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)?

Ever since the World Wide Web went wide in 1994, film studios, music labels and publishers have tried to neuter this unparalleled communications commons.  Much of the Web’s power stems from its open technical protocols known as hypertext markup language, or HTML, which are used to build webpages.  HTML has always put users, not "content-makers," in control of content, and as a result, people could (for example) copy and save the “source code” for a webpage.  Bottom-up innovation could emerge and prevail.    

The truly dismaying news is that the official steward of technical standards for the Web – the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C – plans to adopt a new set of standards, HTML5, that will let content owners add digital rights management, or DRM, to their web content.  As Cory Doctorow writes on BoingBoing, “the decision to go forward with the project of standardizing DRM for the Web came from Tim Berners-Lee himself [who invented the Web in the early 1990s], who seems to have bought into the lie that Hollywood will abandon the Web and move somewhere else (AOL?) if they don’t get to redesign the open Internet to suit their latest profit-maximization scheme.”

What makes the new HTML5 standards so alarming is that it kicks open the door for still other new forms of proprietary control over Web-based video, images, fonts and more.  Danny O'Brien, International Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has a good account of the struggles to prevent this outcome at the W3C, which could lead to the piecemeal privatization of the Web infrastructure.  

How to Build a “Shareable City”

Shareable and the Sustainable Economies Law Center have released a fantastic new report surveying the ways in which cities can adopt policies to promote “sharing” in a range of areas -- food, housing, transportation and jobs.  The landmark report, “Policies for Shareable Cities:  A Sharing Economy Policy Primer for Urban Leaders,” pulls together “scores of innovative, high impact policies that US city governments have put in place to help citizens share resources, co-produce, and create their own jobs.” 

What exactly is a “sharing city”?  It’s one that encourages carsharing and bikesharing programs through specific policies, such as designating “pick-up spots” for ridesharing and altering local taxes to make carsharing more attractive.  A sharing city is one that encourages urban agriculture on vacant lots and allows homegrown vegetables to be sold in the neighborhood.  A shareable city supports innovations like shared workspaces, shared commercial kitchens, community-financed start-ups, community-owned commercial centers, and spaces for “pop-up” businesses.  It also encourages home-based micro-enterprises by lowering permitting barriers.

What’s impressive about this 40-page report is that it provides a practical action plan that any city could pick up and implement immediately.  Yes, there are larger federal and state policies that could help make cities more shareable and liveable, but it is a misconception that only such big, bold policy reforms will work.  Municipalities can take a wide number of modest steps right now that, by supporting the "micro-dynamics" of social life, can have enormous macro-impacts on the affordability, social fabric and quality of life of a city.  As a report focused on American cities, it’s unclear to me how far the policy recommendations may apply to non-American cities....but I suspect that many of the ideas could work abroad.  

The report’s introduction explains the rationale behind the shareable city:

The sharing economy challenges core assumptions made in the 20th century planning and regulatory frameworks – namely, that residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural activities should be physically separated from one another, and that each single family household operates as an independent economic unit.  The sharing economy brings people and their work back together through sharing, gifting, bartering, and peer-to-peer buying and selling.  City governments can increasingly step into the role of facilitators of the sharing economy by designing infrastructure, services, incentives and regulations that factor in the social exchanges of this game-changing movement. 

Book publishers love that libraries can act as free marketing venues, introducing readers to new authors and keeping them focused on books.  But publishers don’t like it when libraries act as commons – that is, when they promote easy access and sharing of knowledge.  A successful commons may modestly limit a publisher’s absolute copyright control – and even minor incursions on this authority must be stoutly resisted, publishers believe.     

One of the more egregious such battles now underway is a lawsuit filed by Harvard Business School Publishing, John Wiley and the University of Chicago Press against the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence.  ISCE  is a small, nonprofit membership group that “facilitates the conversation between academics and business people regarding social complexity theory, particularly the implications for the management of organizations.” 

The focus of the publishers’ lawsuit is ISCE’s virtual library of 1,200 books.  May ISCE self-digitize and lend its virtual books to its members on a one-usage-at-a-time basis, for private, educational, non-commercial purposes? 

The publishers say no, and are seeking to establish their legal authority to shut down such unauthorized “reproduction, display and distribution” of the books.  But ISCE counter-claims that the fair use and first-sale doctrines of copyright law give it the legal right to lend its virtual books.  (Fair use is the legal doctrine of copyright law that allows excerpts to be shared noncommercially.  The first-sale doctrine prohibits the seller from controlling what a consumer does with a book or DVD after it is purchased, such as renting it, lending it or giving it away.)  ISCE claims, in addition, that libraries are entitled to special-use privileges under copyright law, which apply in this instance.

The Journal of Latin American Geography has dedicated an entire issue (vol. 12, no. 1) to surveying the state of commons on that continent. The special issue (in English) consists of nine essays, the first of which provides a helpful overview of the state of Latin American commons and commons research. (A listing of abstracts here.)  This academic treatment gives some welcome visibility and depth to the study of the commons in that vast region of the world, much of which is besieged by aggressive neoliberal policies that seek to extract vast natural resources in the name of "development." 

The Journal focuses on a range of commons-related themes in various countries, including the effect of rural out-migration from Mexico on commons there; new efforts in Costa Rica to treat biodiversity as a commons; the struggle of indigenous peoples in Brazil to secure tenure rights to their communal resources; and use of commons by marginalized people in Argentina to manage wild guanacos, a large, llama-like ungulate valued for their meat, skins and fibers.

The overview essay on current trends in Latin American commons research, by James Robson and Gabriela Lichtenstein, shines a light on the development agenda of oil and mining industries while noting the many legal and political changes that have reinstated communal property regimes.  Many countries, such as Brazil, Honduras, Venezuela and Nicaragua, have formally recognized the communal rights of indigenous communities to their traditional territories.  Overall, there is a “upturn in communal land tenure over time,” write Robson and Lichtenstein. 

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.

Oct
18

Vermont Law School

"Our Common Waters," a panel discussion, Vermont Law School, South Royalton, VT.  With Melissa Scanlan, Ann Brummitt and Jack Tuholske.  Noon to 2 pm.  More information here.

What would the world look like if we began to re-conceptualize food as a commons?  Jose Luis Vivero Pol of the Centre for Philosophy of Law at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium has done just that in a recent essay, “Food as a Commons:  Reframing the Narrative of the Food System.”  

The piece is impressive for daring to imagine how the world’s estimated 668 million hungry people might eat, and how all of us would become healthier, if we treated more elements of the food production and distribution system as commons.  Instead of managing food as a private good that can only be produced and allocated through markets, re-conceptualizing food as a commons helps us imagine “a more sustainable, fairer and farmer-centered food system,” writes Vivero Pol. 

One reason that the commons reframing is so useful is that it helps us see the ubiquity of enclosures in the food system.  We can begin to see the galloping privatization of farmland, water, energy and seeds.  We can see the concentration of various food sectors and the higher prices and loss of consumer sovereignty that comes from oligopoly control. 

Enclosure is snatching shared resources from us and preventing us from managing them to maximize access and good nutrition.  This is often known these days as “resource grabbing,” as companies and national governments race to seize as many abundant, cheap natural resources as they can on an international scale.  This is one reason for the many pernicious enclosures of land commons in Africa and Latin America in recent years. There is a huge exodus from traditional and indigenous lands as China, Saudi Arabia, Korea, hedge funds and others buy up natural resources.  These enclosures are moving us “from diversity to uniformity, from complexity to homoegeneity, and from richness to impoverishment,” writes Vivero Pol.  

In this age of marauding markets, it almost seems quaint to ask, “Who owns culture?”  We know the answer.  When push comes to shove, the owners of copyright, trademarks and patents own everything.  We may think that the music, images and stories of our culture belong to us, but as a matter of law, in the 165+ countries that have signed the Berne Convention, our designated role is....to buy (and not use someone else's "property.")   

A new book of essays complicates this picture.  Negotiating Culture:  Heritage, Ownership and Intellectual Property -- just published by the University of Massachusetts Press -- points out some of the distinct limits to “intellectual property’s” dominion.  The book is a series of essays by academics from various disciplines that explores how social practice and culture have their own moral legitimacy and social power -- enough to push back on claimed property rights. 

The book chronicles controversies over who should have legal rights of ownership and control over Native American remains, Green and Roman antiquities, works of art looted by the Nazis, among many other objects and resources.  We are asked to consider whether culture should be treated as property that can be bought and sold (and treated accordingly), or whether it must be considered inalienable, or not suitable for sale on the market, and treated with the utmost dignity and respect.  

These are the magic words:  It seems that the core issue in so many of these disputes is a matter of identity, dignity, respect and, of course, power.

Museums are increasingly at the epicenter of cultural ownership issues these days.  The 2005 trial in Italy of Marion True, the former curator of classical art at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is a beautiful case study of how social norms about the ownership of ancient antiquities have dramatically shifted.  Prior to that trial, museums often bought or accepted donated antiquities without too much thought about the provenance of the work.  After all, antiquities don’t usually come with title deeds or receipts, and it was an open secret that many of them were dug up by looters and spirited out of the country into the hands of profit-minded dealers.

In South Amherst, Massachusetts, they just put up a sign!

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