even a Creative Commons-licensed musical. The hundreds of festival events will help introduce the commons to the general public and demonstrate to current commoners just how large, diverse and exciting the world of collaborative provisioning truly is.

In Lyon, there will be a roundtable about making the city a commons.  In Brussels, there will be an Open Source Festival.  In Brest, a bike tour of shared gardens.  In Paris, nearly thirty different events are planned.

I wish that I could attend the “law and the commons” discussion that will feature Stefano Rodotà, the Italian law scholar, politician and human rights advocate who has pioneered new legal principles for the commons.  Paris will also host “A Day in the Commons” on Île-de-France, with workshop, a meal and planning for the future.

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