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!

My friend Silke Helfrich recently wrote a great blog post about the importance of infrastructure to the commonsdrawing upon the keynote talk on infrastructure by Miguel Said Vieira at the Economics and the Commons conference in Berlin, in May 2013.  Silke reviewed Miguel's talk, prepared in collaboration with Stefan Meretz – and then added some of her own ideas and examples.  Here is her post from the Commons Blog:  

Infrastructure is, IMHO, one of THE issues we have to deal with if we want to expand the commons….Let’s start with a few quotes from the (pretty compelling) framing of the respective stream at ECC, which was called, “New Infrastructures for Commoning by Design.”

"Commons, whether small or large, can benefit a lot from dependable communication, energy and transportation, for instance. Frequently, the issue is not even that a commons can benefit from those services, but that its daily survival badly depends on them. … When we look at commoning initiatives as a loose network, it does not make sense that multiple commons in different fields or locations should have to repeat and overlap their efforts in obtaining those services (infrastructures) independently…“

We need to sensitize commoners about the urgent need for Commons-Enabling Infrastructures (CEI). That is, we need infrastructures that can “by design” foster and protect new practices of commoning; help challenge power concentration and individualistic behavior are based on distributed networks (as extensively as possible) provide platforms which enable non-discriminatory access and use rights (for instance: a “ticket-free public transport system” is not cost-free, but it is designed in such a way that the funding of maintenance is not tied to the traveller’s individual budget).

The three of us at the Commons Strategies Group were astonished recently to discover extensive, ongoing manipulations of email communications related to our commons work and our planning of the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) in May. Below is a letter that we have sent to participants of that conference:

Dear ECC participants and other friends,

We wish to share with you some shocking news that affects all of us.

We recently learned that a person working closely with the Commons Strategies Group, especially in connection with the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) in May 2013, had been manipulating ECC planning and intercepting our email communications for at least 18 months.

Through traces of IP addresses and partial confessions, both oral and written, we have confirmed that Franco Iacomella made it impossible for a colleague to attend the conference and had been blocking selected email communications to Michel Bauwens, CSG co-founder and head of the P2P Foundation. He was interfering with email sent to Michel from 55 email addresses, many of them used by ECC participants. (A full list is included at the end of this letter. We apologize for sharing the email addresses, but the issue deserves detailed attention.)

Emails from these people were either deleted, leading many people to conclude that Michel had simply ignored them, or selectively filtered. Some were diverted by Iacomella and given phony responses. As one might expect, these revolting manipulations made it extremely difficult for people to cooperate in reliable ways. Iacomella's filtering also sowed seeds of confusion and distrust among people working with Michel, and among members of the Commons Strategies Group and the ECC team. We sincerely hope that throughout the conference you did not feel too much of the impact.

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.

The Remunicipalization of Water

After the binge of privatization of municipal water systems in the 1980s and 1990s, citizens and city governments are starting to realize what a big mistake they made.  Privatization resulted in higher rates and lower water quality, service and public accountability.  As William Harless describes in the Wall Street Journal (August 19), many municipalities are now mounting lawsuits and ballot measures to try to regain control over systems that they had ceded to private companies.

In Ojai, residents will vote next week on whether to buy back their water system from Golden State Water Co., a move that the company opposes.  A lawsuit in Worchester, Massachusetts, is trying to regain public control over the city’s water system, which had been sold.  And in Connecticut, some towns are objecting to higher rates that have resulted after their systems were acquired by Aquarian Water Co. of Bridgeport, Connecticut, which consolidated the rates for the towns it serves. 

It is satisfying to see the glittering promises about privatization exposed for what they are: glittering promises.  For more on this theme, check out the work of a group called In the Public Interest, one of the most aggressive Washington, D.C.-based policy opponents of privatization in the US.  The group's website has lots of materials explaining how and why privatization of public resources is a bad deal for taxpayers and citizens.   

My Interview with Shareable.net

Journalist Cat Johnson recently published an interview with me on Shareable.net, the lively chronicler of new types of sharing and collaboration, especially on digital platforms and in cities.  The interview is a brief survey of my thinking on the commons as a promising political strategy and governance template.  Here’s an excerpt: 

“We need to imagine new forms of governance,” he [Bollier] says. “It’s not as if the state is going to be rendered useless or unimportant tomorrow, but the state needs to explore new forms of governance if it’s going to keep its own legitimacy and effectiveness.”

He points to the fact that government’s incompetence and incapacity for dealing with problems, as centralized, territorial institutions, is going to become more evident.

“Just as governments charter corporations, ostensibly to serve the common good,” he says, “the government ought to be chartering the commons and providing financial assistance and legal sanction and even privileges. Because at a local, self-organized level, the commons can perform lots of tasks that governments just aren't doing well because they’re too corrupted or bought off or too centralized and incapable of dealing with diverse, distributed complexity.” He adds, “At the core, it’s a governance problem. Even liberal, constitutional democracies are not capable of solving all these problems.”

A vexing problem for many potential commons is the lack of startup capital to get a project going while nurturing the social structures to organize participation and work.  I recently learned of an ingenious solution developed by a group of “time banking” commoners in West Virginia.  They adapted a traditional Time Bank system of barter-exchange and combined it with common pool of funds, which in turn served as an engine of development for DIY solar power installations -- in the heart of coal country, West Virginia!

Greg Bloom of Washington, D.C., who has a keen interest in cooperatives and commons, alerted me to his case study of the project.  (Thanks, Greg!)  As he tells the story at the Community Power Network website, the tax incentive approach to promoting solar power has distinct limits.  It is too geared to people who already earn enough to benefit from the tax breaks.  But what if you are low-income and have trouble paying your utility bills?  You don’t earn enough to be incentivized, and you don’t have enough to pay for the upfront costs of a solar project.

In the town of Philippi, West Virginia, a local engineer, John Prusa, known locally as a “benevolent mad scientist,” had “designed and built his own home’s solar power array, and then shared his designs with neighbors and helped them develop their own,” writes Bloom.  Prusa and a local minister, Ruston Seaman, of People's Chapel Church, found each other, and decided to start a new group, New Vision Renewable Energy

The Church had once been the host of a flourishing Time Bank system with over 300 members, and even a store that accepted the Time Bank credits.  But the system had fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons.  Time Banks are a system by which members can earn credits for work they do for each other, at a rate of one credit, one hour of work. The systems are especially valuable for people with more time than money, such as low-income people and the elderly.  It helps them get their needs met, without money, outside of the marketplace.  Time Banks can serve important needs in areas that banks and markets have abandoned or ignored. 

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