A very meaty issue of the British magazine STIR looks at a wide variety of projects based on Solidarity Economics. Produced in collaboration with the Institute for Solidarity Economics at Oxford, England, the Winter 2017 issue explores everything from municipal energy in London to cooperatively owned digital platforms, and from childcare coops to the robust solidarity economies being built in Catalan and Rojava. What’s striking about many of the articles is the fresh experimentation in new cooperative forms now underway.
Consider the Dutch organization BroodFondsMakers, based in Utrecht, an insurance-like system for self-employed individuals. When a public insurance program was abolished by the government in 2004, a small group of self-employed individuals got together to create their own insurance pool. More than a commercial scheme, members of the groups meet a few times a year, and even have outings and parties, in order to develop a certain intimacy and social cohesion.
When someone in a group gets sick for more than a month, they receive donations from the group, which usually have between 20 and 50 members. The mutual support is more than a cash payment, it is a form of emotional and social support as well. BroodFonds now has more than 200 groups and about 10,000 members participating in its system.
Another STIR article describes a new prototype for childcare in England that aims to overcome the well-known problems of high cost, low quality and poor availability of childcare. The new cooperative model, Kidoop, is meant to be co-produced by parents and playworkers, and not just a market transaction. The model, still being implemented, aims to provide greater flexibility, better quality care and working conditions, lower costs, and a system that parents actually want.
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.
The word “development” has long been associated with the Western project of promoting technological and economic “progress” for the world’s marginalized countries. The thinking has been: With enough support to build major infrastructure projects, expand private property rights, and build market regimes, the poor nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia can escape their poverty and become "modern" -- prosperous, happy consumers and entrepreneurs poised to enter a bright future driven by economic growth and technology.
That idea hasn’t worked out so well.
As climate change intensifies, the ecological implications of growth-based “development” are now alarming if not fatuous. The 2008 financial crisis exposed the sham of self-regulating “free markets” and the structural political corruption, consumer predation and wealth inequality that they tend to entail. And culturally, people are starting to realize, even in poorer countries, that the satisfactions of mass consumerism are a mirage. A life defined by a dependency on global markets and emulation of western lifestyles is a pale substitute for a life embedded in native cultures, languages and social norms, and enlivened by working partnerships with nature and peers.
It is therefore exciting to learn that Agence Française de Développement (AFD) – the French development agency, based in Paris – is actively considering the commons as a “future cornerstone of development.”
A key voice for this shift in perspective at AFD is Chief Economist Gaël Giraud, who boldly acknowledges that “growth is no longer a panacea.” He compares the current economic predicament to the plight of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, who had to keep running faster and faster just to stay in the same place. (For a short video interview with Giraud, in French, click here.Here is an AFD webpage devoted to various commons issues.)
In a blog post outlining his views of the commons and development (and not necessarily reflecting those of AFD), Giraud cited the loss of biodiversity of species as a major reason for a strategic shift in “development” goals. “The last mass extinction phase [of five previous ones in the planet’s history] affected dinosaurs and 40% of animal species 65 million years ago,” writes Giraud. “At each of these phases, a substantial proportion of fauna was lost within a phenomenon of a massive decline of biodiversity.”
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.
I have come to realize that language is an indispensable portal into the deeper mysteries of the commons. The words we use – to name aspects of nature, to evoke feelings associated with each other and shared wealth, to express ourselves in sly, subtle or playful ways – our words themselves are bridges to the natural world. They mysteriously makes it more real or at least more socially legible.
What a gift that British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has given us in his book Landmarks! The book is a series of essays about how words and literature help us to relate to our local landscapes and to the human condition. The book is also a glossary of scores of unusual words from various regions, occupations and poets, showing how language brings us into more intimate relations with nature. Macfarlane introduces us to entire collections of words for highly precise aspects of coastal land, mountain terrain, marshes, edgelands, water, “northlands,” and many other landscapes.
In the Shetlands, for example, skalva is a word for “clinging snow falling in large damp flakes.” In Dorset, an icicle is often called a clinkerbell. Hikers often call a jumble of boulders requiring careful negotiation a choke. In Yorkshire, a gaping fissure or abyss is called a jaw-hole. In Ireland, a party of men, usually neighboring farmers, helping each other out during harvests, is known as a boon. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called a profusion of hedge blossom in full spring a May-mess.
You get the idea. There are thousands of such terms in circulation in the world, each testifying to a special type of human attention and relationship to the land. There are words for types of moving water and rock ledges, words for certain tree branches and roots, words for wild game that hunters pursue. There are even specialized words for water that collects in one’s shoe – lodan, in Gaelic – and for a hill that terminates a range – strone, in Scotland.
Such vocabularies bring to life our relationship with the outside world. They point to its buzzing aliveness. There is a reason that government bureaucracies that “manage” land as "resources" don’t use these types of words. Their priority is an institutional mastery of nature, not a human conversation or connection with it.
Across Europe, a vision of the commons has been emerging in the margins for many years. But now, as the credibility of conventional politics and neoliberal economics plummets, commoners are becoming more visible, assertive and organized. The latest evidence comes from the first meeting of a newly formed European Commons Assembly. More than 150 commoners from 21 countries across Europe gathered in Brussels for the three-day event, from November 15 to 17.
The Assembly was organized by Sophie Bloemen and David Hammerstein of the Berlin-based European Commons Network, in collaboration with other commons advocates and organizations. Two sets of Assembly meetings were held at the Zinneke collective, based in an old stamp factory in Brussels that the nonprofit collective had reclaimed. Another meeting was held in the stately European Parliament building, hosted by supportive members of the European Parliament who sit on the Working Group on Common Goods, within the Intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services.
Bloemen and Hammerstein recently wrote about the meetings:
This movement of commoners has been growing across Europe over the last decade, but last week it came together for the first time in a transnational European constellation. The objectives of the meetings were multiple but the foremost goal was to connect and form a stable but informal transnational commons movement in Europe. The political energy generated by bringing all these people together in this context was tremendous.
Ten days ago, Medialab-Prado, the pioneering civic and tech research lab in Madrid, hosted a public event for me and the people instrumental in funding and actually doing the Spanish translation. It was a lovely event that showed the depth of interest in the commons in Spain. Marcos García, the head of Medialab, had graciously arranged for a simultaneous translation of my talk, which focused on the origins of the book and current challenges to the commons. Then audience members asked a range of questions that took us into deeper territory.
We discussed, for example, the role of the commons in piercing the veil of modernity -- the tissue of ideas we have adopted, presuming our own individual agency, rationality and dichotomies separating the world into mind and matter, and into human beings and nature.
We discussed, also, the importance of arts and culture in speaking to our raw humanity in pre-political, pre-cognitive terms. And we addressed some of the difficulties that language poses in speaking about the commons -- because language tends to render invisible many ideas and meanings embedded into words centuries ago.
I loved how a woman from Paraguay explained that in Guaraní, her native language, there are separate words for “we” as in a group of specific people, and “we” as in all living things, human and nonhuman. As translated into English for me, she also explained that the word “word" and “God” in Guaraní are related; the point seems to be that that one must try to use language to “build on the house of the soul.” A beautiful idea!
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.
For the past several months I've been having conversations with a friend, Dave Jacke, who is a long-time designer of landscape ecosystems via his firm, Dynamics Ecological Design, of Montague, Massachusetts. In his long career in permaculture circles -- he's the author of a classic book Edible Forest Gardens -- Dave came to realize that a "landscape-only" approach to ecosystem design is inadequate. It doesn't deal with human social dynamics and their effects on ecosystems. For my part, I have come to realize that I need to know more about the deep, long-term functioning of ecosystems. I am especially interested in learning concepts and vocabularies that some in permaculture circles use.
So Dave and I decided to share our mutual interests and ignorance, and host a public workshop to investigate this critical nexus between nature and humanity (which of course are not so separate and independent, after all). Our workshop is called "Reinventing the Commons: Social Ecosystems for Local Stewardship & Planetary Survival."
The event will consist of a Friday evening talk by each of us on January 20, 2017, and an all-day participatory workshop the next day, January 21, at the Montague (Massachusetts) Common Hall ("Grange"). Pre-registration is required; the public lectures will be $10; the workshop & public lectures $85 to $125. More details here or by writing Dave Jacke at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or register through Brown Paper Tickets (fees apply) at ReinventingCommons.brownpapertickets.com.
Here is our overview of the workshop and the ground we wish to cover.
For all its benefits, the dominance of capitalist economics has also generated a world of predatory, extractive markets based on short-term self-interest that is literally destroying the planet. What feasible alternatives exist? This workshop will explore the potential of the commons as a practical and fair system of local provisioning, governance, and culture for transforming society.
From early in human cultural evolution until only a few centuries ago, the vast majority of resources was held and managed in common. Certain groups of people formed agreements about how to use and manage specific shared resources, from woodlands and farm fields to pastures and water, and they managed those resources sustainably for generations. It took the privateers hundreds of years to consolidate their power, control the structures of the state, and exploit cheap energy to destroy the commons systems of Europe and the global South. The unbridled privatization and commoditization of commons that inaugurated the Industrial Revolution continues today, with catastrophic results for planetary ecosystems and social well-being.