market culture

A New Zealand publication, Freerange, has published an artful collection of essays about the commons for a popular readership.  The publication focuses on a wide range of commons themes, including urban commons, global pharmaceuticals, Maori society, the commons possibilities in food activism, and early childhood education as a commons.  A free download can be had here, or a beautifully designed print version can be ordered here.

I was captivated by an interview with Anne Salmond, a New Zealand historian and anthropologist, who pondered the different cosmological outlooks of Māori, as commoners, and Westerners, as neoliberals.  She notes that, for the West, “the Order of Things, which is based on Cartesian logic, divides mind from matter, the observer from the observed, and culture from nature…..”  

But for the Māori, not to mention quantum physics, brain sciences and the life sciences, a very different order prevails – “the Order of Relations.”  This worldview, she explains, bases its forms of order on “complementary pairs of elements and forces linked in open-ended arrays, often ordered as networks or webs (for example, the internet), interacting in exchanges that drive change while working toward equilibrium.” 

Such relational perspectives are much more adaptive and open to collaboration and incoroproation of other ideas, says Salmond, than the non-adaptive myths of Western thought” that are destroying our bio-physical systems.  It is easy to slip into the dualism of Western thought that polarizes “the material” with “the spiritual.”  The point is that in relational worldviews, the two are integrated.

In an essay, Barnaby Bennett reflects on “the commons that can’t be named” -- and that therefore remain invisible  He notes that our own language establishes “a veil between our lives and that which-is-not-named, the things and stuff that are too big, too small, too complex, too profound, too obvious, too complete or too ubiquitous to see.  In doing so it is too easy to forget the common grounding of reality.”

American culture has been dominated for so long by Hollywood, Broadway and the nonprofit industrial complex that it is hard to imagine theatrical performance without the stars, the spectacle, the corporate investments and marketing hype.  What would it be like if theater were taken off its big-money pedestal and allowed to speak to serious social concerns, politics, ethnicity and the human condition as it is actually experienced? 

Welcome to HowlRound, a growing hub of the nonprofit theater world hat boldly bills itself as a “Center for the Theater Commons.”  HowlRound, hosted at Emerson College in Boston, is dedicated to the idea of “recouping the idea of nonprofit theater as an instrument of civilization."   

For those who participate in HowlRound, the commons is not just a fashionable buzzword; it is a fundamental organizing principle and ethic.  As its website explains, “HowlRound is modeling a commons….. A theater commons, if it is to be manifested, will need to be cocreated by others committed to its existence.”

In a world of shrinking foundation grants, government austerity and hyper-competition for entertainment dollars, can nonprofit theater reinvent itself as a commons?  I spoke with Polly Carl, director and editor of HowlRound, to learn more.  On the project's website, Carl describes herself as “a scholar and dreamer. A bicycle enthusiast, and tattoo 

aficionado, her most recent ink job features her pup Joey riding a blue Schwinn, tennis ball in mouth. She makes her ravioli from scratch.”

That's more or less what HowlRound is trying to do for nonprofit theater:  to make it from scratch. Carl is convinced that commoning is the most effective way to revive the creativity and relevance of theater for ordinary people.  “Sometimes you just have to let go of things that you think are really valuable [like conventional structures for nonprofit theater], and experiment,” she said. 

HowlRound was born two years ago when Carl, David Dower, Vijay Mathew and Jamie Gahlon decided that all artists should have more say in how the American theater is run. Carl explained that “market-driven institutions have left the artist behind financially, and artists can no longer control their destiny.”  

So why not try to amass a community of people dedicated to “the core principle that theater is for everyone”?  

A few weeks ago I had an extensive dialogue with Bill Baue, a “corporate sustainability architect” who works with corporations and others to design “systemic transformation and company-level solutions.”  He had wanted the commons community to engage with the idea of “context-based sustainability,” a system used by some companies to “measure, manage and report sustainability performance.” The whole idea is that there are stocks of financial, natural, and human (or social) capital that can be prudently managed to respect the “carrying capacity” of the capital. 

Given my grounding in the commons world, I was profoundly skeptical – but open to a frank exploration of the ideas.  Below is a record of an exchange that I had with Baue. My disagreements centered on whether corporations can or should be the primary arbiters of sustainability (that much-abused term), and whether treating nature and social relationships as “capital” is even appropriate. I instead advocated for commons-based approaches that first, would not regard commons as mere resources, but as socio-ecological systems, ans second, that would empower commoners, especially in contrast to market-based systems.

Baue recently posted our dialogue on the website, SustainableBrands.com, as a two-part series. I have copied it all below. To read our entire exchange on the SustainableBrands.com website – along with some comments that have cropped up – here are the links to Part I  and Part II.  

Sustainable Brands bills itself as “a learning, collaboration and commerce community of over 348,000 sustainable business leaders from around the globe.  Our mission is to empower more brands to prosper by leading the way to a better world.  We produce content, events, and other learning solutions designed to inspire, engage and equip our community to profitably innovate for sustainability.” 

Gandhian Economics and the Commons

In a recent post on her blog, Fearless Heart (a post that also appears at Psychology Today), Miki Kashtan, cofounder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication, brought forward some fascinating connections between Gandhian economics and the commons.  She focused on two key themes – the satisfaction of human needs and the idea of trusteeship for things that exceed our needs.  Kashtan writes: 

The fundamental basis of Gandhian economics is a commitment to universal well-being. Like so many who are interested in universal well-being, Gandhi was led, inexorably, to looking at the difficult question of need satisfaction, since physical finitude makes it clearly impossible for everyone to have everything they want all the time. Like many others, he attempted to address this challenge by supporting a shift from the multiplication of wants to the fulfillment of needs. 

Kashtan notes that this is a highly complex issue, however.  What is a need?  How do we answer this question individually or collectively, and actually allocate resources to meet our needs?  It first bears noting that much of Gandhian economics is based on his particular circumstances and those of India in the early 20th century.  Still, certain fundamental principles such as simplicity, localism and decentralization should remain a beacon for us today.

When Gandhi wrote, “The spinning wheel and the spinning wheel alone will solve, if anything will solve, the problem of the deepening poverty of India,” he could have been talking about the commons.  His point was that we need to devise new collective forms of self-reliance and self-sufficiency that will let us disengage from oppressive forms of provisioning and invent more humane and satisfying alternatives. Isn’t that precisely the lesson of the free software, local food and hackerspace/maker movements (and countless other commons)?

Here’s a development that could have enormous global implications for the search for a new commons-based economic paradigm.  Working with an academic partner, the Government of Ecuador has launched a major strategic research project to “fundamentally re-imagine Ecuador” based on the principles of open networks, peer production and commoning.   

I am thrilled to learn that my dear friend Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation and my colleague in the Commons Strategies Group, will be leading the research team for the next ten months.  The project seeks to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.” 

The announcement of the project and Bauwens’ appointment was made on Wednesday by the Free/Libre Open Knowledge Society, or FLOK Society, a project at the IAEN national university that has the support of the Ministry of Human Resource and Knowledge in Ecuador.  The FLOK Society bills its mission as “designing a world for the commons.” 

The research project will focus on many interrelated themes, including open education; open innovation and science; “arts and meaning-making activities”; open design commons; distributed manufacturing; and sustainable agriculture; and open machining.  The research will also explore enabling legal and institutional frameworks to support open productive capacities; new sorts of open technical infrastructures and systems for privacy, security, data ownership and digital rights; and ways to mutualize the physical infrastructures of collective life and promote collaborative consumption.

David Harvey, the Marxist geographer, is working on a new book, The Seventeen Contradictions of Capitalism.  He has a illuminating interview on this theme in Red Pepper,  the UK political magazine.  Several of his exchanges with the interviewer deal with key concerns of commoners, including the importance of protecting use value over exchange value, and the need for cultivating a “postcapitalist imagination.” 

Read the whole interview, but here are two excerpts

One of the contradictions you focus on is that between the use and exchange value of a commodity. Why is this contradiction so fundamental to capitalism, and why do you use housing to illustrate it?

All commodities have to be understood as having a use value and exchange value. If I have a steak the use value is that I can eat it and the exchange value is how much I had to pay for it.

But housing is very interesting in this way because as a use value you can understand it as shelter, privacy, a world of affective relations with people, a big list of things you use a house for. But then there is the question of how you get the house. At one time houses were built by people themselves and there was no exchange value at all. Then from the 18th century onwards you got speculative house building – Georgian terraces which were built and sold later on. Then houses became exchange values for consumers in the form of saving. If I buy a house and I pay down the mortgage on it, I can end up owning the house. So I have an asset. I therefore become very concerned about the nature of the asset. This generates interesting politics – ‘not in my backyard’, ‘I don’t want people moving in next door who don’t look like me’. So you start to get segregation in housing markets because people want to protect the value of their savings.

Dougald Hine on Commoning in the City

The Summer issue of STIR is rich with thoughtful, provocative articles on the commons:  pieces on urban aquaponics and student housing coops, a how-to guide for saving the seeds from your tomatoes, instructions for sharing sourdough starter for bread-making, and more.

Two of the more arresting pieces in the issue are an insightful essay by Dougald Hine on “Commoning in the City,” and an interview with the British environmental activist George Monbiot on the concentration of land in England. 

Hine is a British writer and thinker who has started the School of Everything and the Dark Mountain Project.  Hine clearly appreciates that the commons disrupts the familiar thought-frames of conventional politics.  He writes:

“Of everything I hear during these two days [at a Stockholm conference on “Commoning in the City”], the answer that most impresses me comes from Stavros Stavrides: ‘commons’ has become useful, he argues, because of a change in attitude to the state, a disillusionment with the ‘public’ and a need for another term to takes its place. The public sphere, public values, the public sector: all of these things might once have promised some counterweight to the destructive force of the market, but this no longer seems to be the case.

The Thought of Ivan Illich Today

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.

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.

The Man Who Quit Money

What does it mean to live without money?  Is it possible?  And how does it change one’s outlook on life and human relationships?  I stumbled across a wonderful book, The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead Books, 2012), the story of Daniel Suelo, who, in the style of Henry David Thoreau, decided to live deliberately, and with clear purpose, by giving up money.  I’m a bit of a late-comer to Suelo’s story, which captured a lot of attention in late 2009 following a profile in Details magazine.

Suelo made the radical decision that he would not earn, receive or spend any money – his attempt to live life more directly and honestly.  In the book, journalist Mark Sundeen’s describes the journey that Suelo has taken over the past ten years in leading an active, productive, socially satisfying life without markets.  Just as anthropologists have often searched for the “savage child” raised by animals rather than humans (in order to assess the role of nurture vs. nature), Suelo, now 52, is that rare real-life example of what it means to live voluntarily outside of the market order without becoming a recluse.  Here is a real human being, not an abstraction, who does not want to be an employee, consumer or investor.

For shelter, Suelo has lived in a dozen of more caves in the canyons near Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah.  He forages for food from the desert – cactus pods, yucca seeds, wildflower and the like – and engages in dumpster-diving for food and clothing.  Born Daniel Shellabarger, he took the name “Suelo,” Spanish for “soil,” and decided to have the smallest possible ecological footprint as possible.

To outside appearances, Suelo could easily be seen as yet another homeless or mentally ill person without friends or family.  But despite maintaining a minimalist household comprised of discarded items, Suelo is no monastic or hermit.  He has many friends in town.  He sometimes house-sits and accepts meals from friends.  He volunteers for various community projects.  He wanders the Utah desert and meditates.  While his life is fairly impoverished by conventional standards, Suelo considers it a happy existence. 

Naturally, the reader wants to know how and why a person would choose to live this way.  Some explanations arise from the Christian fundamentalist upbringing that Suelo fled, before discovering that he was gay as well.  It would be easy to stereotype this story as one about a man on the run from himself.  But as the author Mark Sundeen makes clear, Suelo is brutally honest about himself and his search for authenticity – which is why this book raises some fascinating issues about what it means to live without money. 

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