Yesterday evening, Thom Hartmann, the progressive talk show host, interviewed me on his "Conversations with Great Minds" national TV show.  The first 12-minute video segment can be seen here, and the second one here. I don't think the commons has ever had this much airtime on American (cable) television.

A big salute to Thom for hosting this kind of material on his show. He is a rare creature on American TV and radio -- an intelligent progressive willing to give airtime to ideas from outside the Washington, D.C. echo chamber. Since the retirement of Bill Moyers, there are very few American TV personalities who actually read history, understand how it informs contemporary politics, and give sympathetic exposure to movement struggles seeking social and economic transformation. 

Since I'm sharing links, let me also share the link to my 20-minute presentation yesterday at Ralph Nader's conference, "Breaking Through Power.org" conference, which is being held this week in Washington, D.C.  My talk, "Controlling What We Own -- Defending the Commons," can be seen here at the timemark 5:35:15.

Check out the other presentations on this eight-hour video from Real News Network -- some amazing segments by folks like John Bogle, William Lerach, Ellen Brown and others focused on corporate governance, power and financial abuses.

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. 

New Video, “Re-imagine the Future”

When faced with the massive crises of our time, the most logical response is paralysis.  What can an individual possibly do about something so massive and complex?

But what if people could manage to imagine changes that matter within their own lives, and then to grow and federate them? My colleague Anna Grear, a law professor at Cardiff University, and I wanted to focus on some of the positive, practical steps that anyone can take in dealing with the terrible challenges of our time.  

One result is a six-minute video that we are releasing today. The video is based on a series of interviews with participants in a June workshop called “Operationalising Green Governance.”  Held at a lovely retreat center north of Paris, a handful of participants – international law professors, human rights advocates, activists – were interviewed on camera by Ibby Stockdale, Director of a British film production company, Five Foot Four.  Ibby brilliantly distilled hours of interview footage and crafted a succinct, beautifully produced message. 

The short film, “Re-imagine the Future,” is now posted online and can be watched here.

In six minutes, it’s difficult to cover too much ground – so in the closing frames of the film, we provide links to two dedicated webpages – Anna’s  and mine -- to provide resources, organizations, essays, books, etc. for those interested in exploring the film’s themes more deeply. 

We hope you like the film – and would welcome whatever pass-along visibility you can give it.

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.

Transnational Republics of Commoning

I am often asked what the commons has to contribute to solving our climate change problems.  Since most commons are rather small scale and local, there is a presumption that such commons cannot possibly deal with a problem as massive and literally global as climate change. I think this view is mistaken.

The nation-state as now constituted, in its close alliance with capital and markets, is largely incapable of transcending its core commitments to economic growth, consumerism, and the rights of capital and corporations -- arguably the core structural drivers of climate change. But these allegiances artificially limit our options, if not dismiss the kinds of interventions we must entertain. The market/state simply command and coerce its way to success in arresting with climate change; it will require the active, enthusiastic contributions of everyone, and it must command social respect and political legitimacy.

A new vision and popular energy from the outside must arise.  But how?  And how could it possibly expand to a meaningful size rapidly enough?  I think that the Internet and other digital networks offer a fertile vector in which to develop new answers. I explore the speculative possibilities in this essay written for Friends of the Earth UK, published as part of its "Big Think" essay series.  Because the piece -- "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance Through Emergent Networking" -- is nearly 14,000 words long, I am separating it into three parts.  You can download the full essay as a pdf file here.

 

Four days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the pilot on United Airlines Flight 564, going from Denver to Washington, D.C., came on the intercom:      

The doors are now closed and we have no help from the outside for any problems that might occur inside this plane.  As you could tell when you checked in, the government has made some changes to increase security in the airports.  They have not, however, made any rules about what happens after those doors close.  Until they do, we have made our own rules and I want to share them with you …

Here is our plan and our rules.  If someone or several people stand up and say they are hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together.  Then take whatever you have available to you and throw it at them … There are usually only a few of them, and we are two-hundred-plus strong.  We will not allow them to take over this plane.  I find it interesting that the U.S. Constitution begins with the words, “We the people.”  That’s who we are, the people, and we will not be defeated.

As recounted by journalist David Remnick, passengers “were asked to turn to their neighbors on either side and introduce themselves, and to tell one another something about themselves and their families.  ‘For today, we consider you family,’ they were told.  ‘We will treat you as such and ask that you do the same with us.’”[1]

Every few weeks, I seem to give extended radio and pocast interviews about the commons, and write occasional talks and essays that find their way to the Web. Here is a quick round-up of some of my more notable recent media appearances.

Writer’s Voice on Patterns of Commoning. One of my favorite interviewers is the skilled and sophisticated Francesca Rheannon of the syndicated radio show Writer’s Voice.  In early August, she aired our half-hour conversation about Patterns of Commoning,  the book that I co-edited with Silke Helfrich that profiles dozens of successful commons around the world.

Progressive philanthropy and system change.  In June, I had an extended interview with Steve Boland, host of the podcast Next in Nonprofits. We talked about progressive philanthropy and system change, a dialogue prompted by my April essay prepared for EDGE Funders Alliance on this same topic.

The importance of public squares.  The Hartford, Connecticut, public radio show, The Colin McEnroe Show, featured me and two other guests talking about “Democracy in the Public Square," on April 28, 2016. I focused on the tension between the government as the lawful guardian of public spaces, and the moral authority and human rights of the people to congregate in public spaces.

Sep
17

2016 Sustainability Summit

A workshop presentation and discussion on "The City as a Commons," at the "Energizing and Democratizing the New England Energy Economy," organized by the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Co-op Power and others.  Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 11 am to 12:15 pm.

Sep
27

Breaking Through Power Conference

Presentation, "Controlling What We Own -- Defending the Commons," at Carnie Institution building, Washington, D.C.  For more information, see conference webpage.

People constantly ask me for a definition of the commons as if a short sentence or two could begin to encapsulate the vastness and variety represented by the term “commons.”  So as a quick introduction to the many dimensions of the commons -- the inner and outer worlds to which "the commons" merely points to -- let me recommend this seven-minute film, “Seven Short Films on the Commons,”  (A thanks to Silke Helfrich for bringing this to my attention!)

The film(s) were produced by Amar Kanwar and the Foundation for Ecological Security, a leading advocacy group for the commons in India. The vignettes of each film are a lovely evocation of what the commons truly means to commoners in India. This is an important task -- naming and evoking the commons -- because governments and businesses of the modern world cannot see or generally refuse to recognize the commons. They are too focused on individuals shorn of social community, private property rights, and market growth.  

Here are the seven succinct declarations made by each short film:

1. Recognize the signature of our commons!  The film flashes words on the screen referring to things we depend upon and share without realizing it:  the air, folk dances, butterflies, playgrounds, the wind, grandma’s cure, the Internet.  The list goes on.

2. Recognize the Reciprocity of Our Commons!  The film notes how different elements of nature of which we are a part are interdependent....which leads to another point:

3. Recognize that Our Commons are a Web of Life!  

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