My thanks to Bernardo for his initiative and tenacity in doing the translation and in finding a suitable publisher, Stampa Alternativa. And my thanks also to the pioneering Italian commons thinker and activist Ugo Mattei for writing the preface.
Italy is at the vanguard of many commons innovations these days. One sign of this is the first International Festival of the Commons (organized by Mattei), which will be held in Chieri, Italy, from July 9 to 12. I plan to attend, so perhaps I will see you there.
For the record, the Italian edition of Think Like a Commoner is the third translation, following the Polish and French translations. Translations into Spanish, Korean and Chinese are now pending.
So what might a commons-based economy actually look like in its broadest dimensions, and how might we achieve it? My colleague Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation offers a remarkably thoughtful and detailed explanation in a just-released YouTube talk, produced by FutureSharp. It’s not really a video – just Michel’s voiceover and a simple schematic chart – but the 20-minute talk does a great job of sketching the big-picture strategies that must be pursued if we are going to invent a new type of post-capitalist economy.
Michel focuses on the importance of three specific realms that are crucial to this new vision – ecological sustainability, open knowledge and social solidarity. Each is critical as a field of action for overturning the existing logic of market capitalism.
Fortunately, there are many promising developments in each of these realms. Many parts of the environmental movement seek to go beyond the standard “market-oriented solutions.” There is a growing body of open source-inspired projects for software code, information, design and physical production, which is now spawning new types of global sharing of information with distributed local production. And there are many advocates and initiatives for social justice and fairness in the economy, such as cooperatives and the solidarity economy movement.
The problem, says Bauwens, is that these movements do not generally connect with each other or coordinate internationally. He therefore sees the need for “meta-economic networks” to bridge these fields of action. So, for example, we need “open cooperativism” enterprises to bridge open knowledge systems and cooperatives, so that open network (or licensed) systems are not simply dominated by large corporations in the way that Google, Uber and Airbnb have done. We also need to develop an “open source circular economy” to bridge the worlds of eco-sustainability and open knowledge. We will never address major environmental problems if the technological and product solutions are based on proprietary knowledge; open circulation of knowledge can change that.
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 Networkwrites:
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.
I recently spoke at a conference, “Property and Inequality in the 21st Century,” hosted by The Common Core of European Private Law, an annual gathering of legal scholars, mostly from Europe. They had asked me how the commons might be a force for reducing inequality. Below are my remarks, “The Commons as a Tool for Sharing the Wealth.” The conference was held at the University of Göteborg, Sweden, on June 12-13, 2015.
Thank you for inviting me to speak today about the relationship between property law and inequality – a topic that receives far too little attention. This should not be surprising. Now that free-market ideology has become the default worldview and political consensus around the world, private property is seen as synonymous with freedom, economic growth and human progress.
Oh yes, there is this nasty side issue known as inequality. Malcontents like the Occupy movement and renegade economists like Thomas Pikketty have brought this problem to the fore after years of neglect. Their success has been quite an achievement because for years the very existence of inequality has been portrayed as an accident, an aberration, a mysterious and shadowy guest at the grand banquet of human progress.
I wish to argue that hunger, poverty, inadequate education and medical care, and assaults on human dignity and human rights, are not bugs in the system. They are features. Indeed, market ideologues often argue that such deprivations are a necessary incentive to human enterprise and economic growth; poverty is supposedly needed to spur people to escape through the work ethic and entrepreneurialism.
Property rights lie at the heart of this dynamic because they are a vital tool for defining and patrolling the boundaries of private wealth, and for justifying the inevitably unequal outcomes. So it’s important that we focus on the role of property rights in producing social inequality – without ignoring the many other forces, including social practice, culture and politics, that also play important roles.
I’d like to focus on the obsession in modern industrial societies to propertize everything, including life itself, and to use law as a tool to impose a social order of markets and private property as expansively as possible. This cultural reflex is known as the enclosure of the commons. The term describes how property owners assert sweeping rights – often with the active complicity of governments – as a way to appropriate collectively owned resources for private gain.
We can see this dynamic in the international land grab now underway, the incessant attempts to privatize groundwater and municipal water systems, the grotesque expansion of copyright and patent law to privatize scientific knowledge and cultural works, and the use of the Earth’s atmosphere as a free waste dump by polluters. The mania for privatizing the world has reached such an extreme stage that even intangible wealth as public spaces, microorganisms, genetically created mammals, artificially created nanomatter and human consciousness itself are claimed as objects of private property rights.
There has been a real surge of festivals on the commons in recent months, and in the months ahead! The First International Festival of the Commons – Festival Internazionale dei Beni Comuni – will be held in Chieri, Italy, from July 9 to 2. The event is a cultural happening sponsored by the borough Chieri near Torino.
The festival will consist of meetings, round tables, music, cinema, theatre, art and performances (hashtag, #commonsfestival). The primary focus, organizers declare, is “how to live and produce in common…..The Festival will be well more than an extemporaneous and spectacular event: it will bethe beginning of a shared journey to the imagination and construction of a more just, open and participated society.”
While there will be plenty of focus on “global theories” presented in Chieri, there will also be a focus on how to reclaim “those local spaces left empty and useless by the crisis of Fordist production.” A number of panels will look at how to develop alternatives that are not just sustainable, but generative, and political models that let people share responsibilities and choices.
The legendary Brazilian musicians Gilberto Gil will perform reggae, samba and folk with Caetano Veloso on July 10 at Piazza Dante in Chieri. Tickets are available now. Free culture fans will recall that Gil, besides showing exemplary courage as a political dissident in Brazil decades ago, was Culture Minister in the early 2000s and an early, critically important champion of Creative Commons licenses.
The Chieri festival will feature a number of headliners such as Vandana Shiva from India; Italian legal scholar, politician and commons theorist Stefano Rodotà; Italian legal scholar Ugo Mattei; Salvatore Settis, President of the Scientific Council of the Louvre; Italian jurist Gustavo Zagrebelsky; and a number of prominent Italian writers, directors and cultural figures.
I am pleased to join this august roster of commoners for a panel on “The State of the Digital Commons” on July 11 at 10 am. I will also have the opportunity to celebrate the release of the Italian translation of Think Like a Commoner, as masterfully translated by Bernardo Parrella. Professor Ugo Mattei has contributed the preface.
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).
The latest issue of Boston Review has a lively forum on the growing power of network-based businesses such as Amazon, Uber and Airbnb. These companies may not be monopolies in the strict conventional sense of the law, but they nonetheless use their market dominance and network platforms to extract all sorts of advantages from competitors, suppliers and consumers.
K. Sabeel Rahman, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, presented his assessment of the situation, and then nine people of various persuasions (including me) responded. Rahman stated the problem succinctly:
The kinds of power that Amazon, Comcast and companies such as Airbnb and Uber possess can’t be seen or tackled via conventional antitrust regulations. These companies are not, strictly speaking, monopolies; Urban and Airbnb, in particular, do not engage in the kind of price-fixing or market dominance that is the usual target of antitrust regulation today. These companies are better understood as platforms or utilities: they provide a core, infrastructural service upon which other firms, individuals and social groups depend.
The problem is that conventional antitrust regulation isn’t really equipped to deal with information economy platforms, which tend to connect buyer and sellers in more efficient ways while offering very low prices. What’s the problem with that? Well, the problem is open networks paradoxically result in "power law" outcomes in which a minority of players tend to dominate the universe of users. Some companies have used this network-based advantage to limit competitors' access to the market, impose unfair conditions on consumers or producers, and evade consumer and labor-rights laws.
Rahman calls for a re-purposing of Progressive era policies from a century ago that tamed large monopolies like railroads by subjecting them to public utility regulation. Is this the way to go? Juliet Schor of Boston College agrees that there is a problem, but considers the regulatory approach nostalgic and unimaginative. She argued:
“Peer-to-peer structure and peer ownership of capital undermine the argument for private ownership of platforms and, by extension, for the public utility model. This is not to say there isn’t a strong public interest in this sector – there is. But the compelling feature of these entities is that most of the value in the market is produced by the peers, not the platforms. This suggests that platforms can and should be owned and governed by users. If they are, we can worry less about rent extraction, concentrations of political power, and the other concerns Rahman raises.”
In the 1990s, many communities in central Oregon were torn asunder by the “War of the Woods.” Environmentalists had brought lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service for violating its own governing statutes. For decades, timber companies had been allowed to clear-cut public forests, re-seed with tree monocultures, and build ecologically harmful roads on mountain landscapes.
Environmentalists won their lawsuit in 1991 when a federal judge issued an injunction that in effect shut down timber operations in the Pacific Northwest of the US. While the endangered northern spotted owl was the focus of much of the debate, the health of the entire ecosystem was at risk, including the Pacific salmon, which swim upstream to spawn.
There is often no substitute for litigation and government mandates, and the 1991 litigation was clearly needed. But what is really interesting is the aftermath: Rather than just designating the forest as a wilderness preserve off-limits to everyone, the Forest Service instigated a remarkable experiment in collaborative governance.
Instead of relying on the standard regime of bureaucratic process driven by congressional politics, industry lobbying and divisive public posturing, the various stakeholders in the region formed a “watershed council” to manage the Siuslaw National Forest. Twenty years later, this process of open commoning has produced a significant restoration of the forest ecosystems, implicitly indicting the previous forest management regime driven by politics and the formal legal system.
This story is told in a wonderful thirty-minute film documentary, “Seeing the Forest,” produced by writer and filmmaker Alan Honick, with support from Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Honick writes how the public lands in Oregon contained most of the remaining old growth forests outside of protected parks:
These were complex and ancient ecosystems, particularly on the west side of the Cascades, where the moisture from Pacific storms gave rise to rich and diverse temperate rainforests. Hundreds of species of animals and plants depended on this habitat to survive.
For 40 years, these forests were logged with the same industrial methods practiced on private land. Vast swaths were clearcut, then densely replanted with monocultures of the fastest growing trees. When they reached sufficient size, they were scheduled to be clearcut and replanted again, in an ongoing cycle considered sustainable by those who employed it.
The aftermath of the 1991 litigation could have been simmering hostility and litigation, which would likely flare up again. It was based on the old, familiar narrative of “jobs vs. the environment,” a debate that government was supposed to mediate and resolve.
In Oregon, however, it was decided to develop a “Northwest Forest Plan” that inaugurated a new space and shared narrative. The Siuslaw Watershed Council invited anyone with an interest in the forest to attend its open, roundtable meetings, to discuss how to manage the forest and resolve or mitigate the competing interests of timber companies, environmentalists, recreational fishers, local communities, hikers, and others. Outcomes were based on consensus agreement.
By identifying “care” as an essential category of value-creation, Praetorius opens up a fresh, wider frame for how we should talk about a new economic order. We can begin to see how care work is linked to other non-market realms that create value -- such as commons, gifts of nature and colonized peoples --all of which are vulnerable to market enclosure.
The basic problem today is that capitalist markets and economics routinely ignore the “care economy” -- the world of household life and social conviviality may be essential for a stable, sane, rewarding life. Economics regards these things as essentially free, self-replenishing resources that exist outside of the market realm. It sees them as “pre-economic” or “non-economic” resources, which therefore don’t have any standing at all. They can be ignored or exploited at will.
In this sense, the victimization of women in doing care work is remarkably akin to the victimization suffered by commoners, colonized persons and nature. They all generate important non-market value that capitalists depend on – yet market economics refuses to recognize this value. It is no surprise that market enclosures of care work and commons proliferate.
A 1980 report by the UN stated the situation with savage clarity: “Women represent 50 percent of the world adult population and one third of the official labor force, they perform nearly two thirds of all working hours, receive only one tenth of the world income and own less than 1 percent of world property.”
Not so long ago, the language of “intellectual property” (IP) was the only serious way of talking about creative works and inventions. Copyright and patents provided the default framework for explaining how someone’s bright idea grew into a marketable product, and how that in turn contributed to economic growth and human progress. It was a neat, tidy, reassuring story. It had an irresistible simplicity – and the endorsement of the ultimate authority, government.
And then…. the pluriversal realities of life came storming the citadel gates! Over the past fifteen or twenty years, the monoculture narrative of IP has been attacked by indigenous cultures, seed activists, healthcare experts, advocates for the poor, the academy, and especially users of digital technologies. It has become increasingly clear that the standard IP story, whatever its merits on a smaller scale, in competitive industries, is mostly a self-serving, protectionist weapon in the hands of Hollywood, record labels, book publishers, Big Pharma and other multinational IP industries.
We can thank the authors of a new anthology for helping to explain how the standard IP narrative is profoundly flawed, and how an array of challengers are showing how knowledge-creation so often emerges through social commons.